Crises of the 14th Century, Part 2: The 100 Years War

The 100 Years war between England and France over the right to rule tore apart two of Europe’s most notable powers and often had tragic, horrific consequences.  An epic, late medieval power struggle began as the succession of the throne of France came under dispute.  Although England displayed stunning successive victories, the outcome of the 100 years war was undeniably a French victory.  The tide turned from one side to another in any given year and the conflict lasted for over a century, spanning from 1337 through its final battles in 1453.  It saw numerous kings on both sides and was ripe with scandal, accusations, heresies, bloodshed and even descents into madness.

When the French began attacking English holdings in France, English King Edward the III boldly (and also ironically) declared himself the King of France.  If declaring oneself the ruler of any given empire at any given time was sufficient to actually claim it, I imagine that history would look a lot different today than reality dictates.  Strangely, English law allowed for the passage of property and holdings can descend through a maternal line, which is what Edward III was claiming through his mother, Isabella.  French law, however, dictated that property and possessions descended solely through paternal lineage, making Edward’s claim obsolete.  The conflict spawned by his claim to the throne, however, sparked a century-long conflict and untold numbers of lives on both sides – something that it seems unlikely that anyone could anticipate at the time they occurred.

England first attacks the seas, attempting to gain control of the English Channel.  Although Edward III manages to sink the very ship he’s sailing on, he is ultimately successful.  Landing in Normandy in 1346, Edward is pursued by French forces and attacked at Crecy.  The French, however, are held at bay by longbow men, and the English gain a victory at the first decisive battle of the century’s conflict.  The English continue their victory march and successfully siege Calais. Hostilities briefly cease after that due to the onset of the Black Plague, with England losing up to 1/3 of their population, and France losing about a quarter.  The 1356 battle of Poitiers continued the English victory trend, and the Black Prince successfully captures Jean II – the French King, along with more than a thousand French nobles.  As a result of the decisive Poitiers battle and successful naval campaigns, France cedes a formidable chunk of its Northern territories as well as its coastline to England.

France gradually regains the lands that it ceded to England, and after the death of both Edward III and the Black Prince a 28 year treaty is signed between the two opposing sides.  France continues to gain back its holdings under its new king Charles V.  In 1372, the naval power swings back to France as they regain the important control of the English Channel, making it all-but impossible for the English to send reinforcements to their French territories.  The tide swings again in English favor under King Henry V, who has also declared himself King of France.  Henry V gains victories in both Harfleur and Agincourt only to be defeated soundly at Beauge.  The English, however, managed to fight off a joint attack by French and Scottish forces at Verneuil against a much larger force.  The victory can be attributed once again to English longbowmen.

Joan of Arc, a French national hero, has come of age and has once again stemmed the tide of English victories.  At the siege of Orleans, Joan of Arc leads a French relief force against the English and attacks, driving the English out from their entrenched positions.  The Siege of Orleans and its French victory is typically thought as the turning point of the war itself, and firmly planted the French on victorious ground – although it was hardly settled or secure.  Joan of Arc is captured by English sympathizers in Northern France and is handed over to the English who put her on trial for witchcraft.  in 1431 after a tumultuous and horrific trial, Joan is burned at the stake as a convicted witch in Rouen.The French continue on the offense and slowly keep reclaiming English holdings in France.  At the final battle of the 100 Years War in Castillon, the English forces are completely routed and the last survivors set sail for England.  In 1453 after 116 years, the Calais coast is the only remaining English territory remaining and will stay in English hands until halfway through the 16th century.



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