Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008.
Edward III (1312-1377) was one of the most remarkable monarchs of the Middle Ages and is ranked as one of England’s greatest kings. His reign saw the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and the coming of the epidemic known as the “Black Death,” as well as the rise of Parliament and the empowerment of the peasant classes and the decline of the armored knight as the dominant force on the battlefield, thanks in large part to tactics Edward developed himself.
Tumultuous Early Life
Edward’s birth came at a time when England’s fortunes were at an all-time low. His father, Edward II (1284-1327), had proven himself a weak leader and incompetent general. The humiliating defeat at Bannockburn in 1314 had seen the English pushed out of Scotland, and the once massive “empire” of English holdings on the continent had been reduced to the region of Gascony in the southwest of France.
Edward’s mother, Isabella (1292-1358), the daughter of the French king, would prove instrumental in putting her son on the throne. Edward II had long ignored his wife for a succession of court favorites, and Isabella had departed for France with her lover, Roger Mortimer (c. 1287-1330). There the pair drew much support from the many English nobles who wished to see their king deposed, and eventually Isabella returned to England with an army. Edward II abdicated, and his son was crowned Edward III on January 25, 1327, at the age of fourteen.
For the next four years, his mother and Roger Mortimer dominated Edward. Isabella had been named regent, or caretaker, of the kingdom, and she and Mortimer ruled the country independent of Edward. As he chafed under his mother’s dominance, Edward married Philippa of Hainaut (c. 1314-1369) in 1328. The marriage was to last for forty-one years and produce seven sons and five daughters.
Shortly after turning eighteen, Edward led a coup, arresting Mortimer and sentencing him to hanging like a common criminal. Isabella was spared and lived out the rest of her life in a castle in Norfolk.
War with Scotland
Edward III was eager to wield his kingly powers and soon began meddling in Scottish politics. He covertly backed the accession of the usurper Edward Baliol (c. 1282-1363) to the Scottish throne, then waged open war with his northern neighbors when Balliol was deposed in favor of the rightful king, David II (1324-1371).
At Halidon Hill in 1333, Edward personally led an outnumbered army to victory over the Scots employing massed ranks of archers in his army. This tactic, first used at Halidon Hill and refined in the Scottish wars, would prove the key to English success on the battlefield in the upcoming Hundred Years’ War.
As he was fighting in Scotland, Edward was also dabbling in continental trade and politics. He instituted a policy of close cooperation with the wool trade in Flanders, an area mostly in modern-day Belgium, bringing Flemish weavers to London to teach the English their trade and forging alliances with the city-states of Bruges, Ypres, Ghent, and Cassel.
Edward’s involvement in Flanders also saw the escalation of tensions with France, which viewed Flanders as belonging in its sphere of influence. Anglo-French tensions had been building since the death of King Charles IV of France in 1328. A French custom called the Salic law held that women could not inherit land; this law was extended to include female rulers inheriting the throne. Only male members of the royal family could inherit the crown of France, and furthermore, said interpreters of the Salic law, descent could only be traced through male heirs.
Thus, even though Edward III was the grandson of the king of France, since he traced his relationship through his mother, he could make no claim to the throne. The crown passed to Philip of Valois (Philip VI, 1293-1350), a distant relation of Charles IV (1294-1328). Edward, however, had a different take on things and formally declared himself King of France in 1340, a claim that would be held by English monarchs until the reign of George III (1738-1820) in the late eighteenth century. It was this provocative move that would result in the Hundred Years’ War.
French Defeat, English Glory
Thanks to the new tactics he had developed, Edward III won one victory after another, beginning with the naval battle of Sluys, which simply employed the use of the longbow on the water in the same way it was used on land. Edward’s initial military campaign saw the fall of the cities of Caen and Calais and the stunning defeat of the French army at Crécy in 1346.
The course of the war was interrupted by the arrival of the Black Death, a massive pandemic that swept across Europe, killing off a third of its total population. When the war resumed, Edward’s son “the Black Prince” Edward (1330-1376) was leading the armies, still employing the tactics developed by his father.
The English won another major victory at Poitiers in 1356, capturing the French king, John II (1319-1364), in the process. The French soon sued for peace. The Treaty of Brétigny restored the territory of Aquitaine to English rule, along with several other holdings throughout France. Edward now controlled about a third of French territory, leading the chronicler Jean le Bel to remark, “when the noble Edward gained England in his youth, nobody thought much of the English.… Now they are the finest and most daring warriors known to man.”
The 1350s marked the high point of Edward’s reign. He had the distinct honor of holding two sovereign kings captive: John II of France and David II of Scotland, who had been in 1346 at Neville’s Cross. All of Europe hailed Edward as the greatest living monarch, and he himself could not resist drawing a comparison to the legendary King Arthur, founding the Order of the Garter in 1348 in emulation of the Round Table and its elite knights. He was even offered the title of Holy Roman Emperor, which he declined.
Years in Decline
The last years of Edward’s reign were marked by disappointment. On his fiftieth birthday in 1362, Edward turned the administration of his lands over to his sons, and much of England’s gains in France, including Aquitaine, would soon fall back into French hands. The queen died in 1369, and Edward’s favorite son and heir, the Black Prince, died in 1377, one year before his own death. Edward himself expired nearly alone, attended only by a priest and his mistress.
In many ways, Edward lived too long for his own good. The glorious victories of his early reign had brought massive debt and seen the rise of Parliament as a powerful force in English politics. But the victories had also created for the first time a sense of English nationalism, a common sense of purpose, and pride in simply being English. French, for example, was abandoned as the language of official court documents in 1362.
Edward III’s fifty-year reign marked the beginning of the modern English state and a high point in English fortunes at home and abroad. Despite the setbacks of his later years, his reputation as one of England’s greatest monarchs is well deserved.
Edward, the Black Prince
Edward, Prince of Wales, also known as “the Black Prince” (1330-1376), was perhaps the most famous English royal to never actually hold the throne. Renowned across Europe in his own lifetime as a paragon of chivalry and martial prowess, Edward personally led his troops to victory at the Battle of Poitiers and played a major role in many other events of the Hundred Years’ War before dying prematurely, just a year shy of inheriting the crown.
The Prince Wins His Spurs
The Black Prince’s first brush with greatness came in 1346, when he was only sixteen years old. His father, Edward III, had invaded France in the opening offensive of the Hundred Years’ War, and Edward had been brought along and put in charge of a third of the army.
At the battle of Crécy, the English archers won the day, but there were moments when the French assault threatened the English lines. The Black Prince, commanding the right wing of the army, was personally engaged in heavy hand-to-hand combat with the French knights, and there were fears that the French would overwhelm the position. A runner was sent to the king with a request for reinforcements. The chronicler Jean Froissart records the king’s response:
Go back … to those who have sent you and tell them not to send for me again today, as long as my son is alive. Give them my command to let the boy win his spurs, for if God has so ordained it, I wish the day to be his and the honour to go to him and to those in whose charge I have placed him.
The prince did indeed win his spurs that day, driving off the French assault in the end. At the end of the battle, Edward III pronounced his son worthy to be king. (Crécy may also be where the prince picked up his nickname, supposedly for the blackened breastplate he wore during the battle. Another possible source of the nickname is the amount of grief Prince Edward caused to his foes. In either case, the nickname only came into popular usage after Edward’s death.)
By 1356, the English were back in France. This time the Black Prince was in command of the whole army, which set off from the English-held territory of Gascony in the southwest of France on an extended raid through the French countryside.
Marching hundreds of miles, the English army found itself stranded in the middle of hostile territory, pinned between a river and a massive French army at Poitiers. Edward led his troops into battle personally, bolstering the wavering lines on multiple occasions. In a desperately fought battle, the outnumbered English once again prevailed, even capturing the French king in the process.
Prince of Aquitaine
The Black Prince returned home to a frenzied welcome, hailed as a national hero. The victory at Poitiers forced the French to the negotiating table, and England walked away in possession of a third of France, including the rich territory of Aquitaine. Edward was named Prince of Aquitaine by his father in 1362, a year after he had caused a stir by marrying Joan of Kent (1328-1385), not for political gain but for love, a new concept in marriage and an apt demonstration of the prince’s chivalrous ideals.
Now in command of an army of French knights, Edward became involved in military campaigns in the Spanish kingdom of Castile, which was being torn apart by dynastic struggles. The campaign would prove a disaster for the English prince. On a personal level, Edward contracted dysentery, an intestinal disease common among armies at the time, due to the filthy conditions they lived in while on the march. More broadly, the war had not brought the promised loot that any soldier of the day would expect as his just reward for fighting. The French knights serving under Edward, already unwilling subjects, now appealed to the king of France, Charles V (1338-1480), to revoke Edward’s title as Prince of Aquitaine.
This touched on one of the underlying causes of the Hundred Years’ War: Who had the authority in France? The kings of England and France both claimed sovereignty over the English-held lands, and the dispute could not be resolved peacefully. So it was again, with Charles claiming the right to revoke Edward’s title and the Black Prince claiming that only his father, who had bestowed the title, could do such a thing.
Charles V invaded Aquitaine in 1369, inaugurating a turn in French fortunes. The Black Prince was too ill to personally command his armies—at the siege of Limoges in 1370, he supervised his troops from a stretcher. The French in turn had begun developing tactics to deal with the feared English longbow. Aquitaine was soon back in French hands.
A Premature Death
Edward never recovered from the dysentery he had contracted in Spain. He died in 1376 after securing the succession of his son Richard to the English throne. One year later, Edward III would die and the prince’s son would become Richard II (1367-1400), who would go on to sign a temporary peace treaty with the resurgent French.
This legacy did not dampen the Black Prince’s renown, which was so great that after he died, his body lay in state for four months as thousands of mourners from across England filed past, paying their last respects. He was finally laid to rest at Canterbury Cathedral.
The reign of King Charles V of France (1338-1380) marked the end of the first phase of English dominance and the reconquest of nearly all the territories acquired by France’s enemies up to that point.
Since the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French had suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the English. These defeats had culminated in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, in which Charles’s father, King John II, was captured and the French army was nearly annihilated. Charles, as Dauphin (crown prince), acted as regent during his father’s captivity and quickly proved himself an able leader.
France in Chaos
The situation Charles inherited must have seemed extremely daunting. France was without an effective army and bankrupt, forced to literally pay a king’s ransom to England. The Treaty of Brétigny, signed in the wake of Poitiers, had granted a third of French territory to England, mostly in the prosperous southwestern region known as Aquitaine. The remainder of the countryside was overrun with gangs of unemployed mercenaries, who were little more than bandits.
The situation was so bad that a mass peasant uprising—known as the Jacquerie—in northern France bloodily renounced allegiance to the French crown. Paris briefly fell to rioting mobs as nobles in the countryside were seized, tortured, and killed. The rebellion was brutally suppressed by Charles’s brother-in-law King Charles II “The Bad” of Navarre, a small kingdom situated between France and Spain.
The relationship between the two Charleses would prove to be yet another difficulty for the Dauphin, who would find himself at war with Navarre soon after taking the crown. Charles V ascended to the throne in 1364 upon the death of his father, recently returned from captivity in England.
The Situation Stabilizes
One thing Charles did have on his side was able advisors, particularly Bertrand du Guesclin (c. 1320-1380), France’s answer to the “Black Prince” Edward of England. It was du Guesclin who would crush Charles the Bad’s army the same year as Charles V’s coronation, putting an end to the threat from Navarre. The king also managed to bring the semi-independent Dukedom of Brittany to heel, receiving homage from the previously pro-English duke.
Once king, Charles convened the Estates General, France’s parliament, and instituted a strict system of taxation designed to fill the royal treasury once again. Appointing able men to governorships, Charles strengthened his infrastructure and administration, further increasing the income from the new taxes. With the fresh revenue, Charles started to put an army together again, finally quelling the rampaging hordes of unemployed soldiers that had terrorized the countryside for nearly a decade. With his internal situation stable, Charles turned his attention to foreign politics. Wars between Spanish kingdoms had attracted the interest of the English, who would have liked very much to have allied armies they could call upon in future battles with France.
Despite defeat at the Battle of Nájera, the French-backed faction in the Kingdom of Castile was soon on the throne, and the Black Prince, who had been named Prince of Aquitaine, was in serious debt for his part in the Spanish wars. Raising taxes on his French subjects to pay these debts only drove them to Charles with demands that the Prince be replaced. The Black Prince argued, however, that Charles did not have the authority to do such a thing, and the Hundred Years’ War was back on.
Renewed War with England
Charles invaded Aquitaine in 1369. Learning from past defeats, he developed a strategy that was radically different from that of his predecessors: Instead of seeking a major battle, Charles and du Guesclin relied on hit-and-run tactics and quick sieges that won back town after town.
The English were further hindered by lack of leadership—the Black Prince was dying of dysentery and was unable to lead troops in battle—and naval defeat at the hands of French-allied Castile. By 1374, Charles had reconquered all of Aquitaine save for the traditional English enclave of Gascony. The Treaty of Brétigny had effectively been undone, and major English operations would not resume until Henry V’s (1387-1422) invasion in 1415.
Charles, never in the best of health, died at the age of forty-two in 1380. His son and heir, Charles VI (1368-1422), signed a formal treaty with the English in 1396, completing his father’s work.
Charles V left behind a mixed legacy. In addition to his military victories, he is remembered as a patron of the arts and of learning, founding a royal library at the Louvre. His administrative reforms strengthened the French monarchy and rescued the government from its near-annihilation.
Nevertheless, his policies did not prove effective in the long-term. Combined with the mental defects of his successor, they pushed France back into a state of chaos and civil strife, leaving it ripe for English invasion. Charles’s reign ultimately proved merely a check, rather than a reversal, of English fortunes.
John of Gaunt
John of Gaunt (1340-1399) played a key role in the Hundred Years’ War, even though he never fought a major battle. His son, Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV, 1367-1413), would take the English throne from Richard II, establishing a new dynasty, and his grandson, Henry V, would lead the English to perhaps their greatest victory of the war at Agincourt.
John forms a bridge between the first two major phases of the war. His father, Edward III, had started the war in a bid to win back the lands in France that had once belonged to England, which, during the reign of Henry II (1133-1189), had constituted nearly half the country.
Power Plays at Home and Abroad
John was the fourth son of Edward III, and never became king himself. Nevertheless, he wielded great power behind the scenes. Although constantly overshadowed by his dynamic and long-lived father, as well as his elder brother Edward, “the Black Prince,” he was created Duke of Lancaster in 1362 and led a military expedition through France in 1370, marching an army from Calais on the English Channel to Bordeaux in the southwest. The expedition failed to win any significant victories, however, and John soon returned to England.
In Parliament he formed a power bloc to support the radical preacher John Wyclif and protect him from church reprisals. The Good Parliament of 1376 developed the impeachment process specifically to break this bloc.
With the accession of Richard II, John developed a reputation as an advisor to the king and as a top diplomat, brokering peace with Scotland in 1380. It was this Scottish mission that saved John’s life: He was away from home when, in 1381, angry mobs participating in the Peasant’s Revolt attacked his residence at the Savoy Palace.
John’s Castilian Expedition
John spent the remainder of the decade pursuing a claim on the throne of the Spanish kingdom of Castile, as he was married to the daughter of the recently deceased Castilian king. He personally led a campaign in Castile from 1386-1388, but it came to nothing. Unsuccessful, he returned to England and married his daughter to the future King Henry of Castile.
Late in his life, John finally married his longtime mistress, Catherine Swynford, who had borne him four children. Interestingly, these children, known as the Beauforts, formed a branch of the English royal family through which Henry Tudor (later Henry VII, 1457-1509) would claim his right to the throne in the Wars of the Roses, nearly a century later.
John’s main contribution to the course of the Hundred Years’ War was through his son, Henry Bolingbroke. Although he had been careful to never appear to openly work against the king, John never gained Richard’s full trust. So it was that when John died in 1399, Richard declared his estates forfeit and seized them in the name of the crown. Henry, who had been exiled the year before, returned, ostensibly to claim his inheritance. In actuality he raised an army upon landing in England and soon deposed Richard II, taking the crown for himself, becoming Henry IV, and founding the Lancastrian dynasty in the process.
Henry V (1387-1422) reigned as king of England for a mere nine years, but in that time, enjoyed one of the most dynamic and successful reigns of any English monarch and very nearly united the crowns of England and France. One of the central figures of the Hundred Years’ War, his ambition and rise to power was stopped only by his premature death.
Henry was the son of an usurper, Henry IV, called Henry Bolingbroke before taking the throne, who established the Lancastrian dynasty when he deposed the unpopular Richard II in 1399. Young Henry grew up at court and even went with Richard II on campaign in Ireland, where he got his first taste of war.
Meanwhile, his father (Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt) worked with a faction of Parliamentarians who opposed Richard II, an opposition that led to Bolingbroke’s exile in 1398. The elder Henry returned the next year when Richard attempted to seize his inheritance and, after raising an army, forced the king to abdicate.
The kingdom did not pass quietly into Lancastrian hands, and Henry IV spent much of his reign working to legitimize his rule and put down rebellions, particularly in Wales.
Prince Henry’s first experience as a war leader came at the age of just fourteen, when he led a campaign against Welsh rebel Owen Glendower. Ably advised by Harry “Hotspur” Percy (1366-1403), a knight of great renown, Henry quickly impressed his elders with his willingness to learn and attention to detail.
These qualities of leadership were further honed when Henry led an army to put down a rebellion by his former advisor, Hotspur. The Percys had joined with the Welsh in a bid to place Richard II’s designated heir on the throne, but were defeated at Shrewsbury in 1403 by the teenage prince, who had quickly come into his own as a general and leader of men.
After Shrewsbury, Henry also demonstrated some of the stoic grit that would later come to dominate his reputation. During the battle, an arrow had struck the young prince in the face below his right eye socket. The arrowhead had lodged in his skull and was extracted with a drill-like instrument, the head of which was actually wider than the wound itself. The operation, like all procedures at the time, was administered without painkillers. By all accounts, Henry weathered the ordeal with quiet resolve.
Henry IV died while only in his forties, beset by boils and fever. Henry V took the throne and immediately began planning a military expedition to France, the first such undertaking since Richard II had signed the Peace of Paris in 1389. The expedition was aimed at glorifying Lancastrian rule and drumming up popular support for the fledgling dynasty, which was facing plots against the king’s life.
Furthermore, Henry was a very pious man and was quite convinced of the moral and spiritual rightness of his campaign. In his mind, the lands he was fighting to regain had been granted to England by God’s divine will, and he was simply exercising his right as God’s instrument on Earth to take back what rightfully belonged to him.
As the English army began to assemble, Henry sent a series of outrageous diplomatic demands to Paris. The French had no choice but to reject the English claims, giving Henry a legal justification for invasion.
Campaigning in France
His fleet landed at the port city of Harfleur in France in August of 1415. The city fell by September, but the English army had been beset by a terrible outbreak of dysentery. Although he had hoped to march on Paris, Henry, with the campaigning season growing late and his army weakened by disease, decided to finish things off with a march to the English-occupied city of Calais as a show of force. Although trying to avoid open battle, Henry had no choice but to engage the French army at Agincourt. Although desperately outnumbered, the king personally led his troops to victory. At one point, on hearing that his brother had fallen wounded, Henry led his personal bodyguard in cutting a bloody swathe through the opposition to reach his stricken brother and guarded him until he could be borne away.
Returning to a hero’s welcome in England, Henry was able to raise funds for a second campaign in France, which he launched in 1417. His navy included the largest ships yet built in England, and the siege train that marched with him boasted the latest in massive cannons and trebuchets, giant rock hurling machines, both of which were a match for all but the thickest walls.
Henry took Caen and pressed his advantage, campaigning through the winter. The French were paralyzed, their leadership in tatters after the deaths at Agincourt and their armies too busy fighting each other. The English enlisted one of the two factions in the ongoing struggle, the Burgundians, who kept their rivals pinned down and unable to bring battle to the rampaging British.
In 1418, Henry took the key city of Rouen after a brutal siege that saw twelve thousand women and old men trapped between the city walls and the English lines, kicked out of the city to conserve food and water, yet not allowed safe passage by Henry, who argued their fate was bound to that of Rouen. By this time, Henry viewed himself as the “scourge of God,” dispensing righteous justice to those who dared oppose his claims. When the city fell, the citizens of Rouen were treated like rebellious subjects who had defied Henry’s rule. His army sacked and pillaged the town as Henry took mass in the grand cathedral.
The Treaty of Troyes
Working in concert with the Burgundians, who had formally allied with the English, Henry finally took Paris in 1420 and forced france’s mad King Charles VI to the negotiating table.
The agreement that resulted, the Treaty of Troyes, was remarkable in its terms. Although it recognized Charles’s right to the throne, it named Henry V as his heir, disinheriting the king’s legitimate son. Upon Charles’s death, which everyone expected to be quite soon, the English king Henry would also assume the throne of France, uniting the monarchies of the two countries. Henry’s son was furthermore named as heir to the French crown after Henry’s death.
That death came much sooner than any would have suspected. Henry was obliged to continue campaigning against the Dauphin, the original heir to the throne, and while besieging the city of Meaux contracted dysentery. By the end of August he was dead, a mere two months before Charles VI.
Henry’s son, still an infant, was in no position to press for his rights as heir to Henry’s claim on the French throne, and the Dauphin began a campaign that, with the help of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), would see him crowned Charles VII (1403-1461). Within a generation of Henry’s death, the resurgent French would reclaim all their lost territory save the city of Calais and bring the Hundred Years’ War to an end.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was arguably the most important French figure in the whole of the Hundred Years’ War. Her inspirational leadership revitalized the French cause at a time when all seemed lost, igniting a new sense of national pride and unity—new concepts for the time, especially in such a traditionally factional and divided country as France. After her death, her story was largely marginalized until the nineteenth century, when she was rediscovered by artists, writers, and theologians, all of whom used her story to further their own needs for a hero from the past.
France in Crisis
Joan of Arc, also called “the Maid” (la pucelle), was born to a fairly well-off farming family in the eastern French territory of Domrémy. She came of age during the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict that had been raging between England and France off and on since 1337.
By 1420, after a series of victories, the English king Henry V had secured a treaty with France’s mad King Charles VI, promising Henry the crown upon Charles’s death. Despite Henry’s premature death, the French royalty found itself in a precarious position when Charles VI died not long after Henry.
The Dauphin, Charles (1403-1461), rightful heir to the French throne, was living in exile in the southern town of Bourges, paralyzed by petty politics and lack of money. The English occupied the north and south-west of the country and were allied with a powerful French faction known as the Burgundians, who controlled most of eastern France.
Back in Domrémy, Joan began hearing voices around the age of thirteen. According to Joan, they were Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret, and they were telling her to go aid the Dauphin in driving the English out of the country. By 1429, Joan decided the time had come to act. She set out for the Dauphin’s court with a small escort provided by the local garrison.
Word of Joan’s remarkable mission preceded her. By the time she arrived at Chinon in February, the Dauphin was expecting her. Yet he delayed meeting with her for two days, displaying the ambivalence that would characterize his relationship with Joan. When Charles did finally allow Joan to visit his court, he disguised himself, placing a double on the throne. Joan, despite having no idea what the Dauphin looked like, saw through the deception and picked Charles out of the crowd of courtiers. This display convinced many of those present that Joan was indeed on a divine mission, but the Dauphin was not so sure. Joan was interviewed and examined for three weeks by leading theologians. A panel of learned midwives confirmed Joan’s virginity and, at the end of the process, the clerics gave Joan their highest endorsement.
During this time, the English had besieged the vital city of Orléans. Despite the small size of the English army, most people on both sides of the conflict believed it was only a matter of time until Orléans fell. Charles was seriously considering where to flee. With little left to lose, he decided to grant Joan what she asked.
The Maid of Orléans
Joan was given a horse, a suit of white steel armor, a sword, and a banner. With a small escort, she set out for Orléans, slipping into the besieged city in late April 1429. She immediately began pressing the city garrison to attack the English positions. She personally led several such attacks herself. Despite heavy resistance from the captains of the garrison, she rallied the citizens and troops of the town to her cause.
Some indication of the passion of Joan’s convictions can be seen in the letter she wrote to the English commanders at Orléans shortly before her departure for the city:
King of England, render account to the King of Heaven of your royal blood. Return the keys of all the good cities which you have seized, to the Maid … if you do not do these things, I am the commander of the military; and in whatever place I shall find your men in France, I will make them flee the country, whether they wish to or not; and if they will not obey, the Maid will have them all killed. She comes sent by the King of Heaven, body for body, to take you out of France.
On May 7, despite an arrow wound received in battle, Joan led the French to victory at Les Tourelles, the fortress outside Orléans that the English had been using as a headquarters. The next day the English army withdrew.
Orléans was the turning point of the Hundred Years’ War and the first major French victory of the conflict. The myth of English invincibility was shattered. More importantly, the French people had found an inspirational leader to rally around.
Coronation at Rheims
Joan continued leading the army, her white banner serving as a beacon of hope to the increasingly jubilant French troops. With the crown prince at her side, Joan reached the ancient capital of Rheims by July, where the Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII.
This event marked the high point of Joan’s short-lived career. She became involved in court politics over the following months as various factions pressed Charles to open peace negotiations. For Joan, nothing short of total victory was acceptable. Impatient, she personally led an army in an assault on English-occupied Paris, but was seriously wounded. The French withdrew after only a day, and Charles opened negotiations with the Burgundy.
Capture and Trial
Although angered with and alienated from the man she had made king, Joan was determined to continue leading the fight against the English. She led an army to relieve the besieged town of Compiègne. In May 1430, during a skirmish outside the city, Joan, while covering the retreat of her troops, was captured by the Burgundians.
The traditional practice at the time whenever a military leader was captured was to offer a ransom. Joan’s family did not have sufficient funds to provide a suitable sum, and Charles VII, displaying his characteristic ambivalence, failed to act. The English convinced their Burgundian allies to “buy out” Joan’s captor, and the Maid of Orléans was turned over to her enemies.
Despite facing impossible odds in what amounted to a political show trial, Joan consistently demonstrated wit, eloquence, and piety during her interrogations. Nevertheless, her long months of captivity in a dank tower cell took their toll on her resolve, and she eventually capitulated, receiving a life sentence. This was soon after changed to a death sentence—the reasons why are unclear; one oft-cited reason is that she reportedly refused to cease wearing men’s clothes—and she was burned at the stake in the marketplace at Rheims on May 30, 1431. Maintaining her innocence to the last, she asked that a cross be held high enough for her to see over the flames, and she died calling out Jesus’ name.
Unfortunately for the English, Joan had left an indelible mark on her countrymen. Despite somewhat inconsistent leadership, the French, now armed with a cause and a new sense of nationalism, drove the English out of their country, save for the small enclave of Calais, by 1453, bringing an end to the longest and most destructive war of the Middle Ages.
Joan herself was exonerated at a trial ordered by Charles VII, at the behest of Joan’s mother and the Inquisition, in 1456. Her status as a heretic was overturned and her name was cleared.
Despite her instrumental role in the French victory, Joan of Arc remained a relatively minor historical figure until the nineteenth century. She was “rediscovered” by writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain, who wrote of her exploits, and by artists who depicted her as a romanticized savior. The Catholic Church, similarly in need of heroes, began the process of naming Joan a saint. This process received a huge boost during World War I when France, once again on the brink of defeat, looked to Joan’s story for inspiration. She was declared Saint Joan of Arc in 1920, shortly after the war’s end, cementing her status as France’s national and religious hero.
King Charles VII of France (1403-1461) rose from living in exile, the discredited heir to the throne of France, to eventual triumph over the English in the Hundred Years’ War, bringing to an end the longest and most destructive war of the Middle Ages.
Internal Strife and the Treaty of Troyes
Charles’s father, Charles VI, had been unable to rule effectively due to repeated bouts of madness. The king’s instability had led to civil strife between two factions: the Armagnacs, supporters of the royal family; and the Burgundians, supporters of John the Fearless (1371-1419), Duke of Burgundy.
The future Charles VII, as Dauphin of France, did not help matters when he banished his mother from court. The Queen fled to the court of John the Fearless and together they marched on Paris. The Parisians welcomed them with open arms and the Dauphin fled. John declared himself regent, or caretaker, of the mad king.
The English, meanwhile, had been taking advantage of this internal strife, launching an invasion that marked the first major hostilities in more than two decades. Under the leadership of Henry V, the English had taken most of northern France over the course of five years’ campaigning.
With France facing such a grave foreign threat, the Dauphin and John the Fearless agreed to meet on a bridge at Montereau to work out a peace agreement. The meeting ended with John being murdered by Charles’s supporters. Although Charles claimed that the assassination took place without his consent, the incident drove Philip, John’s son and the new Duke of Burgundy, to ally with the English.
Charles VI, in one of his last periods of lucidity, recognized that the new alliance constituted a major threat to his rule and his life. He negotiated the Treaty of Troyes, which allowed him to keep his crown, but named Henry V as heir to the French throne. Furthermore, the Dauphin’s estranged mother claimed her son was illegitimate. Even after Henry V’s premature death, the throne passed to the infant King Henry VI (1421-1471). The Dauphin, shaken by these reversals of fortune, withdrew to the southern town of Bourges, where he still had a strong base of support.
King of Bourges
Although the English cause had suffered greatly with the death of the dynamic Henry V, their eventual victory seemed virtually assured. England directly held nearly all of northern France, including Paris, as well as their traditional enclave of Gascony on the southwest coast. Their Burgundian allies controlled the east. Most of the subjects in these territories accepted the idea of foreign rule, for it promised an end to the wars that had ravaged the country since the 1340s.
Thoroughly dispirited, Charles “reigned” from Bourges, where he was derisively called the “King of Bourges,” since that was effectively all he controlled. He was further paralyzed by petty court politics as various favorites jockeyed for his approval and spent what little money the treasury generated.
As the 1420s came to a close, the English prepared for a renewed campaign, directed at the remaining southern territories loyal to Charles. The initial objective was the vital city of Orléans.
A further blow to French morale was struck when Charles dispatched a force to raid an English supply column carrying salted fish and, in what was dubbed “The Day of the Herrings,” was driven off by the outnumbered English guards. Seemingly incapable of defeating the English, Charles left Orléans to its fate.
Joan of Arc
It was at this point that Joan of Arc arrived at Charles’s court at Chinon in February 1429, claiming that she had been ordered by angels to come rescue the Dauphin and drive the English out of France. So desperate was the French position that Charles offered his support.
Joan proved a dynamic new force in the war, single-handedly rallying the beleaguered French, who soon forced the English to raise the siege, heralding a turning point in the war. She also personally inspired Charles, rousing him from his long period of inaction. With Joan at the head of the army, Charles marched north, clearing the English out of the Loire Valley. The campaign culminated with the crushing French victory at the Battle of Patay. On July 17, at the ancient capital of Rheims, Charles was crowned King of France.
Charles’s coronation marked the beginning of a renewed sense of nationalism that would gain a martyr in the form of Joan of Arc, who was captured by the Burgundians in 1430. Charles has long earned condemnation for failing to provide a ransom for Joan after her capture. With no ransom forthcoming, the Burgundians turned Joan over to the English, who burned her at the stake in 1431.
The End of the War
Charles, with his characteristic hesitancy, slowly built upon the momentum started by Joan. He made peace with Burgundy, who had grown dissatisfied with their English alliance, in 1435. Charles publicly apologized for John the Fearless’s death and was able to finally re-enter Paris, still strongly pro-Burgundian, in 1436.
Charles once again hesitated, but at the urging of his long-time mistress, Agnes Sorel, he eventually invaded Normandy, wresting it from the English by 1445. Gascony, an English territory for three centuries, finally fell in 1453 after the Battle of Castillon. Castillon is considered the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War—no peace treaty ever marked the end of hostilities, but Charles declared the war over and the English, torn internally by Henry VI’s ineffectual reign, were in no position to object.
Domestic Reforms and Legacy
As the war was entering its final phases, Charles began a series of internal reforms, perhaps his greatest legacy. By combining the most able advisors from his own court and his new Burgundian allies, Charles earned his nickname “The Well-Served.” These advisors helped Charles devise a system of permanent taxation that swelled the royal coffers with unprecedented wealth. Charles used this newfound wealth to put together Europe’s first standing army since the days of the Western Roman Empire. The foundation of French military dominance over the next two centuries was laid during Charles VII’s reign. Although the last years of his reign were marked by feuds with his son and heir, Charles left France considerably stronger than he had found it. He even took steps to repudiate Joan of Arc’s heresy trial—in 1456 her sentence was nullified and her name was cleared. Despite his somewhat questionable leadership at times, Charles VII truly earned his other nickname “The Victorious.”
Fought on June 24, 1340, the Battle of Sluys was the first major engagement of the Hundred Years’ War. The clash between the French and English navies ended with the near annihilation of the French fleet and the establishment of English naval superiority for the remainder of the war.
French Naval Dominance
Like most English victories in the early course of the conflict, the victory at Sluys came as a bit of a shock to both sides. Prior to the battle, the French boasted what was widely considered the most powerful navy in Europe. Furthermore, over the previous two years, the French had been conducting a series of raids on coastal English towns virtually unopposed. The towns of Portsmouth and Southampton had been burned and looted by French marines and their Italian allies. By 1340, Edward III of England had had enough and sent a large fleet into the English Channel to put a stop to the raids once and for all.
The French, meanwhile, had been assembling a large fleet of their own, comprised of ships from their own navy and allied vessels from Genoa, with an eye to invading England. A letter King Edward later wrote to his son puts the size of the French fleet at 190 ships. Edward’s own fleet was around the same size, but was bolstered by fifty ships from his Flemish (Belgian) allies. He found the French fleet riding at anchor in an inlet outside the town of Sluys.
The French commanders, although advised by their Genoese ally to sail out to meet the English in open waters, remained at anchor, their ships lashed to each other in the standard medieval naval defensive formation.
Edward sailed his ships into the bay and engaged the French in close fighting. His ships were carrying units of archers armed with the longbow, a weapon soon to prove its effectiveness on the field of battle. At Sluys, which was essentially a land engagement fought on the water, it helped carry the day as well. Edward’s letter speaks of the fighting lasting all day and into the night, but by the next morning, the French fleet was in ruins.
Both commanders of the French fleet lost their lives, one during the battle, the other after capture. Many of the sailors in the French fleet were also killed, both in the fighting and by Edward’s Flemish allies while attempting to flee. Medieval chronicles give the French casualties as thirty thousand men lost, but these numbers are unreliable.
It is likely the English suffered heavily as well, for they remained at anchor for several days, neglecting to give chase to the Genoese, who had slipped away towards the end of the battle. Nevertheless, it was a battle well won for Edward. Although the French would occasionally employ Spanish ships in the future, their own navy would never again harass the English Channel or manage the sort of raids that saw Portsmouth and Southampton reduced to ashes.
England would enjoy command of the seas for the remainder of the war, an important foundation for the island nation. For example, the far-flung English province of Gascony, in southwest France with no direct link to other English territories, would have proven almost impossible to hold on to if the French controlled the sea as well as the land surrounding it. This thorn in the side of France would prove instrumental in future campaigns and in the course of the war in general.
More importantly, control of the sea lanes meant England was free to invade France at will and maintain supply lines to its armies on the European continent. After an unsuccessful invasion following on the heels of his victory at Sluys, Edward III would launch an invasion in 1346 that would culminate in the victory at Crécy. The Hundred Years’ War had begun in earnest.
The Battle of Crécy, fought on August 26, 1346, was the first great land battle of the Hundred Years’ War. More importantly, the shocking victory marked the beginning of the end for the age of the heavily armored knight as the preeminent force on the battlefield.
Edward’s Invasion of Normandy
The roots of the battle lie with a five-year truce King Edward III of England had signed with his French foes after failing to take the city of Tournai in Flanders—modern-day Belgium—in an attempt to follow up on his naval victory at Sluys.
The truce had given Edward a chance to devise a new strategy. Although Flanders was geographically closest to England, it lacked a safe base from which to wage a protracted war. Edward decided instead to invade Normandy, once the jewel of English holdings in France.
Launching a one-thousand-ship invasion fleet in 1346, Edward landed in France and immediately besieged the city of Caen, which fell by the end of June. Leaving a garrison at the city, Edward then set out across the hostile French countryside, aware that a large French army led by King Philip VI was paralleling his progress.
The English March Cross-Country
Although Edward had entertained ideas of marching on Paris, he decided instead to march northeast toward Flanders. The army that marched with him constituted a new kind of army, one that was made up primarily of archers armed with the mighty English longbow. Edward’s wars in Scotland had allowed him a chance to refine the tactics of the bow and massed firepower, and he knew that if he was allowed to choose the time and location of battle, he could defeat an army much larger than his.
Several mighty rivers crisscross Northern France, and it was these rivers that posed the biggest threat to Edward’s plans. A race was on to get his troops across the rivers before the French could block every bridge and ford. At Poissy, as a French regiment bore down on them, English engineers barely managed to construct a bridge—only one plank wide—in time to allow troops across the Seine to establish a beachhead, successfully driving off the French.
With the English across the Seine, Paris was now threatened and Philip redoubled his efforts to pin the English down. Every crossing point along the mighty Somme River was guarded, and the French army was hot on Edward’s heels.
Acting on a tip from a local, Edward made a desperate midnight march to the ford of Blanchetaque, which he found guarded, albeit lightly. As the sun rose, the English bowmen laid down a hail of arrows, covering a desperate river crossing. Reaching the far bank, the English drove the French, disorganized and depleted by the arrow fire, back from the river. The English were across the Somme. The French army was right behind them.
Edward knew the time had come to give battle, and he chose the town of Crécy as his ground. Occupying the high ground outside of town, Edward deployed his archers, around six thousand in all, in the center and on either flank of his army, which also included up to one hundred primitive cannons. Commanding the right wing of the infantry was the king’s own son, sixteen-year-old Edward, “the Black Prince.” The English were ready for battle.
The French arrived from the south in huge numbers. The size of the French army has been given as anywhere from two times to six times the size of the English, but most likely numbered about forty thousand troops against Edward’s ten thousand. What’s more, a large percentage of the French army was comprised of mounted knights, thought at the time to be nearly unbeatable. As the French arrived on the battlefield, the English, who had been at rest near their battle stations, rose and took up arms. The battle opened with an archery duel as Philip deployed his unit of fifteen thousand Genoese crossbowmen. Things did not bode well from the start, as the medieval chronicler Jean Froissart records:
[The crossbowmen] were quite fatigued, having marched on foot that day six leagues, completely armed, and with their crossbows. They told the constable that they were not in a fit condition to do any great things that day in battle. The earl of Alençon, hearing this, said, “This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fail when there is any need for them.”
It was no contest. The rate of fire of the crossbow was no match for the English longbow. Furthermore, in addition to their fatigue, the Genoese suffered from a lack of pavises, large shields which they could use to shelter behind while reloading. To make matters worse, a rainstorm the night before had soaked their weapons, rendering them even less effective. The English archers, meanwhile, had kept their bowstrings tucked up under their helmets during the storm, safe and dry, ready to be restrung in the morning.
The English arrows fell like rain and the cannons added their own thunder as well. Although these early cannons were not terribly deadly, the casualties they did inflict, along with the noise and smoke they generated, had a further demoralizing effect. As the Genoese faltered, the impetuous French knights, who were so sure of victory that they had predetermined who would capture which English lord, sounded the charge, galloping over their own crossbowmen. The rainstorm had made the ground muddy and the uphill charge soon bogged down. As they made their way up the hill, most of the French knights were unhorsed, their unarmored mounts taken down by the ceaseless arrow storm. Advancing into a barrage of up to thirty thousand arrows a minute, the French died in great numbers. Yet more waves pressed forward, eventually reaching the English lines, exhausted and decimated, only to be driven back by the dismounted English knights.
The English fended off a succession of such wave attacks and, as the sun set, Philip VI, who was himself wounded, sounded a general retreat. He left behind at least a quarter of his army, dead and wounded on the battlefield. Among the dead were eleven princes, including Philip’s brother, as well as the blind King John of Bohemia (1296-1346), who had insisted on being led into battle. As darkness fell, the English peasant-soldiers made their way through the field of French dead, searching for captives who could be ransomed for large sums and killing those knights too wounded to take prisoner. It was a fitting end to a battle that saw the triumph of the lowly archer over the once invincible knight.
Siege of Calais, 1346-1347
The Siege of Calais, begun in 1346, was a direct result of the English victory at Crécy. The city’s eventual fall to the English would give that country an important military and mercantile base on the Continent for the following two hundred years.
The Importance of Calais
Edward III had launched his invasion of Normandy in 1346, taking the city of Caen, then marching on to defeat the French army decisively at Crécy. The French had retreated in complete disarray, shocked and broken after their loss. Edward had a pick of where to point his army and chose to make for the city of Calais on the coast of the English Channel.
Edward’s choice was both strategically and tactically sound. Although he faced no opposition in the open field, his men were running short of supplies. Paris, as well fortified as it was, would be too tough a nut to crack for Edward’s small army. Calais, on the other hand, would provide England with a fine beachhead from which to launch future operations. It was itself a well-defended city that enjoyed brisk trade with the city-states of Flanders, with which England already had an alliance. Lastly, Edward would be able to re-supply his men, even as they settled in for a siege, as Calais is separated from England by a mere twenty-one miles.
The siege began in September 1346 and dragged on through the winter. The defenses that made Calais a prime choice for Edward in turn made it difficult to take the city from the French. The English, who bombarded the city walls with primitive cannons and large catapults, ringed in the city but were unable to take it by direct assault. Edward decided to starve out the inhabitants, blockading the port with his navy.
By the summer of 1347, the English army was close to reaching its goal. Food and water supplies in the city were nearly gone. In desperation, the city ejected its children and elderly, but Edward refused to grant them passage through the English lines. They starved to death outside the city walls as the siege dragged on.
Finally, on August 1, the city sent a delegation of six town leaders, shaven headed and wearing nooses around their necks, to meet with Edward and offer surrender. Edward, enraged by the city’s stubborn resistance, ordered the six men hanged, but his wife, Queen Philippa, tearfully begged him to spare the delegates. Edward consented and even granted the rest of the townsfolk safe passage out of the city, an unusually merciful act for the times. Calais was repopulated with English merchants and soldiers and their families.
The French king Philip VI, who had been unable to muster an army during the course of the siege, did not give up on the city entirely. A plot was hatched to bribe the governor of Calais to sell the city out to the French. Word of this plot reached Edward in time, however, and he set out for Calais with a small army.
The French were caught off guard when Edward personally led a charge of his knights out of the town gates and directly into the heart of the attacking French. With the king rode his son, “the Black Prince,” who in the course of fighting, saved Edward’s life when he found himself surrounded by hostile troops—the young prince and his retinue hacked through the enemy lines to reach their king and lead him back to safety.
The French attack was repulsed and Calais remained in English hands. It was to stay that way well beyond the course of the Hundred Years’ War, becoming as English as England itself, even sending representatives to Parliament. It would not return to France until the reign of Mary I (1516-1558) in the sixteenth century.
The Battle of Poitiers, fought on September 19, 1356, was the high point of English fortunes in the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War and the victory that cemented the international reputation of Edward “the Black Prince.”
Prince Edward’s father, Edward III, had inaugurated the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, winning a major victory at Crécy in 1346. The prince had “won his spurs” at that battle, meaning he had experienced battle and proven his valor.
English Raid in France
Ten years after Crécy, Prince Edward was in command of a raiding force, setting out from the English-held territory of Gascony in the southwest of France. The army, which numbered about seven thousand men including one thousand archers was heading north to meet up with two other English armies, due to march in from the Channel coast.
Unfortunately for Edward, neither of the other two armies had set out as planned. Edward’s men, after marching 260 miles in six weeks, realized they were in the middle of hostile territory with no hope of reinforcement. Worse still, the French army was finally coming after them.
Prince Edward Cornered
Throughout the march, Edward had been trying to draw the French to battle. Despite the small size of his army, Edward was confident of victory, thanks to the tactics the English had perfected at Crécy. By using massed arrow fire supplied by the quick-firing and deadly longbow, the English army had proven that it could defeat a foe many times its size.
However, as Edward marched north towards the Loire River, he found himself less eager to join battle. His troops were low on supplies and tired. The Count of Poitiers had joined forces with his father, King John II of France, and now pursued Edward with a large army. As the French moved south of the English, making camp at the town of Poitiers, Edward found that all crossings over the Loire had been destroyed. He had two choices: surrender or fight. Edward chose to fight.
The French Battle Plan
Although the French had felt the sting of defeat at the hands of English archery, John had reason to believe that would not be the case this time. He had assembled two special units of heavily armored knights riding armored horses, whose job was to charge the flanks of the English army, where the archers were normally deployed. The extra armor would allow the knights to close with the archers, who would then be ridden down, allowing the rest of the French to charge the English infantry and defeat it in close combat.
Edward—due to the small number of troops in his army—deployed his archers in the center, unintentionally foiling John’s plan in the process. When the two French units advanced on the enemy’s wings, they found no archers. Confused, they charged the main body of the English army instead.
Although the horses’ heavy armor protected them from the front, English archers were able to pour their arrows into the flanks of the approaching French, breaking up the charge, but nearly running out of arrows in the process. Coming right on the heels of this first charge was a wave of dismounted French knights led by the Dauphin (crown prince) of France. At the sight of this massive army’s approach, English morale faltered. It was a crucial moment. Prince Edward went before his assembled troops and exhorted them to fight—they were not beaten yet, he reminded them. In the desperate minutes before the French assault, archers darted out into the field to retrieve spent arrows from corpses of horses and knights alike. Edward meanwhile sent a small detachment of two hundred cavalry riding out around the French flank. Seeing these troops depart, and mistaking the move for retreat, the English once again despaired. His army on the brink of disintegration, Edward ordered a general charge.
With a cry of “St. George!” (England’s patron saint), the entire English force rushed at the startled French, the archers firing the last of their arrows, then drawing their hand weapons and joining in. The sudden attack forced the French back, and general panic broke out when Edward’s cavalry detachment appeared behind French lines, cutting off retreat. The French army fell into a general panic and routed off the field. King John II and his entourage were taken prisoner, and many more French nobles died. In total 7,500 Frenchmen were killed and two thousand were taken prisoner.
The Lasting Impact of Poitiers
Poitiers marked the final defeat for the French in the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War. Between Crécy and Poitiers, the French nobility had lost more members than were taken during the Black Death. The capture of John resulted in France paying a ruinous ransom equal to twice the country’s yearly national income. In order to raise money for the ransom, many nobles raised taxes to outrageous levels. Leaderless, the French army would cease to be an effective fighting force for the next decade, turning instead to open banditry as the countryside descended into chaos. These factors directly provoked the peasantry to rise in a mass rebellion known as the Jacquerie.
In contrast to the instability quickly descending over France, news of the victory was welcomed in England with a national celebration. The prince was welcomed back to a London whose fountains had been made to flow with wine, as a unit of five hundred “Merry Men” dressed like Robin Hood escorted the captive French King John II. The English joked that the pope might have been French, but their king was the new Jesus. The “miracle” of Poitiers resulted in the English gaining a third of French territory, crippling the French war effort for years to come.
The Battle of Nájera was perhaps the greatest tactical English victory of the Hundred Years’ War. It was also England’s greatest strategic mistake and led directly to a renewal of hostilities in France and the loss of most of the territories gained after the victories at Crécy and Poitiers. Finally, it was during the Nájera campaign that Edward, “the Black Prince,” most likely contracted the disease that would eventually claim his life.
The Hundred Years’ War, like most major conflicts, could not be contained to a single theater. France’s neighbors soon found themselves acting as puppets to both England and France, who threw their support behind opposing factions in hitherto local conflicts.
After the English victory at Poitiers, France had been forced to sue for peace, ceding nearly a third of its territory in the Treaty of Brétigny. The Treaty put thousands of soldiers “out of work.” Organizing into so-called “free companies,” these mercenary bands caused havoc as they looted and pillaged the countryside. Eventually, they were drawn south to a war between two Spanish kingdoms.
Castile’s Pedro the Cruel (1334-1369) had been making war on Aragon for nearly a decade. With French and Aragonese backing, Pedro’s half-brother Enrique led a mercenary army of free companies to victory, sending Pedro fleeing into neighboring Portugal, where he sent a desperate plea for aid to England’s Prince Edward.
Edward, as commander of all English territories in France, decided to march to Pedro’s aid. The Black Prince sent out a call to arms that was immediately answered by the scattered English and allied-French companies. One English company that had served under Enrique literally had to fight its way out of Castile to meet up with Edward’s army, gathering in the mountain kingdom of Navarre. Once assembled, Prince Edward’s army invaded northern Castile. Edward’s progress was stopped by Enrique’s army, which held the mountainous high ground. The Castilian king’s French advisors, only too aware of English battlefield superiority, advised Enrique to hold his ground.
Edward, unwilling to attack from such an unfavorable position, retreated back into Navarre, then swung south and marched into Castile through territory more suited to open battle. Enrique moved his army south as well, camping at the town of Nájera. Hungry for battle, and ignoring further French advice, he then marched his army across the Najerilla River to engage Edward.
The two armies met on April 3, 1367. Enrique’s army was a patchwork of French veterans and Aragonese and Castilian troops. Commanding the center of the army was the Frenchman Bertrand du Guesclin, one of the most famous knights of his day. Both wings of the army were comprised of light cavalry and hordes of peasant levies. Enrique commanded the right flank, his brother Don Tello the left.
The peasant levies gave the Castilians the numerical edge, but the English force was still more than a match. Marching under the leadership of Prince Edward and his brother, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as well as their ally, Pedro the Cruel, the army was, like all English armies of the day, amply supplied with the deadly longbow. Nájera marked the first use of the longbow in Spain, and it lived up to its reputation.
The hostilities opened with the centers of both armies locking in battle, a stalemate that would last all day. Victory would be determined by events on the wings of the battle. On the Spanish left, Don Tello fled from the field before the English had even reached his lines. As their flank dissolved, the Spanish center was hit on the side by the English right wing.
Meanwhile, on the English left, Enrique led his troops against a storm of English arrows. The Spanish levies, armed with javelins and slings, were no match, but the Spanish king rallied his troops and charged three times before finally turning away for good. Now the other wing of the English army crashed into the exposed Spanish flank. The French veterans held out as long as they could, but it was a losing fight. As the day came to a close, the English finally took the field.
As Enrique’s center dissolved, the retreat turned into a rout. Many Spaniards, with the English bearing down on them, drowned in their attempts to get across the swift-flowing Najerilla.
A Hollow Victory
After the battle, Enrique fled to Aragon, which promptly turned him over to the English. Pedro the Cruel was restored to the Castilian throne and it appeared that Prince Edward could do no wrong. Nájera was the greatest tactical victory scored by the English in the course of the Hundred Years’ War and notable as the first time in the war that the English had won a victory while attacking rather than defending.
Strategically, however, the English intervention in Spain would prove disastrous. Pedro, living up to his nickname, alienated himself from Edward with his unchivalrous behavior, killing several high-ranking prisoners of war. Furthermore, it soon became clear that he had no intention of repaying any of the war debt he had amassed at Edward’s expense. The Black Prince soon marched back to France in disgust. Within two years of Nájera, Pedro the Cruel would be deposed, with French help, by Enrique, who would personally kill his half-brother and crown himself Henry II of Castile (1334-1379).
Meanwhile, Prince Edward had raised taxes on his French possessions to ruinous levels in an effort to pay off the debts that Pedro had shirked. This turn of events led his French subjects to petition Charles V, king of France, to depose Edward, thus leading to a renewal of hostilities in the Hundred Years’ War to France’s benefit.
Prince Edward himself would die while still relatively young, victim of a lingering disease, most likely dysentery picked up during his Nájera campaign. Thus, intervention in Castile, while resulting in a brilliant tactical victory, would indirectly cost the English nearly all their French gains as well as one of their most successful and beloved military leaders, losses that would not be offset until the rise of Henry V a generation later.
The Battle of Agincourt, fought on October 22, 1415, was one of the most remarkable victories of the Hundred Years’ War and was the finest hour for the English in the whole of that long conflict. Vastly outnumbered, tired, and stricken with disease, the English managed to not only emerge victorious over the French army arrayed against them, but very nearly brought down the French aristocracy and monarchy in the process.
Invasion of France
Upon taking the throne in 1413, Henry V grew anxious to renew the stalled war against France. Even as he was stamping out conspiracies against him at home, Henry began assembling an invasion army.
The English army of the Hundred Years’ War had always been small and built around the country’s legendary archers, armed with the deadly longbow. Although consistently outnumbered and lacking in heavy cavalry, the English outfought their French opponents time and again. The army Henry assembled followed the pattern. Numbering seven or eight thousand men total, the army was dominated by archers and lightly armored mounted infantry, with only about a quarter of the army consisting of heavily armored knights.
The army landed at the French port city of Harfleur and immediately besieged it, a move that caught the French off guard. Nevertheless, Harfleur refused to surrender, and the English settled in for a long siege. The city was doomed from the start, as Henry’s invasion coincided nicely with what amounted to a civil war between rival French noble factions. The Count of Orléans, whose followers were called the Armagnacs, was jockeying for power against his cousin, the Duke of Burgundy, as the mad French king Charles VI slipped further and further into ineffective irrelevancy. This squabbling, combined with the surprise of the English invasion, delayed French response and meant that Harfleur could not expect a relief force. Cut off, the inhabitants had no choice but to surrender.
The March to Calais
Although the English had taken the city, they were crippled by a massive outbreak of an intestinal disease, most likely dysentery. Fully one-third of the army was in no shape to march. Henry, abandoning plans for a march on Paris, decided instead to march his army through enemy territory, making for the English-occupied city of Calais. Henry told his men to set aside provisions for an eight-day march.
Unfortunately for the English, the French had finally managed to muster an army and were ready to engage the invaders in battle. Led by the cream of French nobility and made up almost entirely of Armagnacs, the army began paralleling Henry, trying to get between him and Calais and forcing the English further and further inland.
On October 22, short of provisions and still stricken with disease, the English came up against the French army near the town of Agincourt on the road to Calais, only sixty miles away.
The French took up a position between two woods, their multitudinous knights arrayed in three divisions. On either flank, they deployed their Italian crossbowmen. Then they waited. Henry, who had about six thousand men under his command, was outnumbered by as much as six to one. He was also working against time, as his army was close to disintegration due to fatigue, hunger, and disease. To make matters worse, conditions were miserable. Autumn rains had turned the area into a muddy quagmire. The mud was thick and deep, making walking a tiresome exercise. Five centuries later, British soldiers fighting in the region at the Battle of the Somme would encounter similar difficulties. But the muddy conditions at Agincourt worked against the French as well, all the more due to the preponderance of heavily armored knights in their army.
Henry realized it was up to him to make the first move. He ordered his army forward between the two woods and to within bowshot range of the French. The English archers, protected by a row of sharpened stakes that they drove into the ground, began laying a murderous volume of arrow fire into the French ranks. Braving the hail of arrows, the first wave of French knights charged on horseback and were cut down. The arrow fire from the longbows plucked knights from their saddles and drove wounded horses into a frenzy, causing chaos. The sharpened stakes of the archers turned back those that reached the English line. The retreating horsemen plowed through a second wave of knights who were advancing on foot, sowing even more chaos.
The French charge had managed to further churn up the mud of the battlefield, which made the going difficult for the dismounted knights. Sinking in mud that was sometimes knee-deep, the French presented an easy target for the English archers. Nevertheless, their heavy armor allowed most of the Frenchmen to reach the English lines and begin pushing back the thinly stretched army, nearly killing King Henry in the crush of melee.
However, the French numbers also worked against them. Constrained by the woods on either side that narrowed as they approached the English lines, the French were soon packed in shoulder to shoulder, slogging through the sucking mud. At this point the English archers, taking up daggers and hand axes, fell upon the helpless French knights, stabbing through vulnerable gaps in their armor. Many French knights were killed or taken prisoner.
Aftermath of the Battle
Henry sent the prisoners to the rear with the baggage and awaited another French attack that never materialized. However, late in the day, rumors spread of a French flanking force attacking the baggage train, and Henry, concerned that the French army before him would renew its attack and that the prisoners in the rear would join in, ordered the slaughter of all French prisoners. By the time Henry decided the French threat had passed, about two-thirds of the French prisoners had been killed.
Despite this slaughter, the English had much to celebrate. Henry and his nobles would go on to collect vast ransoms on the French knights captured that day. The English had only lost a few hundred men, with only two nobles among that number. The French had lost many more, perhaps as many as ten thousand, many of whom had suffocated in the mud of the battlefield, crushed by their compatriots, rather than from an English arrow.
Agincourt decimated the French nobility. Among the dead were the commanding general, the Constable of France, the Admiral of France, three dukes, seven counts, ninety lords, and over fifteen hundred knights. The sacred oriflamme, a French banner of victory that had been taken from the Abbey of St-Denis and brought to the battle, was lost, ground into the mud somewhere on the field.
The French very nearly lost their kingdom after Agincourt. Henry, after a second campaign, secured a promise to the throne of France but then died before he could make good on the claim. Only the emergence of Joan of Arc as a moral and military leader fifteen years after Agincourt saved the Kingdom of France in the end.
The Siege of Orléans, which lasted from October 1428 to May 1429, was the turning point of the last phase of the Hundred Years’ War. The English suffered their first major reversal since Agincourt and the loss of a key ally. Most importantly, the end of the siege saw the French cause reignited under the leadership of Joan of Arc, who earned her nickname, “The Maid of Orléans,” at this battle.
The Political Situation
By 1428, things looked quite grim for the French cause. Henry V had secured the promise of the French crown in 1422 but had died before that promise could be fulfilled. When the mad French King Charles VI soon followed Henry to the grave, the crown of France, by the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, was due to fall to Henry’s infant son, Henry VI. There were many in France, however, who did not feel that a treaty signed with a mad king constituted a binding promise, and who instead pledged support to the Dauphin, or crown prince, of France.
The English directly controlled all of northern France, including Paris. Furthermore, they were allied with the Burgundians, one of two French factions that began vying for power during Charles VI’s ineffectual reign. This left central France south of the Loire River in the hands of the Dauphin and his supporters. In 1428, the English decided to march south and secure the infant Henry’s legacy. The future of France would hang on the outcome of this campaign.
The immediate target for the English was Orléans, a city of forty thousand people, situated along the Loire River. Its capture would provide an ideal base of operations for further expeditions into the economically important provinces to the south. The English force that marched towards Orléans was ten thousand strong. Led by the popular Earl of Salisbury, it consisted mostly of troops from England and Normandy. After taking the towns surrounding the city and providing for their garrisons, there were only about four thousand Englishmen left to besiege Orléans itself.
The city sat on the north bank of the Loire, connected to the south bank by a quarter-mile long bridge. The garrison within Orléans was perhaps six hundred strong, made up of experienced veterans willing to sit out a long siege, bolstered by a large contingent of citizen militia.
The Siege Begins
The siege began with an assault on the southern end of the Loire bridge, which was guarded by a massive gatehouse/fortress known as Les Tourelles. The French defenders withdrew into the city, destroying a portion of the bridge as they went. The Earl of Salisbury moved in, converting Les Tourelles into his headquarters. Lacking the men to surround the city, the English began constructing a series of small forts, concentrated to the south and west of the city, but also including the reinforced abbey of Saint Loup a mile east of the city. Using these forts as anchor points, the English set up a blockade, attempting to keep supplies from reaching the inhabitants behind the thick city walls. Meanwhile, those very walls were subjected to constant bombardment from English cannons. For example, on October 17 alone, 124 stone balls were fired at Orléans.
The English were not the only ones with cannons, though. In fact, it was a French cannonball that spelled doom for the Earl of Salisbury, who had half his face sheared off by flying debris kicked up by a ball that struck Les Tourelles in the last week of October. He died a week later, much to the dismay of the entire English army, which ceased active operations for a month. Sir William Glasdale eventually took his place as commander, but the Earl could not be replaced in the hearts of his troops.
Despite the loss of Salisbury, the siege seemed to be going in England’s favor as the year came to a close. Although some supplies were getting through the blockade—along with six hundred reinforcements in November—it was not enough, and the inhabitants of Orléans were beginning to feel the strain.
The Siege Turns in France’s Favor
The first real break for the French came when the Burgundians deserted their English allies. The citizens of Orléans had offered to surrender themselves to Burgundian control. The English overruled this, driving a major rift into their alliance in the process. The departure of the Burgundians further weakened the English blockade of the city. On April 29, 1429, one of the most remarkable personages of the Hundred Years’ War slipped through this ineffectual perimeter, accompanied by a small unit of soldiers.
The teenaged girl was Joan of Arc, and she had come from a province on the eastern edge of France, guided by voices only she could hear. Appealing to the Dauphin to lift the siege, she was allowed to accompany a small relief force bearing supplies to the besieged city. Word of her approach emboldened those within the walls of Orléans, as for some years, stories had been circulating in the country that a maiden in armor would emerge as the savior of France. Her arrival in the city, dressed in a full suit of white steel armor and bearing a white banner, was met with cheers and adulation.
The Maid of Orléans
Joan did not lack for confidence. Believing herself to be acting on a divinely mandated mission, she sent a letter to the English before her departure for Orléans, warning them to raise the siege or suffer the consequences. Once in the city, she immediately began pressing for attacks on the English positions. She personally scouted out the enemy fortifications from the battlements of the city, at one point exchanging a shouted conversation with Glasdale himself.
Notified of a diversionary French attack on the English stronghold at Saint Loup, Joan led a unit of citizen militia into the fight, turning the skirmish into a full-blown battle that resulted in the English being routed from their positions. With the eastern approaches now open, more French troops began arriving at the city. Shortly thereafter, Joan and the French crossed the Loire and attacked the English positions outside Les Tourelles. By May 7, the French were ready to assault Les Tourelles itself. The fighting lasted all day. At one point, Joan was wounded when she was struck in the shoulder by an English arrow. After receiving treatment for the wound, she withdrew to the woods to pray. The French assault was nearly called off.
Returning from the woods, Joan argued to press the attack and made her way back into battle. The sight of her white banner advancing toward the fortress walls emboldened the French, who redoubled their efforts. By nightfall, the tower was in their hands, Sir William Glasdale drowned at the bottom of the Loire. The next day, the remaining English forces abandoned their fortifications and formed up for battle. The French also turned out in battle formation, but neither side advanced. Joan was for once reluctant to lead an attack, owing to the fact it was a Sunday. After an hour, the English withdrew to the north, leaving Orléans to the French.
The victory at Orléans was the beginning of the end of the Hundred Years’ War. The French army cleared the rest of the Loire Valley of English opposition, then marched on Rouen, taking the city and crowning the Dauphin as Charles VII. Paris was next to fall. The English claim on the French throne was broken for good.
The Battle of Castillon, fought on July 17, 1453, is considered the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War. A French victory, it marked the death of England’s great general John Talbot and the first use of massed artillery in battle.
The English, so long dominant in the Hundred Years’ War, had been on the defensive ever since their defeat at the Siege of Orléans in 1429. Despite the capture and execution of Joan of Arc, hero of Orléans, the French had found their cause renewed, driving the English out of northern France.
Invasion of Gascony
In 1451, they turned their attentions to Gascony, a territory that had been in English hands for three centuries. The French army swept through quickly, taking most towns without a fight. When Bordeaux, the capital of the territory, fell to the French, a letter was sent to England’s Henry VI asking for aid—most Gascons considered themselves more English than French.
In October 1452, an English army of three thousand men, led by the famous general John Talbot, landed near Bordeaux, which immediately opened its gates, ejecting the French garrison. Most of the other towns in Gascony did the same. In response to this renewed threat, the French King Charles VII raised three armies and marched them into Gascony in 1453. Talbot, meanwhile, received three thousand more reinforcements. When the main French army camped near the town of Castillon and prepared to lay siege to it, Talbot decided to march out from Bordeaux and meet them.
John Talbot was known for his rashness. In fact, it was his lighting attacks and recklessness in battle that had brought him most of his victories. This time, however, it would be his undoing.
The French Artillery Park
The French army consisted of about seven thousand men and three hundred guns. It is likely that most of these guns were large, two-man handguns, as opposed to massive siege cannon, but this concentration of firepower was still quite unusual at the time. The French had camped outside Castillon, fortifying their position when they heard of the English approach. Despite their recent victories, England’s long history of battlefield dominance tended to dictate a cautious French approach. The fortified camp was situated between a river and a dry streambed. The wall of the camp followed the meandering course of the streambed, providing an ideal defensive setup.
Talbot, meanwhile, had personally led his mounted troops, about thirteen hundred strong, ahead of the main army on their approach to Castillon. Hoping to catch the French off-guard, the English cavalry marched through the night, arriving near the town before morning and scattering a unit of French archers. The English then took a well-deserved rest in the woods, waiting for the rest of the army to catch up.
Talbot’s Rush to Battle
As the sun rose on July 17, Talbot received word that the French were retreating. A large dust cloud rising up near the town seemed to confirm this. Eager to strike while the army was in disarray, Talbot ordered his men to mount up. The English cavalry arrived at the French camp to find it still in arms. The dust cloud and reports of retreat were both due to a column of camp followers who had been asked to leave in the face of the coming battle.
After his capture at the Battle of Patay in 1429, John Talbot had taken a solemn oath that he would never again personally don armor and stand in battle against France. True to his chivalric code, Talbot was unarmored and did not participate in the forthcoming battle. He ordered his men to dismount and assault the camp, despite the fact that the French clearly were not retreating.
In the first demonstration of the effectiveness of massed artillery in Western Europe, the English assault was torn to pieces by the French guns. The irregular line of the French palisade, constructed along the dry stream, only added to the effectiveness of the guns as the English drew closer to the wall—the cannons were able to shoot down the length of the English lines, a concept known as “enfilading fire.” The remainder of the English army had begun to arrive on the field, but this only ensured that more units were shot up as they joined the assault one at a time. Despite some fierce fighting at the palisade, the English routed after an hour of battle when a unit of Breton cavalry charged into their flank.
During the rout, a cannonball killed Talbot’s horse and the venerable English general was pinned under the carcass. A French archer, hot on the heels of the retreating English, recognized him and dispatched him with a hatchet blow to the head.
End of an Age
Both sides mourned Talbot’s death—he was considered the greatest general of his age, and a worthy foe for the French. Today, despite the battle’s significance for the French cause, the sole monument at Castillon is a statue commemorating John Talbot.
Gascony fell under French rule for good. With the sole exception of the coastal city of Calais, all of France was under Charles VII’s rule. Castillon marked the effective end of the Hundred Years’ War. It also heralded the ascendancy of the gun, just as Crécy had heralded the age of the longbow. The age of modern warfare had begun.
Key Elements of Warcraft
There are few images more evocative of the Middle Ages than the mighty castle perched atop a hill, master of all it surveys. That is no accident of history. The castle played an integral role in medieval politics and warfare and dominated the European countryside for over six centuries.
The evolution of the castle began with a need to combine a military fortress with a noble lord’s residence. In the wake of the collapse of the empire of Charlemagne in the ninth century and the attendant invasions of Vikings, Magyars, and Arabs, early medieval rulers found castles the ideal location from which to control their holdings. On a practical level, the castle provided shelter from marauding armies for the local lords and their subjects. Just as importantly, the castle projected strength and authority, standing as a reassuring beacon and endorsement of its owner’s importance.
The earliest castles were often made with timber, which was available in abundance and promised quick and cheap construction. These timber fastnesses most often took the form of the “motte and bailey”—an artificial mound, or motte, was raised fifteen to thirty feet high, upon which a tower surrounded by a wall was constructed. At the base of the motte was a separate walled bailey (a court inside a castle wall). The two were connected by a bridge or walkway. Although practical, these timber motte and bailey designs had many weaknesses, not the least of which was their wooden construction, which was obviously quite vulnerable to fire. Furthermore, the motte could be easily isolated from the bailey and vice-versa—they were not mutually supportive.
The next phase in castle evolution saw the appearance of the stone keep—a square or rectangular tower—a miniature castle in its own right usually encircled by a stone wall. As castle building increased through the twelfth century, France and England emerged as the primary castle-building countries. France in particular, as well as the neighboring region of Flanders, had the highest concentration of castles, a reflection of the lack of central authority in the region, as well as the many wars fought there, culminating in the anarchy and devastation of the Hundred Years’ War.
Krak des Chevaliers: The Model Castle
The art of castle building was actually perfected far from Europe. The Crusades brought Western armies into contact with the region that boasted the world’s oldest fortified structures, and it was in the Near East that the Europeans built some of their greatest castles, learning lessons from the massive fortifications at cities such as Constantinople and Antioch, whose walls were so extensive that the besieging Crusaders could not totally surround the city.
Built by the military order of the Knights of St. John of the Hospital (or the Knights Hospitaler for short), Krak des Chevaliers stands as the purest expression of medieval fortification technology and served as a model for later castles built in Europe, especially during Edward I’s conquest of Wales.
Situated on a great natural outcropping, Krak utilized the latest castle design, which eliminated the central keep and instead consisted of two great concentric rings of curtain walls. The inner wall was built higher than the outer wall, so that defenders on both walls could fire arrows and missiles at attackers. Krak boasted walls one hundred feet thick, which were studded with great round towers. The castle was surrounded by a great moat and was only accessible via a long exposed bridge that spanned the moat. The spaces between the curtain walls—called baileys—were filled with everything necessary for a garrison of two thousand soldiers to withstand a five-year siege, from great stables to a massive pantry and water supply. In the end, Krak fell to the Muslims, not through siege but through trickery.
Castles during Wartime
Indeed, the greatest weakness of castles, especially by the time of the Hundred Years’ War, was often their garrisons, or rather the lack thereof. Keeping castles full of soldiers year-round was a costly endeavor, and it was not unusual for castles to host only a skeleton crew except in times of war.
A fully garrisoned castle was a serious menace for the prospective medieval conqueror, and this explains why the vast majority of conflicts in the Middle Ages were not open battles but sieges. Henry V, despite his stunning victory at Agincourt in 1415, did not force the French to the negotiating table until he had managed to successfully besiege and take most of the important castle-towns in northern France over the course of a nearly five-year campaign. The medieval general who ignored such a strategy did so at his peril, as leaving a castle full of enemy combatants behind him was to invite disaster in the form of raids and severed supply lines.
The end of the Hundred Years’ War was also the beginning of the end for the castle as fortress-residence. The coming of the cannon, which Henry V used to such great effect in his second French campaign, brought the towering walls of the castle tumbling down to be replaced by squat gun-fortresses. Lords and their retinues, meanwhile, moved their living quarters to less Spartan accommodations and left defense of their realm to professional armies. After six centuries of dominance, the castle’s time had at last come to a close.
Siege technology in the Middle Ages was not much different from that of ages past with one important exception: the trebuchet. Representing the height of pre-gunpowder siege technology, capable of bringing down castle walls with its unique combination of sheer power and pinpoint accuracy, the trebuchet was so effective that it continued to find use in sieges well into the age of the cannon.
Construction and Use
The trebuchet, seemingly a complex machine, has an elegant simplicity about it. In essence it acts as a giant slingshot. A long beam pivots on tall posts—at one end is a sling containing the object to be hurled, at the other end is the counter-weight to propel the beam forward. The motion of the beam, combined with the length of the sling harness, fires the trebuchet’s payload in a high arc for a considerable distance.
The trebuchet’s name derives from the Old French trebucher, “to throw over,” and this indicates one of its original uses. Developed by the Arabs, the first trebuchets were man-powered, utilizing a team of anywhere from forty to 250 men to provide the “counter-weight” action. Thus, they could only throw relatively light objects, which, combined with the trebuchet’s high arc of fire, could be lofted over tall city or castle walls. These light payloads would often take the form of flaming missiles (to start fires) or parts of dead animals or enemies (to sow terror and spread disease). It is thought that the Black Death came to Europe with the use of trebuchets as machines of germ warfare. The Genoese defenders of Kaffa, on the Crimean peninsula, were exposed to plague victims lofted into the city by their Mongolian besiegers. When the siege was lifted in 1347, the Genoese returned home, bringing the plague with them.
Thanks to the Crusades, the trebuchet was finding use in the West by the twelfth century. There they quickly developed in size and sophistication, acquiring a new application in the process as engines of destruction. The new trebuchets were powered not by a team of heaving men, but by a large weight, most often a bucket filled with up to fifteen tons of rocks or lead weights. These new generation trebuchets were thus necessarily huge—they had to be to accommodate the massive counterweights. The sling harnesses were also lengthened, resting in a channel beneath the machine itself.
The greater weight added speed and distance, the longer harness added accuracy. Additionally, the new trebuchets could handle much larger payloads. The Dauphin of France, for example, commissioned a trebuchet in 1421 that could fire four hundred-pound stones. The trebuchet came into its own as siege engine, capable of bringing down castle walls with concentrated fire.
An experienced trebuchet crew could manage an impressive rate of fire. At the siege of Kenilworth in 1266, in which both the besiegers and the besieged were firing stones at each other, it was said that so many missiles were in the air at once that it was not uncommon to see enemy stones colliding in mid-air.
The main disadvantage of the trebuchet lay in the resources it consumed, namely in wood. While on crusade in 1249, St. Louis of France captured twenty-four enemy engines. They provided enough wood to build a wooden stockade around his entire encampment. The other disadvantage of the trebuchet lay in its great size—they made excellent targets for enemy trebuchets and, later, cannons.
Decline of the Trebuchet
The advent of the cannon did eventually doom the trebuchet. Smaller and more easily managed—not to mention portable—while still packing a comparable destructive impact, the cannon quickly became the late medieval siegemaster’s weapon of choice.
Nevertheless, the trebuchet did not go quietly. Until nearly the sixteenth century, the trebuchet was still unmatched for accuracy and rate of fire, and was used alongside cannons as late as the siege of Burgos in the late 1470s, long after cannons had become a common sight on the battlefield.
The concept of chivalry has its roots in the tales of minstrels from the south of France. The greatest of these storytellers Chrétien de Troyes is generally credited with codifying chivalry in his tales of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail in the late twelfth century. The root of the word comes from the phrase chevalerie et clergie, a concept of justice, courage, and right conduct, as espoused by Chrétien and his many imitators.
Chivalry was also strongly influenced by the medieval knights’ intense interest in the long-past glory of Rome and its military triumphs. Translations of ancient Roman military writers such as Vegetius, which also first appeared in the twelfth century, were widely read and copied. Christine de Pizan, writing in the fifteenth century, strongly influenced Henry V with her combination of ancient Roman and contemporary chivalric ideals and their application to military endeavors.
Prior to the popularization of chivalry, knights were often little more than armored thugs, descendants of the barbarian hordes who had overrun the Western Roman Empire and ushered in the so-called “Dark Ages.” Chivalry gave these warriors something higher to aspire to, and exerted a civilizing influence upon them by promoting a code that emphasized honor, justice, and reverence for God.
The chivalrous knight took his duties with the utmost seriousness. To him, the nobleman was obligated to protect those weaker than him, namely women and the lower classes. The ideals of chivalry included honesty at all times, even when it would harm the knight, kindness in peace, honor in war, respect for the gentler aspects of Christianity (such as mercy and charity for the poor), as well as valor and courage in every deed. Another concept chivalry helped usher in was the idea of romantic love.
The concept of “courtly love,” which had evolved independently in southern France starting in the eleventh century, was soon integrated into the overall concept of chivalry. In its purest form, courtly love was a contradictory balance of lust and denial. The ideal scenario played out with the smitten knight committing acts in the name of a lady who might not even be aware of his existence.
On a more practical level, courtly love introduced the idea of romance into the hard-bitten knight’s life. Reciting poems, singing songs, and other such romantic gestures were increasingly seen as proper chivalric behavior. When “the Black Prince” Edward, widely regarded at the time as one of the greatest paragons of chivalry, married for love rather than political gain, he caused a sensation across Europe.
Although most knights failed to live up to every ideal of chivalry, there were many who tried during the closing centuries of the Middle Ages. Those who were acclaimed as “right chivalrous knights,” knights like Prince Edward and his implacable foe, Bertrand du Guesclin, earned international fame for their adherence to the strict code. It was not just lip service, either—battles and even whole wars were won and lost over considerations of proper chivalrous behavior as knights adhered to a code that virtually guaranteed occasional conflicts of interest.
For example, du Guesclin was captured in battle with the English several times but was always released upon payment of a ransom, free to return to France and continue leading armies. After the Black Prince captured him at Nájera in 1367, du Guesclin paid his ransom and was back in Castile within two years, where he successfully backed the future Henry II in deposing the English favorite, Pedro the Cruel, who had only won his crown after Prince Edward’s victory at Nájera. Thus, proper observance of chivalric code helped negate one of the greatest English victories in the Hundred Years’ War.
Longbows and Crossbows
The Hundred Years’ War saw key developments in the technology of medieval warfare as different weapons systems met in battle and long-cherished assumptions were forced to change in the face of cold results.
Nowhere was this process more apparent than in the ascendancy of the English longbow and the archer who wielded it, especially when contrasted with the ubiquitous crossbow.
Made famous by the Welsh, the longbow quickly made its way into the ranks of the English army. The weapon’s use was unique to the region and gave the English a powerful advantage against their continental enemies.
The longbow was aptly named, measuring about six feet in length from end to end. The bow itself was deceptively simple in its design, being carved from a single piece of wood, preferably yew, although ash and elm could substitute. The bow had a “D shaped” cross-section with a flat back and curved front that provided both strength and flexibility.
As the bow could be strung in mere seconds, it was usually kept unstrung until just before battle. In wet conditions, the bow would be protected with a leather sheath while the bowstring would be rolled up and stowed in a dry place, oftentimes under the archer’s hat. The ability to keep both bow and string dry even in wet weather added to the tactical flexibility of the English archer in battle, as the crossbow, which could not be unstrung and was constructed of composite materials, any of which could warp or bend, was extremely susceptible to inclement weather.
In addition to its tactical flexibility, the longbow’s great strength lay in its ability to send arrows farther faster and with more hitting power than any other bow in use at the time. Capable of sending its missile up to four hundred yards, the longbow was most effective out to about half that range. Within fifty yards, the longbow was capable of piercing even the sturdiest steel plate armor. These range brackets may seem slight, but keep in mind that the range of firearms was almost identical until about the mid-nineteenth century.
Because the power of the bow ultimately depended on the strength of the user, England put a premium on archery training, requiring every common man and boy in the kingdom by law to devote time to practice with the bow. One of the reasons the longbow never spread to the continent was due to the reluctance of French nobles to train their peasantry in the use of weapons for fear of armed insurrection.
A fully trained English longbowman could loft ten or twelve arrows per minute. Thus, a full unit of archers could easily create a veritable storm of arrows raining down from the sky, as at Crécy and Agincourt.
In contrast, the longbow’s main competitor, the crossbow, boasted a paltry rate of fire of no more than two or three arrows (or “bolts” as they were called) per minute. However, the crossbow did not require a lifetime of training to use effectively and could send a missile at least as far as an arrow from a longbow. Additionally, the crossbow’s penetrating power was second to none. As such, despite the dominance of the English longbow, continental armies continued to employ the crossbow in war in units both mounted and on foot. The crossbow was also a favorite among European nobility as a hunting weapon.
Archers in Battle
Throughout the course of the Hundred Years’ War, archers and crossbowmen were seen in the conventional military wisdom of the day as secondary to the glorious knights, who were thought to be unstoppable. The French use of crossbowmen over the course of the war betrays this prejudice, as at Crécy when the French knights rode over and through their own crossbow units in a rush to get to grips with the enemy, or at Agincourt where the crossbowmen were deployed so far off to the side and rear as to render their presence ineffectual.
The fact that the English understood and appreciated the value of the longbow in battle and afforded their archers primary place in battle was the secret to their repeated military success, despite operating in an often hostile land and almost always outnumbered. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War, the primacy of the knight had waned. The humble archer had brought down the knight in the shining armor, who was never to rise again.
Full Steel-plate Armor
The Hundred Years’ War witnessed major developments in the technology and methodology of warfare. The English longbow proved its deadly effectiveness on the battlefield, defeating the previously unstoppable armored knight. Armor technology responded in kind by reaching new heights of sophistication and protection, which, although unable to completely insulate its wearer against the threats of the fifteenth century battlefield, offered unprecedented protection. The full suit of steel plate armor represented the zenith of the medieval armorer’s art.
For most of the Middle Ages, a suit of chain mail, armor made up of small interlocking metal rings, protected the knight in battle. By the start of the Hundred Years’ War, armorers had begun to add steel plates over the extremities and torso. Although these innovations increased the protective qualities of the armor, they also increased the weight, which had been heavy and cumbersome to begin with.
By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the hybrid plate and chain design had been replaced by a sophisticated suit of armor, consisting almost entirely of steel plates. Called “white armor” due to its brilliant finish, the new full plate suits were custom fitted and fully articulated, granting their wearer a high degree of movement and flexibility. Their weight—sixty to eighty pounds—was comparable to the load carried by a modern infantryman, and the image of a fully armored knight struggling to mount his horse unaided is nothing more than a myth. In fact, many knights of the period would demonstrate their fitness and agility by vaulting into the saddle while fully armored.
The armor consisted of a fitted breast and back plate that hinged on the left side and buckled on the right. Arm and leg pieces were attached in a similar manner. It was actually impossible for a knight to don the armor himself. Helping his lord armor up before battle was one of a squire’s main duties. Some chain mail remained, protecting flexion points where rigid plate would encumber its wearer too much, such as at the elbow, armpit, and groin. Additionally, the knight would wear a padded jerkin under his armor, both to prevent chafing against the metal and to help cushion the impact of blows.
So effective was the new armor that shields—which had been the knight’s primary method of displaying his heraldic crests—soon became obsolete. As a result, knights would wear “coats of arms” displaying their crests that served as an identifier for the otherwise anonymous knight encased inside his metal shell. Prominent display of a knight’s heraldry also signaled to a potential captor in battle that the knight was someone of importance and would be better taken prisoner rather than killed outright.
Much of a knight’s anonymity in battle was due to his helmet, which often completely concealed his face. In contrast to the rest of the suit of full plate armor, the helmet continued to prove problematic in design utility. The issue was as old as the concept: how to provide maximum protection to the head and face while still allowing full use of the senses, vital to survival on the battlefield.
As it was, two helmet designs predominated. First was the bascinet, a design so common that soldiers were often referred to as such. For example, a chronicler might make reference to “eight thousand bascinets marching under the king’s banner.” Close-fitting and boasting a pointed top—the better to deflect blows and arrows coming in from above—it came in both open- and closed-face designs. Much more encumbering, but offering a similar increase in protection, was the great helm, which, as the name implies, covered the entirety of the head in a secure metal sheath. At Agincourt in 1415, the English King Henry V was saved from a mortal blow by his great helm.
It was at Agincourt that the advantages and drawbacks of the new armor were put to the test. The French knights, forced to dismount due to a muddy field, engaged the feared English longbowmen in a frontal assault. Their slow slog across the morass that separated them from the English allowed ample time for the longbows to unleash a deadly storm of arrows, yet most of the French knights were able to reach the English lines, protected by their superior armor. Yet it was also this armor that cost many knights their lives that day, as the mud—knee-deep in places—pulled knights down, exhausted and unable to rise again, thanks to their heavy kit. Untold hundreds, if not thousands of knights drowned in the mud at Agincourt.
Impact of the Hundred Years’ War
Although it is easy to view the Hundred Years’ War as a series of set-piece battles and peace treaties, it has much greater implications that continue to reverberate to this day. Politically, the Hundred Years’ War marked the birth of nationalism on both sides of the conflict and the creation of centralized government in France. Militarily, the war corresponds to the decline of the knight and the dominance of the longbow, outlasting that much-feared weapon just long enough to see the beginning of modern warfare in the form of professional armies and massed ranks of guns.
The Hundred Years’ War was the most devastating pre-industrial war by far. It spilled over to include conflicts in Spain and witnessed the death of untold numbers of combatants and civilians due to battle, disease, and famine. The course of the war saw not only bloody battles and disease-ridden sieges, but also the horrors of plague, the depredations of the Free Companies, and the bloody uprising of the Jacquerie.
The battles should not be overlooked, for the deaths tallied in the course of fighting were often to have the farthest-reaching effects. For example, one of the reasons that France was able to coalesce as a unified nation at war’s end was due to the fact that so many of the country’s semi-independent nobles had died in battle, particularly at Agincourt in 1415.
It was the great French defeats at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt that spelled the end of the dominance of the mounted knight on the battlefield. The power of massed missile fire, first from the longbow and later from the handgun, trumped the once-invincible chevalier (member of the French Legion of Honor or a French knight) and raised the lowly infantryman up to the level he enjoys today. Never again would cavalry dominate the battlefield.
Nationalism has a rather negative connotation these days, but as it emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was generally a positive force that encouraged the growth of English culture and gave the beleaguered French something to believe in.
The war forced the two countries, united in language and culture since the days of William the Conqueror, to forge their own identities. England, for example, stopped using French as its official court language during the course of the war. France, long a collection of semi-autonomous fiefdoms, became a unified nation, and the king, “first among equals” for much of the Middle Ages, began to take on greater and greater authority, culminating in the absolute monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which in turn led to the French Revolution.
France, in responding to the crisis of the war, could only survive by forming an effective infrastructure. By the war’s end, the country had developed an efficient and lucrative taxation system and fielded the first standing army in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. This newfound nationalism, power, and military might propelled France to dominance in European wars and politics for the next four centuries.
England, meanwhile, by withdrawing from continental politics, began to form its contemporary identity, seeing itself as not wholly part of Europe. With a common language and homeland, a sense of what it meant to be “English” quickly developed. It is no accident that Shakespeare would later choose Henry V as his mouthpiece of English patriotism.
In fact, it was Henry’s stirring words, as imagined by Shakespeare, that gave the English hope when they stood alone against Germany in World War II. As for the French, the emergence of Joan of Arc as national cult hero in the nineteenth century gave the nation a reason for hope during the dark days of the First World War and the even darker days of Nazi occupation from 1940-1944.
The heroes of the Hundred Years’ War continue to inspire us to this day. The histories of England, France, and even Spain were inexorably changed by the crucible of the war. The countries that emerged from the conflict would go on to shape the course of civilizations around the world. For good and for ill, the Hundred Years’ War has had a profound effect on global history.