What Hundred Years War?

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Ian Mortimer | Published in History Today Volume: 59 Issue 10

By challenging the very idea of a continuous Anglo-French medieval war Ian Mortimer reveals the remarkable complexities of a series of distinct conflicts that began with a prophecy and ended with an English dynasty seeking the approval of God.

Everyone knows that the Hundred Years War was a protracted series of conflicts between England and France that took place in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was characterised by the claim of the kings of England also to be kings of France by right of inheritance through Isabella of France (c. 1296-1358), mother of Edward III (r. 1327-77) and the last surviving child of Philip the Fair (r. 1285-1314). But while such a description might suffice for an encyclopaedia, it is laden with problems. What did the protagonists seek? Who were the combatants? What did they have in common and what divided them? What gave the war as a whole its integrity? Is the idea of a single ‘war’ anything more than a historiographical myth?
The problems start to emerge when considering the possible dates for the start and end of the ‘war’. Some authors confidently assert that it began with the first battle at Cadsand in November 1337, when English forces attacked an undefended Flemish community near Sluys. Others, characterising the war as a struggle over control of the Duchy of Aquitaine, point to the French confiscation of the duchy earlier that same year. Others still, seeing the war’s principle motivation as the English claim to the throne of France, state that it began when Edward III assumed the French title in 1340. But, if the war is really to be characterised by Edward’s claim to the French throne, his first moves in this direction were made as early as 1328 on the death of his uncle, Charles the Fair. And as for disputes over Aquitaine, these began even earlier, in the two previous reigns.

Thus we may postulate a range of dates for the start of the war, depending on how we define it. A similar vagueness applies to its end. If the war was principally about the Duchy of Aquitaine, then its conquest by Charles VII of France in 1453 surely marks its terminal point. However, if it was about English conquests in France, then one has to note that Calais, the last remaining English conquest of the war, remained in English hands until 1558. If we define the war in terms of the pretensions of the kings of England to be kings of France, then we are all at sea, for English kings maintained this for centuries. George III claimed to be king of France even after the French Revolution had decapitated Louis XVI. In this last, least helpful sense, the war lasted for more than 450 years!
Some would say that these objections are mere technicalities. We know what we mean when we use the term Hundred Years War. However, the concept of a single conflict leads to grave misunderstandings of the events of these years and the characters involved, especially in the latter half of the period. It conceals separate motives and developments within an artificial unity which cannot be applied to the whole hundred years. You only have to picture historians giving a similar name – say, the ‘Seventy-Five Years War’ – to the ongoing conflict between France and Germany, lasting from the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, to realise the inappropriate nature of a series of wars collectively referred to as one. Such artificial long wars might be characterised by two nations’ mutual suspicions of one another, by periods of outright and brutal hostility and repeated occupations of one nation by the armies of the other; but a single term is absurd, for all the phases do not hang together as one single conflict. A composite war neglects the different reasons for fighting, the different political forces, the other participants, the shifting fields of conflict and the changing popular support for the separate wars which form the whole.

So why do we lump all the Anglo-French conflicts between 1337 and 1453 under one heading? The short answer is that that is how the war appeared from a French perspective. According to historian Anne Curry, the first known written reference to the guerre de cent ans is dated 1823 and it was rapidly taken up by other French historians later in the 19th century. For Frenchmen of that time the dates 1337 and 1453 embraced a war which had an integrity: the former seemed to mark the arrival of hostile English troops on French soil and the latter marked their departure. The continued English possession of Calais after 1453 proved irrelevant, despite Edward IV’s and Henry VIII’s expeditions in northern France. The fact that the English kings maintained their claim to be kings of France after 1453 was just verbiage.

The idea of the Hundred Years War is thus a retrospective one, based on historical observations of the protracted English military presence on French soil. The concept implies a sense of ‘otherness’ about the English troops in France in these years. In the 19th century the respective national borders were well-established; there were no English possessions in France; and so the presence of English armies fighting on French soil seemed distinctive. This was not the case at the time. In 1337 troops loyal to the English kings had been continually present in France for over 150 years in the Duchy of Aquitaine, which passed to the kings of England as a result of the marriage of Henry II (r. 1154-89) to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Nor had these troops always been idle. Conflicts had broken out over English control of areas of France in the early 13th century and Edward I (r. 1272-1307) developed a series of alliances against the king of France in the 1290s, which foreshadowed that developed by Edward III in 1338. The issue of absolute or sovereign control of Aquitaine had led to Anglo-French fighting in 1324, in the War of Saint-Sardos. Therefore, from a medieval perspective, the English attack in 1337 was not of such distinctive character as it appeared to historians in the 19th century. 

Phases of warfare
Although modern historians still regularly refer to the Hundred Years War and continue to produce books with that over-arching title, in reality they normally distinguish four or five main periods of conflict. The first was the war which broke out between Edward III and Philip VI of France (r. 1328-50) over the course of the 1330s, which ended in 1360. The second was the French reprisal war lasting from 1369 to 1389. The third was a period of small-scale naval and coastal hostilities following the accession of Henry IV (r. 1399-1413), occasionally described as the Piracy War; and the fourth was the full-blown Lancastrian war, a series of campaigns in France starting in 1412. This last phase of the ‘war’, which saw the English forced to give up all their possessions in France except Calais, is sometimes further divided, with the siege of Orléans in 1428-9 being seen as a turning point, following which the English were in retreat. Each of these phases needs to be examined in order to understand how it relates – or does not relate – to the concept of a single Hundred Years War.
Edward III’s war with Philip VI of France, perhaps best described as a war of rivalry, did not begin as an Anglo-French conflict. The catalyst was Scotland, which had been engaged on and off in a war with England for decades. An early 14th-century prophecy foretold that Edward III would be a great boar who would ‘sharpen his teeth on the gates of Paris’, ‘regain all the lands which his forefathers had lost’ and bear three crowns. This set young Edward on a war of aggression, looking first to recover sovereignty over Scotland, which his grandfather Edward I had claimed. He gained a crushing victory over the Scots at Halidon Hill in July 1333. His later Scottish campaigns drew in the French, allies of the Scots, and the French strengthened their antipathy to Edward by sheltering the young David II, son of Robert Bruce. The French fleet started attacking English ports and shipping in 1336 and Philip declared he would send troops to help the Scots. It was a sensible policy: to curtail the ambitions of the aggressive young English king by forcing him to fight a war on two fronts. Hostilities were already under way when Philip confiscated the Duchy of Aquitaine in 1337.

Having said that, the prophecy which Edward was trying to live up to declared that he would reconquer all the lost territories of his ancestors. This amounted to the entire Angevin empire, so it was perhaps inevitable that Edward would turn his attention to France. Early skirmishes were followed by a campaign in France in 1338-40. The alliances deemed strategically necessary at this juncture meant it was expedient for Edward to claim to be king of France in 1340 in order to secure the support of the Flemish, who stood to be fined heavily if they broke their oaths of allegiance to the king of France. Thus Edward’s claim on the French throne was a by-product of the conflict: a diplomatic weapon which, when he had used it to its maximum advantage, he was prepared to give up (as he eventually did). From 1340 Edward and his principal commanders won a string of significant victories against the French: at Sluys (1340), Morlaix (1342), Auberoche (1345), Aiguillon (1345), Crécy (1346) and Calais (1347), as well as against the Scots at Neville’s Cross (1346). Further battles against the French at Calais (1349), in the Channel, off Winchelsea (1350, against a Castilian fleet), at Mauron (1352) and Poitiers (1356) all went England’s way. By the time of Edward’s campaign in northern France in 1359-60 he had the kings of both France and Scotland in his custody. In 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny saw him give up his claim to the throne of France in return for the Angevin empire, the lands which his ancestors had held in France. With that his ambitions were satisfied and the war was over. Those English armies which continued to ravage French territory did so as unauthorised plunderers.

If the French government had ratified the Treaty of Brétigny and if John II (r. 1350-64) had not died in English custody the ‘Hundred Years War’ might have ended there. Edward III’s 30-year struggle to live up to his prophesied greatness had come to an end. However, the French did not ratify the treaty and so after a period of time another war started, whereby the French sought to reclaim their losses. The reason for regarding this as a wholly different war is that it was not carried on in pursuit of Edward III’s martial ambitions; indeed, it was not an English initiative at all. Nor did it involve Scotland in the same way as before. This time the catalyst to Anglo-French hostilities was the two kingdoms’ support for opposing sides in the Castilian civil war between Pedro the Cruel (supported by the English) and Enrique de Trastámara (backed by the French). At Nájera in 1367 the Black Prince, Edward’s eldest son, won a stunning victory but left himself hopelessly in debt and was forced to impose high taxes on the Duchy of Aquitaine. The Count of Armagnac and Lord d’Albret muttered about turning against the prince and Charles V of France saw an opportunity to regain lands and prestige at the expense of the English. The conflict between 1369 and 1389 was thus a French initiative: an exploitation of the weakness of the English possessions. The English sent expeditionary forces to defend their lands but they could not rely on recently conquered French subjects to resist the French king; and so the strategic victories were nearly all with the French. By the time Edward III died in 1377 almost all his territorial gains in France had been lost.

Edward’s successor Richard II (r. 1377-99) was not a keen advocate of the war. English aristocratic opinion maintained that the conflict had to be continued, mainly to protect national pride and English interests in Aquitaine. Some English magnates, especially Thomas of Woodstock, youngest son of Edward III, saw the war as essential to preserving the dignity of the royal family. But there was no concerted will to recover the lands lost to the French. A Francophile, Richard II saw little point in leading an army into France. He half-heartedly led two expeditions against the Scots but sought a permanent peace with France. He obtained a 28-year truce in 1396, thus preserving the French gains.

The remaining phases of the Hundred Years War have a character quite unlike the first two. While superficially it is possible to say that Edward III’s war of conquest 1333-60 and the French reconquest 1369-89 were paralleled by the Lancastrian war of conquest of 1415-29 and a second French reconquest between 1429 and 1453, this would be to make the cardinal mistake of assuming the latter phases were fought for similar reasons to the earlier ones. They were not. The key to understanding this period lies in the vulnerability of the Lancastrian kings and how they saw themselves in relation to God. 

A question of royal legitimacy
When Henry IV ousted Richard II in 1399 he claimed the throne of England as the male heir to Henry III (r. 1216-72), not Edward III. Legal advice had persuaded him to ignore the entailment of Edward III, which settled the throne on his family, probably on account of the fact that it had been superseded by Richard II’s own entailment of the throne on the House of York. Henry’s advisers also persuaded him not to claim the throne by right of conquest. In reality his claim was substantiated by the fact that Parliament viewed him as the most desirable candidate in 1399: a proven crusader, jouster and soldier, in marked contrast to Richard II. So the majority elevated his claim over that of the eight-year-old Earl of March. Thus Henry IV and his successors took the titles of Edward III and Richard II: ‘King of England and France’. The problem was that Henry III, from whom they claimed the throne of England, had never been king of France. The fact that one of the royal titles they took (England) was questionable and the other (France) was completely without substance only made the question of royal legitimacy more pertinent. It became the major English political question of the 15th century.

The first rebellion Henry IV faced took place in early January 1400, when he had been on the throne just three months. Henry rode back into London afterwards declaring that he would ride further into France than his grandfather Edward III and the Black Prince had done. Thus, at the very outset of his reign, he equated victory in France with his legitimacy as king. Henry was prevented from actually fighting in France by the number of rebellions he faced in England; instead he allowed hostilities to resume unofficially through the Piracy War in which royal approval was tacitly given to the capture and plundering of French vessels by seafaring merchants such as Sir John Hawley of Dartmouth. Henry’s own martial energies and resources went into resisting Glyndwr’s rebellion in Wales and fighting those English magnates who questioned his rule. At Shrewsbury in 1403 he defeated the Percy family and saw in that victory a sign that God favoured him as king of England. This conviction that it was God’s will that he be king of England underpinned his later confidence, going so far as to execute the Archbishop of York, Richard Scrope, for leading a demonstration against him in 1405. Had Henry IV not fallen ill immediately afterwards, he would probably have led an army into France to prove that God favoured him. He declared his intention to do so on several occasions.
In 1412, the ailing Henry IV sent his second son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence into France with a substantial force of archers to fight for the Armagnacs against the Burgundians in the French civil war that had begun five years earlier. As it happened, the French patched up their differences and opposed their common enemy, the English. But Thomas took his army and marched down to Bordeaux, as instructed by his father, the king. Thus the Piracy War gave way to a new phase of outright campaigning. When Henry V (r. 1413-22) came to the throne he immediately set about preparing for a full-scale invasion. What he sought in France was a symbolic victory, a sign of God’s favour. If he could emulate Edward III and win a significant victory on French soil then the doubts about his right to claim the title ‘King of France’ would be silenced. By implication, any doubts about his right to be king of England would also be answered: by Henry’s own authority and by the demonstration of God’s will.

Henry V’s strategy was brilliant in one respect. He was able to prove his legitimacy in war while keeping the actual fighting and destruction on foreign soil. There was a problem, however; he had to carry on fighting to continue to prove himself as the recipient of God’s favour. He also had to be seen to pursue wholeheartedly the vision of himself as rightful king of France in God’s eyes. Therefore he institutionalised royal warfare. His war of legitimacy concerned his whole dynasty, therefore his successors had no option but to pursue the war too. It was only going to be a matter of time before the French gained some signal military victories; as soon as that happened, it cast doubts upon the Lancastrians as recipients of God’s favour.

The final stages of the Hundred Years War resulted from the Lancastrians seeking signs of divine approval through conflict. The setbacks which the English suffered in 1449 and 1450 led to difficult parliaments. The loss of the last English-held portion of Aquitaine in 1453 and the killing of the Earl of Shrewsbury led to a crisis of confidence in the Lancastrian government. In restarting the war in France as a matter of dynastic right, Henry V had mortgaged the future of the Lancastrian dynasty and with the final defeat at Castillon (1453), it was time to pay. That the defeat was soon followed by the mental and physical breakdown of Henry VI (r. 1422-61; 1470-1) was only seen as further confirmation that God no longer favoured the Lancastrian cause. As a result, the institutionalised warfare of Henry V’s time shifted back across the Channel and became a civil war. At St. Albans in 1455, the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of York led an army against the enfeebled Henry VI and killed the Duke of Somerset and other lords loyal to the king, declaring their intention of removing all such traitors from the king’s presence. The Wars of the Roses, of which this is usually considered the first battle, was thus a continuation of the lack of confidence in the Lancastrian government which had begun with demonstrable losses in France.

Not one war but three
It is in this light that it seems counterproductive to continue to think in terms of a Hundred Years War. There was no over-arching theme which connects the three main wars. The first war (1333-60) may be defined by Edward III’s desire to live up to a prophecy of military conquest which extended to the whole Angevin empire. The second war (1369-89) was characterised more by French initiatives and ambitions than English ones and thus its targets and achievements and successes were of a completely contrasting nature. The third war (1399-1453) was not about prophesied territorial ambitions so much as the regnal legitimacy of the Lancastrians and the need to justify their claim to be ‘king of England and France’ by demonstrating God’s approval of their claim both in England (as at Shrewsbury in 1403) and in France. The loss of the French aspect of the war in 1453 was not the end of that question; defeat in France led to the shift of the war to England and contributed to a further 34 years fighting on English soil.

This is the real problem with the concept of a Hundred Years War: it only has an integrity for the French. If Henry VI’s captains had proved as successful in France as Henry V, then the Duke of York would not have been able to question his regnal legitimacy, nor would he have gained so much support. Looking at the French wars in isolation from the Wars of the Roses is therefore misleading. It suggests Henry V resumed an old dispute over the crown of France and obscures the fact that he was the protagonist of a new war. It allows us to see the advent of institutionalised warfare in his reign as somehow patriotic and glorious and unconnected from the bitter repercussions which followed in the latter half of the century.

From an English perspective the war after 1399 was fought for reasons which were fundamentally domestic and dynastic. The French were merely the victims, the foreign stage on which the Lancastrians attempted to prove their legitimacy. Ironically, this war can also be said to have lasted for a hundred years, beginning in January 1400 with Henry IV’s declaration of his intent to lead an army into France and ending in 1499 with the execution of the last potential opponents to Lancastrian-Tudor legitimacy (the Earl of Warwick and the self-proclaimed Richard IV, Perkin Warbeck). This is not to suggest that we should label two overlapping conflicts ‘hundred years wars’ – an English one and a French one – that would be absurd. But it highlights the dangers of applying single terms to extended series of conflicts. The basic concept of a war lasting a hundred years is arbitrary and misleading. Henry V’s war of aggression should not be viewed as a continuation of the conflicts of Edward III: its purposes were dynastic, and its beneficiaries – and ultimately its losers – were the Lancastrians.

What Hundred Years War? | History Today

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