The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) was the sum of a series of warlike conflicts during the late Middle Ages between the House of Plantagenet, the ruling dynasty in the Kingdom of England, and the House of Valois, the rulers of France. Each side had important allies who turned this conflict into a war of European dimensions.
Political disputes during the Middle Ages
The main feature of the late Middle Ages was the social and political instability throughout Europe. Political and social instability was widespread throughout Feudal Europe, both within and outside the states. Wars affected civil society in a very direct way. In this sense, the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) was the quintessential synthesis of the conflicts of the time.
Where monarchies exercised effective authority, conflicts had two origins:
- Wars between the nobility and the monarchy. The nobility tried to assert their feudal privileges against a monarchy that defended its authority, and sought to impose itself as a new centralized and almost unique power. These were clashes between the nobility and the monarchy to seize power. The institutions that won after this struggle, Monarchy, tended towards the centralization of power. A new period of history was opening, led by the Renaissance princes, with the ideal of absolutist power;
- Minor but constant conflicts between members of the nobility. They were conflicts that took place within the Court. Again and again, they happened amid King’s succession.
Noblemen at odds with King to claim new privileges
In the Kingdom of Castile, until the end of the 15th century, there were constant conflicts, endless wars that lasted for more than two centuries. This necessarily had a negative impact on society.
Similar disputes took place in the Crown of Aragon. The most notable was the war of the Union of Aragon (union of the nobles of Aragon and Valencia to claim a series of privileges from King Peter III the Great). In 1287, the Uniones obtained from King Alfonso III the “Privilege of the Union.”
The granting of privileges to the nobility, such as that which occurred in Aragon, was a truly important obstacle in the Monarchy’s attempt to centralize power in its hands. The Aragonese Union stood as a counterweight to the Monarchy.
Peter the Ceremonious abolished the privileges of the Union on October 14, 1348, after an armed conflict that lasted two years.
External conflicts: the wars among European Monarchies
In the Kingdom of Castile, three war fronts stand out, which were against:
- The Crown of Aragon: the War of the Two Peters (Peter I of Castile against Peter IV of Aragon). Years 1356-1375. It was not a permanent conflict. What occasioned these wars? Boundary problems. Period of fighting between the King and the House of Trastámara (the latter went to seek the alliance of the kings of Aragon, in exchange for which they offered them wool). Old alliance between Castile and the city of Genoa, the latter being an enemy of Barcelona. Because of this alliance the conflict broke out. Aragon was the theatre of the war. The Trastámaras did not fulfil any of the pacts they had committed to. Peninsular hegemony was in Castile;
- Portugal: John I of Castile married Beatrice of Portugal (the only heir to the throne of Portugal). John I claimed the rights to the Crown of Portugal, but there was a significant sector of the Lisbon bourgeoisie that did not accept the situation even though there was also a sector of the nobility that did want John I as King of Portugal. This division led to armed conflict. The Portuguese militias prevailed at the Battle of Aljubarrota (1385). Many members who had supported John I left Lisbon for Castile. The nobles who had fled from Portugal demanded help and privileges from King John for the support given;
- Granada: Constant conflicts in this period against the Andalusian emirate of Granada.
Other conflicts in Europe:
- The reincorporation in the time of King Peter IV of Aragon of the Kingdom of Majorca into the Crown of Aragon. Majorca had been constituted as an independent kingdom from the Crown of Aragon until Peter the Ceremonious joined the kingdom in 1344. This caused political tensions;
- The House of Habsburg waged wars against Bohemia, the Papacy, etc;
- England, on the other hand, had an expansionist policy at the end of the 13th century.
No region of feudal Europe was spared from conflict during this period of crisis under the Middle Ages. Wars spread and became widespread everywhere. War became an alternative to the capture of feudal income. The noblemen managed to capture booty and the King paid them. With the excuse of war, the monarchies took advantage of it to centralize power much more.
The Hundred Years’ War: A century of conflict between Kingdoms
The Hundred Years’ War was a very long armed conflict, occupying a period of 116 years of war. The duration of the conflict was enormous, a very complex phenomenon that gives many perspectives from a historiographic point of view. It ended up being a conflict between several countries, as profound national feelings were revealed on each side.
It was not a fight specifically for one King or another, rather it was a fight for the country. With long periods of truces, the conflict can be split into 60% of confrontations and 40% of truces. It all started with a conflict between two monarchies, and ended with the confrontation of two countries (England and France). The conflict had a profound effect on society, in both cases generating social unrest, even in the same monarchy. In case of France, there was a revolt in the urban context and also in the rural context.
It has been an extremely costly war for both sides. For England, the war was always fought on French territory, so she had to set up important logistics. For France, the problem was that it was the theatre of the conflict. This was very negative because England, among other things, practised the technique of scorched earth, which led to the destruction of crops, forced population movements, deaths, many abandoned villages… The war meant a huge cost for the two sides facing each other, due to different causes and motivations.
During the conflict, the more or less intense and active participation of other monarchies took place: Castile, the House of Habsburg and the Papacy of Avignon, among other minor states. The Hundred Years’ War was the last medieval war although it is also considered the first modern war, as it was a typically medieval war for France but modern for England (larger armies, use of new firearms).
Background and reasons for the Hundred Years’ War
The causes that gave rise to the Hundred Years’ War are of three types: territorial, structural as well as more immediate.
The English monarchs were vassals of the King of France for a whole series of fiefdoms they had on the continent (the whole Atlantic side) from Normandy to the Pyrenees. In other words, they owned a third of France. As the two monarchies consolidated their power, tensions between the two crowns also increased.
For the King of England to depend on the King of France was a subordination, while the King of France disliked that the King of England possessed so much land in France.
At the beginning of the 13th century King Philip II Augustus, taking advantage of the fact that King Richard the Lionheart of England was abroad participating in the Third Crusade, called him to a meeting and as he could not attend, he withdrew some of his lands in the continent. From this moment on, the fiefs of the King of England in French continental territory were reduced to the Duchy of Guyenne and Poitiers. This fact generated a constant tension between the two monarchies.
Until in 1259, the two monarchs sought a compromise solution under the Treaty of Paris. However, the problems did not end with this treaty. The English tried to recover the lost fiefdoms as the French wanted to expel them from the continent once and for all. Tensions stayed high.
The territory of the County of Flanders was in the middle of the two sides. The Earls of Flanders had always been vassals of the King of France and were loyal. Yet Flanders had become a very dynamic area economically. It depended on imports of English wool (raw material) for its textile production. It was therefore between two fires. Economically it depended on England, but historically it had always had a political link with France, and so Flanders was used repeatedly by both countries as an excuse to start hostilities.
The outbreak of the war originated from a dynastic issue, the extinction of the Capetian dynasty on the death (without descendants) of Charles IV of France, in 1328. There were three possible candidates to succeed Charles IV (from the least):
- Philip III of Navarre, known as Philip the Wise (he was a descendant of French kings);
- Edward III of England (problematic as he was a descendant of the female line and Salic law did not allow it);
- Philip IV of Valois, son of the Count of Valois. This was finally the King of France. A new branch of the Capet dynasty was introduced, the House of Valois.
Edward III took it extremely hard not to be able to run for the French throne, but he had to accept it. England had an open front with Scotland. The Second Scottish War of Independence (1332-57) was beginning. The new King of France, Philip VI, had no better idea than to support the Scottish Revolt. This aggravated the conflict. Edward III was no longer patient and declared war on the King of France.
As the war began, England was organized in a semi-colonial-type economy (importing manufactured goods from abroad and exporting raw materials, such as wool to Flanders). They had a single law, called Common Law, with a highly centralized monarchy. It was scarcely urbanized, had 4 million inhabitants and was mainly a producer of cereals and wool.
France, on the other hand, was a larger territory, much more populated, with wealthy and specialized agricultural regions. The King controlled approximately 2/3 of the territory and, in the remaining part, there were some real powerful duchies that in general remained loyal to the King, such as Burgundy, Brittany or Flanders. Nevertheless, at some points during the war these duchies broke off relations with the King of France and allied themselves with the King of England.
England had as allies in the war:
- The Holy German Emperor, who contributed 2,000 fighters for six months and 300,000 guilders;
- The Netherlands.
England too had an extremely organized army although not as numerous as the French. The King could order binding military service, normally in a needing situation, since the base of the army was the mercenary army, in short, a professional army well paid and organized.
As for France, its army was very numerous but badly organized. It was an army built in the feudal fashion from relationships of vassalage.
The Hundred Years’ War Stages
1st Stage 1337 – 1360
This first phase witnessed the first English victories, though none of them were definitive. What was the objective of Edward III, King of England? Attempting to resolve the issue in a single open-field battle, avoiding having a standing army in Guyenne (today Aquitaine) with all that this represented in terms of logistical difficulties in keeping the army continuously stationed.
Two strategies were implemented to this end:
- England imposed economic sanctions on Flanders. They stopped selling wool to him. And they imprisoned any Flemish merchants in their ports. In doing so, they were trying to get Flanders to break off relations with France and link up with England. Flanders stopped its activities and it was then that a revolt of the producers led by Jacob van Artevelde took place, forcing the Count of Flanders to dissociate himself from France and link up with England. In this way Flanders became a gateway to the continent for the English;
- It organized a harsh rally to the centre of France and punished the civilian population to revolt against their King.
Meanwhile, a naval battle took place (the first one in the Middle Ages) known as the Battle of Sluys, in 1340. This battle was clearly won by the English, and they became the masters of the sea. Unfortunately, Edward III lacked financial resources and the royal estate was virtually ruined, leading to the downfall of the Florentine banks and small investors.
England’s fiscal weakness forced the King to halt hostilities against France. The first truce began between 1340 and 1342. For France, the first period of the war led to a major internal problem. Although it recovered the alliance of Flanders, problems arose in the County of Brittany, because of the succession. There were two contenders, and the candidate who was rejected made a pact with England. Again, England took the initiative of war through Britain and hostilities started after a time of truce.
In 1346, a new English attack took place. France reacted. The Battle of Crécy was fought with the English victory followed by the conquest of the base at Calais, which became the most important port. From that moment on an 11-month siege by the English began, with the objective of occupying Calais. Later there was another truce, forced by the Black Death, which left numerous casualties on both sides.
For the time being, there was a royal change in France, and as the English became stronger, they demanded that France reconstitute the borders of the old Kingdom during the Plantagenets (from Normandy to Aquitaine). The French refusal provoked a new English invasion and a new battle, the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, which was actually important and harsh. John II (King of France) was imprisoned. This caused a double revolt, urban and rural. In this context, the Peace of Brétigny, 1360, was signed.
During the king’s captivity there was a moment when he was granted freedom in exchange for the release of hostages of the high English aristocracy and the payment of 4,000,000 escudos. The English King also claimed the old Plantagenet territory and kept the fiefdoms on the continent. In exchange for this, the King of England gave up his claim to be King of France. All these deals that were established were not implemented.
Thus, the first stage of the war was ended, consisting of outright English victories, but no one definitive. So, a second and long phase of the war began (although there were no major confrontations as in the first period).
2nd Stage 1360 – 1413
This was an in-between period, with several breaks during the war. It was characterized by severe internal problems suffered by both monarchies.
Internal situation in France
- Struggles for the succession of the Duchy of Burgundy, which lasted a long time. Fundamentally, it was an internal civil war, the Burgundians in many cases were allied with the King of England. The Duchy of Burgundy had been granted by the King to his son, and this was not accepted by the Dukes of Burgundy;
- Internal struggles in the Duchy of Brittany. Finally, the Dukes of Brittany ended up renewing the fidelity to the French King;
- Succession issue in Flanders. Before the difficulties to obtain wool, the Counts of Flanders returned to the alliance with the King of England and broke the bond with the King of France.
King Charles V decided to reorganize the French army and entrusted this mission to a military man: Bertrand du Guesclin (he equipped himself with mercenaries and set up what became known as the White Companies).
But a problem arose: it was a time of truce, of peace. These troops also wanted to be paid when there was no war (the soldier). And if they didn’t get paid, problems would arise. Where did they get the resources? The same soldiers obtained them from loot, plunder… The problem of having soldiers without making a war could be solved because the fight passed to Castile, where a new dynasty had just been imposed, that of the Trastámaras.
The conflict in Castile served as an escape valve and also as a testing ground for the White Companies.
Another problem for the King of France was the disputes for the position of Royal Advisor. There was real civil strife during the reign of Charles VI (the king was mentally ill, so being in the royal orbit meant commanding much). The Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless and Louis of Orleans (the king’s brother), were enemies. John was allied with part of the Paris bourgeoisie and Ludwig was allied with most of the southern nobility. John was accused of killing Ludwig of Orleans, so he had no choice but to leave and in this escape he went over to the opposite side by making a pact with the English monarchy.
Internal situation in England
The two most intense conflicts during this period were the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which led to the occupation of London, and the change of dynasty. Richard II, grandson of King Edward II, died without issue. Richard II wanted to end the conflict with France, but he was murdered.
With the death of Richard II, there was a forced change of dynasty. The clearly warlike Lancaster dynasty prevailed. The Lancaster had a programme of conquering France.
In addition, England had intermittent conflicts with Scotland and Wales. The presence of the Castilian fleet on the coast of Aquitaine balanced the dominance of the seas, which were clearly English. The Black Prince was sent by his father as Prince of Aquitaine. He posed the following question to the inhabitants of Burgundy: that they contribute more to maintaining the war. Due to this extraordinary tax pressure, some of Burgundy’s support was lost.
Hostilities between the two monarchies reopened, but intermittently. There was a Franco-Spanish naval victory at La Rochelle. Meanwhile, the French were recovering territory in Burgundy. The English continued with their cavalcades. The most affected part was the area around Paris. Diplomatic attempts failed even with the intervention of the Popes. At a time when King Charles VI was feeling stronger, he made a couple of attempts to intervene and attack England, and he did so through two approaches:
- He tried to make a deal with the northern Scots;
- Simultaneously, with help of the Castilian troops, he tried to filter through the Thames to London.
This was a failure, these attempts remained in projects. These 50 years of fighting were less intense than the first stage.
3rd Stage 1413 – 1453
The outbreak of the third phase of the conflict was caused by the rise to power of the House of Lancaster in England. Once again, England was asking for the old territory occupied by the Plantagenets. Faced with the French refusal, the English intervened.
From 1413 onwards, a great parade took place that affected the central area of France. The important Battle of Agincourt took place in 1415, which meant a new English victory, which followed a great siege. The French were convinced that they would win, but failed with the tactics, and found themselves on untrustworthy ground. Casualties in the French army were appalling while the English had virtually no significant casualties.
For the first time, the English occupied territory. It meant the utmost penetration into French territory by the English. In this phase, Burgundy was the English ally. They also set up a new system: there was a colonization program, they granted French lands to English or allies.
Faced with this delicate situation, France was forced to sign the most important treaty: the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, in which the following was decided:
- It stated that Charles VI of France would continue as king until his death;
- He was to give his daughter Catherine in marriage to Henry V, King of England;
- The common son of the marriage would become the future king of England and France.
But King Charles VI had a son, Charles VII (known as the Dauphin), who was initially kept apart because he was accused of instigating the murder of the Duke of Burgundy, which prevented him from taking the throne.
The Dauphin Charles did not accept the terms of the treaty and went into exile. There was a part of the French aristocracy that pushed him aside. From that moment on, hostilities resumed.
From 1422 onwards there were two recognized kings in France, Henry V and Charles VII. The Burgundians eventually broke with England and supported France.
There came a time when England could not sustain the war. In 1435, a new pact was signed, known as the Congress of Arras.
In 1453, the War of the Roses (an internal war in England that began as a problem of feudal relations and ended as a national problem) broke out. The new English conflict made everything worse.
France lost every major battle, but ended up winning the war. The last military expulsion of the English was in 1453. France could expel them from all the continental territories they controlled until then. The Hundred Years’ War was over.