Friday, February 27, 2015

France’s Wars: The 100 Years War 1338-1453

by Jack Le Moine

Did you ever notice that in almost every great war in history, France has been involved in some way? Here’s an example: England's 100+ war to conquer France.

The Kings of England attempted to unite both England and France under their rule. This led to a series of wars that lasted from 1337 to 1453 that are collectively known as The Hundred Years War. This conflict included some of the iconic battles of Medieval history, including Crecy and Agincourt.

The Plantagenet kings of England had long resentmented and regreted of the loss of their possessions in France under their King John. Calculations of inheritance as well as of the relative weaknesses of the French kings and kingdom led the Plantagenets to go for it all.

In reading stories of the Hundred Years War, it is important to remember that this was also the period of the Black Death that carried away over a third of the total population of Europe. With companies of mercenaries plundering the people and plague decimating them, the armies operated in a desolated land.

Major Players:
1) France: When Philip IV died in 1314, he could not have been concerned too much over the succession. After all, he had three sons. If one died then the next one could take over. Trouble was, they all took over and then died. By 1328 the only child left was Isabella and she was married to Edward III of England. Under Salic Law, women could not inherit. More importantly, the French did not want to be governed by the English. They would have awarded the crown to Philip IV’s younger brother but he had died in 1325. This younger brother had a son and it was he who became king as Philip VI.

2) Other Countries:
England: Edward III was in his prime and had grievances against the French both historical and contemporary. When Philip VI attacked Gascony, the last of the old Angevin holdings in France, Edward decided on war.

Flanders/Burgundy: Flanders consisted of Modern Belgium, Holland and other areas to the northeast of Paris. It’s proximity as well as it’s riches caused it to be a target and a threat. Burgundy is within the eastern part of modern France. When these two areas were united under the Duke of Burgundy, they became a major factor in the war. During most of it they were allied with the English. When they switched sides, this became a decisive factor in ending it.

3) The Leaders:
Philip VI of France, the first of the Valois Dynasty

Edward III of England, the guy who started the war

Edward, the Black Prince, a great general who won the iconic battles of Crecy and Poitiers but died before he could inherit the throne of England.

Henry V of England, the victor of Agincourt

Joan of Arc of France who turned the tide of the war

Charles VII of France who followed through and won the war.

Battle of Sluys - 1340
Before either side could invade the other, control of the English Channel had to be seized. On June 22, the English fleet engaged the French at the Battle of Sluys. King Edward grouped his ships in divisions of 3. Two ships of each division were filled with archers; the third ship was filled with men-at-arms. The division would then target a French ship first with archers overwhelming enemy archers and then providing suppressing fire as the men-at-arms ship finished the French ship off. Sluys was a total English victory and gave them naval supremacy in the Channel for the rest of the war.

Crecy - 1346
Edward landed in Normandy and began to pillage the land. Philip marched north to intercept and bring the English army to battle. Edward headed east, crossed the Seine River and continued marching towards his allies in Flanders. With the French advancing at speed, Edward chose to give battle on a low hill where he could anchor his flanks with the village of Crecy on his right and woods on his left. The French knights charged and were cut down by the English longbowmen. This was the second battle where the English employed ranged weaponry to effect against hand-to-hand combat.

Poitiers - 1356
The Black Prince invaded France from Gascony in a march that reminds the historian of Sherman’s March to the Sea. The Prince had the same goals as the 19th. Century Georgia: to destroy the enemy’s will to fight by destroying their means of support. The new French king John II (reigned 1350 – 1364) gathered an army and hit the English on September 19 at Poitiers. The English longbowmen repulsed three assaults by the French knights but they ran out of arrows. King John brought up his reserves for one last knockout assault but was caught in flank. Ranged weaponry was important but this time it was supplemented by a flanking maneuver. King John was captured.

While his son Charles tried to hold the French cause together, the French government collapsed. In the Treaty of London of 1358, England got the counties and duchies along the entire Atlantic and Channel coasts of France. A further Treaty of Calais dated October 24, 1360 transfered an expanded Aquitaine and Calais from the French to the English crown (i.e. the French king surrendered even nominal sovereignty over them.) In return, Edward renounced his claim on the French crown. This should have ended the war.

It did not. The French recovered and resumed fighting despite the treaties. During the next two decades they slowly pushed the English back until by 1380 the English only held Calais. For the next quarter century fighting alternated with truces as the two kingdoms dealt with internal turmoil and economic want.

Agincourt - 1415
When Henry V stepped up to the throne of England, he resumed the war. His campaign was almost a replay of Crecy. The French army caught up to his and the longbowmen shot them down. This is one of the iconic battles of history.

In the years after the battle, the English went on to conquer most of northern France including Paris. The French king was insane and his son the Prince held out as best as he could in the remnant that was France.

Joan of Arc 1429 – 1431
Joan of Arc breaks the
Siege of Orleans in 1429.

CC BY-SA 2.5 image from Wikipedia.
Then came to his court one of the most unbelievable people in all of recorded history. A peasant girl named Joan arrived to say that she had been called by God to save France and help the Prince get crowned king in the traditional city of Rheims. With hope all but exhausted, the desperate prince gave her a force and a commission and sent her out. She won victory after victory and turned the tied of the war. The Prince was crowned King Charles VII at Rhiems on July 16, 1429.

For Joan, she was turned from general to victim. Betrayed, she eventually became a captive of the English. They burned her at the stake on May 30, 1431.

Is there a comparable story to this one anywhere else in military history?

Formigny - 1450
But for France, resurgence continued on. New army organization, new weaponry, and new battlefield tactics contributed to the progress of the war effort. At the Battle of Formigny on April 15, cannons for the first time played a pivotal role, if only to alert another nearby French force that a battle was on. Their timely arrival on the battlefield in the flank and rear of the English lines surprised the English. Their assault drove them from the field.

Castillon - 1453
This was a Crecy in reverse. The English faced 300 French cannon placed behind earthworks and sited so as to hit assaults from different directions. The battlefield concept of fields of fire and kill zones had been born. The last English army in France attacked these new weapons and was destroyed.

France was devastated but with peace came an opportunity to recover. Furthermore it now had a state of the art standing army, the first country in Western Europe with a standing army since the Roman Empire. England was impoverished by the costs of the war but for them there was no peace. England now commenced on the War of the Roses.

For Further Reading: Wikipedia.

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