In this part . . .
The Middle Ages come to an end in this part, but not before England and France engage in the epic conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War. In Part V, I tackle this infamously long struggle and explore its consequences, including peasant revolts and political change all around Europe. I also introduce you to murderous English kings and a mad French one, while saying farewell to the Byzantine Empire after more than 1,000 years of unnecessarily complicated administration. Culture fans can look forward to the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance before the Middle Ages truly draw to a close with the amazing journeys and accidental discoveries of Christopher Columbus.
In This Chapter
● Working out the reasons for the Hundred Years’ War
● Exploring Edward III’s actions early in the war
● Checking out the chaos at Crecy
● Laying lands to ruin with the Black Prince
● Keeping track of the French comeback
The Hundred Years’ War is one of the most famous conflicts in history.
In many ways it was the culmination of years of fighting over territory between the rulers of England and France. At the time, the conflict may well have seemed like the war to end all wars: of course, it wasn’t (and it wasn’t 100 years of uninterrupted fighting either).
The war was an incredible confrontation that raged for generations. The Hundred Years’ War is so important partly because it was the first time that England and France engaged in a clear and sustained war. The conflict also caused a rise in nationalist feelings in the two countries, which hadn’t previously existed.
In this chapter I look at why the war started and how the fortunes of both sides swung back and forth throughout the fourteenth century. The conflict was sustained over such a long period that one chapter just isn’t to cover it! I look at the second half of it in Chapter 23.
Laying the Groundwork for a Long Struggle
The Hundred Years’ War didn’t last for exactly 100 years. Technically, the war took place over 116 years, from 1337 to 1453, but I suppose the Hundred and Sixteen Years’ War just didn’t have much of a ring to it. Then again, this period also included long periods of peace (around 35 years in total), and so the events are probably more accurately described as the Eighty Five Years’ War. Again, not a great name!
In addition, the Hundred Years’ War wasn’t one war. Technically, it was a series of separate wars and invasions, but because the fighting generally took place in the same areas and involved the same people and issues, historians consider these wars and battles as a single unified conflict, broken into four periods:
● The Edwardian War (1337-1360); see ‘Beginning the Battle: The Edwardian War’, later in this chapter.
● The Caroline War (1369-1389); see ‘Recovering with the French: The Caroline War’, later in this chapter.
● The Lancastrian War (1415-1429); see Chapter 23.
● The period of French recovery, following the impact of Joan of Arc (1429 onwards); see Chapter 23.
Life went on despite or even because of the conflict. An awful lot else happened during the fourteenth century, such as the plague we now call the Black Death (flip to Chapter 20 for all the gory details of the plague), while the war was ever present in the background. For people not directly in the war zones, the main impact was financial due to the extra taxes and price hikes. Unlike modern conflicts such as the Second World War, the lives of many people, particularly in England, were relatively untouched.
Delving into dynastic ding-dong
So why did the Hundred Years’ War begin? Well, unsurprisingly, like so many conflicts during the Middle Ages, the big dispute was over the control of territory. In this case, the dispute was a big one - specifically, who was the true king of France.
People had been attempting to combine the rule of territories in what is now modern-day France and England since the Norman invasion of England in 1066 (which I describe in Chapter 10). In the fourteenth century the situation exploded into a massive confrontation.
Reaching the end of the Capetian line
For centuries France had been ruled by a series of first-born sons in the Capetian line, the descendants of Hugh Capet, the first king of France who died in 996. Over the next four centuries the Capetian kings had never had full control over the land that comprises modern-day France. In fact, many English kings and nobles had held territory there.
The Capetian king, Philip IV, died in 1314 and left four children: three sons, Louis, Philip and Charles, and a daughter, Isabella. Isabella was married to King Edward II of England and had produced a son with him, also called Edward. This situation made the young English prince the nephew of the new French king. Edward’s lineage became very important. He was a Plantagenet, the royal household descended from Henry II (1133-1189) who came from the duchy of Anjou and therefore always had an interest in France.
The new French king was Louis IX, but he died within two years and was succeeded by his brother, Philip V, in 1316. Philip didn’t last long either, dying in 1322, and his younger brother Charles IV soon replaced him.
Putting Edward III in a tricky spot
One of Charles’s first challenges was to beat off a small English invasion in 1324; English forces were trying to reclaim some lands in Bordeaux that had once been in English hands. Known as the Gascon War, the conflict was a complete failure for the English - and very much a foretaste of what was to come.
In fact, the war was such a failure that it led to the English king, Edward II, being deposed from the throne, and his young son Edward III replacing him in 1327. This shift meant that the king of England was now the closest living male relative of the king of France. Trouble was brewing! (The later sidebar ‘Salic law versus feudal law’ highlights the details behind the impending controversy.)
Looking at the reasons for war
Although Edward III’s claim for the French throne was a big motivator for the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, two other big issues had a part to play:
● Trade and revenues: Despite being the king of England, a large amount of Edward III’s revenues came from his territories in France, particularly Gascony (see Figure 21-1). French kings had made continual attempts over the past 100 years to take Gascony back; Edward, however, was keen to preserve his territory there, particularly because a large amount of wine came from Gascony!
● Homage: Homage had been an issue for a series of English kings (see Chapter 17). Because they possessed lands in France they were obliged to pay homage for them to the king of France, as their feudal lord. This situation had been confirmed between Henry III and Louis IX at the Treaty of Paris in 1229. Any opportunity to end the obligation would have been welcome to Edward III.
The war began in this context. Edward III certainly had a valid claim to the French throne but it was more than just a desire to be king that encouraged him to invade. Economic concerns and the desire to free himself of the issue of homage were equally important motivations. In many ways, his claim to the throne was a means to an end.
Stepping in discreetly: Philip of Valois
The situation brewed for about 15 years before it finally came to a crunch in 1328 when Charles IV died. He had no sons, only a daughter. His wife was pregnant, and so people in France held out hope for a male heir.
The only surviving Capetian was a man called Philip of Valois who was the nephew of King Philip IV who had died in 1314 and the grandson of the previous king. Philip of Valois had a claim, but it was a loose one. However, he did have the huge advantage of being in France; upon Charles’s death, he was immediately regent.
When Charles’s unborn child proved to be a girl, Philip of Valois was crowned as King Philip VI. He became the first of the Valois kings, a new French dynasty.
Gathering the storm
Unsurprisingly, the news of King Philip VI’s coronation didn’t go down very well in England. Although French law said that Philip was the rightful king (see the sidebar ‘Salic law versus feudal law’) as far as feudal law was concerned, Edward III was the only candidate.
Nowadays a complicated and expensive legal case would be the answer. In the fourteenth century, the solution was much simpler - sort it out with a nice big war.
In the short-term, however, Edward III was forced to accept the situation. He was still very young (aged just 16 in 1328) and very much under the influence of his mother, Isabella, and Roger Mortimer, his regent. He had problems enforcing his rule at home and dealing with invasions by King David II of Scotland. Edward managed to defeat David in 1333, but David, who had become an ally of Philip VI, fled to the French king’s court.
Salic law versus feudal law
The French nobility knew that a problem was building up between France and England, and they argued for the importance of Salic Law. This law referred back to the Salian Franks who had settled in Germany after the end of the Roman Empire (flip to Chapter 4 for more details) and whose laws had provided the basis for the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France.
Salic law held that a throne or fief (lands awarded to a person) couldn't be inherited through a female member of the family line. For example, although previous French kings had died childless, proponents of Salic law argued that their throne couldn't pass to the sons of their sisters (their nephews) because doing so was against Salic law.
So at the beginning of the fourteenth century, French nobles argued that despite the fact that Edward III was the nephew of Charles IV, he was never a candidate to inherit the throne of France because the crown would have to pass through a female line (in this case, his mother, Charles's sister, Isabella) to reach him. Thus, upholding Salic law was a convenient argument from a French point of view as well as one steeped in centuries of tradition. Very handy, especially as this form of Salic law probably wasn't even codified (made official law) at this point. (Some historians argue that Salic law wasn't codified until 1350, well after the war had started.) Salic law continued to be applied in France, Germany and elsewhere throughout the Middle Ages, and in some areas of Europe, all the way through until the nineteenth century.
In England the situation was different; the English crown was inherited through feudal law, which prioritised bloodline over gender and made Edward III the only legitimate heir to the kingdom of France.
Beginning the Battle: The Edwardian War
Having successfully dealt with Scotland (turn to the preceding section ‘Gathering the storm’), Edward III was free to consider what to do about the newly crowned king of France, Philip VI. The problem was more than Philip becoming king; lands in Gascony in southern France that technically Edward held (see Figure 21-1) were sure to come under threat from the new French monarch as he looked to eliminate any support that Edward might have in France. Within a year, war between England and France began. This period of the conflict, the Edwardian War, lasted between 1337-1360.
Figure 21-1: English and French possessions around 1337
Spinning the 'wool war'
Despite the fact that the war was about the conflict between the English and French kings, the Low Countries - modern-day Belgium and southern The Netherlands - were the first places affected by the manoeuvring from England (see Figure 21-1). These areas were technically independent of the French king, but they were attractive to Edward III because they would provide a much needed foothold in northern France.
The Low Countries were also worth gaining control of because of the huge revenues that Edward could derive from them. Economic concerns were at the heart of this conflict. Indeed, Edward’s strategy for getting hold of the territory was an economic one - manipulating the cloth trade.
Cloth making was the area’s main industry, and it relied upon English wool. Knowing this, Edward banned the trade of Low Countries’ cloth unless the region elected a new government that supported him. Edward’s effort was rather like modern-day trade sanctions, and it worked. By 1338 a new court was in place, and Edward crossed the channel to make Antwerp his base of operations.
Feeling a credit crunch
At this time, French ships were menacing England across the channel, and the poorly equipped and funded English navy was unable to respond effectively. These attacks were another reason why Edward had to establish a base in mainland Europe, because otherwise he was unable to guarantee his supply lines across the channel.
Money was a problem in general, and Edward was forced to borrow huge amounts from Italian bankers as well as English moneylenders. Interest payments were huge, and Edward even had to mortgage his crown!
So, the war took on another aspect. Aside from Edward’s claim to the French throne and his own desire for more territory, his efforts now had to be successful in order to stop him from going bankrupt. He needed big, positive results - quickly. As events turned out, he wasn’t ready to invade France until September 1339.
Fighting - and taunting - the French
Edward Ill’s army invaded France in 1339, and the soldiers followed what was essentially a scorched-earth policy. Instead of rushing straight into an open battle, they set about laying waste to the land that they passed through. The idea was to reduce these areas to dust, taking booty of value and destroying fortifications. In so doing they hoped to make a profit from their attacks and prevent the French king from reoccupying the territory.
Philip VI pretty much let Edward get on with his attacks. The area that Edward was raiding was a fair distance from Philip’s location and the destruction didn’t really impact upon Philip or his army.
Edward moved his army to La Chapelle (see Figure 21-1) and gave Philip the opportunity to come and attack him, but Philip declined. Edward shrugged his shoulders and left French territory because he didn’t want to pursue Philip further south and risk getting cut off from his supply lines.
Things continued in a similar vein over the next few years. England won a victory at sea in the Battle of Sluys in June 1340, when a freshly constructed English fleet virtually destroyed their French opposition in maybe the biggest sea battle of the Middle Ages. England captured 190 French ships, and accounts claim that up to 18,000 French soldiers and sailors lost their lives.
This victory was landed a vital blow in Edward’s campaign. He was now able to attack across the channel knowing that he could land easily and that the French king was unable to attack England across the sea.
Unfortunately, the sea victory didn’t help with Edward’s main objective because later in 1340 Edward was again unable to force Philip into battle. Edward returned home hugely in debt and with no real profits from his efforts. He was able only to pay off a few of his creditors and was forced into signing a nine-month truce with Philip.
Edward also made another move late in 1340 when he began to formally refer to himself as the King of France and sign treaties and make agreements under that name. This move meant that anybody who now supported him in France could claim that they weren’t committing treason, and were merely supporting the rightful king. It also meant that his supporters in Flanders were supporting their true feudal lord.
Surveying fights elsewhere in France
While Edward was fighting in the north of France, war was also going on in other parts of France. Since the beginning of the conflict, Philip had been waging a vicious war and trying to regain control of the few remaining territories that were loyal to Edward in Gascony, but he wasn’t making a great deal of headway.
The situation became more complicated in 1341, when John III the Duke of Brittany died without an heir. Two men, John of Monfort and Charles of Blois, fought a short war of succession. Neither France nor England was really able to intervene; both had their own problems, and Edward was too busy raising taxes to try and pay off his debts. This situation meant that yet another war, this time independent of Philip and Edward, began on mainland France.
Taking the Advantage: England
The first years of the Edwardian War proved to be a bit of a failure for England and events are probably best described as a draw. However, things changed when the English army returned to France in 1345. Edward III took with him a freshly recruited army of nearly 10,000 men along with his 16-year-old son, Edward the Prince of Wales, who was to have a massive impact on events and make a name for himself as ‘the Black Prince’.
Fighting all the way
The English army was advancing with only one intention - an open battle with the French - and this time the French were unable to avoid the impending fight. Philip VI realised the high stakes and began advancing through Normandy, gathering a large army made up of all his feudal lords, supporters and their troops to take on the English.
Edward III’s second campaign in France was very different from his previous effort as he finally faced the French king in battle. This time the English army looted its way through Normandy, seizing property and burning French towns. They met two French armies at Caen and Blanchetaque (see Figure 21-1) in July and August and won victories over both. These French armies were just Philip’s advance party; his full army arrived in the middle of August. At this point, the two large armies began circling each other in an attempt to find decent ground.
Overstating the huge importance of the impending battle is impossible.
For the defeated side, any comeback would be expensive and laborious. Recruiting a fresh army would take years, and many nobles were likely to be killed or captured and held for ransom (a popular way of making money out of warfare). The situation was victory or nothing, because for the loser the results may well have meant permanent defeat.
Meeting at last: The battle of Crecy
Nearly a decade after the beginning of the war, the English and French armies finally faced each other on 26 August 1346, in one of the most famous battles of the Middle Ages. Like many other medieval battles, it took place somewhere fairly insignificant. Crecy was a very small town south of Calais of no great importance, but it was surrounded by flat agricultural land ideal for fighting.
A new kind of battle
Crecy is a famous battle not only because of its outcome, but also because many historians regard it as being the point at which the old Medieval World of chivalry came to an end. Normal war practice was to take prisoners, particularly nobles, and then hold them for ransom, but in the vicious, bloody carnage of Crecy all that changed. Whatever their status, men were finished off and murdered before they could surrender.
The chronicler Jean Froissart gives a chilling account of English knife-wielding killers known as misericordias or 'mercy killers':
Then ye should have seen the men at arms dash in among them and kill a great number of them: and ever still the Englishmen shot whereas they saw thickest press; the sharp arrows ran into the men of arms and into their horses, and many fell, horse and men, among the Genoways [Genovese; French allies], and when they were down, they could not relieve again, the press was so thick that one overthrew another. And also among the Englishmen there were certain rascals that went afoot with great knives, and they went in among the men of arms, and slewand murdered many as they lay on the ground, both earls, barons, knights, and squires, whereof the king of England was afterdispleased, for he had rather they had been taken prisoners.
Edward wasn't thinking in humanitarian terms. No doubt the heavily in-debt king was displeased with all the potential ransoms that were lost.
Crecy was also notable as possibly the first time that a cannon was used in a major European battle. Known as 'Ribaldis' and developed in Italy, this simple cannon was first employed in Europe in around 1345. Accounts from Crecy suggest that one was fired on two or three occasions during the battle: the cannon probably terrified more people than it killed.
Philip’s army vastly outnumbered Edward’s. Accounts vary, but the majority of historians suggest that an English army of around 15,000 faced a French force at least 35,000 strong. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the English forces won a crushing victory at Crecy. This success was partly due to overconfidence from the French, as well as several other important factors:
● The French army consisted mostly of knights - mounted warriors on horseback - whereas the English had a large body of infantry in their force. This made the French technically more mobile but less able to fight effectively at close quarters.
● The English used the traditional longbow, whereas the French used the more modern and complicated crossbow, something that would be very important at the battle of Agincourt nearly 60 years later, towards the end of the war (check out Chapter 23 for much more on this most famous of medieval battles), but at Crecy the longbow won the day.
The French first attacked with crossbows, but they made no impact on the English infantry. The crossbowmen were able to fire only one or two arrows a minute, and their arrows didn’t pierce armour. In contrast, the English archers replied by firing three times as fast and the French knights’s armour was unable to withstand their arrows. The crossbow attack failed, and the French knights were forced to charge straight into English arrow fire.
Again and again the French knights charged at the English lines, incurring heavy losses every time. To make things worse for the French, Edward had positioned his forces at the top of a small hill. As the day wore on, the damp conditions and the hooves and feet of horses and men turned the sloping ground into a soggy bog. The French knights and their horses became exhausted by having to plough through it.
In all, the French made 16 charges but were unable to break the English lines and Philip VI was injured in one attack. By the early evening he’d had enough and called for the army to retreat, with appallingly heavy losses.
More than 1,500 French knights were killed along with 11 noblemen. Total French casualties numbered around 15,000 as opposed to around 300 English. The battle of Crecy was an astonishing victory for England.
Rising up with the Black Prince
The battle at Crecy was an amazing victory, but Edward III was never able to press home his advantage. Although he followed up Crecy by capturing Calais, in 1348 the plague known as the Black Death hit Europe (turn to Chapter 20 for all about the plague) and the devastating impact meant that the war was suspended for some eight years with neither king in any position to launch an offensive and returning to their own domestic affairs.
Philip VI died in 1350 and was replaced by his son John II, known as ‘John the Good’, and the war moved into a new phase. See the later sidebar ‘John is a good boy’ for more details on John.
A very potent promenade
The Black Prince is most famous for adopting the military strategy known as the chevauchee (from the French word meaning 'promenade'). The tactic, which he used on campaign during 1356, was a particularly brutal form of destroying the land that an army travelled through. Towns were raided and looted, and crops burnt to prevent land being used again for some time. The effect was intended to be psychological as much as practical. The idea was to suggest to an invaded people that their king was unable to protect them. In many ways the idea was nothing new. Edward III had followed a similar policy when invading in 1339, but with the Black Prince it was applied on a much bigger and more destructive scale.
The Black Prince's methods worked, and many historians suggest that the chevauchee contributed to the peasant uprising called the Jacquerie, which took place in 1358 (the later section 'Collapsing in France' has more on this uprising). In practical terms, the revolt forced the French king to come to battle.
The man leading this new phase of the war was Edward’s son, also named Edward, but known as the Black Prince. When the war resumed in 1356, he was 26 years old and had become a fearsome warrior. From a very young age, he’d shown a keen interest in military affairs and became a feared opponent at tournaments (see Chapter 11 for more on these events).
Historians can’t agree on the origin of Edward’s nickname, and no surviving sources from the fourteenth century refer to him as such. Some people suggest that the name stems from wearing black armour and others that it was because of the colour of his coat of arms. I prefer the argument that it refers to his apparently explosive temper and generally violent attitude.
Edward the Black Prince was at the head of an invasion that sailed around the Atlantic coast to land in Gascony in 1356. At this time, English forces were secure in the north of France, and the Black Prince was attempting to catch John II in the middle. The plan worked. The sides met in battle at Poitiers in west, central France on 19 September 1356.
Poitiers was another crushing victory for the English army. Amazingly, employing the same tactics as at Crecy allowed the English to win again. French armour was still vulnerable to the English archers and by making a feint to the left, the infantry lured the French knights into charging and exposed them to attack.
Around 3,000 French were killed or wounded and more than 2,500 captured - among them King John II.
Cottapsing in France
Unsurprisingly, the kingdom of France went into meltdown after John II’s capture. The country hadn’t yet recovered from the ravages of the Black Death, and two massive and humiliating military defeats - at Crecy and Poitiers - within a decade caused further problems.
In addition, for four years after Poitiers, France was a kingdom without a king. The French people had had enough and remarkably, during the next stage of the Hundred Years’ War, the greatest threat to the kingdom of France came from its own subjects.
Experiencing social unrest and the Jacquerie
After the capture of King John II, the States General - the French equivalent of Parliament - tried to take control but failed. Various nobles took the opportunity to settle old scores and seize back territory from the king and the kingdom of France had no effective government.
Another problem was the growing economic crisis. In order to try and recover their losses from Poitiers, the French nobility were forced to raise taxes to pay for new armies. A law was also passed that allowed landowners to take money and property without compensation and, even worse, forced all peasants to fight if their masters’ property came under attack.
After the ravages of the Black Death and the famines that followed, mandatory military service was the last straw. In 1358, things came to a head with a peasant uprising in France. The revolt, known as the Jacquerie because of the padded jackets all peasants wore, pitted class against class. Years of subjugation and mistreatment boiled over into an astonishingly bloody and violent response. Although the revolt had no particular structure, a general mood of unrest turned into peasants rising up against their masters.
Nobles were the main targets, with their agents and tax collectors even joining in the revolt. The chronicler Jean Froissart gives a shocking account of the violence that took place, although he may well have been slightly exaggerating. Froissart was from the Low Countries and his patron was an English queen who would have presumably been pleased by these stories of French struggle:
These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, beat and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach [spit] and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children.
Restoring order, brutally
Eventually, the Jacquerie came to an end, perhaps because no overall plan was in place other than to try and kill off all the nobles in France. More than 150 noble houses were affected and thousands of people were tortured and killed. But soon some kind of co-ordinated response was arranged.
This response came from the splendidly titled Charles the Bad of Navarre. Charles was very much the enemy of the Prince Regent and nominal French leader (the soon to be Charles V), and wanted to use the crisis to mount a challenge for the throne. Charles the Bad tricked one of the most prominent rebels, Guillaume Cale, into meeting him for talks and had him tortured and decapitated. The massed group of 20,000 peasants that had followed Guillaume were then mercilessly chased down and slaughtered by Charles’s knights.
Across France, various nobles followed suit and thousands of peasants were lynched during the summer of 1358. The Jacquerie was over.
Pressing pause: A time for peace
The chaos in France was too much for the Black Prince to resist, and in 1360 he invaded again. With the French king, John II, still in captivity, France was under the nominal control of the Dauphin (Prince Regent) Charles V.
Despite France’s unsteady circumstances, the English attack wasn’t a success. The English army attacked Reims and Paris, but managed to take neither city. Their only reward was some ravaging of the already ravaged French countryside.
John is a good boy
John II gained his nickname 'the Good' from events that followed his capture by the English during the battle of Poitiers. After four years of captivity, the treaty of Bretigny that was signed in 1360 set John's ransom at a massive 3,000,000 gold crowns, around double the annual income of France. John was released from captivity to return to France and raise his ransom. In his stead, his son Louis was held in Anjou and several French nobles in England.
Soon afterwards, however, the hostages held in England escaped and fled back across the channel; Prince Louis escaped from Anjou in 1363. John was appalled by these acts and felt that his word had been broken by others. In one of the most remarkable events of the Middle Ages he travelled to England and gave himself up as a hostage!
Sadly, soon after his arrival back in England, John caught an unknown illness and died in April 1364. During his time in England he was treated like a hero and very much as a symbol of chivalry. For John, honour was above everything - including the liberty of his son and even his kingdom.
The treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360, which confirmed that the Black Prince now held Calais and also considerably more territory in the southern duchy of Aquitaine. The treaty also stipulated that there would be peace for the next nine years. For the time being the Hundred Years’ War was on hold.
Recovering with the French: The Caroline War
Historians generally consider the next stage of the Hundred Years’ War (13691389, and named the Caroline War after the new French king, Charles V, who had been crowned in 1364) to be one of French recovery. In truth this period was more like a series of English disasters than a great French comeback, but the events meant that by the end of the fourteenth century, the conflict between the nations was balanced on a knife-edge.
Stoking the flames of war
During the 1360s France recovered. Charles V established his rule, and several nobles who stood against the French monarch (see the earlier section ‘Collapsing in France’) changed their minds and returned to serving him. Charles cleverly picked small targets, including Poitiers, and took these cities back from the English, gradually reducing their possessions in France.
The English response was again to take up the policy of chevauchee in an attempt to undermine Charles V’s authority and also cause difficulties for the large French army if it tried to live off the land.
Jean Froissart described the raiding, which proved to be as brutal as ever:
Then the [Black] prince all the others with their companies entered into the city, ready apparelled to do evil, and to pill and rob the city, and to slay men, women and children, for so it was commanded them to do. It was great pity to see the men, women and children that kneeled down on their knees before the prince for mercy; but he was so inflamed with ire, that he took no heed to them, so that none was heared, but all put to death. There was no pity taken of the poor people, who wrought never no manner of treason, yet they bought it dearer than the great personages, such as had done the evil and trespass. There was not so hard a heart within the city of Limoges, and if he had any remembrance of God, but that wept piteously for the great mischief that they saw before their eyes: for more than three thousand men, women and children were slain and beheaded that day, God have mercy on their souls, for I believe they were martyrs.
Yet again innocent people were being butchered in this most bloody of medieval wars.
Busting the English at Biscay
The first big action of this new stage of the war was a massive naval encounter off the coast of La Rochelle in the Bay of Biscay (see Figure 21-1). In June 1372 the English fleet under the command of John of Hastings met the French in the biggest naval encounter since the Battle of Sluys in 1340. Accounts differ as to what happened in the battle, but the end result was a massive defeat for the English.
This defeat was a huge blow to the English, because since Sluys the English fleet had dominated the channel and protected the island from invasion. Continuing to do so was now far more difficult and opened up an opportunity for the French king. The defeat also made defending English territories in southern France far more difficult, because the naval route through the Bay of Biscay was the only way to keep communications and supply lines open.
Regrouping: The Plantagenets need a new plan
Worse was to come for the English throne as the Plantagenet dynasty experienced some very unexpected setbacks. Within five years, they had a new king - and not the one that they were expecting. In June 1376, the Black Prince died at the age of 46. He had been ill following his return from France in 1371 with what chroniclers referred to as a ‘wasting illness’. Few people had more impact on the Hundred Years’ War.
The following year, his father was dead too. Edward III died almost exactly a year after his son in June 1377 at the age of 65, most probably of a stroke. The deaths left the English crown in something of a crisis. The only available male heir was his 10-year-old grandson Richard, the son of the Black Prince.
The new king, Richard II, was supported by a council of advisors, but was still unable to continue the war properly. Within two years England was dealing with its own Jacquerie in the form of the Peasants’ Revolt (which I describe in detail in Chapter 22). For the time being the French were able to make relatively easy progress at recapturing lost territory from the English, which they did until a truce was signed in 1389. Huge changes were necessary in England before the war fully resumed (I take up this aspect of the story in Chapter 23).