Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-One


A Hundred Years of War

Between 1329 and 1347, Edward III of England fights against Scotland, tries to claim the throne of France, and begins a hundred years of war

ROBERT BRUCE, the king of Scotland, was ill. “He had grown old,” says Jean Froissart, “and was afflicted with leprosy, of which he was expected to die.” In fact, he was only fifty-five, but he had been suffering from “heavy sickness” for years; “leprosy” was a catchall term for a whole range of unpleasant wasting diseases. He died on June 7, 1329, leaving his five-year-old son David on the Scottish throne.1

Bruce had done his best to guard his son’s claim to the throne. At the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328, young David had been betrothed to the seven-year-old sister of Edward III (the marriage was celebrated the same year, and the little girl had come to live in the Scottish royal palace). As regent and guardian, Bruce had appointed one of his own relations: Thomas Randolph, the Earl of Moray, an experienced soldier who had commanded a regiment at Bannockburn and fought by Bruce’s side during the War for Scottish Independence. “It was publicly proclaimed at [David’s] coronation,” says the Chronicle of Lanercost, “that he claimed right to the kingdom of Scotland by no hereditary succession, but in like manner as his father, by conquest alone.2

This was a silly assertion to make of a child, but the Earl of Moray knew that the Scots had a tradition of following the strongest man, not the next in line by blood. Sure enough, David’s rule was soon challenged by Edward Balliol, son of the deposed John (who had died in France some fifteen years earlier, having been released from the Tower of London on condition that he never return to Scotland). With a small mercenary army and the support of a handful of English barons who had lost their Scottish territories and wanted them back, Edward Balliol took ship and landed his men near Kinghorn, on the eastern coast, in August 1332.

On his way to repel the invasion, the Earl of Moray was taken suddenly and violently ill and died. The Scottish nobles elected another of their number, the Earl of Mar, to replace him. With the help of David’s illegitimate half brother Robert and the son of the dead Earl of Moray, the new regent led thirty thousand Scots against the little English army, and was thoroughly and embarrassingly beaten. “The Scots were defeated chiefly by the English archers,” says the Chronicle of Lanercost, “who so blinded and wounded the faces of the first division of the Scots by an incessant discharge of arrows, that they could not support each other.” More than half of the Scottish army was killed or taken prisoner in this defeat, known as the Battle of Dupplin Moor. The Earl of Mar died fighting, after only nine days as regent. Robert fell too; so did the young Earl of Moray.3

Edward Balliol marched triumphantly to Scone and had himself crowned king of Scotland on October 4. But he had no supporters in Scotland; three months after his coronation, he was forced to flee Scotland by a reassembled Scottish army loyal to David.

At this point, both kings of Scotland appealed to Edward III for help. David’s ambassadors arrived at York, where the king was holding court, and begged him to assist the young king “as an ally ought to do, seeing that he had his sister to wife.” Balliol’s officers appeared at the same time, pointing out that Balliol and his allies were merely taking back land that had once been theirs.

Nationality, and the chance to get Scotland back, won out over family ties; Edward decided to support Balliol. “The King’s council was of the opinion,” writes Thomas Gray, “that he was not bound so to act against his own subjects.” An English army joined Balliol and his men, and in early July of 1333, the combined armies of Balliol and Edward III attacked the border town of Berwick. This time, the Scottish defenses were outmanned, and “a great number of barons, knights, and common people were slain.” Berwick surrendered, and Balliol marched to Scone for the second time.4

Seeing that the odds had turned against Scotland, David’s new regent arranged to get him and his child wife, Joan, out of Scotland and into France, where Philip VI agreed to help him regain Scotland in return for David’s homage to the French throne. Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Balliol repaid Edward III for his aid by handing over half of Scotland to the direct control of the English crown.5

But the war between England and Scotland had only been the prequel to a much longer and more complicated war between England and France.

War between England and France was nothing new. The two countries had never been friends, and their relationship had grown knottier when Henry II, heir to French lands by way of his father, had become the first king of England to owe homage to the French throne as Count of Anjou. The complicated interactions of the two monarchs, one of which was also the liege man of the other, had grown even thornier when Eleanor of Aquitaine had taken her family lands with her into the bed of the king of England, away from the king of France.

But the new war was slightly different. On October 19, 1337, Edward III dispatched a letter to his French counterpart. “Edward, by the grace of God King of England Ireland,” it began, “to Philip of Valois . . .”

We are heir to the realm and crown of France by a much closer degree of kingship than yourself, who have entered into possession of our heritage and are holding and desiring to hold it by force. . . . Wherefore we give you notice that we shall claim and conquer our heritage of France . . . since we consider you as our enemy and adversary.6

“This letter,” Philip VI retorted, “does not require an answer.” And with that dismissal of Edward’s claim, the Hundred Years’ War began.

The name, describing a whole series of campaigns that took place between 1337 and 1453, is a much later invention. Edward’s first campaign—into the northern territory of Gascony—did not even begin until late in 1338, and the first major battle between the French and the English did not take place until June 24, 1340, when the English fleet destroyed the French navy at the Battle of Sluys. Long periods of peace intervened between years of intense fighting. And contemporary chroniclers such as Froissart see nothing particularly unusual in yet more war between France and England.7

But the hundred-plus years during which France and England fought are characterized by a deeper conflict than mere territorial battles: “The King of England,” says Jean Froissart, “had long wished for an opportunity to assert his right to the crown of France.” When Philip V had resurrected the old Salic Law to take the throne of France away from his niece, he had inadvertently provided a way for the English king to take the French thone. Philip V’s end run around his niece’s right to rule France had led to the barring of his own daughter, his sole child, from the throne, and the appointment of the new House of Valois in the place of Hugh Capet’s descendants—leaving Edward III, son of Philip’s sister Isabelle, as the sole remaining monarch of direct Capetian descent.

Edward III prepared for war by recruiting an ally: Louis IV of Germany. Louis agreed to declare Edward III the Vicar-General of the Holy Roman Empire, “so that all those of the Empire should be at his service.” This would give the English king the right to recruit soldiers from anywhere in the empire; but before the declaration could be made, Louis IV needed to make very clear that he had the right to make it.8


71.1 The Start of the Hundred Years’ War

In a series of three meetings held over the spring and summer of 1338, the electors of Germany agreed, almost unanimously (John of Bohemia, Louis’s longtime enemy, dissented), to put down in writing, as an imperial policy, the conclusions of Dante Alighieri and Marsilius of Padua. The Holy Roman Emperor derived his authority not from the pope (more clearly than ever an ally of the French throne) but from the the electors, the representatives of the empire and its people: now, formally, the Electoral League. No properly elected German king needed the papal seal of approval. In fact, thirty-six identical letters were sent to the pope, each from a different German city, each accusing him of ungodly hostility against the “German fatherland.” For the first time, the Holy Roman Empire was entirely independent of the papacy: a purely political realm, established by the temporal powers, not the spiritual ones.9

And Louis IV was now Holy Roman Emperor by right of his electors alone.

OVER THE NEXT DECADE, the war between France and England unfolded in jerks and leaps and false starts.* Edward III’s destruction of the French fleet at Sluys halted Philip VI’s intended invasion of England, but Edward III followed this up with a siege of Tournai that failed and cost far too much money. David of Scotland, accompanied by French troops, returned home in 1341, just barely turned eighteen, and began to attack English positions along the Scottish border. Louis IV’s promised soldiers never arrived, despite repeated appeals from Edward.

By late 1342, neither side had gained a clear advantage, and both kings were deep in debt. They agreed to a three-year peace; the carefully negotiated truce, the Treaty of Malestroit, was signed on January 19, 1343.

The truce did not quite make it to the three-year mark. In April of 1345, Edward III declared it void, insisting that Philip had violated its provisions. In response, a French army laid siege to Aiguillon, in the English-held territory of Gascony. “When the King of England heard how hard-pressed his men were in the Castle of Aiguillon,” Froissart writes, “he decided to assemble a large army and lead it to Gascony. He gave orders for full preparations to be made, mobilized men from his own kingdom, and engaged mercenaries in other countries.”10

In July of 1346, the English army set sail from Southampton. But Edward’s announcement that he intended to relieve Aiguillon was a feint. He reversed directions and instead landed on the shores of Normandy at the head of fifteen thousand men. He had also brought with him his oldest son, sixteen-year-old Edward of Woodstock; as soon as he landed, on July 18, he knighted young Edward on Norman soil.11

Philip VI, taken by surprise, hastily redirected his own army towards the invasion. Meanwhile, the English romped through Normandy, sacking and pillaging: “So was the good, fat land of Normandy ravaged and burnt, plundered and pillaged by the English,” complains Froissart. A diary kept by one of the English knights tells us that Edward III had given his men orders not to burn the houses of the poor, sack churches, or injure women, children, or the elderly, but this well-intentioned decree was not well enforced. At the town of Caen, sacked on July 26, Edward’s army slaughtered civilians and knights without distinction, and Froissart claims at least some of the English soldiers raped women in the street and indulged in arson and robbery. (“In an army such as the King of England was leading,” he remarks, “it was impossible that there should not be plenty of bad characters and criminals without conscience.”)12

From Caen, the fleet and troops progressed up the coast. Edward III sent a personal challenge to Philip VI, who pursued the English through the north until Edward III reached Crécy-en-Ponthieu, just south of the harbor town of Calais. There he turned to face the approaching French.

The French army outnumbered the English three to one, and Philip VI had every reason to think that he would crush the invaders. But when fighting began, at four o’clock on the afternoon of Saturday, August 25, the English had their backs to the sun. It shone straight into the eyes of the French, and when the English pursued the same strategy they had used with such success against the Scots at Dupplin Moor—placing their bowmen at the front and overwhelming the front lines with a blizzard of arrows—the French line broke. “There is no man . . . that can imagine or describe truly the confusion of that day,” Froissart writes, “especially the bad management and disorder of the French, whose troops were out of number. . . . The English continued to shoot into the thickest part of the crowd, wasting none of their arrows. They impaled and wounded horses and riders, who fell to the ground, unable to get up again.”13

By nightfall, Philip VI was forced to begin a retreat. Edward himself had climbed up a nearby windmill to get an overview of the field. His son was still in the thick of the fighting, but when an officer arrived to ask the king to send reinforcements, Edward answered, “Do not send for me again today, as long as my son is alive. Let the boy win his spurs.” By then, the victory was probably already secure. Thousands of French foot soldiers and most of Philip VI’s knights—by one reliable count, 1,291—lay dead on the field. Philip himself took refuge at Amiens; young Edward was rewarded, according to at least one story, with a black cuirass from which his nickname, the Black Prince, may have been derived.14

After Edward’s victory at Crécy, a blight seemed to fall over his opponents.

Edward marched to the strategic port of Calais and laid siege to it. The defenders held out for eleven months; Philip, hoping to lift the attack by distracting his enemy, sent word to David II of Scotland asking him to invade England from the north. The plan was a disaster. David led the Scottish army towards Durham only to encounter, unexpectedly, an English force hastily assembled by the Archbishop of York. Once again, the English archers broke the Scottish line: “Few Englishmen were killed,” says the Chronicle of Lanercost, “but nearly the whole of the army of Scotland was either captured or slain.” David himself was taken prisoner back to London, where he would remain for the next eleven years.15

Louis IV’s reluctance to send the promised soldiers to Edward had been followed up by overtures to the French king, and then by a complicated series of conflicts with his nobles over deaths and marriage alliances. By 1346, he had few friends left; and the German electors exercised the power that Louis had helped them gain by electing a new king, Charles of Bohemia, to replace him.

Louis IV, now sixty-two, refused to recognize the election. Just as civil war seemed inevitable, he had a stroke during a bear hunt and fell dead from his horse.16

Philip VI lost Calais. The defenders finally surrendered in August of 1347; Edward III immediately established an English colony there, ordering thirty-six well-established English families to settle in the city, along with three hundred “men of lesser standing” and encouraging the French exodus: “I wish to repopulate Calais with pure-blooded English,” he announced.17

And then, just as he was poised to take advantage of his victories, the world ended.


*Each battle in the Hundred Years’ War has been studied in depth; there is no way that a general history such as this one can cover even the major campaigns. Desmond Seward’s The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337–1453 (Penguin, 1999) provides a readable overview; a much more detailed account can be found in the three-volume narrative history The Hundred Years War, by Jonathan Sumption (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991–2009).

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