In 1337 Edward formally renewed his claim to the French crown. The rejection of his claim was only the proximate cause of war. After the Norman conquest of England, Normandy had for 138 years belonged to the English kings; Philip II had reconquered it for France (1204); now many English nobles of Norman descent could look upon the coming war as an attempt to regain their motherland. Part of English Guienne had been nibbled away by Philip IV and Charles IV. Guienne was fragrant with vineyards, and the wine trade of Bordeaux was too precious a boon to England to be lamely lost merely to defer by a few years the death of 10,000 Englishmen. Scotland was a burr in England’s side; and the French had repeatedly allied themselves with Scotland in its wars with England. The North Sea was full of fish; the English navy claimed sovereignty in those waters, in the Channel, in the Bay of Biscay, and it captured French ships that flouted this first proclamation of English rule over the waves. Flanders was a vital outlet for British wool; English nobles whose sheep grew the wool, English merchants who exported it, disliked the dependence of their prime market on the good will of the King of France.
In 1336 the Count of Flanders ordered all Britons there to be jailed; apparently Philip VI had recommended this as a precaution against English plots. Edward III retaliated by ordering the arrest of all Flemings in England and forbidding the export of wool to Flanders. Within a week the Flemish looms stopped for lack of material; workers darkened the streets crying for employment. At Ghent artisans and manufacturers united in renouncing allegiance to the count; they chose an alleged brewer, Jacob van Artevelde, as governor of the city, and approved his policy of seeking the friendship and wool of England (1337). Edward lifted the embargo; the count fled to Paris; all Flanders accepted Artevelde’s dictatorship and agreed to join England in war on France. On November 1, 1337, Edward III, following the custom of chivalry, sent to Philip VI a formal declaration that after three days England would begin hostilities.
The first major encounter of the Hundred Years’ War was a naval engagement off the Flemish coast at Sluis (1340), where the English navy destroyed 142 of the 172 vessels in the French fleet. Later in that year Joan of Valois, sister of Philip and mother-in-law of Edward, left her convent at Fontenelle and induced the French King to commission her as an emissary of peace. Proceeding through many perils to the camp of the English leaders, she won their consent to a conference, and her heroic mediation persuaded the kings to a nine-month truce. By the efforts of Pope Clement VI peace was maintained till 1346.
During this lucid interval class war seized the stage. The well-organized weavers of Ghent were the aristocracy of labor in the Lowlands. They denounced Artevelde as a cruel tyrant, an embezzler of public funds, a too] of England and the bourgeoisie. Artevelde had proposed that Flanders should accept the Prince of Wales as its ruler, and Edward III came to Sluis to confirm the arrangement. When Artevelde returned from Sluis to Ghent his house was surrounded by an angry crowd. He pleaded for his life as a true Flemish patriot, but he was dragged into the street and hacked to death (1345).9 The weavers established a proletarian dictatorship in Ghent, and sent agents through Flanders to urge the workers to revolt. But the Ghent fullers fell out with the weavers, the weavers were deposed and many of them were massacred, the people tired of their new government, and Louis de Male, now Count of Flanders, brought all its cities under his rule.
The truce having expired, Edward III invaded and devastated Normandy. On August 26, 1346, the English and French armies met at Crécy and prepared for a decisive battle. Leaders and men on both sides heard Mass, ate the body and drank the blood of Jesus Christ, and asked His aid in dispatching one another.10 Then they fought with courage and ferocity, giving no quarter. Edward the Black Prince earned on that day the praise of his victorious father; Philip VI himself stood his ground till only six of his soldiers were left on the field. Thirty thousand men, in Froissart’s loose estimate, died in that one engagement. Feudalism almost died there, too: the mounted chivalry of France, charging gallantly with short lances, stopped helpless before a wall of long English pikes pointed at their horses’ breasts, while English bowmen on the wings scattered death among the chevaliers. The long heyday of cavalry, which had dawned at Adrianople 968 years before, here began to fade; infantry came to the fore, and the military supremacy of the aristocracy declined. Artillery was used at Crécy on a small scale, but the difficulties of moving and reloading it made it more troublesome than effective, so that Villani limited its usefulness to its noise.* 11
From Crécy Edward led his army to the siege of Calais, and there employed cannon against the walls (1347). The town held out for a year; then, starving, it accepted Edward’s condition that the survivors might leave in peace if six principal citizens would come to him with ropes around their necks and the keys of the city in their hands. Six so volunteered, and when they stood before the King he ordered them beheaded. The Queen of England knelt before him and begged for their lives; he yielded to her, and she had the men escorted to their homes in safety. The women stand out with more credit than the kings in history, and fight bravely a desperate battle to civilize the men.
Calais became now, and remained till 1558, a part of England, a strategic outlet for her goods and troops upon the Continent. In 1348 it rebelled; Edward besieged it again, and himself, incognito, fought in the assault. A French knight, Eustace de Ribeaumont, twice struck Edward down, but was overpowered and made prisoner. When the city had been retaken, Edward entertained his noble captives at dinner; English lords and the Prince of Wales waited on them, and Edward said to Ribeaumont:
Sir Eustace, you are the most valiant knight in Christendom that I ever saw attack an enemy.... I adjudge to you the prize of valor above all the knights of my court.
Removing from his head a rich chaplet that he wore, the English King placed it upon the head of the French chevalier, saying:
Sir Eustace, I present you with this chaplet... and beg of you to wear it this year for love of me. I know that you are lively and amorous, and love the company of ladies and damsels; therefore say, wherever you go, that I gave it to you. I also give you your liberty, free of ransom, and you may go whither you will.13
Here and there, amid greed and slaughter, chivalry survived, and the legends of Arthur came close to living history in the pages of Froissart.