Do you not know that I live by war and that peace would be my undoing?
Sir John Hawkwood
This is a short, narrative account of the Hundred Years War for the general reader. Other studies have either been translated from the French, and dismiss Agincourt in a few lines, or are too scholarly. However, while this book is not for the specialist, it nevertheless makes full use of the recent research which has radically altered the traditional picture of the War.
The phrase ‘The Hundred Years War’ only gained currency during the late nineteenth century. In fact it gathers together a series of wars which lasted longer than a hundred years. They are generally assumed to have begun in 1337 when Philip VI of France ‘confiscated’ the English-held Duchy of Guyenne from Edward III, who then claimed the French throne, and to have ended in 1453 when the English finally lost Bordeaux. For most of the period England enjoyed a remarkable military superiority thanks to the fire-power of the long-bow.
Some of the battles are part of the English legend, like the glorious victories of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, but there are also the little known (to Englishmen) defeats at the end when French cannon routed their once invincible archers. The protagonists are among the most colourful in English and French history: Edward III, the Black Prince, and the even more formidable Henry V; the splendid but inept John II who died a prisoner in London, the sickly, limping intellectual Charles V, who very nearly overcame the English, and the enigmatic Charles VII (Joan of Arc’s Dauphin) who at last drove them out. The supporting English cast included such men as Sir John Chandos, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Bedford and Old Talbot, as well as Sir John Fastolf—the original of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. On the French side were figures like the Constable du Guesclin, the Bastard of Orleans and the witch-saint from Domrémy.
While the chronicler Froissart paints a pageant of glittering court life, ‘a Bourgeois of Paris’ tells of times when wolves entered Paris to eat the corpses. The world of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry was as bloody as it was beautiful. For the French, unlike the English, the War was more than a mere saga of battles; it was a dreadful experience, which like modern warfare, involved the entire community.
For over a century one Western country systematically plundered another. A distinguished modern historian has written that the contemporary English attitude to the War was as a ‘speculative, but at best hugely profitable, trade that was shared by all who joined the mercenary armies of Edward III and Henry V ...’ He adds that by 1450 ‘among those who had done best out of the war were the great landed families’, while as for ‘needy adventurers of obscure birth and no inherited property; scores of them made notable fortunes’. Indeed generations of Englishmen of every class went to France to seek their fortunes, in rather the same way that their descendants would one day go to India or Africa. Of course there were other incentives besides greed, as anyone who has read Froissart or King Henry V will realize—knight-errantry, feudal loyalty or a primitive patriotism. If the emphasis on material motives in this book may sometimes seem excessive, it is partly because their role has been underestimated in popular accounts of the Hundred Years War; and partly because recent research has given us much more information about the extent and nature of ‘spoils won in France’ and how they were spent in England.
Whatever the motives, a sustained—and, on the whole, extraordinarily successful—offensive was waged for over a century by a poor and scantily populated little country against a richer, more populous and ostensibly far more powerful enemy. It is arguable that the Hundred Years War was medieval England’s greatest achievement.