Dare he command a fealty in me?
Tell him the Crown that he usurps is mine,
And where he sets his foot he ought to kneel.
‘Tis not a petty Dukedom that I claim,
But all the whole dominions of the realm;
Which if with grudging he refuse to yield
I’ll take away those borrowed plumes of his
And send him naked to the wilderness.
The Raigne of King Edward III
Sir, does it not seem to you that the silken thread encompassing France is broken?
Sir Geoffrey Scrope
On the first day of February 1328 King Charles IV of France, third son of King Philip the Handsome and last of the Capetian dynasty, lay dying. He had no children but his wife was pregnant. On his deathbed Charles said, ‘If the Queen bears a son he will be King, but if she bears a daughter then the crown belongs to Philip of Valois.’
Philip, Count of Valois, Anjou and Maine, was thirty-five, a tall, handsome nobleman who was famous for magnificence and for prowess in the tournament and on the battlefield. He was a great-grandson of St Louis and King Charles’s first cousin ; his father, Charles of Valois, had not only been a Prince of the Blood Royal but also, because of his second wife, titular Emperor of Constantinople; while Philip’s mother had been a daughter of the Capetian house which ruled Naples. He had inherited vast wealth and estates. Cold and calculating, he was very different from the flashy and incapable knight-errant of popular tradition.
On All Fool’s Day 1328 the widowed Queen gave birth to a posthumous daughter. Philip at once summoned a well-chosen assembly to Paris, who swiftly acknowledged him as their King—Philip VI. They did not know how much misery and destruction they had thereby brought upon France.
Across the Channel an even more dramatic scene took place two years later. Parliament had met at Nottingham in October 1330 and Isabel, the Queen Mother, and her lover Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, who was the real ruler of England, had taken up residence in the castle. On a dark night the eighteen-year-old King Edward III and a band of young lords entered the fortress through a secret passage and, after cutting down the guards, burst into the pregnant Queen Isabel’s bedchamber to seize Mortimer—Edward personally broke down the door with a battle-axe, though he tried to avoid being seen by his mother. Despite Isabel’s plea, ‘Fair son, fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer,’ Roger was hanged, drawn and quartered on the Common Gallows at Tyburn. The young King had at last won control of his kingdom.
Edward had every reason to hate both Mortimer and his mother. The ‘She Wolf of France’ seems always to have despised her husband, Edward II—the loser at Bannockburn, a peculiarly inept ruler and a reputed homosexual. In 1326 she and Mortimer had forced Edward to abdicate, replacing him with his son as a puppet monarch; a year later the deposed King was horribly murdered, being buggered with a red-hot poker. Mortimer, perhaps the nastiest man ever to rule England, had governed by fear; not only had he killed Edward II but he had tricked his brother, the Earl of Kent, into a conspiracy and then legally murdered him. To cap everything he had got the Queen Mother with child. However, Edward was merciful to Isabel, allowing her to withdraw to a luxurious retirement at Castle Rising in Norfolk where he visited her once a year.
Isabel was the link between the Kings of England and France, for she was Philip VI’s first cousin. She was also the late King Charles’s sister and many thought that she or her son should have inherited the throne of France, and not the Valois. At this date there was no problem of nationality: Anglo-Norman French was still a living tongue, spoken and written by the English ruling class until the last quarter of the fourteenth century. It was the first language of Edward III and his sons, probably of his grandsons, and even perhaps of his great-grandsons ; Edward himself had to be taught English as part of his childhood education. Moreover, as Duke of Guyenne and Count of Ponthieu, Edward was one of the Twelve Peers of France and a French magnate.
During the assembly which Philip had summoned to Paris on the death of Charles IV, two English envoys had demanded the crown for Queen Isabel. There was only one instance in France of a female claim being set aside and that was very recent—when John I had died in 1316, after ten days of life and kingship, his sister had been excluded from the succession by an assembly. They were unable to produce any convincing legal argument in support of their decision, but the girl’s guardian conveniently renounced her claims on her behalf. The English spokesman, Bishop Adam Orleton of Worcester, argued a plausible case ; that the precedent of 1316 was no true precedent as no woman had ever been legally excluded from wearing the crown of France, even if there was no instance of a female sovereign in French history; and that it was undeniable that every feudal fief in the land, not excepting the mightest duchy, could be inherited by a woman. (The Salic Law of the ancient Franks, which forbade inheritance by a woman or through the female line, was not disinterred from the mists of time until much later.) But the assembly ‘put clean out’ Queen Isabel of England. According to Froissart they ‘maintained that the realm of France was of so great noblesse that it ought not by succession to fall into a woman’s hand’. They had had the opportunity to see Isabel and her appalling lover—with whom Orleton was known to be hand-in-glove—when they had visited the French court in 1326, and had no wish to be ruled by them.
When the young King of England won control of his kingdom, it was only as a leader of dissatisfied barons. He was far too weak to challenge Philip VI. Indeed, at this date Edward III merely hoped to retain his Duchy of Aquitaine (or Guyenne) which since 1259 the Kings of England had held as feudatories of the Kings of France. This last fragment of Henry II’s Angevin empire consisted of a long, narrow strip of coastal territory, stretching from just south of La Rochelle to Bayonne and the Pyrenees—the western parts of Guenne proper, the Saintonge and Gascony—defended by a string of frontier bastides, carefully sited and strongly fortified town colonies.
However, Guyenne was in no sense a colony. Though the highest administrative posts were usually held by Englishmen—those of the Seneschal of Guyenne, the Constable and Mayor of Bordeaux, and the Seneschal of the Saintonge ; and those of a number of under-seneschals and of the captains of most fortresses—in all these amounted to perhaps 200. The majority of officials were locally recruited. No Englishman was ever Archbishop of Bordeaux, and though there were plenty of English merchants there were few English landowners. All the important seigneurs were Guyennois, some of whom also had estates in England.
The duchy was an important source of income for Edward. There were royal toll-bridges along the entire Garonne which extracted a rich yield in taxes, for wine was to Guyenne what wool was to England; sometimes (as in 1306—1307) the revenue from Guyenne was larger than that from England. Bordeaux, the ducal capital with a population of 30,000, owed its prosperity to the English connection; wine flowed into England in such quantities as to make it cheap for all save the poorest—the fourteenth-century English drank several times more claret per head than they do today. Not only Bordeaux but Bayonne (which built the ships) and many other towns benefited from the wine trade, as did countless seigneurs who owned vineyards, for claret was then a blended wine which made use of such far-off vintages as those of Gaillac or Cahors. Indeed there was not a sufficient market at home for all their produce. On the other hand Guyenne depended on England for grain—in 1334 it took 50,000 quarters—and bought English wool, leather, resin and salt. The duchy’s language was not really French but Gascon, a form of Provençal. In fact it was a separate country of its own, whose inhabitants had few ties with the French Crown or the northern French. Many Guyennois found jobs in England, serving in the King’s armies during the Scottish campaigns or as merchants, especially in London; the Guyennois Henri le Waleys was Mayor of both Bordeaux and London. It was possible to appeal to England against a decision by a Guyennois court. The Plantagenets regarded Guyenne as a far more integral part of their domains than Wales or Ireland, and Froissart often refers to Guyennois as ‘the English’.
Nevertheless in 1329 Edward had to go to Amiens and pay homage to ‘our right dear cousin’, swearing in the cathedral to become ‘the King of France’s man for the Duchy of Guyenne’. He also did homage for his County of Ponthieu at the mouth of the Somme ; its capital was Abbeville and another of its towns was Crécy, of which more will be heard. After Mortimer’s fall, Edward had to agree in a document drawn up in March 1331 I ‘to bear faith and loyalty’ to the Valois. If he had refused, he might well have lost both Guyenne and Ponthieu. Since 1259 there had been incessant wrangling over the duchy’s boundaries and over the respective powers of the Duke-King and his overlord—whether the Plantagenets held Guyenne in full sovereignty or as tenants who must obey the King of France. From time to time fighting broke out. In 1325 the English Governor of Guyenne, the Earl of Kent, had been forced to surrender to Charles IV at the bastide of La Réole during the ‘War of Saint-Sardos’, which had been largely brought about by Edward II’s refusal to pay homage. King Charles had then contented himself with retaining the Agenais (the border area between the rivers Garonne and Dordogne), but Edward III must have recognized that the conquest of Guyenne was a logical step in the unification of France. In the latter part of 1331, disguised as a wool merchant, he again crossed the Channel to meet Philip secretly at Pont-Saint-Maxence and try to negotiate a lasting peace.
At that time the French monarchy appeared to be far stronger than the English. Matthew Paris, the famous thirteenth-century chronicler, wrote that: ‘The King of France is the King of all earthly Kings,’ and the French King was undoubtedly the first ruler in western Europe. He far outshone the Holy Roman Emperor and more or less controlled the Papacy which since 1309 had been established at Avignon—the French King being both the Pope’s protector and quasi-gaoler. And for over a century there had been no unruly nobles in France as there were in England, but a steady bringing to heel of the counts and barons. If Flanders and Brittany—and of course Guyenne—remained semi-autonomous, Philip VI none the less inherited direct control of more than three-quarters of his mighty realm.
Since the tenth century new agricultural techniques had enabled the peasants of north-western Europe to exploit their rich soil, bringing more and more forest land under the plough. Until the early fourteenth century the area under cultivation expanded every year, with an accompanying rise in the birthrate. Nowhere was this more evident than in France which in the 1330s had a population of perhaps 21 million—five times that of England. French merchants and artisans multiplied, creating the most beautiful cities and cathedrals this side of the Alps; Gothic Paris became the capital of northern Europe, with perhaps 150,000 inhabitants. Froissart, who travelled a good deal, comments: ‘One may well marvel at the noble realm of France, therein are so many towns and castles, both in the distant marches and in the heart of the realm.’
By contrast, medieval England was an underpopulated land, rather like modern Norway, with more forest and moor than arable; a poor little country whose wealth was its wool. London held some 30,000 souls. The King, unlike Philip in France, ruled with difficulty. Edward III was not the absolute monarch his grandfather had been—that had gone under Edward II. Edward III always had to take into careful account the wishes of his ‘Lords in Parliament’, about a hundred barons, bishops and abbots. Froissart observed: ‘Any man who is King of that country must conform to the will of the people and bow to many of their wishes. If he fails to do this, and misfortune comes to the country, he will be thrown over.’
The French knighthood—‘good chivalry, strong of limb and stout of heart, in great abundance’—was Philip’s most daunting asset. The man-at-arms and his giant warhorse (a particularly expensive item costing as much as £200 and trained to bite, kick and trample) constituted a unit of heavy armour which was the medieval equivalent of the tank: a massed formation of such units concentrated on a narrow front had a shattering impact. Their cult of chivalry, which has been likened to the bushido of the Japanese samurai—one should forget the fantasies of the Morte d’Arthur—made for excellent morale and a most formidable fighting spirit. For nearly three centuries heavy cavalrymen of this type had won almost every important victory in Christendom; they had even wrested Palestine from the infidel for a brief moment and had all but reconquered Spain from the Moors. During the last hundred years France had possessed an enormous knighthood for whom war—whether in the tournament, in the King’s host or as a mercenary—was a way of life. On at least one occasion it had broken an English army beyond recovery. In 1328 Philip VI and his men-at-arms had annihilated an army of Flemish pikemen at Cassel. In consequence Philip now enjoyed a reputation as a military leader comparable to that of Guderian and Patton at their zenith, besides commanding the largest, best equipped, most enthusiastic and most successful heavy armour in western Europe. During the early years of his reign he must have seemed invincible.
In contrast England had a dismal military record. The Earl of Kent’s poor showing in Gascony has already been mentioned. Still more serious were England’s repeated thrashings at the hands of the Scots. After Bannockburn in 1314 until a truce was negotiated in 1323, they frequently raided as far south as Yorkshire, inflicting widespread devastation. In 1327 young Edward was reduced to tears by a humiliatingly unfortunate campaign against them; the very peace he had to negotiate was called the ‘Shameful Peace of Northampton’. If only a poor and barbarous little country, Scotland nevertheless appeared to be a most effective ally against England at this time.
But, for all their undoubted fighting qualities, the Scots have been beaten more often than not by the English and in July 1333 at Halidon Hill, near Berwick, King Edward crushed them. Not only did he taste victory for the first time, but he saw what could be done by a combination of archers and dismounted cavalry defending a strong position—even though the Scots were only spearmen and light horse and not to be compared with the magnificent heavy cavalry of France. The King also systematically burnt and laid waste all Lowland Scotland—later his troops would employ the same vicious tactics in France. Jean le Bel, a chronicler who actually took part in the campaign, records the joy of the English at avenging Bannockburn and says that when Edward returned to his own country he received a triumphant reception, being ‘universally loved and honoured by high and low, as much for his noble words and deeds as for his greatness of heart and for the fair assemblies of ladies and maidens that he held, so much so that one and all said that he was King Arthur come again’.
However, Edward still had no wish to fight Philip. He was too busy trying to conquer Scotland, campaigning there in person until 1336. For several years he tried sincerely to negotiate a lasting settlement in Guyenne, whose frontiers remained vague and where his main aim seems to have been to regain the border territory of the Agenais. Philip was no less peaceably disposed. In 1332 both Kings decided to go on crusade together, a plan which met with the Pope’s enthusiastic encouragement, and a fleet was slowly assembled at Marseilles. Yet it was inevitable that war would eventually break out between France and England. The growing centralization and institutionalization of both countries was making the old feudal relationship unworkable between France and Guyenne. As the outstanding modern authority on the Hundred Years War, Dr Kenneth Fowler, has written: ‘Slowly but inexorably, and perhaps with only an imperfect knowledge of the consequences of what they were doing, the kings of France in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were reducing the dukes’ lordship to landlordship, erecting their suzerainty into sovereignty ... It was an impossible situation for the King of England.’
In May 1334 the ten-year-old David II of Scotland took refuge in France at the invitation of Philip VI, who announced that any future negotiations between himself and the English must take into consideration the interests of the King of Scots. Edward, infuriated at being encircled, henceforward regarded the French King as his enemy. For a time Pope Benedict XII managed to keep an increasingly angry Philip quiet; in November 1335 Papal envoys succeeded in arranging a truce between England and Scotland. But in March 1336 the Pope reluctantly announced that as there was no genuine peace between King Edward and King Philip the Crusade would have to be postponed. A few weeks later the erstwhile Crusader fleet sailed out of Marseilles, bound for new moorings in the Norman ports. Though the fleet itself remained inactive, French privateers began to terrorize the Channel and the Bay of Biscay—oared galleys made quick work of becalmed English merchantmen. In July the Archbishop of Rouen announced in a sermon that Philip was going to send 6,000 men to Scotland. In September a great council at Nottingham, supported by an assembly of merchants, condemned the perfidy of the King of France and voted special taxes of a ‘tenth’ and a ‘fifteenth’ to enable Edward to fight the French. In March 1337 a Parliament at Westminster would renew these taxes for three years. But it was not yet open war.
What finally made Edward go to war? Some modern commentators credit him with an excessively sophisticated policy, that of a holding operation; they assume that by attacking France he hoped for no more than to deflect the attention of the French from Guyenne. But this ‘maintenance of thestatus quo’ interpretation is a little too subtle. Personal motives still seem more plausible. Probably Edward really did feel cheated of his rightful inheritance and had every intention of reconquering France if it was possible; at the least he was determined to hold Guyenne against the Valois.
Edward III was one of England’s most formidable kings, somewhere between Edward I and Henry VIII. Nobody will ever know what drove him—a father complex or simple megalomania—but for over thirty years he showed a demonic energy. After dispossessing Mortimer, he swiftly established his authority over the barons, and by his mid-twenties he had reached the height of his powers. In person he was an immensely tall, strikingly handsome young man with a pointed yellow beard and long drooping moustaches, his features ‘like the face of a god’ according to a contemporary. He had abundant dignity and charm, speaking English as well as he spoke French, in a caressing voice. (He also spoke and wrote Latin and seems to have understood German and Flemish.) His esoteric cult of chivalry, so much admired in his day, has obscured the man beneath, yet a personality nevertheless emerges—extravagantly elegant, warm in friendship, mercilessly cruel and hardhearted in enmity. He was at the same time self-indulgent, a relentless womanizer, who eventually ruined his health. One can only guess at what must have been a Napoleonic confidence in himself and an oddly self-conscious determination to be a hero-king. With all this he was also realistic—his motto was ‘It is as it is’.
Edward’s glittering court, a constant round of banquets and jousting, provided him with an excellent general staff. His friends, professional soldiers by virtue of their birth and class, knew how his mind worked and had been tested by him on the Scottish campaigns. Although the old feudal structure was dissolving, society was still a military hierarchy and great lords were ex-officio generals. It is significant that in 1338, preparing for a campaign, the King created six new earls. But not all Edward’s commanders were earls. There were men like Sir John Chandos, a poor knight from Derby-shire ; and Sir Thomas Dagworth, ‘a bold professional soldier’, did not come from anything like a noble background, belonging to a family of small Norfolk squires. The Belgian—as we would now term him—Sir Walter Manny (born Gauthier de Masny), who had come from Hainault with Edward’s Queen Philippa and remained as her carver, was another commander of comparatively humble origins.
One of the more striking foreign ornaments of Edward’s court was the ill-famed Robert of Artois, a French Prince of the Blood who was King Philip’s brother-in-law and ‘his chief and special companion’. According to Jean le Bel, he had done a great deal to obtain the crown for Philip. But in 1330 Robert tried to gain possession of Artois, which had been inherited by his aunt, through forged documents and his fraud was discovered. Two years later the aunt died, supposedly poisoned. Robert was found guilty of her murder, condemned to death and ‘chased out of the realm of France’ as Froissart puts it ; there were allegations, probably justified, of witchcraft. He came to England in 1336, to be warmly welcomed by Edward who made him Earl of Richmond and presented him with three castles and a pension despite Philip’s threat that he was the enemy of anyone who sheltered Robert. The exile is said to have fanned Edward’s growing enmity towards Philip into white heat; ‘He was ever about King Edward and always he counselled him to defy the French King who kept his heritage from him wrongfully.’ It was Robert who, in 1338, stage-managed the Oath of the Heron during a banquet at Windsor, when the entire English court swore to do deeds of valour to help their King regain the crown which three of his uncles had worn. Robert was also a most useful contact with disaffected noblemen in northern France. Years later, Froissart heard how King Edward had had the greatest confidence in ‘Sir Robert’.
Edward’s Queen was of considerable value as a contact in the Low Countries. Philippa of Hainault had fallen in love with the King when she was only twelve and he fourteen, and they had been married in 1328 ; two years later she bore him the first of their many sons, the future Black Prince. A tall Belgian beauty with a retroussé nose, dark-brown eyes and hair and a winning nature, she remained devoted to her husband despite his many infidelities. Shrewd and sensible, her only faults were a certain extravagance and a taste for over-dressing. As the daughter of William the Good, Count of Hainault, of Holland and of Zeeland, she provided Edward with some extremely useful relations.
The English saw Flanders much as the French saw Scotland—an ally in the event of war. Edward sent letters to the Imperial nobles of the adjoining Low Countries at the end of 1336, complaining of the French King’s injustice and of his ‘great plot’ against him and his intention of stealing Guyenne. But many of these lords remained faithful friends of Philip VI, so in the spring of 1337 Edward sent carefully chosen envoys to Hainault—sixty knights led by the Earls of Salisbury and Huntingdon and the Bishop of Lincoln. They soon found that ready money could buy allies against France, including the Counts of Guelders, Juliers and Limbourg ; they actually paid the Duke of Brabant £60,000, a sum equal to the combined revenues of England and Guyenne for an entire year. They also offered to install the Staple (the official depot where England’s raw wool was stored and marketed) at Antwerp.
Edward was a skilful exponent of the trade embargo. The Flemish were the cloth-makers of Europe and depended on English wool. The Count of Flanders, the unpopular Louis de Nevers, stayed obstinately loyal to Philip and arrested English merchants in his territory. So in August 1336 Edward forbade the export of raw wool—of which England enjoyed a near-monopoly—to Flanders ; neighbouring centres of cloth-manufacture like Brabant were only allowed English wool on condition that it did not go to Flanders. Soon starving Flemish weavers were begging all over the countryside and in all the towns of northern France. City patricians and cloth-workers were united by the threat of utter ruin. In January 1338 the men of Ghent elected Jacob van Artevelde, a rich merchant and brewer of mead, to be their Hooftman (Captain), and he quickly took control of Bruges and Ypres as well; according to Froissart, Jacob had soldiers in every town and fortress of Flanders who were in his pay and acted as both spies and hatchet men—‘he put to death anyone who opposed him’. In 1339 Count Louis and his family were forced to flee from Flanders which was then ruled by the three towns as a kind of republic; in December of the same year Edward agreed to allow exports of wool to Flanders and to transfer the Staple to Bruges, in return for a military alliance with Jacob van Artevelde and his pikemen—‘good men and expert in arms’ as even Froissart admits.
Wool was ‘the sovereign merchandise and jewel of this realm of England’, and the best part of the kingdom’s wealth. Since the country was already overtaxed as a result of his Scottish campaigns, Edward decided to plunder the wool trade. At Nottingham in 1336 he obtained a loan on every sack produced, which he hoped would bring him in £70,000 per annum. The King also negotiated a somewhat dubious bargain with a group of wealthy English merchants, who were to buy, export and sell sacks of wool for him in return for a monopoly in exporting wool; to obtain the sacks, he arbitrarily requisitioned the stock at Dordrecht, the unwilling owners being compensated by bonds which exempted them from the maletote or export duty. (A wool-sack, which was of the sort on which the Lord Chancellor still sits, was then worth about £10.) The scheme was expected to bring in at least £200,000, but in the event it proved a costly failure.
In borrowing, Edward III resorted to even more dubious expedients. He raised vast loans from Lombard bankers—the Bardi, the Frescobaldi and the Peruzzi—from merchants in the Netherlands, from English wool merchants, pledging either English wool or the duties on Guyennois wine as security. Almost everyone who lent him money went bankrupt. The only thing that mattered to Edward III was to obtain sufficient funds to wage war. It is astonishing that he ever hoped to find it. In fairness, it has to be admitted that he did at least consult his subjects before taxing them. The troubles of Edward I, and his own father’s ruin, had shown him the need for such consultation. Time and again he explained his needs to both Council and Parliament, often to some effect; in 1343 one of his ministers was able to remind Parliament that the War had been ‘undertaken by the joint assent of bishops, lords and commons’. Edward even went so far as to explain himself at local level; in the autumn of 1337 a royal proclamation was read in every English county court, telling how ‘the King of the French, hardened in his malice, would assent to no peace or treaty’. But all these explanations did little to make anyone readier to pay more taxes.
Another of Edward’s difficulties was mobilization. The old system of feudal military service had practically disappeared and Edward had to use the ‘indenture’ method, hiring leaders who, by the terms of a carefully drawn up contract, raised a given number of troops of a specified type to serve for a fixed period and for a fixed scale of pay. However, to begin with, his infantry—whether Welsh knifemen or English archers—were conscripted by the traditional ‘commissions of array’. The commissioner, usually a local gentleman with military experience, chose what in theory were the most likely-looking men among the population between sixteen and sixty, who were called together by the constables and bailiffs of the district. In practice these included a very dubious element—It has been estimated that as many as 12 per cent of Edward III’s troops were outlaws, most of whom were condemned murderers serving in hope of a ‘charter of pardon’. Even these conscripts had to be clothed, equipped and paid by the King.
In theory Philip VI should have had no financial worries. But though France was rich, it was none the less extremely difficult for her rulers to tap her wealth. Unlike England there was no single tax system and no single consultative assembly. The centralization of the previous century, which had taken over the powers of the dukes and counts, had left largely intact the local fiscal systems and assemblies. In 1337 Philip actually found himself unable to pay his officials, partly because some local assemblies refused to pay as much as he had asked, partly because some of them refused to pay at all. Philip then instructed his officials to strike bargains, to restore old privileges and grant new ones, to promise future exemption, and to be ‘pleasing, gentle and meek’ when negotiating. He allowed provincial assemblies to become recognized ‘Estates’ of nobles, clergy and commons, permitting the growth of the idea that the Estates’ consent was necessary for any extraordinary taxation. Eventually he managed to impose and collect an adequate revenue from hearth taxes, from maletotes and other subsidies and—later in his reign—from the gabelle or duty on salt. On a number of occasions he also devalued the currency, calling in his silver gros tournois and reissuing them in debased metal. He extracted more money from the clergy by keeping benefices vacant and appropriating the income. After all these measures Philip still had to borrow a million gold florins from the Pope.
The French King needed every sou to pay his soldiers. The feudal system, of a lord holding land from the crown in return for military service, had been breaking down in France since the twelfth century; for generations many nobles had refused to go to the wars. Those who did come expected to be paid, while as in England troops were increasingly hired by lettres de retenue—indentures. But somehow Philip found the money to raise a mighty army. In 1340, for example, he had nearly 20,000 heavy cavalry on the borders of Guyenne and over 40,000 on those of Flanders. Indeed, possibly the real drama of the early stages of the Hundred Years War is the herculean effort of both protagonists to harness the resources of their bewilderingly ramshackle and unwieldy states for a confrontation.
Slowly France and England lumbered into war. On 24 May 1337 King Philip declared that Guyenne had been forfeited by Edward ‘because of the many excesses, rebellious and disobedient acts committed by the King of England against Us and Our Royal Majesty’, citing in particular Edward’s harbouring of the sorcerer Robert of Artois. This declaration is generally considered to be the beginning of the Hundred Years War. In October Edward responded with a formal letter of defiance to ‘Philip of Valois who calls himself King of France’, laying claim to the French throne.
Philip VI immediately began a formidable onslaught on Guyenne, which lasted for three years. In 1339 his troops took Blaye on the north bank of the Gironde estuary, threatening Bordeaux’s access to the sea, and in 1340 took Bourg at the mouth of the Dordogne. On the Garonne, La Réole was again captured by the French who then besieged Saint-Macaire nearer the ducal capital. Besides disrupting the main lines of transport and communication, they laid waste the rich vineyard country of Entre-Deux-Mers and Saint-Emilion and made a determined attempt to take Bordeaux itself. Guyenne only survived because after 1340 Philip was busy elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Edward encircled France with a string of alliances. In August 1337, with a massive bribe, he landed no less a catch than the Holy (though excommunicated) Roman Emperor Ludwig IV, who was Philippa’s brother-in-law. After establishing himself and his Queen at a splendid headquarters in Antwerp, Edward went with much pomp to meet Ludwig at Coblenz, where the Emperor promised to help him against Philip ‘for seven years’, making Edward Vicar-General (or Deputy) of the Empire with jurisdiction over all Imperial fiefs outside Germany. In theory Edward could now summon as his vassals all the lords of the Low Countries and even the Counts of Burgundy and Savoy; in practice the post gave him hardly more than a dubious prestige. Nevertheless Edward and Philippa returned to Antwerp to hold court in the winter of 1338-1339 and ‘kept their house right honourably all that winter, and caused money, gold and silver, to be made at Antwerp, great plenty’.
If the English King was enjoying diplomatic triumphs, his country was enduring raids by enemy privateers. In March 1338 Nicolas Béhuchet and his sailors burnt all Portsmouth save for the parish church and a hospital. A few months later Hue Quiéret took five rich ships off Walcheren, including the great cog Christopher—‘richly laden with money and wool’—which had been built for Edward himself. In October 1338 Southampton went up in flames, then Guernsey was occupied. The following year the French raided from Cornwall to Kent, attacking Dover and Folkestone, putting the entire Isle of Wight to fire and sword, and even appearing in the Thames Estuary. French warships became an increasingly serious menace to the vessels which took wool to Flanders, and to the great wine fleet which every summer sailed between Southampton and Bordeaux. Furthermore, any English expedition to France had to reckon with being intercepted en route.
In fact England was facing a full-scale invasion. Informed Englishmen had feared one by Philip’s Crusader fleet as early as 1333, and the raids of 1338-1340 caused grim rumours to circulate among the coastal folk—tales of kidnapped Kentish fishermen being mutilated and then paraded through the streets of Calais were not without foundation. A home-guard was organized for every southern county, the garde de la mer. On 23 March 1339, Philip VI issued an ordonnance for the conquest of England. Suggestions for the destruction of English merchant shipping (including even fishing boats) put forward by Béhuchet and costed as nearly as possible, were set aside—the ‘Grand Army of the Sea’ took precedence. Within little more than a year a fleet of over 200 vessels were assembling off Sluys on the Zeeland sea-coast, at the mouth of the river Zwyn. (In those days Sluys was an important seaport, though today the Zwyn has long been closed by silt.)
The English avenged the raids with gusto, sacking Le Treport in the spring of 1339. In the autumn of the same year they sailed into the harbour at Boulogne, burning thirty French ships at anchor, hanging their captains and leaving the lower town in flames. But the French invasion fleet continued to grow. Mille de Noyers, Marshal of France, planned to take 60,000 troops over the Channel.
Edward tried desperately to find enough money to fight Philip on land. His first expedition, in 1337—15,000 men under William de Bohun, Earl of Northampton, sent to harry the lands of the Count of Flanders—proved ruinously expensive. In 1339 he pawned the crown made for his coronation as King of France; he had already pawned the Great Crown of England. In September of that year he at last managed to invade France from the Low Countries in person, his troops consisting of a small English army which joined him at Antwerp, together with some noticeably unreliable German and Dutch mercenaries and the Duke of Brabant. He advanced slowly into Picardy, deliberately destroying the entire countryside of the Thiérache and besieging Cambrai. Philip moved up to meet him from Saint-Quentin with an army of 35,000 cavalry and foot.
King Edward, only too anxious to be attacked, drew up his army before Flamengerie in three lines; the English in front, the German princes and their men behind, and in third place the Duke of Brabant with his Brabançons and Flemings. (The English formation was dismounted men-at-arms in the centre and archers on the wings—obviously Edward hoped to employ the tactics he would use at Crécy six years later). Philip titillated the English lords’ appetite for chivalrous glory by issuing a challenge to trial by battle between the respective paladins of each army—a challenge which he then unsportingly withdrew. Still more damaging, he refused to fight at all, though his army outnumbered Edward’s by more than two to one. After a campaign of hardly more than a month, the English King was forced to retreat.
What makes the 1339 campaign of particular interest is the misery inflicted on French non-combatants. It was the custom of medieval warfare to wreak as much damage as possible on both towns and country in order to weaken the enemy government. The English had acquired nasty habits in their Scottish wars and during the campaign Edward wrote to the young Prince of Wales how his men had burnt and plundered ‘so that the country is quite laid waste of corn, of cattle and of any other goods’. Every little hamlet went up in flames, each house being looted and then put to the torch. Neither abbeys and churches nor hospitals were spared. Hundreds of civilians—men, women and children, priests, bourgeois and peasants—were killed while thousands fled starving to the fortified towns. The English King saw the effectiveness of ‘total war’ in such a rich and thickly populated land; henceforth the chevauchée, a raid which systematically devastated enemy territory, was used as much as possible in the hope of making the French sick of war. (Exactly the same principle inspired General Sherman’s March through Georgia four centuries later.) The English were obviously satisfied with what they had achieved on this occasion. One of Edward’s advisers, the great judge Sir Geoffrey Scrope, took a French cardinal ‘up a great and high tower, showing him the whole countryside towards Paris for a distance of fifteen miles burning in every place’. ‘Sir,’ asked Scrope, ‘does it not seem to you that the silken thread encompassing France is broken?’ At this, the cardinal fell down ‘as if dead, stretched out on the roof of the tower from fear and grief’.
Some more detached observers were equally horrified. Pope Benedict XII sent 6,000 gold florins to Paris for the relief of the refugees. The Archdeacon of Eu, who distributed the Papal bounty, left a report which speaks of 7,879 victims, mostly destitute, whom he relieved (though he does not give any estimate of the number of dead); nearly all were simple peasants or artisans. He tells of destruction by fire in 174 parishes, many of which had been entirely demolished together with their parish churches.
Edward now found himself even more alarmingly short of money than usual. After buying with his last remaining cash the alliance with Jacob van Artevelde, the King returned to England to try and find new funds, though he had to leave his children and pregnant wife at Ghent as surety for his debts. (His third son to survive, born at Ghent in his absence, was consequently named ‘John of Gaunt’.) The great historian of the Hundred Years War, Professor Edouard Perroy, writes how at this time, ‘anyone except Edward III would have been discouraged’.
Before leaving for England, Edward held an imposing assembly at Ghent on 6 February 1340. Here he publicly assumed the arms of France, quartering the golden lilies on their blue ground with his own gold lions on red, and styled himself King of France. (He is said to have done so on the advice of Jacob van Artevelde, who pointed out that by doing this he would become not merely the ally of the gallant Flemish pikemen but their King.) In addition Edward issued a cunningly worded proclamation addressed not only to the French lords but also to the common people of France ; he promised to ‘revive the good laws and customs which were in force in the time of St Louis our ancestor’, to reduce taxation and to stop debasing the coinage, and to be ‘guided by the counsel and advice of the peers, prelates, magnates and faithful vassals of the kingdom’. He was posing as a champion of local independence against Valois centralization, offering an alternative monarchy.
Edward then sent yet another insulting letter to Philip, challenging him to trial by battle as ‘we do purpose to recover the right we have to the inheritance which you so violently withhold from us’. The combat was to be either between the two kings—chivalrous but hardly fair as Philip was forty-seven and Edward only twenty-eight—or else between a hundred of Philip’s best knights and a hundred of Edward’s.
The challenge was never withdrawn, and henceforward Valois and Plantagenet were locked in an unrelenting struggle. Edward III had shown extraordinary determination and opportunism, even if he had failed to bring the French King to battle. In contrast Philip VI, now approaching old age by medieval standards, had remained entirely on the defensive. Despite his much advertised taste for the tournament, Philip successfully used a strategy of tempting Edward to invade and then refusing battle until the enemy’s money ran out.