When a war breaks out, there’s no telling how long it might last. It could be one year, it could be five, or, as was the case in the conflict between France and England that broke out in the 14th century, it could be 100 years!
That’s right! A war that lasted an entire century.
For the people involved, this must have been a brutal time. So many years of fighting, bloodshed, and uncertainty.
Of course, while this conflict is now referred to as the Hundred Years War, at the time, it was not necessarily considered one long, unified conflict. Instead, it was a series of wars that were fought so closely together, and for ultimately the same reason. As a result, historians have decided to group them together into one war, known today as the Hundred Years War.
In the end, this conflict helped reshape both nations involved (France and England) and also had a profound impact on Medieval European history as a whole.
The Origin of the Conflict: Close Ties Between Medieval France and England
Today, England and France are considered rivals. But that rivalry plays out mostly on the soccer pitch. Politically and militarily, the two nations are allies.
However, if we go back to the 14th century, we find the situation between the two nations to be much more complicated.
Starting in the middle of the 11th century, the King of England was also the Duke of Normandy, a region in France that was technically inferior to the King of France. Therefore, as the Duke of Normandy, the King of England had to listen to the King of France. But as the King of England, he didn’t have to listen to anyone.
This is complicated to understand now, but it also made things tricky back then. It brought the monarchies and nobility of both England and France close together and sometimes made it difficult to know who was in charge. Especially since each monarch took any chance they could get to declare themselves the ruler of the other.
Most English kings also had territorial claims in France, and not wanting to seem less powerful than the king of France, they often sought to expand their holdings on the mainland in the name of England.
So much for being good neighbors…
The Death of Charles IV
In 1328 AD, things got messy when Charles IV of France, the king at the time, died without an heir. This was a big no-no in Medieval Europe as it made the question of succession quite difficult to answer.
Normally, titles were passed down to the oldest male child. If the king didn’t have any sons, his brothers, uncles, cousins, etc. could all make claims. Who would become king depended on who had the strongest allies and armies.
Interestingly, Edward III, the King of England at the time, was Charles IV’s nephew . His mother, Isabella, was Charles IV’s brother(wouldn’t that make him a nephew?). He thought this gave him a legitimate claim to the throne, so he went ahead and declared himself the King of France as well as the King of England.
Naturally, a lot of French people weren’t too thrilled with the idea of an Englishman ruling France. So, when Charles IV’s other cousin, Philipp, the Count of Valois (a region in France), declared himself king, the French nobility backed his claim.
A Back and Forth Conflict that Lasted More than a Century
You would think that being the king of one country was enough. But the people of the Medieval nobility were anything but complacent. If they could smell even just a little more power, more often than not they would go for it.
So, while the French nobility honored Philip’s claim (by now he had become Philip VI, the King of France) Edward III was plotting to take the throne he saw as his.
Eventually, he amassed an army big enough to invade France and achieved initial successes. The Battle of Crecy in 1346 AD gave the English a stronghold in France to launch further attacks. But then something even more terrible happened: the Black Plague hit Europe and ravaged its population. This disease killed 30 – 50 percent of the population and basically stopped society in its tracks.
Despite initial successes, disease meant Edward III’s war against France was not going well.
Still, ten years later, he won the Battle of Poitiers and took even more French territory for himself. But this did not last. In 1372 AD he lost the Battle of La Rochelle. This drove the English back to their island home and gave the French control of the English Channel.
This would seem like the end of the story. But remember, it’s the Hundred Years War. So we’re just getting started!
The English Resurgence
The death of Edward III in 1376 AD unleashed a whole different kind of turmoil. He also didn’t have a clear heir, and his third and fourth oldest sons fought for control of the throne. This set in motion a series of civil wars known as the War of the Roses.
However, civil wars weren’t enough to stop the English kings from fighting in France. Many of them saw these lands as rightfully theirs. They also considered victories in France helpful to their claims in England. The money and resources from these victories helped fund their wars in England, and vice versa.
After a few decades of flopping between kings, Henry IV of England got the crown in 1413 AD and almost immediately invaded France. This time, unlike his predecessors, he achieved astounding victories. His landmark victory came in 1415 AD with the Battle of Agincourt.
After this, the French king, Charles VI, disinherited his son, offered his daughter in marriage to Henry VI, and named him as the heir to the throne of France.
Things were looking pretty good for the English.
The French Claim Ultimate Victory
But the sweet taste of victory does not last. Henry IV died in 1421 and his 10-month-old son, Henry V II(Vll?), inherited his crown. Many French nobles supported this claim, but many did not, so the war was not yet over.
Thanks to the support of his advisors and regents (those who stand in for the king when he is unable, or too young, to rule on his own) the English remained strong in France and it looked like they might win.
Henry VII was actually granted the title of “King of France” by some nobility. He was the only English king to ever have this title, even if it was hotly contested.
To try and seal their victory, the English laid siege to the city of Orleans in 1428 AD. But after a year and a half, they were defeated thanks in large part to the efforts of French heroine Joan of Arc.
This defeat drove the English out of France and ended nearly 100 years of fighting between the two powers. England lost all of its possessions in France except for one, Calais, which it lost some 50 years later in a separate conflict.
From this point forward, two nations that had been deeply connected would remain entirely distinct.
The Emergence of Standing Armies
To the average person, the specific details of the Hundred Years War are actually not all that important. They can be summed up pretty easily: for 100 years, powerful families in France and England fought each for control over one another’s kingdom.
However, several things came out of this conflict that we now understand to have shaped history in a meaningful and long-lasting way.
One of the more important is the emergence of standing armies.
Today, most nations have these. Governments pay people to train to be soldiers and fight when called upon. But back in the Middle Ages, this was not the case. Instead, armies were made up of the people who owed allegiances to the local members of the nobility. They were often just regular people who were called (forced) into service when needed. The closest thing there was to regular soldiers were knights. But these represented a small fraction of the fighting force and even their power depended on their ability to call people to fight for them.
Many other soldiers were hired hands, aka mercenaires. These fighters owed allegiance to whoever paid them the most. But when there was no war to fight, they didn’t make any money. So they often resorted to stealing and plundering to make ends meet. The off-and-on fighting of the Hundred Years War made it tough for mercenaries to earn a steady living and left them with little to do when the war was at a pause.
To combat this, and also increase their own power, the monarchs of both countries began hiring people and paying them to be nothing but soldiers.
While this might seem like a nice thing to do on the part of the monarchies, their motives were ultimately selfish. By hiring people to fight for them, the king didn’t have to rely as much on the nobles to supply them with a fighting force. Using the nobility’s armies ultimately weakened the king by making them dependent; these armies remained loyal to the king for only as long as their commanding noble did. This relationship (seems like this refers to the relationship with the standing army rather than the nobles)
ultimately weakened the king and so monarchs were always looking for ways to gain leverage
By building an army of their own, the kings helped break this dependency. This weakened the system of feudalism and made the nobles down the system of feudalism as the nobles became less and less important. At the same time, it also helped each monarch expand their own power.
The emergence of standing armies is a product of the Hundred Years War, but it’s also a cause. Without these steady fighting forces, neither side could have sustained the conflict for so long. Then, when the war was over, monarchs all around Europe said “hey, that’s a pretty good idea,” and began building their own standing armies.
Changing Understandings of Government
This dramatically changed how power was distributed in Europe and ushered in new understandings of government. In short, Iit was the early days of combining the nation and the state.
Before this time, a person could feel English no matter who sat on the English throne, even if that person were French. The nation of England was independent of its government, i.e. the state.
However, as the monarchy strengthened, people began to see their government, aka the state, as a part of their national identity. The “English” army, controlled by the “English” state, began fighting for more than just the “English crown” or “English monarchy” but rather the “English people.”
This combination of the nation and state is very much the norm today, and its roots can be traced back to Medieval times.
Of course, this would eventually backfire on the monarchs. As the state (government) became more a part of the nation, people wanted more of a say in its affairs. They began to reject the notion that one person or family was in charge of everything and and demanded the right to participate.
This is not to say that England and France emerged from the Hundred Years War as democracies. Far from it. But the roots of dramatic changes such as the French Revolution (which did away with the French monarchy altogether) can be found in the way these two cultures changed after fighting one another for a century.
(how so?, what is the nation what is the state?) into one identity, a phenomenon that has very much defined the modern era.
The Rise of Nationalism: Modern England and France are Born
Before the Hundred Years War, France and England were basically joined at the hip, at least politically speaking. However, throughout the course of the conflict, they became increasingly separate. The people fighting on both sides, from the monarchs and nobles down to the soldiers and commoners, started seeing the two sides as increasingly distinct. This led to the growth of a national identity on both sides.
While nationalism, aka one’s allegiance to their country, would not emerge as a true driver of human civilization until the 18th century, its roots are in conflicts such as the Hundred Years War. The two sides were fighting to take over one another, but they wound up separating forever. This reinforced the differences between the two sides and gave birth to the modern nations of England and France.
Not Really “One War” But Lots of Wars That Defined the Middle Ages
Historians like to use the term Hundred Years War. But to consider it one conflict is not really accurate. The reality is that it was a series of three or four conflicts, combined with a series of civil wars in England, that ran together and contributed to the same end result: the final separation of England and France.
This conflict reminds us how the fates of those living in the Middle Ages were determined by the whims and wishes of a small group of powerful aristocrats, and that their decisions have helped shape the world in which we live in today.
There’s no telling how history would have played out if England and France united as one. But thanks to the Hundred Years War, they have always been separate. And by fighting to pull apart from one another, they forever changed the course of European history.
Written by Matthew Jones