Events leading up to the Hundred Years War
The first thing to realise about the Hundred Years War is that it was not one continuous battle between the English and the French. Rather, it was a series of battles, spread over 133 years. The name Hundred Years War did not arise until 1823. The whole Hundred Years War is characterised by the excessive violence, the pursuit of personal interests, and by the presence of several colourful characters whose names have passed into history - including the Black Prince, and Joan of Arc.
Not unusually, the roots of the Hundred Years War lay in part with royal inheritance lines. The Capetian Dynasty, which had ruled in France for over 300 years, had no male heir for the throne, and Edward III, King of England, was the closest male relative.
The French did not want an English king, and claimed that the line of inheritance was invalid, since it was not a continuous male line. Therefore, they claimed, Philip of Valois should be King. Both sides had a good case, and historical precedents to support them. Edward III eventually agreed to keep Gascony, in south-west France, in exchange for giving up his rights to the French throne.
All would have been well, perhaps (although improbable), but Edward III went to war against David II of Scotland. At this time, Scotland were an ally of the French. This war escalated, gave Philip an excuse to seize Gascony and to deny the rights of Edward, and in 1337 war was declared between the two nations.
Start of the War
The early years of the Hundred Years War war were fought in the north of France, and in the English channel. Despite early naval victories, by 1340 the French fleet had been destroyed and the English maintained control of the channel. Regional battles continued in Brittany and Gascony until 1846, when Edward III mounted a major invasion of France. Edward was unable to make significant headway and was forced to prepare for battle at Crécy. At Crécy, the French outnumbered the English by a substantial margin, but the skills of the English army were superior, and the French suffered a crushing defeat. Following this battle, Edward moved north, and the following year he captured Calais.
At this point the Black Death arrived in Europe, restricting any great ambitions for further battles. It was not until 1356 that the next major battle would be fought. John II had replaced Philip in France, and it was now Edward's son - Edward the Black Prince - who represented England. The Black prince invaded France from Gascony, and won a great victory at the Battle of Poitiers. John II was captured during the battle, and signed a truce with the Black Prince. The ransom for the French King was raised, and a new treaty was signed in which the English gained control of a large part of Aquitaine (see On the trail of the Black Prince for places in France related to the Black Prince)
An interesting side-note: John II had been allowed to return to France to raise the ransom money, but as part of this agreement several french nobles had gone to England to take his place as hostages. They escaped back to France, which horrified John II, as his royal word had not been kept. He therefore returned to England, and turned himself in. He eventually died in England in 1364, to great fanfare and acclaim from the English for his honourable behaviour.
By 1358-1360 the Black Prince was again invading France. He signed a treaty with Charles (later Charles V) in which he gave up rights to the French throne and received some more of Aquitaine, but in reality this Treaty - the Treaty of Brétigny - had little long term effect, because both parties soon reneged on the deal.
And so the first stage of the war ended, with England having gained significant victories, at land and at sea, and now had a strong foothold in France.
French victories in the Hundred Years War, 1370-1400
Not surprisingly, Charles V of France was not happy with this state of affairs. He was keen to reverse the situation, and during his reign he captured much of the lost territory, and won the leading Brittany lords back to the side of France. Most notable among these was Du Guesclin, a Breton leader who became a Frech General and won many victories for the French in the years ahead.
The Black Prince was occupied in Spain for part of this period, with heritary problems of a different nature, and the French recaptured several important towns, including Poitiers and Bergerac in the south of France.
The English did succeed in launching several significant attacks, but the French managed to avoid them, and piece by piece succeeded in continuing to expand their victories. Then in 1372 the English naval fleet suffered a defeat at La Rochelle which further weakened their position.
In 1376 the Black Prince died, followed by his father Edward III a year later. The young Richard II took the throne, but was subsequently deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbrooke, who became Henry IV, King of England.
The absence from the battlefield of the Black Prince - dismissed for brutality and overspending, among other things - and the disputes over the English throne, gave the French a significant advantage during these years. The alternative commanders sent to battle for the English included John of Gaunt and others, but none were able to stem the flow of piecemeal French victories.
Despite the absence of major 'flagship' victories, these years were successful for the French forces. But this position was not to continue, and would not be seen again for several decades.
English Victories in the Hundred Years War, 1400-1429
The problems for France started with a battle for the throne. Charles VI was going mad, and John of Burgundy and the Armagnac family bouth sought power. To help, they both asked for the help of the English, now under Henry V. Driving a hard bargain, which was refused, Henry VI asked for a return of the properties held under Henry II - an offer that was refused.
Instead he crossed the channel, took the city of Harfleur, and set off for Calais. Underprepared, he faced a larger French army at Agincourt, which despite the odds he defeated - the Battle of Agincourt was one of the most famous battles of the conflict, and inflicted severe losses on the French. from 1416-1419 Henry continued with these successes, placing much of Normandy under English rule.
In 1420 Henry met the mad Charles VI and they signed a treaty - Henry would marry the daughter of charles, and his heirs would later inherit the throne of France. Indeed, when Henry II died, in 1422, his son was crowned Henry VI in England but also King of France.
Unsurprisingly, the Armagnacs in France rejected this, supporting the Dauphin Charles instead - he had been disowned as illegitimate as part of the earlier treaty. They continued to fight, although the English maintained their military superiority. This was perhaps the defining feature of this period - usually outnumbered, the English won victory after victory against the French / Scottish armies.
This pattern was to continue, in a series of smaller and larger conflicts, throughout the years to 1429, with the French often unwilling to fight the English in open battle even when they had greater numbers.
So this period of the war finished unpromisingly for the French, losing battles and having an English king on the throne. The English, acting with the Burgundians, now controlled the northern third of France, and also Aquitaine in the south-west of the country.
Joan of Arc and the end of the Hundred Years War, 1429-1453
In 1428 the English laid siege to Orleans, and there seemed to be little that could prevent them continuing to take control of more territory in France. Charles was unable to take control of the situation. But then the most extraordinary person of the Hundred years War emerged - Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc reported that she had heard God speaking to her, and that He had told her to help the forces at Orleans, and to help drive the English from France. Joan of Arc was a simple poor peasant girl, but persuaded Charles that she could help. Riding into battle in full armour, the young Joan of Arc succeeded in raising the spirits of the French troops, and they were able to lift the siege that the English had on Orleans.
This victory helped turn the tide of defeat, and supported and led by Joan of Arc, several further victories fell to the French. These victories also enabled Charles to proceed to Reims to be crowned as King of France.
Tragically, Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians in 1430, handed to the English, tried on charges of heresy and witchcraft, and burned at the stake in Rouen. But by this stage the English position was much weakened.
Then in 1435 the Burgundians changed side - abandoning the English and signing a treaty with the King of France. From this point on, the English didn't realistically have a chance to reverse their decline.
The fighting continued, and the English won some notable victories, but slowly over several years many towns were returned to the hands of the French. The fighting continued, both in the north, and in the south in Aquitaine, until 1453.
The last battle of the Hundred Years War was fought at the Battle of Castillon, in Aquitaine, in 1435, and after more than a hundred years, France was returned to the French.