Birth of Two Nations – The Hundred Years War

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The Hundred Years War is one of those historical things I’ve always felt guilty about not knowing more about. It is the medieval conflict. Any time you picture knights in armor, castle sieges, charging heavy cavalry, longbows, squabbling royal families, you are probably subconsciously picturing something from the Hundred Years War template.

I finally got around to figuring out one of Europe’s greatest struggles through the blandly named, Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, by Desmond Seward.

Seward opens his work by stating that it is intended to be a broad overview of the Hundred Years War with a particular emphasis on portraying the English conduct during the conflict more accurately than past historical efforts. At least according to him, English historians have tended to romanticize the war as a valiant effort of early English nationhood against a vastly superior foe while overlooking or minimizing the brutal realities of English strategy which more closely resembled a Viking onslaught than typical feudal warfare (which was not known for its gentleness anyway). So make of that what you will.

My goal with this piece is to summarize the entire conflict and draw out the social, cultural, military, and political trends that I found most interesting.

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In June, 1940, Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle privately agreed on a plan to merge Great Britain and France into one country. Soon after, British Parliament enthusiastically signed off on the plan, but the French Council of Ministers saw it as a British plot to take over France in a moment of weakness, so it was vetoed.

Almost one thousand years earlier, the dream of a British-French Union was very real and came excruciatingly close to reality.

It all began in 1066, when Duke William of Normandy, a decedent of the Viking Rollo, successfully invaded England and established himself as the French-speaking King of England.  William’s successors on the English throne maintained a cultural connection to France for generations, including speaking French at court. Hundreds of years later, French King Charles IV died, leaving no proximate male heir to the French throne. The next in line was supposed to be his nephew, English Prince Edward III, but the French nobility swerved to Charles’s cousin, Phillip, arguing that the French crown couldn’t pass through a woman (Charles’s sister, the mother of Edward III). In 1337, an empowered King Edward III attempted to press his claim on the French throne and sparked the Hundred Years War.

I wish Seward had given a primer on this whole “claim” business, but my understanding is that medieval succession was part-legalistic, part-consensus. Essentially anyone with a familial connection to a lord could make a “claim” on his inheritance, but the strength of that claim was based on the closeness of the connection (ie. first sons are stronger than second sons, who are stronger than nephews, who are stronger than bastards, etc.) and based on consensus of fellow lords and royalty (ie. if all the lords in the land agree the oldest prince is an idiot, they will pressure him to accept the second son’s ascension to the throne). This is made all the more complicated by the various written and unwritten customs in every kingdom, duchy, county, etc. For instance, some titles could pass to women, some couldn’t; some titles could go to stepsons, some couldn’t, etc.

Ultimately, claimant disputes were usually decided by politics. The individual with the strongest claim would rally fellow lords for support and try to pressure the other claimants into surrendering their claims, or at least placidly standing by the wayside while the strongest claimant became the de jure lord. If no settlement could be reached, war would break out. And in medieval Europe, when legalism was still in its infancy and everyone’s ancestors were either long-gone Romans or murderous barbarians who only arrived in Europe half a century ago, lots and lots and lots of claimant wars broke out.

The biggest of these claimant wars in Medieval Europe was the Hundred Years War. It wasn’t actually a single war fought over a hundred years, but a series of conflicts between the English Plantagenet dynasty and French Valois dynasty, which started over England’s French possessions (mainly Aquitaine in southwest France) and spiraled into an all-out kingdom-level dynastic struggle.

Any English King between William and Edward III could have tried to invade France and retake the French crown given their historical claims, but none seriously tried because they knew they would lose. Seward sums up 14th century England as a European “backwater.” A chaotic island on the periphery of Christendom. In contrast, France was the center of Europe – greater in importance, prestige, and strength than even the Holy Roman Empire. On paper, Medieval France should have been able to curb stomp Medieval England into oblivion in any open conflict. In the 1300s, at the start of the war:

– France had a population approaching 21 million, while the English mainland had about 5 million inhabitants + maybe a million more in their French possessions.

– The French army was considered the best in Europe, featuring mighty French cavalry (which Seward calls “medieval tanks”) and state-of-the-art crossbows which could fire farther than any European bow. Meanwhile, English knights tended to fight on foot (after some bad encounters with the Scotts), and their longbowmen had a shorter effective range.

– Virtually all past wars between France and England (after William’s invasion) had gone in France’s favor, and so France was riding a wave of military prestige while England was considered to have a particularly ineffective military.

– Even aside from its massive population advantage, the French economy was significantly stronger on a per capita level (EDIT – I’m told this is disputed), with dominance in fine clothing and weapons markets. The only British economic specialty was wool, where its market power was split with the Low Countries.

– France controlled the Papacy which made its home in Avignon.

– The French government was far more centralized, with about 70% of French territory being French crown property. Meanwhile, the English government was one of the most feudalistic in Europe, especially since 1215’s Magna Carta. This meant the French crown could draw far higher ratios of manpower and money from its population and national wealth than the English crown which would have to negotiate with its aristocratic Parliament.

English King Edward III launched his first of three campaigns into France in 1337 not to take the French throne, but just to restrict French advances into Aquitaine and hopefully annex a foothold across the channel. Nevertheless, Edward III made explicit public committals to his French Kingdom claims as justification for his war and a morale boost for his troops. More cynically, he was trying to obscure the reality that he was launching a glorified raiding expedition.

The Unstoppable English

For roughly the first 90 out of 116 years of conflict, the English shocked Europe by repeatedly trouncing France. In the beginning, King Edward III had to cajole, defraud, and coerce wool merchants into loaning him money just to get an army across the English Channel; by the 1430s, the English and its allies controlled more than half of France and the French King Charles VII was seriously considering abdicating to the new dual-monarchy.

To me, this was the most interesting part of the war (and Seward’s book). Sort of like the South in the US Civil War or Nazi Germany in early WWII, there was an inferior fighting force defeating a vastly superior enemy through some combination of superior strategy, better leadership, and luck, only for the momentum to peter out.

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Making France Pay for Its Liberation

It was blatantly obvious from the outset of Edward III’s first invasion that the feudal English government didn’t have the resources to sustain a war. Standing armies were expensive, taxation was primitive, and England was fairly poor, especially compared to France. Edward borrowed what he could from merchants, nobles, and the Low Countries, but he made it clear to his armies that whenever the royal treasury ran dry (and it constantly did), the troops would have to be paid from wealth derived from France.

In theory, this meant occupying/annexing French territory, setting up a local administration under the king’s authority, and levying traditional taxes on the local landowners and peasantry. In reality, this meant state-sanctioned looting, kidnapping-and-ransoms, and arbitrary protection rackets.

This is one of the main points Seward wants to get across. The English occupation of northern France was brutal. Especially later in the war, in the early 1400s when the English occupation was well-established, Seward describes northern France like a medieval Mad Max hellscape, complete with ad hoc regional warlords and roving deserter gangs preying on the weak. The typical cycle of an English invasion was:

First, an English army would land in France and attack a militarily-relevant city or castle, and sack it upon success. This was typical medieval warfare – slaughtering innocents, raping women, capturing nobles and merchants for ransom, etc. King Edward III had made a scorched earth invasion doctrine official military policy at the start of the war back when the English didn’t know if they could actually hold on to any French territory and just wanted to send a message to the French crown.

Second, within a few months, the English would usually run out of money to pay the armies, so the soldiers would resort to pillaging whatever was nearby- random towns, errant peasants, travelling merchants, basically anything.

Third, the army would run out of steam, or be ordered to garrison occupied territory, or be too disorganized to attack anything, and so the soldiers would settle in. This often meant groups of soldiers forming gangs to run roughshod over occupied territory. Sometimes they would set up protection rackets, sometimes they would take over local castles and become warlords, and sometimes they would just walk around France pillaging everything in their path.

The English leadership sometimes tried to stop this behavior, especially in Normandy which had historical ties to the mainland, but typically the King and his local administrations turned a blind eye. For one, King Edward III had sanctioned such policies at the start of the war, plus pillaging was often de facto payment for English troops in lieu of promised salaries, and finally, the English army was always stretched thin, so they rarely had the spare manpower to alienate and fight their own soldiers.

Scariest of all, this brutal occupation method worked, at least for most of the war. The English were taking the fight to France, putting all the weight of economic and social damage on their enemy while sustaining almost none of their own. Typically the English armies would be pushed back and have to retreat to England, but it didn’t matter – the damage had been done.

The English would come, kill thousands of people, extract a massive amount of fixed wealth (gold, silver, silk, cash from ransoms, etc.) and bring it all back to England to enrich the people and finance the next invasion. Meanwhile, the French territories hit by the armies would be permanently damaged, and even have spillover effects onto other territories due to ransom payments and refugees. Over multiple decades of strength-sapping invasions and annexing bits of territory (like Calais), the scales were tipped, and by the early 1400s, the English secured a long-term occupation of northern France.

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Medieval Entrepreneurs

One of my favorite arguments for capitalism is that the world will always have psychopaths and assholes, so we should have a social system which channels these impulses in ways which benefit everyone, like starting businesses which produce products that people want. Seward’s account of the English army in the Hundred Years War is kind of the opposite of that.

The Elon Musks and Steve Jobs of Medieval England were not inventing cool technology, but signing up to invade France. Once the word got out that the English army was given license to pillage, every ambitious peasant volunteered to join the expedition forces. Even literal outlaws flocked to the standard in droves, sometimes in the hopes of a pardon, sometimes just to get rich. When England sent their people, they weren’t sending their best, they brought crime, they were rapists, and some, I assume, were good people.

Unfortunately for France, these medieval entrepreneurs tended to be successful. The usual way they would make money was by collecting plunder during a sacking, but the lucky ones got in on ransoms. Typically, soldiers were part of small teams which fought together, often led by a knight or noble. If their squad happened to capture someone of value, they would agree on splitting the ransom according to rank. If a ransom peasant or squire got even 1/12th of the share of a French Duke, that was still more money than he would have made from a lifetime of peasant labor. Thus, entire fortunes were made on single lucky days.

Seward goes into fascinating detail on how random pillaging became an institution. From lords down to peasants, all the Englishmen knew the game and formed fairly strong social norms to regulate who had a right to what. Individuals even signed private contracts to pool risk. Seward recounts two English knights who agreed to split all their plunder, pay for each other’s ransoms if captured, and even provide pensions to widows upon death. I don’t remember the names, but Seward also describes a few peasants or man-at-arms who struck it rich in France, became mercenaries, and ended up retiring in Italy or Germany on massive estates.

France had to rely on traditional levies to raise its armies; this meant the king had a small and extremely expensive quasi-standing army of professionals mixed with lords who called upon men-at-arms and peasants through feudal obligations. The average rank-and-file didn’t particularly care to defend France, especially if the individual happened to be from the south. In contrast, the English army was bursting at the seams with eager peasant adventurers, competitive noblemen looking to climb the aristocratic ranks, and literal criminals just trying to make a few pounds.

The result was a remarkable boon for English manpower and morale, especially compared to its opponent. The English army was smaller and overall less professional, but had higher morale and far more manpower compared to its base population than the French.

As the war raged on, France continued to be plundered in the north, taxed to death in the south, and periodically besieged everywhere. Meanwhile, England was enjoying the greatest influx of wealth in its entire history. Peasants were coming back from the war and buying up local manors. Nobles were coming back and building entire new palaces. The most ambitious, intelligent, and cunning Englishmen were directing their efforts towards destroying France for their own gain, and the English crown was loving it.

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Sic Semper Tyrannis

One of the biggest advantages for France at the outset of the war was its centralization. By the 14th century, France was in the early stages of absolutism, with a fairly weak aristocracy and a massive bureaucracy working in Paris directly under the King. In contrast, England was stuck in feudalism, with more privileges afforded to its nobles than any other modern state in Europe. On both sides of the Channel, spectators assumed French centralization would give it a flexibility and power than could crush a burdened English state.

The truth turned out to be the exact opposite.

For “the map is not the territory” reasons, if nobles are on the same page as the king, then a decentralized government is more efficient than a more centralized state. When the English king desperately needed money, he went to Parliament and asked. Usually through some negotiations and ceding of central power (Edward III gave Parliament the perpetual taxation veto in exchange for implementing a massive wool tax), English nobles were willing to cough up cash and keep the war going. The English nobles themselves would turn to their peasants, with whom they usually had long and well-established relations, and levy a tax efficiently by medieval standards.

But in France, the central administration had to directly tax the 70% of the country owned by the King, much of which being pillaged or occupied by the English. And so, despite its enormous population and wealth, France struggled to outpace the English military machine as it should have. Granted, France always had a larger military, but not expected ratios with a 4:1 population advantage.

The centralization issue went beyond finance. English kings explicitly made the case to domestic and foreign nobles that life under English rule was superior. More autonomy, less taxation, and less tyranny awaited under the English king than under Paris. These arguments both maintained local loyalties and encouraged a splintering within France.

One of the weirdly modern aspects of the Hundred Years War was that the English and French intervened in proxy wars that shifted regional balances-of-power. Early in the conflict, civil war broke out in the Dukedom of Brittany (northwest France), and so the English and French both picked a claimant and funneled money and troops to back their side. The English ended up winning Brittany and a similar conflict in the Low Countries, partially because the local lords preferred English decentralization, but they lost out in Navarre where the French helped an aggressive minor king take land from English Aquitaine.

The British Parliamentary system was by no means flawless, but typically the king and his nobles could come to terms civilly. With no equivalent system, internal political problems in France often came to violence. Arguably the single greatest French weakness throughout the war was the split in French royalty/nobility between two factions of Valois – the Armagnacs (based out of Flanders) and the Burgundians (based out of Burgundy). Tensions grew into outright civil war by the late 1300s as French soldiers murdered each other on the streets of Paris. Eventually the Burgundians sided with the English because, again, they would rather be ruled by a distant, decentralized state system than the far more proximate and centralized French monarchy.

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The Medieval Machine Guns

Contrary to everyone’s expectations on both sides of the conflict, England kept winning major battles against overwhelming odds. Typically, an English invasion would take a bunch of castles and towns while strategically maneuvering around a much larger French army, but inevitably get trapped and have to fight a rather desperate defense, only to surprisingly crush French forces. According to Seward, this occurred partially due to superior English leadership, but mostly due to a surprise revolution in military technology to which the French were slow to adapt.

Before the start of the war, mounted knights were the ultimate weapon of medieval warfare. They were incredibly expensive to assemble and maintain, but a group of armored horses with armored riders could smash into just about anything and win, so the French army built itself around providing opportunities for its knights and lords to do just that. It helped that France had unparalleled armor and weapon quality to bulk up its best fighters into unstoppable behemoths on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the English army was lighter, faster, but no less well-trained. Its centerpiece was the newly arrived English longbow, which the king promoted through a law which required all able-bodied men to practice archery every Sunday. An average bowman could fire a dozen times a minute, but usually did less to preserve stamina for the 60-80 arrows he carried to battle. The 6-foot-long English longbow (made mostly from wood imported from France) had a longer effective range (400 yards) than any other European bows of the age, though shorter than the French crossbow.

That combination of training and technology made the English bowman a surprise powerhouse on the battlefield. Contrary to what the Medieval Total War video games taught me, English armies tended to consist of around 60-80% archers who would simply annihilate armies with rapid, strong shots before the English dismounted knights and men at arms got close enough to hack at the survivors. Despite their superior range, French crossbows were far too bulky, slow, and difficult to use to be as effective.

In the first half of the war, the English won three massive battles despite vast numerical inferiority: Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. In all three cases, the battle followed a similar pattern: the French attacked with superior manpower and armor, but were shredded by the rapid-fire longbows before they could hit the English with a devastating charge. The third and most famous battle at Agincourt was the greatest English victory, but fairly typical in terms of the tactical elements:

After some rough sieges, English King Henry V marched about 7,000 troops (5/6ths longbowmen) up the French coast towards Calais through three whole days of pouring rain for evacuation back to England. An eager French army of roughly 35,000 troops (including 10,000 mounted knights) cornered the English at Agincourt. The French commander offered Henry safe passage home in exchange for giving up Calais and surrendering his claim to the French throne, and the French assumed he would take it. But Henry refused and lined up his men for battle.

It’s not clear whether Henry planned this, but after three days of rain, the ground was pure mud. So when the first wave of French attacked, it turned into a nightmarish shooting gallery with thousands of English longbows picking off horses wading up to their chests in mud. The few Frenchmen who managed to reach the English were easily hacked to pieces. When the second French wave came it was even worse, because the English could literally stand on piles of French corpses which proved sturdier ground than their own mud. IIRC, Seward even said that more Frenchman suffocated under the mud or their own men at Agincourt than were killed by the English.

By final count, the English lost a few hundred men (many of whom drowned in mud) while the French suffered over 10,000 dead and thousands more captured.

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God’s Will

Medieval Europe was deeply superstitious. God was considered a daily presence in everyday life, especially amongst the royals and nobles it supposedly chose to rule over other men. So when the English kept miraculously winning battle after battle and mighty France couldn’t throw them off its shores, the popular consensus really bought into the idea that god wanted England to win.

Again, it all goes back to claims. Legally, the English claim to the French throne was fairly weak, but the consensus slowly shifted in English favor. Not only were English lords consistently impressed by a string of competent English kings, but even within France, a significant number of nobles shifted allegiances.

In 1420, English King Henry V was peacefully let into Paris by Burgundian allies and declared King of France by the Estates-General. For the next twenty years, a significant portion of the French nobility really tried to make this dual-monarchy thing work, even as French King Charles VII sat in his own court in the south. As mentioned, Charles VII seriously considered abdicating, both because of widespread rumors that he was a bastard, and because he thought god had abandoned him in favor of the English.

Perhaps the biggest blunder of the English is they bought into their own hype. At the outset of the Hundreds Years War, Edward III was just looking for France to affirm England’s territorial rights over its existing French territory. After Agincourt, the French were willing to do that and cede all of northern France to England, effectively equalizing their manpower and economies. But Henry V refused. Paris was in sight and he wanted to achieve the French-English Union dream. The war waged on for another half-century until the French finally turned their fortunes.

Vive La Resistance

By 1431, total English victory seemed like it was just a matter of time. The English held all of northern France, the British possession of Aquitaine was secure, the Dukedom of Brittany declared independence as an English ally, the powerful Dukedom of Burgundy had defected to the English, and the infant English King Henry VI was triumphantly brought to Paris two years after his coronation in Westminster to be crowned for a second time – this time as the monarch of France.

Despite being close to starvation after months of sieging, the Parisians lined the streets and cheered as Henry VI entered their city. The people were sick of a useless French king and warring nobles, and wanted the divinely ordained English to bring order to the land. Unfortunately, Henry’s handlers didn’t quite get French ways yet. First, they committed a massive faux pas by conducting Henry’s coronation ceremony in English instead of French, and we all know how much the French love their language. Then the English regent neglected to abolish a tax, as was customary of all rising French kings, much to the consternation of the impoverished Parisians.

After a few icy weeks in his new capital, Henry VI was quietly escorted back to London, while the regent and a newly-assembled English-French dual government attempted to consolidate their gains and squash the rest of the French resistance based in the south. The English would have a few more key victories, but unbeknownst to everyone, Henry’s reception in Paris foretold his fate. The tide was already turning – the English war machine was grinding to a halt, the French were about to catch their second wind, and in twenty years, the English would be thrown back into the sea.

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Divine Intervention

Even more so than the Hundred Years War, “Joan of Arc” is one of those historical things that everyone has heard of but no one knows anything about. Literally all I knew about her before reading this book was that she was a young, religious French woman with short hair who fought the English (if it matters, I’m American). Seward makes it clear that there is an enormous amount of myth and exaggeration around Joan, so it’s difficult to say what her true impact was, but he does his best to give a fair analysis.

Joan of Arc was a teenage peasant girl from Orleans Domremy, a tiny village in eastern france, who kept trying to sign up for the French army and loudly announcing to people that god told her to put French King Charles VII back on the throne in Paris. A bunch of army recruiters told her to stop annoying them and go away until one was intrigued by her as a curiosity and brought Joan to the King’s court in exile at Chinon. Joan was 17 and Charles 26, when they met.

The king and everyone else at court was weirded out by the short-haired teenage girl cross-dressing as a soldier, especially when she confidently recounted her divine communications. Many guessed she was a sorceress, but (according to Seward) quite a few members of Charles’s court (including Charles himself) were secret devil-worshippers and borderline-heretics, so they let her hang around. Plus France was so desperate at the time that no one wanted to potentially piss off god by throwing out one of his prophets.

So Joan hung around court for a while, pestering the king to let her join the army until he finally relented and let her go back to a besieged Orleans with a French army to desperately save one of the last big French cities in England’s path.

This is where historical accounts get hazy because there is so much potential exaggeration. After months of faltering under the English siege, the French began to turn the battle around as soon as Joan arrived. She legitimately threw herself into multiple successful engagements and was even wounded a few times, and her comrades began to take notice. The French commanders soon capitalized on Joan as a propaganda story – “The English are Losing to a Teenage Girl!” eventually turned into “Joan of Arc is God’s Sword Against the English.” Later on, Joan even helped command French forces and was generally praised for her tactical ability. When France won the siege of Orleans, its first major victory in decades, the French nobles touted Joan of Arc as their savior and a promise of ultimate victory against the English.

For a few months after Orleans, Joan sat around being bored, killing her time by writing threatening letters to Hussite Heretics, and even offered the English a peace treaty in exchange for combining their army with the French to march on Bohemia and crush the Hussite menace once and for all. The English ignored her offer.

Eventually she joined another French force trying to break a siege at Complegne but was soon captured by Burgundian forces in an ambush. The English made the most of the situation and held a very public trial where they accused her of heresy and sorcery. When Joan refused to recant her claims that god had promised her a French victory, she was convicted and burned at the stake at the age of 19.

Seward argues that, contrary to popular French history, Joan of Arc was not a populist figure who inspired widespread French nationalism amongst a beleaguered people that turned the tide of the war. For one, she rarely left aristocratic circles, so the common Frenchman probably didn’t know anything about her. Nonetheless, she really did seem to bolster the French government’s morale at its lowest point and inspire the military to halt English advances. At a time when even the French king was thinking about giving up and everyone else in Europe was betting on an inevitable English victory, the French received a truly bizarre sign that god wanted them to win, so they didn’t look that gift horse in the mouth.

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End of Days

While Joan of Arc helped stop the English advance, the invaders knew their problems were far greater and more systematic than a single teenage girl. The dual-monarchy in Paris was in the midst of complete economic and fiscal meltdown.

All that plundering, looting, kidnapping, and extorting the English had enjoyed in northern France for decades was finally catching up. According to Seward, the economy pretty much collapsed. Peasants stopped working the fields, craftsmen stopped producing goods, and merchants stopped travelling. What was the point? Any wealth produced was sure to be seized by the English army without provocation. Naturally, widespread unemployment and famine followed, with plummeting tax revenues to boot. Northern France could no longer sustain itself, let alone finance its own liberation.

Seward describes some rather valiant efforts by the English to combat the economic collapse, especially in Normandy. A particularly just English governor personally issued thousands of “protection letters” to loyal subjects, tried to establish rule of law with a professional bureaucracy, and even attempted to chase down some of the more dangerous local English army warlords, but it was all in vain. The English crown had long-since given up trying to pay soldiers on time, and the local bureaucracy was gutted when most of its members fled south with the French.

Even the robust English government began to falter. The nobles had been all for pressing their king’s claim, but they had their limits. They were beyond taxed out and had leaned on the domestic merchants to the breaking point. When the war finally did end, the loss of order culminated in the bloody internal War of the Roses as thousands of war-hardened veterans streamed home. However, despite all these problems, Seward notes that as a whole, England probably net-profited from the Hundreds Year War due to its plunder.

Ultimately, the English realized they had no real means of restoring order in northern France until the war was won, so they tried to race against their own insolvency by winning the war militarily as quickly as possible. But that started to get a lot harder…

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Blowing Away the Competition

After losing countless humiliating battles, the French finally started learning a few new tricks. Or rather, they started buying new toys.

It turned out the solution to the English longbow was big-ass cannons. The French needed to stop charging at medieval machine guns and start blasting them away from afar. Guns had always been part of both side’s arsenals from the start of the war, but they were generally pretty shitty in actual combat due to their inaccuracy and danger to the wielder, and thus were mostly used to shock enemy morale. But by the mid-15th century, guns were finally becoming effective. One royal French bulletin bragged that only four cannons self-destructed during a successful siege of an English-occupied castle.

Despite France’s many problems, it was always more integrated into greater-Christendom than England, and therefore got access to new military tech sooner. The cannons deployed by French armies near the end of the war made short work of the many castles the English had paid dearly for through countless sieges over the last century. Walls simply couldn’t stand under the onslaught, so the English found their weary armies rapidly retreating (by medieval warfare standards) from one castle to another up France until they hit the sea.

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Treacherous Burgundians

The English occupation unraveled far faster than it was established. With the defeat at Orleans, English forces suddenly seemed to be stretched paper-thin, and superior French armies were starting to take ground. After almost 100 years of nearly-continuous momentum, the bottom fell out from the English. They were broke and everyone knew the government would never pay back its enormous debts, so English allies began to get cold feet. The Dukedom of Brittany, having been its own civil war for almost the duration of the Hundred Years War, was content to sit on the sidelines and cheer England from afar.

But the true omen of England’s fate was the betrayal of Burgundy. For decades, the Burgundians had been loyal allies undermining their French kings internally, and even ushering the English into Paris to establish the dual-monarchy. But in 1435, after some rather depressing military strategy meetings, the Duke of Burgundy came back into the French fold with a formal treaty that reaffirmed its vassal status to the solo-Kingdom of France. Finally, the English were really on their own.

Seward notes that the Burgundians made a massive blunder by siding with the French. English noble obligations were far nicer than French ones, and the French crown would never tolerate such a strong duchy within its lands, especially so close to Paris. A decade after the Hundred Years War concluded, the Duchy of Burgundy declared independence from France after years of being squeezed by the crown. Burgundy called on its old English allies for support, but France bought off England with a generous lump-sum payment and proceeded to crush the rebellion. The Duchy of Burgundy was permanently dissolved.


The final twenty years of the Hundred Years War was a long English retreat from the mainland. In 1453, the last English troops were thrown out of Aquitaine in southwest France, territory which the English had controlled since William the Conqueror the mid-12th century. England had started the Hundred Years War to protect Aquitaine, ended up occupying nearly all of northern France, almost successfully took the French crown, but ended up losing all of its European mainland possessions, going broke, and descending into its own bloody 30-year civil war.

Seward summarizes the legacy of the Hundred Years War in two key points:

First, it was the high point and end of medieval political systems in Western Europe. Both France and England had been through a meat grinder century and came out the other end looking rather different. France was already pretty much out the medieval door at the start of the conflict, but by the end, it was in proto-absolutist form with the most centralized monarchy in Europe, including a permanent standing army and a cowed aristocratic class both de facto and de jure. This newly reborn France would become the most dominant state in Europe in terms of its military, economy, and population for the next 300 years.

England evolved just as much away from feudalism but in a different direction. Seward makes an interesting argument that England’s aristocracy became a complete warrior class after a century of non-stop fighting. When the war finally ended in France’s favor, there was widespread outrage amongst commoners and nobles alike that the English kings had led them all to ruin. A century of fighting with countless opportunities for victory had been wasted. The lords of Parliament already had their powers tremendously expanded throughout the conflict as short-sighted kings ceded legal privileges in exchange for money, but after the war, the strong English lords truly began to morph England towards its modern quasi-democratic form. The ideological impulses that would blossom into the Glorious Revolution took root during the Hundred Years War.

Second, the Hundred Years War was the birth of Western European nationalism. Though the conflict was essentially a dynastic struggle between royal families, the sheer scale and length of the war turned it into an almost civilizational struggle.

When I think of a massive war, World War II comes to mind. And while WWII might be the most destructive conflict of all time, it only lasted 7 years, less for the US and Russians. Its difficult to imagine a nearly continuous conflict lasting 118 years. By the end of the Hundred Years War, there were soldiers on both sides whose great grandfathers had fought and died against the same enemies.

For generations, Frenchmen hated the dreaded English marauders defiling their land, while Englishmen commonly joked (and eventually seriously strategized) that two Frenchmen were worth one Englishman in battle. Joan of Arc and the Battle of Agincourt became legendary myths in historical stories, both taught and exaggerated in schools to this day. National identities were formed and utilized to raise morale on both sides of the fight, and neither France nor England would ever be the same again because of it.

2 thoughts on “Birth of Two Nations – The Hundred Years War

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