When the Hundred Years’ War finally ended in 1453, the weary combatants looked at each other and said, “Where has the time gone? The Middle Ages are almost over.” Or, more likely, they said, “What was that about?”
Later generations of historians have examined the factors that contributed to all that combat, but then they pretend not to notice that the Hundred Years’ War actually lasted more than 100 years; it began in 1337.
Since we lack the space (and enthusiasm) to review the entire war, let’s just take a look at some colorful characters and events that made the highlight reel, so to speak.
In a nutshell, the Hundred Years’ War was really a series of wars fought between the English and the French. Mostly it was about who the rightful king was, and there were lots of applicants for that job. That’s why the long-running war between England and France was sometimes interrupted by wars between countrymen: Two English armies fighting each other, for instance, to win the chance for their leader to claim he was King of France.
Anyway, the guy who started it all was Edward III of England. He had become the British monarch when his mother Isabella, sometimes known as “the she-wolf of France”, led an invasion against her own husband, Edward II of England — it was a troubled marriage, apparently.
Because of his mother’s French ancestry, Edward III thought he was entitled to be King of France, even though the French already had a guy with a crown. His name was Philip VI, and naturally he took offense when Edward III sent armies into northwest France to stake his claim.
Edward began the offensive in 1337, capturing Brittany and Normandy. His troops won a number of important battles, including one in 1346 at Crécy. The English introduced longbows to the battlefield, sending a lethal rain of arrows at the French infantrymen, whose armor was fashionable but not particularly arrow-resistant. Philip VI lost a lot of relatives and soldiers that day.
Pressing on, Edward III had control of about 25% of France by the mid-1300s. His holdings began to wane, however, when the so-called Black Death (Bubonic Plague) hit Europe. It’s hard to imagine the devastation it caused — estimates of those who died in the years from 1347-1351 range from 30-50% of the population. Obviously, that hindered army recruitment efforts.
Edward III made a strategic blunder by dying (not of plague) in 1377. He left several heirs who all seemed to think they were qualifed to be King of England. They fought with each other for the next few decades, until Henry V won the title. Henry was the subject of one of Shakespeare’s historical plays, and either looked like Sir Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh, depending on which movie you saw.
The army of Henry V won a big one at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. That resulted in the French king Charles VI (a.k.a. Charles the Mad) disinheriting his own kids and designating Henry V to be his successor. That might have resolved the whole mess, except that in August of 1422, Henry died of dysentery at the age of 35. Charles VI died that October. So if Henry had lived two months longer, he would have been the king of France, fulfilling the dream that had begun with his great-grandfather Edward III.
Instead, the Hundred Years’ War continued… and in the next blog post, this topic will, too.