The Beginning of the Hundred Years’ War

The first Western image of a battle with cannon: the Siege of Orléans in 1429. From Les Vigiles de Charles VII, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

The Hundred Years’ War was a protracted conflict that lasted from 1337 to 1453, primarily between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of France, though it also involved various other European powers. This war was not a continuous battle but rather a series of military campaigns, truces, and diplomatic negotiations that spanned over a century. The underlying causes of the war included territorial disputes, economic interests, and dynastic claims to the French throne.

The Outbreak of Hostilities

The initiation of the Hundred Years’ War, a monumental series of conflicts between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of France, can be traced to deep-seated animosities and unresolved territorial disputes that had simmered for generations. This prolonged struggle, which spanned from 1337 to 1453, was not merely a series of battles but a transformative period that reshaped the landscape of medieval Europe, altering the course of its history and the development of nation-states.

The immediate spark for the outbreak of hostilities was the audacious move by Philip VI of France to confiscate the Duchy of Aquitaine from Edward III of England. This act was perceived as a direct affront to Edward’s sovereign rights and authority over a territory that was both economically lucrative and symbolically significant. Aquitaine had been a perennial source of friction, emblematic of the feudal entanglements and rivalries that characterized Anglo-French relations. Its confiscation by Philip VI not only challenged Edward’s control over this prized region but also struck at the very heart of his royal prestige and the delicate balance of power in medieval Europe.

In retaliation, Edward III’s declaration of his claim to the French throne dramatically escalated the conflict, transforming it from a dispute over feudal rights and territories into a dynastic confrontation of epic proportions. Edward’s claim was underpinned by his lineage, as the son of Isabella of France, thereby positioning him as a contender to the French crown by virtue of bloodline—despite the complexities of Salic law, which barred succession through the female line. This bold assertion threatened to upend the established Valois succession and plunged both kingdoms into a war that would endure for over a century.

The initial phase of the war, known as the Edwardian War, was marked by significant English military successes, notably at the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers. These victories not only demonstrated the effectiveness of the English longbowmen, a revolutionary force on the medieval battlefield, but also exposed the vulnerabilities of the French military strategy and the fractious nature of French nobility. The longbow, with its range, power, and relative speed of fire, became a symbol of English martial prowess, allowing relatively smaller English forces to inflict devastating defeats on the more heavily armored French cavalry.

The capture of the French King John II at Poitiers was a particularly humiliating blow for France, which had profound ramifications. It not only sapped French morale but also led to a significant ransom demand that strained the French economy and deepened internal divisions. This period highlighted the strategic and tactical innovations that would come to define medieval warfare, with the English victories at Crécy and Poitiers serving as case studies in the effective use of combined arms and the importance of terrain and prepared positions.

The outbreak and early phases of the Hundred Years’ War underscored the fragility of medieval politics, where claims of sovereignty, the ambitions of monarchs, and the complexities of feudal allegiances could spark widespread conflict. The war represented a critical juncture in the evolution of European warfare, diplomacy, and statecraft, with its legacies influencing the development of national identities, military tactics, and the principles of governance. The enduring struggle between England and France set the stage for the emergence of stronger, more centralized states and heralded significant social, political, and military transformations that would shape the trajectory of Western history.

The Treaty of Brétigny and Renewed Conflict

Animated map showing progress of the war (territorial changes and the most important battles between 1337 and 1453).

The Treaty of Brétigny, signed on May 8, 1360, marked a pivotal moment in the Hundred Years’ War, culminating the first phase of the conflict with significant concessions that appeared to favor the English. Negotiated after the capture of the French King John II at the Battle of Poitiers and the subsequent ransom negotiations, the treaty represented a high point in English fortunes during the conflict. Under its terms, King Edward III of England renounced his claim to the French throne but, in exchange, received full sovereignty over vast territories in France, including the entire Duchy of Aquitaine, as well as Calais and Gascony, without any feudal obligations to the French crown. This arrangement significantly enlarged the English realm on the continent, providing a direct rule over these areas rather than holding them as a vassal of the French king.

Despite the seemingly advantageous terms for England, the Treaty of Brétigny set the stage for renewed conflict. The peace it established was precarious and underpinned by unresolved tensions and dissatisfaction on both sides. The treaty’s implementation was fraught with difficulties, including disputes over the territories’ surrender and the enormous ransom for King John II, which strained the French economy and led to widespread discontent within France.

The period of relative peace lasted less than a decade. In 1369, hostilities resumed with the onset of the Caroline War, named after Charles V of France, known as Charles the Wise. This phase of the conflict signaled a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the English and French. Under the leadership of Charles V and his capable military commander Bertrand du Guesclin, the French adopted a new strategy that emphasized guerrilla tactics and the avoidance of open-field battles where the English longbowmen could dominate. This approach, coupled with the strategic use of fortified towns and castles, gradually eroded English control over the territories gained at Brétigny.

The Caroline War saw a series of French successes as they capitalized on internal divisions and logistical challenges facing the English. The French were able to recapture key territories, including much of Aquitaine, and reverse many of the gains made by England in the earlier phases of the war. The recapture of these territories was not just a military triumph but also a psychological boost for the French, demonstrating the resilience and renewed strength of the French monarchy under Charles V.

The effectiveness of the French strategy during the Caroline War underscored the importance of adaptability in medieval warfare. The shift from reliance on heavy cavalry and the nobility’s martial prowess to more flexible and pragmatic approaches reflected a broader transformation in military tactics during the late Middle Ages.

Furthermore, the renewed conflict and the French successes highlighted the limitations of the Treaty of Brétigny as a means of resolving the deep-seated disputes between England and France. The treaty’s failure to secure a lasting peace demonstrated the complexity of the issues at stake, including dynastic claims, territorial ambitions, and national identity, which could not be easily addressed through diplomatic agreements.

Earliest extant representation of Joan of Arc, drawing by Clément de Fauquembergue (May 1429, French National Archives)

Joan of Arc and the Turning Tide

Joan of Arc’s emergence as a pivotal figure in the Hundred Years’ War represents one of the most remarkable chapters in the annals of military and religious history. Born around 1412 in Domrémy, a small village in northeastern France, Joan’s life took a dramatic turn when, at the age of 13, she began experiencing visions. She claimed these visions were messages from divine entities, including Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret, instructing her to support Charles VII, the dauphin of France, in his struggle to reclaim his kingdom from English control and to have him crowned as the rightful king.

By 1429, the conflict had reached a critical juncture. Much of northern France, including Paris, was under English occupation or controlled by their Burgundian allies. The legitimate heir to the French throne, Charles VII, faced significant challenges in asserting his claim amidst the political and military turmoil. It was against this backdrop that Joan, a mere peasant girl with no military training, managed to secure a meeting with Charles VII at Chinon. Convincing him of her divine mission, she was granted permission to accompany an army to Orléans, which had been under English siege for months.

Joan’s arrival in Orléans marked the beginning of a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the French forces. Dressed in armor and carrying a banner that she claimed was ordained by her visions, Joan inspired a sense of purpose and renewal among the beleaguered French troops. The siege of Orléans was lifted in May 1429, just days after her arrival, in what was seen as a miraculous victory and a turning point in the war. This success was not solely due to Joan’s military strategy but also to the profound impact she had on French morale. Her conviction that she was acting under divine guidance inspired a nationalistic fervor among the French soldiers and populace, reinvigorating the Valois cause.

Following the victory at Orléans, Joan’s influence continued to grow. She led the French army in several more successful engagements against the English and their allies, paving the way for Charles VII’s coronation at Reims Cathedral in July 1429. This event was of immense symbolic importance, solidifying Charles’s legitimacy as king of France and uniting the French people under his rule. Joan’s role in this achievement cannot be overstated; she had transformed from a peasant girl into a national symbol of unity and resistance against foreign domination.

However, Joan’s meteoric rise would not last. In May 1430, she was captured by Burgundian forces allied with the English. The subsequent trial for heresy and witchcraft was a politically motivated effort to undermine her and, by extension, Charles VII’s legitimacy. Despite a spirited defense, Joan was condemned and burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431, becoming a martyr at the age of 19.

Joan of Arc’s legacy extends far beyond her brief life and military campaigns. Her role in turning the tide of the Hundred Years’ War underscored the power of individual conviction and the potential for leadership to arise from the most unlikely sources. Her canonization as a saint in 1920 by the Roman Catholic Church and her status as a symbol of French unity and resistance have cemented her place as one of history’s most enduring figures. Joan’s impact on the war, her contributions to the establishment of Charles VII’s reign, and her embodiment of nationalistic and religious fervor represent a unique convergence of faith, identity, and military strategy that dramatically altered the course of French history.

The Treaty of Arras and the End of the War

The Battle of Sluys from a BNF manuscript of Froissart’s Chronicles, Bruges, c. 1470.

The Treaty of Arras, signed on September 21, 1435, was a crucial turning point in the Hundred Years’ War, altering the course of the conflict and signaling the beginning of the end for English ambitions in France. This agreement between Charles VII of France and Philip the Good of Burgundy effectively dissolved the alliance between the Duchy of Burgundy and England, a partnership that had been instrumental in sustaining English military campaigns in France. The loss of Burgundian support not only isolated England diplomatically but also undermined its strategic position on the continent, as Burgundy controlled key territories and routes critical for English logistics and reinforcements.

The backdrop to the Treaty of Arras was a Europe exhausted by decades of warfare, economic strain, and the devastation of lands caught in the conflict. The shifting political landscape, marked by changing allegiances and the internal politics of the Burgundian court, paved the way for negotiations. The treaty was a diplomatic victory for Charles VII, as it not only neutralized one of his most formidable opponents but also paved the way for reconciliation and the restoration of French sovereignty over contested territories.

In the years that followed the Treaty of Arras, the momentum decisively shifted in favor of the French. Revitalized and now facing a fragmented and demoralized English presence, French forces embarked on a series of campaigns to reclaim territories still under English control. The recapture of Normandy in 1450 was a significant milestone, erasing much of the gains England had made in the early stages of the war. The fall of Cherbourg and Caen, key strongholds in Normandy, symbolized the collapsing English dominion in France.

The Battle of Castillon, fought on July 17, 1453, near Bordeaux in the Gascony region, epitomized the changed fortunes of the warring kingdoms. This engagement, often cited as the last major battle of the Hundred Years’ War, saw the French forces, equipped with artillery and adopting modern tactics, inflict a devastating defeat on the English army. The battle not only marked the end of English territorial ambitions in France but also showcased the evolution of military technology and tactics that would come to define the late medieval period.

The Treaty of Picquigny, signed in 1475, officially ended the hostilities between England and France, although by this time, the outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion. The treaty saw Edward IV of England renounce his claim to the French throne in exchange for a pension from the French king, Louis XI. This agreement not only formalized the cessation of conflict but also acknowledged the substantial shift in power dynamics between the two nations.

The end of the Hundred Years’ War had profound implications for both England and France. France emerged from the conflict as a more centralized and cohesive state, with strengthened royal authority and a renewed sense of national identity. The war accelerated the decline of feudalism in France and laid the groundwork for the French Renaissance. In contrast, England faced a period of internal turmoil and dynastic conflict, known as the Wars of the Roses, which can be attributed in part to the social and economic strains imposed by the war and the loss of its continental possessions.

The legacy of the Hundred Years’ War is complex, encompassing significant developments in military strategy and technology, the rise of national consciousness, and the reshaping of medieval European politics. The war not only redrew the map of France but also set the stage for the emergence of the modern nation-state, marking the end of medieval feudal order and the beginning of a new era in European history.