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IN PURSUIT OF THE FRENCH CROWN

Henry V at Agincourt by John Gilbert Henry V at Agincourt by John Gilbert

THE HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR — 1337 to 1453

by: Ian R Gumm

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of battles waged from 1337 to 1453 that pitted the House of Plantagenet, the Kings of England, against the House of Valois, the Kings of France, for control of the Kingdom of France.

On 1st February 1328 Charles IV of France died at the Château de Vincennes without a direct male heir. Twelve years before his death the rule prohibiting the succession to the French throne by females had been passed, with some dissent, thereby precluding Charles' 1-year-old daughter Marie from succeeding as the monarch. This resulted in two main rival claimants of the French throne: Edward Plantagenet, King of England, and Philip of Valois.

Edward III was Charles IV’s closest male relative being the son of Isabella of France who was a daughter of Philip IV of France and Charles IV’s sister. Philip of Valois was the cousin of the dead king and son of Philip IV's younger brother, Charles, Count of Valois. The French crowned Philip arguing that this was in accordance with the rule that disqualified women from inheriting the throne as Edward's claim came through the female line. It was this question of the legal succession to the French thrown that would be the central driving factor in the Hundred Years’ War that would be fought between the armies of the two rival claimants for generations to come.

Edward III Edward III, King of England Philip VI Philip VI, King of France
In the years that followed Charles IV's death tensions rose between England and France: Edward's continental territory of Gascony, which he held as the Duke of Aquitaine, was a major point of friction; Edward also gave shelter to Robert III of Artois an exile from the French court and mortal enemy of Philip: France supported the Scots whom the English had been trying to subjugate for years - all of which added more fuel to the fire. In 1336, Philip VI abandoned his ambitious plan for a crusade to the Holy Land and moved the fleet that he had gathered at Marseilles to the English Channel. This was seem as a threat to the security of England by Edward who responded by proposing to raise two armies; one he would despatch to Gascony and the other he would hold in readiness to deal with Scotland. At the same time, Edward sent ambassadors to Paris to treat with Philip, but the French King refused to meet with the English delegation.

On 30th April 1337, the arrière-ban, call to arms, was proclaimed throughout France and in May, at the Great Council in Paris, Philip confiscated the Duchy of Aquitaine from Edward on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as vassal. Edward responded to the confiscation of Aquitaine by reviving his own claim to the French throne and in 1340 he formally assumed the title 'King of France' and added the French Royal Arms to that of the Lions of England to form quartered coat of arms of fleur-de-lis and lions.

The two claimants to the French throne were now set on a collision course.

The first clash was at the Battle of Sluys on 24th June 1340. Edward had set sail with an English fleet on 22nd June 1340 and arrived off the Zwyn estuary the next day. The French fleet assumed a defensive formation off the port of Sluys and Edward feigned withdrawal. However, when the wind turned in the late afternoon Edward turned his fleet to attack the French with the wind and sun behind them. The French fleet was almost completely destroyed and this gave Edward control of the English Channel. The war probably would have ended then due to lack of funds had it not been for the death of the Duke of Brittany. This led to another succession dispute, this time between the Duke's half brother John of Montfort and Charles of Blois, nephew of Philip VI that sparked the Breton War of Succession, in which Edward backed John of Montfort and Philip backed Charles of Blois.

Battle of Sluys Battle of Sluys, 24th June 1340

In July 1346, Edward III mounted a major invasion of France landing near St Vaast on the Cotentin coast of Normandy. His army captured Caen within a day and then turned eastwards to march across France towards the Low Countries. As they crossed the land the English did not attempt to consolidate their gains, but laid waste to vast tracks of the French countryside. Philip IV gathered his forces to oppose the English invasion and by the time the Edward III reached the River Seine Philip had had most of the crossings made impassable. This drove Edward III's army inland towards Paris and the waiting French. When the English reached Poissy, however, they found that the crossing to be only partially destroyed. Quickly Edward set his carpenters to work and the crossing was soon repaired. Across the River Seine, King Edward's army was once again heading towards Flanders. They crossed the River Somme at the tidal ford at Blanchetaque having out manoeuvred the French King.

The larger French army finally caught up with the King Edward’s English near the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu. Faced with certainty of battle Edward III deployed his forces in three battles in a defensive position centred on the Windmill. The French army arriving at Crécy attacked piecemeal rather than as a consolidated force. King Edward’s English and Welsh longbowmen wreaked havoc among the French initially targeting the Genoese crossbowmen. Unable to get close enough to the English to use their crossbows to advantage the Genoese mercenaries pulled back. Seeing them retreat King Philip ordered their massacre because of what he perceived as cowardice.

Battle of Crécy Battle of Crécy, 26th August 1346

As the massacre of the Genoese was taking place, the volleys of arrows from the English and Welsh longbowmen continued to fall on the French. This seemed to goad the French knights into charging and they ran over the retreating mercenaries and their dismounted comrades. The English and Welsh longbowmen continued shoot their arrows as the French knights and men-at-arms advanced and more and more Frenchmen became casualties. This first French cavalry attack failed.

The French knights and men-at-arms charged a second time in more formalised ranks, but the slope leading up to the English positions and the man-made obstacles that they had place upon them combined with the casualties of the first French assault broke up their ranks. Again the Frenchmen fell back leaving more dead and wounded strewn across the battlefield. Each time the French cavalry attacked, more and more Frenchmen fell creating even more disruption for the successive waves. The French fought valiantly, but could not break into the English battles and after several attempts their attacks petered out. During the attacks Philip IV was himself wounded and at nightfall he ordered the French to retreat. The Battle of Crécy was disastrous for the King Philip. The English casualties in the battle were very light and were thought to be only one tenth of those of the French army.

King Philip appealed to his Scottish allies for help and King David II of Scotland responded by invading northern England. The Scottish army was, however, defeated at the Battle of Neville's Cross on 17th October 1346. King David was captured, which greatly reduced the threat from Scotland and allowed King Edward to concentrate his efforts against the French.

Following the Battle of Crécy, King Edward proceeded north unopposed to besiege the city-port of Calais. This held out for eleven months and did not fall to the English until 1347. This city-port was to become an important strategic staging post for the English, allowing them to safely keep troops in northern France. It would remain under English control, even after the end of the Hundred Years’ War, until the successful French siege in 1558. The siege of Calais effectively brought to an end King Edward’s first excursion in France.

In 1348, the Black Death began to ravage Europe and it was not until 1356, after the plague had passed and England had recovered financially, that King Edward's son, Edward Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, invaded France from Gascony. The Black Prince won a great victory over the French in the Battle of Poitiers on 19th September 1356. During the battle King John II of France, Charles IV son, and many of his nobles were captured, which left the Dauphin as regent of France.

Battle of Poitiers Battle of Poitiers, 19th September 1356

In November 1357, Charles of Navarre challenged the Dauphin's leadership, entering Paris with a group of noble supporters. King Edward III intent on capitalising on the Dauphin’s troubles invaded France once again. The Dauphin, however, avoided battle with the English army and Edward III marched on the cathedral city of Reims intent on having himself crowned King of France. The citizens of Reims, however, reinforced the city's defences before King Edward arrived and although he besieged the city for five weeks the defences held; there was to be no coronation. Thwarted, Edward III then moved on Paris, but after a few skirmishes in the suburbs withdrew. This led to the Treaty of Brétigny in which King Edward III renounced Normandy, Touraine, Anjou and Maine; consented to reducing King John's ransom by a million crowns; and abandoned his claim to the France throne in return for increased lands in of Aquitaine, Limousin, Gascony and Calais.

King John II of France was released from captivity in exchange for hostages including two of his sons. One of these, Louis of Anjou, later escaped and King John felt honour bound to return to captivity. Whilst King John was being held captive in England for the second time further internal strife in France, which King Edward fuelled by supporting the Navarre led uprising. In 1364, King John II died in London and his son the Dauphin succeeded him as King of France. On 6th May 1364, one month after his accession to the French throne and three days before his coronation, Charles V defeated the Navarrese at the Battle of Cocherel.
Edward Prince of Wales Edward Price of Wales John II John II, King of France
In January 1371 Edward Prince of Wales, the Black Prince returned to England following his campaigning Aquitaine and Castile. By now Edward III was elderly and in poor health. The Black Prince’s health was also deteriorating and on 8th June 1376 Edward Prince of Wales died. His father died the following year on 21st June 1377 to be succeeded by his grandson, the Black Prince’s son, Richard II who was still a child. The treaty at Brétigny had ceded large holdings in France to Edward III, but with a child king on the English throne a small French army under the leadership of Bertrand du Guesclin retook these and the English crown’s land in Aquitaine; and by the time of Charles V's death in 1380 the only continental possession held by the English crown was Calais.

King Richard II of England’s reign was one fraught with problems. When John of Gaunt, Richard’s uncle, died the King disinherited his cousin, John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Henry who had previously enjoyed a position of influence in the realm had been exiled following a dispute with Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, who was also exiled to avoid further bloodshed. The disinherited Henry met with the exiled Thomas Arundel, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who had lost his position because of his involvement with the Lords Appellant. Together they returned to England while Richard was on a military campaign in Ireland. Henry, with Arundel’s backing, began a military campaign that confiscated land from all those who opposed him. He quickly gained enough power and support to have himself declared King and on 13th October 1399 he was crowned Henry IV, King of England. Richard was subsequently imprisoned and died at Pontefract Castle. Richard's seven-year-old heir-presumptive, Edmund de Mortimer, had become heir to the throne following the death of his father who had been named heir when Henry of Bolingbroke was disinherited.

Henry IV planned to resume hostilities with France, however, as he was constantly plagued by financial problems and rebellion throughout his reign this did not materialise. He also suffered from declining health and was kept busy putting down rebellions in England and Wales as well as fighting a border war with his Scottish neighbours. In the meantime Charles VI of France descended into madness and an open conflict for power in France developed. Both sides of the Hundred Years’ War were too busy with their own internal problems to be able to attack the other.

On 20th March 1413 Henry IV died and was succeeded by his son Henry of Monmouth. King Henry V was crowned on 9th April 1413 at Westminster Abbey and he resurrected the claim of the English Kings to the throne of France. This may have been in part due to the instability of France at that time as well as his intention to reclaim the lands taken from the English crown under the leadership of Bertrand du Guesclin. He soon began to prepare for war and on 11th August 1815 Henry set sail from Southampton at the head of an English Army. Two days later, on 13th August 1815, he landed in Normandy and laid siege to Harfleur thereby rekindling the fighting of the Hundred Years’ War.

Siege of Harfleur Siege of Harfleur, 13th August to 22nd September 1415

The siege of Harfleur lasted longer than King Henry had expected and the town did not capitulate until 22nd September 1815. The English army remained at Harfleur until 8th October and, with the campaign season coming to an end; Henry decided to march most of his army through Normandy to the city-port of Calais. By doing this he hoped to demonstrate that his claim to the Duchy of Normandy and throne of France were more than mere rhetoric and hoped that the manoeuvre would goad the Dauphin into action; something that he had failed to with his personal challenge to combat at Harfleur.
Henry V Henry V, King of England Charles VI Charles VI, King of France
The French had raised an army at Rouen, but this was not ready in time to raise the siege of Honfleur. When Henry marched northwards towards Calais, the French army blockaded the crossings over the River Somme thereby forcing Henry off of his route and inland looking for a ford to cross the river. King Henry’s English army finally crossed the River Somme south of Péronne, at Béthencourt and Voyennes, and recommenced his journey northwards. The French initially shadowed the English intent on building up their numbers before engaging in battle. By the 24th October 1815 the two armies had reached the small community near the castle at Agincourt and had come face to face. The English had marched 260 miles (420 km) in two and a half weeks and many of them were suffering from dysentery. The larger French army blocked Henry's way to the safety of Calais and the two armies spent the night of 24th October on the open ground in the cold and rain. The Battle of Agincourt was about to begin.

On the 25th October 1815, King Henry deployed his English army that was about 8,500 strong in the narrow strip of open ground formed between the woods of Tramecourt and Agincourt. Facing them at the northern end of the battlefield, the French barred his route to Calais. The French, who were still waiting for additional men to arrive under the Dukes of Brabant, Anjou and Brittany, were content to sit and wait. For three hours the two sides stood looking across the battlefield at each other. Henry in the knowledge that to stand and wait was to the enemy’s advantage finally moved his men forward. He had organised his army into three Battle: the Vanguard under the Duke of York; the main battle under his personal command and the rearguard under the Lord of Comoys. He deployed the bulk of his archers out to the flanks though he kept some in the centre which he intermingled with the men at arms for close protection. Each archer carried with them a stake that they would place in the ground angled forward for protection from the cavalry. If the French cavalry charged before the stakes could be hammered into the ground disaster could strike, but the French held their ground.

Battle of Agincourt Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415

When King Henry’s men were about 300 yards (270 m), just within extreme bowshot from the French line, he halted his force and the longbowmen dug in their stakes. When all was ready he gave the order to lose and the first flight of arrows soared skywards. Stung by the bit of the arrows the French cavalry surged forward despite the orders of the Constable of France, Charles d'Albret Comte de Dreux, to hold firm. The woods on either side of the battlefield prevented an outflanking manoeuvre and the French cavalry were unable to press home their charge against the archers due to the stakes. The French cavalry charged towards the English and then recoiled back towards their own lines. In doing so they churned up the already sodden and muddy fields making the already difficult going even harder for the armoured knights and men-at-arms who were to fight on foot.

Charles d'Albret, the Constable of France, seeing his cavalry surge forward led the dismounted knights and men-at-arms towards the waiting English. As they crossed the churned up battlefield the hail of arrows continually fell upon the advancing Frenchmen. The wounded and panicking horses of the cavalry galloped through the advancing men on foot, scattering them and trampling them down in their headlong flight from the sting of the English arrows. The dismounted Frenchmen had to climb over their fallen comrades and by the time they reached the English line their rate of advance was no more than a slow walk. Like the sea crashing against the cliffs of the English coast the tide of advancing Frenchmen broke on the rocks of the English line. Soon a barrier of dead and wounded built up in front of the English making it even more difficult for the French knights and men-at-arms to close with their English counterparts. The initial wave of Frenchmen was totally destroyed, either killed or taken prisoner.

As the second wave arrived on the scene the destruction was evident. Many of the common soldiers quit the battlefield upon seeing the carnage and those who attacked met largely the same fate. The Duke of Brabant, arriving late due to a christening party the previous night, led a brief charge that was quickly broken up. He paid dearly for the privilege, losing his life. Within half an hour of the battle being joined the first two French battles had been total defeated. The third French battle, however, remained arrayed on the battlefield poised to attack. Fearing that the Frenchmen that they had taken prisoner would pick up swords again and rejoin the fight Henry ordered the prisoners to be killed. The task of despatching the prisoners was given to the archers who were tough, professional soldiers considered to be outside the bounds of chivalry and whom the French would have despatched without flinching an eye had they themselves been captured. The third French battle seeing so many of their comrades killed lost all hope of victory and quit the battlefield leaving King Henry and his English the victors.

It is not known how many of the French were killed after the Battle of Agincourt, but observers say it was far more than were killed during the battle. Contemporary estimates put the total French losses at between 4,000 and 11,000 while more modern estimates range between 7,000 and 10,000. Many contemporary reports describe the piles of French dead as being "as high as a man". This is undoubtedly an over exaggeration, but perhaps befitting of the destruction of the French forces that occurred on St Crispin’s Day 1415.

Following the Battle of Agincourt King Henry V retook much of Normandy, including Caen, in 1417, and Rouen on 19 January 1419. This returned Normandy to English rule for the first time in two centuries. Henry entered a formal alliance with the Duchy of Burgundy, which had taken Paris after the assassination of Duke John the Fearless in 1419. On 21st May 1420, Henry met with King Charles VI and they signed the Treaty of Troyes. King Henry married Charles' daughter Catherine of Valois and their heirs were to inherit the throne of France. The Dauphin, Charles VII, was declared illegitimate and Henry formally entered Paris later that year when the agreement was ratified by the Estates-General, the French Parliament.

The disinherited Charles, Dauphin of France, continued his fight for the French throne aided by the Scots. On 22nd March 1421 a Franco-Scottish army led by John Stewart, Earl of Buchan, clashed with the English commanded by the King’s brother Thomas of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Clarence, at the Battle of Baugé. King Henry was not present at the battle having returned to England. The battle ended in the death of Thomas and was a resounding victory for the Franco-Scottish force.

Henry V returned to France and after meeting with Charles VI in Paris he laid siege to the Dauphin-held town of Meaux on 6th October 1421. This took longer than expected to capitulate and the town held for seven months before finally falling on 11th May 1422. At the end of May, King Henry was joined by his queen and together, with the French court, they went to Senlis. It was while at Senlis that King Henry became ill and the Royal party left to the move to the Upper Loire. They diverted from their route to the royal castle at Vincennes, as the King’s condition deteriorated and it was here that King Henry V, King of England died on 31st August 1422. Henry V’s nine-month-old son Henry was his heir apparent and on 1st September 1422 he became Henry VI, the infant King of England. On 21st October 1422, just two months later, King Charles VI of France died and Henry VI also became the titular King of France.

Before his death Henry V had named his brother John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford as regent for the infant King Henry VI. He continued the war in France and won several battles including an emphatic victory on 17th August 1424 at the Battle of Verneuil. At the Battle of Verneuil the Duke of Bedford employed his archers with devastating effect virtually destroying the Dauphin's field army and eliminating the Scots as a significant military force on the continent for the rest of the war. Whilst the Duke of Bedford was in France, his younger brother Humphrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester, acted as Lord Protector of England.
Duke of Bedford John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford Charles VII Charles VII, King of France
On 15th July 1427 the English under the command of Richard de Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick laid siege to the Dauphin-held town of Montargis. The citizens of the town sabotaged the dikes of numerous ponds in the district, causing flooding in the vicinity that drowned many of the besieging English soldiers. On 5th September a French force under the command of Jean de Dunois and La Hire broke the siege marking the first important victory for the Dauphin’s army.

On 12th October 1428 the English invested Orléans. It was thought that if the Duke of Bedford could succeed in capturing Orléans Henry V's dream of a united English and French throne would become a reality. For half a year the English appeared to be winning, but the siege collapsed nine days after the arrival of Joan of Arc. She raised the morale of the French troops defending the city and they attacked the English redoubts, forcing the English to lift the siege.

Siege of Orléans Siege of Orléans, 12th October 1428 to 8th May 1429

Inspired by Joan, the French took several English strongholds in the Loire Valley forcing the English to retreat. Near the village of Patay the French cavalry broke through a line of English longbowmen that were blocking the road and swept through the English army. The English commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury was taken prisoner and they lost some 2,200 men. The French victory allowed the Dauphin’s army to march to Reims where he was crowned Charles VII King of France on 16th July 1429. After his coronation Charles VII attempted to lay siege to Paris, but his army was defeated on 8th September 1429. Charles VII consequently, withdrew back to the Loire Valley.

Henry VI was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on 5th November 1429 and King of France at Notre-Dame, in Paris, on 16th December 1431. On 23rd May 1430 Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians at the siege of Compiegne and subsequently handed over to the English. Joan was tried by Pierre Cauchon, a pro-English clergyman, and was burned at the stake in Rouen on 30th May 1431.

Joan of Arc The excecution of Joan of Arc, 30th May 1431

Following Joan’s execution the fortunes of war turned against the English. The English camp became increasingly divided as each of its leaders began to follow separate strategies. The Duke of Bedford wanted to defend Normandy, the Duke of Gloucester was committed to just Calais whereas Cardinal Beaufort was inclined to negotiate a peace with Charles VII. The Congress of Arras was convened in 1435 and was attended by representatives of England, France, and Burgundy. The English delegation entered the congress believing that it was a peace negotiation between England and France. They proposed an extended truce and a marriage between adolescent King Henry VI of England and a daughter of King Charles VII of France. They were, however, unwilling to renounce the Plantagenet claim to the crown of France; a position that prevented any meaningful negotiation. The French delegation, however, urged Philip the Good of Burgundy to reconcile his differences with Charles VII. At that time Burgundy was virtually an independent state and it had been allied with England since 1419 following the murder of Philip's father.

Whilst the congress was in session, the French captains Xaintrailles and La Hire carried out a raid that led to the English delegation breaking off the negotiations whilst this was subdued. When the English delegation returned to the negotiations they found that their Burgundian allies had switched sides. On 14th September 1435 John, Duke of Bedford died. One week later the congress concluded with the Treaty of Arras, which left England isolated.

Thereafter the English situation in France began a steady decline.

By 1449, the French had retaken Rouen and in 1450 the English army were caught attempting to relieve Caen at the Battle of Formigny. They were defeated by the French under the Count of Clermont and Arthur de Richemont, Earl of Richmond. The Earl of Richmond’s forces attacked the English from the flank and in the rear just as they were on the verge of beating Clermont's army and defeated it.

After the French success in Normandy, Charles VII concentrated his efforts on driving the English out of Gascony. The French besieged Bordeaux, Gascony's capital, and this capitulated on 30th June 1451. The English, under the command of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury retook the city on 23rd October 1452. On 17 July 1453 the English were defeated at the Battle of Castillon; the English took severe casualties including both the Earl of Shrewsbury and his son, also John, the 1st Viscount Lisle. The Battle of Castillon is considered to be the last battle of the Hundred Years' War, although England and France remained formally at war for another 20 years.