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The War in the Later Years of Edward III
The battle of Poitiers, 1356 was the greatest English victory of the first half of the Hundred Years' War. The capture of King John was a great blow to the French monarchy.
Despite the best efforts of his eldest son the Duke of Normandy, the
future King Charles V,
A large first installment was paid for King John's release, and Poitou and other areas near Gascony were turned over to Edward.
The Peace of Brétigny, however, quickly turned into a dead letter.
King John's ransom, which may have been beyond France's power to raise, was never paid, and became impossible to collect once John died in 1364.
In the countryside, fighting never really stopped. Even though war between the English and French kings had ended, many of the disbanded warriors stayed in their units and continued to pillage. Some of the Free Companies were exported to fight in new wars in Spain and Italy. But many others remained in France. In such circumstances, Edward had a very hard time gaining real control over territories theoretically his.
English military energies were diverted to Spain, where Edward (called in history books "the Black Prince") fought on one side of a civil war, and Bernard du Guesclin, the leading French commander, fought for the other.
The Black Prince lost his war in Spain, incurring substantial debts. He tried to make up the money by taxing Gascony heavily. These taxes served to alienate the Gascons. In 1369, an appeal against the Black Prince was made to Paris. Charles V, after some hesitation, he accepted the appeal from Gascony. War soon followed.
That war was destructive and inconclusive. The French tactics were to let the English roam where they would, but to follow and harass them with picked forces, and never join in a decisive battle. This resulted in a truly horrifying type of war, in which the country was bled by the English and allowed to bleed by the French, both sides hoping that the long campaigns would hurt the other badly enough to make victory possible.
But war showed little signs of burning out. In much of France it had become the normal way of life, and continued because many people profited from it.
Indeed, England as a whole seems to have done well out of it. Save for a short period at the end of Edward's reign, it was a very popular war.
For the English, war with France came to have both a tangible and an intangible appeal. Let's begin with the tangible aspects; let's talk about profit. Over the years, many Englishmen fought in France, and of the survivors, many came out ahead of the game. Such gain was not restricted to the upper class, the established military aristocracy. This was a war in which there was a demand for all ranks of men. A peasant or yeoman from rural England who had grown up practicing with the bow -- and the king encouraged them to do so -- could turn this skill into a steady job that paid cash.
The army was particularly tempting as a career in the pre-Plague period when land was scarce and the population too high, when wages were low and prices high. Even after the Plague, when the pressure came off, army pay was still attractive. Of course pay was not the only attraction. Men both high and low hoped for and expected loot.
The best kind of loot was the ransom. Any knight or noble captive could be expected to buy his freedom, and fourteenth century warriors went into battle looking for likely prisoners. For those who took a man of high rank, a count, a duke or a prince, it was like winning the lottery. Such men were usually confiscated by the commanders -- who took a share in all ransoms won by their followers -- but those who did the actual capturing were richly rewarded.
In this war, where almost all the fighting was done on French soil, and where several major battles were won by the English, the flow of loot and ransom money was of great benefit to many English people of all ranks. It was possible, therefore, for adventurous, reckless, or desperate Englishmen to make a good living from the war -- granted, of course, that they did not get killed or die of disease.
One of this war's attractions was that, after a while, the war never stopped. Kings and princes ran out of money, or signed truces, and disbanded their armies. But the armies stayed in being, as Free Companies, the embodiment of permanent war. If no prince could afford to pay them indefinitely, there was a new war somewhere else -- in Italy, where city-states and tyrants were constantly fighting, or in some spin-off of the English-French conflict. Or, more likely, the Free Company could wage war on its own behalf, looting or extorting protection money from the French countryside.
The new tactics and the new methods of recruiting and paying soldiers had resulted in the democratization of war. The predatory, adventurous life was no longer restricted to the knightly classes.
England also reaped psychological benefits from the long war. The Hundred Years' War slowly acquired some of the characteristics of a modern, nationalist war. By the beginning of the 14th c., the people of England of all classes were far more united than they had been a hundred years before. Members of the aristocracy could still speak French of a sort, and French remained a prestigious language. But they were no longer a Norman aristocracy; the vast majority of English lords and knights had been born in England, of English parents, and spoke English as a mother tongue. Important proclamations were made in English, and literature in the English language was beginning to appear.
The difference between English and French peoples was of course emphasized by the war. A war that lasted forty years makes the combatants well aware of their distinct identities, even establishes distinct identities that did not exist before.
At the same time, duty to one's lord the king, apart from nationality, remained an important motivation to fight. The English people may have been fighting for their English king, but they were fighting to vindicate his title as king of France. All ranks willingly served Edward III, and all were proud of his valiant heir, Edward the Black Prince. Edward III's reign, in fact, was almost wholly free of aristocratic intrigue and treason. Edward did exactly what the nobles wanted a king to do -- gave them a good war to fight, and thus validated their role in society.
Edward revitalized the chivalric ideal. He gave people symbols they could believe in. Perhaps his most brilliant stroke was the invention of the Order of the Garter, early in the war. It was an exclusive club of the best knights in the realm, sworn to Edward's service and to the practice of knightly virtues. Before this time, all such elite orders had been crusading orders. Edward secularized the chivalric order -- he made the service of the king, by implication, as worthy as the service of the holy sepulchre. He also drew on the symbolism of Arthur's Round Table.
The Order of the Garter, like the elaborate tournaments of the time, like the victories of Crecy and Poitiers, embodied and justified an entire set of social values and gave Edward's followers a sense of high purpose.
That sense of purpose was severely tried in the years after 1369. The simple reason is that the English began to lose badly. After 1371, the Black Prince was seriously ill and returned to England. With the king old and his heir sick, the next oldest prince, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, took charge of the war and the government. He, however, had even worse luck than his brother. His great expedition of 1373 was his chance to be a hero, but he lost half of his army. Through the 1370s, the English had little to cheer about and many causes for complaint.
After Brétigny, everyone had expected great and continuing profit from a successful war. The ransoms of John of France and David of Scotland were supposed to pay the king's debts. But the ransoms were never paid in full and what money did come in quickly disappeared into the pockets of creditors and officials.
One of the most interesting developments of this period was in parliament. It was here that the knights of the shire and the citizens of London criticized the king's ministers and demanded reforms. Harsh criticism and strident demands were not often heard in medieval assemblies. But now there was no strong royal leadership, and the continuing military and naval disasters made the government politically vulnerable.
The king, now over sixty, paid no attention to state business. He spent all his time with his young mistress. The Black Prince was dying -- he would die before his father. The Prince's heir, Richard of Bordeaux, later Richard II, was very young. John of Gaunt was despised as a lousy general, more concerned with making himself King of Castile in Spain than in beating the French. And the council, John of Gaunt's cronies, were suspected of being crooks. If the kingdom was broke, it was their thievery and incompetence that had made it so.
By the time the parliament of 1376 was called, in order to vote more taxes, many people were angry. This resentment broke into the open almost as soon parliament met. The chancellor asked for a grant of money, and the commons asked for a chance to discuss the proposal in private. Once they were sequestered, a long angry debate took place. Then the commons requested a meeting with four great lords -- two bishops and two earls of their choice. In consultation with these, the commons formulated their petition.
The king was asked to act first on a vast number of petitions to redress abuses, far more than any other medieval parliament ever produced. Then the commons, with the support of a significant number of lords, began to attack the ministers and their business associates. Acting through the first real Speaker of the Commons, a knight named Peter de la Mare, the commons as a body accused the ministers of lining their own pockets. They were then tried by the Lords, and two of the most important were convicted. A new royal council was then appointed. This was the first impeachment, and the first time ministers of the king had been explicitly held responsible to parliament.
The parliament of 1376 quickly became known as the Good Parliament.
Just as quickly all of its actions were overturned. John of Gaunt considered the revolt of parliament a slight on the royal dignity and an attack on his political position. His brother the Black Prince had died during the Good Parliament, and so there was nothing to prevent him from doing this.
It was beyond his power, however, to get English politics back on an even keel. The English system demanded as strong king in whom people could have confidence. It demanded victory in war. Neither of these were likely to be available soon. Also there were social and religious pressures, dating from the time of the plague and even before, that we have not yet discussed. They resulted, in the early years of Richard II, in an unprecedented crisis.
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