Lectures for A Medieval Survey
Lynn H. Nelson
THE HUNDRED YEARS' WAR
The Battle for Flanders
Flanders had grown to be the industrial center of northern
Europe and had become extremely wealthy through its cloth manufacture. It
could not produce enough wool to satisfy its market and imported fine fleece
from England. England depended upon this trade for its foreign exchange.
During the 1200's, the upper-class English had adopted Norman fashions and
switched from beer to wine.
(Note that beer and wine were very important elements in the medieval
diet. Both contain vitamin and yeast complexes that the medieval diet,
especially during the winter did not provide. Besides, the preservation of
food was a difficult matter in that era, and the alcohol in beer and wine
represented a large number of calories stored in an inexpensive and effective
fashion. People did get drunk during the Middle Ages, but most could
not afford to do so. Beer and wine were valued as a food source)
The problem was that England could not grow grapes to produce wine and had to
import it. A triangular trade arose in which English fleece was exchanged for
Flemish cloth, which was then taken to southern France and exchanged for
wine, which was then shipped into England and Ireland, primarily through the
ports of Dublin, Bristol, and London.
But the counts of Flanders had been vassals of the king of France, and the
French tried to regain control of the region in order to control its wealth.
A civil war broke out in Flanders, with the English supporting the
manufacturing middle class and the French supporting the land-owning
The Struggle for Control of France
The English king controlled much of France, particularly in the fertile
South, lands that had come to the English when Eleanor of Aquitaine had
married Henry II of England in the mid-12th century. There was constant
bickering along the French-English frontier, and the French kings always had
to fear an English invasion from the South. Between Flanders in the North and
the English in the South, they were caught in a "nutcracker".
The "Auld Alliance"
The French responded by creating their own "nutcracker." They allied with the
Scots in an alliance that persisted well into the 18th century. Thus the
English faced the French from the south and the Scots from the north.
The Battle for the Channel and North Sea
The French nutcracker would only work in the French could invade England
across the English Channel. (The French call it "La Manche," "The Sleeve,"
for what reason, I do not know.) Besides, England could support their
Flemish allies only if they could send aid across the North Sea, and,
moreover, English trade was dependent upon the free flow of naval traffic
through the Channel. Consequently, the French continually tried to gain the
upper hand at sea, and the English constantly resisted them. Both sides
commissioned what would have been pirates if they had not been operating with
royal permission to prey upon each other's shipping, and there were frequent
naval clashes in those constricted waters.
The Dynastic Conflict
The last son of King Philip IV ( The Fair) died in 1328, and the direct
male line of the Capetians finally ended after almost 350 years. Philip had had
a daughter, however. isabelle had married King Edward II of England, and King
Edward III was their son. He was therefore Philip's grandson and successor in
a direct line through Philip's daughter. The French could not tolerate the
idea that Edward might become King of France, and French lawyers brought up
old Frankish laws, the so-called Salic Law, which stated that
property (including the throne) could not descend through a female. The
French gave the crown to Philip of Valois, a nephew of Philip IV.
Nevertheless, Edward III had a valid claim to the throne of France if he
wished to pursue it.
An Agressive Spirit in England
Although France was the most populous country in Western Europe (20 million
to Englands 4-5 million) and the wealthiest, England had a strong central
government, many veterans of hard fighting on England's Welsh and Scottish
borders (as well as in Ireland), a thriving economy, and a popular king.
Edward was disposed to fight France, and his subjects were more than ready to
support their young (18 years old) king.
THE COURSE OF THE WAR
War broke out in earnest in 1340. The French had assembled a great fleet to
support an army that was to crush all resistance in Flanders. When it had
anchored in a dense pack at Sluys in modern Netherlands, the
English attacked and destroyed it with fire ships and a battle across the
anchored ships that was almost like a land battle on a wooden battlefield.
The English now had control of the Channel and North Sea. They were safe from
French invasion, could attack France at will, and were certain that the war
would be fought on French soil and thus at French expense.
Edward invaded northern France in 1345. The Black Death had arrived, and his
army was weakened. He was finally pinned against the coast by a much superior
French army at a place called Crecy (pronounced "cressie").
Edward's army was a combined force: archers, pikemen, light infantry, and
cavalry; the French, by contrast, clung to their old-fashioned feudal
cavalry. The English had archers using the longbow, a weapon with great
penetrating power that could sometimes kill armoured knights, and often the
horses on which they rode. The battle was a French disaster.
Nevertheless, ten years later, the French employed the same tactics with the
same result at Poitiers (1356). The French king and many nobles were captured,
and many, many others were killed. Old-fashioned feudal warfare, in which
knights fought for glory, was ended. The first phase of the war ended with a
treat in 1360, but France continued to suffer. The English had employed
trained mercenaries who plundered the country-side when not on an active
END OF THE CONFLICT
As the war dragged on, the English were slowly forced back. They had less
French land to support their war effort, and the war became more expensive
for them. This caused conflicts at home, such as the Peasants' Revolt
of 1381 and the beginning of civil wars. Nevertheless, in the reign
of Henry V, the English took the offensive once again. At Agincourt, not far
from Crecy, the French relapsed into their old tactics of feudal warfare once
again, and were again disastrously defeated (1415). The English recovered
much of the ground they had lost, and a new peace was based upon Henry's
marriage to the French princess Katherine. These events funish the plot for
With Henry's death in 1422, the war resumed.
In the following years, the French developed a sense of national identity, as
illustrated by Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who led the French
armies to victory over the English until she was captured and burned by the
English as a witch. The French now had a greater unity, and the French king
was able to field massive armies on much the same model as the British. In
addition, however, the French government began to appreciate the "modern"
style of warfare, and new military commanders, such as Bertran du
Guesclin, began to fight with guerilla and "small war" tactics.
The war dragged on for many years. In fact, it was not until 1565 that the
English were forced out of Calais, their last foothold in continental France,
and they still hold the Channel Islands, the last remnant of England's
medieval empire in France.
This war marked the end of English attempts to control continental territory
and the beginning of its emphasis upon maritime supremacy. By Henry V's
marriage into the House of Valois, an hereditary strain of mental disorder
came into the English royal family. There were great advances in military
technology and science during the period, and the military value of the
feudal knight was thoroughly discredited. The order went down fighting,
however, in a wave of civil wars that racked the countries of Western Europe.
The European countries began to establish professional standing armies and to
develop the modern state necessary to maintain such forces.
From the point of view of the 14th century, however, the most significant
result is that the nobility and secular leaders were busy fighting each other
at a time when the people of Westerm Europe desperately needed leadership.