To the 14th century

Lands across the Channel

The Norman conquest of England introduces a new situation in northwest Europe. Lands on both sides of the English Channel are from this time under the control of a single dynasty. The kings of England are also the dukes of Normandy.

A Norman-French royal family crowned in Westminster seeks to extend its territories on the French side of the water. At the same time a Frankish-French royal family crowned in Reims strives to assert its authority over the whole geographical region of France. The result is a prolonged struggle, eventually spanning some four centuries, in which the identities of medieval Europe's two strongest kingdoms are gradually shaped.

The struggle is not just one of warfare and battles. It is a complex game of dynastic marriages and interconnecting obligations. William the conqueror, king of England, is technically the king of France's vassal - in his other role as the duke of Normandy.

Even more dramatic is the case of William's great-grandson, Henry ii. Though a vassal of the French king, his lands occupy a region of France which is larger than the royal domain. The French king rules a realm around Paris and Orleans in the north. Henry ii inherits a broad swathe down the entire west of the country.

Henry receives Anjou from his father's family, and Normandy (together with England) through his mother. But his largest holding in continental Europe comes through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry is her second husband. Her first was the king of France, Louis VII. Were it not for this matrimonial switch, Louis rather than Henry would have secured Eleanor's regions of Aquitaine and Gascony.

In such a manner, in Feudal europe, are territories gained or lost. The major players in this vast board game are the two French dynasties - the Norman French line in England and the Frankish (or Capetian) line in France.

The princes of the two houses marry within the same limited circle, so western Europe becomes an interconnected web of French-speaking cousins - often with good claims to each other's territories. Louis VII and Henry ii set a powerful example, as kings of France and England who marry the same heiress from Aquitaine. But the point can be made almost equally well among their successsors.

The kings who follow Henry ii on the throne of England marry, in this sequence, daughters of the rulers of Navarre, Angouleme, Provence, Castile, France, Hainaut, Bohemia, Navarre, France and Avignon. During the same period kings of France marry daughters of Navarre, Provence, Castile and Hainaut.

In the long run the advantage lies with the French kings. Geography makes the Channel a natural boundary. A gradual trend away from patchwork feudal territories and towards the cohesive nation state means that eventually the proper place for the English must be north and west of this coastal boundary.

The process is a long one, not finally resolved until the end of the Hundred Years' War. The French first make major advances at the expense of the Norman English during the reign of Philip II.

In the long run the advantage lies with the French kings. Geography makes the Channel a natural boundary. A gradual trend away from patchwork feudal territories and towards the cohesive nation state means that eventually the proper place for the English must be north of this boundary.

But the process is a long one, not finally resolved until the end of the Hundred Years' War.

The cause of a long conflict: AD 1308-1328

In this web of conflicting claims, warfare between French and English is endemic on French soil during these centuries. But it flares into a long and bitter conflict in the 14th century.

One cause of the dispute is dynastic, resulting from one of the marriages between the French and English royal families. In 1308 Isabella, daughter of the king of France, marries Edward ii, king of England. In 1312 their son, also Edward, is born. By that time the eldest of Isabella's three brothers is on the French throne. Ten years later her third brother, Charles IV, becomes king. The problem for France is that Isabella has plenty of brothers but no nephews.

When Charles IV dies, at the age of thirty-four in 1328, he has been three times married but he has no son. Since the death of Hugh capet in 996 there has always been a son (or very occasionally a brother) to inherit the French crown. In the present generation the pattern is broken. Charles IV succeeds two elder brothers (Louis X and Philip V), and he leaves two daughters - one of them born posthumously.

The claim of Charles's elder daughter is rejected on the grounds of her sex, even though the Salic law is not yet officially enshrined in the French system. A great assembly of feudal magnates is charged with deciding who is the rightful heir.

The closest male relative of Charles IV is his nephew Edward, the son of Charles's sister Isabella. There is a certain logical objection to Edward's inheritance; if the crown may not be inherited by a woman, it would seem inconsistent for it to be inherited through a woman.

There is another factor which the chronicles of the time imply to be an even more powerful obstacle. Edward is now Edward iii, king of England. France does not want an English king.

In the circumstances it is not surprising that the French assembly awards the crown to a more distant relation of the dead king. Philip of Valois is only a cousin of Charles IV, but his descent is all-male and all-French (he is the son of a younger brother of Charles's father, Philip IV).

The Valois prince is crowned king at Reims in May 1328 as Philip VI, beginning a new (though closely related) line on the French throne.

Edward III's costly adventure: AD 1337-1340

The English king reluctantly accepts the decision of the French magnates. He even answers a summons from Philip VI to do homage for his fiefs in France. In 1329 the 17-year-old Edward III attends a magnificent ceremony in Amiens cathedral, but he does homage as a fellow monarch - in a crimson velvet robe, with the leopards of England embroidered in gold, wearing his crown and with a sword at his belt. This is in deliberate contrast to the bareheaded and unarmed approach expected by the French king.

The next eight years see a gradual change from this symbolic act of defiance to open warfare. Many elements contribute to this change.

One such element is the presence in England of disaffected French nobles urging Edward to press his claim to the throne of France. Another is French support for the boy king of Scotland, David ii, in his struggle against rivals sponsored by the English.

But the most serious bone of contention remains the English territories in southwest France. They are somewhat reduced now from the original extent of Aquitaine, and in this lesser form they are usually referred to as Guienne. Over the years the French have made many attempts to seize and confiscate Guienne, usually citing some failure or other in England's feudal obligations.

In 1337 Philip VI once again declares that he is confiscating Guienne. This time the English response is dramatic. Edward III replies that the kingdom of France is his by right of inheritance. He sends a formal challenge to Philip for his throne - a declaration of war.

The first stage of the war takes place at sea and in Flanders. The count of Flanders, an ally and vassal of the king of France, is under great pressure from an alliance led by Jacob van Artevelde. Edward III, profiting from this unrest on France's northern border, spends much of 1339 and 1340 in Flanders.

The Flemish cities, though in rebellious mood, are reluctant to affront their highest feudal lord - the king of France. They neatly solve the problem by persuading Edward to declare himself in that role. In Ghent, in January 1340, he formally assumes the royal title, quartering the fleur-de-lis of France with the leopards of England on his shield.

The English army engages in various ineffectual sieges in northern France, and the fleet wins one convincing victory over the French off Sluis in June 1340. But in general this first campaign achieves little at great cost (sufficient to bankrupt Edward's Florentine bankers when he defaults on his debts).

Crécy and Calais: AD 1346-1347

Edward's next foray on to French soil is a raid of plunder which takes him on a curving path from the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy (in July 1346) up past Paris and on northwards.

He has reached the region of Ponthieu by late August, when an army led by Philip vi of France catches up with him near Crécy. The resulting battle is something of a swansong for medieval chivalry.

The fighting begins at Crécy with a direct confrontation between English longbowmen and Genoese crossbowmen, employed as mercenaries by the French king. The English, outnumbered by the French, occupy a defensive position on a slope overlooking a small valley. The battle begins when the French king orders a line of crossbowmen to advance on the English position, with mounted knights following behind them.

The English outshoot the Genoese, who need to pause to crank their crossbow after each shot. When the Genoese retreat in panic, they become entangled with the advancing French cavalry. The resulting chaos offers an easy target to the bowmen on the hill.

Subsequent charges by the French cavalry meet a similar fate in a battle which continues until nightfall. The next morning some 1500 French knights and esquires are dead on the battlefield together with large numbers of more humble soldiers.

This great victory does not divert Edward III from his relatively unambitious plans. He makes no attempt to turn on Paris. Instead he continues on his course northwards. At Calais the citizens, famously, resist him. For almost a year he besieges them until finally, in early August 1347, the town capitulates.

The chronicles mention the English using Artillery against the town, firing small stones a few ounces in weight. But it is famine which brings the inhabitants to the point of surrender. The traditional story, probably correct, describes six burghers of Calais coming out of the town with ropes round their necks. They offer their lives to save those of their fellow citizens. Edward is said to have been in vindictive mood, owing to the activities of pirates based in Calais. In one version of the story he executes the six; in another he heeds a plea for mercy from his queen.

Calais is not recovered by the French until 1558.

Edward the Black Prince and Poitiers: AD 1355-1360

A truce signed after the fall of Calais, in 1347, holds for several years - partly because the whole of Europe is distracted at this time by a far more serious threat, the Black death. But in September 1355 the son of Edward III, known as Edward the black prince, lands with an army at Bordeaux and sets about plundering southern France with the help of allies from the English fief of Gascony.

The following summer the English and the Gascons press northwards until at last they are confronted, near Poitiers in September 1356, by a much larger army commanded by the king of France, John II.

The battle of Poitiers takes place over three days - a long weekend in modern terms, from Saturday to Monday in September 1356. Sunday is a truce, brokered between the two sides by the papal legate. The day of rest reveals, once again, the contrast between the romantically amateur French view of warfare and the new professionalism of the English.

The French knights treat their day off as a holiday, eating, drinking, socializing, relaxing. Meanwhile the English and their Gascon allies are busy digging trenches and making fences. The intention, as at Crécy, is to fight from a defensive position.

The final battle begins early on the Monday morning. By a combination of ambushes, hails of arrows and sudden cavalry charges downhill, the English and the Gascons throw the vanguard of the French army into disarray. The rearguard, commanded by the king himself, fights with great resolve. John II wins renown for his personal courage. But by mid-afternoon his army is overwhelmed, and he is a prisoner in English hands.

It is the beginning of four years of royal captivity, first in Bordeaux and then in the Savoy palace in London. After much negotiation a vast ransom of three million gold crowns is agreed in 1360. The taxation required to raise this sum is yet another burden in France so soon after the Black death.

In addition to the ransom of three million crowns, the terms agreed at Brétigny in 1360 (ratified later in the same year at Calais) attempt to resolve the ancient territorial disputes. France relinquishes to England the whole of Aquitaine in the south of France, and a few regions on the coast opposite England, including Calais. England in return gives up Normandy and Touraine and certain feudal rights held in Brittany and Flanders.

The terms of the treaty are never acted upon. Instead, over the next few decades, there are periodic and desultory raids from England. But the situation changes dramatically early in the next century, on both sides of the Channel.

15th century

Lancastrians Armagnacs and Burgundians: AD 1407-1415

In the early 15th century the political context in both England and France is radically different from the circumstances fifty years earlier at the time of the treaty of Brétigny. In England the new Lancastrian dynasty is more vigorous and belligerent than its predecessors. This is particularly the case after a young king, Henry V, inherits the throne in 1413.

In France civil war breaks out in 1407 between two lines within the royal family - the Armagnacs (supporting the legitimate line of the mad king Charles VI and his son the dauphin) and their rivals, the Burgundians. Henry V, availing himself of the disarray in France, brings a fleet into the estuary of the Seine in August 1415.

Harfleur, a port and stronghold on the north bank of the Seine estuary, falls to the English after a siege of five weeks. Henry then makes the profoundly medieval gesture of sending a challenge to the French dauphin to meet him within eight days in single combat to decide the great issue between their two kingdoms.

The dauphin does not respond. In early October Henry marches north, intending to assert his presence in France and then to return to England from Calais. But by the time he has crossed the Somme, the dauphin has assembled a French army to challenge him. They meet near the village of Agincourt.

Battle of Agincourt: AD 1415

Henry has at most 1000 men-at-arms and 5000 archers. The French outnumber him by perhaps three to one. But Henry compensates for this by taking up a position, at dawn on St Crispin's day (October 25), on a narrow front between two woods where the French advantage in numbers will be lessened.

His forces are arranged in a favourite English formation. Bowmen, provided with stakes which they can plant in the ground to form an instant palisade, are ranged on each wing in front of the men-at-arms (who are fighting on foot). Enemy cavalry or infantry, moving forward, are exposed to rains of arrows from either flank before they can clash with their opposite numbers.

At Agincourt the wet ploughed land combines with the narrow front to handicap the heavily armed French. They fall in large numbers (some 1500 mounted knights and 4500 other men-at-arms) to the more mobile English - whose rapid discharge of arrows from their longbows is followed by close work with axe and sword. The reports suggest that there are relatively few English casualties.

Henry V and his army continue on their way to the safe haven of Calais, reaching it four days later. Henry crosses to Dover on November 16 and is received in London amid magnificent pageantry.

The great fame of Agincourt in English history is not due to any lasting significance of the victory. It results entirely from the heroic treatment of the event by Shakespeare in Henry V.

The warrior king, in his pre-dawn exhortation to his troops, prophesies that the feast of St Crispin 'shall ne'er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered, We few, we happy few, we band of brothers'. As to the rest of the nation, he imagines how 'gentlemen in England, now a-bed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here'.

Rouen and Troyes: AD 1417-1420

Henry V returns to France in 1417 and begins a systematic campaign to capture one by one the towns and castles of Normandy. His eventual target is Rouen, the capital city of the duchy. The siege begins in July 1418. By January 1419 Rouen has been starved into submission and Henry makes a triumphal entry into the city of his Norman ancestors.

This notable success prompts immediate offers of negotiation. But with whom? At Agincourt Henry has defeated a French army led by the dauphin, representing his mad father Charles VI and the Armagnac cause. When Rouen falls, the French civil war between Armagnacs and burgundians has become more complex.

By this time the mad king and his heir are on opposite sides of the struggle. Charles VI's queen, Isabella of Bavaria, has brought her incapacitated husband into the camp of the Burgundians. From 1418 they control Paris, after an uprising in the city ejects the Armagnacs. The dauphin, son of Charles VI and Isabella, escapes with the Armagnacs to Bourges where he declares himself to be regent of France.

This hollow boast is mocked by the treaty of Troyes, agreed in 1420 between Isabella and her Burgundian ally (the new duke, Philip the Good) on one side and Henry V of England on the other.

The treaty of Troyes, extraordinarily advantageous to the English cause, is agreed with only one of the two sides in France's civil war. Under its terms Henry V is to be the acknowledged heir of the French king, Charles VI, to the exclusion of the dauphin. Within two weeks of the treaty Henry marries Catherine, daughter of the king of France.

In 1421 the couple have a son, also christened Henry. Before the infant is a year old, both his father and his maternal grandfather have died. For the second time in the Hundred Years' War a king of England has a valid claim to the Crown of france. The boy is crowned Henry VI of England at Westminster in 1429, and Henry II of France in Paris in 1431.

The king of Bourges: AD 1422-1437

Meanwhile the dauphin, the rightful king by descent, proclaims himself Charles VII of France. But he is confined south of the Loire, with Paris in the hands of his enemies (the English and Burgundians in alliance). Charles is known mockingly as the king of Bourges, where he maintains his court.

There is political impasse and desultory warfare until a dramatic development in 1429. For six months the English have been besieging Orléans, an important town on the Loire commanding the route south towards Bourges. In April a French force arrives to raise the siege. It is unusual in that it is led by a young peasant girl, Joan of arc.

Inspired by Joan, the French drive the English north from Orléans. The raising of the siege proves the turning point in the long war. Joan leads Charles VII to Reims, where his consecration in 1429 brings him for the first time the undivided allegiance of the French people. Even the death of Joan at English hands, in 1431, does nothing to stem the new surge of national enthusiasm and success.

The duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, acknowledges the trend when he makes peace with Charles VII in 1435 at Arras. This treaty ends the civil war. In 1437 the king enters Paris, now once again the capital. The French kingdom is almost back to normal.

After this satisfactory resolution of the civil war against the Burgundians, Charles VII's reign sees an almost equally complete resolution of the much longer conflict with England.

The two large areas of France still in English hands are Aquitaine (reduced to Guienne but never entirely recovered for the French king) and Normandy (recovered in 1204, lost again to Henry V in 1419). Charles brings them both securely into the kingdom, and does so very largely thanks to his Reforms of France's antiquated approach to warfare. His professional army and his artillery win him Normandy after a victory at Formigny in 1450, and Aquitaine after an engagement at Castillon three years later.

The guns of Formigny and Castillon: AD 1450-1453

Inconclusive references in contemporary documents suggest that guns of some kind may have featured on Europe's battlefields as early as Crécy in 1346. But the first engagement in which they play a decisive role is at Formigny in 1450.

The English enter the field with a slightly larger force than the French, perhaps 3500 men against 3000. For much of the battle the English bowmen achieve their now customary success. But considerable damage is done to the English force by two small cannons, or culverins, in the French position.

Recognizing the importance of these guns, the English make an effort to capture them. They succeed briefly in doing so. But the French win back their cannons, and with them win the day.

The same pattern is repeated three years later at Castillon. On this occasion the French have several cannons in a defensive position. The English make a frontal assault, suffering considerable losses in men and even more in confidence. It is the last battle of the Hundred Years War, which in itself is the last great medieval conflict. The centuries of the archer give way to those of the gunner.

The final pay-off: AD 1475

An English attempt to revive the agonisingly long Hundred Years' War is bought off with a bribe. Edward iv makes one last attempt to claim rather more of France than the tiny pale of Calais, all that now remains in English hands. He lands at Calais in 1475 with a large army. The French king, Louis xi, marches north with an equally large force. They confront each other across the Somme. But neither has much stomach for a fight.

The two kings meet at Picquigny and agree a seven-year truce. Edward iv will withdraw from France in return for an immediate payment of 75,000 gold crowns and a further annual sweetener of 50,000 gold crowns for as long as both kings live.

The sums are small (by comparison with the ransom paid for John ii a century earlier) and the arrangement holds until both kings die in 1483.

No more is heard of this long dispute, apart from an obsessive English affection for tiny Calais and a strange custom of the English royal family to include 'king of France' among their titles (until as late as 1801). No final treaty is ever signed, nor needs to be. The war lingered on past its time, a late example of the patchwork quilt of medieval disputes deriving from dowries and feudal grants. The great conflicts of the future will be between clearly defined nation states, of which France and England are two early examples.
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