The Hundred Years War: the pageants and tournaments of chivalry; knights in burnished armor; The English archer destroying the flower of French chivalry; the great battles of Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. Or just a sign of the brutality of the Middle Ages. Senseless warfone destruction; the death of thousands in the mud of France for nothing more than the greed and ambition of Kings. There’s all of this and more in the Hundred Years War. It’s a story of courage, the clash of nations A story of human endeavor and the timeless struggle for supremacy. Yet there’s also another story here: the story of a war that helped define England. Her sense of herself, her language, her role in the world. The Hundred Years War helped form a nation.
It’s 1328. The new King of England is a young man called But he’s powerless. Because his mother’s lover a man named Roger Mortimer had seized control of his throne. But Edward was a warrior and a leader of men. In 1330 at the age of only 17 he gathered some friends and by pale moonlight snuck into Mortimer’s castle. He cut down the guards and seized Mortimer himself. The interloper was dragged through the jeering crowds of London, dragged to the gallows known as the tyburn tree where countless traitors would die over the centuries and hung by the neck until dead. From that point Edward was determined that England and his royal court would be a shining example of culture to all Christendom. The court of the young King was a pageant of color, music, tournaments, and poetry. He surrounded himself with the enormously wealthy nobility and modeled his court on the glory of the ancient and mythical Camelot of King Arthur: A celebration of the cult of chivalry. But part of that cult was that the King would lead his nobles to war, wealth, and glory. And while at times the nobility did strain against the King’s authority, for the most part they were his natural allies, holding their lands from him and working with him to govern his kingdom and his people. And so, with his greatest Nobles at his side Edward did what he loved most and was born for: he led his nobility to war and crushed the Scots in battle. But then in 1337 Edward’s world was threatened: the French were at the gates. Well, not the literal gates. Actually, it’s a complex dynastic claim involving several hundred years of medieval inheritance law and international politics. We should be able to cover that in just a few sentences. For centuries the French and English royal dynasties had fought over land in France. In the blue corner, the French royal dynasty: the Valois. And in the red corner, the English Royal Dynasty: the Plantagenets. And the Valois King of France, King Philip VI of France was determined to take the last of Edward’s French lands away from him, because medieval kingdoms didn’t follow modern borders or rules. They were the property of a King and his nobles. English claims in France went all the way back to 1066 when a French noble called William the Bastard decided that he deserved more than the lands he held in Normandy. He made the most of a distant claim to the English throne, sailed across the channel, beat up the English and became known to history as The old Anglo-Saxon landowners were swept away, and England became the property of French-speaking Lords. French was the language of the nobility, of literature, of the Kings Court; English was the language of the peasant, and the serf. Fast forward a hundred years and in 1155 a young man called Henry became King Henry II of England. Henry came from Anjou in France. And so more French land was added to those holdings in Normandy that came from old Willy the Conq. Plus Henry then married the richest heiress in Europe who was good way of paying the bills the powerful cultured and intelligent Eleanor of Aquitaine And she brought even more French land to the English crown. Henry and his successors the Plantagenet royal family now owned almost half of modern France. They spoke French. They loved France. They were French. If they had to choose between a croissant and a full English breakfast it’ll be the croissant every time. But there’s a catch. Most of these lands where in theory still owned by the kings of France. Like all medieval vassels, everyone with lands in France were supposed to kneel and pay homage to the Valois kings for them. In practice though, the likes of Willy the Conq and Henry II were simply too powerful to be forced to do what the Valois told them to do. So they just paid lip service to the French King’s theoretical rights, and got on with the party. But over the centuries, bit by bit, the Valois had used their rights to take back most of that land while weaker Plantagenet were on the English throne. By the time Edward III was born most of that land had been successfully reclaimed by the French, leaving only a single province left in English hands: a place called Gascony. The Valois King Philip VI was determined to take that last province away from the Plantagenet and England. Philip had no doubt he could achieve this. After all, France was the most powerful and glorious country in all Christendom. It was one of the leading centers of culture and learning. Philip only counted as his equals: the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and that’s it. England was just a small damp and slightly grubby country somewhere in the North Sea. The French nobility with a shining exemplar of chivalry, while the English nobility were not. Phillip made trouble for Edward. He made an alliance with the Scots against the English And then at his cout in 1337, he formally confiscated Gascony. Edward tried to talk. Philip told him to talk to the hand. Edward told him to talk to the edge of his sword; he would defend his rights. The confiscation was not just an insult to Edward, It was also a threat to English merchants. England had two great sources of wealth: One was in the wine trade with Gascony, the Gascon merchants as well as the English hated the idea of losing the wine trade with England. Even more important though was the wool trade with the county of Flanders in the modern-day Belgium. The textile industry was far and away the biggest industry in medieval Europe other than agriculture. No other industry was a fraction of its value and the textile industry was dominated by the densely populated towns of northern Italy and Flanders. English wool fed that trade. English wool was the best in all Europe, finer with longer strands making it easier to set it to yarn and creating the softest, strongest woolen cloth. Every year, thousands of huge wool sacks were sold to Flemish merchants, and every year customs dews from the trade filled the English Treasury. But the Count of Flanders was a subject of the French King and now King Philip told Flanders they could no longer trade with the English. The Flemish were as horrified as the English without English wool, their industry would die and that people would starve. So one Friday in the bustling market square in Ghent in Flanders, the people gathered excitedly round a wooden stage. It was covered with colourful pennants and flags. But they saw a new flag the arms of England quartered with the royal arms of France, and they wondered what that could mean. A young powerful man stepped forward. His name, he declared, was King Edward the Third. He had been wrongfully banned from his lands in France and he would reclaim his right. The people cheered. But there was more: by the right of his French mother He was claiming the very throne of France itself. The Flemish cheered. The French giggled. War was now unstoppable. At stake on the English side was trade, the English role in Christendom, the King’s lands in France, held by right for a hundred and fifty years, and the reputation and honor of the King. On the French side: a unified country, national prestige, and the right of their monarch to his throne So join us next time as these two great kings marshal their forces and the Hundred Years War begins in earnest.