Throughout the Middle Ages England and France were locked in almost constant conflict: technically 116 years of conflict, five generations of kings fought for one of the most important thrones in Europe. The Hundred Years’ War was the flash point as Edward III of England challenged his larger and more powerful neighbour to the South. Here are some of the key battles that shaped one of the longest and most drawn out wars in history.
1. The Battle of Crecy: 26 August 1346
In 1346 Edward III invaded France through Normandy, taking the port of Caen and burning and pillaging a path of destruction through Northern France. On hearing that King Phillip IV was raising an army to defeat him, he turned north and moved along the coast until he reached the small forest of Crecy. Here they decided to wait for the enemy.
The French outnumbered the English, but fell foul of the English longbow. The ability to fire every five seconds gave them a huge advantage and as the French attacked again and again, English archers wreaked havoc amongst French soldiers. Eventually, a wounded Philip accepted defeat and retreated. The battle was a decisive English victory: the French suffered heavy losses and the victory allowed the English to take the port of Calais, which became a valued English possession for the next two hundred years.
2. The Battle of Poitiers: 19 September 1356
In 1355 England’s heir Edward – known as the Black Prince – landed at Bordeaux, while the Duke of Lancaster landed with a second force in Normandy and began to push south. They were opposed by the new French King, John II, who forced Lancaster to withdraw towards the coast. He then set off in pursuit of the English and caught up with them at Poitiers.
Initially it seemed as if the odds were stacked against the Black Prince. His army was vastly outnumbered and he offered to return the loot he had plundered during his march. However, John was convinced the English did not stand any chance in battle and refused.
The battle was again won by the archers, many of whom were veterans of Crecy. King John was captured, his son the Dauphin, Charles, was left to rule: faced with populist uprisings and a widespread feeling of discontent, the first episode of the war (often known as the Edwardian episode) is generally seen to have concluded after Poitiers.
3. The Battle of Agincourt: 25 October 1415
With the French King Charles suffering mental health problems, Henry V decided to grab the chance to rekindle England’s old claims in France. After negotiations fell through – the English still had the French king John and were demanding ransom payments – Henry invaded Normandy and laid siege to Harfleur. French forces were not assembled fast enough to relieve Harfleur but they did put enough pressure on English forces to force them into battle at Agincourt.
Whilst the French were thought to have at least double the forces of the English, the ground was extremely muddy. Expensive suits of armour proved more of a help than a hindrance in the mud, and under the rapid fire of English archers and their powerful longbows, up to 6000 French soldiers were slaughtered in horrific conditions. Henry executed many more prisoners after the battle. The unexpected victory left Henry in control of Normandy, and cemented the Lancastrian dynasty back in England.
Agincourt is remarkably well documented, with at least 7 contemporary accounts, 3 of which belong to eyewitnesses, in known existence. The battle has been immortalised by Shakespeare’s Henry V, and remains iconic in the English imagination.
4. The Siege of Orleans: 12 October 1428 – 8 May 1429
One of the biggest French victories of the Hundred Years’ War came courtesy of a teenage girl. Joan of Arc was convinced she had been ordained by God to defeat the English and more importantly so was the French prince Charles VII.
He gave her an army to lead against the English which she used to lift the siege of Orleans. This paved the way for the French prince to be crowned at Rheims. She, however, was later captured by the Burgundians and handed over to the English who had her executed.
Orleans itself was a significant city both militarily and symbolically for both sides. Whilst the English had lost the city itself, they still considered much of the surrounding region, and it took several more battles and months for the French to finally consecrate Charles as King Charles VII.
5. The Battle of Castillon: 17 July 1453
Under Henry VI, England lost most of the gains of Henry V. A force attempted to regain them but was dealt a crushing defeat at Castillon, with high casualties as a result of poor leadership from John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. The battle is noted in the development of warfare as being the first battle in Europe in which field artillery (cannons) played a major role.
For all their victories during the war at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, the loss at Castillon saw England lose all their territories in France, except for Calais which remained in English hands until 1558. The battle is considered by most to mark the end of the Hundred Years’ War, although this would not necessarily have seemed obvious to contemporaries. King Henry VI had a major mental breakdown later in 1453: many consider the news of the defeat at Castillon to have been a trigger.