The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) was the longest military conflict in European history, fought between England and France over territorial claims and the question of the succession of the French crown.
Despite its popular name, the conflict spanned a period of 112 years, though was marked by periods of intermittent truces. It involved five generations of kings and led to various innovations in the development of military weaponry. At the time, France was the most populous and advanced of the two sides, yet England initially stole several key victories.
Ultimately, the war ended with the House of Valois holding control of France and England being stripped of almost all its territorial possessions in France.
Here are 10 facts about the Hundred Years’ War.
1. The Hundred Years’ War was started over territorial disputes
After the conquest of England in 1066 by the Dukes of Normandy, England, under the rule of Edward I, was technically a vassal of France, despite England occupying territories in France such as the duchy Aquitaine. Tensions continued between the two countries over territories, and by the rule of Edward III, England had lost most of its regions in France, leaving only Gascony.
Phillip VI of France decided that Gascony should be part of French territory in 1337 because England has rescinded its right to French territories. After King Philip confiscated the duchy of Aquitaine, Edward III responded by pressing his claim to the French throne, beginning the Hundred Years’ War.
2. Edward III of England believed he was entitled to the French throne
King Edward III, son of Edward II and Isabella of France, was convinced his French parentage entitled him to the French throne. Edward and his armies won a major victory at the Battle of Crécy on 26 August 1346, resulting in the deaths of several key French noblemen.
The English army faced France’s King Philip VI’s larger army but won due to the superiority of English longbowmen against French crossbowmen. Longbows had immense power as their arrows could penetrate chain mail with relative ease making plate armour more and more necessary.
3. The Black Prince captured the French king during the Battle of Poitiers
In early September 1356, the English heir to the throne, Edward (known as the Black Prince because of the dark suit of armour he wore) led a raiding party of 7,000 men but found himself pursued by King Jean II of France.
The armies fought on 17 September even though a truce was arranged for the following day. This gave the Black Prince the time he needed to organise an army in the marshland near the town of Poitiers. The French King Jean was captured and carried off to London and held in somewhat luxurious captivity for 4 years.
4. England held the upper hand militarily at the beginning of the war
For much of the Hundred Years’ War, England dominated as the victor of battles. This was due to England having a superior fighting force and tactics. Edward embarked on a unique strategy during the first period of war (1337-1360) in which he fought skirmish wars, continually attacking and then retreating.
Such tactics demoralised the French and their desire to wage war against the English. Edward also managed to create an alliance with Flanders allowing him to have a home base on the continent from which he could launch naval attacks.
5. During England’s victories, French peasants rebelled against their king
In what became known as the Peasants Revolt (1357-1358), or the Jacquerie, the locals in France started rebelling. This was a series of peasant wars that took place around the French countryside and city of Paris.
The peasants were upset that France was losing, which led to a truce in the form of the Treaty of Bretigny (1360). The treaty was mostly in favour of the English because King Philip VI, having overseen several French military losses, was on the backfoot. The treaty allowed England to keep most lands that were conquered, including England no longer having to refer to itself as a French vassal.
6. Charles V turned France’s fortunes around during the war
King Charles V, the ‘philosopher king’, was seen as the redeemer of France. Charles reconquered nearly all territories lost to the English in 1360 and reinvigorated the cultural institutions of the kingdom.
But despite Charles’ successes as a military leader he was also hated in his country for raising taxes which caused disaffection amongst his own subjects. As he prepared to die in September 1380, Charles announced the abolition of the hearth tax to ease the burden on his people. His government ministers refused the request to reduce taxes, eventually sparking revolts.
7. England’s victory at Agincourt achieved enduring fame
At Agincourt in 1415, a French hamlet south-east of Boulogne, King Henry V of England’s soldiers were an exhausted and bedraggled army facing an enemy four times its size.
But Henry’s masterful use of strategy together with his archers, who devastated the enemy’s infantry, saw the battle won in half an hour. Less than chivalric was Henry’s ordering of all prisoners to be killed in a massacre carried out by his own guard of 200.
8. Joan of Arc was condemned to death and burned at the stake in 1431
Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old peasant girl who claimed to hear God’s commands, led the French army to victory recapturing Orleans and Reims. She was captured on 24 May 1430 by the Burgundians at Compiegne who sold her to the English for 16,000 francs.
Joan’s trial took longer than most as the judges assembled under the leadership of the infamous Bishop of Beauvais. Found guilty of heresy, Joan was burned at the stake. She cried out for a cross as the flames leapt around her, and one was hurriedly made by an English soldier from two sticks and brought to her. Five centuries later, Joan of Arc was declared a saint.
9. The conflict led to many military innovations
The only projectiles in war that had an advantage against a knight on horseback bearing a lance was a short bow. However, it had the disadvantage of being unable to pierce knightly armour. The crossbow, mainly used by French soldiers, had adequate velocity but was a cumbersome contraption and took time to rearm.
With the adaption of the longbow into the English army, it neutralised the speed and power of the enemy’s mounted knights. The cheaply made longbow, which could be fashioned out of all kinds of wood, just required one long single piece that could be carved. A volley of arrows from the longbow archers could be rained down on the enemy from the backlines.
10. France clawed back territories during the last years of the conflict
After the successes of Joan of Arc winning back cities Orleans and Reims, France in the final decades of the war took back various other territories formerly occupied by the English.
At the end of the Hundred Years’ War, England held just a handful of cities, the most important of which was Calais. Roughly 200 years later, Calais itself was lost to France.