Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Problems with close neighbours
You may have noticed that France isn’t part of Britain. But at one time the Kings of England ruled enormous chunks of what is now France. The French Connection all began when Duke William of Normandy became King William I of England in 1066. Under his great-grandson, Henry II (1133-1189), the so-called ‘Angevin Empire’ stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees and included Normandy, Maine, Brittany, Anjou, Touraine, Aquitaine, Gascony and Toulouse.
Neighbours occasionally fall out (one of ours causes no end of trouble) and by the 14th century, the King of England’s lands across the Channel had been reduced to just Gascony. In 1337, King Philip VI of France seized parts of Gascony, which belonged to the English crown by inheritance. Edward III of England, who was also irritated by French support for Scottish raids and piracy against English ships, responded by pressing his own claim to the throne of France – which some argued was better than Philip’s (Philip was cousin to the previous king, Charles IV, and Edward was Charles’ nephew on his mother’s side – but French law did not accept succession through the female line). Thus began what history knows as ‘The Hundred Years War’ – which actually spanned 116 years.
So Edward invaded France in 1346, winning a resounding victory against superior odds at the Battle of Crécy. Crécy is considered a military milestone because the French cavalry was overwhelmed by English and Welsh archers; nobility was defeated by a largely peasant army that fought on foot. One of France’s allies at the battle was blind King John of Bohemia who, possibly unsurprisingly, was slain during the fighting. Legend has it that the 16 year old Prince of Wales, Edward of Woodstock, was so moved by this sacrifice that he plucked the dead king’s three ostrich feathers from the battlefield and adopted them and the motto, Ich dien (‘I serve’) as his heraldic device. The legend is somewhat dodgy, but it’s a good story and the badge of the Prince of Wales – three white ostrich feathers on a black background – definitely dates from this time. This particular Prince of Wales is also known to history as ‘the Black Prince’, possibly because he wore black armour; or, some say, because he allegedly had a brutal temper and reputation, which included the (disputed) slaughter of 3,000 citizens of Limoges.
After Crécy, King Edward laid siege to Calais for eleven months. At the end of this, the townsfolk were starving and another story can be added to the annals of Anglo-French history. It goes that six burghers (officials) came to Edward, offering their lives if he would spare their fellow citizens. The King’s wife, Philippa of Hainault (in what is now northern France), pleaded for the men’s lives and the King graciously gave in. Anyway, Calais was taken and remained English for the next 200 years.
The Prince of Wales, Edward of Woodstock (he was never known as the Black Prince in his lifetime), invaded France again in 1356, winning another famous victory that year at the Battle of Poitiers. During the battle, the French King, John II, was taken prisoner and subsequently held captive in the Tower of London, as well as in the sumptuous Savoy Palace – which used to stand on the site of the famous hotel, on London’s Strand. The French King joined the King of Scotland, David II, in captivity. (David had been captured by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, near Durham, in 1346.) Eventually, an enormous ransom was settled for John’s return to France – although he died before he could be released – and both sides agreed territorial concessions. However, in 1369, the French got a new, vigorous, king, Charles V. The English were driven back and the French threatened the English coast – for example, attacking Portsmouth in 1369, 1377 and 1380.
French resurgence introduced a period of relative calm in Anglo-French affairs. Edward III was ill and died in 1377. His heir, Edward of Woodstock, had died in 1376, leaving the throne of England to the King’s ten year old grandson, Richard II. The young King Richard had to contend with revolting peasants (the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381) and, eventually, being overthrown by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV and probably had poor Richard starved to death in Pontefract Castle. Henry, in turn, was also preoccupied with rebellion at home and war in Wales and it was his son, Prince Hal, who as Henry V decided to revisit the English King’s claim to the throne of France.
Henry V set sail for France in August 1415 with an army of about 10,000 men. Incidentally, this venture was partly financed by one Richard (Dick) Whittington – not a pantomime figure, but a real person who really was mayor of London. Anyway, landing in Normandy, Henry laid siege to Harfleur, which surrendered after about a month. His forces depleted by illness, Henry was forced to abandon a planned march on Paris and instead headed north to Calais. He found his way barred near the village of Azincourt by a French army which outnumbered the by now very hungry English by about four to one. However, though estimates of precise numbers vary considerably, the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415 was another triumphant victory for the English. It is said that the cream of French nobility perished in the bloody mud of Agincourt – and, controversially, many prisoners were also murdered on Henry’s orders. Supported by the Duke of Burgundy, Henry went on to reconquer Normandy. Finally, the French gave in. In 1420, the Treaty of Troyes agreed that Henry’s heirs would be kings of France and he married Catherine of Valois, daughter of the French King, Charles the Mad.
But, after ten years on the throne, Henry died of dysentery in 1422 leaving the kingdom of England in the care of regents for his 9-month old son, Henry VI. In 1429, events turned again. Joan of Arc, allegedly motivated by visions from God to drive out ‘les Roastbeefs’, began the French recovery by inspiring the recapture of Orléans. She was later burnt at the stake by the English. Despite Henry VI being crowned King of France at Notre-Dame in 1431, the French gradually regained most of the captured territory. Maine and Anjou were handed over as part of the Treaty of Tours, an agreement for a 20-year peace which included Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou in 1445. The peace was soon broken. The decisive French victory at Castillon in 1453 is generally thought to mark the end of the war. The English still had Calais, but the loss of territory was hugely unpopular and is often cited as one of the reasons for dissatisfaction with the reign of Henry VI and the Lancastrian party, leading to the terrible English civil war, the Wars of the Roses.
The battles of the Hundred Years War were dominated by the fearsome English (and Welsh) terror weapon, the longbow, and by the emerging use of cannon. Whether England could ever have won the war is doubtful; armies operated far from home, with long supply-lines, often in hostile territory and were habitually decimated by hunger and disease, notably dysentery. At times, English soldiers were reduced to violent banditry.
Essentially, the Hundred Years War was an inter-dynastic conflict, which had been off and on since 1066, over who ruled in France – and which the King of France ultimately won. King Edward III of England was as much French as English, and French was still the official language of the law in England at the time. Many modern legal terms – for example ‘attorney’, ‘bailiff’ and ‘defendant’ – are derived from French. Though ‘nations’ did not exist in the way we understand them, the Hundred Years War did help develop separate national identities on both sides of the Channel. Henry V was actually the first King of England to communicate primarily in English, the language of his people.
As a footnote, the English monarch’s claim to the French throne was only given up in 1801.