Six Things To Know About the Hundred Years War

Though I’ve written little about it on THIS blog, I have a huge interest in the Hundred Years War.  I don’t know when it started.  Maybe it was when I got the little Pan book on Agincourt by Christopher Hibbert from their  British battle series back in the day. Or maybe it was when I bought Donald Featherstone’s little guide to wargaming Poitiers from the Knight’s Battle Series at American Eagles in the late ’70’s.  Most likely, however, I was captivated by John Keegan’s absorbing account of Agincourt  in his landmark book The Face of Battle.

Though many miniature gamers know the minutiae of The Battle of the Bulge, Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars, and the complete rise and fall of the Roman Empire, but don’t really know much about this war that consumed more than a hundred years of the middle ages (1336-1453) and profoundly shaped the history of England, France and Europe.  Here are the basics:

1. France won the Hundred Years War.  We often forget this because we mostly remembered the epic military disasters they participated in: Sluys 1340; Crecy 1346; Poitiers 1356; Agincourt 1415; Verneuil 1424.  Descriptions of  these battles are usually followed by the phrase “slaughtered the flower of French chvalry.” And indeed, though the English, at various times, occupied and ruled more than half of what we consider modern France, the French evolved, strong leaders emerged to forge a modern state and a royal, rather than feudal, military system and drove the English from possessions they held in France for hundreds of years.

2. The cause of the conflict is complicated.  There were two important causes of friction between Edward III of England and Philip VI of France.  At the center of it all was a succession issue. Philip succeeded his father, Charles of Valois after the Capetian line died out.  Edward asserted his claim to the French throne through his mother Isabella was more valid. Because the English king also owed homage to the French king for the English possessions in Aquitaine, Edward was nominally subject to Philip’s rule, a really odd position to be in.  When Edward refused to recognize Philip as his sovereign, Philip declared Aquitaine forfeit.  Them’s fightin’ words, and so they did.

3. The English military system was genius. The successful armies on the continent depended on large numbers of well- mounted, armored cavalrymen to defeat armies of peasants, infantry or other large forces of armored cavalry.  As a rule, for hundreds of years, that largely worked. England, a relatively poor country, with income about half that of France learned to fight in a different manner. With some armored men-at-arms, Edward III got his knights off their expensive horses and surrounded them with deadly well-trained longbowmen that could be lured into service for cheap wages, or be pressed into service if that was required. The wars with Scotland, in France and at Najera in Spain were cookies shaped with the same cutter-find a strong defensive position, entice the enemy to attack, and rain death on them until the arrows run out.  Then let what’s left have it with competent armored foot. Edward the III was an aggressive military commander who always sought battle, but only fought on his terms. For a hundred years the French system had no answer for this, except avoid battle and let the English pay the exorbitant cost of keeping an army in the field.

4. The Hundred Years War was a complex network of related conflicts   There are maybe 15 sizable battles fought over the 117 years of the Hundred Years War.  It was punctuated by many treaties and truces, some lasting for years, while the opposing sides angled for advantage. But, in addition to the fighting between the two kingdoms there was a succession struggle in Brittany that lasted decades, England had its own civil war resulting in the death of Richard II and the beginning of the Lancaster dynasty. There was war in Wales and Scotland.  France suffered through the rising of the Jacquerie after King Jean’s capture, and the struggle between between the Armagnacs and Burgundy.  France was infested by the Free Companies and both sides fought off the devastating effects of the Black Death. Edward, Black Prince of Wales and French commander Bertrand du Guesclin were both drawn into the war for the crown of Castile. It’s hard to know all the players without a scorecard.

5.  The French were most successful when they avoided big battles.  Like I said, maybe 15 big battles in the Hundred Years War and France lost about two thirds of them. The French won the war because they used their advantages against the English weakness. As much as anything, the war was shaped by two larger struggles.  One was economic.  From the very beginning Edward III realized the great cost of keeping large armies in France.  He borrowed tremendous sums, and bankrupted some of the largest Italian banking houses in Europe as a result.  By the end of his reign, Parliament and the Church were adamantly refusing to provide funds to keep armies in the field in France or provide for the adequate defense of Aquitaine. Later in the war, as England prospered, fewer men of military ability chose to seek their fortunes by force of arms. English armies shrank and Parliament was less willing to pay for them.  France, a much richer country, also had economic issues, but fewer of them. Charles V, a shrewd and dynamic leader of the 1360-80 period. He consolidated the wealth of France, used the money to buy off castles, cities and nobles and established the first, relatively small royal army to respond to English threats under great leaders like du Guesclin and Oliver Clisson. After Henry V’s death, Joan of Arc and Charles VI inspired a new French spirit of nationalism that inspired unity.  The introduction of the French royal army in 1440 and the comparative weakness of the English changed much of this.

6. The Hundred Years War is fundamentally an irregular war. From the beginning, the French viewed big battles as risky and tended to avoid them.  This seems to be the case throughout Europe.  Edward III, Henry of Lancaster, the Black Prince,  Henry V all sought the decisive battle that would bring an end to the war.  Their victories never did win the whole enchilada. And so it dragged on into an exhausting series of campaigns and raids.  The English,throughout the long war engaged in a series of raids called chevauchees.  These raids had two purposes.  One was simply looting and pillaging of wealth, food and supplies that kept the English forces in the field.  The second was equally important and that was to disaffect the gentry and peasantry from the French monarch.  If Philip, or Jean, or Charles wouldn’t protect them, maybe Edward or Henry would . Further, this loss of support might prick the French king’s honor and goad him into battle. The French and English also participated in a litany of local seizures of territory, castle raids, incursions, alliance swaps that shaped the political landscape in Brittany and Aquitaine.  Contributing to the misery of the small folk were the depredations of the Free Companies, small armies of English, French and various mercenaries that roamed France in the late 14th century, who formed heavily armed banditti.  They seized whatever wealth that could be had and lived off tribute and stolen goods until driven out of France or absorbed into the new national French army in the 1430’s.

This is just a quick snapshot of fundamentals about this interesting conflict.  There is a tremendous body of scholarly but highly accessible literature about the Hundred Years War. In a future post I’ll make a list of “must reads.”

As a miniature wargamer, however, I find the period is generally not well served by the rules that cover the Hundred Years War era.  Because the middle ages is often included in a broader Ancients millieu, the uniqueness of specific military systems or conflict get mashed down and homogenized into game systems that don’t work well historically.  The Hundred Years War is desperately in need of its own big battle set of rules.

However, I really do like Lion Rampant.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.  It is simple and easy to play and reflect the kind of small actions that form the vast bulk of conflict during the Hundred Years War.

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