14th Century – War

Battle of Crécy between the English and French in the Hundred Years’ War.

Battle of Sluys.

The fourteenth century opened with a series of wars of succession and of territorial aggrandizement. In Scandinavia, the worst situation was in Sweden, where King Birger II (1290–1318) executed two princeling rivals to his throne, thus propelling the kingdom into a civil war that lasted almost throughout the second decade of the century. Contemporaneously, Danes and Poles joined together in 1316 to invade the Brandenburg lands in order to contain German expansionism into their own spheres of influence in the eastern Baltic. A double election, that of Ludwig of Bavaria and Frederick of Austria, to the German imperial throne in 1314 resulted in a decade of destructive war in that already war-weary kingdom. Ultimately, Ludwig emerged the victor, but at the price of arrested economic development, political repression and other forms of civic regression in Germany.

The period was also one of border wars: Anglo-Scottish, Franco-Flemish and Anglo-French. For years the English had claimed a vague overlordship over Scotland, and the Scots at various times resisted. As English interference became more insistent and more brutal, the Scots reacted with ever greater violence and brutality themselves. They were not successful against King Edward I and he was not entirely effective against them, but they delivered what seemed to be a crushing blow to his successor Edward II (1307–27) at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Because the English were unwilling to withdraw their claims or concede territory the Scots believed was rightfully theirs, the aftermath of Bannockburn developed into a prolonged period of guerrilla warfare in the borderlands of the two kingdoms. This, in turn, precipitated an almost total collapse of economic production in the war-ravaged regions during the Great Famine.

The Scots under Robert Bruce and his brother Edward Bruce opened a major second front in the savage war by using the small northern islands as a jumping-off point and invading Ireland. They expected an Irish rebellion against that people’s English overlords, but like Scotland, if not more so, Ireland was suffering from famine, and no great national uprising took place. The English and Scots, besides inflicting harm on each other, harried the Irish, living off the land by plunder and disciplining enemies of their cause by peremptory and barbaric punishments. The situation, though precarious for the invading Scots, still held promise because the native population of southern Wales rebelled against their English overlords at about the same time, in the wake, that is, of the death of the region’s principal English marcher lord at Bannockburn. The power vacuum created by this death and by English commitments against Scotland and in Ireland furnished the Welsh with a unique opportunity. Yet, in the event, the English put down the Welsh rebellion and, helped by a Scottish withdrawal from Ireland, re-established a modicum of control there by 1320. Nevertheless, border raiding and guerrilla warfare, much to English disadvantage, continued in the main theatre of confrontation, the Anglo-Scottish frontier.

The Franco-Flemish situation was just as messy from 1315 until the early 1320s. The issue was the extent of French sovereignty in Flanders: what precisely did it mean to have a tie to the kingdom? How much authority did the feudal dependence of French Flanders give to the royal overlord? What demands, fiscal and otherwise, could the French king legitimately make on the Flemings? Most Flemings thought French pretensions were overweening. The upper class in Flanders was divided as to how much and in what way it should resist, and some elements wanted to reach a compromise settlement. Many nobles, however, were loath to capitulate, and the burghers stubbornly refused to be cowed by the French.

Thus, it was on the battlefields of Flanders that issues were resolved. The French nobility found itself engaged against determined burgher militias and knights of Flanders in a particularly ferocious series of battles, which went very badly for the French in the early phase. The battle of Courtrai, also known as the battle of the Golden Spurs, took place on 11 July 1302. The huge but somewhat ragtag Flemish army, mostly foot soldiers, met and humiliated the cream of French chivalry, taking no prisoners, but slaughtering at least sixty-eight great nobles and, according to one count, 1,100 knights. Their golden spurs, 700 in number, were retrieved from the battlefield corpses and displayed as trophies in a church in Courtrai.

Such savagery (far from the only example on either side) provoked a grim determination among the combatants. The fighting went on intermittently, but always with brutality, for years. The French seemed to achieve the upper hand by 1312 and went so far as to incorporate a territorial swathe of French-speaking Flanders, including Lille and Douai, into the kingdom. But the attempt met vigorous opposition, and more fighting ensued, at least whenever the weather permitted. Some of the more dramatic descriptions of later campaigns describe the contending armies mired in mud while the rains of the famine period incessantly pelted northern Europe. The rains were more helpful to the Flemings precisely because they undermined the French advantage in cavalry. In the end, however, the rain stopped, and though it took considerable time, the vastly superior resources of the French kingdom allowed it to prevail over the burghers and their Flemish baronial supporters. Lille and Douai are still French.

While the English were engaged with the Scots and while the French slaughtered Flemings or got slaughtered by them, the two great kingdoms went to war against each other in 1294. Again, this Anglo-French war was ostensibly a border conflict, since the clash arose out of disputes about jurisdiction in the English-controlled part of south-western France, Gascony. Fortunately for the local population, the warfare was, on the whole, less intense than elsewhere. Although the formal peace treaty was not ratified until 1313, the period of hot war lasted only from 1294 to 1297. In the uneasy truce that followed, each side fought the other indirectly with surrogates, the French by showing amity to the Scots, the English by doing the same with the Flemings, the purchasers of so much of their raw wool in peaceful times.

The war of 1294–7, though of little interest in its military aspects, had two enormous repercussions. First, it caused a dreadful rift in relations between the papacy and the kings of England and France. English anger with the pope, Boniface VIII, who denounced Edward’s taxation of the Church without the pontiff’s prior consent as an infringement on the liberty of the Church, was relatively short-lived. Eventually, following an enormous amount of diplomatic manoeuvring, the pope conceded that in evident necessity or in an emergency the king did not have to seek papal permission before he levied the tax. Kings protected their subjects – in just wars, they alleged – and they protected the Church. It was inane, perhaps insane, Edward’s diplomats argued, to limit their king’s prerogatives and his capacity to safeguard the Church in England when the defence of the realm required swift and decisive military action.

Philip the Fair had done the same thing, taxing the clergy without prior papal permission, and Boniface rebuked him in the same way. The outcome was the same – papal capitulation to the royal arguments – but the French king, never particularly solicitous of papal policies since the days of the crusade against Aragon (see chapter 18), looked upon the papacy’s diplomatic counter-attacks in the course of the dispute, and the theory of superiority that the pontiff’s men articulated early in the struggle, as a calculated attempt to humiliate the Crown of France. Even Philip’s victory in the dispute and the pope’s generous gesture of canonizing Philip’s grandfather, Louis IX, were insufficient to erase the bad memory which the conflict left in the consciousness of the French ruler.

A second consequence of the little war of 1294–7 arose out of attempts to cement the truce. In the period immediately following the cessation of active hostilities a move was made towards permanent peace by arranging a marriage between King Edward I’s son and King Philip the Fair’s daughter. As it turned out, the marriage of Isabelle, the daughter, to the future Edward II was a disaster. Isabelle did her part and produced potential heirs, but afterwards the royal couple went their own ways, she to a liaison with one Roger Mortimer, a great marcher lord, her husband to the bed of his male lovers or perhaps to some sort of intense but chaste male friendship that has been misconstrued by contemporaries and scholars alike.

Edward II’s reign (1307–27), like his marriage, was a catastrophe. Because he rewarded his favourites, was arbitrary and rather limited in his largesse to his ‘natural allies’ in the high nobility, and was a colossal failure in war (recall the disaster at Bannockburn), he was periodically confronted with baronial conspiracies designed either to wrest control of the government from him, retaining him solely as a figurehead, or to displace him entirely in favour of his eldest son.

Edward II was not a fool, and at times he showed his mettle. Drawing on the deep well of popular respect for their kings that the English of all classes manifested, he articulated a powerful theory of traditional royal authority in the Statute of York issued in Parliament in 1322. Coming at a time when the political nation at large was disgusted by in-fighting among the barons, who had seized power in 1311, Edward’s bid for political ascendancy was successful; the circumstances also allowed him the opportunity to execute retribution on those barons who had had the temerity to execute his male lover/dear friend, Piers Gaveston. But the king did not maintain close and effective control of the government thereafter and came again to depend heavily on favourites, who failed to create a strong royal party to sustain their position. That his queen joined one of the factions and plotted to overthrow her husband is indicative of the state of affairs in England. The king’s reputation was not helped by being a cuckold or by the awful visitation of the Great Famine of 1315–22.

In 1327, the queen, with her paramour, Roger Mortimer, seized power and forced Edward II to abdicate. He was dispatched in a gruesome murder late in the year. Roger and Isabelle technically ruled in the name of her adolescent son by Edward II, Edward III. The boy, however, despised Roger Mortimer for defiling his father’s bed with his mother, for laying violent hands on an anointed king, and for creating the circumstances for his father’s murder. In his own coup d’état of 1330 the young Edward seized power. Roger Mortimer was executed; Isabelle was eventually shunted off to a convent of Poor Clares.

With hindsight, then, the marriage of Edward and Isabelle, which had been intended to seal a truce, instead created innumerable problems in England while Edward was alive. Isabelle’s father, Philip the Fair, lived until 1314. When he died, he was survived by three sons and Isabelle, by then queen of England. One after the other the sons ruled and died prematurely: Louis X (1314–16), Philip V (1316–22), Charles IV (1322–8). None of them left legitimate heirs except Louis X, but his son, born posthumously, died uncrowned after a few weeks.

The French High Court of Parlement chose the son of Philip the Fair’s brother to be king in 1328 as Philip VI. There was no formal protest from Isabelle at the time. She counted on support from France to consolidate her own and Roger Mortimer’s position in England after their coup d’état against Edward II. In fact, the right to the throne of France should have passed to her and through her to her son. It is true that the French had never been ruled by a queen regnant, though queens or queen dowagers had sometimes exercised temporary regencies during a minority or in the absence of a ruler, say, on crusade. And it is certainly true, too, that male aristocrats had no desire to be ruled by a woman. But it was only ex post facto that jurists concocted the notion that it was part of the fundamental or constitutional law of France, inherited from the Salian Franks of the early Middle Ages, that no woman could rule in France or even transmit her rights to rule. To enforce this argument the jurists had to extrapolate from inheritance practices prescribed in the completely obsolete laws of the Salian Franks.

After Edward III came into his own, it became clear that the matter of the French succession was still regarded as an open question in England, and in the absence of real amity between the two countries, it was probable that Edward would some day use his claim as a weapon in disputes with France. Indeed, in 1337 he publicly declared his right to succeed in France. The attempt to enforce his claim was the opening act of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). No attempt can be made here to go into the details of that long war. In a struggle intended to unite the Crowns of France and England, one sees paradoxically the strong stirrings of nationalism. The truces especially contributed to the emerging national hatred between the French and English. The truces were more injurious than the most famous pitched battles, because unpaid or partly paid troops recently discharged took out their frustration and remunerated themselves materially and psychically by oppressing villagers and townsfolk in France, where the war was fought. Some of the English troops were criminals allowed to substitute military service in France for their judicial sentences; they had little chivalry in their ideology. When peasants grew weary of the maltreatment they received, they took savage revenge on the English, but also on their militarily pressured native oppressors, who were also stealing their goods and humiliating their persons.

Still, the worst consequences of the seemingly interminable war did not manifest themselves before the mid-fourteenth century. It was heavy, almost incessant taxation that weighed both countries down in a period that was already showing signs of a severe economic recession. To be sure, the differential impact of the war on the two countries needs to be stressed. Taxation inhibited some aspects of economic growth in England, even if the expenditure of taxes was a stimulus to specifically military industries and military suppliers. But in France, even stimulation of the war-focused industries paled before the destruction wrought by the contending armies and the wandering demobilized troops of the periods of truce. Yet those who mandated that the war be fought thought the price in human and material loss was worth it. Both sides believed their cause to be just.

Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War was not given that name until the nineteenth century, and in fact, these wars lasted one hundred sixteen years. But it is an appropriate enough title for the long-drawn-out series of conflicts that took place between France and England from 1337 to 1453. The war was fought essentially for dynastic reasons: to determine which royal family would control France. Ever since the Norman Conquest, the English royals had retained extensive lands in France and increasingly this became a bone of contention. When the French King Charles IV died in 1328, the English King Edward IV, grandson of former French King Philip IV and ruler of the duchy of Guyenne—in the region of Aquitaine in southwestern France—laid claim to the French throne. However, a French assembly gave the crown to the rival French claimant, Philip, Count of Valois. Subsequently crowned Philip VI, he declared Guyenne confiscate in 1337, triggering hostilities.

Historians traditionally divide the war into four phases. In the first phase (1337—60), the English were surprisingly successful, given that their country was poorer and less populous than France, they were fighting abroad, and their forces were smaller than their enemy’s. In part, this success was due to the English men-at-arms, who were particularly well disciplined and were accompanied by longbowmen, whose fearsome fire-power helped make up for their army’s lack of numbers.

France also had a larger navy, but at sea, too, the English triumphed initially, winning a great naval victory at Sluys in 1340 that neutralized the French fleet for the remainder of the war. In 1346, Edward scored another major victory at the battle of Crécy, and in 1347 he captured the port of Calais. At this point, a truce was arranged with the help of the pope, both armies by then war-weary and affected by bubonic plague. Three years later, however, Philip died, to be succeeded by John II. In 1356, Edward’s son, Edward Woodstock, known to history as the Black Prince launched an attack on France, reigniting the conflict. Within the year, he defeated King John II at Poitiers and took him hostage, forcing the French to sue for peace. The Treaty of Brétigny of 1360 obliged the French to pay three million gold crowns to the English—John II’s ransom—and gave England control of nearly half of France. In return, Edward renounced his claim to the French throne.

However, John died in captivity before the terms of the treaty were fulfilled, and his son and successor Charles V soon reopened hostilities, beginning the second phase of the war (1369— 99). At last providing France with effective leadership, Charles first invaded Aquitaine, whose inhabitants were being heavily taxed by the Black Prince. Then, under the brilliant general Bertrand du Guesclin, the French took Poitiers, Poitou, and La Rochelle by 1372, and Aquitaine and Brittany by 1374, thus regaining all of the land ceded under the Treaty of Brétigny and leaving England with only Gascony and Calais. The Black Prince died in 1376, Edward III in the following year, and the second phase of the war became almost entirely a French victory. But then Charles died of a heart attack in 1380 and the conflict petered out. The Truce of Leulinghen of 1389 allowed the two sides to recover and regroup.

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