The Causes of “The Hundred Years’ War”

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The Causes of The Hundred Years War

Clockwise, from top left: the Battle of La Rochelle, the Battle of Agincourt, the Battle of Patay, and Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orléans

The long conflict between France and England, to which historians have given the name of “The Hundred Years’ War,” interests us chiefly as an illustration on a great scale of the transition from the mediæval, feudal order of society to the modern, national idea of political organization. Its nearer causes were largely feudal, and its methods were still, to a great extent, those of the earlier period. Its remoter causes, however, and the motives that kept it alive are to be sought on both sides in a steadily growing sense of national unity and national honor. Under the feudal régime it may fairly be said that it mattered little to the landholding aristocracy whether it were under the sovereignty of one king or another. The thing it really cared about was whether its privileges were such as it had a right to expect, and whether these privileges were likely to be fully and honorably maintained. So long as this was the case the barons found their profit and their glory in standing by their king in those undertakings which had a certain national character. But if their rights were tampered with, or if another sovereign offered equal guaranties of privilege, they easily took advantage of the flexible feudal arrangements to shift their allegiance.

While this is true of both the countries engaged in this desperate struggle, there is evident by the close of the thirteenth century a very marked difference between them. English feudalism had always differed from that of France in its relation to the overlord. The impulse given to the royal power by William the Conqueror had never been quite lost. The rights of the crown had been steadily enforced, and what might have seemed a great disadvantage, namely, the absence of a large and compact domaine which might become the nucleus of a monarchical state, had really proved an element of strength. For if the monarchy in England were to be maintained at all, it could only be through the willingness of its subjects to support it. Doubtless there were many times when this loyalty had been strained almost to the breaking point, but the necessity under which the English king was put of appealing to all his people instead of relying upon the resources of a great domaine had proved a powerful educating force in bringing about, on the whole, a harmonious working together of the several elements in the English state. On the other hand, it is clear that a rich family property overseas in France was a very tempting prize to an ambitious king in England. It offered him a chance, similar to that which his French rival enjoyed, of disciplining troublesome barons or obstinate parliaments by means of resources not dependent upon their good will. From this point of view, therefore, we can quite understand the energy with which the English kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries pursued this ambition, to hold and to increase the lands in France which had come to them by way of feudal inheritance. Yet it remains true that while these lands, one after another, fell away from them by the chances of feudal succession, the monarchy was gaining slowly but surely in its hold on the people of England. Further, the smaller extent of English territory, its comparative isolation, and the relatively greater uniformity of its population made it more easily possible for its kings to assert themselves as against the rival interests of barons or of commons. The definite establishment of Parliament toward the close of the thirteenth century offered a point of application for all measures looking towards a wider extension of the royal power as the price of a more firmly founded popular liberty. In a word, by the year 1300 English nationality was no mere dream of the future. It was finding its expression in a popular monarchy and in a vigorous, self-conscious national life. In France a similar effort at concentration of royal power had been proceeding on different lines and had led to different results. We have already examined some of the processes by which the French kings of the thirteenth century had succeeded in enforcing their judicial authority outside their own domaine, while at the same time they were widening as far as possible the extent of the domaine itself. In both these ways the gain had been very great, so that when, in the early years of the fourteenth century, King Philip IV had called upon the nation to support him in his trial of strength with Pope Boniface VIII, the response had been, on the whole, surprisingly prompt and complete. Yet in all the measures of all the kings from Philip Augustus to Philip IV the essentially feudal structure of the French state had not seriously been called in question. The king could never forget that he was himself a feudal prince, a landbaron like the rest, and the aim of his policy was always not to crush his feudal rivals but to substitute himself for them. When a principality of France became domaine, the king succeeded to the rights of the former lord. For the moment nothing was changed in the land except its headship. Its “customs” – that is, the legal status of its inhabitants – were not essentially altered; the same contributions of men and money that had formerly been paid to the lord were now due to the king. Even before such annexation to the crown, it had been possible, certainly from the time of Philip Augustus, for the kings to maintain in the feudal territories royal officials with more or less extensive rights of jurisdiction and of taxation. After annexation the scope of action of these royal officials was simply increased, and they came to replace the similar officials formerly employed by the lesser lords. It is thus almost literally true that during our period the French kings were conquering France not often by the sword but gradually by the slower weapons of purchase, mortgage, forfeiture, gift, or inheritance.

The Hundred Years’ War found France in the midst of this slow and difficult transformation. It is, of course, true that the farther the strengthening of the monarchy went, the greater momentum it gained toward overcoming the resistance of feudalism; but the peculiar character of the war, its long duration, the French reverses, and the dissensions among the leaders in French affairs are all to be understood only in the light of this conflict of political ideas. The monarchy at its best, as under Charles V, was too weak to control perfectly the resources it needed for the deliverance of the country. At its worst, as under John “the Good,” it was itself too hopelessly feudal to be a real leader in the national cause it failed so utterly to understand.

As between the two powers, then, at the opening of the Hundred Years’ War, the advantage appeared to be on the side of England, – a small, compact, fairly homogeneous people under a popular and energetic monarchy over against a people widely extended, made up of many distinct racial elements, and divided against itself by strongly opposed class interests. The war was, on the whole, popular in England, while the French went into it for the first generation rather languidly and without any just sense of the great national issues involved. The armies and navies of England were almost entirely made up of Englishmen; the French, both on land and sea, fought with the aid of large contingents of hired foreigners. The English notion of fighting was to get the better of the enemy and to kill him off as fast as possible. The French leaders were still governed by the lofty but fantastic ideas of mediæval chivalry, which treated war rather as a game, to be played according to certain rules of honor, than as a desperate struggle of peoples bent on carrying their quarrel to the last extremity. It was only by the long training of the war itself that these notions were gradually dispelled and the French people taught that national unity was the indispensable condition of national honor.

The immediate occasion of the Hundred Years’ War was a dynastic one. A glance at the table of the Valois family shows at once the question at issue. When King Philip IV died in 1314 he left three sons who followed him in regular succession upon the throne, and this in spite of the fact that the first two had each left daughters who might have succeeded them. The daughters had been set aside in pursuance of what was called the “Salic Law,” and thus a precedent had been established for all future time. The last of the three brothers, Charles IV, dying in 1328, left his queen in near expectation of an heir, Should this child prove to be a daughter, it was evident that the same question would arise once more and would be so much the more troublesome as the men likely to appear as claimants were more remote from the main Capetian line. In any case there would have to be a regency, and the choice of a regent was felt to involve the whole question of the succession. The male person nearest to the three late kings was their cousin, Philip of Valois, whose claim descended in the male line from Philip III. Philip’s claim to the regency was at once disputed by King Edward III of England, who was the son of a daughter of Philip IV and hence, like Philip of Valois, a descendant of Philip III. He based his claim on the fact of his descent through an elder, through a female, line and maintained that even if the Salic Law debarred a woman from the succession, it could not prevent her from transmitting to her descendants a right she could not herself exercise.

If both claimants had been Frenchmen the decision might have been difficult; as it was, the national spirit was strong enough to settle the matter. Philip of Valois was chosen regent by the barons of France and two months later, on the birth of a daughter to the widow of Charles IV, he was proclaimed king. Then came the test question, – whether King Edward would accept the situation and do homage to King Philip for the lands which he held in France. Under earlier feudal conditions homage paid by one king to another had not seemed to involve any sacrifice of honor. The relation was a personal one and did not carry with it any reflection on the vassal king’s duty to his own people. Now, however, under the new impulses of the national spirit, King Edward could but hesitate. Homage to the French king seemed to be, in a way, a stain upon the honor of the English people. Summoned by Philip VI to do homage in person, he failed to appear, and Philip made preparations to seize the revenues of his lands. In response to a second summons Edward came over to Amiens and there, in a personal interview, agreed to pay homage “by mouth and word,” but refused to place his hands in those of Philip and swear to be his liege man. It is significant that the reason he gave for his refusal was that he must refer the question to his Parliament and do as it would have him. Edward’s conference with his advisers, the pressure of Philip’s agents in Guienne, and the perpetual danger of war on the Scottish border resulted three years later (1331) in a formal declaration on his part that the homage at Amiens should be held to be liege homage, but only for those lands actually in the English possession.

The dynastic question seemed thus to be settled once for all, and so it might have remained but for a series of events not dynastic and not feudal in their nature, but rather political and economic. These were the affairs of Flanders, which we have treated more fully elsewhere. Politically, Flanders was to England what Scotland was to France, a country bound to her rival by ancient feudal ties, but stirred by the new spirit of national independence and seeking for a pretext to break or to weaken those earlier bonds. Economically the bond of Flanders with England was stronger than with France. The chief industry of the great Flemish cities, the manufacture of woolen cloths, was entirely dependent upon the ready importation of English wool, whereas the business dealings of Flanders with France were by comparison unimportant. The rich and powerful citizens of Ghent and Bruges were little inclined to bear the burdens of feudal service in order to maintain their lord, the count of Flanders, in his normal feudal relation to the French king. Especially was this the case when the feudal loyalty of their count to King Philip VI was met by Edward III with an embargo on English wool. “No wool, – no work!” was an appeal stronger than any sentiment of loyalty to prince or king. When the pinch of distress began to be felt, they listened eagerly to able leaders who were ready to show them a way out. Alliance with England was the obvious remedy, and to that policy Jacques van Artavelde, the ablest citizen of Flanders, was prepared to commit them. It was a glaring illustration of how far the old feudal spirit had given way to the demands of the new national states, that Edward III should relieve the scruples of the Flemish on the point of their loyalty to the king of France by again declaring himself to be that person. Loyalty to him was thus in fact loyalty to France. It was a quibble unworthy of the great days of chivalry, but quite in harmony with the “practical” demands of modern politics.

This open violation of the dynastic settlement of 1331 was a challenge which Philip VI could not refuse, and both sides pressed their preparations for war. Indeed, for months past these preparations had been going on. King Edward had succeeded in bringing together a formidable group of allies. At a conference held at Valenciennes in May representatives of the count of Hainault, the dukes of Brabant and Geldern and several others of the lower Rhine princes, the Count Palatilne of the Rhine, and the emperor Ludwig the Bavarian declared themselves in Edward’s favor. Immediately afterward (May 24) Philip summoned the Council of Peers at Paris and with their approval declared that Edward had forfeited all fiefs held by him of the French crown. In a sense this was a declaration of war, but it is idle to attempt to throw the blame of what followed upon either party. Both were bent upon a trial of strength, and it was only a question of opportunity. That opportunity was offered by the situation in Flanders.

By far the most important ally of Edward III seemed to be the emperor Ludwig the Bavarian. The outbreak of hostilities between France and England coincided with the extraordinary series of political declarations in Germany by which the emperor and the electoral college proclaimed their independence of papal interference in the regular working of the imperial electoral machinery. The residence of the popes in France and their close relation to French politics seemed to throw Ludwig naturally on the English side. In the summer of 1338 King Edward left the Low Countries, where he had been strengthening his alliance with the local princes and set out on a journey up the Rhine. The emperor, after the great day at Rense, met him at Coblenz. All the electors of the Empire except King John of Bohemia, who was at the court of Philip VI, were present and gave their sanction to what followed. With every circumstance of solemnity the emperor made a public declaration that King Philip had forfeited his claim to the crown of France and proceeded to invest Edward III as imperial vicar. The precise meaning of this transaction is not clear. Edward names himself in documents: Vicarius generalis per totam Alemanniam et Germaniam, but it seems unlikely that anything more than the lower Rhine country, especially on the left bank, can have been intended. The fact is that Edward was warmly received both going and coming by the princes of that region. All followed the lead of the emperor in promising their aid in the impending war, and all were only too glad to take the handsome sums of money which Edward distributed right and left. A few trifling acts of authority in the name of his imperial master were not resisted; but further than this the loudly heralded imperial alliance did not go. In the desultory campaigning of the next few months the German allies made but a sorry showing. Ludwig the Bavarian, a shifty politician here as always, did nothing whatever to support his grand promises, and Edward, fortunately for his cause, found himself thrown back upon the only true sources of his strength, upon English loyalty and English courage.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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