The Hundred Years' War

19 April 2016

It’s one of those questions that frequently crops up in quizzes, ‘How long was the Hundred Years’ War?’ Fought between the English and the French, the Hundred Years’ War actually lasted 116 years (from 1337 to 1453) and was fought entirely on French soil. There are numerous chateaux close to Les Milandes that bear the scars of the battles which took place between the two countries. Indeed, the status of Aquitaine was a very big issue. (You can read more about Eleanor of Aquitaine here.) According to feudal law, King Edward III held the province as part of his fiefdom. The peace and tranquillity of the local countryside today make it difficult to imagine those bloody battles of yesteryear.

The Hundred Years’ War featured a host of English and French royalty, (including Henry’s 4, 5 and 6 and Charles’ 5, 6 and 7) many significant battles, (such as Agincourt and the siege of Orleans) and saw key developments in military technology. Mounted knights were no longer so important – it was all about new siege engines, good use of the longbow and gunpowder weaponry.

How the Hundred Years’ War began

Prior to the Hundred Years’ War, it’s fair to say that the English and French hadn’t been the best of friends. The English had enjoyed extensive territory in France since the Battle of Hastings back in 1066. Small battles had been waged for years but in 1337 King Edward III stepped things up when he claimed to be the rightful King of France.

Through the 116 year duration of the war, disputes over specific tracts of land, control over the valuable wool trade and the support France gave to the Scots all helped to keep the battles raging. However, there were also lengthy periods of relative calm. The Hundred Years’ War stopped for a long time during the Black Death. (Just as you’ve finished dodging arrows along comes the bubonic plague…)

Back in the 1300s, France was the most powerful state in western Europe. The country possessed enormous financial and military resources. England’s population was far less but the army was well-drilled and they could use their longbows to devastating effect. (The English longbow was capable of firing further and faster than the French crossbow.) The English longbow archers successfully put paid to many French cavalry charges and earned significant victories at Crecy and Poitiers. These, among other French defeats led King John to accept the Treaty of Calais in 1360. However, John’s son, Charles V, took up arms and the French subsequently succeeded in retaking almost all of the ceded territory.

The Hundred Years' War

Henry V of England continued to wage war and his most notable victory took place at Agincourt where the English were heavily outnumbered. While much of this battle is well documented, I did stumble across an interesting fact. The French used gunpowder weaponry at Agincourt, but it wasn’t successfully deployed. Apparently, the French artillery only managed to kill a single English archer. (16 years later it appears the weaponry and/or training was still sorely lacking as the Duke of Burgundy fired over 400 cannonballs into Lagny and the only fatality was a chicken!)

Joan rides to the rescue

After the battle of Agincourt the English controlled most of northern France and it looked as though it would only be a matter of time before the whole of France would be conquered. The English moved southwards and began a siege of Orleans. However, a young peasant girl had other ideas. Joan of Arc took over leadership of the French fighters and ended the siege. She went on to lead the French troops to several more victories before being captured and burned at the stake.

Joan’s leadership and courage inspired the French and they won other significant victories which culminated in the retaking of Bordeaux in 1453. This signalled the end of the Hundred Years’ War. (Wars were becoming increasingly expensive to wage as larger, better trained armies were needed.) The War of the Roses would soon be starting leaving England in no position to wage war overseas. (Interestingly, Calais remained in possession of the English until 1558 and the title of King of France was claimed by the British until 1801.)

So, that’s 116 years of history condensed into less than 800 words! Do come and see the amazing chateaux for yourself. Some have examples of old weaponry on display. Having owned Les Milandes since 2002, I can categorically state that the welcome English people receive in Aquitaine today is far friendlier. You certainly won’t need to worry about dodging any cannonballs…

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