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Hundred Years War

St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle

The period 1337 to 1453 was a turbulent time for England both at home and abroad. Edward III began what is known as the Hundred Years War with France. He claimed that as grandson of former French king Philippe IV he was better qualified to be king of France than Philippe de Valois, who was a mere nephew. Edward declared himself king of France, a title shared by all British monarchs up until 1801.

In June 1340 the English believed a French invasion force was being prepared. It was decided that a pre emptive attack was required against an invasion fleet gathering in the Zwin estuary at Sluys in Belgium. A huge battle followed, which may have killed as many as 16,000 men. Sluys was an English victory, which some historians claim was more important than subsequent better known victories such as Crecy or Agincourt.

By 1348 things seemed to be going well for Edward. He had invaded France, won a crushing victory at Crecy two years before, and had taken Calais. King David of Scotland, son of Robert the Bruce had been captured, which reduced the threat of trouble from Scotland. A new chapel was built at Windsor dedicated to St George in which the new award of Order of the Garter would be presented to nobles who had given great service to the country. England seemed to be on a patriotic high. But it was in this year that the Black Death reached England, a disease so virulent that it was to kill a third of all Europeans. On top of problems created by the Black Death, Edward III was also to lose his son Edward the Black Prince in 1376, his health ruined by years of military service. When King Edward himself died in 1377 the ten year old son of the Black Prince succeeded as Richard II. Richard faced down the Peasants Revolt in 1381, and was in many ways a remarkable king, instinctively inclined to peace. His reign coincided with a pause in hostilities with France, which angered many nobles who made fortunes fighting in France. Richard II's qualities were ahead of their time, and he eventually succumbed to the violent nobles that surrounded him. In 1399 he was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, grandson of Edward III who became Henry IV . Henry had to struggle against Richard's supporters for the rest of his reign, and it wasn't until his son succeeded as Henry V in 1413 that England recovered a measure of stability. This stability led in turn to a renewed offensive against France.




Kings College, Cambridge

A victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415, and the subsequent marriage of Henry V to Catherine de Valois, the French king's daughter seemed to be paving the way for a period of great power for England. Henry only had to outlive Charles VI, the old French king, to inherit the whole of France. But Henry died young in 1422, leaving an infant son, Henry VI. Young Henry is an interesting example of how history is rewritten after the event. He was given a retrospective pious, saint-like image by an historian hired by a later member of his lineage, Henry VII, to lend weight to a succession from Henry VI. But perhaps this was an attempt to put a favourable spin on a difficult reign. Under Henry VI all French territory except Calais had been lost by 1453. Henry VI descended into crippling depression, which led to a chaotic period of civil war, lasting from 1455 to 1485 known as the Wars of the Roses. England now had no time for foreign adventures, and the Hundred Years War came to an end.


The period of the Hundred Years War was a time when England's sense of itself was becoming stronger. Shakespeare chose this period as the setting for his famous patriotic play Henry V. But as always with national identity the ironies and contradictions are never far away. Bear in mind that the Hundred Years War began not as a struggle between England and France, but as a dynastic struggle between two men who were competing over the throne of France. Edward III the English king who famously defeated the French at Crecy, was himself the grandson of a French king. Edward III's great grandson Henry V continued the struggle, and although Shakespeare appears to bang the patriotic drum in Henry V, the play is full of irony. When Henry questions the Archbishop of Canterbury about his claim to the French throne, the stuffy old Archbishop gives a speech which seems to involve most of the monarchs of Europe, and is completely incomprehensible. You could listen to such a confusing speech and misinterpret it's difficulty as the deep and meaningful complexity of international law; or you could see it as a load of nonsense, a smoke screen for a struggle between dynasties.

A war that went on for a hundred years was not based on any clear division. It was essentially a dynastic grudge match. The age of national wars was still to come.





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