English and French nationalism were forged through centuries of bitter military rivalry that carved out a new European, and ultimately global, order.
The first thing anyone learns about the Hundred Years War is that it didn’t last one hundred years. Tradition dates it from 1337 to 1453, but it is more helpful to view this longest of European wars as one phase of a much longer struggle between England and France, spanning the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the 1904 Entente Cordiale. As Charles de Gaulle remarked in June 1962, ‘Our greatest hereditary enemy was not Germany, it was England. From the Hundred Years War to Fashoda, she hardly ceased to struggle against us… she is not naturally inclined to wish us well’.
The war centred on a struggle for control of the duchy of Gascony. Gascony had come under English rule in 1152 and it lay at the heart of the great Angevin Empire. However, the construction of this vast collection of territories created an impossible political situation. For a time, the king of England ruled more of France than his French counterpart—but he ruled his continental territories as the feudal vassal of the French king. As king of England he was supreme in his authority; but as duke of Gascony he was subservient to the Capetian monarchs of France. He owed them various feudal obligations as well as his political allegiance, and this deeply circumscribed his independence not only to govern his continental lordships but also his kingdom of England.
The end of the Capetian dynasty in 1328 made Anglo-French relations even more fragile and created a new, still more incendiary arena of conflict—the throne of France itself. Edward III of England claimed the title through his mother, Isabella, the late king’s sister, but a committee of French nobles ensured it passed instead to Philip, count of Valois. This disputed succession triggered the war.
The war’s early stages saw great English successes marked by victories at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). But the political and territorial gains accrued through those victories were wholly reversed in the 1370s and 1380s, after which a period of relative stasis set in as domestic turmoil during the reigns of Charles VI of France and Richard II of England prevented vigorous efforts abroad.
Following Richard’s deposition in 1399 the new Lancastrian dynasty soon reignited the conflict. Henry V won a historic victory at Agincourt (1415) and in a subsequent campaign recaptured Normandy, which had been lost to English control in 1204. Continuing domestic strife in France meant that he was able to enforce the treaty of Troyes in 1420. This, the most significant diplomatic initiative of the war, agreed that he would succeed Charles as the French king. Unfortunately for Henry he contracted dysentery in 1422, leaving the throne instead to his own infant son, Henry VI.
France divided between the English and their Burgundian allies on one side, who supported the claim of Henry VI, and the partisans of the Dauphin Charles (later Charles VII), who had been disinherited by the terms of the treaty, on the other. The tide turned in Charles’s favour following the intervention of Joan of Arc and the collapse of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. From the mid-1430s the English were successively driven out of northern France and, in 1453, Bordeaux, the capital of ‘English Gascony’, fell into French hands.
This brought the Hundred Years War to an end, but it was in some respects an unsatisfactory conclusion, and not merely for the English and Henry VI. There was no peace treaty; Charles VII took control of Gascony but Calais remained ‘English’, and Henry did not renounce his claim to the French throne, a claim upheld by his successors until 1802. (Even then, and following the battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815), relations between England and France remained uneasy into the twentieth century—and perhaps beyond).
Still, when Bordeaux fell the nature of Anglo-French hostilities radically changed. Contemporaries recognised this and attributed enormous political significance to the events of 1453. While its resonance did not compare with the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks earlier that year, it marked, for the English, a shattering change of circumstances, and the beginning of a new order in Europe.
The end of the war did not bring peace. In France Charles VII may have become Charles ‘the Victorious’, but he had to face rebellions led by his son, Louis, and the growing threat posed by Burgundy. The French countryside had suffered horribly over successive generations and required a great deal of attention to recover. Fortunately, the economy improved in the second half of the fifteenth century, leading to an upsurge in trade.
In England, meanwhile, the scars of defeat were deeply felt. Wounded pride and a bitter sense of betrayal fed the flames of civil war. The capitulation had to be explained, and those responsible punished. War with France had bound the country together in a national mission; now, the end of that war tore it apart. Many who had fought side by side against the French would take up arms against one another in the Wars of the Roses.
One legacy of the Hundred Years War, therefore, was a politically and economically resurgent France and an imperilled England, facing devastation as its leaders turned on one another to protect their power and pride, and to assuage the nation’s shame.
Building the modern state
Another legacy of the war was a dramatic militarisation of English and French society. Over the decades of ruthless military competition England and France, and their peoples, were shaped by and became increasingly organised for war. Governmental, bureaucratic and financial structures were established which could support conflict on a wholly new scale. In England these formed part of the precocious establishment of a ‘war state’, in which the army had been placed on a semi-professional footing early in the struggle. In France the process was more protracted but the Crown eventually achieved control over sufficient resources—financial and administrative—to enable it to construct a permanent standing army, which formed a vital element of the emergent French state.
These developments had more than military significance. They altered the balance of power between king, aristocracy, and representative assemblies (the Estates General in France, Parliament in England). Financial reforms driven by the economic imperatives of permanent warfare had furnished both monarchs with (potential) access to far greater resources than their predecessors. In France, however, this was achieved without an equivalent increase in the political influence of the representative assemblies: because of the continuing significance of regional assemblies the Estates General, generally speaking, remained pliant and gained little control over taxation. By contrast members of the Commons in Parliament, who controlled the money on which royal policy now depended, became increasingly sensible of their power.
The military revolution which drove these governmental reforms also brought about the general decline, in both countries, of ‘feudal’ service. This radically altered the political and social position of the aristocracy. The establishment of a large standing army in France strengthened the power of the Crown and provided it with a means of directly co-opting a small but significant proportion of the nobility into national service. This enabled the Crown to exercise increasing influence over those nobles. Professionalisation opened military service to many outside the ranks of the aristocracy; it was no longer an act of noblesse oblige. This gravely weakened noble authority, which had always been rooted in the bearing of arms.
Technological and strategic developments played a crucial part in this process. The Hundred Years War had inspired important military innovations, including greater use of infantry and missile weapons and the introduction of gunpowder artillery. These had lasting administrative, financial and social implications, and marked the beginning of a new military age, lamented by Don Quixote in 1605:
Blessed be those happy ages that were strangers to the dreadful fury of these devilish instruments of artillery, whose inventor I am satisfied is now in Hell, receiving the reward for his cursed invention, which is the cause that very often a cowardly base hand takes away the life of the bravest gentleman; and that in the midst of that vigour and resolution, which animates and inflames the bold, a chance bullet (shot perhaps by one who fled…) coming nobody knows how, or from where, in a moment puts an end to the brave designs and the life of one who deserved to have survived many years.
Artillery, like the longbow before it, revolutionised military strategy at the expense of the aristocracy, which became increasingly superfluous. By the end of the Hundred Years War the knights of England and France had relinquished their pre-eminent military positions. Longbows replaced lances, infantry replaced cavalry, and the social contours of military service were redrawn.
These changes made war a truly national business. Central authorities did much to encourage this collective attitude and sought to foster a new community spirit. Sophisticated systems of propaganda were employed at elite and popular levels to justify the war and convince people of the necessity of unprecedentedly onerous taxes. The Church was employed for this purpose, extensively working in print and in sermons and processions to demonstrate the justice of the king’s war and to portray the English as a ‘chosen people’.
Partly in consequence, new conceptions of national identity emerged on both sides of the Channel. Louis XI expressed this in 1481-2, declaring, ‘None may doubt the merit of death in defence of the common good. One must fight for one’s country’. No doubt this exaggerated the sentiments which the Hundred Years War had inspired in the wider French populace, but it reflected a new conception of the nation nonetheless. Dulce et decorum est: it’s a statement that would not have been out of place in 1914.
In England, cultural unity was constructed through increasing use of the English language for governmental and popular purposes. While dialectical differences remained widespread, the use of the language for official ‘publications’ generated a powerful sense of national sentiment. We can see this in parliamentary records in which it was claimed that the French threatened not only the kingdom and its people, but the English language itself. Increasing national identification was a force for division as well as coherence, stoking political conflict over how the nation should be governed and what constituted ‘the common good’. The rise of the Commons in Parliament, the numerous peasant revolts which punctuated the conflict and the civil war which emerged from its ashes reflect these growing tensions.
Heightened political awareness was, though, among the more benign consequences of the war. The direct impact of the conflict tended to be less abstract and more violent. For the French peasantry the attacks from English soldiers and foreign mercenaries and the exploitation by their own side was unrelenting. For those who survived, community life might be shattered, while many in Normandy, Paris, and elsewhere in northern France also had to cope with the burdens of foreign occupation. Even in less troubled regions, few aspects of economic life remained untouched—the wine and wool trades, for example, were severely compromised. And to add injury to insult, this was also the era of the Black Death. Plague exacerbated the misery. Statistics are uncertain but it seems likely that approximately 30% of the population died in the first outbreak, rising to 50% as it returned over the course of the century. These ghastly circumstances, however, also created opportunities for those who survived.
Women were among those who could, if lucky, take advantage of those opportunities. It was difficult, especially in France where attacks on women were all too common, but the huge levels of mortality and the demand for labour they created saw women accepted into new trades and gain a greater level of personal independence over such matters as marriage and child-bearing. Alas, these benefits were short lived. Although the war demonstrated the political abilities and great fortitude of many women in France and England, the pervasive misogyny evident in the treatment meted out to the most famous woman of the period, Joan of Arc, would be re-institutionalised when socioeconomic conditions slowly reverted to ‘normal’ in the later fifteenth century.
The path to modern Europe and global empire
The peoples of England and France and the countries in which they lived were deeply changed by the experience of the Hundred Years War. Contemporaries could not know that with the fall of Bordeaux the war, in one guise at least, had ended; still less could they perceive that a new era had begun.
The war did not only transform the external boundaries and domestic institutions of each nation; it effectively reforged their identities. What began as a feudal and dynastic struggle between two monarchs ended as a national conflict. England’s defeat left it weaker and clearly inferior to France, and this compelled the English Crown to construct a new basis for its authority. England’s rulers were forced to claim a new political role within the British Isles, Europe and the wider world. The Angevin Empire had been lost, irrevocably; the search for a new empire would begin.
David Green is Senior Lecturer in British Studies at Harlaxton College (the British Campus of the University of Evansville) and the author of The Hundred Years War: A People’s History (Yale University Press, September 2014).
Article courrtesy of New Left Project