Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The House of Valois—I.

The name of Philip IV., the first of the Valois Kings, is a familiar one in English history, for his reign saw the opening of the great Hundred Years' War between England and France. Edward III. of England laid claim to the French crown because his mother, Isabella, was the sister of Charles the Handsome, the last of the Capet Kings. The claim was not good, because the Salic Law stood in the way, but Edward hoped to win France by the sword. In 1346 Edward landed in France, and marched almost to the gates of Paris. Here he turned back in retreat, and was followed by Philip at the head of a powerful army. Philip came up with the English at a place called Cressy, and here a famous battle was fought. The English, commanded by Edward and led by the Black Prince, won a great victory, wherein the stout English archers with their cloth-yard shafts had the chief share. Philip fled from the field, and sought refuge at a castle. The night had fallen, and the warder challenged the fugitives. "Who comes so late?" he cried. "It is I," replied Philip; "it is the Fortune of France!"

From Cressy the English army marched to Calais, but Edward did not capture the town for nearly a year. At last famine forced the people of Calais to give up their town, and Edward turned them out and put Englishmen in their places. Calais now remained an English town for more than two hundred years.

In 1348 the plague, the Black Death, swept over Europe, and France suffered very severely. This dreadful pestilence spread swiftly, and killed its victims in a very short time. In many places every person in a town or village was destroyed by it. The houses were empty, grass grew in the streets, not a living thing was to be seen. It was a kind of fever which easily arises among people whose habits and surroundings are dirty. In those days people took little care that the food they ate and the water they drank were clean and wholesome, or that their houses were kept in a cleanly manner. Then when the plague broke out, it spread swiftly through the unclean homes and filthy streets.

Philip died in 1350, and was followed by his son John, who in 1356 led an army against the Black Prince. The English Prince had made a raid into France, and John met him at Poitiers. Things looked hopeless for the English. The Black Prince was at the head of eight thousand men, half-starved, for their food had run short, and many of them suffering from sickness. John commanded a magnificent army of fifty thousand of the finest troops of France. So confident did he feel that, when the Black Prince offered to give up the towns and villages he had taken, and also said he would not make war again in France for seven years, John would not listen to him. John would accept no terms save the surrender of the Black Prince himself with his bravest knights. The English at once made up their minds to fight. Once more the famous archers won for them a mighty victory. The splendid chivalry of France was destroyed, and King John and his son Philip were taken prisoners and carried to England.

For four years the King of France was a captive in London, and while he was absent there were dreadful doings in his country. We have already seen how hard was the life of the peasant, the small farmer, in France. Upon him was laid the whole load of the taxes, and when a French noble wanted money, it was from the people who tilled his land that he sought it. Many of the French nobles were cruel, careless men, who mocked at the peasant and gave him the nickname of "Jacques Bonhomme," Goodman Jack. "There is only one way to squeeze his money from Goodman Jack," they said, "and that is to give him a good beating." Very often the ill-treatment went much farther than beating. A peasant who was suspected of having money was often taken to the castle of his lord, and there tortured in a most horrible fashion until he confessed where his little hoard was concealed.

At the Battle of Poitiers great numbers of French nobles were taken prisoners. The English captors demanded large ransoms before they would give up the nobles they had seized, and the French lords sought to wring the last coins from their tenants' purses to pay the sums demanded. The long patience of "Jacques Bonhomme" at last ran out. Filled with fury, the peasantry rose in revolt. They gathered in their thousands and attacked the castles of their masters. They seized the women, the children, the servants who manned these strongholds, and treated them as they had been treated, putting them to death with dreadful tortures. Maddened with blood and the memory of their sufferings, they burned and slew and destroyed, behaving more like wild beasts than like men.

This was the dreadful rising known as the "Jacquerie," the rebellion of the Jacks. For a time they carried all before them, but soon a powerful army of trained soldiers was hurled upon them. Against these, the ill-armed, untrained peasants could not stand, and the flame of revolt was quenched in blood. Vast numbers of the peasants were slain, so many that wide stretches of country became silent deserts, and the very roads that led into Paris stood deep in grass.

King John was a captive in England for four years. Then by the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360 he regained his freedom. By this treaty he promised to give up much land in the west of France to Edward III., and to pay three thousand gold crowns as a ransom. On his part Edward agreed to give up his claims to the crown of France, and to the provinces which the Kings of England had once held. John also gave hostages to Edward, among them his own son, the Duke of Anjou. After a time John heard that his son had broken faith and escaped from England. He at once went to the English Court and gave himself up, for, as he often said, "If good faith were banished from the earth, it should find a place in the hearts of Princes." In a few months he fell ill and died, and the English King gave him a splendid funeral, and laid his body in a noble tomb in St. Paul's Cathedral.

John died in 1364, and he was followed by his eldest son, Charles V., called Charles the Wise, for he proved an able ruler. It was not that he was himself very clever or strong, but he had the sense to choose wise men to act in the council-chamber, and great warriors to lead his armies. First among his captains stood the famous Breton gentleman, Bertrand du Guesclin. Bertrand was at once the ugliest man and the finest soldier in France. He was short and thick-set, with shoulders of great width, arms of great length, a huge head, and a broad face in which twinkled with a strange and brilliant light a pair of very small green eyes. As a little boy he was the despair of his parents and friends. He had a most furious temper, and if anyone tried to correct him, his temper flamed up with ten times the fury. Yet he loved those who treated him kindly, for his heart was good, and he could easily be led by those who did not try to drive him. He grew up to be the greatest soldier of his time, and became the right hand of King Charles in the wars and troubles of that day.


The morning of Agincourt
After the picture by Sir John Gilbert in the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Little by little France began to recover from the desolation caused by the ravages of the plague and the Jacquerie. Farms were once more tilled, and homesteads repaired or rebuilt, but the country was not yet free to regain its lost prosperity. Many parts of the land were much disturbed by bands of foreign troops, known as the "Free Companies" or "Grand Companies." These men were soldiers of fortune, who had come to France and offered their swords for pay to Prince or King who would hire them. As the land settled and war died down, there was no longer need for these mercenary soldiers, and no one would pay for them. Then these strong and desperate men marched through a country-side, robbing and plundering, and slaying all those who tried to withstand them.

To rid France of these dangerous people, Charles gathered them into an army, and sent them into Spain with Du Guesclin at their head. Charles wished them to attack his enemy, Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile. Pedro was a man of the worst character, who had poisoned his wife, a French Princess, and had tried to poison his half-brother, Henry. Henry now wished to seize the throne of Castile, and Charles of France was aiding him. Bertrand du Guesclin drove Pedro before him with ease, and Pedro fled to the Black Prince, who was at Bordeaux, and begged for aid. Backed by the Black Prince and his stout English archers, Pedro won the Battle of Navarette, and next Pedro bribed the "Free Companies" to desert from Du Guesclin and come over to him.

They did so, and Du Guesclin was taken prisoner and fell into the hands of the Black Prince. Charles had to pay a heavy ransom to free his great captain, but he paid it gladly, for he needed Bertrand's aid. Charles thought the time had come when he could win back the provinces yielded to the English by the Treaty of Bretigny. Edward III. was growing old, and the Black Prince was a feeble and dying man. Events proved that Charles was right. Du Guesclin was made Constable of France, the highest post in the King's gift, and he led his men so well that the lost provinces were recovered. But when Charles sought to seize Brittany, the Constable's native province, Du Guesclin laid down his high office and prepared to retire into Spain. But he was seized with mortal illness, and died in 1380, and King Charles died soon afterwards.

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