Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

The Hundred Years' War

O NE of the signs that the Middle Ages were coming to an end was the long war between France and England. It lasted altogether from 1337 to 1453, and is called the Hundred Years' War.

When William the Conqueror became King of England, he did not cease to be Duke of Normandy. Indeed, as time went on, the power of the English kings in France increased, until William's successors ruled all the western part of that land, from north of the river Seine to the Pyrenees Mountains, and from the Bay of Biscay almost to the river Rhone. They held all this territory as fiefs of the kings of France; but the fact that they were also independent kings of England made them stronger than their overlords. This led to frequent wars, until, at last, the English kings had lost all their land in France except Aquitaine, in the southwest.

These, however, were merely feudal wars between the rulers of the two countries. They did not much concern the people of either France or England; for in neither country had the people come to feel that they were a nation and that one of their first duties was to love their own country and support their own government. In Aquitaine, indeed, the people scarcely felt that they were French at all, and rather preferred the kings of England to the French kings who dwelt at Paris. During the Hundred Years' War, all this was to change. In fighting with one another, in this long struggle, the people of France and of England came gradually to feel that they were  French and English. The people of Aquitaine began to feel that they were of nearer kin to those who dwelt about Paris than they were to the English, and began to feel love for France and hatred for England. It was the same, too, with the English. In fighting the French, the descendants of the old Saxons, and of the conquering Normans, came to feel that they were all alike Englishmen. So, although the long war brought terrible suffering and misery, it brought also some good to both countries. In each patriotism was born, and in each the people became a nation.

There were many things which led up to the war, but the chief was the fact that the French King, who died in 1328, left no son to succeed him. The principal claimants for the throne were his cousin, Philip, who was Duke of Valois, and his nephew, Edward III. of England. The French nobles decided in favor of Duke Philip, and he became King as Philip VI. Edward did not like this decision, but he accepted it for a time. After nine years, however, war broke out because of other reasons; and then Edward claimed the throne as his of right.

During the first eight years, neither country gained any great advantage, though the English won an important battle at sea. In the ninth year the English gained their first great victory on land.

This battle took place at Crecy, in the northernmost part of France, about one hundred miles from Paris. The French army was twice as large as the English, and was made up mainly of mounted knights, armed with lance and sword, and clad in the heavy armor of the Middle Ages. The English army was made up chiefly of archers on foot. Everywhere in England boys were trained from the time they were six or seven years old at shooting with the bow and arrow. As they grew older, stronger and stronger bows were given them, until at last they could use the great longbows of their fathers. The greatest care was taken in this teaching; and on holidays grown men as well as boys might be seen practicing shooting at marks on the village commons. In this way the English became the best archers in Europe, and so powerful were their bows that the arrows would often pierce armor or slay a knight's horse at a hundred yards.

So the advantage was not so great on the side of the French as it seemed. Besides, King Edward placed his men very skillfully, while the French managed the battle very badly. Edward placed his archers at the top of a sloping hillside, with the knights behind. In command of the first line he placed his fifteen-year-old son, the Black Prince, while the King himself took a position on a little windmill-hill in the rear. The French had a large number of crossbowmen with them. Although the crossbowmen could not shoot so rapidly as the English archers, because the crossbow had to be rested on the ground, and wound up after each shot, they could shoot to a greater distance and with more force. Unluckily, a shower wet the strings of the crossbows, while the English were able to protect their bows and keep the strings dry. So when the French King ordered the crossbowmen to advance, they went unwillingly; and when the English archers, each stepping forward one pace, let fly their arrows, the crossbowmen turned and fled.

At this King Philip was very angry, for he thought they fled through cowardice; so he cried: "Slay me those rascals!" At this command, the French knights rode among the crossbowmen and killed many of their own men. All this while the English arrows were falling in showers about them, and many horses, and knights, as well as archers, were slain.

Then the French horsemen charged the English lines. Some of the knights about the young Prince now began to fear for him, and sent to the King, urging him to send assistance.

"Is my son dead," asked the King, "or so wounded that he cannot help himself?"

"No, sire, please God," answered the messenger, "but he is in a hard passage of arms, and much needs your help."

"Then," said King Edward, "return to them that sent you, and tell them not to send to me again so long as my son lives. I command them to let the boy win his spurs. If God be pleased, I will that the honor of this day shall be his."

On the French side was the blind old King of Bohemia. When the fighting began he said to those about him:

"You are my vassals and friends. I pray you to lead me so far into the battle that I may strike at least one good stroke with my sword!"

Two of his attendants then placed themselves on either side of him; and, tying the bridles of their horses together, they rode into the fight. There the old blind King fought valiantly; and when the battle was over, the bodies of all three were found, with their horses still tied together.

The victory of the English was complete. Thousands of the French were slain, and King Philip himself was obliged to flee to escape capture. But though the Black Prince won his spurs right nobly, the chief credit for the victory was due to the English archers.

It was many years after this before the next great battle was fought. This was due, in part, to a terrible sickness which came upon all Western Europe soon after the battle of Crecy. It was called the Black Death, and arose in Asia, where cholera and the plague often arise. Whole villages were attacked at the same time; and for two years the disease raged everywhere. When, at last, it died out, half of the population of England was gone; and France had suffered almost as terribly.

Ten years after the battle of Crecy (in 1356) the war broke out anew. The Black Prince, at the head of an army, set out from Aquitaine and marched northward into the heart of France. Soon, however, he found his retreat cut off near the city of Poitiers by the French King John (who had succeeded his father Philip), with an army six or seven times the size of the English force. The situation of the English was so bad that the Prince offered to give up all the prisoners, castles, and towns which they had taken during this expedition, and to promise not to fight against France again for seven years, if the French King would grant them a free retreat. But King John felt so sure of victory that he refused these terms. Then the battle began.

Just as at Crecy, the English were placed on a little hill; and again they depended chiefly on their archers. From behind a thick hedge they shot their arrows in clouds as the French advanced. Soon all was uproar and confusion. Many of the French lay wounded or slain; and many of their horses, feeling the sting of the arrow-heads, reared wildly, flung their riders, and dashed to the rear. When once dismounted, a knight could not mount to the saddle again without assistance, so heavy was the armor which was then worn.

In a short time this division of the French was overthrown. Then a second, and finally a third division met the same fate. To the war-cries, "Mountjoy! Saint Denis!" the English replied with shouts of "St. George! Guyenne!" The ringing of spear-heads upon shields, the noise of breaking lances, the clash of hostile swords and battle-axes, were soon added to the rattle of English arrows upon French breastplates and helmets. At last the French were all overthrown, or turned in flight, except in one quarter of the field. There King John, with a few of his bravest knights, fought valiantly on foot. As he swung his heavy battle-ax, now at this foe and now at that, his son Philip,—a brave boy of thirteen years,—cried unceasingly:

"Father, guard right! Father, guard left!"

At last even the King was obliged to surrender; and he and his son Philip were taken prisoners to the tent of the English Prince. There they were courteously entertained, the Prince waiting upon them at table with his own hands. But for several years they remained captives, awaiting the ransom which the English demanded.

The battle of Poitiers was a sad blow indeed to France. Many hundreds of her noblest knights were there slain; and all sorts of disorders arose during the captivity of her King. The peasants rose in rebellion against their masters, and civil war broke out. And when, after four years of comfortable captivity, King John was set free, he was obliged to pay a heavy ransom and sign a peace in which he surrendered to the English, in full right, all of Aquitaine. Soon after this "Good King John," as he was called, died, leaving his kingdom in great disorder He was a good knight and brave man; but he was a poor general and a weak king. His eldest son, Charles, who was styled Charles V., or Charles the Wise, now became King. He was very different from his father; and though he was not nearly so knightly a warrior, he proved a much better king. He improved the government and the army; and when the war with the English began again, he at once began to be successful. The Black Prince was now broken in health, and died in the year 1376; the old English King, Edward III., died the next year; and then Richard II., the twelve-year-old son of the Black Prince, became King of England. Troubles, too, broke out in England, so the English were not able to carry on the war as vigorously as they had done before. At the same time the French King found a general named Du Guesclin, who proved to be the best general that the Middle Ages ever saw.

One trouble with the French had been that they scorned the "base-born" foot-soldiers, and thought that war should be the business of the heavy-armed knights alone; and another was that the knights thought it disgraceful to retreat, even when they knew they could not win. With Du Geusclin, all this was different. He was willing to use peasants and townsmen if their way of fighting was better than that of the nobles; and he did not think it beneath him to retreat if he saw he could not win. So, by caution and good sense, and the support of wise King Charles, he won victory after victory; and though no great battles were fought, almost all of the English possessions in France came into the hands of the French once more.

Then the French successes stopped for a time. Du Guesclin died, and after him King Charles V.; and now it was the French who had a boy king. When this King, Charles VI., grew to be a man, he became insane; and his uncles quarreled with one another and with the King's brother for the government. Soon the quarrel led to murder, and the murder to civil war; and again France was thrown into all the misery and disorder from which it had been rescued by Charles the Wise.

In England, about this time, King Henry V., came to the throne. He was a young and warlike prince; and he wished, through a renewal of the war, to win glory for himself. Besides, he remembered the old claim of Edward III., to the French crown; and he thought that now, when the French nobles were fighting among themselves, was a fine opportunity to make that claim good.

So, in the year 1415, King Henry landed with an army in France, and began again the old, old struggle. And again, after a few months, the English found their retreat cut off near a little village called Agincourt, by a much larger army of the French. But King Henry remembered the victories of Crecy and Poitiers, and did not despair. When one of his knights wished that the thousands of warriors then lying idle in England were only there, King Henry exclaimed:

"I would not have a single man more. If God gives us the victory, it will be plain that we owe it to His grace. If not, the fewer we are, the less loss to England."

At Agincourt there was no sheltering hedge to protect the English archers. To make up for this, King Henry ordered each man to provide himself with tall stakes, sharpened at each end; these they planted slantwise in the ground as a protection against French horsemen. Most of the English force was again made up of archers with the long-bow, while most of the French were knights in full armor. The French, indeed, seemed to have forgotten all that Du Guesclin and Charles V., had taught them. To make matters worse, their knights dismounted and sought to march upon the English position on foot. As the field through which they had to pass was newly plowed and wet with rain, the heavy-armed knights sank knee deep in mud at every step. For the third time the English victory was complete. Eleven thousand Frenchmen were left dead upon the field, and among the number were more than a hundred great lords and princes. In after years Englishmen sang of the wonderful victory in these words:

"Agincourt, Agincourt!

Know ye not Agincourt?

When English slew and hurt

All their French foemen?

With our pikes and bills brown

How the French were beat down,

Shot by our bowmen.

"Agincourt, Agincourt!

Know ye not Agincourt?

English of every sort,

High men and low men,

Fought that day wondrous well, as

All our old stories tell us,

Thanks to our bowmen.

"Agincourt, Agincourt!

Know ye not Agincourt?

When our fifth Harry taught

Frenchmen to know men,

And when the day was done

Thousands then fell to one

Good English bowman."

Even so great a defeat as this could not make the French princes cease their quarrels. Again the leader of one party was murdered by the follower of another; and the followers of the dead prince became so bitterly hostile that they were willing to join the English against the other party. In this way the Burgundians, as the one party was called, entered into a treaty with Henry of England against the Armagnacs, as the other party was called; and it was agreed that Henry should marry Katherine, the daughter of the insane King, and Henry should become King of France when the old King died. No one seemed to care for the rights of the Dauphin (the French King's son) except the Armagnacs; they, of course, were opposed to all that the Burgundians did.

Both Henry V. of England and poor old Charles VI. of France died within two years after this treaty was signed. Henry had married Katharine as agreed; and though their son (Henry VI.) was a mere baby, only nine months old, he now became King of both England and France. In neither country, however, was his reign to be a happy or a peaceful one. In England the little King's relatives fell to quarreling about the government, just as had happened in France; and when he grew up, like his French grandfather he became insane. At the same time the English found their hold upon France relaxing and the land slipping from their grasp.

Only the Armagnacs at first recognized the Dauphin as King; and for seven years after the death of his father he had great difficulty in keeping any part of France from the hands of the English. In the year 1429, however, a great change took place. A young peasant girl, named Joan of Arc, appeared at the King's court in that year, and under her inspiration and guidance the French cause began to gain, and the English and Burgundian to lose ground.

Joan's home was in the far northeastern part of France, and there she had been brought up in the cottage of her father with her brothers and sisters. There she helped to herd the sheep, assisted her mother in household tasks, and learned to spin and to sew. She never learned to read and write, for that was not thought necessary for peasant girls. Joan was a sweet, good girl, and was very religious. Even in her far-off village the people suffered from the evils which the wars brought upon the land, and Joan's heart was moved by the distress which she saw about her. When she was thirteen she began to hear voices of saints and angels,—of Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, and of the angel Gabriel. When she was eighteen her "voices" told her that she must go into France, aid the Dauphin, and cause him to be crowned king at Rheims, where the kings of France had been crowned before him.

The cause of the Dauphin at this time was at its lowest ebb. The English were besieging the city of Orleans, on the Loire River; and if that was taken all France would be lost. So the first work of Joan must be to raise the siege of Orleans. With much difficulty she succeeded in reaching the Dauphin. When she was brought into the room where he was, she picked him out from among all, though she had never seen him, and many of the courtiers were more richly dressed than he. After many weeks she succeeded in persuading his councillors that her voices were from God, and not the evil one. Then, at last, she was given a suit of armor, and mounted on a white horse, with a sword at her side and a standard in her hand, she rode at the head of the Dauphin's troops to Orleans.

When once Joan had reached that place, she so encouraged the citizens that within eight days the English were forced to raise the siege and retire. It seemed to the French a miracle of God, while the English dreaded and feared her as a witch or sorceress. From this time Joan is called "the Maid of Orleans." Nor did her success stop with the relief of that city. Within a few months, the Dauphin was taken to Rheims, and crowned as true King of France. After this many flocked to his standard who before had taken no part in the war. From that time on the French began to get the advantage of the English; and it was mainly the enthusiasm and faith aroused by the Maid that caused the change.

Joan's work was now almost done. Twice she was wounded while fighting at the head of the King's troops. At last she was taken prisoner by a party of Burgundians, and turned over to the English. By them she was put on trial for heresy and sorcery. She showed much courage and skill before her judges, but she was condemned and sentenced to be burned to death at the stake. The next day the sentence was carried out. To the last she showed herself brave, kind, and womanly. As the flames mounted about her an Englishman cried out: "We are lost; we have burned a saint." Such indeed she was, if a saint was ever made by purity, faith, and noble suffering.

The English burned the Maid and threw her ashes in the river Seine; but they could not undo her work. The French continued to gain victory after victory. Soon the old breach between the Armagnacs and Burgundians was healed, and the Burgundians abandoned the English. Then Paris was gained by the French King. Some years later Normandy was conquered, and finally Aquitaine.

In the year 1453, the long, long war came to an end. Of all the wide territories which the English had once possessed in France, they now held only one little town in the north; and the shadows of a civil war—the War of the Roses—were rising in England to prevent them from ever regaining what they had lost. Down to the time of George III. the English kings continued to style themselves kings of France; but this was a mere form. The French now felt themselves to be a nation, and only a national king could rule over them. That this was so was mainly due to the Maid of Orleans. She was the real savior of France, and remains its greatest national hero.

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