Two princes now laid claim to the throne. One was Philip, Count of Valois, a cousin of the last three kings; the other was Edward iii. of England, whose mother, Isabella, was the daughter of Phillip iv. and sister of Charles iv. who had just died.
When the barons and citizens of France met together to choose their new sovereign, they soon determined that Philip of Valois should be their king. For Philip was a Frenchman, while Edward was English; moreover, Philip was a great baron, and the nobles hoped to win his goodwill by raising him to the throne.
In this, however, they were doomed to disappointment, for Philip proved ungrateful and cruel. No sooner was he crowned than he began to put down the nobles, whose power he feared might clash with his own. For though Philip was called king, he owned no more land and possessed little more power than some of his subjects
The new king, Philip vi. , was called the Fortunate, which seems strange, for his reign was full of misfortunes
Being fond of show, Philip was crowned with more than usual magnificence at Rheims, and for many days after the coronation the court was gay with dances and tournaments.
The merriment of the court was. however, interrupted by his cousin Count Louis of Flanders, who begged the king to come to his help, for the Flemings had rebelled against him.
Philip, thinking a fine army and the glory of winning battles a better entertainment than were the gaieties of the court, readily promised to give Louis his help.
It was easy to raise an army, for the barons were eager to conquer and plunder the obstinate burghers of Flanders who were known to be wealthy.
So "with the fairest and greatest host in the world" Philip vi. marched into Flanders and encamped at the foot of a hill called Cassel.
The Flemings had encamped on the top of the hill and were eager to fight. Their captain, however, wished first to find out the strength of the enemy. Disguising himself as a fish merchant, he clambered down the hill and boldly entered the French camp. While selling his goods he saw that the French knights had taken off their armour and were playing at chess or "strolling from tent to tent in their fine robes, in search of amusement," while the king was sitting at supper, as undisturbed as though he were in the midst of his gay court at Paris.
As quickly as he dared the fish merchant made his way out of the French camp, and hastening back to the Flemings, told them that now was the time to take the French by surprise.
Almost at once three columns of soldiers crept silently down the hill and attacked the French camp, Philip himself being nearly captured.
In spite of their surprise the French quickly rallied, and fought so bravely that the Flemish captain as well as most of his men were slain.
This defeat ended the rebellion in Flanders. The Flemings submitted to Count Louis, and Philip disbanded his army and returned in triumph to Paris.
The king proud of his success. and perhaps it was partly in pride that he now summoned Edward iii. of England to come to do homage to him for the duchy of Guienne.
Edward came with his barons, and met Philip and his peers in the church of Amiens.
Froissart, a chronicler who tells us much about these days, says that Edward did homage to Philip "with only mouth and word," refusing to put his hands into the hands of the French king, as was the custom at such a ceremony. By so doing Edward believed he left himself free to claim the crown of France.
Philip guessing that Edward hoped some day to put forward his claim to the French crown, set himself to harass his rival in every possible way.
He did all he could to spoil the English trade with Flanders; he attempted to take from the English king his duchy of Guienne; and, when Edward went to war with Scotland, he helped and encouraged Robert the Bruce to defy his rival.
Edward had little time to think of Philip until his war with Scotland was ended. Then he determined to punish the French king for the injuries he had done him by laying claim to the crown of France.
This, then, was the beginning of the long struggle between France and England known as the Hundred Years War, because it lasted all those years, with, however, times of peace in between,
In 1337 Edward iii. declared war against the French king; the Flemings, encouraged by Jacob van Artevelde, a rich brewer, being his allies. Three years later the first great battle of the Hundred Years' War took place at sea, the French fleet being near the seaport of Sluys, a town in Flanders Before this the fleet had cruised from time to time in the Channel, and sailed into English ports One Sunday morning, while the people were at church, the French had even sailed up to Southampton, and sacked and burned the town.
Then at length, in June 1340, Edward was ready to avenge this and other hostile acts. He sailed from London with a large fleet, on board of which were England's bravest soldiers.
As they drew near to Sluys the English saw the masts of the French fleet, so many in number that they looked "thick as a forest before them." The Christopher, too, their own English ship which the French had captured a year before, was there. You can imagine how angry the English soldiers and sailors felt when they saw their own good vessel in the van or front of the enemy's fleet. They made up their minds that, at all costs, they would again gain possession of the Christopher.
Edward was well pleased when he saw his foes. "For many a long day," said he, "I desired to fight those fellows, and now we will fight them, please God and St. George."
The sun was shining directly upon the English fleet as it approached Sluys. Edward, seeing this, ordered the sails to be lowered and the ships to be turned so that the sun would be behind them.
The French watched the great ships as they changed their position, and soon they cried, "They are turning tail, they are not men enough to fight us." But in that they were mistaken. For the English bore down upon them, and, grappling their ships together with hooks and chains, fought on deck with their battle-axes and swords as though they were on land.
You may be sure that the English did not forget to attack the Christopher, and before long it was taken, manned once again with English archers, and working deadly havoc among the French.
The battle was fierce and long, lasting from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon. As the day wore on the French were pushed back upon Sluys, and there the Flemings fell upon them; and many thousands, some say thirty thousand, were slain, or, jumping into the sea to save themselves from the enemy, were drowned.
By afternoon the great sea-battle was over, and the English had won the day.
Philip was at Paris when tidings from Sluys reached the capital. But no one dared to tell the king how the day had gone. Yet he must be told.
At length the court fool, a jester who might say what he pleased, cried out, "The English are great cowards.
"Why do you say so?" asked the king.
"Because they lacked courage to jump into the sea at Sluys as the French did," answered the fool.
There was no need to say more. Philip understood that the English had beaten him, and his anger was terrible. Even the fool was quick to flee from his master's presence.
Soon after this great defeat a truce was arranged between France and England, and King Edward went back to his own country.