The Hundred Years' War is a term invented by historians to describe the frequent conflicts that raged in Europe (most especially France]) between 1337 and 1453. These 116 years saw a great deal of battle on the continent, most of it over disputes as to which family line should rightfully be upon the throne of France. By the end of the Hundred Years War, the population of France was about half what it had been before the era.
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Causes and Context
It all started when King Charles IV of France died without a clear-cut heir. Phillip VI (Charles IV's cousin) was eventually declared King of France, but several others could make their case that they should take the throne of France instead. Among those with such a claim was Edward III of England (who was Charles IV's nephew).
Or rather, you could say it all started way back in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy invaded England, and became King of England. William's descendants had for a long time controlled not only England (as Kings) but also considerable territory in France (as Dukes). They'd slowly lost the territory in France over the centuries in a series of wars and political maneuvers. Nonetheless, they still had blood relations with the French Nobility, and could remember a time when their grandparents had huge tracts of land on the continent. At the start of The Hundred Years War, all that was left of those English holdings in France was a Fief in Gascony.
In 1337, Phillip VI accused Edward III of not fulfilling his duties as a Duke of France. Oath-breaking was basically a Felony at the time, and thus this was a major accusation. As punishment, Phillip VI was confiscating Gascony. Not content to take such insults lying down (or lose his only land on the continent), Edward III declared war on France and declared himself the rightful King of France.
|England, led by Edward III of England and his son Edward, the Black Prince, along with various allies in Flanders and the Low Countries of the Holy Roman Empire.||vs||France, led by Phillip VI of France, later his son, John II of France, and eventually John's son Charles V of France. At the beginning of the war the French were augmented by mercenary fleets based out of Genoa. Scotland was simultaneously at war with England until 1347 when David II of Scotland was captured at the Battle of Neville's Cross.|
- In 1348 (and lasting into the early 1350s) a major outbreak of the Black Death struck Europe, further increasing the horrors and death-toll of war. The plague kept either nation from launching major offensives for a few years. Given the deaths the disease was causing, you certainly couldn't call the plague years peaceful.
- Most of the battles took place in France, but not all of them. Some of the earlier battles were French attacks on the English Coast and islands in the English Channel, and several battles were fought between England and Scotland along their border in the early years of the war. The Scottish attack on England was for the most part defeated by the black plague.
- The Battle of Crécy (August 26 1346) is sometimes described as the beginning of the end for Chivalry and the Knight. At this battle, perhaps as many as a third of noblemen of France died. They were defeated mainly by the longbow, though it is also one of the first European battles where cannon were used. When the French knights allied Genoese crossbowmen fled the field (their range was dangerously less than that of the Welsh longbowmen), the French knights diverted from attacking the English to cut down their own allies for the perceived sin of cowardice. The knights then charged the longbows themselves, and were defeated soundly.
- The Battle of Poitiers (September 19, 1356) also featured knights being decimated by longbows. Here, the English faked a retreat on one flank to draw the knights out, then turned and fired until they literally ran out of arrows. Via superior tactics, the English were able to defeat the larger force pursuing them, and capture the King of France.
- John II of France, aka John the Good, was captured at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. His ransom was set, and John felt it was too low, and demanded the ransom be doubled. After a few years he was allowed to return to France to gather his own ransom, provided a forty nobles or family members came to sit as hostages in his stead. These family members weren't treated much like prisoners, because they too were royalty and had voluntarily offered themselves as hostages. So it wasn't long before Louis I, Duke of Anjou realized he could easily escape. When he did so, John II was mortified. Taking Louis' escape as an insult to his honor, John the Good returned to England and turned himself in to set things straight. He died during his second period of captivity.
- By the end of this phase, many of France's allies and nobles had turned against the John II and Charles V. The government was in shambles.
- Charles II of Navarre, aka "Charles the Bad", was another potential claimant to the throne of France. He continually changed alliances and played both sides in attempts to gain additional personal power.
- The Genoese fleet helping France were a double-edged sword (as mercenaries often are). They squabbled over pay rates and eventually mutinied. After they returned home to Genoa, the English were able to bribe them to stay there out of the fight.
- Military units across France had turned to Brigandage.
- The peasants in the North of the country rose up in a rebellion known as the Jacquerie in 1358.
- Future King Charles V was frequently ill during this period, and there are theories that he was being poisoned with arsenic.
- It's possible John II returned to bondage not out of shame or moral outrage at his hostages fleeing, but just because trying to rule France in this era was a terrifying proposition.
Resolution: Despite initial military setbacks and financial woes, the English pull off some amazing wins starting in 1345. Eventually, they capture the French King, and force not only a truce but also a large ransom. France experienced much chaos and hardship, and the French government essentially collapsed while John II was held prisoner. The treaty signed at the end of this phase gave England control over large swaths of French territory, in exchange for Edward III of England giving up his claim to the French throne itself.
For about a decade there was peace. As mentioned above, John II was a captive on English soil for the first half of this peace.
Note that during this peace (and other truces during the larger conflict) there were waves of civil unrest, rebellion, and brigandage. Many nobles fought their own smaller private wars even when their Kings were at peace.
Spin-Off War #1: Breton War of Succession: 1341 - 1364
Technically, England and France had a truce well before the 1360 peace. In late 1340, they declared a nine-month truce. However, that peace was in name only, as the first of several "spin-off" wars was going on in Brittany, and the cessation of the primary hostilities freed Edward III to throw greater support into this conflict and the struggles there certainly had impact on the larger scope of war.
|John IV, Duke of Brittany at the time known as John of Montfort, and his wife Joanna of Flanders. They were supported by England via Gascony. Eventually, John V, Duke of Brittany takes over for his father.||vs||Charles I, Duke of Brittany, aka Charles of Blois, with the support of France.|
- Initially, the issues of succession with the Duchy of Brittany were an internal conflict. John of Montfort made significant initial gains, but at the time had not taken any indisputable stance for or against the King of France.
- Phillip VI of France heard rumors that English spies might be secretly meeting with Montfort, so he publicly declared his support of Montfort's rival Charles of Blois for the Ducal title.
- At times the rival Dukes duke it out with their own troops, but more often than not their forces are bolstered by reinforcements and support from England or France.
- During a lull between major campaigns, 60 knights (30 French, and 30 English) meet up to have a chivalrous battle all to themselves. This challenge ends up being extremely bloody, with pretty much everyone involved being either severely injured, or killed. The survivors of the "Combat of the Thirty" are heralded as the finest examples of bravery and chivalry.
- When, in the midst of the battle, Jean de Beaumanoir declared he needed water, he was told by his comrades: "Bois ton sang, Beaumanoir, la soif te passera" - "drink your blood, the thirst will pass". That's hardcore.
Resolution: When Duke John IV dies he is replaced by his son, Duke John V, who continues to draw upon the assistance of England. When the son prevails against his father's rival, he shockingly swears fealty to his King. Shockingly, because the King he swears his loyalty to is the King of France who was helping his rival, not the King of England who'd been helping him and his father before him secure the ducal title from that rival. In other words, England technically wins, and then immediately wishes they hadn't gotten involved in the first place.
Spin-Off War #2: War of the Two Peters: 1356 - 1375
|The Kingdom of Castile, ruled by Peter of Castile. Castile is supported by England, Navarre, Portugal, and Al-Andalus||vs||The Kingdom of Aragon, ruled by Peter IV of Aragon. Aragon is supported by France.|
- This war is a border war between Castile and Aragon, and most of the fighting takes place on their shared frontier.
- The Castilian Civil War breaks out in the middle of this conflict. When that happens, Aragon makes a secret treaty with Henry of Trastámara (see Spin-Off War #3, below). After the Castilian Civil War is over, hostilities between Castile and Aragon start back up.
- The War of the Two Peters is characterized by sudden surprise attacks and conquests, then waves of truce and treaty that give back all the conquered territory, followed again by sudden sneak attacks and lightning-fast raids. And so on.
- In addition to the usual horrors of war, and the Black Death outbreak ravaging all of Europe at this time, the region was also hit by a plague of locusts and the collapse of the Aragonese economy.
Resolution: Essentially it was a draw. A little bit of territory changed hands over the long term, but no one was clearly the winner.
Spin-Off War #3: Castilian Civil War: 1366 - 1369
|Peter of Castile (also known as Pedro the Cruel), with the support of England (most directly Edward, the Black Prince)||vs||Henry of Trastámara (eventually to be known as Henry II of Castile), with the support of Aragon, France, and the Pope.|
- In the middle of the conflict between Castile and Aragon (see Spin-Off War #2, above) Peter of Castile was unseated by his illegitimate brother Henry, who marched in an army from France. The war was just a few short years, but the nation changed hands repeatedly in that time.
- Peter wasn't living up to his promises to the English, so Peter's ally the Black Prince took his army and went home. (That the Black Prince had dysentery at the time may have also been a factor in his departure.)
- The English withdrawal was disastrous, they lost 80% of their men in the retreat.
Resolution: Henry deposed and killed his brother, thus becoming King of Castile. The Castilian fleet was now free to help the French cause elsewhere. Bigoted new policies in Castile removed all Jews from major political positions.
|England, led by Edward, the Black Prince, and later his son Richard II of England||vs||France, led by Charles V of France, and later his son Charles VI of France. Their armies were led by the General Bertrand du Guesclin. Castile was now a military ally of France. Scotland once again applied pressure on England's northern border.|
- "The Caroline War" is named after Charles V, the leader of France during most of these years.
- French General Bertrand du Guesclin engaged in a Fabian strategy, avoiding major battles to wage a war of attrition.
- The main English tactic during this phase was a type of raid known as the chevauchée. Small groups of mounted soldiers would ride into villages and start them on fire. This was basically a scorched earth plunder and burning campaign of total war designed to undermine French authority, destroy local resources, and force the French army to engage in battle. It largely failed in this last goal, and only a few large scale battles happened during the Caroline War.
- At the Battle of La Rochelle in 1372, a combined French-Castillian fleet defeated the English navy. No longer having naval dominance was a huge blow to the English war effort. Suddenly the English holdings in Gascony (South-Western France) were no longer secure.
- Richard II of England was only 10 when he inherited the kingdom and the war after the quick deaths in succeeding years of his father and grandfather.
- When Charles V of France died in 1380, his 11-year-old son Charles VI was crowned, but didn't really run the kingdom. His three uncles ran the nation as co-regents for several years.
- One of Charles V's death-bed actions was to repeal the taxes that funded the war effort, an attempt to "clean the slate" for his soul before he died. After his passing, the regents quickly reinstated the taxes, but doing so caused a peasant revolutions known as the Harelle and the Maillotins Revolt.
- At the Battle of Otterburn in August 5 1388, the Scottish dealt a swift and humiliating defeat to England during one of its many border disputes with Scotland.
- The site of the battle is supposedly haunted to this day, with terrifying phantom armies being spotted by motorists in 1960.
Resolution: While nothing really ended up settled here, the French were largely the victors. Things did not go well for the English, who lost territory on the continent and supremacy of the seas. Many English officers died or were captured, and the crown eventually had to sign a multi-year truce.
Spin-Off War #4: 1383-1385 Crisis: 1383 - 1385, obviously
|John I of Portugal, bolstered by veteran troops from England in 1385||vs||John I of Castile, with support from France|
- The trouble started when King Ferdinand I of Portugal died without a single clear male heir. It starts as a civil war, and then quickly draws in other nations.
- The city of Lisbon is besieged for much of the crisis.
- Why this isn't called "The War of the Two Johns" when the similar previous Iberian peninsula civil war between two guys who share a name is called "The War of the Two Peters" completely escapes me.
Resolution: After English troops arrive on Easter day, John I of Portugal triumphs, and is officially crowned king. The Castilian army gets trounced pretty heavily by the English.
Referring to this break in the war as a "peace" might give the wrong impression.
- England was busy putting down rebellions in Ireland and Wales, and eventually a bit of a civil war in Northumberland, so it couldn't afford to mount a major campaign on foreign soil. England would have loved to invade France if it had the ability to do so at the time.
- Henry IV of England overthrew Richard II of England.
- Charles VI of France was going quite insane during this time frame. At the Ball of the Burning Men he and half a dozen noblemen were accidentally set on fire while dancing, chained together and wearing outrageous "wild man" costumes. Four of them died. The king was already unstable at this point, but after this he was completely unhinged.1
- With Charles VI clearly mad, relatives and powerful people in France began to jockey for power. A civil war broke out there as well.
- Pirates from France and Scandinavia frequently attacked English merchant vessels during this time.
|England and Burgundy, led by Henry V of England of the House of Lancaster. Other commanders included John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, Thomas Montacute, 4th Earl of Salisbury, and (for most of the war) Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.||vs||France and Scotland, led by Charles VII of France (aka the Dauphin of France). Other important French commanders include Etienne de Vignolles, aka La Hire, and Gilles de Rais. Eventually Phillip the Good would defect to this side. By far the most famous leader of the French side of the conflict was definitely peasant-girl-turned-holy-warrior Joan of Arc.|
- At the start of this phase of the war, the French King was widely known to be mad, and various noblemen were squabbling over the throne. See Spin-Off War #5 (below) for details.
- In 1415, the English invade Normandy.
- During the Siege of Rouen in 1418, the English invested (surrounded and sieged) the city and would not allow food in or people out. Eventually the leaders of the city expelled their 12,000 poorest citizens in an attempt to save food. The English did not allow the poor to cross their lines, so they laid in the ditches just outside the walls and starved to death there.
- Henry VI of England became king upon his father's death in 1422, but was only 9 months old so a council of Regents conducted the country and the war. Two months later he was also technically King of France upon the death of Charles VI of France (due to the Treaty of Troyes, about which, see Spin-Off War #5, below). His real assumption of power would not happen until he came of age in 1437.
- In 1423, over 6,500 Scotsmen died at the Battle of Veneuil, including their leadership. This effectively ending the Scottish participation in the war on French soil. France was on the ropes, and English forces could attack nearly anywhere without contest.
- The English siege of Orleans in 1428 was broken by Joan of Arc, a 17-year-old peasant woman who had told the Dauphin that God had given her visions and commanded her to drive out the invaders.
- Joan inspired the troops, and they retook many French cities held by the English. This allowed the Dauphin to be coronated in Reims as was the French tradition.
- In 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians. They sold her to the English, who had her burned at the stake for heresy. 25 years later the Pope would declare her retroactively an innocent martyr.
- After Joan's death, the French used stalling tactics and battle avoidance strategies to slowly build up their army. Eventually they were able to take back the countryside.
- After 1435, Burgundy (led by Phillip the Good) turns against England and joins the French war effort.
- The final battle of the war was the Battle of Castillon in 1453, but no treaty or official declaration of peace existed until 1475.
Resolution: When all is said and done, the French won, and the English were driven out. It's worth noting though that this wasn't a clear-cut victory from all perspectives. France had seen a hundred years of on-and-off invasion, warfare, and betrayal. Their greatest national and cultural hero was put to death by the church. The English actually maintained control of the Pale of Calais until 1558, and the English monarchs still publicly claimed to be the rightful heirs for France until some time in the 19th Century. The War of the Roses broke out back home in England, though, and that consumed attention and resources such that France might finally see peace for a while.
Spin-Off War #5: Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War: 1407- 1435
|John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, and his successor Phillip the Good||vs||Charles VII of France (then known as the Dauphin of France) and his supporters the Armagnacs.|
- When the English landed in Normandy in 1415, France was already in chaos. King Charles VI was widely regarded as insane, and not fit to lead. While he had a clear heir (the Dauphine Charles VII), the situation encouraged a lot of power-grabbing and petty squabbling. Amongst those angling for advantage was John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy.
- In 1419, the dauphin met with John the Fearless on a bridge in Montereau-Fault-Yonne ostensibly to reconcile and possibly unite against the English. However, the dauphin's men fell upon John the Fearless and struck him down with an axe. This was one of several secret meetings they'd had on bridges, but the only one to break out in violence. The Dauphin insisted his innocence in this betrayal, but rumors of his guilt dogged him thereafter.
- Shortly thereafter, Phillip the Good, the new Duke of Burgundy, joined the English cause and attacked Paris.
- The Treaty of Troyes was signed by the by-then-mad Charles VI of France. It declared Charles VII of France (aka the Dauphin of France) illegitimate, and said Henry of England would instead be the heir to France.
- This Treaty further destabilized the situation for the Dauphin and the French nation, contributing to more power-jockeying. So all through these decades of the "main" war, the political situation in France remained tenuous.
Resolution: Eventually Phillip and Charles made their peace, and worked together to drive out the English, as mentioned in the previous section.
Game and Story Use
- Hundred Years' War is an exciting, but bleak, time in human history, and has plenty of historical characters that could prove useful or interesting in a time travel game.
- Many RPG campaigns feature a backdrop of war, from petty squabbles of the nobility to epic campaigns against the forces of darkness. An alternate history or fantasy game could steal many an interesting plotline, scenario, or character from the Hundred Years' War.
- Royal heirs being slowly and quietly poisoned, and it misdiagnosed for illness.
- Hostages gone missing and Kings handing themselves over in their stead to maintain their honor.
- Secret meetings on bridges that eventually collapse in a one-sided slaughter over a minor social affront.
- Coronations that can only proceed if the ritual venue is first liberated from the enemy.
- Treaties signed under duress, and the disastrous consequences dooming generations.
- Peasant levies retreating when out-gunned, only to be cut down by their own allied Knights who take offense at the act of cowardice and consider it worse than betrayal.
- Mad kings setting dancers ablaze at a masked ball.
- Starving refugees being caught between two armies and forced to take refuge inside the moat whilst a siege rages on around them.
- A game world embroiled in such an ugly mess of overlapping wars would provide all sorts of opportunities for enterprising PCs. With a bit of money and hit points, you could carve out your own little duchy. Of course, the major NPCs (analogs of the kings of England and France) will have a vested interest in what you're up to. You'll need to play them off each other, or pick one side to ally with. Such an alliance could be a way to give the PCs a bit more power or treasure if the GM is so inclined… with as many strings attached as you see fit.
- Upon returning from a dangerous expedition to a dungeon, the PCs are contacted by the King they nominally owe their allegiance too. He demands they raise a small army and conduct a raid upon a village or castle that pays fealty to the competition.
- So much blood-shed, for so many years. That's got to leave psychic and spiritual scars on the continent. And in gaming, that's more than just a metaphor.
- Ghosts and phantoms from any of these battles could spice up a scenario set in more recent times.
- A Vampire, Time Abyss, or other long-lived NPC might have personally seen these hundred plus years of war, and still hold a grudge against the English, the Castilians, or whatever other group fits the character's background. Alternately, having seen such horrors and futility of this and the World Wars, and sworn themselves to peaceful causes thereafter.
- Joan of Arc is a great example to base characters off of. In an era dominated by men and more specifically noblemen, this peasant girl rose to become a battlefield commander. She was very charismatic and brave, and was wounded in battle several times. There's also the matter of receiving visions from God, which means for the purposes of a game she (or a character based on her) could be a paladin, a saint, a demigod or just insane. After her capture she attempted to escape by jumping from her prison tower. Her eventual politically-motivated trial featured some marvelous word-play as she dodged theological traps laid for her by her judges.
- Her sometime companion Gilles de Rais on the other hand…