Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Middle Period of the Struggle

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.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


At the same time the French King found a general named Du Guesclin, who proved to be one of the best commanders that the Middle Ages produced.

Du Guesclin was a poor country noble, from Western France. As a boy he was so ugly and ill favored that his parents scarcely loved him, and his chief pleasure was in fighting the village lads. At sixteen years of age he ran away from home, and lived for a time with an uncle. He longed to take part in tournaments and perform feats of arms, but he was too poor to provide himself with a horse and armor. But one day, when a tournament was being held at his native town, he returned there, borrowed a horse and armor, and overthrew fifteen knights, one after the other. When he raised the visor of his helmet, and his father saw who the unknown warrior was, there was a happy reunion.

Du Guesclin


In the earlier stages of the Hundred Years’ War, Du Guesclin had taken some part, but had not been present at either Crecy or at Poitiers. He had made a name form himself, however, and was recognized as a man of importance.

When Charles V. renewed the war with the English, he chose Du Guesclin to be "Constable of France," that is, commander-in-chief of the French armies. At first Du Guesclin asked the King to excuse him from this office, saying that he was but a poor man, and not of high birth; and how could he expect the great nobles of France to obey him? But the King answered him, saying:

"Sir, do not excuse yourself thus; for there is no nobleman in the kingdom, even among my own kin, who would not obey you. And if any should be so hardy as to do otherwise, he would surely hear from me. So take the office freely, I beseech you."

So Du Guesclin became Constable, and from that time the fortunes of France began to improve.

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, when he saw that he could not win a victory.

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 once more into the hands of the French.

But here, for a time, the French successes stopped. Du Guesclin died, in 1380, and soon after him King Charles V. Now it was the French who had a boy king, and when this King, Charles VI., grew to be a man, he became insane. 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."

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


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."

So the middle period of the war, like the first period, ends with a great victory for the English, adn a flood-time of English success.