Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

First Period of the Hundred Years' War

One 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.

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


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.

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


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!"

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


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 some 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.

Battle of Poitiers


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!"

Finally 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.