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To the 14th century
     Lands across the Channel
     The cause of a long conflict
     Edward III's costly adventure
     Crécy and Calais
     Black Prince and Poitiers

15th century

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Lands across the Channel: 11th - 15th century

The Norman conquest of England introduces a new situation in northwest Europe. Lands on both sides of the English Channel are from this time under the control of a single dynasty. The kings of England are also the dukes of Normandy.

A Norman-French royal family crowned in Westminster seeks to extend its territories on the French side of the water. At the same time a Frankish-French royal family crowned in Reims strives to assert its authority over the whole geographical region of France. The result is a prolonged struggle, eventually spanning some four centuries, in which the identities of medieval Europe's two strongest kingdoms are gradually shaped.


The struggle is not just one of warfare and battles. It is a complex game of dynastic marriages and interconnecting obligations. William the Conqueror, king of England, is technically the king of France's vassal - in his other role as the duke of Normandy.

Even more dramatic is the case of William's great-grandson, Henry II. Though a vassal of the French king, his lands occupy a region of France which is larger than the royal domain. The French king rules a realm around Paris and Orleans in the north. Henry II inherits a broad swathe down the entire west of the country.


The princes of the two houses marry within the same limited circle, so western Europe becomes an interconnected web of French-speaking cousins - often with good claims to each other's territories. Louis VII and Henry II set a powerful example, as kings of France and England who marry the same heiress from Aquitaine. But the point can be made almost equally well among their successsors.

The kings who follow Henry II on the throne of England marry, in this sequence, daughters of the rulers of Navarre, Angouleme, Provence, Castile, France, Hainaut, Bohemia, Navarre, France and Avignon. During the same period kings of France marry daughters of Navarre, Provence, Castile and Hainaut.


The cause of a long conflict: 1308-1328

In this web of conflicting claims, warfare between French and English is endemic on French soil during these centuries. But it flares into a long and bitter conflict in the 14th century.

One cause of the dispute is dynastic, resulting from one of the marriages between the French and English royal families. In 1308 Isabella, daughter of the king of France, marries Edward II, king of England. In 1312 their son, also Edward, is born. By that time the eldest of Isabella's three brothers is on the French throne. Ten years later her third brother, Charles IV, becomes king. The problem for France is that Isabella has plenty of brothers but no nephews.


When Charles IV dies, at the age of thirty-four in 1328, he has been three times married but he has no son. Since the death of Hugh Capet in 996 there has always been a son (or very occasionally a brother) to inherit the French crown. In the present generation the pattern is broken. Charles IV succeeds two elder brothers (Louis X and Philip V), and he leaves two daughters - one of them born posthumously.

The claim of Charles's elder daughter is rejected on the grounds of her sex, even though the Salic Law is not yet officially enshrined in the French system. A great assembly of feudal magnates is charged with deciding who is the rightful heir.


The closest male relative of Charles IV is his nephew Edward, the son of Charles's sister Isabella. There is a certain logical objection to Edward's inheritance; if the crown may not be inherited by a woman, it would seem inconsistent for it to be inherited through a woman.

There is another factor which the chronicles of the time imply to be an even more powerful obstacle. Edward is now Edward III, king of England. France does not want an English king.


In the circumstances it is not surprising that the French assembly awards the crown to a more distant relation of the dead king. Philip of Valois is only a cousin of Charles IV, but his descent is all-male and all-French (he is the son of a younger brother of Charles's father, Philip IV).

The Valois prince is crowned king at Reims in May 1328 as Philip VI, beginning a new (though closely related) line on the French throne.


Edward III's costly adventure: 1337-1340

The English king reluctantly accepts the decision of the French magnates. He even answers a summons from Philip VI to do homage for his fiefs in France. In 1329 the 17-year-old Edward III attends a magnificent ceremony in Amiens cathedral, but he does homage as a fellow monarch - in a crimson velvet robe, with the leopards of England embroidered in gold, wearing his crown and with a sword at his belt. This is in deliberate contrast to the bareheaded and unarmed approach expected by the French king.

The next eight years see a gradual change from this symbolic act of defiance to open warfare. Many elements contribute to this change.


One such element is the presence in England of disaffected French nobles urging Edward to press his claim to the throne of France. Another is French support for the boy king of Scotland, David II, in his struggle against rivals sponsored by the English.

But the most serious bone of contention remains the English territories in southwest France. They are somewhat reduced now from the original extent of Aquitaine, and in this lesser form they are usually referred to as Guienne. Over the years the French have made many attempts to seize and confiscate Guienne, usually citing some failure or other in England's feudal obligations.


In 1337 Philip VI once again declares that he is confiscating Guienne. This time the English response is dramatic. Edward III replies that the kingdom of France is his by right of inheritance. He sends a formal challenge to Philip for his throne - a declaration of war.

The first stage of the war takes place at sea and in Flanders. The count of Flanders, an ally and vassal of the king of France, is under great pressure from an alliance led by Jacob van Artevelde. Edward III, profiting from this unrest on France's northern border, spends much of 1339 and 1340 in Flanders.


The Flemish cities, though in rebellious mood, are reluctant to affront their highest feudal lord - the king of France. They neatly solve the problem by persuading Edward to declare himself in that role. In Ghent, in January 1340, he formally assumes the royal title, quartering the fleur-de-lis of France with the leopards of England on his shield.

The English army engages in various ineffectual sieges in northern France, and the fleet wins one convincing victory over the French off Sluis in June 1340. But in general this first campaign achieves little at great cost (sufficient to bankrupt Edward's Florentine bankers when he defaults on his debts).


Crécy and Calais: 1346-1347

Edward's next foray on to French soil is a raid of plunder which takes him on a curving path from the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy (in July 1346) up past Paris and on northwards.

He has reached the region of Ponthieu by late August, when an army led by Philip VI of France catches up with him near Crécy. The resulting battle is something of a swansong for medieval chivalry.


The fighting begins at Crécy with a direct confrontation between English longbowmen and Genoese crossbowmen, employed as mercenaries by the French king. The English, outnumbered by the French, occupy a defensive position on a slope overlooking a small valley. The battle begins when the French king orders a line of crossbowmen to advance on the English position, with mounted knights following behind them.

The English outshoot the Genoese, who need to pause to crank their crossbow after each shot. When the Genoese retreat in panic, they become entangled with the advancing French cavalry. The resulting chaos offers an easy target to the bowmen on the hill.


Subsequent charges by the French cavalry meet a similar fate in a battle which continues until nightfall. The next morning some 1500 French knights and esquires are dead on the battlefield together with large numbers of more humble soldiers.

This great victory does not divert Edward III from his relatively unambitious plans. He makes no attempt to turn on Paris. Instead he continues on his course northwards. At Calais the citizens, famously, resist him. For almost a year he besieges them until finally, in early August 1347, the town capitulates.


The chronicles mention the English using artillery against the town, firing small stones a few ounces in weight. But it is famine which brings the inhabitants to the point of surrender. The traditional story, probably correct, describes six burghers of Calais coming out of the town with ropes round their necks. They offer their lives to save those of their fellow citizens. Edward is said to have been in vindictive mood, owing to the activities of pirates based in Calais. In one version of the story he executes the six; in another he heeds a plea for mercy from his queen.

Calais is not recovered by the French until 1558.


Edward the Black Prince and Poitiers: 1355-1360

A truce signed after the fall of Calais, in 1347, holds for several years - partly because the whole of Europe is distracted at this time by a far more serious threat, the Black Death. But in September 1355 the son of Edward III, known as Edward the Black Prince, lands with an army at Bordeaux and sets about plundering southern France with the help of allies from the English fief of Gascony.

The following summer the English and the Gascons press northwards until at last they are confronted, near Poitiers in September 1356, by a much larger army commanded by the king of France, John II.


The battle of Poitiers takes place over three days - a long weekend in modern terms, from Saturday to Monday in September 1356. Sunday is a truce, brokered between the two sides by the papal legate. The day of rest reveals, once again, the contrast between the romantically amateur French view of warfare and the new professionalism of the English.

The French knights treat their day off as a holiday, eating, drinking, socializing, relaxing. Meanwhile the English and their Gascon allies are busy digging trenches and making fences. The intention, as at Crécy, is to fight from a defensive position.


The final battle begins early on the Monday morning. By a combination of ambushes, hails of arrows and sudden cavalry charges downhill, the English and the Gascons throw the vanguard of the French army into disarray. The rearguard, commanded by the king himself, fights with great resolve. John II wins renown for his personal courage. But by mid-afternoon his army is overwhelmed, and he is a prisoner in English hands.

It is the beginning of four years of royal captivity, first in Bordeaux and then in the Savoy palace in London. After much negotiation a vast ransom of three million gold crowns is agreed in 1360. The taxation required to raise this sum is yet another burden in France so soon after the Black Death.


In addition to the ransom of three million crowns, the terms agreed at Brétigny in 1360 (ratified later in the same year at Calais) attempt to resolve the ancient territorial disputes. France relinquishes to England the whole of Aquitaine in the south of France, and a few regions on the coast opposite England, including Calais. England in return gives up Normandy and Touraine and certain feudal rights held in Brittany and Flanders.

The terms of the treaty are never acted upon. Instead, over the next few decades, there are periodic and desultory raids from England. But the situation changes dramatically early in the next century, on both sides of the Channel.


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