By Frank Wiswall
Paper given at the International Medieval Congress (2007)
Introduction: In 1337 Edward III issued a manifesto explaining in detail his reasons for going to war with the king of France, Philip VI. Edward, the statement said, “sent to the King of France various solemn messages, begging him to return to him the lands which he is withholding from him, arbitrarily and against reason, in the Duchy of Guienne; but to these requests the King of France did nothing”. The manifesto went on to list a series of gestures Edward had allegedly made to Philip, including marriage alliances, money, and the prospect of a joint crusade; but Philip, said Edward, “would accept none of these offers”. What is perhaps most notable about this document is what it does not say. There is no mention of Edward’s candidacy for the throne of France itself, about which Edward had said effectively nothing since he had been passed over for the French succession, in Philip’s favour, nine years earlier. As is well known, it would be another three years before Edward openly made that claim the centrepiece of his war aims; but it is quite possible that it had been in the forefront of Edward’s mind for some time, since he had been unable to pursue his case in 1328 due to his own minority and his subordination to his mother.
It has become commonplace in modern textbooks to base any brief account of the Hundred Years War on the contention that the chief cause was the dynastic dispute over the French throne between Edward III and Philip of Valois. In a sense, this is not surprising: the dynastic quarrel is perhaps best presented as the single most important factor which distinguished the war from previous Anglo-French conflicts. Edward III’s claim to the French throne raised the stakes to unprecedented heights, and placed the king more firmly at the centre of the conflict than ever before. But an aspect of the dynastic dispute that contributed to the war, or more specifically to the English justification for war, was its timing. Although the war proper is conventionally held to have begun in 1337, it was the succession debate that followed the death of Edward’s uncle Charles IV in 1328 that created the potential for a much larger war than the two sides had ever fought before. Moreover, despite the legalistic claims of the French nobles that Charles IV’s successor could not inherit through the female line, it was clearly their much more practical concern that Edward was both a foreign king and a boy of sixteen, still very much under the control of his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. Edward’s status as a minor at the time of the succession dispute was thus a highly significant factor in the denial of his claim, as well as in his stated aims and later conduct of the war. Additionally, the minorities of two other English kings, Richard II and Henry VI, vitally influenced both the course of the war and its diplomacy in its later stages.