The Hundred Years War and the Making of Modern Europe
By David Green
The New Left Project (2014)
Introduction: The first thing anyone learns about the Hundred Years War is that it didn’t last one hundred years. Tradition dates it from 1337 to 1453, but it is more helpful to view this longest of European wars as one phase of a much longer struggle between England and France, spanning the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the 1904 Entente Cordiale. As Charles de Gaulle remarked in June 1962, ‘Our greatest hereditary enemy was not Germany, it was England. From the Hundred Years War to Fashoda, she hardly ceased to struggle against us… she is not naturally inclined to wish us well’.
The war centred on a struggle for control of the duchy of Gascony. Gascony had come under English rule in 1152 and it lay at the heart of the great Angevin Empire. However, the construction of this vast collection of territories created an impossible political situation. For a time, the king of England ruled more of France than his French counterpart—but he ruled his continental territories as the feudal vassal of the French king. As king of England he was supreme in his authority; but as duke of Gascony he was subservient to the Capetian monarchs of France. He owed them various feudal obligations as well as his political allegiance, and this deeply circumscribed his independence not only to govern his continental lordships but also his kingdom of England.
The end of the Capetian dynasty in 1328 made Anglo-French relations even more fragile and created a new, still more incendiary arena of conflict—the throne of France itself. Edward III of England claimed the title through his mother, Isabella, the late king’s sister, but a committee of French nobles ensured it passed instead to Philip, count of Valois. This disputed succession triggered the war.
The war’s early stages saw great English successes marked by victories at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). But the political and territorial gains accrued through those victories were wholly reversed in the 1370s and 1380s, after which a period of relative stasis set in as domestic turmoil during the reigns of Charles VI of France and Richard II of England prevented vigorous efforts abroad.