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The Hundred Years War Revisited: Avenging Angel

By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II

“I am sent from God, the King of Heaven, to chase you out of all France, body for body.” ~ excerpt from a letter by St. Joan of Arc to John, Duke of Bedford, circa 1429.

Although the Lancastrian cause in France suffered a grievous setback with the untimely death of Henry V in 1422, the full effects were slow to reveal themselves. Henry’s younger brother, Duke John of Bedford, immediately took the reins of the war effort as the regent for his infant nephew, Henry VI, in France and, while perhaps not as dynamic as his deceased brother, proved himself a capable soldier and administrator. English forces – bolstered by support from their new Burgundian allies that proved to be critical – continued to advance south from Paris, seizing cities and fortresses all the way to the Loire Basin and defeating Valois forces in several pitched battles.

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The fortunes of Dauphin Charles and his Armagnac resistance looked grim, as it was leaderless, disorganized, and nearly bankrupt. However, English power was beginning to show signs of weakness as well. King Henry’s strategic shift focusing on the annexation of French territory was exacting a much heavier toll on English manpower than before. More often, English forces were being bogged down and diverted to garrison duty, neutralizing the tactical and operational strengths of superior mobility and maneuver at which they had once excelled.

Even the makeup of English armies had changed drastically from the earlier years of the war. In the Edwardian phase, the ratio between archers and men-at-arms had been about 3 or 4 to 1. This ratio enabled the ideal “combined arms” support structure for English armies operating in the field.  By the mid-15th Century, however, that ratio dramatically increased to about 14 to 15 archers for every man-at-arms. The new ratio was a rational response to declining revenues, but it came at the price of the tactical advantages the English once possessed.

By 1428, the English commanders set their sights on the prize of the Loire Valley, the vital city of Orléans. At this moment, the enigmatic (and controversial) figure of Joan of Arc appeared on the scene. Joan, the “Maid of Lorraine,” is not only one of the most recognized figures of the Hundred Years War, but possibly one of the most famous women in all of medieval history.

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She remains a mysterious figure. Most of the personal information we have on her comes from the court records of her infamous heresy trial, meticulously recorded by the English-backed ecclesiastical court in Beauvais. She has been portrayed in myriad ways since her death – from unsettling witch in Shakespearian drama, national heroine by 19th Century French Romanticists, to even ridiculously as proto-feminist in the 20th Century. There is a genuine possibility, though, that Joan was none of those things and, for whatever reason, just someone thrust into an extraordinary situation at just the right time.

Inspired by what she believed to be a divine mission to rid her country of the English, Joan convinced the Dauphin and the remaining French military elite to rally around her, setting the relief of Orléans as their first target. After confronting the besieging English head-on in 1429, Joan and the French forces not only relieved the siege and rescued Orléans, but immediately afterwards inflicted a devastating defeat on the only substantial English army in the field at that time at Patay. Without the badly needed support, English held settlements in the Loire began to fall rapidly and, by 1430, all the English gains in the Loire had been lost, and the Dauphin Charles was formally crowned as King Charles VII in Rheims – with Joan in full armour escorting him to the throne.

Now, some scholars have made impressive claims regarding Joan’s supposed competence as a military leader in her own right. While these may not be entirely incorrect, there are several things to consider when looking at what made the French under Joan successful and what role she actually played in bringing that success. As a commoner, she had no formal military training whatsoever before her introduction at the Dauphin’s court in 1428. She was also immediately surrounded by a staff of perhaps some of the most experienced and battle-hardened warfighters the Armagnacs had left at that point – men like Dunois, the Bastard of Orléans; Jean d’Alencon; and the legendary La Hire. Most of the actual military success credited to Joan probably more accurately belongs to them, although nearly all the warriors who served alongside her maintained a passionate and almost infatuated devotion to her for the rest of their lives. It is also worth noting that after Charles VII’s coronation and Joan striking out with an army of her own into Burgundy, she did not last a year before being captured in a bungled assault outside of Compiègne. All told, Joan’s military career lasted not even three years before it was over. By the time of her controversial trial and execution in Rouen in 1431, the Hundred Years War still had another 30 years to go.

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However, it would also be extremely incorrect to minimize Joan’s impact on the outcome of the resurgence of French fortunes and the ultimate outcome of the war. She very clearly had a massive psychological rallying effect on a country that, when she arrived on the scene, was teetering on the verge of total defeat. Regardless of who she was and what drove her to do what she did, the deeds of St. Joan of Arc gave Valois France a fighting chance at resisting Lancastrian domination – something for which she would be remembered, romanticized, and even canonized (but not until 1920). In the next and final piece, we will look at the last years of this titanic conflict and explore the real reasons for how and why it ended the way it did.

Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press.  You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve.  Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.

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Click here to read more Medieval Geopolitics

Further Reading:

DeVries, Kelly,  Joan of Arc: A Military Leader  (The History Press, 2011)

Top Image: Joan of Arc in the protocol of the parliament of Paris (1429). Drawing by Clément de Fauquembergue. French National Archives

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