The Hundred Years’ War: One Of Europe’s Scariest Conflicts

A name used by historians since the early 19th century, the Hundred Years’ War was a violent conflict between the kingdoms of France and England between the years 1337 and 1453. Due to its amount of bloodshed and its length, it’s regarded as one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages with France and England vying to control the largest kingdom in Western Europe. While many people know the brief history of the war, a lot went on that isn’t often discussed. Take a look to see why the war really started, what made it so impactful and everything in between.

It Didn’t Last Exactly 100 Years

Soldiers shooting at each other
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Although it has the fancy title of the Hundred Years’ War, it didn’t actually last 100 years. This particular conflict is dated to have lasted from 1337 to 1453. However, England and France had been at odds for much longer than that.

The disputes between England and France can be traced back from the Norman Conquest in 1066 up until the Entente Cordiale in 1904, which were a series of agreements between France and England to end the hundreds of years of conflict between the two countries. Yet, the vendettas between the two countries shaped them each in their own way, although a non-violent feud remains today.

There Were Major Military Developments

Siege of a castle with cannons
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Although military technology had remained relatively stagnant in the years leading up to and during the early years of the war, by the end, there had been what some refer to as a “military revolution.” Both strategies and technology had changed, with one of the most significant advancements being the introduction of gunpowder weaponry, especially for the French.

Although it was slow at first, near the end, hundreds of cannonballs were being fired during sieges, which allowed the French to uproot the English from their strongholds in France. Eventually, these technologies were brought to the battlefield where they proved to be increasingly effective.

It’s Described As Total War

Battle during the Hundred Years' War
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DeAgostini/Getty Images

Although the idea of total war is mostly associated with the modern era due to unrestricted troop deployment, mass bombings, and large-scale suffering, the Hundred Years’ War wasn’t much different. It would be hard to find any part of either country that didn’t feel the direct effects of the war.

The peasantry in both countries had it the worst, with each essentially funding the war either with men or money. Even then, the non-combatants were also subject to the carnage that followed in the countless sieges, raids, and battles that occurred.

The English Army Performed A Ceremony Before The Battle Of Agincourt

Men kneeling before the battle
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Culture Club/Getty Images

After a night of heavy rain, the Battle of Agincourt took place on the morning of October 25, 1415. Before the English made their advance, King Henry V and his army took part in a pre-battle ritual. Each man knelt and kissed the ground, taking some of the earth into their mouths.

This collective ceremony was a combination of elements from the Eucharist as well as a burial service. It was meant to act as a blessing, a purification, and preparation for their potential deaths.

The English Longbow Helped The English Win The War

Shooting a longbow
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While the English had their fair share of knights and men-at-arms, the unit that gave them the upper hand in many instances in the war were the longbowmen from England and Wales. Their longbows easily outmatched the French crossbowmen as they were faster to load, which turned many battles into a complete slaughters in favor of the British.

They were so effective, in fact, that the king encouraged commoners to take up the bow so that if more longbowmen were needed, they could be recruited into the military. They made up the majority of the English forces.

King Edward III Spared The Lives Of Six Men Who Volunteered To Be Executed

Queen begs for volunteers lives to be spared
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Culture Club/Getty Images

After willing the Battle of Crecy, Edward III laid siege to Calais in September of 1346. Unfortunately, the people of Calais refused to surrender, holding on for nearly a year before finally surrendering in 1347. Annoyed that the siege took so long, he demanded that six of the top citizens of the city surrender their lives as punishment.

Instead, six other men volunteered in order to spare the others. Their bravery inspired the Queen of England to beg for their lives to be spared. Edward III agreed, and a statue now stands in Calais to honor the six volunteers.

It All Started At Aquitaine

King Edward III
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Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

The region of Aquitaine in France was a great point of contention between England and France, with both intending to take control of it. However, during that time, Robert III of Artois was considered to be an enemy of Philip VI of France, who went to Edward III, Philip’s vassal, for protection against the French king.

So, in May 1337, Philip VI invaded and took control of Aquitaine on the grounds that Edward III had gone against his duties as a vassal to Philip by sheltering his enemy. This was the spark that started the Hundred Year’s War.

Edward III Smashed France At The Beginning Of The War

The Black Prince in battle
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Culture Club/Getty Images

Under Edward III, in 1340, the English fleet decimated the French in the Battle of Sluys. As a result of this crucial victory, England controlled the English Channel for the remainder of the war, which was easily one of the most important regions to hold.

Then, in 1346, the Battle of Crecy turned out to be a complete disaster for the French, allowing the English to gain a foothold in the country. Furthermore, Edward’s son, known as the Black Prince, won another great victory in the Battle of Poitiers in which he took John II of France, Philip’s successor, as a prisoner.

There Was A Brief Halt In The War

Treaty between France and England
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

After his numerous successes at the beginning of the war, and with France without a king after Philip’s death, Edward made an attempt to take the throne of France. Yet, despite his multiple advantages, he failed in doing so.

Instead, the Treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360, which resulted in France paying 3 million crowns for the ransom of King John II and they gave Aquitaine to Edward III, free of French control. In return, Edward III renounced his claim to the French crown. There was peace between the countries for a whole nine years.

The English Almost Won The War

Henry V's marriage to Catherine
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1419, Henry V and his army was outside of the gates of Paris when the French finally decided to negotiate terms. Their discussion led to the Treaty of Troyes, which acknowledged Henry V as the heir to King Charles VI of France. This treaty was made official by a marriage between Henry and Charles’ daughter Catherine of Valois.

While everything seemed to be working out in favor of England, Henry died unexpectedly from dysentery in 1422, two months before Charles VI. Henry’s son was an infant at the time and not as capable as a leader when he grew up, resulting in the French rising up and taking back everything England had won.

The Battle Of Agincourt Was One Of England’s Greatest Victory In The War

Henry fighting at Agincourt
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Henry V ascended the English throne in 1413. During that time, Charles VI of France was suffering from a severe mental illness, leading to the French princes to fight among themselves. Seeing this as an opportunity, Henry V lead a campaign in France, raiding across the country.

At one point, he was confronted by a much larger and well-supplied French army and a battle ensued known as the Battle of Agincourt. Due to Henry’s strategic prowess, the English won a sweeping victory, taking the lives of around 40% of the French nobility. Afraid of the number of prisoners he had taken, Henry ordered for thousands of them to be executed.

The French Victory At Castillon Brought An End To The War

The Treaty of Picquigny
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Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In 1435, the Treaty of Arras was signed, in which Philip III, Duke of Burgandy, went back on his alliance with the English, which led to Paris being returned to Charles VII of France. Then, Charles made a point to reorganize the French troops and proceeded to begin annihilating the English forces.

Normandy was recaptured in 1450 and then in 1453, French were victorious at the pivotal Battle of Castillon, which is now considered to be the final battle of the Hundred Years’ War. In 1475, the Treaty of Picquigny ended the war between the two countries with the English renouncing their claim to the French crown.

The English Sacked Caen In A Day

British soldiers attacking Caen
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In July 1340, Edward sailed a fleet across the English Channel, landing off of the Zwin estuary the very next day. With 12,000 English knights, archers, and men-at-arms, Edward attacked the castle of Caen.

The English had assumed that the assault would take weeks and were fearful they might lose a lot of men in the process. However, the city fell in just one day, mostly due to the defenders inability to hold their ground and their indecisiveness on how to defend it. The gates were eventually opened and the English brutally sacked the city.

There Was A Failed Scottish Invasion

Men battling in the Hundred Years' War
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

After the devastating French loss at the Battle of Crecy, the French made a plan to have their French allies invade England, figuring the English weren’t ready to fight a two-front war. Little did they know that Edward III had anticipated this, and had troops waiting for a possible attack.

So, when the 12,000-strong Scottish army, led by David Bruce attacked in 1346, they were met face-to-face with English defenders. The English made quick work of the Scots, taking King David prisoner for which he remained for 11 years.

A Debunked Myth

Men shooting bows
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Culture Club/Getty Images

Legend says that when English archers were taken prisoner, the French would have their two fingers cut off so that they could no longer draw their bow. So, when the English would win a battle, the archers would show them their two fingers as a sign of insult.

Although it makes for a good story, this myth regarding English longbowmen and a rude hand gesture is not true. Ironically, that gesture now means peace across the world.

Joan Of Arc Helped Inspire The French

Joan of Arc on a horse
Kean Collection/Getty Images
Kean Collection/Getty Images

When Henry V’s son, Henry VI, was still not of age to rule, John, Duke of Bedford acted as regent. Under his leadership, England began to make strides against the French once again, even though most was lost after the death of Henry V. When England laid siege to Orleans in 1428, a woman named Joan of Arc convinced Charles VII to send her to the siege, claiming that God had sent her visions telling her to rid France of England.

Under Joan, the English’s siege was broken, and, having inspired the French believing God was on their side, led other French victories. However, she was eventually captured, handed over to the English, and burned at the stake.

John II Turned Himself In

Surrendering at the Battle of Poitiers
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

After being captured by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers, John II’s ransom was set at the incredibly high price of 3 million crowns. So, in order to raise enough money to pay for his release, he offered to return to France and leave his son Louis in England as collateral.

However, Louis didn’t uphold his end of the deal and managed to escape captivity. To the outrage of his fellow countrymen, John upheld his part of the deal and returned to France. Unfortunately, he fell ill in England and died there.

England Had Plenty Of Inner Turmoil

King Richard II meeting with rebels
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The Print Collector/Getty Images

On top of the hundred Years’ War, England was being torn apart from the inside. Even during times of peace with France, England never had a chance to catch its breath. Over the course of the war, there were countless rebellions, peasant revolts, and a seemingly never-ending conflict with Scotland.

At one point, King Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV, creating even more political turmoil. It wasn’t until Henry V ascended the throne that England started putting the pieces back together.

The English Initially Spoke French

Portrait of Henry V
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Prior to the war, the primary language of the English nobility and royalty was French, and one of the reasons they believed that France and England should be a united kingdom. However, the war resulted in the English hating everything that had to do with France, and the practice of speaking French was cast away, and English became the primary language.

In 1417, it was Henry V who began promoting the use of English in government. He was also the first king to use English in his personal correspondence since the Norman conquest.

England Went From One War To The Next

Men arguing in front of the king
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Hundred Years’ War was a costly affair for both sides, especially for England, who lost in the end. With their population hindered, the kingdom in economic in disarray, and under the leadership of a weak king, things began to fall apart.

This led what is known as the War of the Roses, which were a series of civil wars in England between houses York and Lancaster. It was a conflict that lasted for decades, with both houses battling for control of the kingdom.