The Origins of the Hundred Years War
John Maddicott argues that Edward III's bid for glory in France was motivated by concerns about England's neighbours and trade as well as amour propre for his claim to the throne of Philip of Valois.
At Ghent on January 26th, 1340, Edward III assumed the title of King of France. Although Anglo-French conflict had been an intermittent feature of the Western European scene since 1066, no such grand and presumptuous a challenge to French power had been made by any previous monarch. It was a challenge which was to lead to more than a century of sometimes sporadic but often intensive warfare, punctuated by battles which made English arms famous throughout Christendom. Before the war ended in 1453, with the expulsion of the English from all their French possessions save Calais, the victories of Sluys, Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt had created an heroic tradition of military success which not even the final disasters of Henry VI's reign could entirely obliterate. At home, the war shaped the course of English affairs for most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Whether we look at the development of parliament, the growth of the export trade in cloth, the rise of national taxation or the reputations of kings, we shall find that political and economic change often hinged on the progress of the war. In examining its causes we are to a large extent uncovering the roots of English history in the later middle ages.
Like many other wars, medieval and modern, the Hundred Years War had its origins in a peace settlement. The Treaty of Paris, made by Henry III of England and Louis IX of France in 1259, brought to an end more than a century of Anglo-French conflict; but its unintended result was to inaugurate first an eighty-year period of sporadic disputes and then a war which would last intermittently for more than another century. The treaty's main provisions, ratifying as they did the status quo, had hardly made this outcome predictable. By their terms Henry abandoned hi s claims to Normandy, Anjou, Maine', Touraine and Poitou, the former territories of his Angevin predecessors, which had been lost to the French during his father's reign and his own minority, and which Henry himself had sought to regain, spasmodically and with diminishing prospects of success, for some thirty years.
By setting his seal on the formal dissolution of the Angevin Empire, he had removed a potential casus belli which had embarrassed his generally friendly relations with Louis. In doing so, however, he had created another. In exchange for Henry's renunciations Louis allowed him to retain the one fragment of the old empire' which he still held, the Duchy of Aquitaine (or Gascony), but to do so only on new terms: Henry was to hold the duchy as a feudal vassal of the French king. When Louis's counsellors reproached him with apparently conceding even this much, Louis made a reply which was more perceptive than their criticisms. 'It seems to me', he said, 'that I am making good use of what I have given him, for Henry was not my man, and now he has entered my homage'.
He meant that he had succeeded in imposing his own overlordship on Henry and on Henry's duchy. Until 1259 Gascony had been held by its English king-duke as an allod, an independent territory held of no feudal lord and effectively outside the realm of France. Henry's novel recognition of Louis's suzerainty brought a partial loss of that independence and an entree to the duchy for the French Crown Feudal subjection of this sort was not a mere matter of juridical theory, but carried tangible obligations. In the case of the king-duke, it meant in the first place the obligation to perform liege homage – more binding than simple homage – to the French king. This ceremony, entailing as it did the vassal's kneeling before his lord, placing his hands in his, and promising allegiance for his lands, was both personally humiliating and politically restrictive, for it carried with it the duty to provide military service when called upon to do so. Since it had to be performed at every change of lord or vassal – so that Henry III, for example, was summoned to do homage in 1271 after Philip III had succeeded Louis IX – it came to be a recurrent reminder of a debilitatingsubordination. And since failure to perform homage might legitimately lead to the confiscation of the duchy, the reminder was one which the vassal could not afford to disregard.
The recognition of French overlordship limited the English rulers of Glasgow in two particular prerogatives essential to their authority: the making of foreign policy and the doing of justice. After 1259 no English king could, as duke of Aquitaine, risk an alliance with his overlord's enemies or potential enemies. Such an alliance would constitute an act of defiance which, like the refusal of homage, would justify the confiscation of the vassal's fief. When Alphonso X of Castile sought the help of his brother-in-law, Edward I, against possible French intervention in 1275, Edward had to turn him down, for to have complied would have been contrary to his obligations to his suzerain. When Peter III of Aragon asked for similar help against a threatened French invasion in 1282, he was rejected for similar reasons, even though Edward was then negotiating for a marriage between his daughter, Eleanor, and Peter's son. In a comparable way Edward was hamstrung in his dealings with Flanders, whose relations with France were potentially hostile, and sometimes actually so, for much of his reign. Edward's feudal links with France meant that he had to negotiate secretly with Count Guy of Flanders in 1292 – 3 and to deny help to the Flemings against the French in 1303.
Such restrictions could be very damaging to Edward's interests. The security of Gascony depended upon his friendly relations with the powers south of the Pyrenees, and the English wool trade, whose profits Edward could tap through the customs system, depended upon stable links with the Flemish market. But his vassal status in Gascony compelled both dynastic and national interests to give way before his obligations to the French Crown.
The king-duke's judicial subordination was a more routine matter than these occasional crises in foreign affairs, but for that reason perhaps more onerous. After 1259 judicial appeals from his Gascon subjects could properly be heard by the Paris Parlement: an obstacle to effective rule which entailed the removal of the appellant from the king-duke's power during the period of the appeal and the maintenance of a legal staff in Paris to defend ducal rights. Social and political conditions in Gascony were especially favourable to litigation and the appeals which litigation produced. Boundaries and jurisdictions were ill-defined, nobles and towns more independent than their counterparts in England, and ducal ministers often highhanded in their behaviour and difficult to supervise; and the disputes and appeals which flowed naturally from these sources were frequently augmented by others deliberately provoked by French officials, loyal to Paris and to the Capetian monarchy. It was a further mark of the same subordination that the king- duke was expected to publish French legislation with Gascony. These were serious intrusions on his control of the duchy. In an age when the doing of justice was a main constituent of effective lordship, and the number of litigants who sought judgements in his court a measure of a lord's power, the king of France had acquired an ultimate judicial authority in Gascony which its duke could not rival.
During the forty years which followed the treaty of Paris the latent conflicts which it had concealed came increasingly into the open. A generation after the lawyer Bracton had written that the king of England was under no man, but only God and the law, it began to seem incongruous that one who was a king in his own country should do homage to another king for his fief. In France, too, developing concepts of sovereignty made such a relation appear progressively more archaic and unstable. It had already been established by the late twelfth century that the French king, unlike the English, could not do homage to another man. During the late thirteenth century, and with increasing vehemence under Philip IV (1285 – 1314), French legists began to claim that their king was 'emperor in his realm'.
In a world of political absolutes, the position of a dependent feudal substate such as Gascony came to seem increasingly anomalous. At the same time Philip's aggressive exploitation of his sovereignty began to impinge on Edward's powers even within his kingdom. When, for example, Philip asked Edward to provide ships in 1304 from Sandwich and other south coast ports for the French war against Flanders, he was staking a claim to military service well beyond that traditionally due from Gascony.
Edward I, for his part, did what he could both to mitigate and to modify his feudal connections with his French overlord. He tried to make peace between France, Castile and Aragon, and thus to resolve his own conflicting obligations towards his allies and his suzerain. He attempted to place all appeals from subordinate courts in the hands of his seneschal of Gascony, so as to impede their despatch direct to Paris. Most important of all, he began from the 1290s to claim that Gascony was an allod, held in full sovereignty. Despite the treaty of 1259 and the treble performance of homage (in 1259, 1273 and 1286), his lawyers argued that the treaty had been nullified by the failure of the French to complete the territorial cessions which 'were among its provisions. Barely tenable though it was, the claim showed both the frustration of the English government at the continuance of the feudal link, and also a hesitant move towards notions of English sovereignty in Gascony which were to be pursued more forcefully under Edward III.
Behind the Crown's defence of Gascony lay considerations of honour, family interest, and profit. An ancestral possession, the duchy could be used as an appanage for the heir to the throne. As prince, Edward I was given deputed rule over Aquitaine and his two successors dukedoms there by their respective fathers in order to give them a training in government and, in the case of the two creations of 1306 and 1325, to shift the onus of homage from a crowned to an uncrowned head. Gascon revenues made a more material contribution to royal power. Estimated in 1324 at 613,000, mostly from the customs duties on the wine exports for which England was Gascony's chief customer, they were worth more than the Crown's estate in England. And at a time when warfare was placing an unprecedented strain on royal resources, Gascony also supplied manpower. Piers Gaveston, Edward II's favourite, was only one of a substantial number of mercenaries and minor nobility who sought their fortunes in England during the Scottish wars of the 1290s. No English king, therefore, could afford to risk a French conquest of Gascony, for too much was at stake. When Philip IV confiscated the duchy in 1294, after a naval battle in the Channel between a Nor- man fleet and another partly manned by Gascons from Bayonne, Edward retaliated vigorously if ineffectively. The ensuing Gascon war of 1294-7, costing some 6400,000, was almost certainly his largest single expense in a singularly expensive decade.
The war of 1294, terminated by a truce in 1297 and a peace settlement in 1303, showed how easy it was for the French to find a feudal pretext to attack Gascony and how vulnerable the duchy was to such an attack. Given the inconveniences of the feudal relationship, the growing assertiveness of Capetian power, and the difficulty of standing against that power, it may seem surprising that no wider conflict grew out of the Gascon imbroglio before the 1330s. Yet until that decade the tensions arising from the English position in Gascony were contained and controlled.
The peace of 1303 restored the status quo ante bellum, with all its potential for conflict, by returning the duchy to Edward in exchange for homage. But at the same time it appeased national rivalries by arranging for the marriage of Philip IV's daughter, Isabella, to the young Prince Edward. This marriage, which was later to provide the basis for Edward III's claim to the French throne, temporarily bound together the two royal families and induced Philip IV to take a more conciliatory attitude towards the affairs of Gascony. Two great 'peace conferences', the Process of Montreuil from 1306 to 1311 and the Process of Périgueux in 1311, though they ended in deadlock and recriminations, at least showed that both sides were willing to negotiate. Both, too, had other interests, external and internal, which precluded a major war between them. Philip IV and his two sons, Louis X (1314-16) and Philip V (1316-22), were too heavily committed to the contro1 of Flanders and, in the long term, to the crusade, to have sufficient resources for the conquest of Gascony. Philip IV, in addition, had to face opposition from his nobles, which culminated in the provincial leagues of 1314-15. Edward II, for his part, was intermittently engaged for most of his reign against both the Scots and his own barons. His concern for Gascony was shown by his issuing a major reforming ordinance for its government in 1323; but he could not afford to be provocative there.
At the end of his reign, however, this brittle peace broke down. In 1324 the building of a bastide, a fortified town, at Saint-Sardos in Gascony by the last Capetian king, Charles IV, provoked first English reprisals and then French countermeasures which culminated in the confiscation of the duchy. Behind this incident and the ensuing war lay other differences – Edward's deferment of homage to the new French king, a rising tide of appeals to the Paris Parlement, French intervention in the duchy in response to disorders there – which showed that the consequences of the Treaty of Paris had still to be reckoned with. The settlement of 1327 which ended the war marked a hardening of the French attitude towards the treaty's legacy. Not only did Edward III have to promise a payment of £60,000 for his inheritance of the duchy, and a war indemnity of 50,000 marks for French losses, but the French retained a large part of Gascony itself until the indemnity had been paid. The territories of the Agenais and the Bazadais, worth in l307 about £6,500 a year or nearly one-third of the then value of the duchy, were removed from English hands. When Philip VI came to the throne in 1328 the revenues of the entire duchy were sequestrated until Edward's performance of homage in the following year. Even after this, tensions hardly relaxed. An attack on Gascony was planned by the French and expected by the English in 1329-30; Philip VI sought support among the Gascon nobility; and a third 'peace conference', the Process of Agen, which sat from 1331 to 1334 to deal with claims for compensation and restitution arising from the war, broke up without agreement.
The aftermath of the Saint-Sardos war thus inaugurated a new and colder phase in Anglo-French relations which was a direct prelude to the Hundred Years War. After the earlier war of 1294-7 Gascony had been restored to its English duke, as we have seen. Philip IV's objective was most probably the full exploitation of his rights of overlordship, rather than the permanent confiscation of the duchy. After the Saint-Sardos war, however, the duchy was restored only in part. The retention of the Agenais throughout the early 1330s, and the concomitant military manoeuvrings, implied a more overtly expansionist French policy which had the absorption of Gascony into the French realm as its ultimate aim. But even at this stage war might yet have been deferred or avoided, had it not been for the introduction of a third force into the relations of the great powers. That force was Scotland.
Scotland and France were old allies. Formally linked by treaty in 1295, they had renewed their alliance in the Treaty of Corbeil of 1326, by which each promised military aid to the other against the king of England. This pact reflected the nervousness of both parties in the absence of any firm peace with their common enemy, for at that time both the Anglo-Scottish war and the recent Anglo-French conflict were checked only by truces and not by treaties. Arising from these short-term needs, the treaty came to have much larger consequences in the period following the renewal of English intervention in Scotland in 1332. In that year the 'disinherited' English nobles, who had been excluded from their Scottish lands by the Anglo- Scottish Treaty of Northampton of 1328, won a great victory. They defeated the Scots in battle at Dupplin Moor and allowed Edward Balliol to displace David Bruce as king of Scot- land. Edward's own intervention followed in 1333, leading to a second and greater defeat for the Scots at Halidon Hill and, in May 1334, to David Bruce's flight to France. There, Philip VI stood by his ally: he announced to an English embassy, then in Paris to negotiate on the Agenais question and other Gascon disputes, that there could be no peace unless Scotland was included.
This was a crucial step on the path to war. French recalcitrance over Gascony, confirmed by Philip VI's declaration, was now linked with the French defence of the Scottish cause, in a conflict which Edward could not honourably abandon yet which he was far from winning. Despite successive campaigns and prodigious expenditure in the years after Halidon Hill, Edward lacked both the men and money to put down Scottish resistance. Philip's assertion of support for David Bruce not only threatened to stiffen that resistance but also to open England to foreign attack. As early as 1333 the French had been planning naval raids on England; further schemes were afoot in 1335 and 1336 to send a large naval force either to Scotland or England; and some troops may actually have reached Scotland. The clinching of the Franco-Scottish alliance in 1334 had thus brought with it, for the first time since John's reign, a serious danger of French invasion; all the more serious because it threatened a state whose resources were dangerously extended in both Scotland and Gascony.
Philip was not alone in attempting to make common cause with his enemy's enemies during these years. Edward himself was beginning to play the same game, seeking support among rulers hostile or potentially hostile to France, and offering encouragement to some of the many dissidents who declined to accept Valois kingship. It was a game which he was to play with spectacular success during the 1340s and 1350s, and, like Philip's support for the Scots, it already threatened to turn a limited and containable rivalry into a much larger conflagration. In 1335 some of the princes of the Low Countries, disturbed by Philip's growing influence in their area and attracted by Edward's burgeoning military reputation after Halidon Hill, offered their services to him in the Scottish war. At the same time Edward was negotiating for marriage alliances with the rulers of Austria and Castile, neither of them friendly to Valois pretensions, and was about to open negotiations with others in the Low Countries. But the most significant of the malcontents whom Edward attracted was undoubtedly Robert of Artois. Robert had long claimed the county of Artois, held from France, against his aunt, Matilda, who ruled there from 1302 until her death in '1330. Philip VI had refused to accept his claim, and when Matilda died Robert was accused of her murder. He had fled, first to Brabant, and then in 1334 to England. Two years later he was declared an enemy of the French kingdom. Edward's continuing support for the fugitive greatly embittered Anglo-French relations: it was an open breach of his feudal obligations, made more offensive by Robert's apparent advocacy of military measures against the French.
From 1331 to 1336, however, these gathering differences were held in check by a project perhaps even more central to Philip VI's ambitions than his pursuit of Edward: his plans for a crusade. A successful crusade for the recovery of the Holy Land would vindicate Philip's kingship by reasserting the long Capetian tradition of crusade leadership and by confirming the French king as the leading monarch of Christendom. If the crusade was an expression of Philip's piety, it was also an aspect of his secular and expansionist aspirations, bearing comparison with his intervention in Gascony, Scotland and the Low Countries. To promote it he set up a committee to deal with crusading affairs, negotiated with the pope for the raising of funds, gathered war- horses, ships and supplies, and sought the support of his nobility.
These activities, and the end to which they were directed, made it impossible for Philip to act with vigorous singlemindedness against Edward III, for all his sabre-rattling over Gascony and Scotland. Not only did he lack the resources to mount more than one large enterprise, but Edward continued to pose, though with diminishing sincerity after 1333, as a potential crusading ally. In March 1336, however, these material and moral constraints were suddenly swept away. Pope Benedict XlI, fearing misappropriation of crusading funds by the French, continuing divisions among the feuding states of the west, and the resultant failure of the crusade, cancelled the expedition. Philip's transfer of his crusading fleet from the Mediterranean to the Channel a few months later is traditionally seen as the immediate preliminary to the outbreak of war; and rightly so. For the first time he was free to throw the full weight of his resources against Edward, and a full-scale invasion of England became a probability.
If the position of the English Crown in Gascony was the ultimate cause of the Hundred Years War, and if the Franco-Scottish alliance, the threat of a French invasion, and Edward's support for Robert of Artois were among its short-term causes, then Edward's claim to the throne of France was the final step which precipitated conflict. It provided a way out of the impasse which seemed likely to thwart Edward's military and diplomatic plans in the mid 1330s; but it is hard to think that it did more than that or that the war was in origin the dynastic conflict which it was to become. The claim arose from the death of Charles IV, the last of Philip IV's sons, in 1328. There were two possible contenders for the throne now vacated by the Capetians: Philip of Valois, nephew of Philip IV, and Edward III, grandson of Philip through his mother, Isabella. If the claim could be transmitted through the female (and here there was little guidance in law or precedent), then Edward had the better right. Edward's case had been put forward in 1328, but it had not been pressed, and, as we have seen, Philip had succeeded. Edward had virtually no support in France (even his father-in- law, William of Hainault, favoured Philip), and as a boy of sixteen under the tutelage of his unpopular mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, the puppet ruler of an uneasy kingdom, neither at home or abroad did he appear as a credible alternative to Philip.
Philip's victory over the succession was driven home by a demand for homage. Edward reluctantly complied in two stages, performing simple homage for Gascony in 1329, and then in 1331 acknowledging the stronger bond of liege homage. Philip had driven Edward into this long retreat through pressure on Gascony, first confiscating all its revenues until homage had been done and consistently threatening the confiscation of the entire fief – the normal and legal remedy for a lord whose vassal denied homage – until Edward had recognised his full feudal obligations. These transactions must have emphasised the bargaining power which Philip's overlordship of Gascony placed in his hands. After 1331 Edward's claim to the throne hardly remained even latent, for it seemed to have been effectively disavowed by his liege homage. Philip had apparently used his feudal control over Gascony with some skill in order to obliterate any possible threat to his throne.
Soon, however, the relative positions of the two kings would be reversed, and Philip would find himself facing a rival who saw the occupation of the French throne as the best means to the defence of Gascony. During 1336 and 1337 all the issues which had embittered Anglo-French relations for the previous decade came to a head. The move of the French crusading fleet to the Channel was followed in the summer and autumn of 1336 by attacks on the Channel Islands and on English shipping off the Isle of Wight.
A further and expensive English campaign in Scotland had brought no substantial gains. A French descent on England and direct intervention on the side of the Scots seemed to be very close. Negotiations in Paris concerning. Gascony, Scotland and the crusade had once again come to nothing. Papal efforts to make peace delayed war for a few months, but could not avert it. The parliament of March 1337 gave its sanction to an expedition for the recovery of the Agenais. The final break came in May, when Philip VI declared Gascony confiscate, using as a pretext the support which his vassal, Edward III, had given to his enemy, Robert of Artois.
In the end the feudal relationship created in 1259 was thus the lever which turned contention into war. Edward's response was to issue letters of defiance, so cutting the link with his feudal suzerain, and to address them to 'Philip of Valois, who calls himself king of France'. This was both a denial of Edward's homage and, at the same time, an implicit claim to the French throne (though it was not until October that the claim was formally made). It was easy enough for his lawyers to argue later that his earlier acts of homage were invalid, since they had been performed without Edward's free con- sent and during his minority. No longer the rebellious vassal, Edward had cut through the tangle of feudal constraints which had enmeshed English relations with France for nearly eighty years.
War came in 1337 because of Edward's need to defend Gascony and his own country from foreign invasion. His claim to the French throne was a riposte both to the increasingly uncompromising and aggressive use of French power during the previous decade and to the related difficulties brought by his own aggression in Scotland. More provocative and less cautious than his grandfather Edward I, his support for Robert of Artois showed that he was not prepared to see his choice of allies shackled by feudal limitations. Yet it is doubtful if Edward himself saw the opening of war as a mere defensive reaction to threatening circumstances; for him it was a response to opportunity as well as to danger. He was, as the author of the Scalacronica had said, 'eager for arms and glory'. His victories in Scotland, however disappointing their aftermath, had shown him how greatly a king's reputation might be enhanced by success in battle. They were the talk of western Europe, and he seemed well placed to repeat them. He was practised in tournaments, and had deserved and won the support of his nobles. His bestowal of a dukedom on his eldest son and earldoms on six of his closest followers at the parliament of March 1337 had been a token of his partnership with his great men.
To both king and magnates the impending conflict promised chivalric enterprise, adventure, fame and riches. The world was all before them; and it was in this spirit that they went to war.
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