History Lesson: The Hundred Years’ War (And Another 200 Years Before it)

Good evening, Dear Readers! We started rehearsals for our upcoming performance of Henry V today, and oh man am I excited about it. Henry V, as I intimated in my last blog post, is one of Shakespeare’s Histories, which means there is more context to the story than usual. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream or King Lear or any other non-history play you care to mention all that you need to know is whatever exposition some ancillary character or Chorus analogue ham-fistedly delivers in the first few scenes. These stories are self-contained, just as Aristotle would like. But the Histories are real events, hence the name, so it is helpful to have additional background on what was happening around the events of the play. Since my job around here these days is basically Head Stuff Knower (a title I have wanted all my life) I have spent the last few weeks teaching myself all about what was happening around the reign of Henry V, and it turns out that was the Hundred Years’ War. So I hope you guys want to read about a centuries-long dynastic conflict as much as I want to write about it!

It all started, as English histories are wont to, in 1066 with William the Conqueror (nee Bastard) crossing the Channel, defeating Harold Godwinson, subjugating the Anglo-Saxons, and establishing the Norman dynasty in England. This conquest established William as the King of England, though he remained the Duke of Normandy. The Duchy of Normandy was technically a fief of the King of France, which means that the King of England was, in his office as the Duke of Normandy, a subject of the French Crown. This is obviously a less than ideal circumstance for a king to be in, but it was tolerable for a time while the king of France was not powerful enough to exert control over the nobles over whom he was suzerain.

This circumstance was complicated by Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1137 she married the soon-to-be King Louis VII of France but bore him only daughters. In 1152 he sought and received an annulment technically on the grounds that they were like 4th cousins but really because she kept having daughters. Then, in 1154, she married King Henry II of England and shortly thereafter bore him five sons, among them King Richard I Lionheart [there is no evidence to support this, and frankly biology is against me here, but I assume she did so out of spite -KH]. In addition to securing Henry II’s bloodline and beginning the Plantagenet dynasty, this highly advantageous marriage wed her substantial holdings in south and central France to his in Normandy and England, creating the Angevin empire which for a time controlled more French land than the king of France.

This empire was not to last, however. One of England’s greatest and most heroic kings, Richard I, was followed by one of her weakest, King John. You may know him as John Lackland, for losing Normandy and other continental holdings. You may know him as John Softsword, for a lack of martial virtue and…alleged marital issues. You may even know him as the king who was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and usher in the era of constitutionality.

Too Late To Be Known As John the First.jpg

But probably you know him as this guy. From Disney’s Robin Hood, 1973.

In any case, John lost England all of her continental holdings, save Aquitaine and Gascony, in the early 13th century. Smash cut to ~100 years in the future, to the reign of Edward II (he was the fey, foppish prince in Braveheart whose lover is defenestrated by Edward I Longshanks). He married Isabella, princess of France, in an ill-conceived effort to unify their feuding nations. Edward II is otherwise unremarkable for our purposes, though I would be remiss if I did not mention that he was apocryphally killed by a red-hot poker being inserted into his anus, presumably in reference to his alleged homosexuality.

Meanwhile, in France King Charles IV has died without male issue, ending the 400-year-old house of Capet as the rulers of France. The throne was claimed by Philip VI, Charles’ first cousin and count of Valois. But Edward III contested the throne, asserting that his claim (through his mother Isabella, Charles IV’s older sister) is more valid than Philip’s, which is through his grandfather. Philip’s claim, however, is entirely through the male line, while Edward’s passes through a woman, which the “Law Salique” forbids. Edward did not choose to accept this interpretation, as you might imagine, and declared war to take what is rightfully his. Finally, some 800 words into this blog post, the Hundred Years’ War has begun.

I should clear up a couple things about the war before we get into it. First, it is longer than 100 years; the opening action takes place in 1337 and its final action is in 1453, so in reality it lasted almost 120 years. Second, as you will soon see, it was not the beginning of Anglo-French discord, nor was it the end. France and England hated each other, UNC/Duke-like, from the time of William the Conqueror to shortly before the First World War. Third, it was not, as it might sound, a straight century-plus of nonstop warfare across the green fields of France. It was raids, proxy wars, border conflicts, a handful of campaigns of conquest, and long periods of peace. I do not have the time to go as deep as it demands (people can, and have, written entire books about what I just summarized in 5 paragraphs), so I will try to hit highlights and important facts for our purposes.

Go Tar Heels.jpg

Go Tar Heels.

The war opened with great success for the English. At the Battle of Sluys in 1340 the English navy utilized inventive tactics and advanced technology to crush a numerically superior French force (this will be a theme). The French navy was obliterated and the English ruled the waves for the next 30 or so years. In 1346, Edward and his son the Black Prince launched a chevauchee across northern France to destroy the French’s capacity to make war and demoralize the French populace. They were caught near Crécy by an army led by Philip and King John the Blind of Bohemia, who outnumbered them approximately 3:1. The English army was made up predominantly of longbowmen and they shattered the French; around 2,000 knights are killed, including King John of Bohemia, and who-knows how many French commoners, while the English lost around 300 men. Eight years later the Black Prince is leading another chevauchee when he is caught near the city of Poitiers by a French army led by the new French King, Jean II. Again the French outnumbered them at least 2:1, and again the result was a crushing defeat for the French, including the capture of their king, whose ransom was set at the preposterous sum of 3 million crowns, twice France’s annual income. The dauphin [the French name for their heir apparent, for reasons passing understanding -KH] arranged the Treaty of Bretigny, which in 1360 granted the English suzerainty of much of Southern and Western France in exchange for the English renunciation of their claim to the French throne. So, war solved, I suppose.

Dewey Defeats Truman

Guess again. Pictured: President Harry S. Truman.

Oh, if only it were so simple. After some proxy wars fought in Brittany and Spain, in 1369 new French king Charles V declared war after the Black Prince (ruling in Aquitaine) refused to answer summons by Charles to Paris. England was stymied by an aging Edward III and an ill Black Prince, while France had recruited somewhat of a genius in Bertrand du Guesclin (this, too, is a theme). Guesclin had noted that when the French and the English met on the field, the French were destroyed, so he avoided pitched battles wherever possible and outmaneuvered the English army, seizing lightly-held cities where possible and gradually retaking French territory but never engaging. In addition, the French with Castilian aid had rebuilt their fleet and defeated an English squadron at the Battle of La Rochelle in 1372, lessening England’s control of the seas. By 1380 Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and Charles V were all dead and the underage Richard II and Charles VI were the rulers of England and France, respectively, but this period of the war technically continued until 1389.

This is where Shakespeare comes in. Richard II starts after Richard has ruled for some time, and it traces the exile of Henry Bolingbroke, the death of John of Gaunt (Henry’s father and Richard’s uncle), and Bolingbroke’s deposition of Richard and accession to the throne as Henry IV. Henry IV fights the Percy rebellion and fathers a dissolute son named Hal, who discovers his true knightly purpose after fighting in Wales, where he gets hit by an arrow right square in the face. He takes the throne as Henry V in 1413, though not without a checkered past and a big gnarly arrow scar. Meanwhile some other stuff that is thoroughly confusing and not pertinent to Shakespeare happens in France; suffice it to say that France is as divided as it has ever been. Henry V reopens hostilities in 1415, resurrecting Edward’s claim to the throne and sailing to Harfleur.

Henry V Ugly Version

Henry V of England, by unknown painter, 1520.    Our Henry will be much handsomer.

Henry V has a different plan in mind than his predecessors. Unlike Edward III and the Black Prince, Henry’s goal was to conquer and rule all of France, not simply win concessions or “some petty and unprofitable dukedoms” from its nobility. He set out not simply to raid but to conquer and hold. To that end he besieged Harfleur and after a lengthy siege took it. Returning overland to the English-held port of Calais he was caught near Agincourt by a numerically superior French army, who you would think would know better by now. Henry was outnumbered 5:1 at least but clever application of longbows allowed him to slaughter by the thousands, for the third time in a century, the flower of French chivalry.

Henry V was seemingly unstoppable on the field, and he also secured a powerful ally in the Duke of Burgundy. After another couple successful campaigns they forced the signing in 1419 of the Treaty of Troyes, under which Henry is wed to Charles VI’s daughter Katherine, the dauphin is declared illegitimate, and Henry’s children are understood to be the rulers of both England and France. But then Henry died in 1422 at the age of 36, leaving an infant son in the hands of a regency council, and shortly thereafter the wheels began to come off the English wagon.

The dauphin and his followers understandably did not accept the conditions of the Treaty of Troyes. In 1428 he gained some unlooked-for help when a maid named Joan of Arc appeared, claiming to be sent by God, and assisted him in breaking the Siege of Orleans. She attended the coronation of the dauphin and accompanied the French army until her capture and execution for heresy in 1431. Shakespeare elected to portray her as a literal witch, consorting with literal devils, for her appearance in Henry VI, in case you were wondering the English opinion of her [though she did count the world’s first serial killer as part of her retinue, so maybe Billy Shakes wasn’t as off-base as I thought -KH]. Charles’ cause was further aided by the professionalization of artillery under Jean and Gaspard Bureau starting in 1434, the defection and separate peace forged with the Burgundians in 1435, and the absence of a strong English leader. Charles continued to retake ground throughout the mid 1400s and in 1453, with the help of the Bureau Brothers’ cannons, he defeated John Talbot at the Battle of Castillon, the final battle of the 100 Years’ War. The French Crown had regained every piece of French land with the exception of Calais, which would remain in English hands until the middle of the 16th century.

VJ Kiss

V-J Day in Times Square. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Unknown man and (probably) Greta Friedman

::deep breath:: And there you have it. A hilariously brief 2000 words on the history of one of the longest conflicts in human history. 300 years of historical context for a 90-minute play that takes place over about three months but is only about one night and the following day. 10 books and 15 articles of history, sociology, literary criticism, and punk rock ideology crammed into my head to turn into some 10-page pamphlets and however many blog posts my contract says I am obligated to write. 1500 combined hours of rehearsal to turn into 16 performances. Let’s get to work.

Advertisements