Hundred Years' War: The History from Feudal Clashes to National Unity

Hundred Years' War: Shifting from Feudal Conflict to Nationalism

The Hundred Years' War, spanning from 1337 to 1453, stands as a pivotal series of conflicts between England and France during the Late Middle Ages (AD 1300 to 1500). Rooted in feudal disputes and power struggle between the two dynasties, the war was burned by Edward III of England's claim to the French throne in 1340. Over its duration, the conflict evolved into a multifaceted struggle encompassing military, economic, and political dimensions, fueled by emerging nationalist sentiments on both sides. Despite being labelled a "Hundred Years' War," the conflict spanned 116 years, marked by irregular clashes and truces, intervened by external factors like the Black Death.


The image depicts King Edward III of England crossing the Somme river in 1346 during his military campaign in the Hundred Years' War against France.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Edward III Crossing the Somme



Five generations of kings from rival dynasties fought for control of France, raising the advance of stronger national identities in both kingdoms, and the emergence of France and England as global powers. While English forces initially dominated, the French monarchy, under the House of Valois, ultimately reclaimed control over France.

Notably, English kings and queens had continued to use the title "King/Queen of France" as part of their official styles, even though they had not actually controlled any territory in mainland France since the 15th century. This was largely a symbolic claim that dated back to the Hundred Years' War between England and France in the medieval period.

During the French Revolution in 1792, the French monarchy was abolished and replaced by the French Republic. Under the reign of King George III of Great Britain and Ireland (1760-1820), Britain eventually recognized the French Republic as part of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, relinquishing its claim to the French throne. Although the French monarchy was briefly restored between 1814 and 1848, subsequent British monarchs did not pursue the claim to the French throne. This recognition marked the official end of the English monarchs' historical claim to the French crown, even if the title had been mostly symbolic in the preceding centuries.

In this article, we will explore the background and causes of the Hundred Years' War between England and France during the Late Middle Ages, and its consequences that formally continued until 1802 in terms of the geopolitical rivalry between the two kingdoms.

To understand the roots of the Hundred Years' War, we need to learn a bit about the history of Normandy, the Angevin Empire, Aquitaine and the clash of power between the two dynasties given below. This will help us grasp the complexities of the events.


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Two main factors started the conflict: first, the duchy of Guyenne (or Aquitaine) was owned by the kings of England but was still a feudal estate of the French crown, and the English kings wanted full control over it. Second, the English kings claimed the French crown from 1337, as they were the closest relatives of the last Capetian king, Charles IV, who died in 1328.

Normandy's Journey from France to England and Back:

Today's Normandy is part of France, but thousands of years ago it was not. The kings of the predecessor kingdoms of France left the region to escape the Viking invasion. The natives of the Vikings were called Northmen, which gradually became corrupted into Normans (Germanic tribes). Accordingly, the region became known as Normandy.

We must state here that following the collapse of Roman authority in the West, several powerful Germanic groups established new kingdoms on the ruins of the empire, including: The Visigoths in Spain and southern France, the Ostrogoths and Lombards in Italy, the Franks in what is now France and parts of Germany, and the Anglo-Saxons in Britain.

It should also be remembered that England and France did not emerge as colonial powers at the time being talked about; rather they were just emerging as European superpowers. Both sides are trying to expand their empire across the English Channel.

Normandy's journey from France to England began with Viking settlers who, in the early 10th century, established themselves in the region. In 911, the French King Charles the Simple granted the Viking leader Rollo land in what became known as Normandy, creating a duchy that remained part of the French kingdom. This changed in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, famously conquered England and became King William I, also known as William the Conqueror. Normandy thus came under the control of the English crown, as William retained his duchy while ruling England.

For over a century, Normandy was a critical part of the English kingdom, strengthening the ties between the two regions. In 1204, during the reign of King John of England, these tensions culminated in King Philip II of France seizing Normandy. This marked the end of English rule over Normandy, as the duchy was permanently reclaimed by the French crown.

Despite attempts by the English to retake Normandy during the Hundred Years’ War, the region remained firmly under French control. The Treaty of Paris in 1259 had acknowledged the loss of Normandy to the French, and the efforts to regain it were ultimately unsuccessful. Besides, the Treaty of Paris required English kings to pay homage to French monarchs for continental territories, straining their relationship and contributing to the Hundred Years' War. By the mid-15th century, with the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, Normandy's status as part of France was solidified, ending its journey between the two crowns.

The Rise of the Angevin Empire:

In 1066, the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded and took control of England, making it part of the wider Norman world. About 90 years later, in 1154, Henry Plantagenet, who was part of the Angevin dynasty that ruled the Duchy of Anjou in France, became King Henry II of England. Henry II had a claim to the English throne through his mother, Matilda, who was the daughter of King Henry I of England and the rightful heir, but had been denied the throne during the civil war with King Stephen. During the civil war known as "The Anarchy" between Matilda and Stephen, both sides eventually recognized that a lasting peace required a resolution of the succession, paving the way for Henry II to take the throne. Remarkably, in 1154 Henry II also gained control of the Duchy of Aquitaine by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine.


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As the new King, Henry II was able to unite the Angevin domains in France (Anjou, Normandy and Aquitaine) with the Kingdom of England, laying the foundations for the powerful Angevin Empire. Under Henry II and later Angevin kings, the King of England built a large empire that stretched across the English Channel, including England and large parts of western France. This big Angevin empire, with its many different territories and titles, became known as the Angevin Empire, and it was a major power in Western Europe in the 1100s and 1200s. The House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou or the Angevin dynasty, ruled England for 331 years, from 1154 to 1485.

Aquitaine's Journey from France to England and Back:

In 1137, Aquitaine became part of France when Duke William X died without a male heir, leaving his daughter, Eleanor, to marry Louis VII of France. Before Duke William X died in 1137, Aquitaine was an independent duchy within the Kingdom of France.

However, this union was short-lived, as Eleanor divorced Louis in 1152 and married Henry Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou. When Henry ascended to the English throne as King Henry II in 1154, Aquitaine was transferred to English control through this marriage. This second marriage transferred Aquitaine to English control, sparking a significant territorial and political rivalry between France and England. 

Henry later transferred Aquitaine to his son, Richard the Lion-Heart, who dedicated a significant portion of his life in the region to ensure peace and security with local lords. After Richard died in 1199, Aquitaine went back to Eleanor until she died in 1204. Then it joined with the English crown.

When England controlled Aquitaine, it stretched from the Loire River to the Pyrenees Mountains. They started calling it Guyenne, which came from the name Aquitaine, around the 10th century. This period marked Aquitaine’s significant intertwining with the histories of Gascony and Guyenne. Gascony and Guyenne were neighboring regions with similar cultural and historical backgrounds. They shared political ties and often cooperated in various matters. In the 11th century, Gascony was merged with Aquitaine (or Guyenne), forming the province of Guyenne-et-Gascogne. The region remained under English control until the mid-15th century when, following the Hundred Years’ War, Aquitaine was fully reunited with France.

Angevin Expansion: Sowing the Seeds of the Hundred Years' War

The root cause of the conflict between England and France was the expansion of the Angevin dynasty's territories on the European continent. Through a series of strategic marriages and inheritances, the Angevin kings of England were able to gain control over several independent duchies located across the English Channel in what is now France. Specifically, when Henry Plantagenet (the future Henry II) became King of England in 1154, he also controlled the Angevin domains of Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. This union of the Kingdom of England and these significant French territories under the Angevin dynasty laid the foundations for the powerful Angevin Empire.
The concentration of so much land and power in the hands of the Angevin kings of England, who were foreign rulers from the perspective of the French crown, created immense territorial and political tensions between England and the Kingdom of France. This set the stage for the eventual outbreak of the Hundred Years' War, as the French efforts to weaken and divide the Angevins’ continental lands and regain control over the Angevin-held domains within France.

Hundred Years' War: Clash between Valois and Plantagenet Dynasties

The Hundred Years' War represents a prolonged and intricate conflict over hereditary claim and control between the House of Valois (French royal dynasty) and the House of Plantagenet (English royal dynasty), representing the feudalist social and political structure of the medieval period. This conflict reshaped the political landscape of medieval France and England, leaving a lasting legacy.

Claim to the French Throne and Initial Conflicts:

The war's origins trace back to the death of Charles IV of France in 1328, which left no male heirs. Edward III of England (1312 –1377), a Plantagenet, claimed the French throne based on his descent from the French kings through his mother, Isabella. However, this claim was rejected by the French nobility, who favored Philip VI (reigning period: 1328-1350) of the Valois dynasty.

Edward III’s Campaigns and Early Victories:

Edward III's efforts to assert his claim included forming alliances with Flanders (a Germanic ethnic group) and the princes of the Holy Roman Empire, though these proved costly and largely ineffective. His military campaigns began in serious with the invasion of France in 1346, culminating in the pivotal Battle of Crécy, where the Plantagenet forces confirmed a decisive victory. This success allowed Edward to capture Calais, though it did not end the conflict.

Calais was a strategically located port city in northern France, the capture of Calais was a major victory for Edward III, as it gave the English a crucial foothold on the European continent from which they could project power and sustain their war efforts against the French Valois dynasty. Unlike many other French territories that changed hands during the conflict, Calais remained under continuous English control for over 200 years, until it was finally retaken by the French in 1558 during the reign of Queen Mary I of England. During its time as an English possession, Calais gained a special status as an independent duchy, though it remained politically and economically tied to the English crown.

Challenges Faced by John II and the Treaty of Brétigny:

Philip VI's successor, John II, faced numerous challenges, both internal and external. The internal threat came from Charles II of Navarre, while the external threat was posed by Edward III’s son, the Black Prince. John II's capture at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 further weakened the Valois position, leading to the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360, which temporarily settled some disputes but failed to bring lasting peace.

Charles V’s Revival and Charles VI’s Internal Struggles:

The Valois dynasty's situation improved under Charles V, who restarted the war and managed to reclaim French lands that had been lost except for Calais and Gascony, by 1375. However, his son, Charles VI, encountered severe internal strife, including power struggles and periods of madness, leading to the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War. It was a conflict between two branches of the French royal family, the House of Orléans and the House of Burgundy, lasting from 1407 to 1435. 


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This internal turmoil enabled Henry V of England to win the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and force the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which recognized him as the heir to the French throne, depriving the Dauphin Charles. Notably, the Battle of Agincourt, fought on October 25, 1415, despite facing an enemy three to five times their size, the English forces, led by King Henry V, secured a decisive victory over the French. On basis of the strategic importance, and the long-lasting impact of the battle, this battle is considered the biggest and one of the most significant conflicts of the Hundred Years' War.

The treaty was a major victory for England, as it gave them a path to potentially control the French monarchy. However, the French prince, known as the Dauphin, refused to accept the treaty and fought against the English occupation. In the context of this historical period, the term "Dauphin" refers to the title held by the heir apparent to the French throne from 1350 to 1830. It was the nickname or title given to the eldest son and heir of the King of France.

While Henry VI was officially the King of France according to the Treaty of Troyes, Charles VII was recognized as king by a substantial part of the French population and ruled as such. The dual claims to the French throne continued until the end of the Hundred Years' War, with Charles VII ultimately prevailing and solidifying his reign.

Henry V's Death and the Decline of English Power in France:

After Henry V of England's death in 1422, the Kingdom of England was left in an uncertain position. His infant son, Henry VI, inherited the throne, but due to his young age, a regency was established. The regency was led by Henry V's brothers, John, Duke of Bedford, who managed the war in France, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who took charge of affairs in England.

During Henry VI's minority, England initially maintained its strong position in France. However, several factors led to a decline in English fortunes over the following decades:

Internal Political Struggles: The regency was marked by power struggles and factionalism within the English court. The rivalry between the Dukes of Gloucester and Beaufort, as well as other nobles, weakened the central authority. Renewed French Resistance: Under the leadership of Charles VII of France, and bolstered by the inspirational role of Joan of Arc, the French forces began to reclaim territories. Joan of Arc's successful lifting of the siege of Orléans in 1429 and Charles VII's subsequent coronation at Reims were significant turning points. More about Joan of Arc:

Joan of Arc was a young French peasant girl who became a national heroine during the Hundred Years' War between France and England. She claimed to have received visions from saints telling her to help the French king, Charles VII, defeat the English.

Joan led French forces to several key victories, including the lifting of the Siege of Orleans and Charles VII's coronation at Reims. This boosted French morale and helped secure their eventual victory.

She was put on trial for charges like going against the religious beliefs of the church and being accused of practicing magic, and was found guilty. At just 19 years old, she was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431.


Joan of Arc, at 19 years old, is depicted moments before being burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, after being found guilty of heresy and witchcraft by the English and their French collaborators.

Image Credit: Creazilla.com, Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake


Though she was executed, Joan of Arc's story became a powerful symbol of French nationalism and unity. She was later canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1920, solidifying her legacy as a heroine of France.

Military Setbacks: The English suffered several military defeats, leading to the gradual loss of their territories in France. The death of key English leaders, including John, Duke of Bedford, in 1435, further hampered their efforts. Treaty of Arras (1435): This treaty between Charles VII and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, ended the alliance between Burgundy and England, isolating the English forces. Final Defeat: By 1453, the French had successfully conquered most of their territories, leaving the English with only the port of Calais. The last battle of the Hundred Years' War was the Battle of Castillon in 1453, but France and England did not officially end hostilities until the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475. Henry VI's reign continued to be troubled, leading to the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars for control of the English throne between the rival houses of Lancaster and York. Henry VI's eventual removal and the rise of the Yorkist king Edward IV highlighted the instability and challenges that England faced in the aftermath of the Hundred Years' War.

Consequences of the War: A Pillar of Nationalism and Military Innovation

The Hundred Years' War between England and France had significant historical consequences beyond just the dynastic conflict. The war helped foster ideas of nationalism in both countries. It also led to major changes in warfare, with professional armies replacing feudal forces and new weapons and tactics becoming more common.

The war had a profound impact on the two nations involved. In England, the loss of continental territories led to dissatisfaction among the nobility, contributing to the later Wars of the Roses (a series of civil wars fought over control of the English throne). In France, the war brought about civil wars, disease, famine, and the rise of mercenary companies, greatly reducing the population.

The war also left England with a stronger sense of being an island nation (a country separated from the European mainland by the English Channel), which profoundly shaped its outlook and development for centuries to come. Overall, the Hundred Years' War was a transformative event that reshaped the political, military, and social landscapes of both England and France.

Furthermore, the groundwork for modern nationalism was laid during this period, with France being the first country to truly embrace these ideas. The Enlightenment and French Revolution that followed built upon the nationalist sentiments sparked by the Hundred Years' War, paving the way for other regions of Europe to create their own nation-states. 

The Hundred Years' War between England and France was an incredibly deadly conflict. Estimates suggest that between 2.3 and 3.3 million people lost their lives either directly from the fighting or indirectly due to the war's devastating effects. The war also, inspired by medieval literature, poems, and songs, boosted nationalism on both sides. Kings urged their soldiers to fight for their king and country before battles.

Hundred Years' War: Catalyst for English Language Adoption

The history of the English language began in the 5th century AD with the arrival of three Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—who invaded Britain from Denmark and northern Germany. Before their arrival, the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language.

The first French-speaking ruler of England was William the Conqueror, from 11th-century Normandy. His conquest brought the Norman/French language to England, adding over 10,000 words to English, many still in use today. In court, Anglo-Norman was spoken, while the common people continued with English. Over time, these languages merged, creating modern English.

The Hundred Years' War also influenced the English language by fostering nationalism and encouraging the use of English over French. Trades like bakers and shoemakers kept their Anglo-Saxon names, while others like tailors and merchants adopted French names. This blending is evident in food terminology: animals like cows, sheep, and deer have Anglo-Saxon names, but their meat forms—beef, pork, bacon, and venison—are French-derived.

The official use of the English language in England began to rise in status during the reign of Henry V. Around 1430; the Court of Chancery in Westminster started using English in its official documents, marking a significant shift from Norman French.

Although English is the predominant language in England, it is not designated as the official language by law. This is largely due to historical reasons and the fact that English has always been the de facto language of government, education, and daily communication. Consequently, there has been no perceived need to formally establish it as the official language through legislation. English is deeply embedded in all aspects of British life and serves as the primary language for the vast majority of the population, making formal recognition unnecessary. Eventually, the Hundred Years' War played a crucial role in promoting the adoption and use of the English language over French in England.

Conclusion:

The Hundred Years' War, a prolonged and multifaceted conflict between England and France from 1337 to 1453, fundamentally reshaped the medieval European landscape. Originating from feudal disputes and claims to the French throne by English monarchs, the war saw the rise of nationalist sentiments and the consolidation of stronger national identities in both kingdoms. Despite early successes, England's grip on French territories ultimately weakened due to internal strife, military setbacks, and effective French resistance, culminating in the reconquest of nearly all French lands by the Valois dynasty. The war's legacy continued to influence Anglo-French relations and the political dynamics within both nations, paving the way for the modern nation-states of France and England.