Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

France: The Hundred Years' War

Crey and the Siege of Calais

The first important victory of the Hundred Years' War was that of Crey. There the hungry, ragged English archers and foot soldiers, rough men of the people, laid low the chivalry of France.

Crey was more than a victory, it was the beginning of a military and social revolution. It showed that the feudal army was hopelessly behind the times, hopelessly inefficient when confronted with science. The superb courage of the French noble was of no avail when confronted with the superior arms and skill of the English peasant. The French at Crey never got within striking distance of the English, they could not show their prowess with sword or spear, for the arrows of the common soldier laid them low, and their splendid but weighty armour was of no avail against steel-pointed shafts sped with the force of iron muscles.

Hitherto war had been the profession and the pastime of the great. The knight or noble, superbly mounted and clad in glittering steel, had alone counted in battle. To him had been all the honour and glory. The poor man's part had been but to suffer, to see his crops laid low, his cattle slaughtered or driven off, his home laid in ruins. And of his suffering no man took note. He was there to suffer. Crey was one of the turning-points in the lives of great and humble alike. Henceforth the gospel of the nobility of the sword was no longer received with perfect faith.

From Crey Edward marched his victorious little army to Calais, to which he straightway laid siege. From the commercial side of the campaign Calais was a most important place: for it was from this port that the French corsairs sailed which did so much damage to English trade.

Archers, however, deadly though they were in a pitched battle, were useless against the enormous stone walls of a medieval fortress. The clumsy engines of assault made to sling stones were hardly of more avail. Gunpowder, indeed, had lately been discovered, and the English dragged two or three cannons about with them; but they were small and quite powerless against the tremendous masonry of the walls.

The only means then of taking the town was by starvation. With dogged determination the English set about it, and after eleven months Calais yielded.

Edward at once turned Calais into an English colony, settling it with several thousand English merchants and their families. It very quickly became of immense importance, both from a military and a commercial point of view. It was henceforth through this town that English armies were poured into France, and being on the borders of Flanders it became also the centre of distribution for the wool trade. For two hundred years it remained an English possession in spite of strenuous efforts on the part of the French to recover it. When at length it was regained, the loss made little difference to England. It was only of value to them during the aggressive and wholly unjustifiable wars of the Middle Ages.

For some years the pope, Clement VI, had been trying to mediate between the kings of France and England. But he had joined with his efforts an endeavour to extend his power over the English Church, and Edward had received his advances coldly. Now, however, pleased with the result of his campaign, he listened to Clement, and a nine months' truce was signed. But no lasting peace could come of it. For Edward, flushed with victory, was not in a mood to resign any of his claims; he still called himself king of France and denied Philip's right to the title.

But the truce was destined to last longer and men were to have little heart for war. In 1348 a pest, more baneful even than the sword, swept over Europe from the East. This dreadful pestilence, known as the Black Death, wiped out in France and England nearly a half of the population.

Battle of Poitiers

In 1350 Philip VI died and was succeeded by his son John. Under him the war continued, and ten years after Crey the battle of Poitiers was fought. Except that the pride of chivalry suffered an even greater defeat it was but a repetition of Crey. At Poitiers King John of France had one of the most magnificent of feudal armies about him. All he had to do was to surround the little English army brought against him, and starve it into surrender.

But that was not the chivalrous manner of waging war. The nobles were anxious to wipe out the shame of Crey in brilliant fashion. Merely to starve an army into surrender could bring no renown. So once again the chivalry of France pitted itself against the English peasantry. Once again the uselessness of unscientific courage was proved, and the knight went down before the churl.

The flower of French nobility lay dead upon the field. The king himself was taken prisoner to England, there "to enjoy the insolent courtesy" of his captors. But in spite of Crey, in spite of Poitiers, the conquest of France was as far off as ever. Every feudal castle was a fortress, and the development of the art of fortification had far outdistanced the invention of siege machines. Almost the only means of reducing a fortress was by starvation or by treachery. An army might sit down for months before a fortress, and when at last the endurance of the defenders was exhausted and they yielded, the conquerors only found themselves master of a few more miles of territory, and the business of reducing the next fortress had to be begun.

Even had it been possible by siege after siege to win the country it would have been impossible to hold it. After a time then, weary of sieges, the English left the cities alone and ravished the land, making it a desert. For four years they marched up and down practically unhindered, burning, plundering, and destroying, until the once rich country was a wilderness of ashes and blood-stained ruins.

The Black Death had already carried off hundreds and thousands, and added to this the land was torn by civil wars, the nobles fighting among themselves, and the peasants, driven mad by misery, rising against the nobles.

Treaty of Bretigny

The unhappy people, pushed at length to desperation, yielded to Edward's demands, and by the Treaty of Bretigny half of France south of the Loire was given up to the English. It was given, too, not as a fief but to be held outright "in the manner in which the kings of France had held it." On his side Edward resigned his claim to the throne of France, and for a time there was peace.

It was, however, only exhaustion which had made France yield to the English yoke. Nine years later, when the country had to some extent recovered from that exhaustion, Charles V, who had succeeded his father in 1364, found an excuse for rejecting the Treaty of Bretigny, and the Hundred Years' War broke out again. It now entered upon a new phase. Edward III had to a great extent lost his Flemish allies, he was old, and his great general and son, the Black Prince, was ill. On the French side Charles V, the politic and not over-chivalrous king, was aided by the military genius of Du Guesclin. So, for a time, all went well with France, and misfortune after misfortune pursued the English, until at length little of Edward's conquests remained save Bordeaux, Bayonne, and Calais.

But Charles V died at the age of forty-six, leaving his son, a child of twelve, to succeed him, and France fell once more on evil days. During the minority of Charles VI the country was torn by strife between the nobles, who quarrelled for the power of regent. Then he, scarce grown to manhood, became insane, and once more the country drifted fast into civil war.

Renewal of the War by Henry V

It was then that Henry V, the young and ambitious king of England, determined to reassert the English claim to the crown of France. Once again at Agincourt the story of Crey and of Poitiers was repeated, and fifteen thousand English archers defeated an army of fifty thousand knights and nobles. After this prodigious victory Henry's army was, however, too exhausted to do more, and he led it back to England.

In spite of the English menace civil war continued in France. When Henry returned with a fresh army he was encouraged by the rebels, and in 1420 the poor, mad king was forced to sign the Treaty of Troyes. By this Treaty Charles VI gave his daughter Catharine in marriage to Henry, and acknowledged him as his heir, thus disinheriting his own son Charles, and making a gift of the French crown to a foreigner.

Henry, however, never became king of France, for he died in 1422 a little less than two months before his father-in-law. And although upon the death of Charles VI the baby king of England, Henry VI, was proclaimed in Paris as in England, many of the French rejected him. The Dauphin also was proclaimed as Charles VII, and the miserable war dragged on.

France 1350 A.D.