The Hundred Years war commenced in 1337 as these things do with an exchange of views about the import of wool into Flanders. Nor were the English terribly happy that the French were encouraging the Scots to rebel so Edward III put his thinking hat on and came up with his family tree. His mother, was of course, Isabella of France a.k.a. the She-wolf. England didn’t have a salic law and Edward couldn’t see that the fact that the French prohibited women from inheriting the throne being a particular problem. He calmly announced that although he had supported Philip of Valois in 1328 when Charles IV had died without sons that he had decided, upon careful reflection, that his own claim was a better one.
The war kicked off with a few cross-channel raids. In 1340 things changed. The English navy defeated the French at Sluys ensuring control of the English Channel or La Manche as the french prefer to call it. This was followed by a full scale invasion of France by an English army of 12,000 of whom more than half were longbow men. These men were veterans of the Scottish campaigns. The English enjoyed a holiday in Normandy doing what medieval soldiers did – think pillage and rape.
The French massed their army of 12,000 plus 6,000 or so mercenaries with crossbows. It should also be added that there were huge numbers of peasants who’d been pressed into service as foot soldiers – so plenty of bill hooks and scythes in evidence. Philip moved this army to the Somme thinking to place Edward at a disadvantage.
Edward ignored the water hazard and made for the top of a hill where he divided his force into three groups and instructed them to dig ditches and plant sharpened stakes in the ground. The French had not encountered the power of the longbow men against foot soldiers or cavalry before but it was this battle that made their name and ensured that the weapon came to dominate the war. By the end of the afternoon the French had been soundly beaten.
In other news of the battle the Black Prince, a sixteen-year-old novice at warfare, was in charge of the English right flank and when it looked as though the French might be successful at that end of the battlefield the king told his commanders to let his son get on with it – something of a steep learning curve. It was in this battle that the blind King of Bohemia managed to get himself killed along with the King of Majorca and a thousand or so French knights. Philip of Valois was lucky to escape capture.
Our account of the battle comes from Froissart who was born in 1337 or thereabouts so not on the scene of the battle itself but employed at the age of twenty-four by Phillipa of Hainault (Edward III’s lady wife) in a literary capacity. He is recorded as making careful research and asking lots of questions before putting quill to parchment– he’s also more or less the only detailed chronicler of events. For his report of events click on the picture at the start of this post to open up a new window. The picture is an illustration from Froissart’s Chronicles.
It is worth remembering that the Hundred Years War is the backdrop to the reign of Richard II, the social unrest of his reign and his deposition by Henry IV. It returns to the forefront of popular history with King Henry V of Agincourt fame and his marriage to Katherine of Valois and lingers during much of Henry VI’s reign- think Joan of Arc- resulting ultimately in Richard of York becoming decidedly aggrieved about Henry VI’s reliance upon the Beauforts and Margaret of Anjou’s advice. Henry VI’s failure to repeat his father’s victories and the decades of constant warfare are all part of the fateful mix that contribute to the Wars of the Roses. And, of course without Katherine of Valois and a certain Clerk of the Wardrobe there would have been no Henry Tudor.