The Bloody Throne: 5 Key Battles of the Hundred Years’ War

The Bloody Throne: 5 Key Battles of the Hundred Years’ War

Patrick Lynch - June 24, 2017

Despite the name, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France actually lasted 116 years (1337-1453). It was an intermittent conflict which involved a number of disputes; most notably the legitimate successor to the French Crown. Overall, five generations of kings from Britain and France fought over the right to rule what was the most powerful kingdom in Western Europe at the time.

The background to the war goes back to William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He united England with Normandy and ruled both kingdoms. By the reign of Henry II, England owned a huge tract of land within France, and subsequent kings found it almost impossible to control. Edward III became king in 1327, and by that stage, England only controlled Ponthieu and Gascony in France.

Charles IV of France died in 1328, and he had no male heirs. His sister, Isabella, was Edward III’s mother, so the English king believed he had the right also to rule France. However, Charles’ cousin became King Philip VI of France instead. Edward was furious but appeared to accept the decision. However, when Philip took Guyenne in 1337, Edward launched his bid to become the new French king. Guyenne was a fief of the French crown but technically belonged to the English. Edward raised an army and the Hundred Years’ War began. In this article, I look at five key battles in the conflict.

It is important to note that the conflict was very much a series of interconnected wars with a number of truces in between. Neither nation had an army constantly in the field, and there were periods of peace that lasted several years. Although the English had the superior army, they somehow lost; probably due to the lack of a strategic plan and the inability to press home an advantage.

The Bloody Throne: 5 Key Battles of the Hundred Years’ War
Edward III. The Famous People

1 – Battle of Crecy (1346)

English inaction and French raids on towns on the southeast coast of England marked the first few years of the war. The British Navy enjoyed the first significant victory at the Battle of Sluys in 1340 which caused the French raids to cease for a time. The next few years were marked by the War of the Breton Succession where Philip backed Charles of Bois and Edward backed John of Montfort.

The next major battle happened in 1346 when Edward left Portsmouth with 750 ships and 15,000 troops on July 12. The English landed at Normandy and proceeded to raid the countryside until Philip intervened with an army of up to 30,000 men. The Battle of Crecy took place on August 26 and was a complete disaster for the French despite their significant numerical advantage.

Philip’s Genovese crossbowmen were no match for the English longbowmen who were much quicker when it came to firing and reloading. The Genovese retreated and the French knights charged against the English infantry. The assault was an utter failure as the English lines refused to budge under pressure. It was soon apparent that the French had no real strategy beyond basic charges and when the English archers moved forward and began firing, the French horsemen were annihilated.

The few knights that made it to the English lines were killed in fierce close combat. There were approximately 15 failed French attempts to attack, and they finally withdrew when there was no hope of victory. At the end of the battle, Philip’s brother Charles was dead along with a number of allies, 1,500 knights and up to 14,000 men in total. In contrast, the English army lost no more than 200 men. Philip appealed to the Scots for help, but King David II of Scotland was defeated by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross on October 17, 1346.

At the time, it was one of the most decisive battles in Western European history. It signaled the end of the era of the heavily mounted knight and started a new focus on infantry. Despite the significance of the victory, Edward did not immediately press home his advantage. He marched forward and took Calais in 1347, but overall, progress through the French countryside was slow.

The Bloody Throne: 5 Key Battles of the Hundred Years’ War
French infantry. Pinterest

2 – Battle of Poitiers (1356)

The Black Death ravaged Europe in 1348, and it was only in 1356 when England recovered in a financial sense. Edward’s son, also called Edward, Prince of Wales, and known as the Black Prince, launched another invasion of France. Philip had died in 1350, so the 16-year old prince faced King John II of France at the Battle of Poitiers on September 19, 1536. Edward had 6,000 troops but was significantly outnumbered as there were approximately 11,000 French soldiers.

Edward’s plan was to plunder central France, but he was intercepted a few miles from Poitiers. The English commander was forced into a battle he didn’t want, but the teenager conducted himself admirably. First, he wisely chose to move his army to a slope surrounded by a marsh and a stream. There was only a narrow gap in a hedge so the French could ride no more than a handful of knights through at a time.

Edward actually tried to sneak his army away from the battlefield, but the French spotted him and launched an attack. The prince quickly returned, ordered his knights to dismount and lined his archers up behind the hedge. The French force was divided into four units, but John made the mistake of ordering many of his knights to dismount to face the English on the ground. It was a strange move as it deprived them of the elements of surprise and mobility.

The French army did precisely what Edward hoped they would, the Knights still on horseback tried to ride through the gap in the hedge, but the enemy archers knocked them on the ground. The surviving knights were cut down in close combat. The French crossbowmen lined up behind the knights and were virtually useless as they had no chance to return fire. The Dauphin led another section of the army up the hill, but they were pushed back by the English reserves.

The third French section fled the battlefield so King John was left with the last group of soldiers and he attacked the English. However, Edward knew he had the advantage, so he ordered his entire army to attack barring a small cavalry force that went around the back. The result was a brutal session of hand-to-hand combat as the English archers used knives as they had run out of arrows. The English eventually overwhelmed the French and John was captured.

Over 5,000 French soldiers were killed or captured against 1,000 or so English casualties. The Dauphin assumed control of France but faced a popular rebellion. Edward III hoped to take advantage of the discontent by launching yet another invasion, but he failed to take the city of Reims after a siege. The English army was devastated by a freak hailstorm while in the town of Chartres, so Edward agreed to negotiate with the French.

The result was the Treaty of Bretigny (ratified in October 1360) whereby Edward abandoned his claim to the French crown and renounced control over several territories in exchange for increased land in Aquitaine. However, when King John II died in honorable captivity in London in 1364, the Dauphin, who became King Charles V after the death of his father, refused to agree to the terms of the treaty and ultimately reopened the conflict.

The Bloody Throne: 5 Key Battles of the Hundred Years’ War
Battle of Agincourt. Wikimedia

3 – Battle of Agincourt (1415)

The Battle of Agincourt is arguably England’s most famous victory over France, and it also marked the last significant English victory in the Hundred Years’ War. The next phase of the war, also known as the Caroline Phase, began in 1369 when Charles V announced that all of England’s territories in France were forfeited. In return, Edward III resumed his claim as the King of France.

The French began a counter-attack, and by 1380, Calais was the only territory still in English hands. The Black Prince had died in 1376, and Edward III perished the following year, so there was significant turmoil on the English side. However, Charles V died in 1380, and the result was a halt in French progress. By now, both sides faced internal power struggles, so the Hundred Years’ War was of secondary importance.

Henry V became King of England in 1413, and he immediately decided to take advantage of the ongoing French Civil War to launch another invasion. The French King Charles VI had descended into madness, and there was a battle for power between John the Fearless (backed by the Burgundians) and Louis of Orleans (backed by the Armagnac’s). Henry told envoys of the French king that he wanted to marry the daughter of Charles VI and outlined his territorial demands in France. The French rejected Henry’s claims and the English monarch prepared for war.

Henry wasted little time assembling an army of 11,000 men, and he crossed the English Channel with and besieged Harfleur in Normandy in August 1415. He took the town after five weeks but lost half his army to disease and casualties sustained in the siege. Henry decided to march to Calais and return home with his fleet. However, the French blocked the path with a formidable army of 20,000 men. As was the case with the Black Prince almost 60 years before, the English commander was low on supplies, outnumbered and forced into a battle he didn’t want.

Luckily for Henry, the battle took place on a relatively small tract of open land between two woods. As a result, it was practically impossible to launch large-scale manoeuvres which was bad news for the numerically superior French. The Battle of Agincourt began at 11 am on October 25, and the French advanced on their enemy. The English were pushed back slowly, but the muddy ground was taking a major toll on the heavily armored French knights. It seems as if the French commanders completely ignored the presence of the English archers as they clearly had no plan to deal with them.

The archers fired at the French infantry, and the French cavalry was unable to attack the longbowmen because there was a line of pointed stakes in the way. The French made a serious blunder by continuing to march forward on the soft ground and soon, they had no room to move. It got to the stage where they didn’t have room to swing their weapons. Henry saw what was happening and ordered his archers to take up axes and swords and charge. The lightly equipped archers massacred the encumbered French and won a devastating victory for Henry.

Only 400 Englishmen died at Agincourt compared to 6,000 French deaths. Up to 40 percent of the French nobility died in battle or were executed afterward. Henry soon made inroads into France and took most of Normandy by 1419 and in the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, Henry was declared as the heir to the French throne upon the death of Charles VI. After further victories, the English were dealt a devastating blow when Henry died suddenly in 1422. At that time, England was close to victory, but Henry’s death completely turned the tide of the war.

The Bloody Throne: 5 Key Battles of the Hundred Years’ War
The Death of Joan of Arc. National Geographic

4 – Siege of Orleans (1428-1429)

When Henry V was on his deathbed, he gave the Duke of Bedford control of English territories in France because Henry VI was an infant. Bedford enjoyed initial success including a major victory at the Battle of Verneuil on August 17, 1424. Over in France, Charles VI died a few weeks after Henry V and was succeeded by Charles VII even though the new monarch was disinherited under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. At this point, England was still faring well in the Hundred Years’ War as it had an alliance with French-Burgundians and together they controlled Aquitaine and much of Northern France including Paris.

Although Charles VII was technically the king, the Anglo-Burgundians held the city of Reims which was traditionally the city of French coronation. As a result, Charles was not crowned. In 1427, the English, along with their Burgundian allies, launched yet another attack in France. They had initial successes, but the tide of the war began to turn when the French lifted the Siege of Montargis late in 1427. An internal power struggle prevented the French from following up on their success.

The English regrouped and received fresh reinforcements which they used to continue the invasion. When the English closed in on Orleans, John of Dunois knew he had to tighten up the city’s defenses. The Siege of Orleans began on October 12, 1428, and within 12 days, the Tourelles fell, and the city appeared doomed. Fortunately for the French, Marshal de Boussac arrived with troops and prevented the English from taking the city there and then. A couple of days later, the English commander, the Earl of Salisbury, was struck in the face by debris and died from his injuries.

The citizens of Orleans destroyed the remaining arches of the bridge into the city, so a long siege was the consequence. By the spring of 1429, the English were finally making inroads and were set to take the city. France needed a hero, and it came in the form of a teenage girl named Joan of Arc. When she was 16, she claimed to have heard ‘voices’ urging her to help the Dauphin Charles take his throne. She traveled to his stronghold at Vaucouleurs in May 1428, but the captain of the garrison refused to believe her story and sent her away. Joan returned in January 1429 and convinced the captain to let her meet the Dauphin.

She was dressed in men’s clothes when she arrived at Chinon in March 1429, and Charles agreed to meet her. His theologians questioned Joan at length and advised the prince to accept the help of the unusual young lady. On February 12, 1429, the French had suffered a morale-sapping defeat at the Battle of Herring. Things were about to change as Joan arrived on the scene after Charles had given her command of a small army. She reached Orleans on April 29 and immediately raised morale by handing out food to the citizens and money to the soldiers. There had been prophecies regarding a young armor clad woman who would come and save France circulating for years so when Joan arrived, the inhabitants of Orleans had real hope.

Joan led the charge in several battles and returned to the field just a day after being wounded by an arrow. The French had unstoppable momentum and forced the English to leave the surrounds of the city on May 8; the Siege of Orleans had been lifted. Joan helped the French win a series of stunning victories in the following weeks, and they captured Reims in July. The Dauphin was finally crowned Charles VII, and Joan kneeled at his feet. It is important to note that Joan acted as a mascot and did not fight in any battles but she was heavily involved in creating strategies, directing troops and in negotiations with the English. Joan was captured in May 1430 by Bourguignon soldiers, and they sold her to the English. She was tried as a heretic and a witch and burned at the stake in Rouen on May 30, 1431. The martyrdom of Joan only spurred on the French and enabled them to conclude the Hundred Years’ War finally.

The Bloody Throne: 5 Key Battles of the Hundred Years’ War
Battle of Formigny – ThoughtCo

5 – Battle of Formigny (1450)

Peace negotiations between the enemies stalled in the 1430s and in 1435, the Duke of Burgundy, Philip, deserted the English and signed the Treaty of Arras which declared Charles VII as King of France. Charles used the lull in fighting that resulted after the Treaty of Tours in 1444 to vastly improve his army and soon, France’s artillery was renowned as the world’s best. The French reclaimed Rouen in 1449 after breaking the truce, and they soon captured Harfleur, Honfleur, and Fresnoy with an invasion of Caen the next step.

The English raised a small army under Sir Thomas Kyriell and captured Valognes on March 27, 1450. He reached the village of Formigny on April 14, but a French force of 3,000-4,000 men moved to intercept their enemy. At the Battle of Formigny on April 15, Kyriell’s 4,000-5,000 man army had initial success after captured two French guns. However, a Breton force of at least 1,200 men arrived under the command of Arthur de Richemont, and its cavalry annihilated the English. The French lost fewer than 1,000 men while on the English side, Kyriell was captured and all but a small group of men died or became POWs.

The Battle of Formigny was effectively the death knell of English interests in France and the French captured Caen and Cherbourg. By August 12, the whole of Normandy was in French hands. Richemont’s intervention was critical and changed the entire course of the war. Charles now wanted to take Gascony from the English, and the French took the region’s capital, Bordeaux, on June 30, 1451. Although England retook the city on October 23, 1452, its forces didn’t hold out for long and suffered defeat in what was the final battle at Castillon on July 17, 1453.

Although the two nations were technically at war for another two decades, the English knew they couldn’t defeat the strong French army. The Treaty of Picquigny in 1475 formally ended the Hundred Years’ War. France was now the dominant force in Western Europe and the only French possession held by England was the port of Calais which it held until 1558. English monarchs began to focus on domestic matters and the political and financial problems that emerged from the end of the war resulted in the conflict known as the War of the Roses.