The Hundred Years War: Henry V, Agincourt, Joan of Arc, and How It All Happened

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A breif, easy summarization of the Hundred Years' War. Explains the background, outcome, and significance of the war.

Over 650 years ago, a war began that would change Europe, and the world, forever. The names are certainly familiar: Joan of Arc, Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt. Their individual stories are relatively well known, but all of them were part of the same war that raged on and off for over a hundred years, ravaging the French countryside and killing thousands of noblemen and serfs, knights and archers.

The story of the war began almost 300 years prior with William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066. This too, is a familiar story. What this meant for the English and French was that now, with William's Norman aristocracy ruling in England, the English nobility thought of themselves as Norman French rather than English. Until the 15th century, the language of court-life in England remained French. When William died in 1087, he left Normandy and England to his sons and the French-influenced future of England had officially begun. His descendants--known as the House of Plantagenet--included Richard the Lionhearted and Edward Longshanks, while in France the Capetian Dynasty continued on largely without interference.

However, after "The Anarchy" in England, a time of clashing royal families, Philip II of France quickly seized the opportunity while England was weak, capturing Normandy and shocking the English nobility. The English nobles still considered themselves French, and they saw the loss of Normandy as a crime against their ancestors.

In 1328, the Capetian Dynasty (the ruling family of France) went extinct. Charles IV was the last heir, and at his death in 1328, there was only his sister Isabella left, who had married King Edward II of England. Their son, Edward of Windsor, had claim to both the French and the English thrones, and when he succeeded his father Edward II in 1327, the English clamored for him to be enthroned in Paris.

To the French however, this did not sound nearly as beneficial. They did not want a foreign king, and so they let Philip of Valois (hence: House of Valois), a distant relative of the Capetians, take the French throne.

At this point, both sides had complaints: the French despised the fact that the English still owned some land in France, and the English wanted Normandy returned to them. Then, in 1336, a new player entered the scene: Scotland. King David I of Scotland, secretly urged on by Philip, invaded England. The English, naturally, defended themselves, and the French used their alliance with Scotland as an excuse to open hostilities against England. They took back the English land in France (Gascony) in 1337, brutally suppressing and slaughtering supporters of the English. The war had begun.

At this point, Edward of Windsor (now Edward III) decided now would be a good time to claim the French throne (Remember, his mother Isabella had been princess of France and the last Capetian to produce a child) In 1346 he invaded France across the English Channel, biting deeply into French territory and capturing important cities such as Calais.

The first lull in the war was caused by another familiar name: The Black Death. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, was a bacterial disease that had traveled along the Silk Road to Europe. It slammed into England and France in 1348, stopping the war for eight years. It was a grisly time. Bodies were piled up in the sewers as people, oblivious to any health risk, hurried by to avoid the stench. Monks known as Flagellants chanted and walked through the streets lashing themselves with whips and chains. They believed that the plague was God's punishment for the sins of war. And punishment it was. After the pandemic had passed in 1356, one third of Europe's population had vanished.

The eerie vacancy left in the plague's wake was filled with chaos. The war resumed on empty farmlands as Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, led a double pronged campaign into northern and southern France, respectively.

The battles during the Hundred Years War changed warfare, and the social caste system, forever. Longbowmen, implemented into the English army by Edward I, proved to be a devastating force on the field, with more range, speed, and killing efficiency than crossbows and firearms. In the high middle ages, warfare was supposed to have unspoken rules: the nobles wore thick armor and led glorious charges from horseback into the enemy's peasants. It was comparatively rare for a noble to fall in battle, and their social dominance was backed by their superiority on the battlefield. But longbow arrows did not discriminate between the throats of the serf and the noble. At Crecy alone 3,000 noblemen died in the mud. It was a nightmarish realization for the French, and for all of Europe: the armored cavalryman no longer held the advantage on the field.

This began the shift from feudal (noble-led) to professional armies. This upset the social caste system, and the nobles' loss in power contributed to urbanization, nationalism, and eventually the Northern Renaissance.

Until the 1420's, it was clear that the English were winning the War. In fact, Henry V had done so well in his campaigns that his heirs were to inherit the throne of France. However, a blow came then the English were utterly unprepared for: a young French girl from the countryside.

At the time of Joan of Arc's arrival, France was in a desperate state. The plague, coupled with English chevauchee (scorched earth) tactics, had torn France to pieces. When she was just 16, Joan of Arc impressed the French King Charles VII by predicting the capture of Orleans and telling him about visions she claimed to have from God and her patron saints. After giving invaluable aid to French forces in the capture of Orleans, her advice was heeded closely by French generals. The fractious French rallied around her like they had to nothing since the 1200's. She became a shrewd tactician, and by a mixture of aggressiveness, religious zeal, and tactical brilliance, she had driven the English almost completely out of France by 1430. But in 1431, Joan was captured, tried, condemned for heresy, and burned at the stake by the English-supporting Burgundians. She was 19 years of age.

The united spirit that Joan of Arc had inflamed in France remained after her death. Her tactics continued to be used after her death, and by 1453 the French had driven the English completely off of her soil.

The war faded away, leaving behind two exhausted nations, one butchered, the other demoralized. The significance of the war, other than the rise of the professional soldier and subsequent modernization of European society, was that nationalism had been kindled in the hearts of both nations. Nationalism was a relatively novel idea in 15th century Europe; Feudalism cultivated only terraced and materialistic loyalties.

What began as a struggle between nobles became one of the turning points in Western history as the conflict spread to affect, and change forever, the fate of the lower class. The Hundred Years War was a major step towards a more identifiable and modern society, and its effects still resound today