The Hundred Years War - the Era of Failures
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
[After Crecy] Edward III stood now at the height of his renown. In popular estimation he was by far the greatest captain of his day; having, indeed, no rival except his own son, the Black Prince, who was still little more than thirty years of age. Of neither does the military reputation stand so high with posterity as it did in their own day.
Neither was in any sense a master of strategy; both planned even the campaigns in which they achieved their greatest triumphs as if the one object of generalship was successful raiding. But both were masters of the art of handling troops on the field of battle; both knew how to inspire their men with complete confidence in their leader and in themselves.
Under them the English fought to win, whatever the odds might be. And Edward III. has the credit for having perfected that form of battle array which did in practice repeatedly give the English victory in the face of immense odds. It is not without interest to observe that the principle of breaking up cavalry oharges by a flank fire, which won the day at Crecy, reappeared with decisive effect nearly five hundred years later at the battle of Waterloo.
But neither the conqueror's day of glory nor the triumphant peace which he seemed to have achieved were to be of long duration. France, indeed, had never formed a united nation, and Gascony felt no sense of alienation in being parted from the French Crown. But there were other portions of the dukedom of Aquitaine which resented the overlordship of the English king; also there were French districts of which sundry captains of free companies had made themselves masters, and these were by no means minded to surrender what they had won with their own swords merely because the Kings of England and France had made a treaty.
Therefore the process of establishing the supremacy of King Edward and King John in the regions assigned to them respectively by the treaty was by no means a simple one, and was attended by a large amount of free fighting. Moreover, while the renunciatory clauses of the treaty of Bretigny had been omitted from the definitive treaty of Calais, it was with the understanding that they were to be given effect later; which completion of the treaty was evaded by both parties. Hence large opportunities were resented, which might be seized by one party or the other, for denouncing it altogether.
The King of France, John the Good, a mirror of knightly faith and honour made every effort to fulfill his own obligations, even to the extent of voluntarily returning to his captivity in England when the payment of his ransom fell into arrear. The Edwards were equally punctilious in performing all that the laws of chivalry had demanded; their courtesy and generosity were proverbial; but neither Edward nor John's successor, Charles V, had any qualms about evading a promise if they could find a plausible excuse for doing so. Hence those renunciatory clauses were never formally ratified. Charles, a very much shrewder man than his father, set about the pacification of his realm with considerable success.
Troubles in Spain to a great extent relieved France of the free companies, who with a light heart joined the stout French warrior Bertrand du Guesclin in supporting the revolt of Henry of Trastamare against Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile. But Pedro fled to the Black Prince, whose father had now instituted him the independent lord of Aquitaine.
The prince's curiously distorted views of his chivalric devoir led him to take up the cause of the exiled tyrant. He crossed the Pyrenees with a large army, won the great victory of Navarette, and reinstated Pedro the Cruel. But he ruined his own health and that of his entire force, besides exhausting the finances of Aquitaine on the enterprise and incurring immense debts. Pedro, having won his crown, repudiated his obligations to his ally; who returned to Bordeaux, and unwillingly enough taxed his subjects that he might pay his debts. The towns and the commonalty of Aquitaine had found in the prince a ruler who treated them fairly enough, and were now ready to submit to his exactions; but the barons, who had found their privileges curtailed, and preferred for their suzerain a very much hampered King of France to a vigorous duke in Bordeaux, took the opportunity to appeal against the taxes to Charles as their suzerain.
Charles admitted the right of appeal, on the ground that King Edward had never formally renounced his claim to the French Crown: and cited the Black Prince to his court. The result was defiance from the Black Prince and the formal resuscitation of his father's claim to the French Crown.
So once more France and England were at war, but under very much altered conditions. For the once mighty Edward III, though still far short of sixty, was already falling into a premature old age, and the Black Prince's powers were wrecked by disease. The English king had obtained little enough practical help from his allies in the past; but now the German Empire had passed to the house of Luxemburg, and the marriages of the last generation had so changed the interests of counts and princes that the French king now had allies where before he had enemies.
The fall of Limoges
The renewal of war, then, in 1369 was attended by a series of successes for the French arms, while all that the Black Prince could effect was the capture of Limoges, the sack and destruction of the city, and the massacre of its inhabitants. This was in 1370; and it did much more to alienate the population of Aquitaine than to terrorise them into submission to the duke.
A year later the Black Prince himself was in England, having neither the health to lead his soldiers nor money to pay them. Again, a year later, a British fleet met with an overwhelming defeat off La Rochelle, thereby losing the command of the sea which had been held for more than thirty years. The war had no redeeming features; and the defeat at La Rochelle effectively cut Aquitaine off from England.
John of Gaunt's wasted war
Edward's second surviving son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, led an expedition through France; but the French avoided pitched battles after the manner of the Scots, wasted the country before the invaders, worried them on flank and rear, and raided their communications. Without having fought a single serious engagement, it was but a wreck of John of Gaunt's army which finally struggled into Bordeaux.
The Calais Pale
The record of exhaustion and futility was only brought to a close by a truce which covered the two last years of the old king's life; when England was in practical possession of little more than Calais and Guisnes, the "Calais Pale," in the north-east corner of France, and Bordeaux on the south-west. Disaster abroad was accompanied by faction and discord at home.
Parliament readily endorsed Edward's resolve to renew the war, but disgust took the place of enthusiasm as disaster followed disaster. At the demand of parliament the king dismissed in 1371 the clerical ministers whose mismanagement was popularly held to be responsible; but the new anti-clerical ministry brought no improvement. Pembroke, who had led the opposition, was defeated and captured at La Rochelle, and John of Gaunt, who had identified himself with the same party, got nothing but discredit out of his expedition in the following year.
Anti-clericalism became the party cry of John of Gaunt's faction; while the party now in opposition was headed nominally by the dying Black Prince and more actively by Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. Mortimer had married the daughter of Edward's second son, Lionel of Clarence, recently dead; so that his infant son Roger stood next in succession to the Black Prince's own son Richard.
The Anti-clericals called in to their aid the learned doctor John Wiclif; who held austere views as to the iniquity of wealth and worldliness among the clergy, and was further promulgating unaccustomed doctrines, which were presently to be denounced by the Church as heretical and by politicians as anarchical. The parliament, summoned after a somewhat unusual interval of three years in 1376, gave the temporary victory to the Black Prince's party, who had honestly enough adopted the role of constitutionalists.
A vigorous attack was made on the Anti-clerical or Court party. The trial and imprisonment of Lord Latimer and other ministers are regarded as the first example of impeachment - the process under which officers of state are arraigned before the House of Lords by the House of Commons. At this juncture the Black Prince himself died. John of Gaunt made the mistake of inviting the Commons to make a declaration in favour of the French rule of succession, which would have given to himself and his son priority over young Roger Mortimer, who, as we have seen, claimed through his mother to stand next after Richard in the succession.
Lancaster's proposal was emphatically rejected, but he had given colour to the belief that he was really playing for the Crown. Although his own position had been strengthened by the death of his elder brother, he could not resist the demand of the Commons that the control of the government should be placed in the hands of a nominated council.
Nevertheless, he succeeded in packing a new parliament, which met at the beginning of the next year, with partisans of his own; the proceedings of the last or "Good " Parliament were reversed, and Lancaster forcibly protected Wiclif against the attacks of the clerical party, though these were supported by the citizens of London.
Conciliatory counsels, however, averted the outbreak of a civil war at the moment when the old king was dying neglected and almost forgotten. Whatever Lancaster's ambitions were, actual disloyalty was not among his sins, and the Black Prince's son Richard, young as he was, succeeded to the throne without opposition in June 1377.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.