The Hundred Years War: A People's History

The Hundred Years War: A People's History

by David Green


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What life was like for ordinary French and English people, embroiled in a devastating century-long conflict that changed their world

The Hundred Years War (1337–1453) dominated life in England and France for well over a century. It became the defining feature of existence for generations. This sweeping book is the first to tell the human story of the longest military conflict in history. Historian David Green focuses on the ways the war affected different groups, among them knights, clerics, women, peasants, soldiers, peacemakers, and kings. He also explores how the long war altered governance in England and France and reshaped peoples’ perceptions of themselves and of their national character.
Using the events of the war as a narrative thread, Green illuminates the realities of battle and the conditions of those compelled to live in occupied territory; the roles played by clergy and their shifting loyalties to king and pope; and the influence of the war on developing notions of government, literacy, and education. Peopled with vivid and well-known characters—Henry V, Joan of Arc, Philippe the Good of Burgundy, Edward the Black Prince, John the Blind of Bohemia, and many others—as well as a host of ordinary individuals who were drawn into the struggle, this absorbing book reveals for the first time not only the Hundred Years War’s impact on warfare, institutions, and nations, but also its true human cost.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300216103
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/24/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 489,692
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

David Green is senior lecturer in British studies and history, Harlaxton College, and a regular speaker on medieval history at conferences and seminars in the U.K., Ireland, and the U.S.

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The Hundred Years War

A People's History

By David Green


Copyright © 2014 David Green
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-20994-5


Knights and Nobles FLOWERS OF CHIVALRY 1346

I will cross the sea, my subjects with me, and I will pass through the Cambresis ... I will set the country ablaze and there I will await my mortal enemy, Philip of Valois, who wears the fleur-de-lys ... I will fight him ... even if I have only one man to his ten. Does he believe he can take my land from me? I once paid him homage, which confounds me now, I was young; that is not worth two ears of corn. I swear to him as king, by St George, and St Denis that ... neither youth nor noble ever exacted such tribute in France as I intend to do.

Anon., Vow of the Heron (c.1340)

According to the anonymous author of the Vow of the Heron, King Edward III began the Hundred Years War with these words. The poem tells how the French nobleman Robert d'Artois sought sanctuary in England and goaded the young king into taking up arms against Philippe VI. Robert is said to have publicly taunted Edward, accusing him of nothing short of cowardice, and to emphasise his point he presented him with a heron pie – the heron being the most craven of birds. The ladies of the court, echoing the jeers of the renegade Frenchman, demanded Edward lead an expedition into France to defend his honour and theirs. Indeed, the queen, Philippa of Hainault, swore she would take her own life and that of her unborn child (the future Lionel of Antwerp) if the king did not attempt to take what was rightfully his – the French throne.

The Vow of the Heron was a political fiction but one that reveals a number of truths. It emphasises the importance of chivalry and shame in late medieval culture; indeed, it shows chivalry at the core of medieval aristocratic identity. Although subject to a variety of definitions, chivalry had dominated the thinking of the secular elite for three hundred years and it remained central to the self-image of the aristocracy in the Hundred Years War. Chivalry had become a cult, an ideology, little less than a 'secular religion', and as such it influenced conduct during the conflict; the struggle was shaped by demands of honour, demonstrations of prowess and exigencies of loyalty. As the ethic associated with the knight – the chevalier – chivalric strictures chiefly dictated the behaviour of and relations between knights and nobles, and so in accounts of the war written for aristocratic readers and audiences matters of politics, the fate of the peasantry, prosaic issues of finance and diplomacy, were often lost. Such works focused on the rivalries and (great) deeds of (great) men because this was the image of warfare in which the chivalric caste revelled and that it wished to project.

But chivalry was much more than a game, fantasy or a self-delusion: it exercised enormous influence over military and diplomatic conduct. The knights and nobles who constituted the 'chivalry of England and France' (the word 'chivalry' was used most commonly as a collective noun) determined strategy and policy, and the chivalric ethic conditioned their behaviour, tailoring it to certain (loose) specifications. These qualities were not, however, 'gentle', except in so far as they applied to gentlemen and gentlewomen, and so they do not always conform to a modern conception of chivalry. It is sometimes assumed that chivalry died as the Middle Ages waned, but chivalry was far from dead in the Hundred Years War. The conflict, however, did exert new and weighty pressures on knights and nobles – social, military and political.

Among the many influences that coloured the character of chivalry and the role of the knightly aristocracy during the Hundred Years War, one of the most important was the nature of warfare itself. As the struggle progressed, soldiering became an increasingly professional business, with innovations in strategy, tactics, weapons and recruitment. As the nature of combat changed, so did the nature of the hardships and perils faced by all the chivalrous and all 'those who fought' – the bellatores. These developments threw into sharp relief some apparent contradictions between the theory and practice of chivalry. Was true chivalry exemplified by the mercenary leader Bertrand du Guesclin or the prud'homme (literally 'worthy man') Geoffrey de Charny, author of the Livre de chevalerie, one of the key chivalric treatises of the fourteenth century? This was not a simple question, for du Guesclin was laid to rest alongside the Valois kings in the abbey of Saint-Denis in northern Paris and became the subject of a chivalric biography, while Charny was not above stooping to bribery in his attempt to take Calais in 1350, an act for which he was reproached by no less a chivalric icon than Edward III – who himself had broken a central tenet of chivalry when he ordered the execution of prisoners after the battle of Halidon Hill in July 1333. Was chivalry exemplified by the glorious deeds of arms that Jean Froissart (c.1337–c.1405) recounted in his chronicles or by those pitiless actions condemned by Honoré Bonet (c.1340–c.1410) in his hugely influential treatise L'arbre des batailles (the Tree of Battles)? Was this a chivalry that mitigated the worst of war or encouraged it, feeding it with delusions of honour and promises of loot and booty?

Such questions were of as much interest and importance to contemporaries as they had been to their predecessors. From its inception chivalry had comprised many elements – religious, courtly and militaristic. As a result contending definitions of the ethic had been evident from at least the early twelfth century. Many groups and individuals had an interest in chivalry and a wish to influence the behaviour of those who comprised the order of knighthood. Such diverse views made the chivalric ethic highly adaptable, which explains its enduring potency, but it also gave rise to its apparent incongruities. Chivalry comprised an amalgam of qualities, and the priority one gave to those qualities reflected one's interests. Chivalric romances, for example, often projected an ideal of knightly behaviour dominated by courtesy, and their authors prioritised the relationship between knights and ladies. Others had little time for courtoisie and placed much greater emphasis on the knight's skill-at-arms, reflecting the code's martial antecedents. Religious authorities, meanwhile, viewed knighthood as a divine order, albeit one that often fell far from grace, and believed that the latent violence of knighthood to needed to be channelled into ecclesiastical service. According to church authorities it was service to God that made knights into something more than mere soldiers. Such differences in interpretation became even more apparent in the later Middle Ages because of new stresses placed on the various conceptions of chivalry and on the members of the chivalric orders.

As the author of the Vow of the Heron suggested he should, Edward III did invade France, and in July–August 1346 he burned and laid waste to the Cambresis region in the north. Then, following a chevauchée – a raid of calculated and widespread devastation – he met his 'mortal enemy, Philip of Valois' (Philippe VI), his liege lord, in battle at Crécy on 26 August of that year. What followed was a comprehensive English victory and a French catastrophe, the impact of which was not only deeply symbolic but also had colossal military and political resonance. God, it was believed, expressed His will through such tests of strength; victory in battle confirmed divine favour for the nation and those who represented it on the field. Military success represented heavenly benediction. The Crécy campaign, however, also reveals those new strains to which knighthood was subjected in this professional age, in addition to the apparent dichotomies intrinsic to the chivalric ethic.

The campaign was the most important element in a number of military expeditions which the English launched in the mid-1340s. The aim of the strategy, involving multiple incursions, was to disrupt French defensive preparations and to keep English plans covert. The scale of the expedition was such that it could not be kept secret, but the French were not aware of the true target until very late in the day. Nor, frankly, were many of Edward's commanders, since the king's intentions appear to have changed several times. Initially, it seems, he intended to lead an expedition from Gascony. Later he decided to land in Normandy and establish a bridgehead there. Only at the last moment did he choose to launch a chevauchée.

The army landed at La Hougue on the Cotentin peninsula on 12 July 1346. It split into three divisions to cause maximum damage over a wide area and rode south, then east. The strategic purpose of the initial phase of the campaign was to inflict financial damage on the French government, psychological damage on the French people and to humiliate the Valois regime. In a series of such chevauchées the chivalry of England (the military aristocracy) attacked those least able to defend themselves in order to undermine the legitimacy of the French monarchy economically and symbolically. And yet this was considered chivalrous behaviour. At its heart chivalry was a military code concerned with war, and '[w]ar as conducted by the chivalrous meant raiding and ravaging'. So, in 1346, in a display of often pitiless chivalry, the English laid waste to Cherbourg, Harfleur and much of the Normandy coast. Caen fell, and there, in proper chivalric fashion, a number of eminent (and valuable) French noblemen were taken captive and held for ransom; then the army turned towards Paris. On 12 August it came within 20 miles of the capital. Edward, however, chose not to engage the superior enemy forces arrayed before him there, and retreated to the Somme. After struggling for some time to ford the river, he eventually forced a passage at Blanchetaque and drew up his troops in battle formation at Crécy. Philippe VI, who had been at his heels from Paris, attacked almost immediately.

The English deployed at the end of an expanse of gently rising ground, their backs to the forest of Crécy-Grange and the sun. Edward the Black Prince, then sixteen years old, took nominal command of the vanguard alongside a number of highly experienced soldiers, including the earls of Warwick (Thomas Beauchamp), Northampton (William Bohun) and Kent (Edmund of Woodstock), as well as Godfrey d'Harcourt (a Norman noble who had rebelled against King Philippe) and Sir John Chandos. The king commanded the centre and the bishop of Durham, with the earls of Arundel (Richard FitzAlan) and Suffolk (Robert Ufford), took charge of the rearguard. Facing them were the French king, Philippe VI, and several princes of the blood royal, including Charles, count of Alençon (the king's brother), Louis, count of Blois (Philippe's nephew), and Louis of Nevers, count of Flanders (the king's cousin). In addition, there were Philippe's relatives by marriage: John of Luxembourg, the blind king of Bohemia (stationed on the left wing), and his son Charles, king of Germany, later Emperor Charles IV (on the right wing). A number of the great officers of state were also present, including the marshals of France (stationed with the rearguard) – Charles of Montmorency and Robert of Wavrin, lord of Saint-Venant.

The battle that followed shocked Christendom. Crécy was an encounter that redefined chivalric presumptions and reputations throughout Europe. Victory in 1346 transformed the image of English chivalry that had been so tarnished in the defeat at Bannockburn more than thirty years previously. In truth it was an image that in the British Isles had recovered much of its sheen in the early years of Edward III's reign through battles in Scotland such as Dupplin Moor (1332) and Halidon Hill. Indeed, many of those who fought in France in 1346 had been blooded in the Scottish wars of the 1330s and it was those experiences that tempered them, forging a redoubtable fighting force. However, to the rest of Europe this was an unwelcome revelation. As the poet Petrarch (1304–74) noted, in his youth the Angli had been considered the most timid of barbarians but now they were regarded as 'a fiercely warmongering people'. This new military reputation would last until Shakespeare's time and beyond. As the archbishop of Canterbury advised Henry V:

Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire's tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle's, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play'd a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France,
Whiles his most mighty father on a hill
Stood smiling to behold his lion's whelp
Forage in blood of French nobility.
O noble English, that could entertain
With half their forces the full Pride of France.

By 1346 the English had certainly become militarily formidable. The army that fought at Crécy consisted of mixed retinues of archers and men-at-arms, many of whom were knights who usually fought on foot. These units worked most successfully when positioned defensively, using the terrain to their advantage, having prepared the front and flanks with pits, traps and other means of disrupting an enemy charge. It was a tactical model employed to good effect for much of the Hundred Years War, but one that had serious implications for the chivalric elite. The knight had acquired his august position, his social kudos and cultural cachet, because of his skills as a mounted warrior, and chivalry developed as a code for and a means of defining those who demonstrated these skills. However, the tactics the English adopted in the Hundred Years War did not rely on heavy cavalry; indeed, they were developed to counter its use. The cavalry charge, which had proved a highly effective weapon for much of the Middle Ages, could no longer be relied upon. The crushing defeat which the Scots inflicted at Bannockburn had deeply influenced English strategic thinking. With absolute and brutal clarity Robert Bruce's army had shown that cavalry, with all its chivalric connotations, could be terribly vulnerable to infantry, and its weaknesses exposed not by individual prowess but by collective action and discipline.

The French had received a similarly chastening lesson in July 1302 at the hands of the Flemish militia, at Courtrai, the battle of the Golden Spurs. It was so called because of the number of gilded spurs collected from the bodies of fallen French knights. It was not a lesson, however, that the French took to heart. This was, in part, because Philippe VI had reversed the defeat at the battle of Cassel in August 1328 using the traditional might of French cavalry. At Crécy he persisted in using these same older tactics, but with disastrous consequences. It was shocking evidence of a changing of the guard; cavalry was no longer pre-eminent on the battlefield.

The battle of Crécy began with a French attack, but not with cavalry: Philippe VI did not only command horsemen. A substantial body of infantry and a large contingent of Genoese crossbowmen led the assault. The crossbow would develop into a highly formidable weapon over the course of the Hundred Years War, but at this stage of its evolution it proved no match for the English longbow. (Nor did it help that the Italian mercenaries who comprised the majority of the crossbowmen had been commanded to attack without their pavises, large shields behind which they could reload, which were still en route to the battlefield with the rest of the French baggage.) Faced with English archers who could shoot further and more quickly, the Genoese soon retreated. This incensed the French cavalry. Furious with the crossbowmen's 'cowardice', the count of Alençon led a charge against the English vanguard, but one that was poorly organised. They rode into the arrow storm 'in a jumbled mass, with no order whatever', and soon they were 'tumbling over each other like a vast litter of pigs'. Some, however, made it through to the English lines where the hand-to-hand fighting began. At one point the English standard fell, only to be raised again by Thomas Daniel, one of the Black Prince's retainers; indeed, the prince himself was struck down and had to be rescued by his standard-bearer, Richard FitzSimon. The French cavalry repeatedly wheeled, rallied and charged. During one of these attacks King Edward was entreated to send reinforcements to bolster his son's position. The king, however, after being assured that the prince was, as yet, unharmed, proclaimed 'let the boy win his spurs, for if God has so ordained it, I wish the day to be his'.


Excerpted from The Hundred Years War by David Green. Copyright © 2014 David Green. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Chronology, vi,
Illustrations, viii,
Glossary, ix,
Note on Money, xii,
Note on Names, xiii,
Family Trees, xiv,
Maps, xvi,
Introduction (1337), 1,
1 Knights and Nobles: Flowers of Chivalry (1346), 23,
2 The Peasantry: Vox Populi (1358), 43,
3 The Church and the Clergy: Voices from the Pulpit (1378), 65,
4 Making Peace: Blessed are the Peacemakers (1396), 85,
5 The Madness of Kings: Kingship and Royal Power (1407), 104,
6 Soldiers: Views from the Front (1415), 125,
7 Occupation: Coexistence, Collaboration and Resistance (1423), 155,
8 Women and War: Power and Persecution (1429), 177,
9 Prisoners of War: Gilded Cages (1435), 204,
10 National Identities: St George and La Mère France (1449), 230,
Conclusion: 1453 and Beyond, 248,
Notes, 256,
Bibliography, 294,
Acknowledgements, 319,
Index, 320,

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