Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Outbreak of the Hundred Years War

On the outbreak of war between England and France in 1337 few disinterested observers could have any doubt about the likely outcome. France was going to win – and win easily.

The mere size of the two kingdoms alone gave France a massive advantage. Although it is impossible to be accurate, the population of France at this time was over 20 million, that of England barely 7 million. France also had a clear advantage in terms of wealth. The towns and cities of France were closely integrated into the trading networks that were becoming firmly established across the continent.

The southern cities of Lyons, Marseilles and Toulouse were locked into the complex trading networks of the Mediterranean. Hundreds of merchant galleys plied the sea trading European grain and furs for oriental spices and silks or African gold and ivory. The great trade fair of Lyons, in particular, was a thriving and bustling centre for international trade. In northern France, Paris was the largest city in Europe north of the Alps, and Rouen was not far behind.

The trading networks and access to markets encouraged a developing economic picture. The rich, light soils of the areas north of the Seine were ideal for growing grains. The farmers here had moved into bulk grain production, turning over almost all their lands to growing wheat and barley for sale in the market towns. With the cash generated the farmers could buy in fruit, meat and other products that they no longer grew on their own land. Similar specialisation was taking hold elsewhere, making a more effective and efficient use of manpower.

By contrast England was less economically advanced. Most farmers still worked mixed farms growing grain, fruit and meat. Even where soils were not particularly good for grain, wheat was still grown. This made for less efficient farming. The only specialist product of England was wool, and while this made fortunes for all concerned in the trade it represented only a  fraction of England’s farmland.

Nor was it merely a matter of population and wealth. As we shall see France had a large and highly respected army. The latest weaponry, latest tactics and most efficient supply systems were recognised as being those of France. Young knights and nobles from across Europe would volunteer to serve in France to learn the arts of war. As they grew older many of these men felt a residual loyalty to the French crown and were willing to serve the French king if asked. Thus the French king was able to call upon manpower reserves even greater than France itself could provide.

Not that anybody really expected the war that had broken out in 1337 to amount to much. It was confidently expected that there would be some skirmishing, maybe a campaign or two and then a peace deal would be patched up. At first, it seemed that this was exactly what was going to happen.

Having declared war, Edward seemed to accept that he stood no chance of defeating France on his own. After sending some English troops south to bolster the defences of Aquitaine, Edward threw himself into a diplomatic mission aimed at gaining allies for the conflict with France.

Perhaps naturally, he turned first to his in-laws in Hainault. Duke William was happy to parade his men for action, having first taken a considerable sum of English silver to pay his expenses. The Duke of Brabant was likewise willing to take Edward’s side and muster his forces for war, again so long as Edward was paying the bill. The Count of Flanders was less enthusiastic, despite the fact that his cities depended for their wealth on regular imports of English wool. The Count owed allegiance to King Philip and was not one to break an oath, even when the majority of his own people disliked the whole idea of rule by the French king.

Perhaps Edward’s greatest diplomatic achievement was to persuade the Holy Roman Emperor Louis (or Ludwig) IV to appoint him Imperial Vicar for the lands west of the Rhine. The title gave Edward the theoretical rights to marshal the lands of the Holy Roman Empire in that area for war. In practice, as with so much about the Holy Roman Empire, it was an empty title that depended on the willingness of local rulers to obey. It did, however, give Edward a legal right to be hovering off the northern borders of France with an army.

By the summer of 1339, Edward felt ready to strike.

This is an extract from The Battle of Crecy, A Campaign in Context by Rupert Matthews.

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