• A London Student

Why did the English lose the Hundred Years’ War?

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

In 1337, King Edward III claimed the French throne in name of his mother, Isabella of France, when the French King died without an heir, and the Hundred Years' War started. Over the next 116 years there was success and drawbacks on both sides. Yet it ended in defeat. All the land won, collected, fought for, and the deaths due to it, all gone with one incompetent ruler, desperate for peace in the land that he had been crowned king of at only nine-months-old. Defeat had been coming for years, however, and it wasn’t just due to the fatal mistakes of the English, but the final rallying of the French. Find out in more detail why this happened...

 

A major factor that led to the English defeat in the Hundred Years' War was the sudden and untimely death of Henry V. Henry V was an iconic figure of the age and with his death, there was a loss of momentum in the war as well as a loss of some of the hope that had carried the English through the phase of the war that he’d been fighting and winning in. This greatly affected the English efforts in the war, as leadership changed to regents which had a negative impact on the war due to the fact that they didn’t have an undisputed leader (a very useful figure to have on military campaign). Furthermore, they had lost a great general who had given the army confidence after the incredible victory at Agincourt. Henry's untimely death also potentially robbed the English of the good that he could do in the war, the difference he could have made and the lands that he would've got as heir to the King of France.


King Henry VI was only nine months old when he came to the throne in 1422, and therefore regents had to rule for him for the first years of his life. Regents included figures like John, 1st Duke of Bedford, Humphry, Duke of Gloucester and the King’s half uncle, Henry Beaufort, who would become Cardinal Beaufort. This led to several problems that affected the result of the Hundred Years’ War, such as different political views and ideas on how the situation in France should be carried forwards. Yet this needn't have been a major problem as the regents were focused on different parts of ruling. At first, the war went well under the Duke of Bedford, with the land Henry V had restored in his short reign being increased throughout the early 1420’s, and the losses only came dramatically after his death in 1435 although the war had been going downhill since Joan of Arc rallied the French army (but more on that later on). Therefore, whilst the English were winning the war, regents weren't an issue; while the English were winning, the ruler didn't matter, yet when losses were apparent, other regents and senior nobles believed that they could do better and sort out the situation, leading to a power vacuum. The competition by the leading nobles to fill this vacuum was a major factor in the English political instability that contributed to the end of English rule in France.

 

Another major factor to the loss of the war can be attributed to Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was a peasant girl from Domrémy in north-eastern France, who despite her gender (girls unfortunately had a disadvantage in life) and background played a large part in the victory of the French in the war. In 1429, Joan claimed to have visions that instructed her to help Charles VII (although uncrowned at the time) and to relieve Orléans from siege from the English. Her small relief force worked and after nine days Orléans was freed from the siege. After several swift victories, Charles VII was crowned. These few major victories had a big impact and they boosted the morale of the French and put the English on the defensive rather than the offensive where it looked like they could go on, and believed they could go on to take over France. Therefore the psychological impact of Joan of Arc was larger than her military victories, and the psychological impact was huge.


However, the English made plenty of mistakes which quickly led to loss, including the decision to burn Joan of Arc at the stake. This was a very bad decision. As a result, she was looked on as a martyr who gave her life to serve God and defeat the English. This added greatly to the psychological impact that she had on the French army and gave them a reason to fight, just as much as she had when she was alive, perhaps more so (as a martyr, she wouldn't be looked on as a peasant girl wearing armour). Had the English dealt with the problem she was creating or, had already created (by that time it was too late to stop the morale and energy that she'd created with the French, that they’d lacked for decades) they may have had a lesser chance of losing the psychological aspect of the war (the English morale was pushed back with Joan of Arc, just as the French was moved forward) and exacerbating the problem. A better way to get the war back on track after Joan’s quick victories would’ve been to show what happens to ‘problems’ and put her on public penitence, then imprison her for leading the army to break her spirit, rather than punishing her in a wrong or disastrous manner (although saying that does make me seem like a medieval tyrant!).

 

The events in the year 1435 (perhaps the most disastrous year in English history (another good debate), had a vast impact on the result of the war and was a major contributor to the loss. On 14th September, the Duke of Bedford died, which directly resulted in the departure of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, from the side of the English on 21st September with the Treaty of Arras. This shows that the Duke of Burgundy thought that it was pointless, even disastrous to support the cause of the English without the leadership of the Duke of Bedford. Yet the abandonment of Philip meant that the English had a much smaller chance of winning (even without Bedford), without a key ally who was based in France who had many riches in the country. The war hadn't been going very well for the English since, as previously mentioned, Joan of Arc had rallied the army yet the loss of Burgundy as an ally and an able commander was another terrible blow to the hopes and morale of the English. The French however, out of civil war, had a boosted spirit which meant they were more likely to go on to win more battles which they did, and subsequently win the war.

 

A factor that meant the Hundred Years’ War went in the favour of the English in the early 1400’s was the French civil war. The civil war was started in 1407, when the king, Charles VI, had a mental illness and was deemed unfit to rule. There were two rival houses wanting the throne, the Houses of Valois and of Burgundy, which sparked conflict. Major events such as the assassination of Louis of Orléans and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy distinguished the war, despite it having no battles. However, in 1435, when the civil war came to an end (another factor making 1435 a disastrous year) the English were at a disadvantage, with the French back up to strength. Joan of Arc had rallied the country to the cause, and with a new strong leader in Charles VII they were in a good position (for the first time in a almost thirty years). However, the end of the civil war wouldn't have been fatal to the English unless it hadn’t coincided and been a result of the death of the Duke of Bedford and the Treaty of Arras (hence the disaster of 1435). Edward III had successfully won the first section of the war with the French being united, unlike the success of Henry V, whose success had come as a result of his brilliance as a general as well as disarray in the French army. Therefore, had England had a strong leader, not Henry VI, (a useless as a king) the impacts of events in 1435, may not have been so major to the English. Furthermore, if Henry VI had come to the throne at a later age, then there wouldn’t have been any regents. Yet, due to his famously pious and generous nature, even if he had come to the at a later date, he still would've triggered the loss of France, but it may not have occurred in this way.

 

A factor that meant the Hundred Years’ War went in the favour of the English in the early 1400’s was the French civil war. The civil war was started in 1407, when the king, Charles VI, had a mental illness and was deemed unfit to rule. There were two rival houses wanting the throne, the Houses of Valois and of Burgundy, which sparked conflict. Major events such as the assassination of Louis of Orléans and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy distinguished the war, despite it having no battles. However, in 1435, when the civil war came to an end (another factor making 1435 a disastrous year) the English were at a disadvantage, with the French back up to strength. Joan of Arc had rallied the country to the cause, and with a new strong leader in Charles VII they were in a good position (for the first time in a almost thirty years). However, the end of the civil war wouldn't have been fatal to the English unless it hadn’t coincided and been a result of the death of the Duke of Bedford and the Treaty of Arras (hence the disaster of 1435). Edward III had successfully won the first section of the war with the French being united, unlike the success of Henry V, whose success had come as a result of his brilliance as a general as well as disarray in the French army. Therefore, had England had a strong leader, not Henry VI, (a useless as a king) the impacts of events in 1435, may not have been so major to the English. Furthermore, if Henry VI had come to the throne at a later age, then there wouldn’t have been any regents. Yet, due to his famously pious and generous nature, even if he had come to the at a later date, he still would've triggered the loss of France, but it may not have occurred in this way.

 

Now for another factor: the failure of the Treaty of Tours and the resourceful time use of peace by the French meaning that they had an advantage when the treaty broke down. After some disastrous years in the war, with the Joan's success in 1429, and Henry deciding that he had come of age in 1437, England only had Normandy and a few other territories remaining. The Treaty of Tours had resulted in the marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, however it wasn’t a good match for the outcome of the war: Margaret was only related to the King distantly and was only his niece by marriage. So the peace was unlikely to last. Furthermore, Margaret was the daughter of René of Anjou who claimed he had no money to afford to give Margaret a dowry and the English had to pay for the wedding (not a good start to the peace). Moreover, the English had to give up Maine (only grudgingly given up by Henry in 1448, when Charles VII threatened the English with a large army that hadn’t disbanded after the treaty). This meant that when the treaty broke down in 1449, and conflicts between the English and its former ally, Brittany, were used as an excuse by Charles VII to restore hostilities and restart the war, the treaty was a great failure to the English, after all that they’d had to sacrifice for peace. The Treaty of Tours was also a failure in that the treaty was a military advantage to the French, yet the English agreed to get peace and stop the war that was draining the country, after so many years of it continuously being a problem for the English.


The Treaty of Tours was a further reason that the English lost the Hundred Years’ War because it gave the French a large advantage in the truce. The French, in the years that the treaty was in action had a large opportunity to reorganise their army so they had a standing army which would be stronger to potentially face an opponent of the English and the still hostile Burgundy (Burgundy was not allied with the English at this point). This meant that when the war continued (the French could safely assume that it would as René of Anjou, Margaret’s father didn't have the power or influence over the king to keep the peace for his daughter) there’d be an much larger chance of the French winning than the English could ever have under Henry VI. Another reason that the Treaty of Tours was advantageous to the French was the by the English choosing Margaret, they couldn't ally with the troublesome House of Armagnac as the Count had already made proposals. If there had been a marriage that had led to an English alliance with Armagnac, then the peace proposals may not have been so beneficial to the French. The Angevin alliance didn't help the English as René was bankrupt with little influence that could bring peace. The marriage between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou was a disaster as it mainly benefited the French despite it being intended to help the English. However, had Henry VI married a potentially weak-willed bride from a different house, then the Lancastrian claim and cause may have died along with the hope of a Lancastrian heir in the subsequent Wars of the Roses.

 

Now onto the warfare sector: Longbow-men always were a major feature of the English line up in armies. At all the English major victories in the Hundred Years’ War (Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt) the English army had archers with their famous and lethal longbow in their ranks who picked off opponents from a distance. Archers were key to the English success in the start and middle phases of the war with the bows firing faster than the French crossbow and having disastrous consequences against the famous cavalry charges of the French knights. In the Hundred Years’ War, much of the French weaponry evolved so that they had the best artillery in the world which was useful as much of the later warfare in the war was sieges, not physical battles like the ones that had dominated much of the first phases of the war. However, the increase in sieges as the war went on was better for the French given the type of warfare that was becoming more common in the war. This was because, while longbows were used in sieges and could be very destructive and useful in killing occupants as well as defenders, artillery and cannons were more useful to destroy walls. Yet often in sieges, the occupants were starved into submission but that could be fatal to the attackers as it meant that there was potentially time for the defenders to send out pleas for help and relief.


The improvement of the French army had disasterous consequences for the English. As the war went on, their artillery was more influential as more sieges occurred (as mentioned) and they were also more influential in battles. The Battles of Castillon was often seen as one of the first major battles where firearms were used (and the last battle of the war), with firearms being used to devastating affect tearing down the advancing army of the English. Yet artillery was being used as early as the beginning stages of the war, but it only properly started coming into effect with less battles, more sieges and the number of English longbow men decreasing as the closing years of the war were approaching. This meant that as the French army were introducing more artillery, there was more need for it, and its effect on the war was greater and more problematic for the English. Yet it would've been hard for the English to counter the influx of artillery of the French because their army needed to be manoeuvrable (artillery was heavy and hard to effectively move around) to counter the actions of the French as the English were the defenders, on the back foot at the time that artillery was starting to be relevant to the tide of the war.

 

Economically, the English were at the disadvantage in the later stages of the war, whereas France, with more land, people and therefore wealth were leading in that aspect of the war. In any war fought, money is always a powerful weapon that can decide the fate of the two sides. When the English owned more land in France, there was more wealth in the kingdom, and therefore more money to pay for the resources, and wages of the ever-needed army. This meant that they'd be less taxation on the population so they'd be more supportive of the monarch and the cause, it wouldn't be directly affecting them or their lives. In the later years of the war, when only small parts of France remained, there was a smaller population to tax and less money to be gained on the land. This would mean that the people there were in the domains would be more heavily taxed and there’d still be less money (with less people) for the army so the resources were more thinly spread out which meant that the chances of success for the army were more limited. Also, in the 1430’s there was a great fear of invasion for the first time in years. This meant that money was spent fortifying the English coast which spread fear into the people, that the nobles were worried, and the money spent on the coast was also needed elsewhere. A further factor that was disastrous for England were poor harvests, which decreased morale back in England, made farmers and peasants hungry (and angry) and decreased the food that was available to the army.

 

As you have probably worked out by now, there were many contributing factors that led to the English defeat, those of individuals, chance, diplomacy, technology and economy, which, when combined were unbeatable (or they might have been beatable under a different ruler).


Image courtesy of Wikipedia:

By Blaue Max - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46032762


Sources include:

The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths, 1981; The Art of War, ed. Andrew Roberts; The Book of the Medieval Knight, Stephen Turnbull, 1985; The Plantagenets by Dan Jones; Agincourt by Juliet Barker: bbc.co.uk/history