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France in the 14th century


Hundred Years’ War
Hundred Years’ War

The despair wrought by the plague was enhanced by the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War, which dominated the French political scene for more than a century, from 1337 to 1453. The war originated in the Plantagenets’ efforts to make good on their claims to French territory. Indeed, the Plantagenets suggested that they had a claim to the French crown because the mother of the Plantagenet king of England, Edward III, was Isabella, daughter of the French king, Philip IV. To counter this claim, the Valois floated the idea that the Salic law, dating back to early Frankish times, prohibited women from inheriting the French throne and from passing on the right to inherit the throne to their sons. Although denounced by the Plantagenets and others as a historical fiction, the Salic law became one of the firmest, most widely respected French constitutional traditions. The Hundred Years’ War began in Flanders and soon moved to other areas, notably Gascony, which the Plantagenets controlled before the war, and Normandy. During the reigns of Philip VI and John II the Good between 1328 and 1364, the Plantagenets clearly had the upper hand, winning major victories at Sluys in 1340, Crécy in 1346, and Poitiers in 1356. Faced with military setbacks, the effects of the plague, peasant and urban uprisings, and his own capture, John signed the Peace of Brétigny in 1360, in which he ceded a third of his kingdom to Edward III.

Under Charles V, who ruled from 1364 to 1380, the Valois regrouped. The crown was assisted by Bertrand du Guesclin, an able military leader who pushed back the Plantagenets on the battlefield. The Valois also benefited from conflicts within the English royal house. By 1380 most Plantagenet gains had been wiped out.

But under Charles VI, who became king in 1380, the French position again deteriorated, as did the king, who suffered from periodic bouts of insanity beginning in 1392. Two competing aristocratic factions, the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, sought to dominate Charles, and they brought France to the verge of civil war. Both factions solicited support from the English, who clearly benefited from their rivalry.

Charles VI
Charles VI

In 1415 the new king of England, Henry V of the house of Lancaster, landed in France and defeated French forces at the Battle of Agincourt, which secured Plantagenet control of areas north of the Loire. Four years later, the English allied with the Burgundians, who forced Charles VI to give his daughter in marriage to Henry V and to sign the devastating Treaty of Troyes in 1420. This treaty disinherited Charles’s son, the future Charles VII, and recognized Henry’s claims to the French throne. Although many future historians would denounce it as an act of betrayal, contemporary reaction to the treaty was by no means uniformly hostile in France, especially north of the Loire. Paris, in particular, supported the Anglo-Burgundian union until late in the war, and the university and the Parlement of Paris, the presiding sovereign court, recognized Henry V as their legitimate king when Charles VI died in 1422. From the 1420s on, however, the tide once again turned in favor of the Valois for several reasons. First, the English sometimes treated their French subjects with brutality and made heavy financial demands on the French.

The English had to extort even more money from their French subjects than did the kings of France because resources coming from England were inadequate. Second, the war—a dynastic conflict that had become a civil war—gradually changed again, into a war of national liberation. Although the notion of a French nation remained embryonic, the French tended to blame the hardships of the war on the English. Royal propagandists exploited this tendency, emphasizing the need for a king who was “one of our kind.” Third, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance began to develop ultimately fatal strains. After 1435 the Burgundians threw their weight behind the Valois, decisively shifting the balance of power.

Finally, there was the mission of Joan of Arc, a young woman so romanticized in her own and later times that even today it is hard to dispel the mythology spun around her. Joan was born to relatively comfortable peasants from Lorraine. She was dismayed by the hardships her people had suffered in the war and sought an end to the conflict. She tried to reinvigorate the Valois dynasty so that it could remove the English from French soil. Contrary to the popular image, Joan of Arc was never a military commander, but she did help inspire a fighting spirit among the troops of the dauphin Charles, the eldest son of the king and the heir apparent. Charles, the disinherited Valois prince, had remained morose, lethargic, and uncrowned before Joan arrived on the scene in 1428. In 1429 Joan helped lift the English siege of Orléans, which opened the way for the dauphin to be crowned as Charles VII at Reims, the traditional site of royal coronations. The coronation was critical at this juncture, because it undercut Charles’s disinheritance in the Treaty of Troyes by emphasizing the divine, rather than the legal, basis of royal authority.

Seized by the English, Joan was tried for heresy and witchcraft. The English wanted not only to justify her execution but also to make the French believe the coronation had been the work of the devil. Upon her conviction, which was a foregone conclusion, she was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Partly as a result of Joan’s mission, partly as a result of the other factors indicated above, Charles was able to put the English on the defensive until the end of the war. France was nearly cleared of English forces by 1453, when the fighting finally ceased. Despite the armistice, the English and the French viewed each other as mortal enemies for many centuries. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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