In­side King Ed­ward III’s bat­tle for France

History Revealed - - FROM THE EDITOR -

On Easter Mon­day 1360, the French were a bro­ken, blood­ied peo­ple. Ed­ward III, King of Eng­land, had his boot firmly pressed to their throats. For two decades, Ed­ward’s army had laid waste to huge swathes of north­ern France, crush­ing suc­ces­sive French kings’ forces seem­ingly when­ever it en­coun­tered them.

Now, fol­low­ing the holi­est week­end of the Chris­tian cal­en­dar, Ed­ward’s all­con­quer­ing army pre­pared to storm the cathe­dral city of Chartres and, in do­ing so, pro­pel their king to within touch­ing dis­tance of his ul­ti­mate goal: the crown of France.


But then, the weather in­ter­vened. Chartres was sud­denly en­veloped in a ter­ri­ble storm. The tem­per­a­ture plum­meted, a fe­ro­cious wind whipped around the city, and huge hail­stones rained down from the heav­ens.

To the 10,000 English troops camped with lit­tle shel­ter on a plain out­side Chartres, the re­sults were cat­a­strophic. Horses bolted, tents were blown away and sol­diers cut down by huge balls of ice fall­ing from the skies.

Lit­tle more than half an hour later, per­haps as many as a thou­sand English­men lay dead. “A foul day, full of myst and hayle, so that men dyed on horse­back,” was one chron­i­cler’s take on the dis­as­ter.

As for Ed­ward, he was in no doubt that the storm was a sign from God. In fact, it’s said that he dis­mounted from his horse, kneeled in the di­rec­tion of Chartres Cathe­dral and re­cited a vow of peace.

The English king would not seize Chartres – and nor, ul­ti­mately, would he seize the throne of France.

Black Mon­day – as the de­ba­cle out­side Chartres is now best known – was an enor­mous set­back for the English. Yet it shouldn’t ob­scure the fact that King Ed­ward had come within an ace of achiev­ing some­thing quite re­mark­able: van­quish­ing the might­i­est na­tion in Europe. That he did so is down to a se­ries of sen­sa­tional mil­i­tary triumphs over the first 25 years of what would be the long­est conflict ever fought on Euro­pean soil: the Hun­dred Years’ War.

Fought be­tween 1337 and 1453, the Hun­dred Years’ War has been de­scribed as the blood­i­est di­vorce in his­tory. That’s be­cause the two na­tions that it pit­ted against one an­other – Eng­land and France – were vir­tu­ally joined at the hip.

Ever since the Nor­man Con­quest of Eng­land 300 years ear­lier, the two coun­tries’ elites shared the same lan­guage, and a strik­ingly sim­i­lar cul­ture and cus­toms. Un­for­tu­nately, they also shared blood­lines – and when, in 1328, the French king, Charles IV, died with no ob­vi­ous heir, that meant trou­ble.

As King Charles ap­proached the end of his life, across the Chan­nel, the French king’s nephew Ed­ward III was be­gin­ning to make his pres­ence felt on the English throne. Back in 1327 the teenage Ed­ward had in­her­ited the throne of a weak and frac­tured king­dom still reel­ing from the mur­der of his hap­less fa­ther, Ed­ward II.

By the time of Charles’s death, things were dif­fer­ent. Young Ed­ward was ev­ery­thing his fa­ther was not – tal­ented, charis­matic and ruth­less – and this was re­flected in his ever more as­sertive na­tion. Ed­ward was also highly am­bi­tious – and so, no sooner had King Charles breathed his last, than he was ready­ing him­self to claim his right­ful po­si­tion as heir to the throne of France.

Un­hap­pily for Ed­ward, the French aris­toc­racy didn’t agree, and in­stead had an­other rel­a­tive of Charles crowned as King Philip VI. If that wasn’t hard enough for the proud young Ed­ward to swal­low, soon af­ter he was sum­moned to cross the Chan­nel to pay homage to Philip. It was a duty that Ed­ward duly ful­filled, but it seems to have put him in the mood for a fight. As it turned out, that fight wasn’t long in com­ing. And the trig­ger for it lay in an English cor­ner of France.


Back in 1152, Henry of An­jou had mar­ried Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. When he was sub­se­quently crowned King Henry II of Eng­land, Aquitaine – a mas­sive swathe of ter­ri­tory hug­ging the western seaboard of south­ern France – be­came an English pos­ses­sion. Aquitaine proved a huge thorn in the side of the kings of France – not only be­cause it was land that they be­lieved was right­fully theirs, but also be­cause it was an es­pe­cially lu­cra­tive trade part­ner to the English 100,000 bar­rels of wine made the jour­ney from the duchy to English shores in 1308–09 alone).

The French had long har­boured am­bi­tions of seiz­ing this wine-rich cash cow for them­selves. By the time Philip took the throne, the temp­ta­tion had be­come over­whelm­ing – and, in 1337, the French king or­dered its con­fis­ca­tion. For Ed­ward, still smart­ing at be­ing

CROWN DU­ELS LEFT: To Ed­ward III, the storm at Chartres was a sign from God to end the bat­tle. ABOVE: The tomb of his mur­dered fa­ther, Ed­ward II.

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