THE HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR
Inside King Edward III’s battle for France
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.
THE STORM BREAKS
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.