Vassal (feudal system:) A person granted the use of land in return for rendering homage, fealty, and usually military service to a lord of superior rank.
England and France had been at each other’s throats since William the Conqueror invaded in 1066. William was a vassal to the French king, and assumed the right to rule England after he killed the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. He brought French customs and the French language with him, and replaced most governmental and church officials with Normans. Needless to say, this was unpalatable to the English barons, and various forces had been battling sporadically for various reasons in various places ever since. Some 25% of the years between 1119 until 1337 was taken up with France and England fighting each other.
The Hundred Years War actually began in 1337, when Edward III of England attempted to assert his claim to the throne of France. French king Philip IV had died in 1314 and was succeeded by his son Louis X (died 1316.) Louis was followed by brothers Philip V (died 1322) and Charles IV (died 1328.)
With the passing of Charles IV, The Capetian dynasty ended. With no direct male heirs remaining, the French throne was up for grabs. However, Philip IV did have a daughter, Isabella, and she had been married to Edward II of England. Hence, their son, Edward III, was Philip’s grandson.
Naturally, the French couldn’t stand for that, and the French nobility sided with the claim made by Philip IV’s nephew, Philip of Valois. He was crowned Philip VI in 1328, and immediately required Edward to do homage to him for the valuable French province of Gascony, on France’s SW coast. Edward wasn’t terribly thrilled by this, but he eventually relented and recognized Philip as King of France in 1331 in exchange for continued control over Gascony.
However, for a variety of reasons, in 1337 Philip VI revoked Edward III’s ownership of Gascony and began raiding the English coast. In response, Edward reasserted his claims to the French throne and began forming alliances with the nobles of Flanders and the Low Countries (Belgium and Holland.)
Historians usually separate the Hundred Years War into three phases, separated by the occasional truce — The Edwardian War (1337-1356,) The Caroline War (1369-1389,) and the Lancastrian War (1415-1453.)
For a time, everything went Edward’s way. In 1340, the British navy won a decisive victory In The Battle of Sluys (now a small town in Southwestern Holland) which gave England control of the Channel for the duration of the war and prevented the possibility of a French invasion.
Then, in 1341, John III, the Duke of Brittany (extreme NW France) died, precipitating a succession dispute between the duke’s half brother John of Montfort, who was allied with Edward, and Philip VI’s nephew, Charles of Blois, eventually ending in 1364 with the defeat of Charles by John’s son.
Action for the next few years focused around a back and forth struggle in Brittany, with areas being gained and lost by both sides. Then, In July 1346, Edward mounted a major invasion across the channel, and captured the completely unguarded city of Caen in just one day.
As Edward moved south to try and skirt the French forces, the French devised a plan to trap the English army between the Seine and Somme rivers. This failed and the English escaped. Edward was thus able to pick where the next battle was to take place, and decided a hill in the Crécy forest gave him the best chance.
Crécy pitted an English force of 9000 or so, against a far superior French force. However, about 5500 of the English army were longbowmen, while most of the French force of 30,000 were men-at-arms and common soldiers. Around 6000 were armed with crossbows. The Battle of Crécy was a complete disaster for the French, largely because of the English longbows, which could fire 5-6 arrows/minute at a range of 400 yards, as opposed to the crossbows, which had a shorter range and were limited to 1-2 bolts/minute.
Edward proceeded north unopposed and captured the city of Calais on the English Channel in 1347. This became an important strategic asset for the English, allowing them to safely keep troops in northern France. Calais would remain under English control until 1558, when the French took it back.
In 1347, the Black Death began to ravage Europe, and fighting temporarily came to an end.
It resumed in 1356, with the English forces, under Edward III’s son, Edward the Black Prince, overcoming the French at Poitiers. The Treaty of Brétigny ended this phase of the war, with Edward gaining large amounts of French territory.
Next: French fortunes turn for the better.