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How England Lost the Hundred Years’ War

Painting of Joan of Arc defeating the English

Ever since Joan of Arc’s victory at Orleans in 1429, the Hundred Years’ War had not been going England’s way.  After several abortive attempts, England and France eventually negotiated a precarious truce in 1444.  However, by the late 1440s it was unravelling. The French were growing impatient with the English and the English, for their part, were unwilling to make the concessions the French demanded.  Peace negotiations were at an impasse.

Renewed conflict now seemed a real possibility, but how ready were the two sides for the gathering storm?

David and Goliath

The Hundred Years’ War had always been a David and Goliath conflict.  England’s population, during this period, was only around one-fifth the size of that under the control of the French king. In terms of manpower and wealth the English had always been significantly disadvantaged (at least in theory). The idea that an English king, with such a relative paucity of resources, might somehow wrest control of the French throne had always been a real longshot.

However, for much of the period, circumstances had combined to make the conflict a surprisingly close-run thing.

The English compensated for their on-paper disadvantages by seeking alliances with powerful French nobles such as Burgundy and Brittany.  Talented individuals like Edward III, the Black Prince, Henry V and John of Bedford allowed England to pull off some important military victories when it really counted.  Perhaps most significantly of all, division and lacklustre leadership within the French camp had often prevented France from capitalising on her theoretical superiority.

But, by the late 1440s, the situation had changed.

English Leadership

English victory was only possible if they could successfully galvanise all the resources at their disposal.  That required a major ongoing effort in terms of manpower and financing.  Anything less was simply not good enough.

During the Hundred Years’ War the English enjoyed some of their greatest successes under two particularly charismatic and talented kings – Edward III and Henry V.  Not only were these kings successful in military terms, but they were able to motivate their nobility and parliament to continue to support the war effort.  The prolonged periods of campaigning that characterised their reigns, were only possible because of the strength of their personal leadership.

However, after Henry V’s death in 1422, the English lacked such leadership.  From 1422 onwards England was ruled first by a far from united regency council and latterly by a king with little personal enthusiasm for war.  Indeed, Henry VI’s ability to govern his nobles and parliament was mediocre at best.  By the late 1440s he was effectively leaving much of the hard work of government to the Duke of Suffolk.

There would be no charismatic warrior king to lead England when France finally struck.

French Leadership

During the late C14th and early C15th the French King, Charles VI, had suffered from serious mental health problems.  This meant he was incapacitated for significant periods of time.  As a result, two competing factions of the French nobility vied for control of the court (the Burgundians and the Armagnacs).  The situation deteriorated into a civil war that Henry V was able to exploit to launch his bid for the French crown.

By the 1440s, this had changed.  Charles VI was long dead and his son, Charles VII had gradually but steadily re-established the power and authority of the French monarchy.  By the 1440s he was well placed to marshal French resources in a concerted effort to oust the English.

Portrait of King Charles VII of France
Charles VII became King of France in 1429.  By 1449, after years of careful preparation, he was finally ready to set about the task of ejecting the English from France.

Charles VII may not have had the best military, administrative or financial mind but he knew how to spot and appoint talented people.  His knack of picking the best man (or in Joan of Arc’s case, woman) for the job was his strongest asset. 

French leadership during the 1430s and 40s was therefore of a substantially higher quality than it had been for decades.

Diplomacy

The inability of the English to re-capture the initiative during the 1430s can be explained only in part by leadership deficiencies.  There were several other important factors that severely weakened the English position.

Henry V is best remembered for his military successes (especially Agincourt).  However, Henry’s success did not rest on military talent alone.

Henry V understood that England needed allies to defeat the French king.  He put considerable effort into nurturing alliances with powers such as the Duchy of Burgundy.  He fully exploited the disgruntlement of powerful French nobles to undermine support for the French king.

The necessity of this was so important to Henry that he made his nobles promise him, on his deathbed, that the alliance with Burgundy should be preserved at all costs.  Henry understood, as many of those who came after him failed to fully appreciate, that without French allies, victory in France was impossible.

Burgundy

Despite Henry V’s instructions, after his death his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, entered a private dispute with the Duke of Burgundy.  The source of contention was Gloucester’s wife’s continental inheritance.  This escalated into a private war that drove a serious wedge between England and Burgundy. 

Whilst the alliance survived this incident, it only did so because of the efforts of John of Bedford, Gloucester’s more capable elder brother.

However, as the 1420s and 30s dragged on it became increasingly clear that the English-Burgundian alliance was unlikely to achieve victory any time soon.  This was especially obvious after the disastrous English defeats at the hands of Joan of Arc in 1429.  Burgundy became convinced that the only sensible course of action was to seek an advantageous peace.  But the English, hostage to the legacy of Henry V, were unable to come to terms with the French.

The final straw came in 1435 when John of Bedford died.  This left Gloucester as a seemingly dominant force in the future English government.  If there was one person the Duke of Burgundy could not stand it was Gloucester.  Immediately after Bedford’s death, Burgundy made peace with the French king.

Brittany

John V of Brittany had maintained an alliance with the English for most of the 1420s and 30s.  However, when he died in 1442, he was succeeded by his son, Francis, who was far more sympathetic to the French king.  In 1443 an English army, led by the Duke of Somerset, laid siege to La Guerche.  Whilst La Guerche was held by the Duke of Alençon (an ally of the French king) it was also part of Brittany.  Duke Francis was far from pleased.

By the late 1440s Francis was gravitating ever more to the French camp.  So, the English hatched a hair-brained scheme to destabilise his regime and perhaps even replace him with his more anglophile brother Gilles.  They chose to act via a proxy, using a Spanish mercenary, François de Surienne, to take the town of Fougères in a surprise night raid.  The plan appears to have been to hold the town for ransom to secure the release of Gilles (then a prisoner).

Photograph of Chateau Fougères
The mercenary captain, François de Surienne took the Breton stronghold of Fougères in a surprise attack on 23rd March 1449.

The plan backfired.  The only effect was to drive Francis into an open alliance with the French.  It had been a foolhardy venture, and Suffolk was certainly complicit in the scheme.  However, Henry VI was personally very fond of Gilles.  It was almost certainly Henry, rather than Suffolk, who’d been the primary sponsor of the plan.

Diplomatic Failings

Stripped of her Burgundian and Breton allies, England was now forced to rely entirely on her own, far from adequate, resources. 

Burgundy’s support was lost by Gloucester’s foolish continental adventuring, coupled with the basic lack of English progress in the war after 1429.  Brittany was lost partly due to the ill-advised English actions at La Guerche and Fougères.  However, Duke Francis was far more sympathetic to the French king than his father.  In the absence of any spectacular English military successes, it had always been likely that Brittany would also jump ship.

However, in the final analysis, neither the regency council nor Henry VI’s court were able to manage diplomacy as deftly as Henry V had done.  England would have to face the oncoming storm without any powerful French allies.

Finance

Wars cost money.  And given the fact that the French king could raise far more money than the English king, this was always a potential problem for England.

However, the problem became more serious during the 1430s and 40s.  English royal debts mounted at an alarming rate over the period.  By the time war broke out in 1449, they stood at a staggering £372,000, easily more than ten times the annual royal income.

Much of the criticism of the time attributed these debts to mismanagement and corruption.  Many were convinced Henry’s government had given away too many freebies to court favourites.  Royal estates had been handed over to a corrupt elite at knockdown rates.  This, in turn, reduced royal income.  Then there was the issue of largesse at court.  The budget of the royal household was running out of control.  Again, the suspicion was that parasitic royal favourites were to blame.

Royal overspend and poor estate mismanagement were indeed factors but their role was greatly exaggerated.  Subsequent York and Tudor governments also struggled with debts and financing.  Later Yorkist attempts to cut the budget of the royal household and better manage estates enjoyed only limited success.  Such measures alone never proved sufficient to pay off royal debts.  In truth, England faced a far more fundamental fiscal crisis. 

Fiscal Crisis

A large part of the problem was down to the war.  Loans taken out to finance past campaigns had never been fully repaid.  And, of course, such debts carried associated interest payments. 

The situation had been made far worse by an economic slump and a decline in royal income from indirect taxes (primarily levied on the wool trade).  Since the 1420s indirect income had declined substantially.  So much so that it created an income black hole that accounted for over 60% of the total debt by 1449.  This fundamental shift in the structure of royal finances was never directly addressed (or even properly acknowledged).

The solution would require more than just cutting costs.  It required raising direct taxes significantly; something that the English parliament and nobility were not prepared to contemplate.

Suffolk attempted to extract taxes from parliament on several occasions but was often thwarted.  Towards the end of the 1440s, he warned that a lack of funds meant England would be hard pressed to resist any renewed French aggression.  A complacent parliament chose to ignore him. 

In short, the English parliament refused to pay for war but opposed accepting peace on French terms.  Such a contradiction made England’s position untenable.

Suffolk’s Failings

For most of the 1440s Suffolk was the primary architect of financial policy.  However, his influence only went so far.  The truth was that overspend relating to the royal household and the largesse shown in distributing royal estates were primarily down to Henry VI.  There was only so much Suffolk could have done to check Henry’s behaviour. 

Suffolk and Queen Margaret appear to have attempted to control access to Henry, vetting who might receive an audience. Some took this as further evidence of a corrupt court clique at work.  However, since Henry had a habit of granting gifts and offices to all and sundry, it is more likely that this was an attempt to limit Henry’s largesse.  

In his approach to state finances, Suffolk followed the same basic approach to previous Lancastrian regimes, going all the way back to Henry V’s time.  But, given the mounting scale of the problem, this was increasingly inadequate.  Suffolk, ultimately, did not fail because he did things differently from his predecessors.  The real problem was that he was too much like them!

What was really required was new thinking.  New thinking for finance and new thinking for war (or, ideally, new thinking for peace).  But there was no new thinking in England in the mid-C15th. 

Of course, if the French had not been preparing for war, then none of this would have mattered.  But they were. 

The Storm Breaks

Early one morning in mid-May 1449 a French merchant killed a gate guard and blocked the bridge of Pont-de-l’Arche with his cart.  A Franco-Breton army swarmed through the gates, overwhelmed the English garrison, and seized control of the town. 

It was the first act in the final stage of the Hundred Years’ War.  Within four short years English resistance in France was decisively crushed.  Normandy and Gascony fell with frightening rapidity.  In the end, all that remained of England’s French possessions was a tenuous foothold at the port of Calais.

The dream of a United Kingdom of England and France, the grand vision of Edward III and Henry V was dead.  After a century of struggle, of ebb and flow of fortune, of bitter stalemate, it was all over.  The end had come quickly and surprisingly easily.  The English collapse was cataclysmic and total.  French triumph, absolute.

But how had it come to this?  How could the English, after such spectacular victories as Crecy and Agincourt, have been so comprehensively crushed?

Scapegoats

The humiliation of defeat plunged the English political establishment into turmoil. 

They were at a loss to explain the magnitude of their defeat. In the end they were only able to rationalise it in terms of treason and corruption.  Suffolk and other members of the court elite had, through nefarious corrupt and treasonous acts, brought about defeat.  How else could it be explained?  Surely, the thinking went, the glorious victors of Agincourt could not possibly be defeated by the French otherwise.

Many looked back to the now dead Duke of Gloucester as if he had been some kind of prescient Cassandra figure. He’d argued for decades that England should take a more aggressive stance in France.  He’d blamed England’s failures on the malign influence of corrupt and evil councillors.  In the light of what had happened, it seemed to many that he’d been proved right.

Suffolk, as the primary architect of the failed peace policy was the obvious man to blame.  However, rather than simply denounce Suffolk for incompetence, an elaborate paranoid conspiracy theory flourished, accusing the duke of treason.

Suffolk’s Fall

Suffolk had been instrumental in negotiating what was now seen as a disastrous truce.  He’d freed the Duke of Orleans and returned him to France to encourage the French to wage war on England.  He’d given away Anjou and Maine, the very same territories from which the French attack had been launched.  These concessions had achieved nothing except to encourage the French to take the offensive.  Suffolk was even trying to marry his son into the royal family, probably as part of a plot to usurp the throne.  Some even accused Suffolk of planning to sell England itself to France.

Suffolk was hauled before parliament and accused of treason.  There were many who wanted his head, but the King refused.  Nevertheless, Suffolk was forced into exile.

Painting of the ship the Nicholas of the Tower, where Suffolk was executed.
The loss of Normandy forced the disgraced Duke of Suffolk into exile.  He was intercepted by a ship called Nicholas of the Tower whilst fleeing to the continent on 2nd May 1450 and executed after a mock trial.

Suffolk was so hated that he had to be smuggled out of London.  But he would never make it across the channel to exile.  His ship was intercepted by another vessel, the Nicholas of the Tower.  Its sailors took the law into their own hands and, after a mock trial, dispensed vigilante justice and executed the hapless Suffolk as a traitor.

But was it really that simple?  Could England’s defeat really be entirely down to the malign influence of traitors and a corrupt court elite? 

English Myopia

It took a spectacular kind of English myopia to believe their loss could be explained by corruption and treason alone.  For one thing, such claims conveniently glossed over the possibility that an incompetent English king might have had something to do with it.  It also avoided having to deal with the fact that, throughout the 1440s, the regime’s critics had lacked any credible alternative strategy themselves.

Parliament had, after all, often complacently refused to raise taxes to maintain England’s military presence in France.  The idea that royal debts could be repaid whilst somehow maintaining a strong military presence in France, without substantial tax revenues, was clearly delusional. 

More importantly, the English proved incapable of facing up to the realities of French achievement.  It was easier to accept that England had lost because of traitors than admit the possibility that France was now a superior European power.  It was painful to admit that the French had been willing to make greater sacrifices and work harder to win.  Nor could the English face the fact that the French now possessed a greatly superior army to anything England could muster.  Nor was it easy to acknowledge that France benefited from more talented and innovative leadership in virtually every department.

Why England Lost

At this point we ought to consider, in asking ‘why did England lose?’ , are we really asking the right question. I’d suggest a much better question is ‘why did France win?’ . In the end, it was the things the French did differently, rather than English failings, that won them the war.  If we really want to understand why England lost, we need to focus on how France won.

In part 2 of this series, we look at precisely this: how the French won the Hundred Years’ War.

Watch out for this article later this month.

Keep up to date with our stories…

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If you would like to read my other articles covering key events in the reign of Henry VI, explore the links below…

1 The Legacy of Henry V and the Infant King

2 The Parliament of Bats

3 The Minority of Henry VI

4 Jackanapes – the Rise of the Duke of Suffolk

5 Young Margaret of Anjou

6 The Treaty of Tours – Peace in Our Time 1444

7 The Downfall of Good Duke Humphrey

8 The Lancastrian Debt Crisis

References and further reading

Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses, Keith Dockray, 2016, Fonthill Media

Lancaster & York: The Wars of the Roses, Alison Weir, Pimlico, 1998

Shadow King, The Life and Death of Henry VI, Lauren Johnson, Head of Zeus, 2020

The English Friend: A Life of William De La Pole, First Duke of Suffolk, Susan Curran, Lasse Press, 2011

The fiscal constitution of later medieval England: the reign of Henry VI, Alex Bryson, 2013, PhD paper, University of York

Images

Jeanne d’Arc au siège d’Orléans, E Lenepveu, c.1888 (via Wiki Commons)

Charles VII of France, Jean Foucet, 1444 (via Wiki Commons)

The Château de Fougères, photo by Mike Finn (via Wiki Commons)

A Chronicle of England, Murder of the Duke of Suffolk, James WE Doyle, 1864 (via Wiki Commons)

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