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How France won the Hundred Years’ War

Illustration of the battle of Castillon

After a century of struggle, the Hundred Years’ War was finally over.  The end, when it came, came surprisingly quickly.  In just four years the English were ousted from all their French possessions except Calais. 

But how did France win such a rapid and comprehensive victory?

France Prepares

The French regime had been far from idle during the 1440s.  Charles VII of France may well have been hoping for peace with England (war was an expensive business after all).  However, Charles was experienced and wily enough to prepare for the worst.

Somehow, the resources of France needed to be marshalled in a concerted effort to defeat the English.  This would be no easy task since the French had, for a long time, failed to utilise their resources effectively (to say the least).

France, like England, also faced significant financial problems at this time.  The economic slump of the mid-C15th affected both countries.  It was not a good time to be paying for wars.  To force the English out of France would require a major military effort, taking several years, and requiring substantial finances.

But how?  How could you possibly raise such large sums of money at a time when you were already facing economic challenges?  In many ways this was the same problem that faced the Lancastrian regime in England.

But fortunately for the French, they had Jacques Coeur.

Jacques Coeur

Jacques Coeur was Charles VII’s money man.  He was the most gifted financier in C15th Europe, with the possible exception of Cosimo di Medici.  Thanks to his talents, the French king would have all the money he needed.

Portrait of Jacques Coeur
Jacques Coeur was instrumental in financing Charles VII’s war effort.  Without Coeur, French victory would not have been possible.

Coeur was already one of the richest men in Europe.  As a result, he was able to loan Charles significant sums (at favourable rates of course).  But Coeur was also energetic in the field of commerce, brokering lucrative trade deals for France as far afield as Egypt.  He also put his considerable talents to work reforming the French tax system and designing new taxes to pay for the king’s wars.

Coeur vs Suffolk

Back in England, a common criticism of the Suffolk-led regime focused on the high levels of taxation.  Many felt it had become oppressive.  At the same time, many people struggled to see how all this money was failing to deliver more effective results in military terms.  This in turn led many to conclude that the money was being wasted due to corruption, if not downright treason.

However, the tax burden in France was significantly higher than for the English.  The French also moaned about paying taxes of course; indeed a French rebellion of 1440 was partly prompted by it.  However, ultimately France paid.  The French regime raised eight times as much money from direct taxes during the 1440s as the English.  Of course, they had a larger population, but nevertheless the average Frenchman was paying something like 70% more than their English counterpart.

In the final analysis the French were willing (just about) to pay what it took to win the war.  The English were not.

Coeur’s financial wizardry gave Charles VII a clear advantage.  But money alone does not win wars.  How you choose to spend that money is critical.  Much also depends on sound military organisation and strategy.

A Military Problem

A key problem with the nature of warfare in the period was its cyclicality.  All too often it was characterised by stop-start campaigning. This made it difficult for either side to maintain momentum for more than a campaigning season or two.

To launch an offensive, you needed an army.  So, first you needed to raise the money for it (or at least raise enough money to convince people you were serious about paying them).  Then you had to recruit and assemble the soldiers (a process rather akin to herding cats).  Next, you’d fight your campaign, usually until such time as the money started running out.  Then most of the army would probably have to be disbanded because you couldn’t pay it.  The unemployed soldiers would then make their way home, supplementing their income with pillage and banditry on their way.  It might be another year or two before you could scrape together enough money to raise such a large force again. 

This was how both sides had done things for most of the Hundred Years’ War. 

The French Solution

But how about if you had a core standing professional army? Fewer recruitment headaches once it was established and, since you were not disbanding soldiers en masse, no bandit problems.

Good idea.

And so it was that in the early 1440s, the French established the first professional standing army in Europe.  And it was all financed by a new tax, specially introduced for the purpose by Coeur. The composition of this army was also reformed. Instead of a large force of mixed quality, the French opted to retain a smaller core force of a more professional quality.  The less reliable elements (and hence those more prone to banditry) were disbanded.

No such reforms were implemented in England or, indeed, anywhere else in Europe. 

Then, in 1434, Charles VII crossed paths with two brothers – Jean and Gaspard Bureau. They were visionaries who firmly believed that the future of warfare lay with artillery. Charles VII knew how to take credit for a good idea when he saw one, so he put the Bureaus to work, building him a greatly expanded artillery arm for his re-modelled army.

The Rise of Artillery

The 1420s and 30s had seen some significant developments in artillery technology.  However, prior to the Bureaus, these had tended to be adopted on a piecemeal, ad-hoc, basis.

Gaspard Bureau set about applying these innovations in a more systematic way.  New, more stable formulations of gunpowder were adopted as standard.  Instead of using wrought iron, Gaspard adopted more robust cast iron guns.  Instead of making a hotch-potch of different sized guns, he standardised the calibres.  The French artillery arm became more reliable, larger, and capable of delivering a more intense bombardment than anything that had come before.

Gaspard’s brother Jean would develop increasingly effective tactics for using these guns in sieges.  Guns of the period were all primarily designed for use in sieges.  However, in time, the French would start using the lighter and more manoeuvrable of these guns in open battle.  This represented an early form of proto-field artillery.  It would serve as inspiration for the early modern field artillery used in the Italian wars at the end of the century. 

The French army that would liberate France in 1449-1453 was able to field close to 300 guns.  Indeed, it was an army that was starting to look a lot more like a Renaissance army than a medieval one.

Old Thinking

Military thinking in England, by contrast, had largely stagnated.  The successes at Crécy and Agincourt had led to a complacent over-reliance on the iconic potency of the English longbowman.

The English also continued to assume that many of the same fundamental truths still applied to war in 1449 as in the past century.  And many of their assumptions were based on wishful thinking. 

The English parliament continue to hold to the view that the military effort in France should be primarily funded by England’s French provinces.  However, raising adequate funding and, indeed, troops would prove highly problematic in Normandy.  The loyalty of the local population was questionable to say the least.

The Duke of Somerset, who commanded the English forces in Normandy, pleaded with Parliament in February 1449 for more funds.  Without them, he warned, Normandy would be hard pressed to resist a concerted French offensive.  But Parliament was in no mood to listen.  The dangers, a complacent parliament felt, were greatly exaggerated.  Sure, in the event of French attack, they might expect some initial losses.  But, if that happened, it would be easy enough to raise an army, cross the Channel and defeat the French.  The English had, after all, defeated the French before at Crécy, Agincourt, Verneuil and Poitiers and could do so again.  

French Onslaught

By 1449 the French were ready.  By contrast, English forces in France had been run down due to a chronic lack of funding.  The English also now lacked the support of major allies in France.  Indeed, former allies such as Brittany had switched sides.

The French, for their part, were no longer riven by the serious divisions that had hamstrung their efforts over the preceding decades.  They had a well-resourced, professional standing army.  They also had the advantages of a vastly superior  artillery train.

The storm that broke in May 1449 would see English-held Normandy overrun.  Normandy’s defences were seriously undermined by a combination of inadequate defences, a determined French offensive and a local population increasingly hostile to English occupation.

Illustration of French siege artillery
French artillery proved critical to facilitating such a rapid French victory in Normandy in 1449/1450.

Jean Bureau’s artillery played its role.  Harcourt surrendered in early September after French guns demolished an entire wall of the lower court in a single barrage.

Finally, Rouen, the centre of English power in Normandy also fell.  A combination of overwhelming French force, an uprising of Rouen’s citizens and the threat of artillery bombardment forced Somerset’s surrender.  It had taken Henry V over five months to take Rouen in 1418, now it had fallen in less than a month.

Within a few short months most of the rest of Normandy fell.

Formigny

An English force was eventually scraped together to launch a counterattack.  They met the French at Formigny in April 1450.  The English were confident they had the upper hand in terms of numbers.  Initial probing attacks by the French were comfortably fended off by English longbowmen (a now familiar story). 

Then something different happened.

Rather than attack the longbowmen again, the French brought up two light artillery pieces and began bombarding the archers, just beyond the range of their longbows.  Casualties began to mount.  The English now had a choice; attack or sit back and continue to take casualties.

The English attacked.  The French had not yet learnt how to properly support this new-fangled field artillery.  As a result, the two guns were eventually overrun.  The English had neutralised the immediate danger, but the guns had proven a fatal distraction.  Just as the English thought they might be gaining the upper hand, fresh French forces arrived.   The longbowman had been forced out of position by the guns and had no time to establish new defensive lines of ditches and stakes.  They were now highly vulnerable to French cavalry.  Caught out of position, in a pincer, the English army was crushed.

Lessons

It was a hard lesson.  The two French guns may not have been decisive (except in so far as its firing alerted French reinforcements as to the location of the battle).  However, it nevertheless spelt an end to the pre-eminence of the English longbowmen. 

English longbow tactics had typically depended on establishing the archers in a strong defensive position (usually behind wooden stakes and pits).  This would optimise their field of fire and, if attacked, potentially inflict serious casualties on any assailants.  But such positioning took time.  Once a defensive line was established, repositioning was risky and difficult.  When caught moving in the open without field defences, the English archers were extremely vulnerable to cavalry.

Of course, the advantage of the longbowman throughout most of the period of the Hundred Years’ War was on the defensive.  By luring the enemy to attack them, the archers could wear them down with volley after volley of withering fire. 

But now that advantage was gone.  This old tactic, that had served the English so well for so long, was obsolete.

From now on, all the French had to do was deploy sufficient artillery and any English archers sitting behind static field defences became sitting ducks.

Normandy and Gascony Fall

Cherbourg, the last English stronghold in Normandy, was besieged by early July 1450.  Jean Bureau personally oversaw the positioning of the siege artillery.  Once again, the French artillery proved critical.  As one French chronicler noted at the time; “The town received such a heavy battering from cannons and bombards that the like had never been seen before” . In just over a month, Cherbourg fell.  English resistance in Normandy had collapsed. Medieval fortifications, it turned out, were an inadequate defence against massed artillery bombardment.

The English and French had been contesting Normandy ever since Henry V’s invasion of 1415.  Charles VII’s re-modelled French army achieved in little more than a year what previous French armies had failed to achieve over the past 34 years.

Charles now turned his attention to English holdings in Gascony in southern France.  The campaign of 1451 quickly followed a now familiar pattern.  Once again, a combination of overwhelming French force, inadequate English defences and the French artillery featured prominently.  By midsummer Bordeaux, the region’s capital, was in French hands.

Last throw of the dice

Over the following year the English finally managed to scrape together enough resources to launch one final desperate bid to retake Gascony.  They had some grounds for hope.  Unlike Normandy, Gascony had been part of the Plantagenet realm for three centuries.  The local population had considerable sympathy for the English king and little love of the French one.

In October 1452, an English army of around 3,000 landed near Bordeaux, led by the experienced and highly respected John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.  Talbot, as it turned out, was fortunate.  The French had expected the English to counterattack in Normandy.  So, when Talbot landed in Gascony, he found the region only lightly defended and took full advantage.

Talbot was arguably England’s most experienced and talented field commander in 1449.  However, even he was unable to stem the French tide.

With local help Talbot re-took Bordeaux and consolidated the English position along the southwestern coast before the year was out.  However, his success would be short lived.

Castillon

By early 1453, French armies began arriving in the region, determined to drive the English out.  By July they’d laid siege to Castillon, just east of Bordeaux.  The town asked Talbot for aid, and he duly set off, bent on breaking the siege.

Talbot raced ahead of the bulk of his forces, brushing aside light French resistance at a priory outside Castillion.  Convinced that the French had started withdrawing he decided to press home the attack, launching a dashing assault against the French camp. 

There he encountered something new.

The camp’s defensive works incorporated Jean Bureau’s artillery.  As Talbot charged, the French guns opened fire.  The casualties amongst the attacking English at such short range were appalling.  As English reinforcements arrived, they simply met the same fate.  This was a new kind of warfare.  As the English began to falter, Breton cavalry swept in from the flank, ploughing into the English.  As this point, it all fell apart.

Despite having a numeric advantage, the English army was decimated.  Talbot was dead.  Within 2 days Castillon had fallen. On 19th October 1453, with no hope of relief and threatened by Jean Bureau’s feared guns, Bordeaux itself surrendered.

The Hundred Years’ War was effectively over.  French victory was absolute.

Endgame

In the end English recriminations over ‘corrupt and evil councillors’ and accusations of treason were no more than a delusional distraction from the real causes of their defeat.  All the English ‘if onlys’ were hopelessly wide of the mark. 

It would have made no significant difference if England had still held Anjou and Maine in 1449 – the French would have rolled over the defences there as easily as in Normandy and Gascony. 

It would have made no significant difference if Richard of York rather than Somerset had commanded the English forces in Normandy.  York would have suffered from the same paucity of resources with which to resist the French onslaught.

It would have made no significant difference if Henry VI had managed his finances better, England would still have been hamstrung by massive debts.  Parliament would still have refused to raise taxes to anything like the level needed to seriously challenge the French.

Henry VI’s government failed not because it was worse than the regency government that preceded it but because it was too much the same.

French Victory

The French won not because of English corruption and incompetence (although this helped).  They won because the English were unwilling to pay what it took to win.  Furthermore, they won because they were more innovative and adopted new strategies and tactics. And finally, they won because the English approached the war of 1449-1453 using the same old outdated assumptions.

Ultimately, the war of 1449-1453 was a war between a poorly maintained medieval English army and a well-equipped proto-Renaissance French army.  The age of castles, knights and longbowmen was passing.  The age of artillery, pike and shot was about to dawn. 

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If you missed our recent, related article, on how the English lost the Hundred Years’ War, you can read it here:

How England Lost the Hundred Years’ War

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

Jacques Coeur: Entrepreneur and King’s Bursar, Katheryn L Reyerson, Pearson, 2004

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 fall of English France, 1449-53, David Nicolle, Osprey, 2012

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

Images

Battle of Castillon, Charles Philippe Larivière, 1839 (via Wiki Commons)

Portrait of Jacques Coeur, unknown artist, C19th (via Wiki Commons)

Vigiles de Charles VII, fol. 165v, Siège de Mauléon (1449) (via Wiki Commons)

John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, Miniature, c.1445 (via Wiki Commons)

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