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The end of the Hundred Years War was a blessed relief to England and France

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Saturday, 21 December 2013

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This edited article about the Hundred Years War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Henry VI and Talbot, picture, image, illustration

Henry VI, King of England, presenting a sword to John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury

The clerk, entering his office at Westminster, pulled a face as he caught sight of the parchment rolls piled on his desk. Somewhere among those copies of letters, petitions, orders and treaties, all written in the course of the wars with France, was the document he required. He pulled out a roll at random and looked at its date – 1338, the 12th year of the reign of King Edward the Third, and the year in which the war had begun. It was an order addressed to the king’s subjects in Bordeaux. The clerk sighed; that was over a hundred years ago. Now, in 1453, the capital of Aquitaine was occupied by the French; not even John Talbot had been able to save it.

In 1435 England had suffered two major reverses in France – and they were not on the battlefield. First, the Duke of Bedford had died and the young King Henry VI had thus lost his able regent in France. The king now took over the direction of affairs there himself – with disastrous consequences. Henry was a gentle and pious man, lacking the craft and ruthlessness of his father, and he was dependent on the advice of a series of favourites. So many men had the managing of his state, wrote Shakespeare, “that they lost France and made his England bleed.”

The second blow was the loss of the alliance with Burgundy which had proved so essential to the maintenance of English supremacy in France. The Duke of Burgundy, by a series of stealthy diplomatic manoeuvres, had coolly changed sides and had become an ally of the French; his support was to be of more value to Charles VII than that of Joan of Arc herself. England suffered a third blow soon after, when her old allies in Flanders also joined the French side. Without this support, it seemed that England’s cause in France was lost.

Yet for a time the English held on through many successful battles. This was largely due to the military skill of one man, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. He was an old man, but also a veteran soldier. Nevertheless he conducted a series of operations in which his small forces scored success after impudent success against overwhelming French numbers. Whether he was leading his men in white cloaks across snow-covered ground to storm a well-defended town from an unsuspected direction or crossing the ice-covered moat around Paris in an audacious attempt to win that city back from Charles, Talbot was always in the thick of the fighting and his reputation quickly spread through France. His name was invoked as a threat to naughty children as often as those of Marlborough or Wellington in later centuries; but he never really achieved honour in his own country.

Notwithstanding his efforts, however, the king’s advisers were determined that the war should end. In 1444 the Earl of Suffolk negotiated a truce. Under its terms King Henry married Margaret, the French King’s niece, and England yielded to France the province of Maine, a most valued possession. The truce was unpopular in England since it seemed to confirm France’s position of superiority. It was broken the following year. Soon afterwards the French re-occupied Normandy, invaded Aquitaine, and, in 1451, captured Bordeaux.

It was then that Talbot was sent on his last campaign. Taking advantage of the opposition demonstrated in Bordeaux towards French rule, he landed in Aquitaine in July 1452. The French garrison was soon expelled from the capital and from the towns nearby. In the following year, Charles VII sent three armies against Talbot from the north-west, the north-east and the east. Talbot sat tight in Bordeaux; he planned to make a sudden assault on the first army to arrive and destroy it before the others could come to its aid.

It was a sound scheme but Talbot had overlooked one factor: the feelings of the French towns which lay in the armies’ roads. When the army of the east arrived at Castillon, about 30 miles from Bordeaux, its inhabitants appealed to the English for help and the citizens of Bordeaux added their supplications. Talbot tried to explain his strategy but they would not listen. Finally, stung by their growing hostility and against his better judgement, he agreed to go to the aid of Castillon.

Talbot drove his force eastwards at great speed. His mounted contingent outstripped the infantry and soon arrived at the outposts of the French camp. They quickly over-ran them and Talbot paused, waiting for his infantry to catch up before he made his main assault. But as he and his men breakfasted, scouts dashed in with the news that the French were retreating. Talbot was faced with a difficult decision: should he wait for his reinforcements and attack in strength, or should he charge the enemy now while it was in confusion? He took the latter course. His men marched and galloped after the French – only to find that the scouts’ information had been wrong. The French were not in retreat at all, they were drawn up in battle order, their cannon in position and ready to fire.

The English checked. They were outnumbered six to one. There was only one thing to do. Talbot ordered his men to dismount – he himself remained conspicuously in the saddle. Then he gave the order to advance and the English force marched forward, ready to fight against overwhelming odds as they had already done at Crecy and Agincourt.

But this was not to be like Crecy or Agincourt. The French cannon ploughed mercilessly through the English ranks and although Talbot’s son, Lord de Lisle, came up soon with the infantry, it was too late. The English were scattered in retreat. Talbot managed to gather the remnants of his force together for a last stand before a ford across the River Dordogne. There his horse was struck by a cannonball and the old man was trapped beneath the writhing beast. As he lay there, helpless, a Frenchman ran forward and smashed his skull with a battleaxe. It was the end of English rule in Gascony. And it was the end of the war.

The clerk had found his document and was arranging the rolls neatly, ready for re-filing. He wondered, as he did so, if the wars with France really had come to an end, or if a new expedition would be fitted out a few years hence. After all, no peace treaty had been signed; England’s claim to lands in France had not been renounced; nor had the English king’s claim to the French crown; and England still held Calais and the Channel Isles. The clerk pondered, then shook his head. Surely both sides had had enough. He rose and walked briskly from the room.

He was right. Civil war was soon to convulse England and although she would fight again with France, the stakes would not be the same. A century of war had ended.

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