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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson




The Battle for Flanders
Flanders had grown to be the industrial center of northern Europe and had become extremely wealthy through its cloth manufacture. It could not produce enough wool to satisfy its market and imported fine fleece from England. England depended upon this trade for its foreign exchange. During the 1200's, the upper-class English had adopted Norman fashions and switched from beer to wine.

(Note that beer and wine were very important elements in the medieval diet. Both contain vitamin and yeast complexes that the medieval diet, especially during the winter did not provide. Besides, the preservation of food was a difficult matter in that era, and the alcohol in beer and wine represented a large number of calories stored in an inexpensive and effective fashion. People did get drunk during the Middle Ages, but most could not afford to do so. Beer and wine were valued as a food source)

The problem was that England could not grow grapes to produce wine and had to import it. A triangular trade arose in which English fleece was exchanged for Flemish cloth, which was then taken to southern France and exchanged for wine, which was then shipped into England and Ireland, primarily through the ports of Dublin, Bristol, and London.

But the counts of Flanders had been vassals of the king of France, and the French tried to regain control of the region in order to control its wealth. A civil war broke out in Flanders, with the English supporting the manufacturing middle class and the French supporting the land-owning nobility.

The Struggle for Control of France

The English king controlled much of France, particularly in the fertile South, lands that had come to the English when Eleanor of Aquitaine had married Henry II of England in the mid-12th century. There was constant bickering along the French-English frontier, and the French kings always had to fear an English invasion from the South. Between Flanders in the North and the English in the South, they were caught in a "nutcracker".

The "Auld Alliance"

The French responded by creating their own "nutcracker." They allied with the Scots in an alliance that persisted well into the 18th century. Thus the English faced the French from the south and the Scots from the north.

The Battle for the Channel and North Sea
The French nutcracker would only work in the French could invade England across the English Channel. (The French call it "La Manche," "The Sleeve," for what reason, I do not know.) Besides, England could support their Flemish allies only if they could send aid across the North Sea, and, moreover, English trade was dependent upon the free flow of naval traffic through the Channel. Consequently, the French continually tried to gain the upper hand at sea, and the English constantly resisted them. Both sides commissioned what would have been pirates if they had not been operating with royal permission to prey upon each other's shipping, and there were frequent naval clashes in those constricted waters.

The Dynastic Conflict

The last son of King Philip IV ( The Fair) died in 1328, and the direct male line of the Capetians finally ended after almost 350 years. Philip had had a daughter, however. isabelle had married King Edward II of England, and King Edward III was their son. He was therefore Philip's grandson and successor in a direct line through Philip's daughter. The French could not tolerate the idea that Edward might become King of France, and French lawyers brought up old Frankish laws, the so-called Salic Law, which stated that property (including the throne) could not descend through a female. The French gave the crown to Philip of Valois, a nephew of Philip IV. Nevertheless, Edward III had a valid claim to the throne of France if he wished to pursue it.

An Agressive Spirit in England

Although France was the most populous country in Western Europe (20 million to Englands 4-5 million) and the wealthiest, England had a strong central government, many veterans of hard fighting on England's Welsh and Scottish borders (as well as in Ireland), a thriving economy, and a popular king. Edward was disposed to fight France, and his subjects were more than ready to support their young (18 years old) king.

War broke out in earnest in 1340. The French had assembled a great fleet to support an army that was to crush all resistance in Flanders. When it had anchored in a dense pack at Sluys in modern Netherlands, the English attacked and destroyed it with fire ships and a battle across the anchored ships that was almost like a land battle on a wooden battlefield. The English now had control of the Channel and North Sea. They were safe from French invasion, could attack France at will, and were certain that the war would be fought on French soil and thus at French expense.

Edward invaded northern France in 1345. The Black Death had arrived, and his army was weakened. He was finally pinned against the coast by a much superior French army at a place called Crecy (pronounced "cressie"). Edward's army was a combined force: archers, pikemen, light infantry, and cavalry; the French, by contrast, clung to their old-fashioned feudal cavalry. The English had archers using the longbow, a weapon with great penetrating power that could sometimes kill armoured knights, and often the horses on which they rode. The battle was a French disaster.

Nevertheless, ten years later, the French employed the same tactics with the same result at Poitiers (1356). The French king and many nobles were captured, and many, many others were killed. Old-fashioned feudal warfare, in which knights fought for glory, was ended. The first phase of the war ended with a treat in 1360, but France continued to suffer. The English had employed trained mercenaries who plundered the country-side when not on an active campaign.

As the war dragged on, the English were slowly forced back. They had less French land to support their war effort, and the war became more expensive for them. This caused conflicts at home, such as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the beginning of civil wars. Nevertheless, in the reign of Henry V, the English took the offensive once again. At Agincourt, not far from Crecy, the French relapsed into their old tactics of feudal warfare once again, and were again disastrously defeated (1415). The English recovered much of the ground they had lost, and a new peace was based upon Henry's marriage to the French princess Katherine. These events funish the plot for Shakespeare's play, Henry V. With Henry's death in 1422, the war resumed.

In the following years, the French developed a sense of national identity, as illustrated by Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who led the French armies to victory over the English until she was captured and burned by the English as a witch. The French now had a greater unity, and the French king was able to field massive armies on much the same model as the British. In addition, however, the French government began to appreciate the "modern" style of warfare, and new military commanders, such as Bertran du Guesclin, began to fight with guerilla and "small war" tactics.

The war dragged on for many years. In fact, it was not until 1565 that the English were forced out of Calais, their last foothold in continental France, and they still hold the Channel Islands, the last remnant of England's medieval empire in France.


This war marked the end of English attempts to control continental territory and the beginning of its emphasis upon maritime supremacy. By Henry V's marriage into the House of Valois, an hereditary strain of mental disorder came into the English royal family. There were great advances in military technology and science during the period, and the military value of the feudal knight was thoroughly discredited. The order went down fighting, however, in a wave of civil wars that racked the countries of Western Europe. The European countries began to establish professional standing armies and to develop the modern state necessary to maintain such forces.

From the point of view of the 14th century, however, the most significant result is that the nobility and secular leaders were busy fighting each other at a time when the people of Westerm Europe desperately needed leadership.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.