Lessons for today from the Hundred Years War

This won’t be as boring as you might think.   I know most of you have only the vaguest memory of the Hundred years War and want it meant or maybe even who the opposing sides where.  Well, it was England and France and was fought from the mid 1300’s to the mid 1400’s.  Of course it was not constant warfare between the two antagonists.  There were periods of truce between them but for the most part they were at war with each other over the area of western France.  The crux of the struggle goes back even farther into the marriages of English Kings to Princesses from western France and you might even say to William the Conqueor, or William the Bastard as he was also known.   Suffice it to say that the English Kings for a couple of centuries believed they had the hereditary right to much of western France and naturally the French Kings opposed the claim for the most part.    There was a string of ports on the west coast of France that were of particular interests to the English Kings because of their strategic location and value as trading ports.   Dunkerque and Calais are two of them that  you would recognize today.

The Hundred Years War also produced Jean D’Arc who you have surely heard about.  She lead the French in opposing the English in one of the campaigns and received a certain renown.  But she was ultimately betrayed by her own side and burned at the stake by the English with the complicity of her French rulers. 

I know you don’t recall the three major battles of that War.  I do.  Yes, it is mosly useless information, but they were Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.  The last battle was made famous by someone you have heard of–Shakespeare.  He based the conclusion of Henry the Vth on the battle.  There is the very well known oration by the King at the beginning of the battle–“we few, we brave…..band of brothers”.   That last phrase was used by Stephen Ambrose in his book and was made into the recent HBO miniseries by Spielberg and Hanks–“Band of Brothers”.

The English won all three of the major battles but ultimately did not prevail in maintaining any portion of western France as part of the English domain.   The last battle–Agincourt –has special lessons about humanity and our proclivity to subcumb to our baser instincts.   The battle field was on a narrow field surrounded on all side by forests and not suitable for the Knights to manouever their mounts to full effect.   The French outmanned the English  that day by substantial numbers and at that time that was of some significance because of the mano a mano nature of most battles.   The English had been traispsing around France for weeks and were tired, sick and mostly just wanted to go back home at this point but the French found them and had them trapped and the English choice was fight or surrender.

The battle was lost by the French because of greed and hubris more than military tactics.   You must understand that in those days the way to fame and fortune for many was battle field accomplishments.  Many Knights wanted the glory of victory one on one and there was the added incentive that if you  could capture a foe you were allowed to take him as your personal prisoner which meant that you could hold him for ransom from his family.  Sometimes if the enemy was important enough the King would demand he be turned over to him but would give a share of the ransom to the capturing Knight or even commoner.  Taking ransom was very common at the time.  Remember the story of Richard the Lionhearted being held captive after his Crusade?  The same thing was still prevalent at the time of this battle.  Even commoners in the ranks could hope for a Knighthood or other advancement by their feats on the battlefield.   This was a battle that the French should have won.  They knew it at the time and were eager for the glory and the possible loot to be attained.  As they arrayed themselves on the battlefield the French were over eager.  Everyone kept pushing up to the front lines to make sure they would be the first to fell a foe or take a captive.  They did not wait for a battle plan to emerge.  The front ranks of the French Knights soon took off without orders to join battle and get their glory and gold.

The English long bowmen decimated the line of French Knights, but the hordes behind them keep pushing forward, each anxious for their own chance at the English.  The English were in a compact line between the forests and thus the greater numbrs of the French were not as telling as they would have been because only so many at a time could  come to blows with the English.   The back ranks of the French kept pressing forward thinking their comrades in front were destroying the English, not realizing that they were in fact being wiped out by the English.  But the quest for that glory and the chance to seize riches was irresistable to the French.   The meat grinder kept being fed by the French themselves, each believing Eden was right before them when it was only an English abattoir. 

It was a stunning victory for the English.   A victory that was truly for the French to lose.   The English won the battle but were so depleted and exhausted that they soon went back to England.   France ultimately won the war.  They were destined to win it as a matter of simple geography.   They had the interior lines of defense and did not have to cross the channel.

All the advantages that day lay with the French.  It is important to understand why they lost.   It was not due to lack of bravery or military skill or manpower.   It was their individual desire for that glory and gold.   That lesson is as important today as it was 6 centuries ago.   Greed in all its forms may fuel ambition but will in every instance open the gates of destruction.

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