The History Series: What Led to the Hundred Years War?


The Hundred Years War was a complex beast. The most basic timelines will show that it was contested by England and France between 1337 and 1453. The reality is that swathes of Europe became involved in the long dispute and, rather than being a singular war, it was actually a period of intermittent fighting, truces and political wrangling. In this blog, I will look at what caused the Hundred Years War.

The roots of the conflict go all the way back to 1066 and the Norman invasion of England. This was a time where the crown wasn’t necessarily passed down to the monarch’s eldest son but, more generally, the king himself would decide who would be next in line.

Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor, had no offspring and had not been clear about who should succeed him. Consequently, Harold, William, Duke of Normandy and Harald Hardrada of Norway all claimed the crown of England. William ultimately took the prize, claiming the moniker William the Conqueror as he did so. This is where things start getting complicated for the Anglo-French relationship.

William may have been the king of England but, on the other side of the channel, he was merely the Duke of Normandy. That meant something of a juxtaposition; as a king, he was of the highest status but, as a Duke, he was subservient to the king of France.

In order to retain control of Normandy he was required to swear fealty to the French king but, as a king himself, it could be considered humiliating to be swear fealty to somebody who was now his peer. William largely continued the practice, acknowledging the separation between his control of England and his commitments to control his Duchy in France, but many of his successors weren’t quite so keen. This question of status would be a source of cross-channel political conflict for another 400 years.

Tensions Between the French and English Monarchs

Fast-forward to 1314. Gascony, in the south-west, was now under the control of the English crown, acquired following Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. Normandy and the territories in the north, however, had been ceded in 1214 as a result of terrible governance by King John. The geography had changed but the sticking point had not; English kings were vassals of French kings when it came to governing provinces.

The French succession looked very secure in 1314. The 45-year-old King Philip had three sons, who would all go on to rule as Louis X, Philip V and Charles IV, and the likelihood of at least one of them producing a male heir would have been very high. Unfortunately, they fell like dominoes and had all died without male offspring* by 1328.

The repeated deaths of the French kings was particularly inconvenient for Edward II, who was himself married to Philip the Fair’s only surviving child, Isabella, and had acceded to the English throne in 1307. Visiting France to pay homage to the king was a politically sticky issue at the best of times and Edward himself wasn’t exactly the most dedicated to managing the affairs of state.

With increasing political turmoil in England, enduring repeated journeys to France to swear fealty every time a new king was crowned would have been galling and was often impractical. Edward II, never one to shirk the responsibilities of state if they didn’t suit him, made something of a habit of either postponing visits to France or simply not turning up.

In line with the Anglo-French politics of the day, Edward’s control in Gascony was often sanctioned as a result of his no-shows at the French courts. The Hundred Years War didn’t ‘officially’ begin until 1337 but the 1320s were already a time of high tension and sporadic conflict.

*This isn’t strictly true. Louis’s son John the Posthumous was born after Louis’ death but died at only five days old.

The Challenge from Edward III

Charles IV died in 1328, at only 33 years old. Edward II had himself died a year earlier after being overthrown by rebel forces led by his wife, and Charles’ sister, Isabella. Edward III, her son, took the throne at the age of 14. The early years of his reign were led, formally, by a regency council but the reality was that Isabella and her close ally, Roger Mortimer, ruled the country until 1330.

After Charles IV’s death, the question of succession arose. As the nephew of the dead king, Edward was the closest direct male descendant, but it was decided that passing the succession through the bloodline of a woman wasn’t appropriate.

It was also a convenient excuse to ensure that a Frenchman took the throne. Charles was succeeded by his cousin, who ruled as Philip VI the Fortunate. Edward’s case was argued but not pressed, perhaps because he was still a minor.

By 1337, tensions had grown further in Gascony. In response to Edward’s refusal to pay homage for the region as a vassal, King Philip confiscated the region. Edward responded by declaring war to stake his claim to the French throne.

Although the first major conflict wasn’t until the naval Battle of Sluys in 1340, Edward’s declaration was the opening move of a conflict that would not be settled for 116 years and would see England all their territory in France, with the exception of Calais.

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