home | history

The Hundred Years' War and Decline of Chivalry

The historian Yuval Noah Harari writes:

...in medieval Europe the nobility believed in both Christianity and chivalry. A typical nobleman went to church in the morning, and listened as the priest held forth on the lives of the saints. 'Vanity of vanities,' said the priest,'all is vanity. Riches, lust and honour are dangerous temptations. You must rise above them, and follow in Christ's footsteps. Be meek like Him, avoid violence and extravagance, and if attacked – just turn the other cheek.' Returning home in a meek and pensive mood, the nobleman would change into his best silks and go to a banquet in his lord's castle. There the wine flowed like water, the minstrel sang of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the guests exchanged dirty jokes and bloody war tales. 'It is better to die,' declared the barons,'than to live in shame. If someone questions your honour, only blood can wipe out the insult. And what is better in life than to see your enemies flee before you, and their pretty daughters tremble at your feet.

Wikipedia writes of a "code of chivalry ... that evolved after the end of the crusades partly from an idealization of the historical knights fighting in the Holy Land, partly from ideals of courtly love." It lists Ten Commandments of chivalry:

1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.

2. Thou shalt defend the Church.

3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.

4. Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.

5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.

6. Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.

7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties if they be not contrary to the laws of God.

8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.

9. Thou shalt be generous and give largesse to everyone.

10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

With the Hundred Years' War the way of the world continued much as before, but there were also changes. It war was fought by men who had earned their knighthood trained on horseback from early childhood. But knights on horseback were becoming an anachronism. Feudalism was in decline as kings were gaining power over nobles, and kings were taking charge of war-making and violence. Edward III supported the trappings of chivalry. Heraldry, tournaments, banquets, courtly love and the writing of epic romances that flourished during his reign. But in the place of knights, mercenaries were being hired. Edward's military was armed with the longbow, with arrows that hit effectively at a range of 250 to 300 yards. Ten arrows could be shot per minute, faster and with greater range than the crossbow being used by the French, and, like the crossbow, arrows shot from a longbow could pierce chain link armor.

In the 1300s, firearms were being used, but firearms were not yet very effective, and English nobles saw killing men with gunpowder and shot as cowardice. According to the fourteenth-century Italian scholar, Petrarch, anyone captured by a noble who had been using such weaponry might have his hands cut off and his eyes poked out.

At the Battle of Crécy, in 1346, Edward’s army of 12,000, including 7,000 archers, against a French army of 36,000, devasted France’s armored knights on horseback and its foot soldiers. Ten years later, at Poitiers, the British massacred the French again, the French knights and their horses falling in heaps.

Peasants near Paris disliked the increased tax burden that accompanied the Hundred Years' War, and they were fed up with being forced to labor on castles and fortifications and fed up with marauding English and French soldiers. In 1358 near Paris, peasants called the Jacquerie went on a rampage, moving through the countryside, killing nobles, raping the wives and daughters of noblemen, setting fire to castle interiors and destroying estates. The aristocracy united against the rebels. They were better organized and had a larger army, and thousands of peasants were slaughtered — the guilty and the innocent alike.

In 1360 the first phase of the Hundred Years' War ended in a treaty called the Peace of Brétigny. In France, out of work mercenary soldiers who had been hired by the English, were living off plundering the French. In England, knights idled by a truce in the Hundred Years' War were trying to keep up with the fading culture of chivalry by resorting to their old habit of robbery and abuse of the poor. A group of vigilantes formed who would become known as Robin Hood and his band of followers, living in the Sherwood Forest. According to legend they were opposed to corruption and abuse by aristocrats, grasping landlords and wicked sheriffs.

It was in 1381 that England had it big peasant unprising. Peasants feared that lords would be taking back lands they had given them after the Black Death. Peasants were unhappy about having to work on Church land, sometimes twice in a week, making, as they saw it, the Church rich and leaving them unable to do needed work on their own land. The most pressing grievance was increased taxes – demanded by government to help pay for the Hundred Years' War. An incident regarding resistance to the poll tax sparked rebellion. Peasants marched from Kent to London, along the way burning to the ground buildings that housed tax records and tax registers. People in London opened their city's gates to them, and in London King Richard II (r 1377-99) met the peasants at Mile End, gave them what they asked, and invited them to return home in peace. Some did not. Discipline among the rebels was lax. There was the drinking of alcohol. Some executed ministers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sudbury, and they sacked the mansions of some bishops and lords.

The war picked up again in the early 1400s. England's King Henry V (r 1413-22) resumed the war in part as a distraction from social tensions within England. There was the Battle of Agincourt in northern France and another slaughter of French knights by England's archers. In a single day, France's nobility was decimated. France's king from 1422, Charles VII, would create France's first standing professional army — rather than an army organized by feudalism. No longer needed in battle, the knights would take refuge in the tournaments that were merely staged pageantry.

The real war continued, with Joan of Arc. Joan was the illiterate daughter of prominent farming family. She is said to have heard voices. In 1429, she persuaded her king, Charles VII, to support her effort at relieving the city of Orléans, then being besieged by the English. She knew little of warfare, but she believed that if the French soldiers with her would not swear or visit prostitutes they would win.

Joan became a prisoner of the English, who, suffering from attacks by forces under her command had come to see her as a witch and as an agent of the devil. Wishing to have Joan discredited before she was executed, the English turned her over to ecclesiastic authorities — the Inquisition — at the French town of Rouen, then under English rule. The Inquisition pondered the question whether Joan's visions were genuine or delusions of the devil. The British wanted her executed and were displeased when it appeared that she would be allowed to recant. In her cell, Joan was given a dress as a part of her recantation. But Joan was found back in her usual men's garb. Her recantation a failure, Joan was charged with sorcery (witchcraft) and burned to death in the marketplace at Rouen.

After Joan's death, the war continued in desultory fashion. England lost its alliance with its ally on the continent, Burgundy (today a part of France). The insistence on total victory had dissipated. Both countries welcomed peace. In more than a century of bloodshed, England's monarchy had won nothing. It withdrew from its territory on the continued except for Calais, on the channel coast. With the end of war, in October 1453, there was a revival of trade and an end to economic depression.

CONTINUE READING: European Politics, Cannon, and Machiavelli

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.