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The long conflict between France and England, to which historians have given the name of "The Hundred Years' War," interests us chiefly as an illustration on a great scale of the transition from the mediæval, feudal order of society to the modern, national idea of political organization. Its nearer causes were largely feudal, and its methods were still, to a great extent, those of the earlier period. Its remoter causes, however, and the motives that kept it alive are to be sought on both sides in a steadily growing sense of national unity and national honor. Under the feudal régime it may fairly be said that it mattered little to the landholding aristocracy whether it were under the sovereignty of one king or another. The thing it really cared about was whether its privileges were such as it had a right to expect, and whether these privileges were likely to be fully and honorably maintained. So long as this was the case the barons found their profit and their glory in standing by their king in those undertakings which had a certain national character. But if their rights were tampered with, or if another sovereign offered equal guaranties of privilege, they easily took advantage of the flexible feudal arrangements to shift their allegiance...
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Copyright © 2016 by Ephraim Emerton
Published by Perennial Press
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THE LONG CONFLICT BETWEEN FRANCE and England, to which historians have given the name of “The Hundred Years’ War,” interests us chiefly as an illustration on a great scale of the transition from the mediæval, feudal order of society to the modern, national idea of political organization. Its nearer causes were largely feudal, and its methods were still, to a great extent, those of the earlier period. Its remoter causes, however, and the motives that kept it alive are to be sought on both sides in a steadily growing sense of national unity and national honor. Under the feudal régime it may fairly be said that it mattered little to the landholding aristocracy whether it were under the sovereignty of one king or another. The thing it really cared about was whether its privileges were such as it had a right to expect, and whether these privileges were likely to be fully and honorably maintained. So long as this was the case the barons found their profit and their glory in standing by their king in those undertakings which had a certain national character. But if their rights were tampered with, or if another sovereign offered equal guaranties of privilege, they easily took advantage of the flexible feudal arrangements to shift their allegiance.
While this is true of both the countries engaged in this desperate struggle, there is evident by the close of the thirteenth century a very marked difference between them. English feudalism had always differed from that of France in its relation to the overlord. The impulse given to the royal power by William the Conqueror had never been quite lost. The rights of the crown had been steadily enforced, and what might have seemed a great disadvantage, namely, the absence of a large and compact domaine which might become the nucleus of a monarchical state, had really proved an element of strength. For if the monarchy in England were to be maintained at all, it could only be through the willingness of its subjects to support it. Doubtless there were many times when this loyalty had been strained almost to the breaking point, but the necessity under which the English king was put of appealing to all his people instead of relying upon the resources of a great domaine had proved a powerful educating force in bringing about, on the whole, a harmonious working together of the several elements in the English state. On the other hand, it is clear that a rich family property overseas in France was a very tempting prize to an ambitious king in England. It offered him a chance, similar to that which his French rival enjoyed, of disciplining troublesome barons or obstinate parliaments by means of resources not dependent upon their good will. From this point of view, therefore, we can quite understand the energy with which the English kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries pursued this ambition, to hold and to increase the lands in France which had come to them by way of feudal inheritance. Yet it remains true that while these lands, one after another, fell away from them by the chances of feudal succession, the monarchy was gaining slowly but surely in its hold on the people of England. Further, the smaller extent of English territory, its comparative isolation, and the relatively greater uniformity of its population made it more easily possible for its kings to assert themselves as against the rival interests of barons or of commons. The definite establishment of Parliament toward the close of the thirteenth century offered a point of application for all measures looking towards a wider extension of the royal power as the price of a more firmly founded popular liberty. In a word, by the year 1300 English nationality was no mere dream of the future. It was finding its expression in a popular monarchy and in a vigorous, self-conscious national life. In France a similar effort at concentration of royal power had been proceeding on different lines and had led to different results. We have already examined some of the processes by which the French kings of the thirteenth century had succeeded in enforcing their judicial authority outside their own domaine, while at the same time they were widening as far as possible the extent of the domaine itself. In both these ways the gain had been very great, so that when, in the early years of the fourteenth century, King Philip IV had called upon the nation to support him in his trial of strength with Pope Boniface VIII, the response had been, on the whole, surprisingly prompt and complete. Yet in all the measures of all the kings from Philip Augustus to Philip IV the essentially feudal structure of the French state had not seriously been called in question. The king could never forget that he was himself a feudal prince, a landbaron like the rest, and the aim of his policy was always not to crush his feudal rivals but to substitute himself for them. When a principality of France became domaine, the king succeeded to the rights of the former lord. For the moment nothing was changed in the land except its headship. Its “customs” – that is, the legal status of its inhabitants – were not essentially altered; the same contributions of men and money that had formerly been paid to the lord were now due to the king. Even before such annexation to the crown, it had been possible, certainly from the time of Philip Augustus, for the kings to maintain in the feudal territories royal officials with more or less extensive rights of jurisdiction and of taxation. After annexation the scope of action of these royal officials was simply increased, and they came to replace the similar officials formerly employed by the lesser lords. It is thus almost literally true that during our period the French kings were conquering France not often by the sword but gradually by the slower weapons of purchase, mortgage, forfeiture, gift, or inheritance.
The Hundred Years’ War found France in the midst of this slow and difficult transformation. It is, of course, true that the farther the strengthening of the monarchy went, the greater momentum it gained toward overcoming the resistance of feudalism; but the peculiar character of the war, its long duration, the French reverses, and the dissensions among the leaders in French affairs are all to be understood only in the light of this conflict of political ideas. The monarchy at its best, as under Charles V, was too weak to control perfectly the resources it needed for the deliverance of the country. At its worst, as under John “the Good,” it was itself too hopelessly feudal to be a real leader in the national cause it failed so utterly to understand.
As between the two powers, then, at the opening of the Hundred Years’ War, the advantage appeared to be on the side of England, – a small, compact, fairly homogeneous people under a popular and energetic monarchy over against a people widely extended, made up of many distinct racial elements, and divided against itself by strongly opposed class interests. The war was, on the whole, popular in England, while the French went into it for the first generation rather languidly and without any just sense of the great national issues involved. The armies and navies of England were almost entirely made up of Englishmen; the French, both on land and sea, fought with the aid of large contingents of hired foreigners. The English notion of fighting was to get the better of the enemy and to kill him off as fast as possible. The French leaders were still governed by the lofty but fantastic ideas of mediæval chivalry, which treated war rather as a game, to be played according to certain rules of honor, than as a desperate struggle of peoples bent on carrying their quarrel to the last extremity. It was only by the long training of the war itself that these notions were gradually dispelled and the French people taught that national unity was the indispensable condition of national honor.
The immediate occasion of the Hundred Years’ War was a dynastic one. A glance at the table of the Valois family shows at once the question at issue. When King Philip IV died in 1314 he left three sons who followed him in regular succession upon the throne, and this in spite of the fact that the first two had each left daughters who might have succeeded them. The daughters had been set aside in pursuance of what was called the “Salic Law,” and thus a precedent had been established for all future time. The last of the three brothers, Charles IV, dying in 1328, left his queen in near expectation of an heir, Should this child prove to be a daughter, it was evident that the same question would arise once more and would be so much the more troublesome as the men likely to appear as claimants were more remote from the main Capetian line. In any case there would have to be a regency, and the choice of a regent was felt to involve the whole question of the succession. The male person nearest to the three late kings was their cousin, Philip of Valois, whose claim descended in the male line from Philip III. Philip’s claim to the regency was at once disputed by King Edward III of England, who was the son of a daughter of Philip IV and hence, like Philip of Valois, a descendant of Philip III. He based his claim on the fact of his descent through an elder, through a female, line and maintained that even if the Salic Law debarred a woman from the succession, it could not prevent her from transmitting to her descendants a right she could not herself exercise.
If both claimants had been Frenchmen the decision might have been difficult; as it was, the national spirit was strong enough to settle the matter. Philip of Valois was chosen regent by the barons of France and two months later, on the birth of a daughter to the widow of Charles IV, he was proclaimed king. Then came the test question, – whether King Edward would accept the situation and do homage to King Philip for the lands which he held in France. Under earlier feudal conditions homage paid by one king to another had not seemed to involve any sacrifice of honor. The relation was a personal one and did not carry with it any reflection on the vassal king’s duty to his own people. Now, however, under the new impulses of the national spirit, King Edward could but hesitate. Homage to the French king seemed to be, in a way, a stain upon the honor of the English people. Summoned by Philip VI to do homage in person, he failed to appear, and Philip made preparations to seize the revenues of his lands. In response to a second summons Edward came over to Amiens and there, in a personal interview, agreed to pay homage “by mouth and word,” but refused to place his hands in those of Philip and swear to be his liege man. It is significant that the reason he gave for his refusal was that he must refer the question to his Parliament and do as it would have him. Edward’s conference with his advisers, the pressure of Philip’s agents in Guienne, and the perpetual danger of war on the Scottish border resulted three years later (1331) in a formal declaration on his part that the homage at Amiens should be held to be liege homage, but only for those lands actually in the English possession.
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