Online Froissart

The War in the Fourteenth Century

By Christopher Allmand
Please cite as: Christopher Allmand, ‘The War in the Fourteenth Century’, in The Online Froissart, ed. by Peter Ainsworth and Godfried Croenen, v. 1.5 (Sheffield: HRIOnline, 2013),, first published in v. 1.0 (2010).

The war of which Jean Froissart became the most famous chronicler was to prove to be the greatest conflict fought in Europe during the Middle Ages. Why? The answer lies not only in its length (interspersed by periods of inactivity, it lasted for at least a century; hence the name, the Hundred Years’ War, given it by later generations) but in the issues at stake, in the developments which both caused and resulted from it, and in the new societies which it produced, particularly in France. In brief, this was no ordinary war.

As a conflict involving, chiefly but not solely, the kingdoms of France and England, it formed part of the growing pains of two great nations. Historians like to regard the War in its long-term perspective, as a vital step in the decline of a feudal relationship between two monarchies; a step, too, in the growth of the conscious national selfawareness of two of Europe’s leading kingdoms which faced each other over the Channel. Their relationship went back at least to the Norman Conquest when William the Conqueror had become king; the two kingdoms were now physically linked. Then, in the mid-twelfth century, much of western France had passed into the hands of Henry, count of Anjou, soon to become Henry II of England, who had married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the disowned wife of Louis VII of France. A satellite picture taken at that time would have shown the growing territorial influence of the king of England which extended, on continental soil alone, from the Channel to the Pyrenees, as well as including the whole kingdom of England. Not without reason have historians termed this huge sphere of influence the ‘Angevin empire’.

To successive possessors of the crown of France in the thirteenth century such authority was itself a challenge. Early in the century Philip II ‘Augustus’ began a process of ‘re-conquest’ in different parts of France, aimed at stabilising the crown’s feudal relationship with its vassals. In some areas this was not difficult. But when it came to areas governed by a man who, notwithstanding his rank and title in France, was also king of England, difficulties began to arise. A feudal relationship demanded that the vassal should give homage (a sign of ‘subservience’ and willingness to obey) to his lord. But a vassal who was also a king and, thus, an equal, had to be treated differently. Could he be? What should be the reaction to the evident reluctance of the king of England to recognise the fact that, in law, he was a vassal of the French king for the lands he held in France?

The French approach was subtle. English-held lands in the south-west of France were not easy to govern from a distance. While continuing to demand that the English crown should give the homage which it owed, the French king gave every support to English ‘subjects’ in Aquitaine to undermine English authority by encouraging appeals against judgments made by English officials to the authority of the parlement, the supreme court of France sitting in Paris, which represented the sovereign power of the French king (as lord) over that of the English king (his vassal). The sovereign was now beginning to exert his legal authority. His aim was nothing less than the undermining of the English king’s authority and prestige in Aquitaine, a policy to be seen in the wider context of the extension of French royal authority which is a dominant theme of that country’s thirteenth-century history. At about the same time, but on another flank, the Flemings were experiencing the same kind of pressure.

From 1294 to 1327, the history of Anglo-French relations is dominated by confiscation, war and attempts to settle a quarrel whose issues were becoming ever more complex and difficult to resolve. In 1303, it had looked as if peace might be established, to be sealed through the marriage of Edward I’s son, the future Edward II, to Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France. Far from settling the dispute, however, the marriage was destined to add fuel to the flames of conflict when, in 1328, on the death of Charles IV, the last king of the ancient Capetian dynasty, the offspring of that marriage, the young, energetic and ambitious Edward III laid claim to the vacant throne of France through the right of his mother, Isabella, sister of the late king. It was Edward’s determination to press his claim against that of the man, Philip of Valois, whom the French chose (as Philip VI) to be their king, which led to war.

Although all part of the same, long war (as men of the next century recognised) this was no continuous conflict. It could hardly have been otherwise. An army of 15,000 men made considerable demands upon the country’s adult male population, as it did upon the ability of the country to provide for the material and financial requirements of such a number in terms of weaponry, provisions, transport and, increasingly, wages. These were early days yet in the history of the national armies of England and France, and the idea of the physical conquest of a country, as we might conceive of it today, still lay well over the horizon. Nonetheless, Edward III might hope to achieve the defeat of his rival’s army, an undermining of his prestige and a diminution of his authority as the ruler, which would make his power increasingly ineffective to the point that, in the minds of some, his rule should be replaced by that of another.

To the English king, the claimant and, consequently, the holder of the initiative, the way forward was not always simple. It was best, certainly less dangerous, to try to engage the enemy in an indirect way. In the late 1330s French and English forces were opposed to one another (not for the last time) in Scotland; then, in 1340, officially Edward III staked his claim to the crown of France. Soon, the war scene would shift to the Low Countries. The first major encounter between French and English armed forces would, curiously, be at sea where, on 24 June 1340, Edward III, to the satisfaction of the Flemish towns, defeated a French fleet off Sluys (L’Ecluse), on the coast of Flanders. A setback for France this certainly was, but it did little to change the character of the way the English were planning their game, that of involving themselves in the rivalries between French kings and their vassals in the outlying regions of the kingdom. So, just as he had intervened in the Low Countries, Edward III joined in the Breton war of succession in 1341, supporting the candidate opposed to the king of France. The result was, in effect, stalemate, followed by an attempt, in 1344, to use diplomacy to bring peace. The result barely merited the word progress.

In 1346 Edward III decided on further, more drastic action. In the early summer, accompanied by his eldest son, Edward, later known as the Black Prince, the king personally led an expedition into Normandy. This, known as a chevauchée or raid, was aimed at the destruction of the region’s economic base, the harassment of its population by means of attacks on poorly defended settlements, the capture of important towns such as Caen, and the gathering of booty on a considerable scale by the soldiery. After threatening Paris, the army turned in a north-easterly direction, waiting to see whether the challenge which such attacks constituted would be taken up. The response came on 26 August. A French army, lacking the discipline and tight leadership of its rival, attacked the English army which awaited it in a good defensive position at Crécy. It was a fateful day of defeat for France. In the same summer another English army defeated a Scottish force at Neville’s Cross, near Durham, an encounter at which the Scottish king, David II, was taken prisoner. In 1347, after a siege which lasted nearly a year, the English captured the important military and economic outpost of Calais; it would remain English for over 200 years.

The initiative now lay with the English king, but the outcome of the season’s campaign was soon to be lost by the arrival of the plague (the Black Death) in Europe in 1348. The fighting ceased. Both countries needed a period of respite to enable them to recover from the heavy blow of the loss of population (something in the order of one third to one half) which they suffered. In 1354 further attempts were made, this time at Guînes, near Calais, to make peace through diplomacy. What each side demanded, or refused to concede, had scarcely changed, so this method of reaching a settlement failed. In France, the king, now John II, experienced further trouble, this time at the hands of Charles, king of Navarre who, pursuing certain territorial claims was creating divisions of loyalty among the French king’s Norman subjects. Thus encouraged, the English planned another great effort, involving a giant pincer movement by three separate forces, one led by the Black Prince, with the intention of defeating the French army. On 19 September 1356 the French met the force led by the prince. By the end of the day, the French had been routed and king John had become, like his Scottish counterpart, a prisoner of the English.

France was no longer able to oppose the English, to whom the future appeared to belong. This time, protracted diplomacy brought results. In 1358 the French agreed to cede Aquitaine and other large tracts of territory, in full sovereignty, as well as paying a huge ransom to free their king. In the following year Edward III pressed his captive for further territorial concessions; these the French council refused to agree to. In May 1360, after a further English expedition into France, a treaty was sealed at Brétigny, near Chartres. This gave the English the lands ceded in 1358, and a smaller, but more realistic, sum for the ransom of the French king. Each side also made an important concession: Edward III agreed, if the cessions of land were fully implemented, to relinquish his claim to the crown of France, while John II renounced his demand for sovereignty over the territories ceded to the English.

Peace at last? Yes, but not a lasting peace. Many English soldiers, deprived of a living on account of the cessation of hostilities, found the temptation to participate in France’s military affairs irresistible. Some, not the least of whom was the Black Prince, joined in the Castilian civil war being fought over the crown of that kingdom. In April 1367 his army came face to face at Nájera (Navarrette) with a largely French force led by the great military leader,Bertrand du Guesclin. It was a day of triumph for the Prince; by the evening Du Guesclin, for the second time in his career, was a prisoner of the English.

Yet, in spite of this success, the tide would begin to turn against the English. Edward III was now an old man, and the Black Prince a sick one. The days when the English army was led by a member of the royal family were, for the moment, over. In 1369, the French resumed military activity against the English. If the years which followed lacked the high drama of the great battles of earlier years, the 1370s witnessed the French army, led by Du Guesclin, now Constable of France, maintaining a series of campaigns in largely English-controlled territory intended to wear down the English and cause them difficulties, not least financial ones, rather than defeat them in direct confrontation. In this way English authority in Aquitaine and elsewhere was effectively undermined, and a number of militarily significant towns and castles came under French control. It was an unspectacular but cost- and manpower-effective way of waging war, which was won on points rather than by a knockout. The years 1376 and 1377 saw the deaths, first, of both the Black Prince and then that of his father, the king, who was succeeded to the throne by the Prince’s young son, Richard II. The scene had changed, and the initiative now lay with the French.

The early 1380s witnessed social troubles in both England (the Peasants’ Revolt) and in France. In 1380, 1383 and 1385 military expeditions left England for France, Flanders and Portugal; in 1385 Richard II led an unsuccessful venture against the Scots, ever faithful to the French alliance. In the following year an invasion of England planned by the French was cancelled only at the last minute. Neither side was making decisive progress. Men were now counselling peace. By 1390 the war was petering out, and in 1396 the sides agreed to a twenty-eight year truce, and to the marriage of Richard II to Isabella, daughter of the French king, Charles VI. With all contestants very tired, the half-time whistle had been blown.

Interested as he is in the Anglo-French war as the thread which gives both impetus and unity to his narrative, it is conflict in its different forms and manifestations which really interests Froissart. The modern reader quickly becomes aware that so much of what he writes is both a description of and a comment upon the warlike tendencies of much of European society in the fourteenth century. Whether he is describing the advances made by Turkish armies into south-eastern Europe, the problems of the royal succession in Castile and Portugal, or the social disruptions experienced by civil society in France, England and Flanders during these years, the active part played by force and violence, both anarchic and legitimate, is ever present, and is taken as the principal means by which differences between rival social groups or national societies are expressed and, sometimes, settled.

It is widely recognised that Froissart’s world view is largely an aristocratic one. It would be too crude to say that, for him, the aristocrat represents what is noble and good, while those of lower social rank are associated with ways of doing things which are less so. Yet, describing the battle of Crécy, he is not afraid to mention those Cornishmen and Welshmen from the bottom of the social pile who, carrying knives and fighting in the English army, kill earls, barons, knights and esquires, men whom the king would certainly like to have as prisoners to ransom [586]1. Nor does he shirk from implying that his sympathy lies with the French nobility (‘la fleur de France’) who were killed in battle by the burghers of Courtrai in 1302, against whom the French king’s army marches eighty years later [930]. He is certainly very conscious of the divisions between the better off and the poor (‘les gros et les menus’) in Bruges in these years [804].

Yet the fact remains that the aristocratic way of life, in particular the aristocratic way of fighting war, means much to Froissart. He delights in naming men of rank, title and social standing in his narrative, individualising them in the process, while the ‘ordinary’ people who make up the majority are subsumed in the anonymity of the group, without personality or name. The same goes for the actions of the ‘better sort’, men who carry out what he terms, with approval, the feats of arms (‘apertises d’armes’), actions involving combatants who represent the ways of fighting associated with the aristocracy, including the use of the horse, the long sword and the lance, although hand-to-hand fighting, as is witnessed in Froissart’s account of the battle of Crécy (1346), is also a way of fighting worthy of praise (‘vaillamment se combatirent de le main et ... moult y fisent de belles apertises de la main et de grandes recouvrances’).

Froissart’s account of the naval battle off Sluys tells us precious little about the battle itself. How it is won, or why it is lost remains unclear. The reader is informed, as he will be many times later in the work, that many fine feats of arms have been carried out in the very difficult circumstances of fighting at sea. As is his custom, Froissart also includes a roll-call of notable persons who have taken part. But he adds little else other than to say that the battle was ‘très horrible’, his comment on the large numbers who appear to have perished on the occasion [293].

By contrast, his account of the battle of Crécy is much fuller. In this case, Froissart makes it clear why the English emerged as victors. He does this indirectly, by showing up the fatal divisions in the French command, the ambitions of the nobility to he at the fore of the battle as a point of honour, and the weariness of the soldiery after a long march from Amiens and the surrounding parts. Such a chaotic situation contrasts with the ordered preparations of a good defensive position prepared by the English who, Froissart suggests more than once, know exactly what to do and what each man’s role is. He contrasts French impetuousness and impatience to fight with the English choice of a good position where they are ready to wait for the attack, acting in a very ordered fashion (‘moult ordonneement’) [571] under effective command and control. When the moment comes for the two armies to meet, the skill of the English archers, in breaking up the slack French formations, does the rest.

It should be noted that Froissart, ever anxious to praise individual action, also recognises the ‘professionalism’ of the anonymous archers which bring such success to English armies at this time. He appreciates, too, the effects of divided leadership and the resulting confusion (‘sans arroy et sans ordenance’) [575] which ensues among the French army and its Genoese allies. Ignoring advice not to fight, the French marshal orders an advance during which (how it must have pained Froissart to write this) many French nobility, wishing to demonstrate their personal prowess, surge forward in disorderly fashion only to be killed or forced into equally disorderly retreat by the English. As Froissart remarks, so great did French superiority appear that none can believe it when the English emerge as victors from the battle. Inevitably, men look for scapegoats. The Genoese crossbowmen are blamed for not wanting to fight since their march to the battlefield has made them very tired, causing their leaders to say that they are not ready to confront an enemy fresh and rested (‘frès et nouviaux’) [576, 574]. When these remarks reach the count of Alençon, he is said to have retorted angrily with the words ‘One should not make use of such worthless people who fail one when the need is greatest’. Does Froissart include this outburst because he agrees with it? Quite likely [576].

Events do not allow Froissart to present his account of the battle of Crécy in quite the terms he will have wished. The fighting begins late in the day, the weather is not good; and it lacks what Froissart likes to describe, fine action by knights (‘il issirent trop peu de grans fais d’armes’), thus creating a certain frustration among the French knighthood, John, the blind king of Bohemia, and the nobles in his entourage, and encouraging them to charge headlong into the battle (and to their deaths) mainly to preserve their deeply felt sense of honour. By contrast, John’s son, Charles, arriving at the scene of the battle and seeing that things are not going the way of the French, leaves immediately. In professing not to know where he has gone, is Froissart quietly making an unfavourable comment upon Charles’ apparent lack of courage, contrasting it with the deep sense of honour which has compelled his father to fight so valiantly (‘moult vaillamment’) but to no evident purpose?

Froissart is no analyser of complex political and diplomatic positions. He seldom refers to these, although he explains how the war of the Breton succession, which began in 1341, came about (‘le commencement et le racine de ceste guerre et dont elle se meut’) [339]. Nonetheless, it is generally true that the causes of war, a subject so dear to the modern historical mind, do not really trouble him. He is mainly interested in other things. In the all-too-famous opening of the prologue to Book I Froissart announces his intention of recording the extraordinary events and fine deeds of the wars of his time, and of doing so (because he has not witnessed them himself) according to what has been reported to him either by participants or witnesses such as heralds, a point which he underlines by stating his belief that at no other time have so many fine exploits been carried out. His purpose is at once to entertain, to provide examples of human behaviour and, to a certain extent, to moralise although, as we already have seen, chivalric behaviour is not always on the winning side. With his aristocratic view of life, and writing for aristocratic patrons and readers, it is not surprising that he has a preference for recording events which shed good light on members of the nobility, whom he is not afraid to name. Thus his Chroniques are dominated by the recalling of live actions which bring credit (usually) to those taking part. The reader of Book II, for example, cannot fail to notice how many of Froissart’s chapter headings begin ‘Comment....’ (‘How....’) or ‘De...’ , ‘Du...’, ‘Des...’ (‘Concerning....’). These presage chapters whose author is more concerned with narrating events than explaining them.

Episodes described by Froissart, therefore, convey how a man of noble or knightly background acts in war. It is such men who are normally responsible for fine actions (‘biaus fais d’armes et grandes aventures’) [339]; it is such men, too, who treat their noble prisoners with respect and honour, just as they would one of their own side; knights taken prisoner are released in the sure knowledge that they will surrender themselves again at an agreed place and on an agreed date to pay their ransoms [485]. When they meet fellow-knights (‘cousins’) who are now opponents but have been comrades in arms on crusading ventures to Granada or Prussia, they recognise the bonds which unite them, and act accordingly [485]. This is the world of honour. It is scarcely surprising that when the reputations of captains go before them, the earl of Pembroke should be very angry (‘durement courouciés’) at the failure of the earl of Derby to have initiated an attack upon Auberoche before Pembroke can get there: ‘You have done me no honour or courtesy’, he tells Derby, ‘in fighting the enemy without me, although you called me to take part’. Derby’s reply that they waited a whole day for him, but he did not appear, can do little to soothe Pembroke’s injured pride and sense of honour [485].

Froissart uses language carefully to convey a whole range of judgements and opinions about individuals and their actions. He can criticise indirectly by recording an unfavourable comment made of Breton soldiers as looters; the words are not his but those of a Fleming whose remark he includes, as is often his practice, in direct speech, using this method to liven up his text [929]. His use of words such as ‘durement’ and ‘rudiment[259] convey to his reader that fighting is tough, just as a ‘belle journée’ is his way of conveying a successful day’s fighting [485], while the English attack on Bergerac in 1345 is described as ‘a very good skirmish’ (‘use très bonne escarmuce’) which has lasted a long time, which is fine for the lords and knights who fight with great courage (‘par grant vaillance’) and whose names Froissart adds to the text [464-65].

Although no soldier himself, Froissart has a good idea of the physical price paid by those who take part in war. He refers many times to the fatigue experienced by those who have been on campaign, or who have concentrated their physical and nervous energies upon the capture of a well defended town or castle [465]. Although not always the case, Froissart often describes war as a very hard and dangerous activity. His description of those fighting at the battle of Rozebeke (1382) as soon being out of breath (‘perdoient ...force et alaine’) rings true [925]. So does his regular reference to the need of soldiers not only to eat but to rest as well; having captured the castle of Lalinde, in Gascony, in 1345, the English army rests there (‘s’i rafreschirent’) for three days [471]. This, and instances of the capture of supplies of stockpiled food and drink, so welcome to soldiers on campaign, adds an air of realism to Froissart’s description of war as it is fought in his time [477].

Froissart is also very interested in people, how they relate to one another (often with courtesy but, as we have seen, sometimes with annoyance and anger), and how they react to the wars in which they are caught up. He may, with some justice, be accused of creating paper figures whose names are known but whose personalities elude us. Yet it should also be admitted that Froissart has deep sympathy for suffering humanity, not least for the soldiers whose joy and relief (‘grant lièce de coer et grant joie’) at the victory achieved at Crécy must parallel that experienced by the modern-day footballer who has unexpectedly been victorious in the cup final [587]. Equally, Froissart is aware of the fear which armies can provoke among civilian populations, even if these appear to be well protected. The attack of the Scots against Durham in 1341, and the fears and experiences of the populations are graphically described [373]. He tells us, too, something of the emotions of the people of Caen when they see the English army approaching their town in the summer of 1346: the closed ranks of soldiers, the shouts which they uttered, and the banners floating in the wind take on a sinister character, as signs of the coming violence. Their fears that they will soon be killed sans merci by the English are to be justified; there follows a ‘great slaughter’ (‘grant occision’) which Froissart will describe as a ‘great carnage and tragedy’ (‘grant pestilence et tribulation’) [548-49]. His rather more matter-of-fact reporting of the burning of towns by, for example, Edward III’s army in north-eastern France later that year, or the same by the French in Flanders in 1382, and of their populations fleeing before the enemy forces reminds us that civilian populations are very much the victims of war at this time, as they have all too often been, both before and since.

How, we may ask, did Froissart become so well informed about the events of war at this time? We can imagine him travelling about, talking to all who would give him information, not least to heralds who were responsible for gathering information about the dubbing of new knights [923] and the deaths of notable people in battle [589]. It is from such as these, experts in heraldry, that Froissart learns about those killed at Crécy or about those who died at Rozebeke a generation or more later; in the second instance he is able to cite numbers which he has been given [589, 928]. When he wants to learn about the origins of the Breton war of succession, he tells us that he has made enquiries about these, not least in Brittany itself, from people who have seen things which he has not, since he was only a young boy at the time. But his clearest statement about his methods is to be found at the beginning of his account of his journey to Béarn; undertaken in 1388, to visit Gaston Fébus III, count of Foix, who receives and entertains him at his court at Orthez. He learns much from Sir Espan de Lion, servant of the count, whom he meets on the way, while once in Orthez itself he has the opportunity, as a guest and temporary member of his household, to question both the count and many lords and nobles, including those who have come from foreign parts. In this way he obtains much information about events in distant parts of the country and far beyond, for it is at this time that he learns about the wars which have taken place, sometimes only recently, in Castile, Navarre and, particularly, in Portugal, and about fine feats of arms and other military events which have done credit to those taking part in them, and which he undertakes to record in order to give good examples of such actions to those readers who may wish to emulate them [II, 90-91].

All of which takes us back to the prologue with which Froissart begins his first Book, and in which he states his purpose in writing. He sees himself as a recorder of past events, or at least of certain kinds of events, preferably those involving deeds of honour, bravery and adventure, carried out by men brought up in the ethos of such a culture, and set down both to give pleasure to the reader and, perhaps, to encourage him to follow this way of life. Looking about him, Froissart thinks that he has lived in a kind of golden age of chivalric values. He has worked hard to create the reputations of men of whom he has heard, and whose skills and qualities he has admired. But he is not entirely altruistic in his efforts. His own reputation counts for much. He is delighted when, on his visit to Orthez, Gaston Fébus tells him that the history which he has written will one day become better known than any other. The reason for this, as Fébus makes clear, is that more fine deeds have been accomplished in the world in the last fifty years than in the previous three hundred [II, 91]. And it will be to Froissart’s Chroniques that the world will owe its knowledge and appreciation of those deeds and actions.


1 Page references hereinafter are to Jean Froissart, Chroniques: Livre I (première partie, 1325–1350) et Livre II, ed. by Peter F. Ainsworth et George T. Diller, Lettres gothiques ([Paris]: Livre de poche, 2001). Where a page number is preceded by a ‘II’, the reference is this time to Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Livre III (du Voyage en Béarn à la campagne de Gascogne) et Livre IV (années 1389–1400), ed. by Peter Ainsworth et Alberto Varvaro, Lettres gothiques (Paris: Livre de Poche, 2004).