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‘War, Cruel and Sharp’: England’s Grand Strategy during the Hundred Years’ War

‘War, Cruel and Sharp’: England’s Grand Strategy during the Hundred Years’ War

By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II

“So we rode afterwards through the land of Armagnac, harrying and wasting the country, whereby the lieges of our said most honoured lord, whom the count had oppressed, were much comforted.” ~ excerpt of a letter from Edward, the Black Prince, to the Bishop of Winchester, 1355

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the ambitious King Edward III of England faced a dire strategic dilemma – he had just declared all-out war on a realm that possessed five times the landmass (which, in an era of agricultural economic dominance, meant five times the resources) and three times the population of his own. In the early 14th Century, the Kingdom of France rested easy as perhaps the premier power of Christendom – thanks to far greater political unity and organization than her theoretically superior neighbor, the Holy Roman Empire. Edward would need to find a way to close the strategic gap utilizing the limited resources of his own realm – a task he would accomplish brilliantly thanks to an early military setback he himself would experience as a young man.

As Professor Clifford Rogers of the US Military Academy has effectively argued, the roots of the grand strategy that Edward would employ in France are to be found in his earlier Scottish expeditions of the 1320s and 30s. During the disastrous reign of his hapless father, Edward II, the Bruces of Scotland had humiliated the English in a string of military upsets, the most famous of which was Bannockburn in 1314. The secret to Scottish military success was their ability to mobilize and deploy fast-moving armies that could range across the north of England, inflicting untold damage on the agriculturally-based economy via in-depth raids, while always staying one step ahead of the heavier and more ponderous English armies.

Campaigns against Scotland

Edward III’s first taste of this kind of campaigning was in 1327 in the Weardale against a raiding force led by the notorious Black Douglas. During this campaign, the superior mobility of the Scots and resulting military results brought the young king to tears. Scotland’s luck finally ran out in 1332, however, when a tiny English force of contracted men-at-arms and archers led by the grizzled northern veteran and leader of those disinherited after the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) Henry de Beaumont annihilated a Scottish force ten times its size deep in Scottish territory at Dupplin Moor – ultimately resulting in Edward Balliol being crowned at Scone. This time, the Scots’ own tactical concept was used against them. De Beaumont had grasped the essence of this concept – dense pike formations (schiltrons) that could be wielded offensively or defensively to great effect against enemy cavalry formations – and had worked out a solution: by deploying his dismounted men-at-arms in a defensive posture and then placing archers wielding the formidable English longbow on their flanks de Beaumont realized that he could not only nullify the Scots’ battlefield advantage, he could actually defeat them in detail.

Edward learned well the lessons of Dupplin Moor as taught to him by de Beaumont when they met at York late in 1334, and applied them successfully for the first time against the Scottish foe at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1335. In this decisive encounter, Sir Archibald Douglas was leading a large Scottish force in an attempt to relieve the port of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which had been besieged by the English and was on the verge of falling. In order to accomplish this task, Sir Douglas would first have to defeat the English force, which dominated all the approaches to the beleaguered port from its commanding position on the hill. Even though the terrain was disadvantageous, the Scottish commander he was forced to give battle. The result was disastrous for him. Drawn up in their now-traditional schiltron formation, the Scots began their advance. Almost as soon as they did, however, they were met with a hail of arrows. As at Dupplin Moor the result was inevitable, or at least as anything can be inevitable in battle: the Scottish army was not just defeated, it was utterly destroyed. The following day, Berwick surrendered. Soon thereafter, the victorious Edward, thinking he had finally broken the back of the Scottish resistance to Balliol’s rule and thus ended forever the northern wars, departed Scotland for England.

As news of the great victory over the Scots spread, all of England exulted. As a popular English poem from the time went, “Thaire was crakked many a crowne Of wild Scottes.” And there’s no gainsaying the fact that Halidon Hill truly was a decisive battle. King Edward had faced a strategic challenge of immense proportions in Scotland and had more than met it. But the most important lesson Edward learned was not how to defeat a Scottish schiltron, though that tactical lesson would be employed to great effect in several pitched battles between English and French armies during the course of the war. Rather, the key lesson that Edward learned in Scotland was that the side that was best able to mobilize and deploy fast-moving armies capable of launching in-depth raids against an enemy’s economic base would enjoy a tremendous strategic advantage over its enemy – irrespective of the relative disparities of the two belligerents in terms of territory or manpower.

Chevauchées

This strategic concept would serve Edward well in his wars against the Kingdom of France. Such was the French advantage, on paper at least, that the French king must have believed that his armies would have little trouble vanquishing the English forces on the Continent. In the field, however, the only place where it really mattered, the English would demonstrate both strategic and operational-level superiority that would allow them to prevail over the theoretically far more powerful French kingdom. Simply put, based on his experience in Scotland, Edward developed a grand strategy for his war against France that would have done its Scottish forebears proud: use highly disciplined, compact forces to penetrate deep into French territory in chevauchées (literally “great rides”, i.e. mounted raids-in-depth) for the purpose, not of occupying territory, but of wreaking extensive economic, social, and psychological havoc on the French, with the ultimate goal of fatally undermining France’s war effort.

Secondarily, but importantly, Edward’s strategy also entailed avoiding anything like a decisive battle until the conditions were overwhelmingly in England’s favor (whereupon the tactical lessons learned in Scotland would prove devastatingly applicable). Military professionals today will recognize these characteristics as hallmarks of a school of strategic thought called Maneuver Warfare – and hopefully be amazed at their stellar application centuries before the term itself existed despite the baffling modern misperception that the medieval period was devoid of strategic and operational art.

Initially, and perhaps not surprisingly given the lack of coordination between English, Flemish and Imperial allies, coupled with his own relative inexperience, Edward’s first continental adventures were less than impressive. The new English strategy soon began to pay dividends, however, as witnessed in William de Bohun’s campaigns in Brittany and those of the brilliant Henry de Grosmont in Gascony, both in the early 1340s. The concept having been proven, Edward III himself brought its full fury to bear on France in his 1346 Normandy Campaign, a campaign that culminated in a legendary victory – against a French army three times the size of his – at Crécy.

France reeled from this onslaught and found it nearly impossible to successfully counter the far more mobile and lethal English armies that rampaged at will across their lands. French fortunes took an additional downturn with the advent on the scene of perhaps the most brilliant English commander of the war (and possibly of the medieval period as a whole), Edward III’s son and heir, Edward “the Black Prince.” Executing his father’s grand strategy with a ruthless tenacity, the Black Prince executed two consecutive chevauchées from his base in Bordeaux – one in 1355 that struck deep into the rich heartlands of the Southern French Languedoc and another in 1356 north into the Massif Central and Poitou. In both, the Black Prince divided his forces into self-sustaining detachments and then had each detachment range out over 10-30 mile-wide swaths, burning and pillaging everything of value in their path, all the while carefully remaining out of reach of larger French pursuit forces.

His 1356 campaign would ultimately climax at the Battle of Poitiers, where another vastly larger French army – this one led by King Jean II himself – would be defeated in detail. King Jean was captured on the field and, in 1360, was compelled to agree to the Treaty of Bretigny – signing away nearly a third of French territory to England and incurring crippling war indemnities for his ransom. As Professor Rogers has argued, France would not suffer another military humiliation of that magnitude until May of 1940. Indeed, the French defeat was of such a magnitude that it nearly consigned the kingdom to the dustbin of history. Ultimately, however, it did not, for reasons we will explore in a future column.

Curry, Anne, The Hundred Years’ War, 1337-1453 (Osprey Publishing, 2002)

Hoskins, Peter, In the Steps of the Black Prince – the Road to Poitiers, 1355-1356 (Boydell Press, 2013)

Rogers, Clifford, “Edward III and the Dialectics of Strategy” in The Wars of Edward III. ed. Clifford Rogers (Boydell Press, 1999)

Rogers, Clifford, War Cruel and Sharp: English Strategy under Edward III, 1327-1360 (Boydell Press, 2000)

Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Our Site.

Top Image: A city being sacked in the fourteenth century. Jean Froissart, Chroniques, BnF Français 2644, fol. 135r


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