THE CENTURY OF WAR
These two centuries form the period of transition from feudalism to pre-industrial era. The long war with France helped to form a sense of national identity: a native English culture was born and English became the official language of the country. This long war broke out after Edward III claimed the throne of France, but its real objective was to bring Flanders (the main English wool trade market) and Gascony (the chief supplier of wine and salt) under English control. The long war is traditionally divided into three stages, with periods of uneasy truce between them:
• The first stage was successful for England, because the English army consisted of well-organised professional soldiers, while the French army was an undisciplined feudal host. The French suffered two crushing defeats at Crécy and Poitiers, and gained large territories in France.
• The second stage was successful for France: the French adopted the strategy of guerrilla war, and gradually reconquered the lost territory except for two ports.
• The third stage : The war was resumed by Henry V, the second Lancastrian king: he dealt the French another crushing defeat at Agincourt and gradually extended his territory. In 1420, he was acknowledged heir to the French throne. Though he died in 1422, the war continued and, in 1428, the French were defending their last stronghold at Orleans. The appearance of Joan of Arc in 1429, however, led to a French revival. The war dragged on for more than twenty years, until the battle of Chatillon finally ended it in 1453. The war exhausted England and led to political disruption, which enabled the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses.
In the mid-14th century, an epidemic of bubonic plague called “Black Death” swept across Europe. It reduced the English population by nearly a half, which caused a severe shortage of labour. As a result, free workers were able to obtain higher wages and serfs demanded compensation for labour services. By the end of the 1370s, however, the population had increased and the peasants could no longer demand either higher wages or release from serfdom. High taxes were demanded in order to pay for the war in France: in 1379, the so-called Poll Tax was imposed on every male over sixteen. This situation resulted in the outbreak of a revolt in 1381: the rebels marched on London and held the government at their mercy. King Richard II (1377-99), who was a boy of fourteen at that time, promised to meet all their demands, but as soon as they dispersed, the revolt was brutally crushed. Yet, there was no return to the previous system, and serfdom had disappeared by the end of the 15th century.
This series of wars was a dynastic struggle between two powerful families, the Lancastrians and the Yorkists, both descendants of Edward III: they fought for the crown. The Wars were marked by indecisive victories and defeats on both sides. Duringthe thirty years of intermittent fighting, the feudal nobility was impoverished and almost exterminated, while the Crown became wealthy, as a result of confiscations of their estates for the benefit of the Crown after each battle. This paved the way for the establishing of Tudor absolutism.
THE CENTURY OF WAR