I have a theory that a lot of what we call “history” arises from the “hospital pass”. (For those who don’t know, this term comes from Rugby. It’s where the ball is passed to you at a moment or in a situation where the opposition is bound (or at least likely) to recover the situation with a violent tackle.)
A good example of this are the events arising from the Hundred Years War. Now yes, there were genuine issues arising between England and France. These mostly arose from the status of Guienne, which the kings of England held as vassals of the kings of France. (Though it is ironic that some of the issues were the very issues that the English imposed on their Welsh and Scottish* vassals.)
*To avoid response from angry Scots, during the time when the Scots accepted vassalage, for example the reign of John Balliol.
The fact remains that France had about five times the population Of England and was (almost) correspondingly more wealthy. For the English to take on France in a major war (as opposed to a small one) was always going to be a stretch.
Ah, but you say, Edward III and the Black Prince succeeded! Did they not have glorious victories at Crecy and Poitiers? Did they not actually capture the French king and impose a humiliating peace on him? (Treaty of Bretigny.)
Yes, they did, with the benefit of novel tactics, excellent leadership and, let’s be honest, some help from Lady Luck.
BUT! (And it’s a very big but.) The French were not stupid. They soon figured out new tactics to defeat the English, the most important of which was “Don’t meet the English in pitched battle.” It doesn’t sound very impressive, does it, but the effect was remarkable. The English armies that went to France in the later 14th Century did a fair bit of damage (especially to poor people and their property) but they failed utterly to enforce the treaty or cause the French government to collapse. Moreover, these campaigns were costly in cash and lives.
What is too often forgotten by English historians (who are all too apt to pleasure themselves silly over Edward III’s “greatness”) is that by the end of his reign England was practically bankrupt, in a fair degree of political chaos and under regular attacks from French raids along the south coast.
At which point poor Richard II and his advisers took over this legacy of “glory”.
The English (or more particularly their ruling class) were frankly deluded. Yep, they wanted to carry on with the war. Why, they wanted to enforce the Treaty of Bretigny. Did they want to pay for it? Did they heck as like.
So, make peace instead? What, are you a traitor, sir!
There were of course truces. As the century dragged on, these were to become more regular. But the cost of the war led to desperate measures in the treasury. Which led to the introduction of the Poll Tax. Do I need to spell out how that went down?
Richard II actually offered to lead an army to France. Yes, really. Would Parliament pay for it? Would they heck!
So we come to 1386, with the French poised to attack across the Channel. Make no mistake, this was a serious threat. Probably more of a genuine threat than anything prepared by Napoleon or Hitler, hard though that may be to believe. The King goes to Parliament to ask for money to defend the nation. Does Parliament pay up? No, it goes spare, and forces on Richard a commission to run the country for 12 months.
Now this in turn (to cut a long story short) leads on to the Appellant Crisis and the judicial murder – for that was what it was! – of many of the King’s friends and advisers and the banishment of others. Do the Appellants do a better job? Do they somehow magically cut taxation and give the French a damn good thrashing? Do they heck as like. They prove just as clueless in government – if not more clueless – than the people they replaced.
Eventually, largely because John of Gaunt comes home and supports King Richard in his policies, and after a whole lot of haggling and abortive proposals, a peace of sorts is achieved. Not until late 1396 though, and it is in fact a 28 year truce, that leaves some of the awkward issues unsolved.
You might thing people would be delighted. But many of them weren’t. No, they wanted to carry on the war that they didn’t want to pay for. It’s one of the issues that makes Richard unpopular and leads to his downfall. Next post will relate the Lancastrian aftermath.
(This post reblogged From The Yorkist Age.)