Edward III wanted the French throne and was willing to fight to get it. Starting with the naval battle of Sluys,the war was to drag on for a century and unite England’s enemies in what was to be known as “The Auld Alliance”
During the early 14th century France was the richest country in Christendom but with many latent problems beginning to stir. The French king Philip IV had died in 1314 leaving the Capet line seemingly secure with three sons and a grandson. All of these offspring however, died in quick succession, with the last, Charles IV leaving a pregnant queen. Philip of Valois, a nephew of Philip IV, was appointed regent and it was agreed that, if the queen produced a daughter, Philip would become king. The queen duly produced a daughter and Philip became King Philip VI. The succession was legalized by the adoption of the new Salic law which stated that no woman could rule France and that no claim could be made to the crown through a female relative. This law also excluded several other princes who could have claimed the crown, one of them being King Edward III of England, whose mother was a daughter of Philip IV.
A dispute over the succession of Robert of Artois to the County of Artois left the French king supporting a rival claimant and feeling cheated and betrayed, Robert transferred his allegiance to King Edward. A similar situation arose shortly after in Brittany when Philip ruled that his nephew Charles of Blois should get the Dukedom against the rival claim of Jean de Montfort, who also turned to Edward for support.
The situation was worsened by the ongoing Anglo French dispute over the Duchy of Aquitaine the vast area of south west France from La Rochelle to the Spanish border and are sometimes referred to as Gascony or Guyenne although, in reality, they are provinces of the Duchy that was held as an English possession from Philip and for which Edward owed homage to the French king. The nobles of Aquitaine were adept at playing the English and French against each other to further their own interests. If an English ruling was unacceptable they could appeal to Philip and vice versa. This, plus the unclear borders of the Duchy gave rise to many disputes and French kings in the past had frequently reclaimed Aquitaine as punishment in disputes with England. Philip continued to give aid to the Scots and with the promise of this help, the Scots Lords Randolph and Steward Drove the English back to Berwick and ravaged much of northern England. Pope Benedict XII arranged a six month truce in 1335 and had ruled that no new Crusade could begin until there was peace in Europe, but not before Edward had raided Lothian in what became known as Burnt Candle mass due to the large number of towns and villages burned.
With the hopes of a Crusade gone, Philip had no need to be soft on Edward and when Edward again marched on Scotland In 1336, Philip confiscated the Duchy for the Third time precipitating outright war between the two countries, a time generally viewed as the start of the hundred year’s war. Philip attacked northern England with a fleet of twenty seven galleys and also moved his fleet from Marseilles to Normandy as an invasion threat to England. In September 1336 in the Parliament of Nottingham, the meeting denounced Philip’s aid to Scotland and voted Edward money to begin military preparations, send war material to Aquitaine and to collect a fleet in the English Channel.
By 1338 Genoese sailors under French command were regularly attacking the south coast and in April a great comet was seen in the sky over England and was reckoned a bad omen. On January 25th 1340, Edward formally made claim to the French throne, probably as a way of raising the stakes and to be used as a bargaining counter to extract French concessions later. Following his invasion of France however, he had obviously hardened his resolve and Amended the Royal Coat of Arms from the three golden lions of England that had been the royal symbol since the reign of Richard I, and quartered them with the twelve fleur de lis of the French. This new standard was to last for sixty six years until, in the reign of Henry IV when it was amended to the three fleur de lis of the de Valois.
On the 22nd June 1340, Edward sailed from Orwell with a fleet of 200 ships and was joined on the Flanders coast outside the town of Sluys by his Admiral Sir Robert Morley with 50 others. These ships, known as cogs, would have weighed around two hundred tons and would differ from cargo ships by the erecting of “castles” at the front and rear “aftercastle and forecastle” from which archers would fire on the enemy. Some of these vessels were transports as the king had brought with him the household of the queen who was at that time in Bruges. The French fleet was anchored in the inlet between West Flanders and Zeeland, at that time a wide roadstead but now silted up the river Eede and amounted to some 190 vessels commanded by the French Admiral Hugh Quiret and assisted by Nicholas Bhuchet. Part of the fleet were Genoese galleys with a crew of mercenaries under the command of Barbavera who was little more than a pirate.
At the approach of the English fleet, Barbavera advised Quiret to put to sea, but Quiret refused to leave the anchorage and arranged his forces into three or four lines with the ships tied to one another, a common defensive tactic of the time. Edward, in a letter to his son, described the English fleet on the morning of 24th June maneuvering to windward and forming two lines, the first attacking the front and the second turning the opponent’s flanks. The battle quickly became a confusion of boarding and hand to hand conflicts. A French version of events claims that Edward was wounded during the battle in personal combat with Bhuchet, but the only certainty was the almost total destruction of the French fleet, during which Quiret was slain together with a reported 30,000 Frenchmen although little credence should be given to medieval estimates.
Following the battle Bhuchet was hanged on orders of the king and Barbavera escaped with most of his squadron intact plus two captured English vessels. The battle left Edward in control of the English Channel and prevented any invasion threat from France; Edward could now concentrate on stirring unrest with Philip by supporting John de Montfort in his claim for the Duchy of Brittany over Philip’s choice Charles of Blois in what became known as the Breton War of Succession. This together with various campaigns in Gascony dragged on for some years without any real gains for either. Early in 1346 Edward began preparations for all out war, his officer’s recruited men, requisitioned ships and purchased arms and supplies. One of Edward’s orders states” for the sake of our expedition of war in France, we have immediate need of a great quantity of bows and arrows, we now firmly order and command you that you shall immediately cause to be brought and provided for us out of the issues of your jurisdiction, 200 bows and 400 sheaves of arrows” Similar instructions were sent throughout the country and huge stocks of weapons were gathered at the Tower of London.
The stage was now set for Edward’s all out invasion of France and stunning victories at Crecy and Poitiers.