In 1420, Henry V, King of England, was very close to becoming king of all France as well. His armies had been incredibly successful and had conquered a very large part of France. The French were in terrible trouble and the English at home were worried that Henry would forget about England altogether!
In June 1420, Henry married Catherine of Valois, the French king’s daughter. It was just a matter of time before the English king would possess the whole of France. In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, there is an amusing scene in which the newly married couple are unable to communicate. Henry cannot speak French and Catherine cannot speak English. The irony is that that Henry V was the first English king to speak English for ordinary personal communication since 1066!
The fact is that, after 1066, the ruling families of France and England shared more than just a language: they shared a whole culture and way of thinking. Behavior was determined by rules of chivalry that applied to noblemen. This often worked very well for both English and French rulers. In many ways it was a nice comfortable arrangement for rich French-thinking English people. It was like a family business. The English kings could keep certain lands in France, which was very important because France, the superpower of Europe, was very rich.
The problem was that the French king was always boss and English kings had to pay homage to French kings. If they didn’t pay homage, there would be trouble. The trouble started in 1337 when Edward III of England refused to pay homage to the French king, Philip VI. French-speaking, of course, Edward was three quarters French. Culturally he was completely French. In fact, he felt so French that he thought that he had the right to be king of France. At the same time, however, Edward had new ideas about how to use ordinary English-speaking soldiers to kill French nobles. This was the start of the Hundred Years’ War.
England was much poorer than France but, in some ways, it was also a much more dynamic society. The Peasants’ Revolt showed that ordinary English-speaking peasants could organize and plan. As a result, it was becoming more difficult to control ordinary people. English kings had to be realistic and respond to these pressures. English kings realized that even poor people could be very valuable if used effectively. There had been no Magna Carta in France, which in many ways remained extremely old-fashioned compared to England.
English kings were quicker to understand the power of ordinary soldiers. Men in England and Wales were required by law to practice archery. “Pointless” sports like soccer were prohibited. Henry V had personal contracts with each of his archers. The peasant archers of England and Wales played a huge part in England’s victories in the Hundred Years’ War and slaughtered thousands of rich French noblemen. It was becoming obvious that chivalry was just a rich man’s fantasy.
So even though Henry V died at the age of 35 in 1422, the English were still sweeping easily to power in France, which was divided, disorganized, stuck with old-fashioned ideas, and rapidly falling apart. No one could seriously doubt that the next king of France would be an Englishman. Nothing could possibly stop the English. Then something truly incredible happened.