Calamity and Crisis in the Late Middle Ages


During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Europe experienced a series of disasters. poor harvests led to famine, the Black Death reduced the population by as much as one third, and war raged between France and England for over one hundred years. The Church, which had been the single unifying factor in Europe, itself experienced schism and corruption. To the people of the time, who frequently mixed religion with superstition and belief that the end of time was imminent, they saw in these difficult times the signs of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, and death.


The Black Horse: Famine.  Early in the fourteenth century, Europe experienced the “Little Ice Age,” which brought cooler weather and torrential rains. The wet climate ruined harvests of wheat, oats and hay. One harvest out of four would likely fail. Long distance delivery of food was not feasible, and as a result, humans and animals starved. Contemporary scholars likened the crisis to a recurrence of the biblical “seven lean years” (Genesis 42).  Reduced calorie intake led to increased susceptibility to disease. The young and elderly were particularly vulnerable. Otherwise healthy people were unable to work as vigorously as before which caused even lower grain production.  Famine was followed by epidemics of typhoid and anthrax, the last of which killed thousands of cattle, pigs, and sheep. Homesteads were mortgaged to buy food. Others were abandoned, leading to a great increase in the number of beggars, called “vagabonds.”


The Pale Horse: Death. In October, 1347, rat infested ships carrying goods from Asia landed at the port of Messina. The rats were Asian black rats, not native to Europe, but which carried parasitic fleas infected with Bubonic Plague (Pasteurella pestis). The disease was called in Latin astra mors (“dreadful death”) which was later interpreted “Black Death.” Those who suffered through the plague never referred to it as the Black Death.


The precise origin of the Plague is not known, although most scholars agree that it originated in Asia. One legend states that it appeared in the Tatar Army of Khan Djani-Beg who was besieging the city of Caffa in the Crimea. The Khan presumably ordered the heads of those who died from the disease catapulted into the city in an attempt to infect the residents there.


Pathology: The Plague bacillus thrives in the stomach of fleas which in turn lived on Asian black rats. Ships of the day were typically infested with rats, and thus the disease traveled easily throughout Europe. The plague took two forms: Bubonic. Which could only be spread by flea bites, and pneumonic which was spread from person to person. The total lack of sanitation in European cities and close quarters (it was not uncommon for poorer families to sleep six to eight people in one bed; even hospitals placed two patients in the same bed). The first symptom of the disease was a swelling the size of a walnut or apple in the armpit, groin, or neck. This was the buba, or boil. (If it were lanced and the pus thoroughly drained, the victim had a slight chance of recovery.) Later, black spots appeared under the skin, followed by violent coughing and spitting up blood. At this stage, death could be anticipated in two to three days.


A contemporary description of a plague victim by a French Scientist is hardly compassionate:


All the matter which exuded from their bodies let off an unbearable stench; sweat, excrement, spittle, breath, so fetid as to be overpowering; urine turbid, thick, black, or red.



One third the population of Europe died in the great Plague pandemic of 1347-48 Some areas little or no losses, others lost more than half their population. Agnolo di Tura, a contemporary, .describes the effect of the plague on his home town:


…the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath their armpits to their groins, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another…And none could be found to bury the dead for money of friendship…And in many places great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of the dead. I, Agnolo di Tura buried my five children with my own hands.



Anxious to determine the cause of the disaster, many people believed the Plague was God’s punishment for sin. Many formed bands of flagellants who traveled around cities beating themselves and each other with whips for penitence. Flowers were often placed in victims clothing as some were believed to have medicinal properties. Some physicians suggested that one should breathe the fumes from latrines to ward off the “vapors.”  Jews were accused of poisoning wells, and many were massacred. Dogs, cats and pigs were also blamed, and many destroyed. Ironically, these animals were the enemies of the black rats. The only real remedy was to leave town, as the rats only lived in cities. Those who were financially able moved to the country until the plague passed.


Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron is a series of One Hundred Stories presumably told by ten people who moved to the country to avoid the plague, and who each told a story each day for ten days to pass the time.


People gradually build up immunity to the plague; however it returned several times over the next 200 years, primarily affecting the very young. In the 1600’s, brown rats were introduced into Europe. The brown rats did not carry fleas and lice, and attacked the black rats, ultimately wiping them out. Even so, rare outbreaks of the plague occur today, although it can be readily treated with streptomycin.


Recent scholarship has suggested that at least a portion of the plague was Anthrax a disease of cattle that can be transmitted to humans. No historical or scientific evidence has yet substantiated this claim.


Revolt:  The grief of losing so many loved ones and valuable farm animals was overwhelming. Villages were deserted and large portions of cities were abandoned. There were fewer workers, and those who survived attempted to claim higher wages, but found that wages were often frozen. Anger and frustration led to Peasant revolts against landlords. A particularly ferocious revolt occurred in France in 1348. Since most French men bore the first name “Jacques,” the revolt became known as the “Jacquerie.” They attacked noblemen’s estates for two weeks, in one instance forcing a woman to eat a portion of the roasted body of her husband before she herself was raped and killed. Since peasants were not armed properly or trained in warfare, the revolt was put down harshly.


Troubles in the Church


            Even the Church was not exempt from turmoil. The Roman Catholic Church had become one of the most important monarchies in Europe. A number of very capable Popes had been lawyers, who developed the doctrine of plenitudo potestatis (fullness of power) which gave the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) absolute authority over the Church. He was the vicar of Christ on Earth and the supreme lawgiver and judge. A number of conflicts throughout the middle ages had broken out between Emperors (normally the Holy Roman Emperor) and the Popes over the extent of that power. Emperors frequently attempted to tax church property, and Popes threatened to excommunicate Emperors, or place their kingdoms under an interdict during which no one could receive the Eucharist or last rites. The struggles between Pope and Emperor comprise an interesting study in themselves.


Not all Popes conducted themselves as the Vicar of Christ. A notable example is Pope John XII, who, at eighteen, was the youngest man ever elected Pope. He was accused of his enemies of various maledictions, and ultimately died at the hands of a jealous husband when John and the wife were caught in the act.


A particularly bitter dispute arose between Philip the Fair of France (so called because he was handsome; in his demeanor and treatment of others, he was anything but “fair”) and Pope Boniface VIII.


Upon the death of Pope Nicholas IV, the Conclave to replace him met in Perugia rather than Rome, because of an epidemic of plague in that city. The Roman cardinals at first refused to attend in Perugia, as they believed their presence in Rome gave them a political advantage; however they soon gave in and made the change. The Conclave had met for eighteen months without electing a new pope. The impasse was caused by two leading Roman families, the Orsini, of whom the last Pope had been a member, and the Colonna, who were determined to prevent another Orsini from election. Conclave rules provided that the cardinal’s food and other provisions were to be gradually limited to encourage them to agree; however this rule had been suspended. King Charles of Naples threatened the conclave because of its slowness, which caused Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, presumably a neutral between the two families, to storm back that the conclave would not be threatened by anyone.


            The director of the Conclave, Latino Malabraca, announced that he had received a letter from a “holy hermit” foretelling doom on all if a Pope were not elected soon. Debate then turned to the election of the hermit himself, Peter of Morone, as Pope following a sarcastic suggestion by Gaetani which was suddenly taken seriously.. He had established an order dedicated to the Holy Ghost, members of which were known as “Spirituals,” who had an almost fanatical devotion to poverty and simplicity. On July 5, 1294, he was elected Pope.


            Peter of Morone was in his eighties at the time he was elected. He resided in a hideaway in Naples, which made him a subject of Charles of Anjou. Charles insisted that he remain in Naples, (where he could manipulate the Pope) and Peter agreed. Rather than travel to Rome, the Cardinals were forced to travel to him. Gaetani was angered when the new Pope chose Naples as his seat, and remarked “go with your saint, for I’ll not come with you—nor let your Holy Ghost deceive me further about him.” The new Pope chose the name Celestine V, and rode to his coronation on an ass, in token of his humility; and act which further irritated Gaetani. It soon became evident that Celestine was in well over his head. He had a wooden cell constructed for himself in the Papal palace in which he hid himself away.


            Celestine hoped to institute the reign of love as the guiding principle of the church; but the church had grown too large and had developed too complex a bureaucracy for such a simplistic plan. He had no knowledge of Latin; necessitating that the Cardinals speak to him in the vernacular, which they considered condescending. He tended to ignore all administrative details, despoiled the wealth of the Benedictines in favor of the Spirituals, and casually handed out benefices to anyone who asked. Papal Bulls were often signed in blank and later sold for a fee after which the buyer might write in any terms he chose. He readily created new Cardinals loyal to King Charles, largely at Charles’ behest, on one occasion casually creating a new cardinal “after dinner.”


            After only fifteen weeks, Celestine abdicated. Rumors spread that Gaetani had encouraged him to resign by secretly talking to him through a speaking tube connected to Celestine’s cell in which he faked a supernatural voice, and told the gullible Celestine that he must abdicate of face the fires of hell. His motive was to secure the papacy for himself. This rumor was apparently believed by Dante, (The Divine Comedy) who accused Gaetani of having “gained the fair lady by fraud.”


            Gaetani, an accomplished lawyer, helped Celestine with the legal maneuvers of an abdication. King Charles and the Spirituals strenuously objected, and Celestine pretended to change his mind to mollify them.  December 13, he read a Deed of Renunciation, removed his Papal robes, and resumed his hermit’s dress.


            In the Divine Comedy, Dante placed Celestine on the approach to hell, wandering with those who were neither friends nor enemies of God. He called him “the shade of him who made through cowardice this great refusal.


            Ten days after the abdication of Celestine, the Conclave met and elected Gaetani as Pope within 24 hours. He took the name Boniface VIII. Gaetani had ingratiated himself to King Charles, whose lackeys made up the Conclave, which explains his rather quick election. He was no stranger to Papal politics, as his mother had been the pope’s niece, and he had been distantly related to several other papal families.


            Boniface left Naples immediately for Rome to escape the influence of Charles and danger from the Spirituals, who spread rumors that he had usurped the papacy from Celestine. To protect himself, he ordered Celestine to go along to Rome, however the latter escaped along the way and wandered in the mountains to avoid detection and capture. A monk who protected him by refusing to divulge his hiding place was killed by Boniface’s soldiers.


            Unlike the self effacing Celestine, Boniface rode to his coronation on January 23, 1295 as the Roman Emperor he intended to be. His horse was led by the Kings of Hungary and Naples. When the Jews of Rome came to him to make peace and offered him a copy of the law of Moses, he returned it to them saying, “We acknowledge the law but we reject Judaism, for the law has already been fulfilled through Christ.”


            Outside the Lateran Palace, Boniface set in a chair with a hole in its seat, which resembled a commode. The more noble explanation of the chair was that the Pope sat on it as a sign of self-abasement; however there were rumors that it was to allow “inspection” of the Pope, to make sure there would not be another Pope Joan, a woman who briefly ruled as Pope through artifice..


            The presence of Celestine, even in hiding, presented a threat to Boniface, so together with Charles of Naples, he continued to search for him. Celestine fled the country by ship, but the ship was turned back by a storm. His supporters recognized and welcomed him a bit too enthusiastically, as Charles’ soldiers found him, arrested him, and brought him before Boniface and Charles. It was then that Celestine told Boniface somewhat prophetically: “You have entered like a fox, you will reign like a lion, and you will die like a dog.”


            Celestine was imprisoned at Fremoni, an unintentional kindness, as the sparseness of his cell resembled his hermitage. He died ten months later, most likely of natural causes; although rumors abounded that he had been murdered by Boniface.


            Boniface insisted that Celestine had asked him to repair the damage caused by the benefices he had unwittingly bestowed, and wiped out all of them in a single instrument, an act which made even more enemies for him. Among the other crimes of which he was accused was Simony (selling of Church offices, named for Simon the Magician) and Nepotism. In response to the first charge, he stated that by definition, the Pope could not commit simony, as he was the church and all it possessed was of his ordering. He acquired property with church funds which he bestowed upon members of his family, thereby enriching them.


            Among the enemies of Boniface were the Colonna family. The break with the family occurred on May 3, 1297 when a mule train headed for Rome laden with gold was seized by Stephen Colonna. Boniface had planned to use the money to buy more lands. In an attempt to avert a war, the gold was returned, but Boniface insisted that Stephen appear before him to apologize. His intransigence caused the Colonna family to attack the legality of his election, and to call for a general counsel to settle the issue. Boniface struck back with a Papal Bull, In excelsis throno, in which he excommunicated the Colonna cardinals. The Colonna response accused him of  the murder of Celestine, after which he issued a second Bull, excommunicating members of the Colonna family “even unto the fourth generation.”


            The Colonna family appealed to France, hoping for help from the University of Paris and from Philip the Fair. Philip was not yet ready to break with the Pope, and therefore was of no immediate help.  On September 14, 1297, Boniface absolved from sin anyone who sacked Colonna property in Rome, stating they were not thieves but “avengers of Christ.” Three months later, he proclaimed a Crusade against the Colonna, a convenient way to raise money all over Europe. He ruled that “God would know his own,” therefore his soldiers should strike at anyone; as God would deflect the sword from true believers. This policy caused the Colonna crusade to be especially bloody.  The Colonna had fortified themselves at Palestrina, and Boniface offered them a truce, stating that they would be pardoned if they surrendered. When they accepted his terms, Colonna property was seized, family members and servants were slaughtered, or sold into slavery, and crops in the field destroyed. After the city was completely demolished (not ceremonially, as was customarily done), Boniface had salt plowed into the ground to make it barren. Boniface apparently acted on the advice of the Count of Montefelco who advised him to “promise much, fulfill little.” (Lunga promiessa con l’attender corto.) Dante called Monefelco a “wolf turned friar,” and quotes him as saying:


                                    Father, since thou washest me,

                                                Of that sin into which I now must fall,

                                                The promise long with the fulfillment short,

                                                Will make thee triumph in thy lofty seat.


            Boniface’s actions further embittered the surviving Colonna, particularly John Colonna who was nicknamed Sciarra, (“The Quarreler”). When he attempted to escape the country, he was captured by Pirates, but ransomed by :Philip the Fair of France.


            On February 12, 1300, Boniface decreed a Jubilee for the one thousandth birthday of the Church. It was really another ploy to pull in money; two clerks stood at the altar of St. Peters with rakes, literally raking in money; however most of it was from the poor, and was copper rather than gold, so the endeavor barely broke even. Notably, no monarch appeared to pay homage to Boniface during the jubilee. Rumors spread that when the Holy Roman Emperor had asked Boniface to ratify his election, Boniface had replied, “Emperor? I am the Emperor.” There were further rumors that he had robed himself in Purple, gilt shoes and spurs and carried a sword. Although these rumors may have been exaggerations, they were readily believed by Boniface’s enemies, whose name was Legion.


            Boniface came into conflict with Philip IV (known as “le bel”) over money. Philip

was described by a contemporary as


 Inordinately pleasure-seeking…He loved the chase above all, and allowed others to use his power to rule his realm. He was generally swayed by ill counsel, to whom he lent a too ready credence whence many perils came to his reign.”


            Philip needed money to fight the barons as he attempted to consolidate all of France under his rule, and also for his wars with England. His efforts to obtain revenue were complicated by the fact that the nobles were exempt from taxation; only the peasants paid taxes which were enforced ruthlessly.


            When heavy taxation and debasement of the currency was insufficient, Philip borrowed a page from Boniface’s own book, and claimed that money raised in France by the French church should remain in France for the defense of the realm. (Boniface had diverted church money for his crusade against the Colonna). When he attempted to seize the assets of the Cistercian order which answered directly to the Pope, the members of that order appealed directly to Rome. Boniface issued a Bull, Clericis Laicos in which he noted the hostility of the laity towards clergymen, and forbade any attempt to secure money from the Church without his specific permission:


            We therefore, desirous of preventing such wicked actions decree, with apostolic authority and on the advice of our brethren, that any prelates and ecclesiastical persons, religious or secular, of whatever orders, condition, or standing, who shall pay or promise or agree to pay to lay persons collections or taxes….And whatsoever emperors, kings, or princes, dukes, earls, or barons, powers, captains, or officials, or records by whatsoever names they are called….who shall impose, exact, or receive the things aforesaid….shall incur sentence of excommunication. Universities, too, which may have been to blame in these matters, we subject to ecclesiastical interdict.


 Boniface was in essence ordering the clergy to disobey their king; thus bringing to a head the issue of sovereignty. He intended to show that no temporal ruler exercised any authority over ecclesiastical persons or property.


Rather than debate the theological issue, Philip responded to the Bull with a decree forbidding money from leaving France, and foreigners from residing in France—this last to keep Boniface’s agents out of the country. Boniface had relied heavily on money paid from France, and ultimately capitulated. He wrote a letter to Philip claiming that, in a state of emergency, there might not be time to consult the Pope before Church funds were diverted to state use. In a subsequent Bull, Etsi de statu, dated July, 1297, Boniface conceded that the king alone, without the consent of the pope, could determine when a sufficient emergency existed in his own kingdom to make it expedient to tax the clergy.


            Boniface had backed down but not surrendered. Philip arrested a bishop, Bernard Saisset accused of treason in 1301 had him tried and thrown into prison. This was a direct challenge to canon law which required that a Bishop only be tried by the Pope. Philip sent an account of the proceedings to Boniface and demanded that he acknowledge Saisset’s condemnation.  To do so would be tantamount to recognition of the French King’s power over the French clergy, a concession which Boniface was not willing to make.

In December, 1301, Boniface reinstated the Bull forbidding taxation of the clergy, and ordered the French Bishops to appear before him in Rome, “to take counsel touching the excesses, crimes, and acts of violence by the King of France and his officers.” The Bishops, caught in the middle, begged him to back down, but Boniface refused. He issued a personal Bull to Philip which began Ausculta fili (“listen, son…”), which contained more moderate language than his earlier bulls, but also stated, “Let no one persuade you that you have no superior or that you are not subject to the head of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, for he is a fool who so thinks….”


            Philip had the original letter burned, and circulated a forgery which read, “You are subject to us in spiritualities and in temporalities.”  He also circulated a purported reply to Boniface dripping with insult:


            [T}o Boniface, who acts as though he were Pope, little or no greeting. Let your great fatuity know that in temporalities we are subject to no one that the collation of vacant churches and prebenda belongs to us by royal right and that their revenues are ours; that the collations we have made in the past or shall make in the future are valid and that we shall strongly defend their holders against anyone. All who think otherwise we hold for fools and madmen.


            Boniface then issued a second summons to the French Bishops to appear, on pain of excommunication. Philip, then called a general council, the first meeting of the French Estates-General in history. At the counsel, one Pierre Flotte told the assembly that the Pope had claimed feudal lordship over France, when, he declared, France was held from no one but God alone The members addressed a letter to the French Cardinals refusing to acknowledge Boniface as pope, and urging them to renounce him. On receiving this message, Boniface was incensed. He sent a reply to Philip in which he returned Philip’s insults, stating, “Our predecessors have deposed three Kings of France. Know we can depose you like a stable boy if it proves necessary.


            When the Council called by Boniface did meet in November, 1302, less than half the French clergy attended. His purpose thus being thwarted, Boniface issued the famous Bull, Unam Sanctum:


[I]f the earth power errs, it shall be judged by the spiritual power, if a lesser spiritual power errs, it shall be judged by is superior, but if the supreme spiritual power errs, it can be judged only by God, not by man….” Therefore, we declare, state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.


            Unam Sanctum removed forever any possibility of compromise between Philip and the Pope. Philip again called together the Estates-General in  March, 1303, which accused Boniface of heresy, simony, sodomy, parricide, and keeping a demon as a pet. The Assembly called for a general council to depose Boniface; however fate took a different turn.


            Boniface had gone to his home town of Anagni in the summer of 1303, and while there he learned of the actions of the Estates-General. He had prepared a Bull which excommunicated Philip  and absolved his subjects from obedience which was dated August 8, but was never delivered. On August 6, an armed band led by Sciarra arrived, and stated they had come to invite Boniface to the council meeting. The defenders of the city purported to believe them, and when they arrived at Boniface’s quarters, his guards deserted him. He was found seated on a throne wearing a tiara and papal robes. He was taken prisoner, and held for three days when the citizens of Anagni rose up. He was then freed and returned to Rome, but his enemies had arisen all over Italy, and his power was broken. He lived for another month, reputedly out of his mind, believing that every visitor was an assassin. 


            Boniface was briefly succeeded by Benedict XI who reigned less than a year. He was succeeded by a Frenchman, Clement V (1305-14) who was elected in France and remained there at Avignon, subject to the French King. Not satisfied with the death of Boniface, Philip scheduled a posthumous trial to have him declared a heretic, and therefore not Pope, but the trial never reached a verdict.


            The Papacy remained at Avignon for seventy years. There were not sufficient palaces for the Papal presence, so a huge building program ensued. Fund raising efforts often led to charges of simony. Said one Avignon Pope, Clement VI (r.1342-1352), “I would sell a bishopric to a donkey if the donkey had enough money.”


            The Western Schism: The absence of the Papacy from Rome robbed it of some of the dignity it had previously possessed. Francesco Petrarch, who had grown up in Avignon, returned there in 1325 and called it the “Babylon of the West,” where “instead of soberness, licentious banquets, instead of pious pilgrimages, unnatural and foul sloth.” Hence the presence of the Papacy at Avignon became known as the Babylonian Captivity. 


            In 1378, Urban VI was elected Pope in Rome, and instituted a series of strict reform. A number of cardinals objected to the reform, returned to Avignon, and elected their own Pope. For thirty seven years, the Church had two popes, each claiming that the other was the anti-Christ, and excommunicating each other and each other’s followers. In 1490, a group of cardinals elected a third pope to replace the two; but neither the Roman nor Avignian Pope would recognize the third, so for a brief period, there were three popes.


            The controversy was ended by the Council of Constance which deposed all three Popes and elected a single man, Martin V. The three deposed popes were not happy, but did not have the necessary support to oppose the decision.


            John Hus: John Hus, A Czech priest, had been influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, an Englishmen who stated that all church doctrine should be based strictly on the Bible, and nothing else. Wycliffe had also preached that each person could have a direct, personal relationship with God, the “priesthood of all believers.” This was heresy to the Catholic hierarchy, and the situation was worsened when Hus was elected President of a Czech University. He also preached against the sale of indulgences , (relaxation of the penalties of purgatory in exchange for a fee.) He was summoned to the same Council of Constance that elected Pope Martin V under a promise of safe conduct where he was to answer charges against him. Instead, he was arrested and thrown into prison. When finally brought before the council to defend himself, he was shouted down when he tried to speak.


Hus was convicted of heresy and given one last chance to recant, which he rejected. He was then stripped of his clerical vestments, a paper crown with three demons painted on it was placed on his head with the words, “We commit thee to the devil.” He was then led to the town square and burned at the stake. Just before his death, he was heard to say, “In the truth of that Gospel which I have written about, taught, and preached, I now die.”  Hus's actions were a precursor of the Lutheran Reformation.


Burning was considered the only sure way to completely remove impurity, as fire was cleansing. Burning heretics was the only way to cleanse the soul of the heretic. Heresy was considered particularly dangerous, as false doctrine would quickly land one in the fires of hell. Those who preached heretical doctrine were worse than a contagious disease. Their actions were tantamount to giving poisoned candy to children.


Hus’ name in Czech means “goose.” So in burning him at the stake, the Council literally “cooked the goose.”


The Hundred Years War (1337-1453)


Background: The affairs of France and England had been intertwined since the Norman Invasion of 1066. English Monarchs had long claimed lands in France, a situation which fermented with the marriage of Henry II of England to Catherine of Aquitaine, the former wife of the French King Louis VII. (The marriage would give rise to two future kings of England: Richard I, Coeur de Lion, and King John of Magna Carta fame.


            In 1259, France and England signed the Treaty of Paris whereby the English King agreed to hold Aquitaine as a fief, and thereby become the French King’s vassal. In 1328, Charles IV of France died childless. Edward III of England, whose mother was the daughter of Philip the Fair, claimed the throne for himself. (In his words, he decided to “pick the French lily.”)  Alarmed at the prospect, the French nobles passed a law stating that the throne could not be inherited through the maternal line (Salic Law).  They then proclaimed Philip of Valois as king. (Philip was the nephew of a former French king.). Thereafter, Philip asserted claim to Aquitaine, and Edward claimed that in order to exercise his claim over the area, he must assume the title of King of France.


            The Hundred Years War proved the end of Medieval Warfare and the notion of Chivalry. The English longbow killed from a distance, and could pierce armor, thus rendering armed knights on horseback useless.  The English won decisive victories at Crécy and Portiers; and seemed to be assured of victory after the battle of Agincourt in 1415; however an unlikely savior appeared for the French.


Joan of Ark: Joan was born in 1412 in the village of Domrèmy in a religious peasant household. She claimed to hear voices of saints, telling her that she must lead France to victory, and see the uncrowned King of France, (the “dauphin”) crowned.


Joan was not the first person to claim to have received inspiration this way; but many others did so solely for personal gain. Most who appeared legitimate, such as St. Francis of Assisi, said the voices led them to a life of quiet contemplation and withdrawal.


The French were in such dire straits that they believed only a miracle could save them. It is possible they considered Joan that miracle. She was seventeen when she approached the Dauphin, who called her  “Joan the Maid,” She appeared to the court in male dress and with her hair cut short like a man, a fact which was beyond scandalous. She was, however, sent with the French army to fight at Orleans, held by the English.


Joan, who was illiterate, dictated a letter to the English, insisting that they surrender:


Surrender to the Maid sent hither by God the King of Heaven, the keys of all the good towns you have taken and laid waste to in France. She comes in God’s name to establish the Blood Royal, ready to make peace if you agree to abandon France and repay what you have taken. And you, archers, comrades in arms, gentiles and others, who are before the town of Orleans, retire in God’s name to your own country.


            Joan’s very presence so inspired the French Army that they were able to retake Orleans. Joan was twice wounded, but fought bravely. After her victory, the dauphin was crowned King Charles VII. Shortly thereafter, however, she was captured by a group of Burgundians, allied with the English who turned her over to the English. Charles VII did nothing to help her, as he felt she had served her purpose, and could now only be a nuisance.


            The English tied her to a block of wood at night and interrogated her relentlessly during the day. She was condemned as a witch and heretic, and sentenced to death at the stake. She briefly recanted, but changed her mind, and was burned as a “relapsed heretic” in the marketplace at Rouen on May 30, 1431.


A subsequent trial in 1456 exonerated Joan, and in 1920, she was proclaimed a saint. She is the second Patron Saint of France.


The victory at Orleans inspired the French while the English were exhausted. By 1453, 116 years after the beginning of the war, the English were driven out, except for the port city of Calais on the English channel.


The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485)


            England was troubled by the loss of the Hundred Years War, and civil war broke out between two families claiming the throne: The House of York (represented by the White Rose) and the House of Lancaster (represented by the Red Rose). After a series of battles, Edward IV (York) was proclaimed king in 1451.  Edward was brilliant but lazy and cruel, and tended to ignore Parliament whenever he could. He was involved in a number of skirmishes with the Lancastrians, but held the throne until his sudden death in 1483. The elder of his two young sons was declared King Edward V (at the time, Edward was twelve). The boy’s uncle, Richard Lancaster (brother of Edward IV) and regent for the young king, managed to have the boy declared illegitimate, and himself crowned Richard III. The young king and his brother were sent to the Tower of London where the two boys were mysteriously murdered.


            Thereafter, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond claimed the throne on behalf of the Lancastrians. At the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry defeated Richard. Richard was killed in the battle, and Henry proclaimed King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor Kings of England.


            The murder of the two princes in the tower is one of the great unsolved mysteries of history. Many point the finger at Richard III who took the throne from them. Shakespeare in his play by that name made him into a monstrous villain with a club foot who died a coward—his last words in the play are “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.” One must take Shakespeare’s accusations with a grain of salt, as he wrote during the time of Elizabeth II, granddaughter of Henry VII; so he had good reason to be politically correct.