Beginnings and endings of wars

Posted by Helen Monday, December 18, 2006

The Hundred Years’ War notoriously lasted 115 years. Either they could not count or they did not know precisely when it started and when it ended. Or, possibly, historians prefer snappy names and titles. Well, anyway, I used to think it was 115 years, but Wikipedia says it was 116, from 1337 to 1453.

The beginning is slightly muddled, with French ships attacking coastal settlements, arguments over the Gascon fiefdom and Edward III helpfully telling the French that he was, in fact, their rightful king.

The ending is probably the last battle, that of Castillon when Talbot (you cannot get much more Shakesperian) was defeated while trying to retake Gascony. Then again, one could argue that the real last battle was that of Calais in 1558. (Whenever people tell me that countries, such as Serbia, have a right to something or other because they were there in the fourteenth century, I suggest taking large parts back to be ruled by the English. Or, at least, an alliance with Burgundy, which had been incorporated forcibly into France round about the time the English lost Calais. Strangely, I get no response.)

While not every year of those 115 or 116 were taken up with fighting a good many were and a very muddled business it was, too, with various smaller states, changing sides as they saw fit, rebellions breaking out within them and peace treaties being signed and broken.

Who knows all the official combatants? On one side there were England, Burgundy, Brittany, Portugal, Navarre, Flanders, Hainault, Aquitaine and Luxembourg; on the other, France, Castile, Scotland, Genoa, Majorca, Bohemia and Aragon. But the lists changed from time to time. It is reasonably clear that one aim of the war was to subdue various duchies and smaller states that the King of France wanted to control.

Enough of that. Let us move on to other wars. The Thirty Years’ War, amazingly enough, lasted just that, starting with the famous second (and unsuccessful) defenestration in Prague in May 1618. (Oh, all right, since you ask, the first one was the killing of seven council members by angry Hussites by throwing them out of the window on to the spears of the armed congregation. (Armed congregation? How different from the everyday life of our own Church of England.)

In the second one, the Protestant Assembly threw out two Imperial governors who had tried to impose their own Roman Catholic religion. The two landed on a pile of manure and left unharmed, though rather smelly.

The final defenestration took place 330 years later, in March 1948. As the Communists took over, the non-Communist Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk was found under his bathroom window. Yes, I suppose, it might have been suicide. Or he might have been suicided on the orders of Klement Gottwald, the Communist leader.

The ending of the Thirty Years’ War (returning to our muttons) was also clearly defined with the Peace of Westphalia, the two treaties, that of Münster and Osnabrück, signed in the spring of 1648. Confusingly, these also ended the Eighty Years’ War, that of Dutch independence from Spain. (With me, so far?)

The Peace of Westphalia is quite often referred to as the Treaty of Westphalia and is one of the most misunderstood and misquoted documents in modern history. In fact, Tory Historian intends to do a long blog on the subject just as soon as ….

The Thirty Years’ War may have had a definite beginning and ending but it was a muddled affair, with various German states fighting here and there, not to mention Bohemia (part of the Holy Roman Empire), Sweden, France (which did rather well out of it, what with getting Alsace-Lorraine and Metz), Denmark, Spain and the Dutch.

When one gets to the eighteenth century, it can seem as if there was nothing but toing and froing, what with the War of Habsburg Succession and the Seven Years’ War with the diplomatic revolution between them. Still, they all ended with a peace treaty and a more or less accepted settlement.

The continuing French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars remain a headache for all. Again, we know when they ended, though before that there were many breaks, peace treaties that did not hold and countries changing sides either voluntarily or not. That, too, is a subject for another blog or, perhaps, several.

Let us move on, rather rapidly, to the twentieth century. How many wars did it have? My own supervisor at Oxford, A. J. P. Taylor, said a long time ago that the two World Wars were in reality one war that lasted from 1914 to 1945. The two main antagonists remained the same but others changed, empires broke up, new states were created, and various rebellions and changes in political systems rearranged the picture.

Margaret Macmillan in “The Peacemakers” seems reasonably certain that most of what was done in 1945 about Germany should have been done in 1919, though she does acknowledge that the presence of a much stronger United States and Soviet Union changed the situation somewhat.

Much of what the peace negotiations of 1919 wanted to achieve was not to be seen until well after 1945.

Is that the end of the story, though? We know when the great war of the twentieth century started – those shots in July 1914 in Sarajevo. But, just as the Hundred Years’ War started and ended in Gascony, so the twentieth century war started and ended in Sarajevo with the collapse of the Yugoslav state, created with some trouble in 1919 and never at peace with itself.

The end of that process that started with Gavrilo Princip’s shots has not yet arrived. The post-1945 political structure started to unravel in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated but has not stopped doing so.

The after effects of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire have recently become stronger in the Middle East. Iraq was created in the 1920s, as were most of the modern states in the area.

Started in 1914 and ended when? Are we living through another hundred years’ war?


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Where to start ? A brilliant nostalgic blog, bringing back the happiest times of my life in the history classroom.
    Cuius regio eius religio. Gustavus Adolphus' head banging on the stairs. The defenestration of Prague - protestant version, landing in muck heap, RC version, caught by angels (or other way round). Diet of Worms. Burning the papal bull (Literally, Mr. Jackson with his cigarette lighter in the classroom litter bin). CV Wedgewood - the first adult history book I read all the way through.
    Thanks, Tory H.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. We aim to please. ;-)

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. I find the idea that our Muslim problems are ripples through time from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire very interesting. The rise and rise of the House of Saud is presumably a factor here.

    The thread of Oil is intricately woven into this on-going war.

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