Skip to content

The Treaty of Troyes: Triumph and Tragedy in the Hundred Years‘ War

The Treaty of Troyes, sealed on May 21, 1420, was a diplomatic masterstroke that reshaped the political destinies of England and France. Orchestrated by England‘s King Henry V at the height of his military successes in France, the treaty declared Henry to be the regent and heir to the French throne, with the unprecedented goal of uniting the two rival crowns. Yet it also reflected the depths of dynastic turmoil and civil strife that France had sunk to under the mad king Charles VI. The Treaty of Troyes marked the zenith of English ambitions in the Hundred Years‘ War as well as the beginning of their long, ineluctable decline. It remains one of the most audacious and consequential diplomatic agreements of the medieval era.

Origins of the Hundred Years‘ War

The roots of the Anglo-French conflict known as the Hundred Years‘ War stretched back to the 12th century and the rise of the French Capetian dynasty. Through strategic marriages and inheritances, the kings of England, starting with Henry II in 1154, acquired extensive territories in France as vassals of the French crown, notably the Duchy of Normandy and the County of Anjou. Tensions over the uneasy relationship between the English kings and their nominal French overlords boiled over in 1337, when Edward III of England asserted his claim to the French throne through his mother Isabella, the sister of the recently deceased French king Charles IV. This inaugurated a long and bloody series of intermittent conflicts between England and France that would endure until 1453.

Henry V and the Conquest of France

The Lancastrian king Henry V inherited the English claims to the French throne and the Hundred Years‘ War on his accession in 1413. An energetic and ambitious warrior king in the mold of Edward III, Henry launched a major invasion of France in August 1415, determined to enforce his rights and expand English power on the continent. After taking the port of Harfleur, Henry led his army on a bold march through Normandy towards the English enclave of Calais, daring the French to stop him.

On October 25, 1415, on a muddy field near the village of Agincourt, a French army intercepted Henry. Despite being vastly outnumbered (most modern estimates put the English at around 6,000-9,000 men versus 12,000-36,000 French), Henry‘s troops won a crushing victory, decimating the flower of French chivalry. As the 15th-century Burgundian chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet wrote in his account of the battle:

"There were slain in this battle from four to five hundred knights and esquires, and from five to six thousand men of other ranks of the French. The whole loss on the English side was about sixteen hundred; among the slain was the duke of York, uncle to the king." (Quoted in Curry, 2000, p. 37)

The stunning triumph at Agincourt established Henry as a peerless general and the master of the field in France. Over the next several years, he launched fresh campaigns in Normandy, gradually conquering the region. In 1419, after a grueling six-month siege, Henry captured Normandy‘s capital, Rouen, the first time the city had fallen to an enemy force in over 200 years. The jubilant English king rode in triumph into Rouen Cathedral on January 19 to give thanks to God for his victory.

The Mad King and Civil War in France

Henry‘s relentless advance in France was abetted by the political disarray and weakness of the French monarchy under Charles VI, one of the longest-reigning yet least effectual kings in French history. Charles had ascended the throne at the age of 11 in 1380 and his reign started promisingly, but in 1392, he suffered the first of what would be many devastating bouts of madness that incapacitated him for long periods. Contemporary chroniclers described the king‘s pathetic fits of delirium and derangement with a mix of pity and horror. As Jean Juvénal des Ursins, the future Archbishop of Reims, wrote:

"The king in his delirium sometimes imagined that he was made of glass, and to prevent himself from breaking, he enveloped himself with cushions and blankets; at other times he would howl like a wolf, or bay like a dog." (Quoted in Famiglietti, 1992, p. 53)

Charles‘ incapacitation left a dangerous power vacuum at the heart of the French state. Two powerful factions of French nobles, the Armagnacs and Burgundians, vied for control over the kingdom as the king drifted in and out of lucidity. The Armagnacs were led by Charles‘ eldest son and heir, the Dauphin Charles, while the Burgundians followed the dukes of Burgundy, first John the Fearless and after his assassination in 1419, his son Philip the Good.

The murder of John the Fearless by Armagnac partisans at a diplomatic summit with the Dauphin in 1419 proved fateful, driving Philip into an alliance with the English. As the English and Burgundians threatened Paris in 1420, the Dauphin‘s position looked increasingly tenuous, while his relations with his deranged father reached a nadir. The stage was set for Henry V‘s ultimate stroke.

Provisions of the Treaty of Troyes

Henry V and Charles VI, along with Philip of Burgundy, agreed to a breathtaking set of terms in the Treaty of Troyes on May 21, 1420. The full Latin text of the treaty runs to over 3,000 words, but its key provisions were as follows:

  • Henry would marry Charles VI‘s youngest daughter, Catherine of Valois, thereby joining the royal houses of England and France
  • Henry was designated as the heir to the throne of France, while the Dauphin Charles was expressly disinherited and declared illegitimate
  • Henry would act as regent of France during Charles VI‘s lifetime, governing the kingdom in his stead
  • Upon Charles‘ death, Henry would inherit the French crown, and the crowns of England and France would be permanently united under him and his heirs

In sum, the Treaty of Troyes aimed to mergethe French and English monarchies into one under Henry‘s dynasty, fulfilling the grandest ambitions of his Plantagenet ancestors. The marriage of Henry and Catherine was immediately solemnized in Troyes Cathedral on June 2, 1420.

Aftermath and Legacy

The Treaty of Troyes sent shockwaves throughout Europe and utterly transformed the political landscape of England and France. Henry V was now the master of northern France and presumptive king of the whole country, while the Dauphin Charles‘ claim to his birthright had been repudiated by his own father. However, the Dauphin and his Armagnac allies refused to submit, establishing a rival court and base of power south of the Loire River in Bourges. This set the stage for a renewed round of civil and external war in France over the succession.

Tragically, Henry V would not live to see his astonishing diplomatic victory consummated in the final conquest of France. Just two years after sealing the Treaty of Troyes, the 35-year-old Henry died suddenly of dysentery on campaign in France on August 31, 1422. Less than two months later, his father-in-law Charles VI died as well, having reigned for 42 long, unhappy years. Henry and Catherine‘s infant son, Henry VI, was recognized as king of England and France, but his reign in France would prove contentious and short-lived.

The English maintained the dual monarchy in northern France for several more years under the regency of Henry V‘s brother John, Duke of Bedford. Henry VI even journeyed to Paris to be officially crowned as king of France at Notre Dame Cathedral in 1431, an act of symbolic culmination for the Treaty of Troyes. But the Lancastrian monarchy in France was already starting to unravel under the increasingly effective military and political pressure of the Dauphin Charles, now styling himself as Charles VII, the true king of France.

One of the key turning points came in 1429 with the emergence of Joan of Arc, the charismatic peasant girl who rallied the French troops to break the English siege of Orleans. Her inspirational victories opened the way for a major French counteroffensive that would see Charles VII crowned at Reims and the English steadily pushed back. By the 1440s the Burgundians had switched their allegiance back to Charles, sealing the inevitable French triumph. The Hundred Years‘ War finally ended in English defeat in 1453, leaving them nothing in France but the port of Calais.

The Treaty of Troyes was both the high water mark of English power in the Hundred Years‘ War and the beginning of its reflux. It demonstrated the remarkable political and military abilities of Henry V, who in his short reign had brought England tantalizingly close to total victory over its historic enemy France. The 16th-century English humanist Polydore Vergil rendered this verdict on Henry in his Anglica Historia:

"What shall I say of his courage, his magnanimity, his military skill, his good fortune? All these virtues shone so brightly in him that he may rightly be considered to have surpassed in military glory all the kings of England who preceded him." (Vergil, 1555/1844, p. 87)

Yet the Treaty of Troyes also reflected the fragility of Henry‘s achievement, dependent as it was on the vagaries of dynastic politics and diplomacy. The treaty‘s terms could only be enforced by a powerful adult monarch like Henry himself; in the hands of an infant king like Henry VI, they quickly became a dead letter. Moreover, the treaty overreached in its breathtaking ambition of subsuming the French monarchy into an English-led dynastic union, a project that was bound to inspire fervent nationalist resistance among the French nobility and people. As the French knight and chronicler Philippe de Commines later observed, "The English will never enjoy peace until they are back on their island." (Commines, 1477/1969, p. 230)

Nonetheless, the Treaty of Troyes stands as one of the most audacious and significant diplomatic agreements of the Middle Ages, a true watershed in the histories of England, France and the Hundred Years‘ War. It represents both the pinnacle of Plantagenet ambitions to rule France and the beginning of their final defeat and withdrawal. The treaty‘s greatest legacy, perhaps, is as a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreach and hubris in war and diplomacy – one that the impetuous yet gallant warrior king Henry V, cut down in his prime, learned too late.

[References: See works cited above by Curry (2000), Famiglietti (1992), Vergil (1555/1844), and Commines (1477/1969). Secondary sources consulted include Seward (1978), Allmand (1992), and Barker (2005)]