The Hundred Years’ War, Taxes, and the Modern State

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

The King of England receiving a herald from the King of France, France of Southern Netherlands, c. 1485

The King of England receiving a herald from the King of France, France or Southern Netherlands, c. 1485

The Hundred Years’ War (waged from 1337 to 1453, so it was actually 116 years long) was a series of conflicts between England and France over control of the French monarchy. The war actually had roots that went back to the Norman invasion of 1066. When William the Conqueror, who you’ll remember was the French Duke of Normandy, took the English throne, he also retained his French landholdings. Thus, William and all subsequent English kings were technically vassals of the French king. What did this mean? Could the French king summon the English king to the French court, make the English monarch kneel, pledge fealty, and pay homage to France? If the English king was next in line for the French throne, could he take it? The Hundred Years’ War was fought to settle these questions. (SPOILER ALERT: France won.)

While war was not waged continuously over that 116 years, while there were periods of truce and relative peace, it was nevertheless a fierce conflict. English armies ravaged the French countryside — killing peasants, burning towns and farms, and generally making things miserable for the French. Not to mention the war coincided with the first outbreak of the Black Death from 1348 to 1350. Good Lord, was there anything worse than being a mid-14th century French peasant?

The Siege of Mortagne, near Bordeaux, in 1377

The Siege of Mortagne, near Bordeaux, in 1377

Besides giving us the Battle of Agincourt and Joan of Arc, the war introduced an innovation on which states have relied ever since: permanent and regular taxation of the citizenry.

Prior to the Hundred Years’ War, it was expected that monarchs would finance their governments out of their own pockets, specifically, from money generated from their extensive landholdings. Imagine that the Bushes had to fund the federal government with money produced by their compound in Kennebunkport and Crawford ranch. Yes, monarchs could supplement their income with indirect taxes by tapping into the funds of all royal subjects, but this was rare and done only in exceptional, emergency circumstances. There was a medieval legal maxim that prevented permanent taxation (one that should be tattooed on the foreheads of all politicians): “With the cause having ended, the consequence must end.” That is, once the emergency was over, the tax must end too.

But that legal rule would be consigned to the dustbin of history with the Hundred Years’ War. As you might imagine, financing a war over generations is quite expensive. Paying for armies to pillage and rape for decades doesn’t come cheap. Thus, given the duration and intensity of the conflict, direct taxes became a routine part of life. It was as if governments now existed in a state of permanent emergency. To give you an example of the change, during the reign of Henry III of England, which lasted almost 50 years from 1216 to 1272, direct taxes were levied only 5 times, an average of once a decade. However, during the reign of Edward III of England, which also lasted 50 years from 1327 to 1377, direct taxes were levied 27 times, more than every 2 years.

So the next time you make out that check to the IRS, you can thank a war fought for the French crown 560 years ago.


About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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12 Responses to The Hundred Years’ War, Taxes, and the Modern State

  1. ironrailsironweights says:

    So what about all the Biblical references to tax collectors?


    • I don’t know anything about taxes in the ancient world. Perhaps the practice of regular taxation of all citizens died out after the fall of Rome? Something to pay attention to when I listen to Daileader’s lectures on the early Middle Ages.


  2. A reader on Facebook notes that as a reward for her military service, Joan of Arc requested an exemption from taxes for her village, an exemption that stood until the French Revolution.


  3. Fascinatin’, tks. Governments being in a state of permanent emergency … That sounds pretty much like today, doesn’t it? How are Daileader’s lecture series? I’d love to learn more than I currently know about the Middle Ages in Europe …


  4. agnostic says:

    Soldier uniforms made of blue and yellow — the past is truly a different place. I wonder what effect the drab look of modern uniforms has had on getting guys pumped to join the military team.

    We only see bold colors on sports uniforms these days, both the players and the fans, whether they wear jerseys like the players or paint their skin. Or on gang members (back when there were gangs). For the target audience of hot-headed young males, those colors sure seem more exciting than olive, mud, and sand.

    And now that combat isn’t exactly dug-into-the-jungle, etc., the tactical benefit for modern camo can’t be very high. It’s more like they’re sticking with it to appear serious; sport-like colors would appear silly.

    But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to recruit and build cohesion among a volunteer army. Soldiers should already identify strongly with the colors “red, white, and blue” — why not of their uniforms too? “Let’s go Red Team, kick the Blue Team’s ass!”


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