Philip VI (1293-1350) was king of France from 1328 to 1350. His reign began with a crisis in the succession to the crown and culminated in the rupture between the kings of France and England which precipitated the Hundred Years War.
The son of Charles of Valois and the grandson of Philip III of France, Philip VI was born without any prospect of becoming king of France. He had been Count of Maine and, as of 1326, Count of Anjou and Valois. Like other contemporaries, he had been a knightly adventurer and had participated in the Italian wars of the Lombard cities against the Visconti family of Milan.
Upon the death of the last direct Capetian king, Charles IV, in 1328, Philip was named regent of France, for Charles's widow, Joan of Evreux, had been pregnant at his death. On April 1, 1328, Joan gave birth to a daughter, but an assembly of nobles passed over the daughter's claim in favor of that of Philip. On May 29, 1328, Philip VI was crowned king of France.
Each of the kings of France from Hugh Capet to Philip IV had produced a male child who succeeded his father as king. Thereafter, although there was never a law of direct male succession, it was traditional to pass over a deceased king's daughters for his brother. Although succession only through male descent was counter to the law that governed the inheritance of private estates in France, Philip V and Charles IV claimed that the crown of France descended by a higher law, one that excluded female succession. When Charles died in 1328, therefore, France faced a crisis of succession to the royal throne for which it had never had to prepare itself: there were a number of different claimants to the throne, several of them women and several whose claims derived through women. In addition, there were complicating political factors, all of which played a part in the final outcome.
There were two claimants whose claims did not depend upon female succession. Edward III of England claimed the throne through his mother, daughter of Philip IV, on the basis of her being able to transmit to a male child the claim which she could not make as a woman herself. Philip VI based his claim to the throne on complete male descent, as the son of the son of Philip III; on expediency—he had been regent successfully for 2 months and was well liked by the nobility; and on the prestige of the Valois house.
King of France
The personality of Philip VI is difficult to assess. He has been criticized both as being (like his son and successor, John II) an irresponsible chivalric knight who found a throne by accident and as being a calculating ruler who promoted lowborn unruly officials over the heads of the French nobility. He was interested in questions of theology and soon received the nickname of "the Very Devout Christian." He continued the tradition, begun in the reign of his grandfather, Philip III, of royal patronage of the arts and book collecting. He was certainly ceremonial, both in battle, which was unwise, and in the life of the court, which may have enhanced his royal prestige. In general, he appears to have been unable to use his resources wisely or effectively and never to have acquired control over the army, a defect which was sharply revealed by the English victories in the last decade of his reign. Not raised and educated for the throne, Philip VI was faced with too many severe crises in too short a period of time, crises with which he was temperamentally, financially, and politically unable to deal.
Gascony, Scotland, and England
King Edward III of England was not only a rival claimant of the throne of France but also Philip's vassal for the duchy of Gascony, a maritime strip of wealthy territories on the southwestern coast of France; and as Edward's overlord, Philip VI claimed certain rights of homage and certain rights of judicial intervention in Gascony. France, too, had long supported anti-English candidates to the throne of Scotland. On the other hand, the wealthy population of Flanders, whose count was also a vassal of Philip's, had stronger financial ties with England. From Edward's extremely reluctant homage to Philip in 1331 to the outbreak of war in 1339, relations between the two kings centered upon this complex of interests and alliances.
French intervention in the duchy of Gascony was followed by English support for Edward Balliol as king of Scotland, with Philip supporting the claim of David II. Edward, fearing a French invasion of Scotland, began in 1337 to form a series of alliances with France's northern and western neighbors and to foment rebellion in Flanders. Philip replied by declaring Gascony confiscated by the French crown, and Edward countered by reviving his claim to the throne of France and by launching his first Continental campaign in 1339.
Hundred Years War
On one level, the war began as a dispute between a lord and his vassal, but the intensity of the campaigns, the economic and political pressures, and France's fatal military weakness soon carried it beyond the level of a feudal conflict almost to the extent of a war between nations. Neither side possessed sufficient resources to gain complete victory.
Although English armies were smaller than those of the French, their superior organization and tactics made them militarily superior, and Philip's inability to reform French military organization and technique cost him dearly, as it would his successors. England fomented revolts in Flanders (1337) and Brittany (1341), destroyed the French fleet at Sluis (1340), and finally opened a campaign on several fronts, particularly in Gascony and Normandy, culminating in the shattering defeat of Philip's army at Crécy in 1346. Edward was not able financially to follow up his victory, nor was Philip sufficiently energetic or confident to attack the English again. But in 1347 Edward captured Calais, forcing Philip to beg the States General for more money.
The following year, 1348, witnessed yet a further disaster in the arrival of the Black Death, which ravaged Europe and wreaked havoc with the social and economic order of France. The length of the war, the final defeats at Crécy and Calais, the reluctance of his subjects to finance the war adequately, and the plague tormented the final years of Philip's reign. He died on Aug. 22, 1350.
Further Reading on Philip VI
There is no biography of Philip VI in English. Good recent surveys of his reign are Kenneth Fowler, The Age of Plantagenet and Valois (1967), and, in somewhat greater detail, Edouard Perroy, The Hundred Years War (1945; trans. 1951). A nearcontemporary account of the origins of the war is that of Jean Froissart, The Chronicles of England, France, and Spain (many eds.).