Take her fair son, and from her blood
Issue to me, that the contending
Of France and England, whose very
shores look pale
With envy of each other's happiness,
May cease their hatred; and this dear
Plant neighbourhood and Christian-like
In their sweet bosoms; that never war
His bleeding sword 'twixt England and
(HENRY V ACT V, II)
THE HOPES FOR ENDURING peace expressed by Charles VI of France in Shakespeare's play have only really been achieved in the century since the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904. Franco-British relations until that date have often been characterised as unremittingly hostile. Yet, as Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, noted in 2003, the story is more complex and subtle. He observed that since 1904 the peoples of Britain and France 'have built a unique relationship, made up of a mixture of irritation and fascination'. His words apply equally well to long periods before 1904. Rather than being simply hostile, Franco-British relations are perhaps better described as ambivalent--that is, having equally positive and negative aspects at different times and circumstances. Across the whole range of their endeavours, from diplomacy and warfare to trade, language, food and clothing, each side has indeed found the other endlessly irritating and fascinating.
England and France have been in a culturally interactive and competitive relationship since before the Norman Conquest. Under Edward the Confessor and William I, French language, law and customs first became influential, then dominant, in England. With the accession of Henry II in 1154 and the creation of the Plantagenet empire, the competition between the two nations became at once dynastic, commercial and imperial and there were three major periods of conflict in the centuries to 1904.
Anglo-Norman 'king-dukes' resisted, but could not prevent, the efforts of Capetian and Valois kings to consolidate and expand their dominions in central and south-western France. From 1337 the English monarchy re-asserted itself, claiming not just territory in France, but the crown of France itself. Famous English victories at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) punctuated the Hundred Years' War but did not prevent the English losing all that had been gained by 1558, Henry VIII's efforts to re-create the Plantagenet empire notwithstanding.
Following a century of peace from 1563, another long period of conflict, often described as 'the second Hundred Years' War,' began in 1689 when William III declared war on Louis XIV of France in defence of his patrimony in the Netherlands. The War of the Spanish Succession, that followed between 1702 and 1713, catapulted Britain and France into commercial and territorial competition well beyond their own borders. As the military and naval power of each kingdom increased, they expanded and consolidated colonial possessions in Africa, India and North America. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years' War (1756-63) provided ample opportunities for each side to attack the other's land forces, navy and colonial possessions. French intervention in the American War from 1778 should be seen as part of this ongoing competition and was a decisive factor in compelling eventual British recognition of American independence by 1783.
The third period of direct military competition between Britain and France was shorter. Between 1792 and 1815 the British opposed successive Revolutionary regimes and Napoleon Bonaparte. During the remainder of the nineteenth century direct warfare was avoided but Franco-British colonial competition continued apace. With the seizure of Algiers in 1830, France began to build an empire in northwest and central Africa, in the Pacific and in Indochina that was, by the 1880s, second only to Britain's in land area. …