The enmity between the France and Britain goes back not years, not decades, but seven and a half centuries. Except for two short periods of about twenty years when they were allied against Spain, the two countries were either at war, preparing for war or recovering from one.
When Edward The Confessor died without an heir in January, 1066, Harold Godwinson ascended to the throne. He defeated an attempt by his brother Tostig supported by King Harald III of Norway to claim his throne setting the stage for his cousin, William, Duke of Burgundy, to invade England. At the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, Godwinson was killed by William’s army.
This was only one of the machinations that went on between the two countries. Between William’s reign and the fall of Napoleon in 1815, France and Britain spent 126 years at war (or 17% of the years) in 21 separate conflicts over territory, religion, and/or royal succession. It was not until the Crimean War in 1853, 38 years after Napoleon’s defeat, did France and Britain ally themselves in the Crimean War.
Why is this important to understand Britain’s initial reaction to the American Revolution? When it began in 1775, the British viewed our efforts as a sideshow in the context of its traditional rivalry with France that had been going on for centuries.
Louis XVI saw the American Revolution as a low risk/low cost way to stick a needle in the eye of his traditional rival after his country was soundly defeated in the Seven Years War that ended in 1763. France lost Canada and the islands of Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominca and Tobago along with several colonial enclaves in India. Most of the gunpowder bought by Colonial militias came from French Navy’s base on St. Lucia and the Dutch forts in the Antilles. Our victory at the Battle of Saratoga convinced Louis XVI to commit the French Army and Navy.
It was the much-maligned French Navy that made the biggest difference. First, the French fleet forced the British away from Boston and Newport, RI. Then, the Battle of the Chesapeake, the French fleet forced the Royal Navy to withdraw leaving Cornwallis with no hope of rescue.
What Louis XVI didn’t anticipate or probably believed would never happen, did. In 1792, he was dethroned and decapitated in the French Revolution that also set off the French Revolutionary Wars that pitted Great Britain and Prussia against the French. These lead to a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 and sixteen years of continuous global war fought on a scale (inconceivable at the time) that culminated in another French defeat in 1815.
Fast forward to the 20th Century. Britain rushed to France’s aid in 1914 and the cost put the British Empire figuratively into Chapter 11. The French collapse in 1940 at the beginning of World War II turned it into Chapter 7. It is this history that still colors French British relations because it is in their DNA.