The battle of Crécy: triumph of the longbow
Edward III’s stunning victory over the French at the battle of Crécy marked a new dawn for the humble foot soldier. Julian Humphrys investigates what happened during this decisive battle of the Hundred Years’ War
The French army that made its way through the Picardy countryside in August 1346 was confident of victory. So confident, in fact, that its leaders had already shared out the potential English prisoners between themselves and worked out what ransoms to charge. After all, what chance did Edward III’s contemptible little army of foot soldiers stand against the flower of French chivalry?
Edward III had landed in Normandy in July, and after capturing and sacking Caen, he led his men east towards the Seine, burning and pillaging as he went. However, when he learned that King Philip VI was assembling a large army in Paris, he turned north. The French followed and finally caught up with him near Abbeville in Picardy.
Edward deployed his men along a ridge near the village of Crécy. He divided his army into three divisions, giving nominal command of the right-hand division, which would be nearest to the French, to his 16-year-old son Edward, the Black Prince.
The Earls of Oxford and Warwick, both experienced soldiers, were on hand to advise the young prince, as was Sir John Chandos, one of the finest soldiers of his age. e left-hand division was led by the Earl of Northampton, while Edward himself commanded the reserve from a vantage point near a windmill on top of the ridge.
Each division was made up of dismounted knights and menat- arms, Welsh spearmen, and substantial numbers of archers. Edward’s plan was to use his bowmen to disrupt the attacking French and to maul them so severely that if they did reach his lines, his men-at-arms could drive them back. He completed his preparations by ordering foot deep potholes to be dug in front of his lines in order to trip up enemy horses.
Why did the battle of Crécy happen?In the mid-14th century, because the King of England held lands in France as a vassal of the French king, Edward III owed homage to Philip VI. But the two kings were supposedly equal, which created a recipe for trouble. This powder-keg situation was made even more explosive by French support for the Scots against the English, and English support for their trading partners, the Flemish, against France. In 1337, the simmering tensions surrounding Edward’s homage boiled over, and Philip declared that he had confiscated the English king’s lands in southwest France. Encouraged by his Flemish allies, Edward hit back by declaring that because his sister was the daughter of the previous French king, he – not Philip – was the rightful king of France. In fact, although he made a lot of this claim, it was primarily a move to strengthen his bargaining position, and Edward never seriously envisaged the total conquest of France.
The advance guard of Philip's army arrived near Crécy around noon on 26 August. After taking a look at the enemy position, its leaders recommended to Philip that he should wait for his entire army to arrive before launching an assault. Philip probably agreed with this approach, but he was faced with a fractious nobility who were itching to get to grips with the English. So, despite the fact that his army was strung out along the road from Abbeville and most of his infantry and supplies were still miles away, he ordered an immediate attack.
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Most of Philip’s infantry were of a dubious quality, but they did include a substantial contingent of Genoese mercenary crossbowmen under the command of Ottone Doria and Carlo Grimaldi. Philip hurried them forward to soften up the English, before his armoured knights launched what he was sure would be an unstoppable charge.
These crossbowmen were well-trained professionals who knew their business, but in the rush to get to attack the English, their pavises (the large shields they sheltered behind while reloading) had been left behind with the baggage. Their absence would be disastrous in the events that followed.
The mercenaries advanced in good order and unleashed a volley of crossbow bolts. Nobody knows why, but the volley fell short.
Some say that their bowstrings had been loosened by the rain that had been falling, while others think that, squinting into the Sun, they simply misjudged the range. Edward’s archers didn’t make the same mistake. As the Genoese bent down to begin the relatively lengthy business of reloading their crossbows, the English archers took one pace forward and began to shoot. A well-trained archer could easily let off a dozen shots a minute, and soon tens of thousands of deadly arrows were raining down on the exposed crossbowmen. Without their pavises for shelter, the hapless mercenaries were sitting ducks.
Black princeThe eldest son of Edward III, Edward of Woodstock was one of the most successful commanders of the Hundred Years’ War. Exactly why he was known as the Black Prince is a matter of debate. Some attribute it to the colour of his heraldry, while others attribute it to his ruthlessness. As he was just 16 at the battle of Crécy, his command of a division there was probably nominal, but a decade later he led his army to triumph at Poitiers. He was a keen exponent of the chevauchée – a method of warfare that involved riding through enemy territory and pillaging and burning it. One of his last acts of war was his capture of Limoges in 1370. The town was then thoroughly sacked, although claims that he put the civilian population to the sword appear to be unfounded. He died in 1376, a year before his father; his son, Richard became king on Edward III’s death.
Blind kingJohn of Luxembourg was one of the most admired knights in the French army. He was also one of the most experienced. Since becoming King of Bohemia at the age of 14 in 1310, he’d joined three crusades to Lithuania, campaigned in Italy and northern France, and seen off his enemies in Bohemia itself. He was a trusted ally of the French king Philip VI, and was one of his main financial backers for the campaign of 1346. Although by then he was in his late-middle ages and almost completely blind, he was determined not to miss out on the action, and rode into the thick of the fray at Crécy with his horse’s bridle tied to those of his companions. His lifeless body was later found on the battlefield. Legend has it that the Prince of Wales adopted John’s motto of ich dien (I serve) to honour the courage of the Blind King.
As their casualties began to mount, they concluded that discretion was the better part of valour and began to fall back. The only problem was that there was nowhere to go, for their retreat was barred by a mass of mounted French knights and men-atarms, all contemptuous of the Genoese and eager to be first to close with the English. Led by the King’s brother, the Count of Alençon, they galloped forward – straight into the huge mass of retreating crossbowmen. The result was utter confusion.
While some of the French knights managed to find a way through the mob of retreating men, many simply trampled them to the ground. Others, enraged by the poor performance of the Genoese, even cut them down with their swords. One account claims that Philip shouted, “Quick now, kill all that rabble, they are only getting in our way!” All order was lost as the proud French knights pushed and hacked their way through the despised foot soldiers. Meanwhile, the English poured volley after volley of arrows into the mass of struggling men, and even opened fire with some primitive bombards that they had brought with them on campaign.
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Eventually, Alençon’s knights and men-at-arms extricated themselves from the chaos and charged uphill towards the Prince of Wales’s division. As they did so, they became the targets of Edward’s bowmen, who unleashed a hail of arrows upon them. Many were protected by their armour from the full effects of the archery, but their horses suffered terribly. Jean le Bel, a contemporary Flemish chronicler, described their plight: “Some leapt backwards stung to madness, some reared hideously, some turned their rear quarters towards the enemy, others merely let themselves fall to the ground, and their riders could do nothing about it.”
Even so, many of the French men-at-arms did manage to close with the Prince of Wales’s division, where a brief but fierce battle developed. One French chronicler claimed that the Count of Alençon actually managed to grab hold of the Prince of Wales’s banner before he was cut down and his men driven back, leaving hundreds of fallen men and horses littering the ground.
The French soon tried again. This time the attack was led by John of Luxembourg, the King of Bohemia. Although elderly and blind, he was determined to share the dangers faced by his men. He had his horse’s bridle tied to those of his household knights and ordered them to lead him through the hail of arrows into the thick of the fray.
Once again, the English arrows hit home in their thousands, disrupting the enemy ranks, but once again the French managed to close with the English.
Sheer weight of numbers meant that the Prince of Wales’s division came under severe pressure in the ensuing hand-to-hand combat. Young Edward himself was beaten to the ground before being rescued by his standard bearer, Sir Richard FitzSimon, who is said to have taken the unprecedented step of putting down the royal banner to defend his prince.
The situation became so desperate that Sir Thomas Norwich was sent to the King to ask for reinforcements. Edward (who may well have seen that the Earl of Northampton had already sent some of his division to help the Prince) famously dismissed the request, saying: “Tell them that my orders are to let the boy win his spurs, for I wish the day to be his.” He later quietly sent the Bishop of Durham with 20 knights to his son’s assistance, but when they arrived, they found the Prince and his companions resting on their swords; they had driven back the French attack.
The French would make as many as 13 more attacks before the day was done, but they were made in piecemeal fashion by troops as they arrived on the battlefield, and were all either dispersed by the arrows of Edward’s archers or repulsed by his men-at-arms. The pile of dead and wounded men and horses in front of the English position grew ever larger, adding to the difficulties faced by the French when they tried to charge.
King Philip himself fought bravely. He had two horses killed under him and was hit in the jaw by an arrow, but as dusk began to fall and his army began to dissolve into flight, he finally allowed himself to be led from the field to safety at Labroye castle.
Knowing that several French contingents hadn’t even reached the battlefield, Edward refused to let his men mount a pursuit. The English stood to arms all night, lighting bonfires and burning the windmill that overlooked their position to illuminate the battlefield. It was only on the following day, when the heralds had collected up and counted the heraldic coats of the French dead, that the true scale of the English victory was revealed.
As well as an unspecified number of common soldiers, over 1,500 men of knightly rank and higher had been slain, including the King’s brother the Count of Alençon, the Count of Flanders, the Duke of Lorraine, the King of Majorca and the brave old king of Bohemia. The days when the armoured knight ruled supreme onthe battlefields of northern Europe were well and truly over.
What happened after the battle?
Edward followed up his victory by capturing Calais, which would remain in English hands for more than 200 years. Later, Edward agreed to give up his claim to the French throne in exchange for large tracts of land in western France. But the English were overstretched, and the French would recapture much of their lost territory. Henry V, who became English king in 1413, revived the claim to the French throne. He defeated the French at Agincourt and conquered most of northern France. When Henry and the French king Charles VI died in 1422, Henry VI became King of England and, in English eyes, France. The English had been helped in their conquests by an alliance with Burgundy, but when that ended in 1435, the French territories were steadily overrun until only Calais and the Channel Islands remained.
Julian Humphrys is a historian and tour guide. You can find him on Twitter @GeneralJules