The Black Prince, along with the English and Welsh long­bow­men, forged for­mi­da­ble fight­ing rep­u­ta­tions at Crécy



It is a sum­mer’s day in north­ern France, and on a Picardy hill­side tens of thou­sands of sol­diers have as­sem­bled to en­gage in a bat­tle of two kings. One is de­fend­ing his king­dom while the other has come to claim it. Two other mon­archs are also present, but com­mon sol­diers dom­i­nate this no­tice­ably re­gal bat­tle.

Ge­noese cross­bow­men are or­dered by the French king, Philip VI, to at­tack the po­si­tions of his English ri­val, Ed­ward III. As they ad­vance a thun­der­storm breaks out, and when it clears deadly ar­rows re­place the rain­drops. Th­ese shots are so rapid that the chron­i­cler Jean Frois­sart re­ported, “it seemed as if it snowed”. The sun then shines into the cross­bow­men’s eyes so that they are now blind as well as be­lea­guered. The Ge­noese flee from this hellish erup­tion. The bloody en­counter be­gins a bat­tle that will trans­form Euro­pean bat­tle­fields.

This mo­men­tous en­gage­ment be­came known as the Bat­tle of Crécy, and it was the first of three ma­jor English vic­to­ries dur­ing the Hun­dred Years’ War – the other two be­ing the Bat­tles of Poitiers and Agin­court. Although Agin­court be­came the most fa­mous of the three, and Poitiers in­volved the cap­ture of a French king, it is Crécy that is ar­guably the most im­por­tant.

It con­firmed the mil­i­tary rep­u­ta­tion of Ed­ward III, es­tab­lished the fight­ing ca­reer of his heir, Ed­ward 'the Black Prince', and her­alded the rise of the long­bow and infantrymen in me­dieval war­fare. Crécy also sig­nalled the de­cline of knightly chivalry on the bat­tle­field, de­spite the fact that Ed­ward III es­tab­lished the Or­der of the Garter two years later. In fact, Ed­ward’s chival­ric os­ten­ta­tions were only skin-deep, and Crécy was a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the English king’s prag­mat­i­cally ruth­less strate­gies and his burn­ing am­bi­tion to rule not just one king­dom, but two.

“Ex­cesses, re­bel­lions and dis­obe­di­ent acts”

Although the Hun­dred Years’ War (1337-1453) was a se­ries of in­ter­mit­tent con­flicts con­ducted over a very pro­longed pe­riod, its root cause re­mained the same. The war was pri­mar­ily con­ducted be­tween the Plan­ta­genet and Valois dy­nas­ties over the right to rule the king­dom of France, and it was Ed­ward III who vig­or­ously sparked the mo­men­tous con­flict.

In the early 14th cen­tury, the English and French monar­chies were deeply in­ter­twined.

The English had held lands in France since the Nor­man Con­quest as fiefs to the French monarch. At one point Henry II’S Angevin Em­pire cov­ered Eng­land and half of mod­ern France, but by Ed­ward III’S ac­ces­sion in 1327 only Aquitaine (which was var­i­ously known as Gas­cony or Guyenne) re­mained in English hands.

Nev­er­the­less, his fa­mil­ial tie to the French monar­chy strength­ened Ed­ward’s am­bi­tions in France. His mother Is­abella was the sis­ter of Charles IV, and as his nephew, Ed­ward be­lieved he had a strong claim to the French throne. His claim was de­clared in 1328 when Charles died with­out a di­rect male heir, and Is­abella claimed the throne on be­half of her son. Ed­ward was on the cusp of be­com­ing the ruler of a dual­monar­chy, which would have made him the most pow­er­ful king in Europe. The French thought dif­fer­ently.

Ed­ward’s claim was de­clared in­valid by the French, who de­clared that an­cient 'Salic Law' pre­vented women from claim­ing the throne for them­selves or their chil­dren. De­spite the fact

that Ed­ward was Charles’s clos­est sur­viv­ing male rel­a­tive, the French chose Philip of Valois as their new king. Philip was a first cousin of Charles and he was duly crowned as Philip VI.

Ed­ward did not se­ri­ously con­test Philip’s ac­ces­sion at first and even paid per­sonal homage for his French lands in 1329, but ten­sions grew over the fol­low­ing decade. Ed­ward was of­ten coun­selled to “defy the French king who kept his her­itage from him wrong­fully,” and he was will­ing to oblige. He goaded the French by cre­at­ing trade prob­lems in Flan­ders, and in 1337 Philip con­fis­cated Aquitaine from Ed­ward. His rea­son for the for­feit was be­cause of the “many ex­cesses, re­bel­lions and dis­obe­di­ent acts com­mit­ted by the King of Eng­land against Us and Our Royal Majesty.”

In re­tal­i­a­tion, Ed­ward de­clared him­self king of France three years later in 1340, and his long-de­sired con­flict be­came an open war.

The English won a crush­ing naval vic­tory at Sluys in June 1340 and went on to con­duct a de­struc­tive raid­ing in­va­sion in north­ern France and the Low Coun­tries. Nev­er­the­less, it wasn’t un­til 1346 that Ed­ward raised enough funds to launch a proper cam­paign in France and met his neme­sis Philip in bat­tle.

The Nor­mandy chevauchée

On 13 July 1346, Ed­ward landed at Saint­vaast-la-hougue on the Cher­bourg Penin­sula in hun­dreds of ships that con­tained around 15,000 men. At the time this was one of the largest ex­pe­di­tionary forces in English his­tory, and Ed­ward’s army pro­ceeded to wreak de­lib­er­ately de­struc­tive havoc in Nor­mandy. Known as a 'chevauchée', the vi­o­lence was a pol­icy of burn­ing and pil­lag­ing in or­der to in­tim­i­date the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and re­duce the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the re­gion. For Ed­ward, this form of war was de­signed to strike at Philip through his sub­jects, and the re­sults were dev­as­tat­ing.

Many Nor­man towns, in­clud­ing Barfleur and Cher­bourg, were burnt, along with the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, but it was Caen that suf­fered the most. When the gar­ri­son sur­ren­dered the English sol­diers “were with­out mercy” and be­gan to loot, rape and kill the in­hab­i­tants. One chron­i­cler re­ported that there were “many evil deeds, mur­ders and rob­beries in the town,” and Ed­ward per­son­ally prof­ited from vast amounts of plun­der, in­clud­ing gold, sil­ver and hun­dreds of ran­somed pris­on­ers.

After torch­ing Nor­mandy, Ed­ward moved on to wreak de­struc­tion in the di­rec­tion of Paris, although ter­ri­to­rial con­quests were not ac­tu­ally his aim. He reck­oned that Philip would be brought to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble by eco­nomic dam­age or that he would be so an­gry that he would seek Ed­ward out in bat­tle. The English king was spoil­ing for a fight and wanted Philip to di­vert his at­ten­tion away from Aquitaine. Ed­ward got his wish, and Philip as­sem­bled as many troops as pos­si­ble while send­ing re­in­force­ments to Rouen.

De­spite his ad­vance on the French cap­i­tal, Ed­ward never in­tended to be­siege Paris be­cause he lacked an ad­e­quate siege train. The English were also heav­ily out­num­bered by Philip’s army, which was as­sem­bling at Saint­de­nis. The French in­tended to trap Ed­ward’s force by block­ing bridges on the River Seine, but the English re­paired a bridge at Poissy and re­treated north­wards, burn­ing ev­ery­thing along the way.

Bat­tle of Blanchetaque

Ed­ward’s path was blocked again at the River Somme, and Philip was now in hot pur­suit. For­tu­nately for the English, a pass­able ford was found at Blanchetaque near Abbeville. Nev­er­the­less, a large force of French sol­diers and Ge­noese cross­bow­men in French ser­vice de­fended the op­po­site bank. English archers forced their way across in a “sore bat­tle” on 24 Au­gust, but Philip si­mul­ta­ne­ously at­tacked Ed­ward from the rear and even cap­tured some of his bag­gage train. The Somme’s wa­ters then rose and the French were pre­vented from cross­ing in pur­suit.

The fight­ing at Blanchetaque is a his­tor­i­cal foot­note com­pared to the bat­tle at Crécy two days later, but if the English had failed to cross the ford, then sub­se­quent events would have turned out dif­fer­ently. By this time Ed­ward’s men were ex­hausted from march­ing, and their food sup­plies were very low. Blanchetaque was also the last river cross­ing be­fore the sea, and if the English had been trapped they ran a very high chance of be­ing de­stroyed by Philip.

As it was, the suc­cess­ful cross­ing meant that Ed­ward could now choose his ground for the in­evitable bat­tle and had a route to safety. If the bat­tle went wrong then his army would re­treat to Flan­ders, a friendly ter­ri­tory with strong con­nec­tions to the English wool trade.

Ed­ward soon found a per­fect po­si­tion on ris­ing ground near the small town of Crécy-en­pon­thieu. The English po­si­tioned them­selves on a hill that was crowned by a dis­tinc­tive wind­mill. Be­low them was an open space known as the 'Val­ley of the Clerks'. Ed­ward’s army was pro­tected on all flanks: to his cen­tre and right flank was the small River Maie, while large woods sur­rounded his force at a safe dis­tance.

Ed­ward es­tab­lished his com­mand post and de­ployed his men in or­der of bat­tle. His 16-year-old son and heir Ed­ward, Prince of Wales, com­manded his right flank and cen­tre. The prince was in­ex­pe­ri­enced so he was to be sup­ported by able vet­er­ans such as Sir John Chan­dos and Ge­of­frey d’har­court. The earls of Northamp­ton and Arun­del com­manded the king’s left flank, while Ed­ward him­self com­manded a re­serve divi­sion from the wind­mill. The mill of­fered com­mand­ing views over the bat­tle­field, and the king could eas­ily di­rect op­er­a­tions from there.

Once th­ese di­vi­sions were de­ployed the chron­i­cler Jean le Bel recorded that Ed­ward


“went among his men, ex­hort­ing each of them with a laugh to do their duty, and flat­tered and en­cour­aged them to such an ex­tent that cow­ards be­came brave men”. At this point ev­ery man bed­ded down on the earth to rest be­fore the en­emy came.

Long­bow­men, 'kern' and can­nons

Th­ese sol­diers, whose courage Ed­ward ap­pealed to, were not part of an or­di­nary me­dieval army – their com­po­si­tion and equip­ment were rev­o­lu­tion­ary in con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Ed­ward’s slightly re­duced force at

Crécy con­sisted of ap­prox­i­mately 2,000 men-atarms, 500 lancers, 1,500 spear­men and 7,000 archers. In an age when cav­alry was prized and cen­tral to bat­tles, the pre­dom­i­nance of foot sol­diers was as­ton­ish­ing in it­self, par­tic­u­larly for a man like Ed­ward who was ob­sessed with knightly cul­ture.

The English men-at-arms, who were mounted ar­moured knights and esquires, were ac­tu­ally the least im­por­tant part of Ed­ward’s army. Th­ese men were still mostly ar­moured in chain mail, which was in con­trast to the French, who were bet­ter pro­tected with newer plate ar­mour.

Nor should it be as­sumed that Ed­ward’s army was ex­clu­sively English. Large num­bers of his men were Welsh, Cor­nish and Ir­ish spear­men who were armed with dirks and javelins.

Th­ese men were known as the 'kern' and were recorded as “cer­tain ras­cals that went on foot with great knives”. Their tal­ent was for bring­ing down horses, but their im­por­tance was small com­pared to the English and Welsh archers.

Ed­ward’s archers formed the bulk of his army and car­ried the fa­mous long­bow. This unique bow rev­o­lu­tionised mil­i­tary tac­tics and was largely un­known out­side of the Bri­tish Isles in 1346. Long­bows could mea­sure be­tween 1.71.9 me­tres (five feet seven inches-six feet three inches) in length and de­spite be­com­ing an English mil­i­tary icon they were ac­tu­ally Welsh in ori­gin. Ed­ward I had been im­pressed by its shoot­ing abil­ity dur­ing his con­quest of Wales in the late 13th cen­tury, and from his reign all English vil­lages prac­tised archery ev­ery Sun­day.

Long­bows were stan­dard­ised by 1346, and each long­bow­man trained from an early age to loose 10-12 ar­rows per minute. This re­quired great strength, as the bow re­quired a drawweight of 36-45 kilo­grams (80-100 pounds), but the re­sult was the equiv­a­lent of a me­dieval ma­chine gun. The sky was known to darken un­der a heavy bar­rage from long­bows, and each ar­row had a fight­ing range of 135 me­tres (150 yards) and could pierce plate ar­mour at 55 me­tres (60 yards). Each archer car­ried around 24 ar­rows as well as sec­ondary weapons such as swords, axes, bill­hooks or mal­lets. The long­bow­man may have come from peas­ant stock but he was ex­tremely for­mi­da­ble.


Ed­ward III cer­tainly knew his archers’ worth. Long­bow­men had played a crit­i­cal role in his grand­fa­ther Ed­ward I’s vic­tory against Sir Wil­liam Wal­lace at the Bat­tle of Falkirk in 1298. Ed­ward had also di­rectly ex­pe­ri­enced the long­bow’s power in his de­ci­sive vic­tory against the Scots at the Bat­tle of Hali­don Hill and at sea at the Bat­tle of Sluys. The French were the long­bow’s vic­tim at Sluys but they re­mark­ably failed to take no­tice of Ed­ward’s archers due to their be­lief that mounted knights were su­pe­rior sol­diers.

Long­bows were not the only mis­sile weapons in Ed­ward’s ar­se­nal. The English are re­puted to have had guns on the Crécy cam­paign, which were prim­i­tive tubes mounted on a cart. Ar­tillery had never been used on a Euro­pean bat­tle­field be­fore, but their ef­fec­tive­ness would have been more psy­cho­log­i­cal than prac­ti­cal. Their lethal­ity was ques­tion­able, but they would have pro­duced flames, smoke and, above all, pre­vi­ously un­heard noise.

a “very mur­der­ous and cruel” bat­tle

De­spite the for­mi­da­ble equip­ment of the English army, their op­po­nents were not to be un­der­es­ti­mated. It was the English who were re­treat­ing in a poor con­di­tion, and Philip’s con­fi­dence was ar­guably not mis­placed when he ar­rived on Satur­day 26 Au­gust 1346. Es­ti­mates vary wildly as to the ex­act size of his army, but it was a huge host that num­bered be­tween 20,000-40,000 men. This in­cluded men-at-arms who al­most out­num­bered the English on their own, as well as large num­bers of Ge­noese cross­bow­men.

As well as the Ge­noese, Philip was ac­com­pa­nied by nobles from across Europe, in­clud­ing the blind King John of Bo­hemia,

James III of Ma­jorca and the fu­ture Holy Ro­man Em­peror Charles IV and Charles I of Monaco. Philip was a dis­tin­guished sol­dier who had won a great vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Cas­sel in 1328. His army at Crécy was the “Flower of France”, and for the French the only out­come could be glory.

Nev­er­the­less, the French army was so large that it was im­pos­si­ble to control. Many men at the front tried to halt in or­der be­fore the English, but im­pa­tient men-at-arms pushed them for­ward from be­hind. The roads be­tween Abbeville and Crécy were also jammed by lo­cal peas­ants and towns­men, who were en­cour­ag­ing Philip’s force to kill the English. Philip or­dered the Ge­noese to make the first at­tack through the dis­or­der, and a line of cross­bow­men ad­vanced to within 135180 me­tres (150-200 yards) of the English.

Un­der the cir­cum­stances, the Ge­noese were not the best troops to make the first at­tack.

They had marched for kilo­me­tres car­ry­ing their heavy cross­bows, and their slow load­ing time meant that they were vul­ner­a­ble against the faster long­bow ar­rows. Bad luck also dealt them a blow when a short, sharp thun­der­storm drenched them as they ad­vanced. By con­trast, the English shrewdly dis­man­tled their bow­strings and cov­ered them un­der their hats to keep them dry dur­ing the down­pour. When the rain cleared they quickly re­strung their bows, just as the evening sun be­gan to shine in the eyes of the un­for­tu­nate Ge­noese.


It was per­fect tim­ing for the English, who gave a great shout, stepped for­ward and rained ar­rows down on the cross­bow­men. The Ge­noese quickly dropped their cross­bows and re­treated. Charles, Count of Alençon was so en­raged by the Ge­noese’s re­treat that he cried, “Ride down this rab­ble who block our ad­vance!” French men-at-arms be­gan a dis­or­gan­ised charge and tram­pled over the cross­bow­men, while the English con­tin­ued to loose vol­ley after vol­ley.

In the rear of the French army, the cries of the Ge­noese were mis­taken for the English be­ing killed, and so they also pressed for­ward. This cre­ated a con­fused mob that was be­ing dec­i­mated by ac­cu­rate long­bow marks­man­ship. Jean le Bel, who spoke to eye­wit­nesses, said, “A great out­cry rose to the stars,” and horses be­gan to pile on top of the other “like a lit­ter of piglets”. The French cav­alry were “sump­tu­ously equipped” but it made no dif­fer­ence against the archers. It was at this point that Ed­ward’s guns were used, and they re­port­edly ter­ri­fied the al­ready trau­ma­tised horses.

De­spite the car­nage, some of the French, in­clud­ing Alençon, man­aged to reach the English lines through dogged­ness and sheer weight of num­bers. They hit the Prince of Wales’s divi­sion par­tic­u­larly hard and the king’s heir was knocked off his feet. His stan­dard-bearer Richard de Beaumont suc­cess­fully de­fended the prince un­til he could stand, and ap­peals were sent to the king for re­in­force­ments. Frois­sart recorded that when Ed­ward heard that his son had not been killed he said, “As long as my son has life let the boy win his spurs; for I am de­ter­mined that all the glory and hon­our of this day shall be given to him.”

This ex­am­ple of mar­tial chivalry is a good story, but an­other chron­i­cler recorded that Ed­ward did send re­in­force­ments to the prince,

but the prince and his men were found rest­ing on their swords, sur­rounded by corpses, as they waited for the next at­tack. What­ever the truth, Crécy was the foun­da­tion of the Black Prince’s rep­u­ta­tion.

Alençon was killed in the fight­ing, and soon an­other no­ble, the blind King John of Bo­hemia also lost his life. John was in­formed how the bat­tle was pro­ceed­ing, and when he heard his son was fight­ing he said to his at­ten­dants,

“As I am blind, I re­quest of you to lead me so far into the en­gage­ment that I may strike one stroke with my sword.” The Bo­hemian ret­inue’s horses were tied together with an in­sis­tent

John at the head. The king rode into the English and “made good use of his sword; for he and his com­pan­ions fought most gal­lantly”. The Bo­hemi­ans rode un­til they were killed and their bod­ies, in­clud­ing John’s, were found tied together the next morn­ing. Only two of his ret­inue lived to tell the tale, and Prince Ed­ward was so moved that he re­put­edly adopted John's crest and motto 'Ich Dien' ('I Serve') as his own. It is still the of­fi­cial heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales.

The French army charged against the English 15 times dur­ing the bat­tle, and each charge was cut down in dis­or­der by the long­bow­men. The fight­ing be­came “very mur­der­ous and cruel” with the English giv­ing no quar­ter and re­fus­ing ran­soms. The Ir­ish and Cor­nish kern in par­tic­u­lar “slew many as they lay on the ground, both earls, knights, barons and squires.” The at­tacks con­tin­ued un­til night­fall, when Philip (who had been wounded in the neck by an ar­row and un­horsed at least once) led a fu­tile charge of 60 men-at-arms. He was saved from death when the count of Hain­ault per­suaded him to leave and win an­other day. Philip rode to the near­est chateau with only five at­ten­dants and fa­mously shouted out­side the gate, “Open your gate quickly, for this is the for­tune of France!” After briefly rest­ing, the king then rode on at night to safety at Amiens, but his de­feat was calami­tous.

on­wards to calais

The bat­tle did not fi­nally end un­til night­fall, and the English re­mained in their po­si­tions and slept on the ground. Even when dawn broke there was a thick fog that ini­tially ob­scured the bat­tle­field. After the earl of Northamp­ton fought off a fi­nal French force of mili­tia and Nor­man knights, Ed­ward was fi­nally able to ob­serve the scale of his vic­tory and or­dered the dead to be counted.

The re­sult was shock­ing. As well as John of Bo­hemia, the French had lost many of their se­nior nobles – the duke of Lor­raine, Alençon and around ten other counts, in­clud­ing those of Flan­ders, Blois and Aux­erre. Over 1,000 lords and knights were killed and at least 10,000 'com­mon' sol­diers died, although the true fig­ure will never be known. While the French dead were counted, the kern went across the bat­tle­field and grue­somely mur­dered the en­emy wounded and pil­laged them, only spar­ing the ones that were deemed wor­thy of ran­som. By con­trast, Ed­ward re­put­edly lost only around

100 men, although chron­i­clers may have down­played his losses.

What is not in doubt is that Crécy was one of the most crush­ing vic­to­ries of the 14th cen­tury. English sol­diers had pre­vi­ously been poorly re­garded in Europe, but the bat­tle was an un­ex­pected tri­umph of 'fire­power' over ar­mour, and as such it was some­thing of a mil­i­tary rev­o­lu­tion. Although Ed­ward was in no po­si­tion to take Paris after­wards, he pro­ceeded to at­tack Calais in a siege that lasted from Septem­ber 1346-Au­gust 1347. Through­out this time Philip was re­luc­tant to re­lieve the siege be­cause he feared a re­peat of Crécy. Once the port had fallen it be­came a key English base for the rest of the Hun­dred Years’ War, and was held by the English un­til 1558.

De­spite many more vic­to­ries and ter­ri­to­rial gains, Ed­ward III never suc­ceeded in be­com­ing king of France, but Crécy still left a ter­ri­ble legacy. Bloody though it was, the bat­tle and sub­se­quent cap­ture of Calais was the true be­gin­ning of Eng­land’s bru­tally con­fi­dent and of­ten suc­cess­ful cam­paigns in France. It en­sured that the English would only con­tinue to press their royal claims even harder, and the re­sult was a con­flict that cost count­less dead and lasted for 116 years.


LEFT: The Bat­tle of Crécy as de­picted in a 15th-cen­tury il­lu­mi­nated man­u­script of Jean Frois­sart’s Chron­i­cles. Long­bow­men (right) are clearly shown fight­ing slowload­ing Ge­noese cross­bow­men

BE­LOW: Although Philip VI is ar­guably best re­mem­bered for his de­feat at Crécy, he had pre­vi­ously been a suc­cess­ful bat­tle­field com­man­der, par­tic­u­larly at the Bat­tle of Cas­sel in 1328

English long­bow­men prac­tise archery at the butts, as de­picted in the Lut­trell Psalter c.1320-45. All English­men were re­quired to prac­tise archery ev­ery Sun­day

A ro­man­ti­cised de­pic­tion of Ed­ward III fight­ing at the Bat­tle of Blanchetaque. This en­gage­ment en­abled the English to cross the River Somme be­fore the Bat­tle of Crécy

Ed­ward III counts the dead on the bat­tle­field of Crécy. The af­ter­math of the bat­tle was a grisly af­fair, where Ir­ish and Cor­nish spear­men mur­dered the wounded and looted their pos­ses­sions

INSET: The ori­gin of the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales is of­ten at­trib­uted to the Black Prince at Crécy. Some claim it was adopted to com­mem­o­rate John of Bo­hemia’s brav­ery, while oth­ers as­sert it was a trib­ute to the prince’s Welsh archersBE­LOW: The death of King John of Bo­hemia at Crécy. The blind monarch’s courage was one of the most fa­mous tragedies of the bat­tle

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