The Black Prince, along with the English and Welsh longbowmen, forged formidable fighting reputations at Crécy
CRÉCY-EN-PONTHIEU, PICARDY, FRANCE 26 AUGUST 1346
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
“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”
“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.
“THESE MEN WERE KNOWN AS THE 'KERN' AND WERE RECORDED AS 'CERTAIN RASCALS THAT WENT ON FOOT WITH GREAT KNIVES'”
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.
“FRENCH MEN-AT-ARMS BEGAN A DISORGANISED CHARGE AND TRAMPLED OVER THE CROSSBOWMEN, WHILE THE ENGLISH CONTINUED TO LOOSE VOLLEY AFTER VOLLEY”
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.
“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”
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