Battle of Crécy: Outnumbered English Force Massacres French Chivalry

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300px-Battle_of_crecy_froissart Today in Military History: August 26, 1346 The Hundred Years’ War between the kingdoms of England and France (1337-1453) was one of the longest running wars in history. Anyone with rudimentary math skills could say it was actually 116 years, but there were occasional lengthy truces which served as breathing spaces before hostilities continued. The first major land battle in the war took place in northeastern France near the town of Crécy [pronounced KRAY-see]; its tactical implications would be felt for over a century, from Spain to Scotland. Dynastic Squabbles The history of enmity between England and France can be traced back to the fateful year of 1066, when Duke William of Normandy conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England and was crowned its king. This act brought about an anomaly: William, as the ruler of a French fiefdom, owed fealty and homage to the king of France. This situation was unusual, to say the least, and did not sit well with William and his heirs. Over the next 250 years or so, English-ruled or administered territory expanded – mainly through alliances and marriages – to include Scotland, Wales, parts of Ireland, and various counties and duchies in France. Among these English-ruled French possessions were Normandy, Brittany, Poitou, Gascony, Anjou and Aquitaine. In fact, at one point the English kings ruled more land in France than did the French monarchs. This became a point of contention, as the stronger English kings felt it beneath their dignity to pay their homage to the weaker French rulers. In addition, the English ruling houses held several very clear and legitimate claims to the throne of France. These claims came to the fore in 1328, when French monarch Charles IV died. As the last legitimate son of deceased French king Philip IV, the death of Charles IV brought about a crisis of sorts to the French royal house of Capet. The only other child of Charles IV was his daughter Isabella. Under French Salic Law, however, she could not assume the throne herself. Normally, that would mean her son, King Edward III of England, as Charles' closest living male relative, and the only surviving direct male descendent of Philip IV, was next in the line of succession. 220px-Edward_III_Black_Prince_14thc Understandably, the French nobility had no desire to see an Englishman on the French throne. They further asserted that, because a woman could not assume the French crown, neither could her offspring. Therefore, the most senior living member of the Capetian dynasty was Philip of Valois, who was eventually crowned Philip VI. He also founded the Valois dynasty, an offshoot of the House of Capet, which had ruled France since 987. All this maneuvering left a bad taste in the mouth of Edward III. 210px-Phil6france Other contributing factors to the eventual conflict included: a) attempts to recover the lost duchy of Normandy, conquered by the French in 1204, b) attempts by England to control the wool trade of Flanders, a French possession, c) French support for Scottish independence, and d) re-expansion of English holdings in Aquitaine, a province located in southwestern France. Aquitaine supplied salt and wine to England, and the trade was very profitable, However, it was still a French territory, and as the province’s fiefholder, Edward III still owed homage to the French ruler, which he initially refused. However, by 1331, Edward not only gave homage, he officially recognized Philip as the rightful sovereign of France. Eventually, Edward renounced his homage to Philip, and in about 1337 made his claim to be the true heir to the throne of France. [His coat-of-arms below reflect this, as he quartered his usual three golden lions on a red field to include the blue field of golden fleur-de-lis representing France.] 103px-Royal_Arms_of_England_(1340-1367)_svg When war finally came in 1337, the initial English moves were either ineffective or countered by the French. However, an English triumph at the naval battle of Sluys in 1340 swept the French-Genoese fleet from the English Channel, protecting England from invasion for the remainder of the war. The victory also gave England momentum that it would not relinquish for nearly 80 years. Over the next three years, Edward would try to bring French armies to battle, but the French monarch would refuse. In 1343, Edward III was persuaded by the Pope to sign a three-year truce with Philip VI, giving both sides a breathing space to recruit. Background to the Battle In April of 1346, Edward ordered that a large fleet of ships, estimated at between 700 and 1000, be assembled at Portsmouth to transport a new army to France. It was assumed by his soldiers – and by the French generals – that this army would be transported to either Aquitaine or Brittany. Two English armies were already active in these provinces, and reinforcing one or the other would have been the sound move. However, Edward had another idea: he sought to re-conquer Normandy, in French hands for nearly a century-and-a-half. Godfrey of Harcourt, a banished French nobleman in Edward’s employ, also urged the king to invade Normandy, as the French would not expect the move. Bad weather delayed the fleet’s sailing until July 11. The force landed on the western coast of Normandy the next day. Edward’s men spent nearly a week’s time reorganizing, then made their first attack on July 18. His army numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 18,000 men, approximately two-thirds were Welsh and English longbowmen. The remainder consisted of knights and their mounted men-at-arms, as well as spearmen. In a week, the English captured seven towns in quick succession, sacking and burning the countryside as he went. Then, on July 25, they reached the city of Caen. The city was strongly fortified with a castle tracing its history to William the Conqueror, with a garrison said to be anywhere from 300 to 1500 men strong. Nonetheless, lacking the siege machinery to attack the main castle, Edward decided to begin burning the city to lure the garrison out. Although large portions of the city were burned, a great deal of plunder was taken and 3000 townspeople were massacred, while the garrison sat and watched the destruction. After blockading the castle for a few days, the English moved on. Edward’s army then proceeded eastward, marching towards Flanders (present-day Belgium) which was constantly rebelling against the French monarchy. [For one such rebellion, please see my earlier post on July 11, “Battle of Courtrai: Flemish Infantry Defeats French Knights in the ‘Battle of the Golden Spurs.’”] A large Flemish army was moving to hook up with Edward’s force. Between August 1 and 13, the English traveled 140 miles. They wanted to cross the Seine River, but all the bridges were destroyed and narrow crossings were heavily defended. At the town of Poissy, they discovered a ford sufficient for their purposes which was lightly defended. The English drove the French guard away, and a pontoon bridge was quickly constructed. Edward’s army crossed the Seine on August 15, expecting to find Philip’s army waiting for them; they were to be disappointed, as the French king had gone to the vicinity of Paris, probably to organize his army. After crossing the Seine, Edward moved north towards Flanders, still hoping to join the Flemish force. He was unaware that the Flemings had stopped to besiege the town of Béthune. Marching swiftly once more, the English army was starving and ragged as they approached the Somme River. French forces, besides trying to come to battle with the English invaders, had adopted a scorched earth policy, denying Edward’s army the supplies they so badly needed. On the morning of August 24, the English army fought a French force at the ford of Blanchetaque, driving the enemy away. edward-3 The victory allowed Edward to cross the Somme and resupply his starving army from the local French countryside which had not been ravaged by their own troops. As his men ravaged, ravished and pillaged the local countryside for the next day-and-a-half, Edward received scouting reports that Philip and his army were on the move and heading his way, likely arriving on Saturday, August 26. Knowing that the French king would almost certainly catch up with him now, Edward began preparations to fight the French on ground of his own choosing… The English/Welsh Longbow: “Machine Gun of the Middle Ages” 350px-Englishlongbow This would be the first major battle in which French heavy cavalry would face the English/Welsh longbow. After England finally conquered the pesky Welsh, the longbow was adopted as a weapon of the common man. The continental nobility looked down on the peasantry, and rejected the possibility that masses of bow-armed troops could stand before “the flower of chivalry.” English commoners were, by law, required to practice the longbow at least once a month or more, allowing their lords to organize large numbers of missilemen for use by the king’s army. Traditional longbows were usually between 5 ½ and 6 feet long. They were constructed from yew wood which was dried for one to two years, with it slowly being worked into shape over that time. In some cases, the process could take as long as four years. During the period of the longbow's use, shortcuts were found, such as wetting the wood, to speed up the process. The bow stave was formed from half of a branch, with the heartwood on the inside and the sapwood to the outside. This approach was necessary as the heartwood was able to better resist compression, while the sapwood performed better in tension. The bow string was typically linen or hemp, sometimes silk thread as well. A typical well-trained longbowman could fire an average of five or six arrow a minute, sometimes as many as 10. However, such constant and rapid shooting would not only quickly deplete a man’s arrow supply, but would wear out the fingers and muscles of the hands and arms. Sustained, long-range volleys usually opened a battle, with pin-point shots usually coming at shorter ranges as the two sides closed for combat. The longbow’s effective range was between 75 and 80 yards, with possible longer shots of up to 400 yards. 220px-Bodkin1 To make the weapon more effective, several specialized arrows were developed. These included arrows with heavy bodkin (chisel) heads which were designed to penetrate chain mail and other light armor. While less effective against plate armor, they were generally able to pierce the lighter armor on a knight's mount, unhorsing him and forcing him to fight on foot. thumbnail Archers carried their arrows, not in quivers which were a noble conceit, but in large cloth or felt bags, which could contain between 60 and 72 arrows. Sometimes, the arrows were simply stuck in the ground (this permitted a smoother motion to reload after each arrow) or in a bowman’s belt. Arrows were replenished either by falling back through the lines, or having them brought forward. Sometimes, if a battle was hot and heavy, longbowmen might go forward and pick up spent arrows from the ground. Usually not expected to participate in hand-to-hand fighting, archers still carried a sword, hammer, or axe to be used in extremis. Tomorrow: The Battle of Crécy
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