Part II – Battle of Crécy: “Let the Boy Win His Spurs”

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200px-BattleofCrecyEngraving Today in Military History: August 26, 1346 Dispositions of the Armies 250PX-~1 For his confrontation with King Philip and his army, Edward chose a mostly flat, agricultural plain, with a slight ridge that stretched between the towns of Crécy and Wadicourt, a distance of about a mile-and-a quarter. [Crécy was a junction of about seven roads, not unlike the town of Gettysburg 500 years later.] His left flank was anchored on the town of Wadicourt, while his right flank was protected by the sprawling Forest of Crécy and a stream named Maye. Edward’s army commanded a downward slope facing southeast. pic_mow_bp04_s Edward divided his army – now reduced to about 11,000 to 12,000 men – into three parts, or “battles” (a common expression of the time, meaning simply a division of troops). The right battle consisted of about 1000 dismounted men-at-arms and spearmen, with 2000 longbowmen arrayed on either side of the footmen. This group of soldiers was commanded by Edward the Prince of Wales, the king’s 16 year old son and heir. The teenager later received the nom de guerre of “The Black Prince” from his black-enameled plate armor, one source stating it was a gift of his father. [The nickname, first seen in the 16th century, also seemingly comes from his use of black in heraldic devices, though some claim it resulted from his foul temper.] Prince Edward also received considerable help from experienced warriors like the Earls of Warrick and Oxford, Sir John Chandos and many others. The left battle, commanded by the William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton, had 600 men-at-arms and footmen flanked on each side by about 1200 archers. Finally, a reserve of about 1000 men-at-arms and spearmen as well as 2000 longbowmen stood behind the two forward battles, just below the ridge. King Edward himself commanded the reserve, using a windmill on the ridge as a forward command post. battlefield-windmill The main English camp was just to the rear of the ridge in thick woods. In addition, to the east of these woods, Edward ordered his wagons to be arranged into a large makeshift fortification, where all the horses and baggage were placed. [One historian claims this wagon-fort was used to guard the English rear from a surprise French attack.] In addition, there is evidence to suggest the English dug a succession of pits and ditches on the fields in front of their slope, to disrupt and slow the French horsemen. Another source states the English employed caltrops to lame the French horses. 220px-Caltrope_(PSF) After arranging his men, King Edward joked with his commanders that his desire for a fight was now justified. He also ordered his men to rest for the coming fight. The men began to sharpen their weapons, feast, repair their armor and sleep. Many men heard Mass prior to battle. As reports of the approaching French came to him on the morning of August 26, the English monarch ordered his army into three defensive lines. He then exhorted his men, telling them to put their faith in “God and the blessed Virgin.” Edward further instructed them to concentrate on the French cavalry, and not to break ranks to loot the enemy dead and wounded, as it would weaken the English line and “the battle might be lost.” On the French side, Philip VI commanded a force considerably larger than his opponent. The numbers have been given to be as many as 100,000 by various contemporary chroniclers, with modern scholars giving estimates of 35,000 to 60,000. At least a third of his army was heavy mounted knights and their retainers, the pride of French chivalry. The remainder was infantrymen, and included a contingent of Italian crossbowmen (the sources, as usual, disagree on the exact number, but I think between 6000 and 8000 is a good number). mediev3 Philip’s army arrived on the battlefield piecemeal throughout the day, with little real cohesion at all. The king met with his commanders, seeking their counsel. They advised him to make camp, consolidate his forces, and prepare to do battle the next day. However, most of the French nobles were more concerned with covering themselves in glory and choosing the best English prisoners to hold for ransom. Many of the knights wanted the fighting to start right then and there. Nearly all the histories of this fight comment on the excessive pride of the French nobility, which led to their downfall. The French forces which had arrived earlier had already halted their advance, but later-arriving contingents were convinced they would be late for battle and continued to move toward the English line. In addition, the local peasantry was furiously calling for vengeance on the English for their depredation of the past few days. Faced with these calls for action, King Philip ordered his army into position. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon. Over the next two hours, the French army tried to sort itself out. The foreign crossbowmen went to the front, hoping that their fire would be sufficient to soften the enemy line to receive the attack of the heavy cavalry. Somewhere between four and nine lines of French horsemen were arrayed in the fields before the English-held ridge. [The various chronicles mention a large number of French infantrymen, but they apparently were initially held out of the battle, in order to give the nobility some glory.] King Philip placed himself in the rear of his army, then ordered the unfurling of the oriflamme, the French national battle standard. When the oriflamme was displayed, it meant that no quarter would be given to the enemy. 60px-Oriflamme At about 6:00 pm, a brief but heavy thunderstorm struck, drenching the fields between the two armies and creating a muddy bog. [According to several sources, it was the first rain in six weeks.] In addition, the rain loosened the bowstrings of the Italian crossbows, which would have a deleterious effect on their performance in the coming battle. The English archers, when it started to rain, simply removed their bowstrings and placed them under their caps to keep them dry. After the storm ceased, the sun returned in all its brilliance. It was now about 6:30 pm, and the sun was low in the western sky, at the backs of the English and in the eyes of the French. The Battle 220px-English_gun_used_at_Crecy As sunset approached, King Philip ordered his first line to attack. The French army had a large number of trumpeters and drummers, who raised a cacophony of music, hoping to unnerve the English. The English answered with noisemakers of their own: five primitive cannon, large unwieldy devices that lacked wheels and had to be carried from place to place, probably via wagon. Variously described as firing stone balls, large arrows or primitive grapeshot, their first targets were the Italian mercenary crossbowmen. The Italians loosed a volley of quarrels at the English, and did little if any damage. The mercenaries had misjudged the distance, and most of their missiles fell short. Furthermore, many of the bowstrings of the crossbows were useless from the previous rain. [The commander of the crossbowmen had complained prior to the conflict about his troops having to go directly into battle after marching 12 miles that day. A French nobleman heard his complaint, then replied, “This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fail when there is any need for them."] Seeing the failure of the crossbowmen, the English archers replied in kind. French chronicler Jean Froissart describes the volleys of English arrows falling among the Italians “like snow.” After the first two or three volleys of clothyard shafts, large gaps began to appear in the ranks of the crossbowmen. Their losses might have been lessened, had not their pavises – large man-high wooden shields designed to protect the crossbowmen during the long reloading process – been left at the rear in the French baggage train. After absorbing several volleys from the English line, and being unable to advance closer, the crossbowmen threw their now-useless weapons aside, turned and ran. At the sight of such behavior, the first line of French cavalry advanced through them, some accounts saying the Italians were ridden down and slain, either on order of King Philip or by over-eager French nobles. charge-french-knights Their charge disrupted by their own crossbowmen, the French heavy cavalry charged forward, hoping to come to grips with the smaller English army. The heavily armored nobles shouted their battlecry, “God and St. Denis!” The English longbows continued their deadly harvest, one chronicler saying the first attack line of 2000 men was “entirely destroyed.” The next few hours are a whirl of chaos, with longbowmen continually firing their weapons, the French horses being wounded and killed by the deadly missiles. Yet some groups of French knights and their retainers managed to reach the English line, but there was no coordination to their attacks. One English chronicler, Geoffrey le Baker, stated, “When fighting with the English men-at-arms, the French were beaten down by axes, lances and swords. And in the middle of the army, many French soldiers were crushed to death by the weight of numbers without being wounded.” As many as 15 separate charges were directed at the English line, and all were turned back. One of the most famous incidents of Crécy concerns King John of Bohemia, oldest son of the Holy Roman Emperor and vassal of Philip VI (as the Duke of Luxembourg). He was 50 years old at this battle and had been blind for over a decade from ophthalmia (an inflammation of the eyes). Perhaps sensing this would be his final battle, he appealed to his noble followers, saying (according to Froissart): “Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one blow with my sword.” They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire, and so they went on their enemies… [King John] was so far forward that he [struck] a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain, and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other. zpage150 King John’s bravery was directed at the section of the English line commanded by the Black Prince. The old monarch’s bravery impressed the teenaged prince immensely. At one point in the fight, which went long after sundown, the English right wing was under severe pressure. King Edward’s commanders advised that reinforcements be sent to assist the young prince. The English monarch demurred, saying, “Let the boy win his spurs,” an oblique way of saying, “Let’s see how the boy responds to pressure.” After absorbing the multiple charges of the French cavalry, the English line still stood. The French king then began throwing his infantry up the slope. This was probably some of the worst fighting of the day, with hundreds of dead and wounded horses and their riders littering the muddy fields. Philip, despite initially placing himself in the rear, eventually moved forward to engage the enemy. Various histories state the French monarch had two horse killed under him. After mounting his third horse, close to midnight, Philip decided that he had had enough. He gathered his personal retainers and fled the field. At that point, the majority of the French army broke and ran as well. The English position stood firm, as the battle of Crecy ended, after fighting that lasted for nearly five hours. Aftermath The English army, exhausted from the heavy fighting, did not pursue the French. The tired victors slept in their positions that night, though some footmen slipped among the piles of dead and wounded. These men began looting the bodies, killing any Frenchmen found to still be alive. [This act would later be condemned as a direct violation of the chivalric ideal.] The next morning, the English were confronted by a small force of new French troops (one chronicler claims they were 3000 cavalry and 4000 infantry) who had apparently journeyed far and had not heard new of the defeat the previous night. The English made short work of the newcomers, apparently attacking and routing them with little trouble. Total casualties for the French amounted to 1542 knights, 2300 Italian crossbowmen and about 10,000 infantry. Among the French nobility killed were: King John of Bohemia; Duke Rudolph of Lorraine; Count Charles of Alençon; Count Louis of Flanders; Louis of Châtillon the Count of Blois; the Viscount Rohan; the Lord of Dinan; the Lord of Laval; the Lord of Chateaubriant; and the Lord of Redon. The French also lost 80 battle standards, captured by the English. English losses are reckoned at two knights killed and several hundred infantrymen slain. Few battles of the medieval period were so hard-fought, yet so lopsided. 220px-Oriel_College_Feathers Footnote #1: King John of Bohemia and his entire group of retainers were found on the field, dead to a man. To honor the brave monarch, the Black Prince Edward took the king’s coat-of-arms and motto and made it his own. [“Ich Dien” means “I serve.”] In addition, King Edward had John’s body washed, properly wrapped, and placed on a wagon to be taken back to Germany. The king and his nobles, with the bishop of Durham presiding, also celebrated the office of the dead over the noble corpse. Footnote #2: After celebrating a victory mass on the morning of August 27, King Edward directed that the battlefield be scoured for loot or captives. Many mortally wounded French knights were summarily dispatched, as they likely would not survive to provide ransoms. After consigning the dead to large mass burial pits, the English army moved north to besiege the city of Calais. 220PX-~2 Footnote #3: Raoul, Count of Eu, the Constable of France, spent several years in captivity in England. During that time he took an enthusiastic part in the festivities at court, particularly the jousting. Word of his activities reached the French king. On his return Raoul was tried for treason and beheaded. Footnote #4: Edward III would rule England until his death in 1377. His 50-year reign was not surpassed until George III in the nineteenth century. 210px-King_Edward_III_from_NPG Footnote #5: One of the best historical/fictional accounts of this battle is contained in Bernard Cornwell’s 2000 novel “The Archer’s Tale” (British title “Harlequin”). Footnote #6: As with most battles which occurred in this particular time period, I must again admit a large debt of informational gratitude to the 1996 book “Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century: Discipline, Tactics and Technology” by Kelly DeVries. 220px-Crecy-en-Ponthieu_champ-de-bataille Battlefield today
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I greatly enjoyed this! Sir Ralph Shelton was Knighted for helping to protect the Black Prince in this battle. He went on to build Shelton Hall in Norfolk and a church. I always find real history to be more exciting than anything that could be made up. Wonderful article!---Sage

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.