Battle of Crécy: English Force Massacres French Chivalry; "Let the Boy Win His Spurs"

 
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Battle of Crécy: English Force Massacres French Chivalry; "Let the Boy Win His Spurs"

15th century illustration of the battle of Crécy
(French forces on the left, English to the right)
From an illustrated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 26, 1346

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

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 resumed. 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.

General Background: Dynastic Squabbles

The history of enmity between England and France can be traced back to the fateful year of 1066, when Duke William ("the Bastard") 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 brought about a dynastic crisis to the French royal house of Capet. The only other child of Charles 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.

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.

Philip VI of Valois, King of France; From Recueil des rois de France (16th century), by Jean de Tillet; In the Bibliotechque National de France, Paris
Philip VI of Valois, King of France
From Recueil des rois de France (16th century), by Jean de Tillet
In the Bibliotechque National de France, Paris

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 (modern-day Belgium), 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 lucrative, 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 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.]

Coat of arms of Edward III
Coat of arms of Edward III

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, re-equip, and rest.

Background to the Battle

In April of 1346, Edward ordered the assemblage of a large fleet of ships, estimated at between 700 and 1000, 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 15-18,000 men, approximately two-thirds were Welsh and English longbowmen. The remainder consisted of knights and their mounted men-at-arms, as well as spear-armed infantrymen. In a week, the English captured seven towns in quick succession, sacking and burning the countryside as they 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 – 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 which was constantly rebelling against French control. 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. The victory allowed Edward to cross the Somme and resupply his starving army from the local French countryside which had not previously been ravaged by their own troops. As his men devastated, ravaged, 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"

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 continental 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. [In fact, a 1265 law required all Englishmen between 15 and 60 to practice the bow every Sunday…after church, no doubt]

Traditional longbows were usually between 5½ and 6 feet long. They were constructed from yew wood which was dried for one to two years, then slowly 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.

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.

Bodkin (chisel) point arrowhead
Bodkin (chisel) point arrowhead

Archers carried their arrows, not in quivers which were a noble conceit, but in large cloth or felt bags, which could carry 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.

Dispositions of the Armies

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.

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 wing 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 wing, commanded by William de Bohun, the 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. 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.

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." [This last order was strictly obeyed.]

On the French side, Philip VI commanded a force considerably larger than his opponent. The numbers have varied greatly, from many as 100,000 by various contemporary chroniclers (obvious exaggeration!), 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 consisted of infantrymen, and included a contingent of Genoese crossbowmen (the sources, as usual, disagree on the exact number, but I think between 3000 and 4000 is a good round figure).

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. Some 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 depredations 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 knightly nobility all the 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.

Modern reconstruction of the oriflamme
Modern reconstruction of the 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 Genoese crossbows, which would have a deleterious effect on their performance in the coming battle. The English archers, when it started to rain, simply unstrung their bows and placed the strings 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 of Crécy

Battle of Crecy, August 26, 1346; Map courtesy of Department of History, U.S. Military Academy
Battle of Crecy, August 26, 1346
Map courtesy of Department of History, U.S. Military Academy

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 wagons. Variously described as firing stone balls, large arrows or primitive grapeshot, their first targets were the Genoese mercenary crossbowmen, getting off two or three shots. 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 in their full arms and equipment. A French nobleman heard his complaint, then commented to his fellow knights, "This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fail when there is any need for them."]

English cannon used at the battle of Crecy; Image courtesy of http://www.wikiwand.com/en/English_cannon
English cannon used at the battle of Crecy
Image courtesy of http://www.wikiwand.com/en/English_cannon

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 Genoese "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 Genoese were ridden down and slain, either on order of King Philip or by over-eager French nobles.

French knights charge Prince Edward's division [Note the windmill in right background] Artist unknown, courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com
French knights charge Prince Edward's division
[Note the windmill in right background]
Artist unknown, courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com

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.

King John of Bohemia (wearing gold helmet) leading his followers against the English; Artist unknown, illustration courtesy of http://getasword.com
King John of Bohemia (wearing gold helmet) leading his followers against the English
Artist unknown, illustration courtesy of http://getasword.com

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's "Chronicles"):

"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.

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. One of Prince Edward's advisors, the Earl of Warwick, ran to the king and asked that reinforcements be sent to assist the army's right wing. The English monarch demurred, saying first, "Is my son dead or unhorsed or so wounded that he cannot help himself?" Warwick replied, "No, Sire, but he is hard pressed."

"Return to your post, and come not to me again for aid so long as my son lives," said the king. "Let the boy prove himself a true knight and win his spurs." King Edward was basically saying, "Let's see how the boy responds to pressure."

French charge English line at Crecy; Artist unknown, from Froissart's 'Chronicles'
French charge English line at Crecy
Artist unknown, from Froissart's "Chronicles"

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, impeding the movement of the French foot. Philip, despite initially placing himself in the rear, eventually moved forward to engage the enemy. Various chronicles 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 journeyed far and not heard news of the defeat the previous night. The English made short work of the newcomers, attacking and routing them with little trouble.

Total casualties for the French amounted to 1542 knights, 2300 Genoese 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, not to mention the sacred oriflamme. 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.

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 emblem 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 English monarch and his nobles, with the bishop of Durham presiding, also celebrated the office of the dead over the noble corpse.

Emblem & motto of King John of Bohemia, adopted by Black Edward, still in use today by the Prince of Wales, Image courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/crecy.htm
Emblem & motto of King John of Bohemia, adopted by
Black Edward, still in use today by the Prince of Wales,
Image courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/crecy.htm

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.

King Edward III counting the dead after the battle; From early 15th century edition of Froissart
King Edward III counting the dead after the battle
From early 15th century edition of Froissart's "Chronicles"
Illustrated by Virgil Master, in the National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague

Footnote #3: Raoul, Count of Eu, the Constable of France – who should have been in command of the French army at Crecy – had been captured at Caen. He spent several years in captivity in England. During that time he took an enthusiastic part in the festivities at court, particularly the jousting. In 1350, he was released and returned to France to raise his ransom. The Constable of France was promptly arrested, accused of treason and summarily executed.

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.

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").

Cover art, "The Archer
Cover art, "The Archer's Tale" by Bernard Cornwell

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.

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