The Battle of Crécy
- 26thAugust 1346 -
A new type of warfare, that was to last until the nineteenth century, was unleashed by Edward III on the French in the fourteenth century – projectile warfare. Before gunfire the use of massed ranks of longbow men became a method of attack that was not only highly useful and ruthlessly effective but also economical. The cost of employing and equipping thousands of archers was considerably cheaper than ranks and ranks of aristocratic knights. The historian, Dr. Ian Mortimer, expands by stating that by being able to take thousands of men deep into the French countryside and defeating the King it showed the French public that they could not be protected. This new type of warfare could not just happen by accident however. It needed to be very carefully planned and required great preparation. Before the July invasion of 1346 Edward had stockpiled arrows estimated to be around two and a half million. He had encouraged the practice of archery by people of all social status. The 1252 “Assize of Arms’ ensured that all Englishmen, between the ages of 15 and 60, were ordered by law to equip themselves with bow and arrows. Although after Crécy Edward went further in 1363 when he decreed in the Archery Law that there was obligatory practice of archery on Sundays and holidays. It also “Forbade, on pain of death, any sport that took up time better spent on war training especially archery practise”.
The longbow was really a Welsh weapon and not really in widespread use in England until the 1300s, despite the Assize of Arms. The wood was usually made of yew, about 6 feet tall. The best wood was cured for about 4 years protecting it from most weathers. The arrows were about 3 feet in length and feathered by fletchers with the bows being made by bowyers. The longbow had a draw weight, which was the force needed to pull back the bowstring, made of hemp, of up to 150 pounds and required archers with immense strength and training. Often through continual practising these men were built like guerrillas and their backbones were deformed from this constant activity. Remains of these archers have been found from the wreckage of the Mary Rose as well as from skeletons excavated from the site of the battle of Towton. The spine was often twisted making one leg shorter than the other.
Edward III had started the Hundred Years War after claiming the French throne on the death of Philip IV in 1337. His mother was a French Princess and Philip had left no children. French law however forbade the inheritance through the female line negating his claim. He also had worries about the French disrupting the lucrative wool and wine trade by winning back land in Bordeaux and Normandy. The English had already won the key naval battle of Sluys in 1340 therefore giving them control of the Channel.
Thus on July 11thhe set sail from Portsmouth with 750 ships and around 16,000 men and landed at St Vaast on the Contentin peninsular, near Cherbourg. The aim was to attack Normandy and for another army to go into the South West and claim Aquitaine. He travelled to Caen, the capital of Normandy, and captured it taking the Constable of France, the Count of Eu, prisoner at the same time. This was to prove critical later.
He then marched along the left bank of the River Seine looking for a route back to the channel and the possible capture of Calais. However the bridges had been destroyed and he could not get his army across the river. Meanwhile rumours were coming to him that the French were gathering a massive army, under Philip VI, near Paris ready for an attack on the tired English. At Poissy, dangerously close to Paris, the English found a bridge they could repair and marched north. When they reached the River Somme they found this blocked too – either the bridges were heavily defended or they had been destroyed liked those over the Seine. Marching along the left bank toward the coast they just about kept ahead of the French army coming up behind them. Eventually, getting close to the coast, they managed to cross the river at low tide and took up a position on a ridge between the villages of Crécy and Wadicourt in the Forêt de Crécy. As his post the King used an old windmill that was the highest point on the ridge.
The French arrived the next day and saw the English up on the hill. Philip took advice and decided that to allow them to fight fresh they would wait until the next day as it was now beyond 3pm. The absence of the Constable of France now proved crucial. He was the military general of the French army, was respected and a good tactician. His influence would have been decisive. However with him missing the leadership was a shambles and many of the elite French knights were keen to prove that they could take the lead and honour their country. They persuaded Philip that they could quickly dispose of this shambolic looking English army that afternoon. Reluctantly Philip agreed.
Establishing numbers in a medieval army is notoriously difficult. The English army probably comprised of about 4,000 knights and men-at-arms who were to fight dismounted with the knights’ horses kept behind the lines with the baggage train. They also had 7,000 Welsh and English archers as well as 5,000 Welsh and Irish spearmen who were more of a rabble that came in at the end if needed. They were organised in three sections – a left, a right and a reserve section in the rear. The knights wore breast and back plates, a visored helmet, gauntlets and greaves to protect their legs. They would have carried a sword, axe, shield and dagger. The longbow men could shoot about 12 arrows a minute at the start of the battle reducing as the fight progressed as fatigue set in. Edward III’s son, Edward, the Black Prince, as he wore black armour, commanded the right division that was set at the front and would bear the brunt of the French attack. He was helped by the Dukes of Oxford and Warwick. The left was led by the Earl of Northampton and the reserve by the King himself. In front of all of this they had dug pits and laid caltrops, metal spikes, to disable the French cavalry that they knew would bear down on them. The archers were at the front of each division and the dismounted knights and men-at-arms behind them with the spearmen at the back.
The French had 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen at the front followed by ranks of cavalry led in the first instance by the Duke D’Alencon, then, going back, the Duke of Lorraine, the Count of Blois and then the King, Philip VI. In terms of numbers reports differ wildly. Jean Froissart, the French author and court historian, says that the numbers on the French side were 100,000. Richard Wynkeley, also writing around the time, suggests 80,000. Modern scholarship puts the figure nearer 30,000, which would be more in line with other armies at the time. There is also a dispute about whether Philip would have had access to 6,000 crossbowmen. Although more powerful the crossbow could shoot fewer projectiles a minute and the weapon itself was more at the mercy of the weather as its bowstring could not be removed so easily and was prone to getting damp making it highly unreliable.
At about 4pm the French started to advance on the English position at the top of the ridge. As it did so a rainstorm blew up and required them to stop. The English archers removed their strings and hid them in their coats. When this storm passed the advance continued. The cheering Genoese let loose their first bolts but the rain had damaged and loosened their strings meaning that the bolts fell well short of their target. At the same time the English/Welsh archers let loose a volley of such fury that Froissart described it as “so thick it seemed like snow”. The Genoese were forced to retreat and as they did so they came face to face with the first line of the French army. They were contemptuous of these soldiers and tried to ride over them. The result was a chaotic clash in the frontline that caused it to stop making them sitting targets for the English/Welsh archers who continued to pour arrows into them. The arrows would not pass through the plate armour but it would go through chainmail that was worn under the breastplate. It would also bring down the horses that had little or no protection. The second, third and fourth rows of French cavalry now started to pour forward causing a crush to occur at the bottom of the slope.
At this stage the English deployed their 5 rather primitive canons. With the improvement in the use of black powder it became possible to make artillery pieces that were more portable. Although not massively effective, the noise, smoke and shock that these would have caused added to the chaos that occurred on any medieval battlefield.
Dead horses and men now started to block the path for the others and it would seem that not many got through to fight the English lines. However the English were obviously under pressure because the Black Prince sent a message to his father, the King, asking for help. The response is rumoured, after ascertaining that he was not dead, to be that there would be no help and that the boy, just 16, needed to earn his spurs. The King of Bohemia was also fighting for the French. He was blind and to enable him to fight was strapped to two knights on either side of him. During this phase of the battle all three of them were killed.
The fighting went on late into the night and Philip left the battlefield around midnight. On seeing him leave others started to follow. Soon the French were deserting the battlefield at great speed. The English remained at the top of the slope and stayed there all night, victors. The number of casualties on the French side also varies wildly. Geoffrey Le Baker, the English chronicler from the time, suggests about 4,000 knights. Other reports have gone as high as 8,000. He also reports about 300 English dead.
The English continued on to Calais and although it took them a year, due to its strong defences, it was captured. Calais was the only town to remain in English hands at the end of the 100 Years War in 1453. It stayed that way until 1558. The Black Prince, also the Prince of Wales, adopted the motto of the dead King of Bohemia, “Ich Dien”, meaning I serve. He also took on the three white feathers two features of that title that survive to this day.
The whole of the Christian world was shocked by this victory. The poor, lowly, humble archer taking on the mighty knight and winning. A new form of warfare had begun. Edward III used it to great effect in Scotland and France again. He was not to be defeated. Henry V waged war like this himself when he invaded France 69 years later in 1415, famously at Agincourt. Dr. Ian Mortimer has said that Edward III “came to be regarded as the greatest King that England had ever had”. With the facts outlined above it would be hard to disagree.