Battle of Crecy

Battle of Crecy


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During the Hundred Years War, King Edward III’s English army annihilates a French force under King Philip VI at the Battle of Crecy in Normandy. The battle, which saw an early use of the deadly longbow by the English, is regarded as one of the most decisive in history.

On July 12, 1346, Edward landed an invasion force of about 14,000 men on the coast of Normandy. From there, the English army marched northward, plundering the French countryside. Learning of the Englishmen’s arrival, King Philip rallied an army of 12,000 men, made up of approximately 8,000 mounted knights and 4,000 hired Genoese crossbowmen. At Crecy, Edward halted his army and prepared for the French assault. Late in the afternoon of August 26, Philip’s army attacked.

The Genoese crossbowmen led the assault, but they were soon overwhelmed by Edward’s 10,000 longbowmen, who could reload faster and fire much further. The crossbowmen then retreated and the French mounted knights attempted to penetrate the English infantry lines. In charge after charge, the horses and riders were cut down in the merciless shower of arrows. At nightfall, the French finally withdrew. Nearly a third of their army lay slain on the field, including Philip’s brother, Charles II of Alencon; his allies King John of Bohemia and Louis II of Nevers; and 1,500 other knights and esquires. Philip himself escaped with a wound. English losses were less than a hundred.

The battle marked the decline of the mounted knight in European warfare and the rise of England as a world power. From Crecy, Edward marched on to Calais, which surrendered to him in 1347.


Battle of Crecy 1346 - Hundred Years' War BAD HISTORY

Kings and Generals, that YouTube channel pumping out 100% accurate DOCUMENTARIES, released a video yesterday on the Battle of Crecy. As they say, this is not the first video the channel has put out on Crecy, but as the old one was "extremely outdated", they decided to redo the video and start a series on the Hundred Years War at the same time. As the channel doesn't put sources in the video description, I can't evaluate how well the research was conceptualized or carried out, but whatever research was done definitely wasn't enough to bring the video up to date.

In this post I will focus almost entirely on the battle, tackling just two errors made before the battle is discussed, because I'm running short of time this week and because the preamble is mostly adequate. It should, however, be noted that K&G should have spent more time discussing the Siege of Aiguillon and the Flemish attack on the French, both events that shaped the French response to Edward's attack. The channel mentions the Earl of Lancaster's success in 1345 (14:08-14:28), but neglects to inform the viewers that the vast majority of French field forces were besieging Aiguillon in the south, and had eaten up much of the French financial and ready manpower resources. Probably 15-20 000 paid men were employed in the siege, and in addition to heavy and unpopular taxation in excess of £55 000 English pounds (372 000 florins) were borrowed from the Pope alone 1 .

This meant that, when Philip began to expect an invasion of Normandy, rather than Brittany or Gascony, as he had prepared for, a whole new army had to be raised at extremely short notice and on a shoestring budget 2 . The Flemish army, although the French payed less attention to it, was an ever present threat in the rear of the French lines that the French had to consider in every move they made 3 . Leaving out all of this context makes the French look far more incompetent than they were. There were sound reasons for suspecting that the English would attack elsewhere, and some strengthening of garrisons - as well as hiring thirty war galleys from Genoa - was undertaken in order to help defend the other areas.

Also, just a little housekeeping in case any Kings and Generals fans find this: I am not a professional historian, and while I have started university this year, none of the sources I use here have been obtained through my university. This is research anyone with an interest in the subject can do, and if you're going to call something a "documentary", you should put in the effort to make sure the details are actually up to spec. I'm also, as a show of good faith, not discussing issues such as the positioning of the archers where there is room for ambiguity and interpretation in the scholarship. Got it? Good.

4:50-5:20 - Salic Law was not, as the video suggests, used to justify choosing Philip Valois over Edward III for the English throne. This was an excuse that cropped up about 1413 and gained traction from there. In point of fact, the reason Edward III was denied the throne (the French not wanting him aside), was that Philip V had bent tradition through force of will and a large armed following and had established the precedent that daughters no longer inherited their father's lands and position. From here, the French argued that this could not be transmitted, rather than calling on an ancient and outdated law that was irrelevant to them at that point in time 4 .

15:40-15:50 - The claim is made here that, despite Edward III accepting the surrender of Caen, the English "raped, plundered, torched and killed without quarter". Firstly, yes, the sack of Caen was horrific for the inhabitants, as was any sack of a city, but the city was stormed and sacked, not sacked after surrendering. The townspeople of Caen fought a bitter battle with the English in the streets, setting up barricades, dropping rocks and logs on the English from upper stories of the houses and just generally doing their utmost to defend themselves. Part of the garrison surrendered, when it was cut off and in danger of all being killed, but there were still three hundred men in the castle, which wasn't taken, and both the garrison and the surviving population soon slaughtered the 1500 man strong garrison left behind to hold the important town^ 5.

17:00-17:30 - A couple of issues here. In the first place, the video presents the scenario as though Edward suddenly found the French close by him and hurriedly turned to fight the French. If that was the case, as Clifford J. Rogers puts it, why did he move so slowly in the days before the battle 6 ? As it happens, I am an advocate of the notion that Edward III was surprised on the march, following the essence of Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries' recent challenge to the traditional battlefield and course of events 7, but this is a minority view. A.H. Burne, Livingstone and Witzel, Rogers, Andrew Ayton and Richard Barber all argue that the English deliberately chose to fight at Crecy rather than continue north to Calais or Flanders 8 . I'm not sure whether the channel had heard of the new theory - their work doesn't otherwise show evidence of it - or if they misinterpreted their sources, but regardless some acknowledgement needs to be made that Edward scrambling to find a good defensive position is a minority view.

Secondly, as touched on above, the site of Crecy has been recently challenged. Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries, using the primary sources and looking at the movements of the English, have suggested that the actual battle took place just above Domvast, where the land rises steeply to a ridge and the names of a number of fields in Napoleonic maps appear to show evidence for the battle 9 . Both the idea that the English had not arrived at the town of Crecy by the evening of the 25th of August and the specific location chosen by the authors have been criticised 10 , but the basic idea holds water and needs to at least be acknowledged in any video on the topic.

Thirdly, the old idea that the English lined up along the whole length of the ridge between Crecy and Wadicourt has not been current for some time. From Sumption on, the early sources referring to the use of wagons in the rear of the English have been accepted 11 , and the view has increasingly become that one or two "battles" of men-at-arms were deployed in the center of the wagenburg, with archers on the wing, and a much narrower formation overall 12 .

Finally, the video has the French approaching from Fontaine-sur-Maye. This was the old opinion, and was held down to 2005 when Sir Philip Preston, who had examined the battlefield in detail, pointed out that "a tall, steep and almost sheer bank", with a drop of 2.5-5.5 meters, ran the entire length of the eastern side of the valley. It is so steep that horses would be unlikely to safely make their way down even when unburdened, let alone with a rider, and functionally makes it impossible for the French army to have approached from this direction 13 . Instead, if the battle was fought in the traditional location, any French army coming from the direction of Fontaine-sur-Maye must have navigated the narrow gap between the bank and the marshy River Maye, then running higher than it does today, or else cross the river from the south 14 . This would have funneled the French into a comparatively small area and prevented them from easily bringing their full numbers to bear.

17:31-17:57 - A few minor points. Firstly, the knights and men-at-arms were the same kind of soldier, and the implication that the knights normally fought mounted while the men-at-arms fought dismounted is wrong. They were both heavily armoured cavalry who could fight on horseback or on foot, as the need arose. Secondly, they weren't wearing just "chain-mail". Although effigies, brasses, inventories and the testimony of Jean le Bel show that the English were almost exclusively equipped with mail prior to 1330, between 1330 and 1340 the English knights and men-at-arms completely modernised, wearing "a helm, bascinet, aventail, collar, pairs of plates, cuisses, lower leg, defences, vambraces, rerebraces and gauntlets, mail paunces and sleeves". Even sailors would be issued with pairs of plate and other plate defences for arms and legs (albeit sometimes of leather) in the late 1330s and the 1340s 15 . Thirdly, there were 3250 "hobelars and mounted archers", not 3250 "light cavalry known as hobelars". Because both types of soldier served for the same pay, our truncated surviving accounts frequently lump them together and it's not possible to determine how many of each type there were 16 .

18:00-18:20 - Here we have some typical teaboo mythmaking. While Edward I's Statute of Winchester in 1285 did list bows as mandatory equipment for those with £2-5 of income, this was just a slight modification of his father's 1230, 1242 and 1253 Assizes of Arms, which were in turn modifications of Henry II's 1181 Assize of Arms, which did not include archery equipment for the English subjects of the Angevin kings 17 . I could hardly deny that Edward I's usage of the Commissions of Array did not have a role to play in the militarisation of English society during the late 13th and early 14th centuries, but archery practice wasn't mandatory until 1363 - nearly a decade after the last major battle in the Edwardian phase where archery played a significant role 18 . Additionally, what evidence we do have in relation to the status of archers mustered via Commissions of Array, or at least recorded as being available for mustering, shows that they were almost uniformly in the £2-5 class, which was a relatively wealthy class of landowners and points to limited motivation for every man to own and practice with a bow 19 .

Ayton does suggest that many of the arrayed archers might be substitutes, servants or poorer members of the community, and that may well have reduced the overall quality of the archers. Complaints of this nature were certainly not unheard of in the years between 1315 and 1346, and there's no reason to think that the massive army raised for Crecy was any different 20 , so the praising of the English archers as some kind of universal peasant ubermensch is misplaced. Also importantly, the artistic and archaeological evidence suggests that, even though English bows were consistently "long" by the time of Crecy, were much lighter than the bows of the 15th and 16th century, more in the realm of 90-120lbs which, again, should lower your expectations of performance 21 .

19:27-19:35 - We don't know how many men the French had at Crecy, but we can be reasonably sure that they didn't have 12 000 knights. English sources do record that there were 12 000 "helmets" or "hommes dɺrmes", the Edward III also clarifies that only 8000 of these were "gentlemen, knights or esquires" 22 . Who the other 4000 were is something of a mystery, with Rogers arguing they were mounted crossbowmen and the possibility remaining open that they were valet arme, whose equipment was on par or better than that of the English hobilars and who might be considered "armed men" by the early definition 23 . Similarly, few now accept the old figure of 6000 Genoese crossbowmen, as the French had never previously employed so many - even at the siege of Aiguillon, where just 1400 were in service - and there doesn't seem to be any avenue for so many to have reached France in time, especially given the tensions that had been present prior to 1346 24 .

20:15-20:24 The good old "Genoese crossbows were ruined by the rain" trick. Look, Ralph Payne-Gallwey soaked a crossbow with a waxed string for a day and a night without seeing any difference, and this has been known since 1903, so I don't feel the need to cite it. In any case, the best and most likely reasons for the poor showing of the Genoese at Crecy - their lack of armour and pavises aside, is the fact that they were being shot at and the mud made it hard to get sufficient purchase when spanning their crossbows 25 .

The remainder of the video is based off the foundation of errors listed above, and I don't think it's worth breaking the video any further. For the 1950s the video would be pretty good, but in light of more recent scholarship, the video falls very short of where it should be. Hopefully when the channel does the next videos they'll try and get up to date with the scholarship.

1 Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War, Volume 1: Trial by Battle, (Faber and Faber Ltd.: London, 2010) pp. 854-861

3 ibid., 910-913. c.f. Rogers, Clifford J. War Cruel and Sharp (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2014) pp. 227-228

5 Sumption, pp. 902-909, 945 Livingstone, Marilyn and Witzel, Morgen. The Road to Crecy: The English Invasion of France 1346, (Pearson Education Limited: Harlow, 2005) pp. 152-166

7 The Battle of Crecy: A Casebook, ed. Livingston, Michael and DeVries, Kelly,(Liverpool University Press: Liverpool, 2015). c.f. "The Location of the Battle of Crecy", by Michael Livingston, pp. 415-438. My personal view is that Edward III intended to fight at the traditional battle site but was interrupted on the way there. I have not sorted out my thoughts on the exact site yet, but it was either between the Forest of Crecy and the Bois de But, blocking the road from Abbeville, or between the Forest of Crecy and the Bois de Crocq, cutting off both the roads to Abbeville and St. Ricquier, depending on where the French were advancing from.

8 Livingstone and Witzel, pp. 262-265 Rogers, pp. 264-267 Andrew Ayton, "The Crecy Campaign", in The Battle of Crecy, 1346, ed. Andrew Ayton and Sir Philip Preston. (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2007) pp. 106-107) Barber, Richard. Edward III and the Triumph of England, (Penguin Global: . 2014) pp. 183 Burne, A.H. The Crecy War (Frontline Books: Barnsley, 2016 [1955]), pp. 160-161, 168-169

9 Livingston, "Location", pp. 415-438.

10 Ayton, Andrew. "Book Review: The Battle of Crécy. A Casebook by Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries (eds)" War in History. 2017 24(3) pp. 386-389.

11 Sumption, pp. 934-935 Rogers, pp. 266-267

12 Prestwich, Michael "The Battle of Crecy", in The Battle of Crecy, 1346, ed. Andrew Ayton and Sir Philip Preston. (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2007) pp. 145-146 Barber, pp. 188-200, 432-436 DeVries, Kelly, "The Tactics of Crecy", in The Battle of Crecy: A Casebook, ed. Livingston, Michael and DeVries, Kelly, (Liverpool University Press: Liverpool, 2015) pp. 447-468

13 Sir Philip Preston, "The Traditional Battlefield of Crecy", in The Battle of Crecy, 1346, ed. Andrew Ayton and Sir Philip Preston. (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2007) pp. 122-130

14 ibid., pp. 130-132 Prestwich, pp. 142

15 The medieval inventories of the Tower armouries 1320–1410, unpublished PhD thesis, University of York, pp. 50-69 The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel, tr. Nigel Bryant, (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2011) pp. 78

16 Andrew Ayton, "The English Army at Crecy", in The Battle of Crecy, 1346, ed. Andrew Ayton and Sir Philip Preston. (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2007) pp. 177-178

17 Wadge, Richard. Who Were the Bowmen of Crecy? (The History Press: Stroud, 2012), Kindle Edition, Location 461-534

19 Ayton, "English Army" pp. 218-224

20 Wadge, Richard. Arrowstorm (The History Press: Stround, 2009) pp. 32

21 Wadge, Bowmen of Crecy, Chapter 9 Loades, Mike, The Longbow (Osprey Publishing: Oxford, 2013) pp. 16

23 Rogers, pp. 265 Ordonnances des roys de France de la troisième race Quatrième volume, Contenant differents suppléments pour le règne du roy Jean et les ordonnances de Charles V données pendant les années 1364, 1365 et 1366 ed. Denis-François Secousse, 1734, pp. 67

24 Bertrand Schnerb, "Vassals, Allies and Mercenaries: The French Army before and after 1346", in The Battle of Crecy, 1346, ed. Andrew Ayton and Sir Philip Preston. (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2007) pp. 265-272 Kelly DeVries and Niccolo Capponi, "The Genoese Crossbowmen at Crecy", The Battle of Crecy: A Casebook, ed. Livingston, Michael and DeVries, Kelly, (Liverpool University Press: Liverpool, 2015) pp. 445. For the Genoese at Aiguillon, see Sumption, pp. 861, and cf. also pp. 950fn.49 for the low rates of casualties on the contracted ships and the implication that the crews could not have fought at Crecy. For relations between Genoa and France, see Livingstone and Titzel, pp. 76, but cf. their suggestion that "Genoese" was a generic term for "Italian".


Background

Largely a dynastic struggle for the French throne, the Hundred Years' War began following the death of Philip IV and his sons, Louis X, Philip V, and Charles IV. This ended the Capetian Dynasty which had ruled France since 987. As no direct male heir lived, Edward III of England, Philip IV's grandson by his daughter Isabella, pressed his claim to the throne. This was rejected by the French nobility who preferred Philip IV's nephew, Philip of Valois.

Crowned Philip VI in 1328, he called for Edward to do homage to him for the valuable fief of Gascony. Though initially unwilling to this, Edward relented and accepted Philip as King of France in 1331 in return for continued control over Gascony. By doing so, he surrendered his rightful claim to the throne. In 1337, Philip VI revoked Edward III's control of Gascony and commenced raiding the English coast. In response, Edward reasserted his claims to the French throne and began building alliances with the nobles of Flanders and the Low Countries.


Contents

Crécy-en-Ponthieu is best known as the site of the Battle of Crécy in 1346, one of the earliest and most important battles of the Hundred Years' War. There are other significant historical links. The Chausée Brunehaut, which passed within two miles (3.2 km) of the town, is the Roman road from Paris and Amiens to Boulogne, and is still visible and walkable today.

The town lends its name to a popular carrot soup known as potage Crécy.

The British built an airfield in Crécy to provide air support before the fall of France in 1940. During the Battle of France, the plan seems to have been to deploy RAF squadrons of Bristol Blenheim light bombers there, but it is not clear how intensively the airfield was used. In the confused days of mid-May 1940 one squadron that was ordered to deploy there did not due to the absence of any military protection. It is most notable for its occupation by the German Luftwaffe, with Gruppe Zerstörergeschwader 26 of Messerschmitt Bf 110s stationed there from May 1940 until November 1940 when, after the end of the Battle of Britain, the Gruppe was withdrawn to Germany to rest and re-equip. Several other squadrons came and went, including some Messerschmitt Bf 109s. The entrance to the airfield is still visible on the left of the D12 road from Crécy to Ligescourt, midway between the two. Some fortified installations are also visible, hidden beneath trees on various sides of the airfield.

The Crécy museum holds a collection of items, displayed over two rooms and a passageway. The collection includes information about the battle of Crecy as well as various items from the Second World War, pre-historic material and geological specimens.

There was a station (Crécy-Estrées) on a branch of the Réseau des Bains de Mer which ran between Abbeville and Dompierre-sur-Authie. It opened on 19 June 1892 and closed to passengers on 10 March 1947 and freight on 1 February 1951.


Liverpool University Press Blog

The Battle of Crécy: Missing
by Michael Livingston

On 26 August 1346, the invading English army at last stood face-to-face with a vastly more numerous French army on a small hill not far from Crécy. A little chapel nearby was tolling the bells for the mid-afternoon prayers when the French began to charge up at the English position. Arrows sang in a sky filled with screams. Men fell by the thousands to the blood-soddened farmland upon which they struggled.

The Battle of Crécy was a horror even by medieval standards, and word of what happened would spread across Europe with truly astonishing speed. Almost as fast, history became legend.

That the news would run far and fast is not surprising. There were five kings on the field that day. King Philip VI stood at the head of the French army. With him were King John of Bohemia, perhaps the most famous knight in Christendom, though now grown old and, stories say, blind as well as the monarchs of Majorca and (at least nominally) the Romans. Facing this assemblage was King Edward III of England, who had landed in Normandy on 12 July and cut a swath of destruction across northern France, twice managing to get his seemingly trapped army across rivers mere hours before the pursuing French could catch him.

For weeks Edward had been cunning, but he had also been lucky. And even the best gambler’s luck will eventually run out. Edward’s seemingly had. His army was exhausted, having marched at least 120 miles in 10 days. And here, in this rolling countryside, they’d finally been caught. His luck fading, the English king had to rely on his cunning alone to save him now.

That Edward indeed survived the battle would be remarkable enough, but the truth of what happened is the reason Crécy is one of the most famous battles in history: the English demolished the French army in a major engagement so lopsided that it has merited study at military colleges still today.

That much is incontestable.

How Edward won, however – indeed where he won – is far less certain than has long been supposed. In The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook, Kelly DeVries and I (with a helpful team of fellow scholars and essayists) have gathered together the known fourteenth-century sources of information about the battle, which we reproduced in both their original languages and in translation. These 81 sources, in Latin, English, French, Dutch, Italian, German, Welsh, and even Czech (many of them either being published or translated for the first time), from letters and chronicles to sermons and poems, have together provided us with an unparalleled early perspective on the battle. And what we have found is overturning centuries of scholarship.

Among our most striking discoveries:

– the traditional site of the battle is wrong, being more than 5km from the most likely location

– the traditional depiction of the Black Prince as an unbeatable warrior upon the field hides the uncomfortable truth that he was actually captured in the fighting

– the tradition that the Genoese crossbowmen betrayed the French is not based in any reality

– the traditional account of the battle paints the French leaders as fools and thus diminishes the accomplishment of Edward and the English, but these new findings reveal that able French commanders were making logical decisions but were in truth outwitted by Edward’s brilliant tactics

– the tradition of the longbow destroying the flower of the French knighthood tells a mere fraction of the story of how that weapon was pressed into service and the key role it played in the outcome of the battle

– the traditional reconstructions of the battle have completely discarded what we now know to be true about the English use of a defensive fortification built of wagons — called a wagenberg — upon the field

– many common assumptions about Edward III’s grand strategies for his invasion of France must now be reconsidered and

– several newly uncovered eyewitness accounts give us greater insight into the horrors of medieval warfare than we have ever had before.

So much of this stands sharply against the grain of accepted thinking about this famous battle, but we are very much aware that it is the problem of the location that most catches the eye.

Since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, the Battle of Crécy has been identified as occurring just north of the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu. The English lines were supposed to have ranged across the top of a tall hill there, while the French marched across a wide valley below them, called the Vallée des Clercs. They died there under the rain of English bowshot, few even coming close to the top of the slope.

Except nothing about this site and its corresponding reconstruction makes sense, beginning with the basic topography. The four kings on the French side (not to mention the hundreds of battle-tested knights beneath them) would have had to have been fools to attempt such a charge, especially when only a further mile of marching north would have brought them around the head of the valley and able to charge across flat ground into the weaker English flank. Worse still, a natural embankment running along the east side of the valley would have forced the French to execute two 90-degree turns – presumably within range of arrow shot – before they could reasonably charge up the steep hill at the English. If anyone had actually tried such an attack, few indeed would have followed them, much less the thousands who came at the English in 1346.

Other aspects also fail to fit. Our accounts say the French were surprised when they came upon the English position, that they were already almost on top of them, yet any force at the traditional location can be seen for miles. Our accounts say that the English had room to encircle their force in a wagenberg, but that’s hardly possible at the traditional site. And not one source describes Edward III or his army crossing the river Maye or seizing the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu – though both events would have been necessary for the English to take the traditional position.

It’s hardly any wonder, then, that despite several archaeological investigations, no materials associated with the battle have been found on the hill or in the valley. The Battle of Crécy almost assuredly didn’t happen there.

To locate an alternative site, I reconstructed the march of the English army during this campaign, a feat made possible by our publication of the journal of the king’s kitchen, which daily recorded the location of the king’s encampment. Similar mapping was done with the French army, resulting in average rates of speed for the two forces on the move. Knowing the location of the last encampments of both armies and their available hours of travel on the fateful day, I thus achieved two search radii (one the approximate distance that the English could have marched and the other how far the French could have marched). Both of these radii, predictably, fall far short of the traditional battle site.

The radii meet, however, at a location much farther south of Crécy-en-Ponthieu, alongside the Forest of Crécy, which still dominates the landscape there today. The site is the high ground on the road between Crécy and Abbeville, which is precisely how many of our sources describe the chosen battleground. An English army encamped here could be unseen until the French were close enough to be in a position to form up lines. It has room for the English wagenberg. It doesn’t require the French to be fools.

Is this the missing site of the Battle of Crécy? Until proper archaeological investigations are undertaken (and we hope they will be), we simply cannot know for certain. But unlike the traditional site, it matches what was said about the battle by the men who were there. It meets, in fact, every description in every fourteenth-century source.

The Battle of Crécy, despite over six centuries of near-constant fame, continues to hold onto its mysteries, but with the publication of the sources and essays in the Crécy casebook we believe we have taken a massive step toward shedding new light upon the forgotten remains of this great battle and thereby paving the way for an entirely rewritten history of a fascinating and important conflict.

Read more about The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook edited by Michael Livingston and Kelly De Vries – available from our website.

Michael Livingston is Associate Professor of English at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina and author of The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (2011) and Owain Glyndwr: A Casebook (2013).

Kelly DeVries is Professor of History, Loyola University Maryland, an Honorary Historical Consultant with the Royal Armouries, Leeds, and often appears in television documentaries as an expert commentator on warfare in the Middle Ages.


Any true medieval warfare enthusiast undoubtedly knows of the battles of the Hundred Years War Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt, and possibly the smaller or less celebrated engagements such as my personal favourite – Auberoche. The infamous exploits of the French, and the usually outnumbered English, have been well documented by historians over the years – but even today, the debates rage on.

Now, I am always rather keen for a good debate, especially when it comes to history. In addition, I am also an archery enthusiast, especially in regards to the longbow – yes, I have one, yes, I am that much of a nerd. My fondness for debating is such that, as a teacher, I make my own little peasants partake in the fun almost weekly. With this is mind, it should come as no surprise that looking into an aspect of history that involves longbows, a famous battle, and intense debate over a single word, would be like mining for gold for this historian.

In the Summer of 1346, near the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu in northern France, Edward III’s relatively small English force, comprising the now famous longbowmen, utterly decimated Philip VI’s much larger French force. The numbers of the opposing sides are almost impossible to specify, but the manner in which the Battle of Crècy was won, is for the most part agreed upon by historians. When writing about the battle, a contemporary chronicler, Jean Froissart, described the English formation as such ‘…mis leurs arciers a maniere d’une herce et les gens d’armes ou fons de leur bataille‘, which essentially tells us that the archers were in the manner of a herse with the men-at-arms behind. But what exactly is a herse? Despite the work of countless scholars and the writings of numerous chroniclers, one little word, one seemingly simple detail is met with discussion and debate to this day.

The literature concerning the Hundred Years War is extensive, however it often pertains to aspects of the history separate from specific tactical analysis, and especially the archers. The contemporary chroniclers were often focussed on a particular important individual and as a result, the more ‘common’ members of the army, such as the archers, were, individually speaking, seen as being of little significance. Notwithstanding this, the history of archery during the Hundred Years War has received ample recognition within a number of modern works, scholars of particular note include: Anne Curry, Clifford J. Rogers, Robert Neillands, Andrew Ayton, and Sir Phillip Preston – yes, there are many more. Despite all of this, there remains no fixed consensus on the structures and formations of the medieval English army.

Two particular chroniclers, Geoffrey le Baker and Jean Froissart, feature prominently in works discussing the military aspects of the Hundred Years War. Though Froissart has oft been commended for his ‘independent spirit’ and maintaining a lack of bias throughout his documenting of history, his writing features both continuity errors and highly complimentary language in regards to the English effort. Froissart produced a number of manuscripts on the Hundred Years War and across each, vital facts differ. In addition, while discussing the Battle of Crécy he professed, ‘the wonderful effect of our archery and arrows was such, that flying through the air as thick as snow…they did leave no disarmed place, of horse or man, unstricken and not wounded’. Although this quite clearly demonstrates Froissart’s bias, it was not apparent to the author himself in his writing he notes, ‘let it not be said that I have corrupted this noble history…for I will say nothing but the truth…without favouring one side or the other’. Froissart is not alone in adding intense flamboyance to his writing. Geoffrey le Baker is also guilty of attaching emotion to his writing of history. In reference to le Baker documenting the concluding scenes of the Battle of Poitiers, Alfred H. Burne notes that ‘evidently feeling that something extra special is expected of him, [le Baker] bursts into a sort of poetic rhapsody’. Furthermore, when discussing the writing of Chandos Herald in his work Le Prince Noir, Burne again notes that poetic notions – in this case, rhyme – ‘should discountenance too literal meaning being attached to individual words’.

Now, there are a multitude of interpretations for the herse of archers at Crécy, so, without going too crazy, I will briefly discuss a few of the more common theories.

The first of the theories is entirely concerned with the translation of the French word herce. In this theory, the suggestion is that we take the translation to mean ‘harrow’, specifically the meaning concerning wedge-shaped farming tool. Essentially this puts the archers in triangular or wedge-shaped formations. These wedges, it is then reasoned, are placed at regular intervals throughout the line of men-at-arms. There are different versions of this, some featuring small numbers of wedges with large numbers of archers in each, or some conversely with large numbers of wedges featuring small numbers of archers in each. For the sake of this argument, they both come under the same theory, derived from the harrow translation, and equally, they are both wrong. Harrowing theories if you will…

If we look carefully at the quote from Froissart, when discussing the men-at-arms he specifically refers to them as at the back, or rear, of the battle – ou fons de leur bataille. Although the Harrow Theory provides a reasonable argument for one aspect of the translated passage, by totally ignoring this secondary factor, it simply cannot be accurate.

Arguably the most commonly accepted theory, for more than just the Battle of Crécy I should add, is the idea that the archers formed the ‘wings’ of the army (totally ignoring the pun with respect to flight here) and stood at each end of the line of dismounted men-at-arms. This is the view that is widely accepted not just among many historians, but is often seen in popular culture. Unless it’s really terrible movie and the archers at the puny little guys all the way at the back, but that is entirely separate debate – and very likely another blog post.

Without going into too much detail, although I would love it, this theory is generated partially from accounts of the French army at the time, partially from accounts of Henry V’s formations nearly 70 years later, and furthermore, partially from accounts of early modern formations concerning gunpowder weapons. Now yes, I know, what the hell do these have to do with the archers at Crécy? The simple answer, nothing. This is a theory that is really easy to accept if you don’t look too closely, or are entirely blind, but one that essentially ignores the contemporary literature. Yes, Froissart was prone to hyperbole, but he was renowned for his writing for some reason and is likely to have at least some idea what took part on the fateful Summer’s day. Not to mention, his version of events is somewhat backed up by other chroniclers.

The Fence or Hedgehog Theory

The final theory not only combines a large number of relevant factors, but it takes into consideration a wide variety of important details you will likely work out, if you haven’t already, that this is the theory that I hold to be correct.

A common misconception about medieval archers is that the bow was their one and only weapon. This is very much not the case. They did not discharge all of their arrows and then simply sit down to enjoy the combat with a cup of tea. They were armed, understandably, with a number of weapons and as such, when they had emptied their arrow bags, or when the opposing army was within their ranks, they were still of great use in the fight. The secondary weapon of the archer was often a personal choice, and reflective of both their social standing and more importantly their coin purse. This personal weapon, if owned, was supplemented with a stake that was supplied to the archers. The addition of this vital piece of information allows us to reconsider the translation.

The interpretation and translation of the word herce as Froissart gave it, can possibly be understood as the Harrow Theory suggests. However, by tracing different origins of the word, through not hirpex but hèrisson, and hercia it can be understood as related to a hedgehog, or indeed a ‘bristly fence’. For a much more impressive analysis of this, read E. M. Llyod’s ‘The ‘Herse’ of Archers at Crecy’. From this hedgehog like, bristly fence, we get back to a line like formation which matches the contemporary literature. We can now place the archer’s at the front of the battle, forming a fence, and the men-at-arms behind or ou fons de leur bataille. Two separate lines of battle, but each mobile in their own right. This theory is also backed up by additional chroniclers and the slight differing versions are argued as simply being views of different stages of the battle. With the archers likely assuming the front line, or herse, shortly before the actual commencement of battle. The success of a hedgehog type formation will be familiar to fans of the scots, and particular the Battle of Bannockburn. Further suggestion that the Fence or Hedgehog theory has particular merit.

As Thomas Hastings aptly states, Archery ‘occupies a place of great interest in the minds of Englishmen, and for the services which the Bow has rendered…it must ever be held in grateful remembrance’. The exploits of those fighting for the English crown in the Hundred Years War provided England with more than just victories noted in a history book they provided a sense of belief, pride, and indeed a reason to remind the French for years to come. My research into these matters are only just beginning, but for now the almighty hedgehog is my bet for the translation of a herse!

  1. Jean Froissart, Chronicles, ed. and trans’ Geoffrey Brereton, London: Penguin, 1978.
  2. Haldeen Braddy, ‘Froissart’s Account of Chaucer’s Embassy in 1337’, The Review of English Studies, vol. 14, no. 53, 1938.
  3. Hereford B. George. ‘The Archers at Crecy’, English Historical Review, vol. 10, 1895.
  4. Thomas HastingsThe British Archer, or Tracts on Archery, London, 1831.
  5. Alfred H. Burne, ‘The Battle of Poitiers’, The English Historical Review, vol. 53, no. 209, 1938, pp. 21-52.
  6. E. M. Lloyd, ‘The ‘Herse’ of Archers at Crecy’, The English Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 39, 1895, pp. 538-541.

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This Day In History: The Battle of Crecy Was Fought (1346)

On this day in history, the battle of Crecy was fought between the armies of France and England. On July the 12th, 1346, Edward the Third of England landed with an invasion force of about 15,000 men on the coast of Normandy. From here, the English army marched northward, plundering the French countryside. Learning of the English army&rsquos arrival, King Philip of France gathered an army of 12,000 men together, made up of approximately 8,000 mounted knights and some 4,000 hired Genoese crossbowmen. At Crecy, Edward halted his army and prepared for the French to attack. On the afternoon of August 26, Philip&rsquos army attacked, even though he was outnumbered, it was to prove a disastrous miscalculation.

The Genoese crossbowmen, who were mercenaries, led the assault, on the English line, but they were soon overwhelmed by Edward&rsquos 10,000 archers. They could reload faster and fire much further than the Genoese. The crossbowmen had to retreat. After this, the French mounted knights attempted to break the English infantry lines. In repeated charges, the horses, and their riders were cut down in the merciless shower of arrows. Many knights were thrown from their horses and because of the weight of their armour could not move and were killed by the English infantry. The night, the French finally withdrew. Nearly one-third of their army lay dead on the field, including members of the French Royal Family and the nobility. Some 1,500 other knights and squires died in the battle. Large numbers of French knights had been made a prisoner and held for ransom by the English. Philip himself escaped with only a flesh wound. English losses are reported to have been a fraction of the French losses, possibly one hundred men.

The battle marked the decline of the mounted knight in European warfare and the rise of England as a world power. From Crecy, Edward marched on to Calais, which surrendered to him in 1347. This strategic port was to remain in English hands for two hundred years.

The battle was part of the One Hundred Years War. The One Hundred Years was a series of wars that raged from 1336 to 1453. It was fought by successive Kings of England in order to gain land or even the Crown of France. After the death of Phillip IV, there was a dispute over who should inherit the throne. The English king had a claim through his mother. The English King Edward III invaded France to secure his claim to the throne and this began the series of wars that have come to be known as the Hundred Years War. At this time, the English kings had many territories in France such as Calais and Gascony and from these locations they were to regularly launch invasions throughout the wars. For over a hundred years the English and the French fought each other.

After the death of Phillip IV, there was a dispute over who should inherit the throne. The English king had a claim through his mother. The English King Edward III invaded France to secure his claim to the throne. Edward claimed the throne through his mother Isabella, a French princess. This began A series of wars that have come to be known to history as the Hundred Years War, even though they actually lasted longer than a century. At this time, the English kings had many territories in France such as Calais and Gascony and from these locations they were to regularly launch invasions throughout the wars. For over a hundred years the English and the French fought each other.

Initially, the English seized large areas of France after the great English victories at Crecy and Poitiers. At the Battle of Poitiers, Edward&rsquos son, The Black Prince defeated a larger army in central France. Soon half of France came under the control of the English crown . There was a French counterattack and this led to nearly all the conquered territories being reconquered. There was a long pause in the war, but no peace treaty was signed. The wars began again in 1415 when Henry V invaded France.


Battle of Crecy - HISTORY

The Battle of Crécy (August 26, 1346).—The first great combat of the long war was the famous battle of Crécy. Edward had invaded France with an army of 30,000 men, made up largely of English bowmen, and had penetrated far into the country, ravaging as he went, when he finally halted, and faced the pursuing French army near the village of Crécy, where he inflicted upon it a most terrible defeat. 1,200 knights, the flower of French chivalry, and 30,000 foot-soldiers lay dead upon the field.

The great battle of Crécy is memorable for several reasons. It was here that cannons were first used in open battle, though some time before this rude artillery had been employed by the Spanish Moors in siege operations. The guns used at Crécy were very clumsy affairs, and were described by a French writer as engines "which, with fire, threw little iron balls to frighten the horses." 1

It was on this field, too, that the eldest son of Edward III, known, from the color of the armor he wore, as the Black Prince, earned his spurs, the symbol of knighthood, and a fame which the English have loved to keep green. This favorite prince was only sixteen years of age, but his father, notwithstanding, with a confidence in the temper and judgment of the boy which the event showed was not misplaced, entrusted him with the command of one of the main divisions of the army. The king himself took no active part in the battle, but watched the fight from an old windmill which overlooked the field. In the midst of the battle a messenger came in hot haste to the king, beseeching aid for the prince, who, he represented, was hard pressed by the enemy. "Do not send to me so long as my son lives let the boy win his spurs let the day be his," was Edward's only reply to the entreaty. And the young prince won both his spurs and the day.

The battle of Crécy also derives a certain interest from the fact that there Feudalism and Chivalry received their death-blow. The yeomanry of England there showed themselves superior to the chivalry of France. "The lesson which England had learned at Bannockburn she taught the world at Crécy. The whole social and political fabric of the Middle Ages rested on a military base, and its base was suddenly withdrawn. The churl had struck down the noble the bondsman proved more than a match, in sheer hard fighting, for the knight. From the day of Crécy, Feudalism tottered slowly but surely to its grave." 2 The battles of the world were hereafter to be fought and won, not by mail-clad knights with battle-ax and lance, but by common footsoldiers with bow and gun.

The death of the blind king John of Bohemia, Philip's ally, who fell with the chivalry of France on the fatal field, added another incident to the record of the memorable day. The veteran warrior, when he learned that the battle was going hard with the French, ordered his companions to fasten his horse's bridle to theirs, and lead him into the thickest of the fight, where he and his faithful nobles fell dead together. The old king's crest and motto, which consisted of a triple ostrich plume with the legend Ich Dien, "I serve," were adopted by the Prince of Wales, and from that day to this have been worn by his successors.

1. J. R. Green. A Short History of the English People.
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876. 220. link
2. ibid. 244. link

Myers, P. V. N. Outlines of Mediæval and Modern History.
Boston: Ginn & Company, 1901. 291-292.


Battle of Crécy

The death of bind King John of Bohemia, who led the attack on the right flank of the British at Crecy 1346. John the Blind (Jan 10 August 1296 – 26 August 1346) was the count of Luxembourg from 1313 and king of Bohemia from 1310 and titular king of Poland. He is well known for having died while fighting in the Battle of Crécy at age 50, after having been blind for a decade.

According to historian Clive Bartlett, the English armies of the 14th century, including the longbowmen, mainly comprised the levy and the so-called ‘indentured retinue’. The latter category entailed a sort-of contract between the King and his nobles that allowed the monarch to call upon the retainers of the noblemen for purposes of wars (especially in the overseas).

This pseudo-feudal arrangement fueled a class of semi-professional soldiers who were mostly inhabitants from around the estates of the lords and the kings. And among these retainers, the most skilled were the longbowmen of the household. The archers from the King’s own household were termed the ‘Yeomen of the Crown’, and they were rightly considered the elite even among the experienced archers.

The other retainers came from the neighborhoods of the great estates, usually consisting of followers (if not residents) of the lord’s household. Interestingly enough, many of them served the same purpose and received similar benefits like household retainers. There was also a third category of the retainer longbowman, and this group pertained to men who were hired for specific military duties, including garrisoning and defending ‘overseas’ French towns. Unfortunately, in spite of their professional status, these hired retainers often turned to banditry, since official payments were not always delivered in time.

A key battle in the opening phase of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). England’s Edward III (1312-1377) led an army on an extended chevauchée into northern France with the intention of provoking Philip VI to give battle. The tactic nearly backfired when the French burned several bridges in an effort to trap the English against the Somme: Edward was fortunate to ford under cover of his skilled archers. Two days later the armies met near the village of Crécy, in Normandy, where they formed opposing battle lines 2,000 yards long. The English were well-rested and fed. Though outnumbered 2:1 they took position atop a low ridge with their left flank abutting a stream, the Maie, and their right flank touching Crécy Wood. At the center were three blocks of men-at-arms with protecting pikemen. Two sets of archers with longbows were on the flanks, each in a “V” formation. Each archer had ready about 100 broad arrows, their lethal metal tips pushed into the ground to permit rapid reloading. Hundreds of caltrops were scattered atop the sod and mud to their front, to hobble oncoming warhorses or infantry. Tens of thousands more arrows were packed in wood and leather quivers stacked in carts to the rear. This large supply was key to the English victory. The initial rate of fire of a good longbowman was from six to ten arrows per minute, falling thereafter as muscle fatigue set in. Several hundred thousand arrows thus were likely fired toward the French that day, most from beyond the range of effective retaliation by the gay, pennant-decked lances of the French knights, looking splendid in burnished armor, colorful livery, and plumed helms, but utterly exposed to plunging arrow storms. Nor could Edward’s archers be reached by Genoese mercenaries on the French side firing stubby quarrels from crossbows, a deadly and feared weapon of their chosen profession that was wholly outmatched in range by the longbow on this bloody day.

Neither French cavalry nor Genoese infantry nor the Czech mercenaries of “Blind King John,” an allied prince, had ever faced the longbow. In ignorance and battle lust, they arrived piecemeal on the field of battle in the late afternoon, hungry and tired but straining to attack the English line. Heavy rain had soaked the field, turning it into sticky mud. The sun also favored the English, as it shone into the faces of the French. When the French heavy cavalry arrayed for the attack it formed in the old manner: a mass of armored horse supported by crossbow fire on the flanks and to the front. It is thought that Edward fired several small cannon at the Genoese to break up their formations. If true, these guns would have been so primitive they likely produced more a psychological than a physical effect. What mattered was that the Genoese were slowed by the Normandy mud and then slaughtered by flights of English arrows, not cannon, well before they got into crossbow range. Worse, in the rush to battle most had left their pervase with the baggage wagons. Nor could their slow-loading crossbows do comparable damage to the rapid-firing Welsh and English archers, thus rendering the Genoese attack ineffective and leaving the English lines unbroken and unharried before the French horse arrived. As casualties mounted among the Genoese they broke, turned, and ran, mud sucking at their boots and adding to the agony of panic as they exposed their backs to deadly enemy archers, firing aimed shots at the level.

The French knights, filled with Gallic disdain for everything on foot, spurred callously through the retreating Genoese, slashing at hired infantry in utter contempt, some with cries of “kill this rabble!” A large earthen bank channeled the French cavalry into a narrow front. Edward’s archers, positioned nearly perfectly, now turned their bows against the plodding, funneled cavalry and cut it down, too. Ill-formed, repeated French charges, with horsemen at the rear pushing hard against the forward ranks, were repulsed time and again by the longbowmen. Most were broken apart before they began, with staggering losses among the brave but reckless fathers and sons of the nobility of France. Edward’s archers kept up an extraordinary rate of fire, impaling knights and horse alike and hundreds of men-at-arms. No cowards the French, despite the carnage they charged, again and again. It is thought they made as many as 16 charges that day, utterly bewildered at their inability to beat or even reach an inferior enemy. For two centuries heavy cavalry had dominated battlefields from Europe to the Holy Land. But at Crécy there were no tattered squares of scrambling peasants to skewer on great lances, no clumps of overmatched men-at-arms to chase down with mace or run through on one’s sword. Instead, the chivalry of France met flocks of missiles that felled knight and mount alike at unheard of killing distances. Eye-witnesses reported French awe at the flapping, vital sounds of thousands of feathers on long-shafted arrows arcing in high swarms from an unreachable ridge, to plunge into men, horses, or both. Baleful accounts survive telling how arrows ripped through shields and helmets, pierced faceplates and cuirasses, and arms, legs, and groins, or pinned some best friend to his mount.

Much of this occurred at incredible distances, as unaimed plunging fire reached the French from as far away as 250-300 yards. Longbow accuracy only improved at closer ranges, as bows were leveled and each shot singly aimed at the lumbering steel and flesh targets the French cavalry presented. In prior battles cavalry had been safe at 200 yards or more, the usual distance where riders massed before trotting forward to about 60-100 yards, the distance at which they began the charge. Now death and piercing wounds fell from the sky at double the normal range, slicing through shields and armor to stab deep into chest or thigh, or horse. The French could make no reply to this long-distance death with their lances and swords: knights died in droves that day without ever making contact with their enemies. Armor was pierced and limbs, backs, and necks broken as falling knights entangled in bloody clots of swords and snapped lances, and kicking and screaming dying men and horses. So they charged: anything was better than standing beneath such lethal rain. The nearly 8,000 longbowmen at Crécy probably fired 75,000-90,000 arrows in the 40-60 seconds it took the French to close the range, each arrow speeding near 140 miles per hour, each archer keeping two and some three in the air at once. Those knights who reached the English lines piled up before them, pierced with multiple arrows and forming an armor-and-flesh barrier in front of the English men-at-arms that impeded fresh assaults. With French chivalry broken and its survivors staggering in the mud, the English infantry and Edward’s dismounted knights closed in to kill off the lower orders and take nobles prisoner, to be held for later ransom. Then the English stood in place through the night, holding in case of a renewed attack in the morning which never came.

Most casualties at Crécy were inflicted by the longbow and thus losses were hugely lopsided: between 5,000 and 8,000 French and Genoese were killed, including as many as 1,500 knights, compared to about 100 of Edward’s men. This was a huge number for a 14th-century battle, and left nearly every castle and chateau in France in mourning. The defeat of its warrior elite shattered France’s military capabilities and shook its confidence for a generation. This one-sided battle further eroded the old illusion that heavy cavalry was invincible against common infantry, and elevated recognition of the importance of archers across Europe. A parallel effect was that for the next 50 years French knights, too, preferred to dismount to fight, a practice they followed until better horse armor was made that enticed them back into the saddle at Agincourt.

Suggested Reading: Andrew Ayton and Philip Preston, The Battle of Crécy, 1346 (2005) Alfred H. Burne, The Crécy War (1955 1999) G. C. Macauly, ed., The Chronicles of Jean Froissart (1904) Henri de Wailly, Crécy, 1346: Anatomy of a Battle (1987).


Battle of Crécy, (August 26, 1346)

A key battle in the opening phase of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). England’s Edward III (1312-1377) led an army on an extended chevauchée into northern France with the intention of provoking Philip VI to give battle. The tactic nearly backfired when the French burned several bridges in an effort to trap the English against the Somme: Edward was fortunate to ford under cover of his skilled archers. Two days later the armies met near the village of Crécy, in Normandy, where they formed opposing battle lines 2,000 yards long. The English were well-rested and fed. Though outnumbered 2:1 they took position atop a low ridge with their left flank abutting a stream, the Maie, and their right flank touching Crécy Wood. At the center were three blocks of men-at-arms with protecting pikemen. Two sets of archers with longbows were on the flanks, each in a “V” formation. Each archer had ready about 100 broad arrows, their lethal metal tips pushed into the ground to permit rapid reloading. Hundreds of caltrops were scattered atop the sod and mud to their front, to hobble oncoming warhorses or infantry. Tens of thousands more arrows were packed in wood and leather quivers stacked in carts to the rear. This large supply was key to the English victory. The initial rate of fire of a good longbowman was from six to ten arrows per minute, falling thereafter as muscle fatigue set in. Several hundred thousand arrows thus were likely fired toward the French that day, most from beyond the range of effective retaliation by the gay, pennant-decked lances of the French knights, looking splendid in burnished armor, colorful livery, and plumed helms, but utterly exposed to plunging arrow storms. Nor could Edward’s archers be reached by Genoese mercenaries on the French side firing stubby quarrels from crossbows, a deadly and feared weapon of their chosen profession that was wholly outmatched in range by the longbow on this bloody day.

Neither French cavalry nor Genoese infantry nor the Czech mercenaries of “Blind King John,” an allied prince, had ever faced the longbow. In ignorance and battle lust, they arrived piecemeal on the field of battle in the late afternoon, hungry and tired but straining to attack the English line. Heavy rain had soaked the field, turning it into sticky mud. The sun also favored the English, as it shone into the faces of the French. When the French heavy cavalry arrayed for the attack it formed in the old manner: a mass of armored horse supported by crossbow fire on the flanks and to the front. It is thought that Edward fired several small cannon at the Genoese to break up their formations. If true, these guns would have been so primitive they likely produced more a psychological than a physical effect. What mattered was that the Genoese were slowed by the Normandy mud and then slaughtered by flights of English arrows, not cannon, well before they got into crossbow range. Worse, in the rush to battle most had left their pervase with the baggage wagons. Nor could their slow-loading crossbows do comparable damage to the rapid-firing Welsh and English archers, thus rendering the Genoese attack ineffective and leaving the English lines unbroken and unharried before the French horse arrived. As casualties mounted among the Genoese they broke, turned, and ran, mud sucking at their boots and adding to the agony of panic as they exposed their backs to deadly enemy archers, firing aimed shots at the level.

The French knights, filled with Gallic disdain for everything on foot, spurred callously through the retreating Genoese, slashing at hired infantry in utter contempt, some with cries of “kill this rabble!” A large earthen bank channeled the French cavalry into a narrow front. Edward’s archers, positioned nearly perfectly, now turned their bows against the plodding, funneled cavalry and cut it down, too. Ill-formed, repeated French charges, with horsemen at the rear pushing hard against the forward ranks, were repulsed time and again by the longbowmen. Most were broken apart before they began, with staggering losses among the brave but reckless fathers and sons of the nobility of France. Edward’s archers kept up an extraordinary rate of fire, impaling knights and horse alike and hundreds of men-at-arms. No cowards the French, despite the carnage they charged, again and again. It is thought they made as many as 16 charges that day, utterly bewildered at their inability to beat or even reach an inferior enemy. For two centuries heavy cavalry had dominated battlefields from Europe to the Holy Land. But at Crécy there were no tattered squares of scrambling peasants to skewer on great lances, no clumps of overmatched men-at-arms to chase down with mace or run through on one’s sword. Instead, the chivalry of France met flocks of missiles that felled knight and mount alike at unheard of killing distances. Eye-witnesses reported French awe at the flapping, vital sounds of thousands of feathers on long-shafted arrows arcing in high swarms from an unreachable ridge, to plunge into men, horses, or both. Baleful accounts survive telling how arrows ripped through shields and helmets, pierced faceplates and cuirasses, and arms, legs, and groins, or pinned some best friend to his mount.

Much of this occurred at incredible distances, as unaimed plunging fire reached the French from as far away as 250-300 yards. Longbow accuracy only improved at closer ranges, as bows were leveled and each shot singly aimed at the lumbering steel and flesh targets the French cavalry presented. In prior battles cavalry had been safe at 200 yards or more, the usual distance where riders massed before trotting forward to about 60-100 yards, the distance at which they began the charge. Now death and piercing wounds fell from the sky at double the normal range, slicing through shields and armor to stab deep into chest or thigh, or horse. The French could make no reply to this long-distance death with their lances and swords: knights died in droves that day without ever making contact with their enemies. Armor was pierced and limbs, backs, and necks broken as falling knights entangled in bloody clots of swords and snapped lances, and kicking and screaming dying men and horses. So they charged: anything was better than standing beneath such lethal rain. The nearly 8,000 longbowmen at Crécy probably fired 75,000-90,000 arrows in the 40-60 seconds it took the French to close the range, each arrow speeding near 140 miles per hour, each archer keeping two and some three in the air at once. Those knights who reached the English lines piled up before them, pierced with multiple arrows and forming an armor-and-flesh barrier in front of the English men-at-arms that impeded fresh assaults. With French chivalry broken and its survivors staggering in the mud, the English infantry and Edward’s dismounted knights closed in to kill off the lower orders and take nobles prisoner, to be held for later ransom. Then the English stood in place through the night, holding in case of a renewed attack in the morning which never came.

Most casualties at Crécy were inflicted by the longbow and thus losses were hugely lopsided: between 5,000 and 8,000 French and Genoese were killed, including as many as 1,500 knights, compared to about 100 of Edward’s men. This was a huge number for a 14th-century battle, and left nearly every castle and chateau in France in mourning. The defeat of its warrior elite shattered France’s military capabilities and shook its confidence for a generation. This one-sided battle further eroded the old illusion that heavy cavalry was invincible against common infantry, and elevated recognition of the importance of archers across Europe. A parallel effect was that for the next 50 years French knights, too, preferred to dismount to fight, a practice they followed until better horse armor was made that enticed them back into the saddle at Agincourt.

Suggested Reading: Andrew Ayton and Philip Preston, The Battle of Crécy, 1346 (2005) Alfred H. Burne, The Crécy War (1955 1999) G. C. Macauly, ed., The Chronicles of Jean Froissart (1904) Henri de Wailly, Crécy, 1346: Anatomy of a Battle (1987).


Watch the video: Battle Stack: The Battle of Crecy Hundred Years War