Going way back from my previous entry, but the same combatants.
Name: The Battle of Crecy, sometimes called the Battle of Cressy
The War: The early phase of the Hundred Years War
When: 26 August 1346
Where: Near the village of Crecy-en-Ponthieu, south of Calais, France
Forces/Commanders: 16’000 men (4’000 Knights, 7’000 Longbowman, 5’000 Spearmen) of the Kingdom of England under Edward III and his son Edward “the Black Prince” against circa 35’000 men (29’000 Knights, 6’000 Crossbowmen) of the Kingdoms of France, Naverre, Bohemia and Majorca under Philip VI of France and King John of Bohemia.
“Witness our too much memorable shame
When Cressy battle fatally was struck,
And all our princes captiv’d by the hand
Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales”
-William Shakespeare, Henry V
“The English archers each stepped forth one pace, drew the bowstring to his ear, and let their arrows fly; so wholly and so thick that it seemed as snow.”
-Jean Froissart, a French Chronicler
The Hundred Years War is the defining conflict of the medieval period, a 116 year conflict that set the foundations for the enmity between the two.
The war’s origins were a mixture of trade and feudal disputes (especially over Gascony and Aquitaine), long running conflicts between the monarchs on either side of the English Channel. Edward III of England had spent years at war, in Scotland, Breton and Flanders and was soon attempting several unsuccessful campaigns against France in the Low Countries while Philip VI of France focused on a naval campaign against the cross-channel foe. The war was in full swing by 1337.
Both men had previously been allied, and had even planned a crusade together. Now they were at each others throats. The naval war was essentially over by 1340, following the French defeat at the Battle of Sluys, while on land, Philip refused to meet the eager Edward in open battle, frustrating England’s attempts to force an engagement through unsuccessful sieges.
The war continued in a back and forth fashion for several years, England gaining ground in Brittany, but being so debt-ridden that they could take no further advantage with France’s armies in place.
Warfare at the time was based heavily around the nobles and knighted classes, which went into battle heavily armed and usually on horse. Archers and other missile troops had their place in battle, but the focus was heavily on the activities of these horsed heavy troops, who were usually centre stage in any fight. War’s were far more than battles between nations – battles were matters of honour and chivalry, where the neutralisation of opposing nobles (either dead or, better, captured for ransom) was as important an objective as overall victory.
In 1346, Edward launched a new offensive, landing an army in Normandy, along with his son, heir and namesake Edward, famously dubbed “the Black Prince”. Much of the standing French army were in Aquitaine, fighting on another front. As such, Edward was largely free to loot and burn at will, capturing the provinces main town of Caen in a siege that lasted just a day, much to the shock and anger of Philip. He hurridly drew up his forces in Paris and moved north.
Edward chose to avoid this force, and rapidly moved east, having his army live of the land. Slipping over the Somme River, Edward could no longer avoid battle, and assembled his forces just outside the village of Crecy, pronounced Cressy by the English, which lay just south of the coastal town of Calais.
Edward, faced with the far more numerous French forces approaching from the couth, choose to go into a full defensive mode, ordering his entire army to fight on foot, including his Knights. Dividing his army in three, he set up a multi-layered defence. The three portions of the army, one commanded by the Black Prince, only 16, were divided, two in front, one behind those, the rear commanded by the King personally. In the lead-up to the engagement, the army busied itself digging trenches, pits and other obstacles with which to slow the French cavalry. The decision to force the Knights to fight in foot was crucial: it ensured that the archers could be protected and that the unruly Knights, never easily controlled, would not charge off on their own to the detriment of the overall army.
The French arrived on the 26 August. Rather than wait a day to prepare and rest from the march, the Knights insisted on fighting that day, over the objections of the King. A heavy rain was falling, something that would affect things in a major way. Perhaps no one on the field realised it, but something incredibly important to the development of warfare and military history was about to take place.
It all came down to the archery force of either side. The English came to the field with 7’000 Longbowmen, a far-ranged weapon with a high rate of fire, its weakness being its inaccuracy. The Longbow took an immense amount of strength in order to fire, but was still considered a weapon of the commoners.
The French arrived with several thousand Genoese Crossbowmen, mercenaries hired for the campaign. The Crossbow was accurate and powerful, but suffered from limited range and a slow reload time.
The French approached through some plain farmland, fenced in on their left by the Mave River. The army was disorganised and broken up from the march, the French Knights too eager to fight to form a large unit.
Philip ordered the Crossbowmen forward with the cavalry, what little of it was ready, mustering behind. The Crossbowmen were exhausted from the days march and their heavy packs: they were ordered into the front regardless, the French commanders displaying a degree of contempt for the foreign paid fighters. The English moved their Longbowmen to the front of their line.
The rain had now stopped and its effect was clear. The English had wisely unstrung their bows and kept the strings dry during the downpour. The Genoese had not, and many of their Crossbows failed to function as a result.
Added to the already evident deficiencies, the lack of range in comparison with the Longbow, and the Longbows far higher rate if fire, the Genoese never stood a chance. Unable to make any advance to where their bows would be useful, pinned down under the murderous fire, those that had not been killed in these opening salvos, retreated in an unorganised fashion.
The French response to this retreat was murderous. Impatient to begin their own attack, angered at the Genoese failure, the rode into the retreating Crossbowmen, hacking down any that were in their way.
After this slaughter was completed, the way was open for the nobles of France to attack. What followed was a series of cavalry charges that have gone down in history in an infamous fashion.
The English Longbows sang, and a consistent rate of fire was kept up on the French Knights as they made ready, trotted, then charged. The arrows were usually strong enough to penetrate the French armour and kill the rider, but even if it failed, the force of the blow could be enough to heavily bruise or unseat the rider, not to mention the shots that killed the horses out from under the Knights.
Those Knights who were somehow able to make it through the barrage found themselves facing the physical obstacles erected by the English, victim to the Knights on foot who could easily deal with any survivors of the archers.
The initial charge was a spectacular failure, and further confusion was created as it retreated, running into the next group of Knights who were assembling. All the while, arrows rained down.
The piecemeal disposition of the French forces meant that rather than having one , or just a few, strong charges, numerous smaller ones were attempted. The surviving accounts are disputed, but it is claimed that by the end of the day, the French Knights had attempted 16 separate cavalry charges, all of which were total failures. The French Knights refused to accept defeat at the hands of the English peasant archers, and simply kept trying again and again.
Towards the end of the battle, the division of the English Army under the Black Prince came under increasing attack, but the King refused to send reinforcements, wanting his son to “win his spurs” by himself. The 16 year old heir did so, beating off the assault, the only time that the English came under any difficulty whatsoever.
As night fall came, Philip, wounded himself in one of the charges, was obliged to withdraw. His army had been utterly devastated. Among the dead were scores of French nobility, along with the allied King John of Bohemia, the Duke of Lorraine, the Count of Flanders and many, many others. Those too badly wounded to be taken from the field were given a mercy blow.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
Philip had no choice but to pull back towards Paris. This left the English free to move north and besiege Calais, which they took in 1347. This crucial city would remain in English hands for the next few centuries, a port they could use to land and supply troops in France for the rest of the war and beyond.
The following year, the war essentially stopped as the Black Death ravaged Europe. It was not until 1356 that it erupted in full force again with the Black Prince’s victory at Poitiers, almost a carbon copy of Crecy in its result. The resulting peace treaties meant the end of fighting for a time, with England left in possession of a huge amount of French soil. Moreover, the land the French did control was in utter chaos, largely due to the absence of strong nobles. Brigandry held sway, peasant rebellions were widespread, and the English were the power to beat on land and sea.
Edward III waned, due to illness and future military failure, dying after an unspectacular later reign in 1376. The Black Prince died a few months earlier, apparently of cancer. Philip died in 1350, his Kingdom in chaos.
The situation would not last, but for most of the following decades after Crecy, the English were rampant in France.
Pretty huge. The bow was a standard weapon in war of course, but its devastating potential was not fully recognised until Crecy. The Longbow has become the defining weapon of the period, the simple tool that allowed peasants, and by extension, standard infantry, to become the key factor in battles. Aside from being the key reason for the English victory, they outshone the crossbows by a country mile, perfectly illustrating the weaknesses of such weapons.
On the other side, the weaknesses of the noble class and mounted heavy cavalry were made evident. The repeated charges were an utter disaster, betraying not just the weakness of horse, but of the noble mindset. They simply refused to recognise that things had changed and that peasants were their equal on a battlefield.
Of course, the battle also illustrates the importance of force cohesion, the tightly packed ranks of the English being more than a match for the disjointed, uncontrollable French. Edward’s orders for his Knights to fight on foot provides a sharp contrast to the failure of Philip to control his Knights.
The English also made use of some early cannon pieces, though their effect, due to their inaccuracy and extreme reload times, was negligible. It was one of the first field battles in western Europe to feature them though.
Well, within the following twenty years it was big, but beyond that it is limited. The Hundred Years War trundled on for another, well, hundred years, eventually ending with France back in possession of most of their country.
The battle saw the rise of the infantry man and missile wielder as the main part of an army, something that was soon the norm in warfare. In Poitiers, Agincourt, Orleans and beyond, it was peasant infantry and archers that were deciding battles, not Knights.
If France had somehow managed to maintain control over its cavalry and break through the English lines, the result would have been a formality. The English army would have been destroyed, with the royals probably captured. Such a result would have altered the following war in a huge way. Aside from their already crippling debts, England would be left having to pay a ransom for their King and Prince. They would not have been in a position to invade France again for quite a long time. The survival of the French nobility would have left that country strong, with the following years of chaos being more ably controlled.
Certainly, the period of English dominance would never have occurred and the war would be on a more even footing. What would have happened from then, is too difficult to see.
In National Consciousness
Crecy is remembered primarily as an epic English victory against the odds, of a group of peasants bringing the nobility to their knees. The battle is heavily romanticized as a result.
The Black Prince, one of the key figures of the chivalry concept, is especially romanticized, the story of his famous banner apparently being a result of his admiration for King John of Bohemia who charged and fell in battle despite his near blindness. Edward allegedly remained on the field after the battle to honour the fallen King, and used his symbol, a helmet with ostrich feathers, and his motto “Ich Dien” (I serve) ever afterwards. It remains the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales to this day.
While the battle might have secured the chivalric legend of the Black Prince, many see it as one of death knells of the general concept. Chivalry as an ideology has always provoked debate – The Black Prince, for all of the claims for being an honourable opponent, still burned villages to the ground to get his way – but the utter slaughter of the Knighted class at Crecy is seen in many ways to end the era when colourful mounted Knights ruled battlefields, and held the only powerful place in society. Such a system had been in place for an age, but things had changed.
Most of the Longbowmen were Welsh, and were given freeman status and an acre of land each upon their return home. The Welsh became the key Longbow section of the army, going on to serve at nearly every major engagement afterward.
Crecy has been the focal point of many novels, including some by Bernard Cornwell, Warren Ellis and Ken Follet.
The battlefield today remains mostly untouched farmland, freely visited, outside of the village of Crecy.
Crecy remains one of the most important points in the evolution of warfare.
For more of NFB’s Decisive Battles check out the index here.