By D Furius Venator
The Battle of Crecy began late in the afternoon of 26th August 1346 and continued well into the night and early hours of the next morning. King Edward III had launched a chevauchee through Normandy, a raid of deliberate devastation, rape and murder designed to show the inhabitants of the afflicted territory that their lords could not protect them, with the added benefit of depriving the French of revenue and giving the raiders the chance to gain wealth. They plundered and burnt dozens of towns, including Cherbourg, Barfleur, Montebourg and Caen as well as Saint-Germain and Saint-Cloud which were within sight of Paris. Philip, King of France assembled a huge host at Saint-Denis near Paris and Edward retreated in the face of overwhelming numbers. But the English still burnt and pillaged and killed indiscriminately as they retreated north.
Edward's army only just managed to force their way across the River Somme, in the face of strong opposition and leaving behind some of their baggage to be captured by Philip's advancing army. But once across the Somme, Edward felt that he could turn and give battle as he now had a safe retreat in the case of a reverse. His men were badly in need of rest (all that rape and pillage must have been exhausting!) and he took up a strong position near Crecy, his left flank protected by dense woodland, his right by a small river. To his front the land sloped gently downwards offering a good field of fire for his longbowmen and cannon.
The English had about 2000 men at arms, 500 light horse, around 5200 longbowmen and 1500 Welsh and Cornish knifemen, they also brought three crude cannon along. They were divided into three divisions, each of which had a core of dismounted men at arms flanked by archers. The right was under Edward's son the Black Prince, sixteen years old and in his first battle, he commanded 800 men at arms and 2000 archers, 500 Welsh knifemen stood behind the men at arms of theis division. The left under the Earl of Northampton had 500 men at arms and 1200 longbowmen. King Edward himself commanded the reserve of 700 men at arms, 2000 longbowmen, the 500 light horse and 1000 knifemen.
The French numbered perhaps 30 000 of whom at least 10 000 were men at arms and perhaps 6000 professional infantrymen including a number of Genoese crossbowmen. The rest were local militias.
The French arrived late in the day to find the English drawn up to receive them in good order and in their strong position. The longbowmen had dug small pits in front of their positions to break the legs of charging horses. The English had spent the morning having a good breakfast and king Edward had moved amongst them 'exhorting each with a laugh to do his duty, and flattered and encouraged them.' The English then 'lay down on the earth and by him his helmet and bow to be the more fresher when their enemies should come'. Whilst his men napped, Edward sat in a windmill from where he could watch the French approach. As the French came into sight around noon he ordered the trumpets sounded and the well refreshed English stood to arms.
The French approached in 'haste and evil order'. King Philip, who was near the front of his army was advised by one of his knights to rest his men and give battle the following day. This he was set to do but the chivalry of France was disinclined to withdraw and camp when the English were in plain sight. Realising he could not easily restrain his knights Philip 'said to his marshals: "Make the Genoways go on before and begin the battle in the name of God and Saint Denis."'
So the Genoese crossbowmen were ordered forward, much to their reluctance as they had marched eighteen miles that day 'We be not well ordered to fight this day, for we be not in the case to do any great deed of arms: we have more need of rest.'. Nonetheless, forward they were ordered and forward they went, to be drenched by a sudden thunderstorm, which quickly cleared leaving the late afternoon sun shining into the crossbowmen's eyes. Their advance did not meet with succcess, as Froissart relates:
'When the Genoways were assembled together and began to approach, they made a great cry to abash the Englishmen, but they stood still and stirred not for all that: then the Genoways again the second time made another leap and a fell cry, and stept forward a little, and the Englishmen removed not one foot: thirdly, again they lept and cried, and went forth till they came within shot; then they shot fiercely with their crossbows. Then the English archers stept forth one pace and let fly their arrows so wholly and so thick, that it seemed snow. When the Genoways felt the arrows piercing through heads arms and breasts, many of them cast down their crossbows and did cut their strings and returned discomfited.'
As the Genoese gave back, the French men at arms charged through them, trampling many under their horses hooves. This disordered the French knights though and 'the Englishmen shot whereas they saw thickest press; the sharp arrows ran into the men of arms and into their horses, and many fell, horse and men, among the Genoways, and when they were down, they could not relieve again, the press was so thick that on overthrew another.'
Despite the heavy arrow fire, which took a worse toll on the French warhorses than on their well armoured riders, and the fire from the English cannon that terrified the horses, some French knights managed to reach the Prince of Wales' battle where the dismounted English men at arms made short work of them. The survivors of this first charge straggled back.
But the French managed to launch fifteen charges 'from sunset to the third quarter of the night' as fresh men at arms arrived on the field. After each charge was repulsed, 'certain rascals [the Welsh and Cornish knifemen] that went afoot with great knives, and they went in among the men of arms, and slew and murdered many as they lay on the ground, both earls, barons, knights, and squires, whereof the king of England was after displeased, for he had rather they had been taken prisoners.' Crecy was a bad battle to be wounded in if you were a French knight or noble.
Two incidents stand out from the numerous French assaults. One where the Prince of Wales' men at arms were hard pressed and the young prince himself knocked off his feet. His standard bearer stood over him and fought off the French with the banner of Wales until the boy regained his feet. Men of the King's battle wanted to go to the prince's assistance but the King replied 'suffer him this day to win his spurs', more usually reported as 'the boy must win his spurs'.
The second notable incident involved the blind King John of Bohemia, who was fighting with the French. he insisted that the men of his household lead him forward 'that I may strike one stroke with my sword'. This they did. The blind king '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.' The Prince of Wales was so impressed that he adopted King John's motto - Ich Dien - as his own.
King Philip, wounded by an arrow in the neck - and who had had at least one horse killed under him during the battle found that he could only muster sixty men at arms for a final assault. He was dissuaded from making this final (and almost certainly suicidal) charge by the Count of Hainault, who convinced him that to lose a battle was better than losing his life.
Several factors contributed to the crushing French defeat. The main one was that the army approached in disorder and attacked piecemeal and too late in the day. Once night fell it became increasingly difficult for the French leaders to rally troops for an attack and so they fell upon the English in many small, weak and disjointed attacks. Contributing factors were the cannon and longbows which did so much to unsettle and hurt the horses of the French men at arms.
Because most of the battle had been fought in darkness, the English did not realise that they had won until dawn when they awoke to fog 'such that a man might not see the breadth of an acre of land from him.' Northampton's battle was sent out to reconoiter. They ran into some Norman knights, backed by local French militia whom they swiftly put to flight. The English counted the bodies of over 1500 French lords and knights on the battlefield, and as many as 10 000 'common people' may well have died (not just militia - remember not all men at arms were knights and lords).
King Edward's army marched to beseige Calais, which they took after a long siege, King Philip unwilling to risk another battle to relieve it. Calais became a centre of English rule in France and remained so for two centuries.
Crecy established English battlefield supremacy over the French. It was over a hundred years before the French finally managed to win a 'fair fight' against the English.
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