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Battle of Crécy

The Battle of Crécy (often the Battle of Cressy in English) took place on 26 August, 1346 near Crécy in northern France, and was one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years' War. The combination of new weapons and tactics have caused many historians to consider this battle the beginning of the end of chivalry.

Summary

Crécy was a battle in which a much smaller English army of 12,000 to 16,000 (depending on source), commanded by Edward III of England and heavily outnumbered by Philip VI of France's force of 35,000 to 80,000 (depending on source), was victorious as a result of superior weaponry and tactics, demonstrating the importance of the modern military concept of fire power. The effectiveness of the English longbow, used en masse, was proven against armoured knights, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day which held that archers would be ineffective and be butchered when the armoured units closed in.

In the battle, the French knights, protected by mail reinforced with plate, nearly exhausted by having to walk through a quagmire of mud to charge up a shallow hill into Welsh arrow storms, were cut down. The result was that much of the French nobility died, perhaps as many as a third (estimates of the actual numbers in each army vary considerably, depending on the source).

Knights' armour had not yet evolved to the stage where longbows could not penetrate, and the knights' horses were barely protected at all. The storm of arrows killed or disabled the knights' mounts, and left the knights floundering about in the mud on foot beneath a withering fire.

The battle is seen by many historians as the beginning of the end of chivalry; during the course of the battle, many of the prisoners and wounded were killed. This was against the chivalric codes of warfare; and knights on horseback were no longer "undefeatable" by infantry.

Crécy may also have seen the first real use of cannon on the European battlefield, which were used only in small numbers by a few states during the 1340s. "Ribaldis", a type of cannon, were first mentioned in the English Privy Wardrobe accounts during preparations for the battle between 1345 and 1346, and they were perhaps employed against both the Genoese and the cavalry. Similar cannon would appear also at the Siege of Calais in the same year, although it would not be until the 1380s that the "ribaudekin" was mounted on wheels. The use of firearms at this battle is only mentioned in one contemporary account of the battle, that of Villani (d. 1348). Villani did travel abroad during much of the early 14th century, yet he had returned to his home in Florence at the time of the Battle of Crecy, so his information was likely second hand if not third or fourth hand. His account also conflicts with almost all of the other contemporary chronicles of this time on the events of the battle, specifically the use of firearms. In one of the later versions of his chronicle, Froissart does mention guns being used in the battle, but by that time firearms had become more common in warfare. His earlier versions fail to include any mention of firearms. So while firearms were perhaps employed, their possible effect on the battle should be viewed critically.

The political consequences of the battle were significant for Edward III especially, who had financed and supplied his expedition to Normandy with increasingly unpopular policies. The widespread use of purveyance and the arresting of ships to provide transport for his armies had left the King with potential sources of discontent in his kingdom. Likewise, the bold and unprecedented move to expand compulsory service, usually only required for defence of the coasts, to supply overseas service in France proved to be deeply unpopular with many of his subjects. However, the successes of the campaign did much to mute opposition when English Parliament was called at 11th – 20th September 1346.

Background

Following the outbreak of war in 1337, the Battle of Sluys was the first great battle of the Hundred Years' War, on 23 June, 1340. In the years following this battle, Edward attempted to invade France through Flanders, but failed due to financial difficulties and unstable alliances. Six years later, Edward planned a different route, and put into action a massive raid through the lands of Normandy, winning victories at Caen on 26 July and the Battle of Blanchetaque on 24 August. A French plan to trap the English force between the Seine and the Somme Rivers failed, and the English escape led to the Battle of Crécy, one of the greatest battles in the whole war.

English dispositions

As in previous battles against the Scots, Edward III disposed his forces in an area of flat agricultural land, choosing high ground surrounded by natural obstacles on the flanks. The king installed himself and his staff in a windmill on a small hill that protected the rear, where he could direct the course of the battle.

In a strong defensive position, Edward III ordered that everybody fight on foot and distributed the army in three divisions, one commanded by his sixteen-year-old son, Edward, the Black Prince. The longbowmen were deployed in a "V-formation" along the crest of the hill. In the period of waiting that followed, the English built a system of ditches, pits and caltrops to maim and bring down the enemy cavalry.

The battle

The French army, commanded by Philip VI, was much more disorganized, due to overconfidence on the part of his knights. The French tactical mindset was centred on the use of cavalry, and Philip was naturally confident that his cavalry could overwhelm Edward's much smaller cavalry contingent. Philip stationed his Genoese mercenary crossbowmen, under Ottone Doria, in the front line, with the cavalry in the back. The French even went as far as to leave the pavises, the only means of defence for the crossbowmen, behind, along with the infantries. Both decisions proved deadly mistakes. French chronicler Froissart gives an account of the action:

The English, who were drawn up in three divisions and seated on the ground, on seeing their enemies advance, arose boldly and fell into their ranks...You must know that these kings, earls, barons, and lords of France did not advance in any regular order...There were about fifteen thousand Genoese crossbowmen; but they were quite fatigued, having marched on foot that day six leagues, completely armed, and with their crossbows. They told the constable that they were not in a fit condition to do any great things that day in battle. The earl of Alençon, hearing this, said, "This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fail when there is any need for them."

The first attack was from the crossbowmen, who launched a series of volleys with the purpose of disorganizing and frightening the English infantry. This first move was accompanied by the sound of musical instruments, brought by Philip VI to scare the enemy. But the crossbowmen would prove completely useless. With a firing rate of around 1-2 shots every minute, they were no match for the longbowmen, who could fire one shot every 5 seconds. Furthermore, their weapons were damaged by the brief thunderstorm that had preceded the battle, while the longbowmen were able to simply unstring their bows until the weather improved. The crossbowmen did not have their pavises, which were needed to cover their bows during the long reloading procedure and had remained in the baggage train. Under the hail of English arrows, the Genoese crossbowmen suffered heavy losses and were unable to approach the English lines to the point where their crossbows would have been effective. Frustrated and confused, they retreated, as any trained professional soldier would have done. The knights, however, hurled insults at the crossbowmen. Calling these crossbowmen cowards, the knights and kings hacked down their own men. The fault was not the crossbowmen's, for the decision of leaving the pavises was made by the king. By the time this contretemps ended, several waves of longbow fire had already fallen among the French. At this the French knights decided it was time to charge, and they ran right over the retreating Genoese in an unorganized way. The English longbowmen continued firing as the infantry advanced, and many French knights fell along the way.

Froissart writes that English cannon had made "two or three discharges on the Genoese", which is taken to mean individual shots by two or three guns because of the time necessary to reload such primitive artillery. These were believed to shoot large arrows and simplistic grapeshot. The Florentine Giovanni Villani agreed that they were destructive on the field, though he also indicated that the guns continued to fire upon French cavalry later in the battle:

With the crossbowmen invalid, the French cavalry charged again in organized rows. However, the slope and man-made obstacles disrupted the charge. At the same time, the longbowmen continued firing volleys of arrows upon the knights. Each time, more corpses fell, blocking successive waves of advance. The French attack could not break the English formation, even after 16 attempts, and they suffered frightful casualties. Edward III's son, The Black Prince, came under attack, but his father refused to send help, saying that he wanted him to "win his spurs". The prince subsequently proved himself to be an outstanding soldier.

At nightfall, Philip VI, himself wounded, ordered the retreat. It was a disastrous and humiliating defeat for France and a majestic win for England.

Aftermath

After the French left the field, the English looked through the wounded French to see who was worth taking prisoner for ransom. Those knights who were too severely wounded to be easily carried off the field were dispatched with misericordias (mercy-givers). These were long daggers which were inserted through the unprotected underarms and into the heart, or through visor slits and into the brain. This was against the chivalric codes of warfare, since peasants were killing knights; knights were also dying from anonymous arrow shots rather than face to face in combat with peers.

This battle established the military supremacy of the English / Welsh longbow over the French combination of crossbow and armoured knights (due to the yeoman archer's significantly greater rates of fire and range longer than that of the contemporary crossbow), and was to alter significantly the way in which war was conducted for a considerable period of time thereafter. After the Battle of Crécy, Edward III went on to besiege the city of Calais, which surrendered to him after eleven months, giving the English a base in northern France. The next major battle in the Hundred Years War, the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, would see another defeat for the French, under very similar conditions.

At this stage in history the longbow was capable of penetrating armour (particularly the parts not yet covered by plates), but not all the arrows shot by the longbowmen would have found a target or penetrated the armour of the advancing French knights if they did, partly due to angles at which they happened to strike. However, victims would have their horses shot out from under them, and it is worth remembering that even a non-piercing impact would still be substantial enough to bruise, wind and knock down knights on foot as they attempted to advance. Froissart claimed the barrages of arrows were so heavy and frequent that they blotted out the sun, and even allowing for some poetic licence, not every arrow would have needed to find a target. If survivors of the volleys reached the English formation, they were cut down with relative ease by the defensive line of dismounted English men-at-arms. The overall effect was devastating.

After the battle, the Black Prince, having won respect and honour, was triumphant. Yet he did not go straight to his father Edward III, but stayed on the battle field to pay his tribute to a stranger - King John of Bohemia. John was a middle-aged man who was almost blind, and yet he fought very bravely during the battle and killed many of the few English casualties. Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, was deeply impressed and mourned the loss of a hero. As a last gesture of admiration and respect, he took the old king's shield and made it his own (Prince of Wales's feathers). It is now a famous symbol throughout England and Wales, being the crest of the Surrey Cricket Club and of course the Welsh Rugby Union.

When the battle was over and the Welsh longbowmen had returned to their home in Llantrisant, South Wales, they were given an acre of land for their bravery. They were also awarded "Freemen" status and were exempted from paying tax for grazing rights for their cattle.

Fictional accounts

A fictional portrayal of the Battle of Crécy is included in the Ken Follett novel World Without End. The novel describes the battle from an English knight's perspective and from that of a neutral observer.

Another can be found in Warren Ellis' graphic novel Crécy or in Bernard Cornwell's fictional account of an archer in the Hundred Years War, An Archer's Tale (US title) or Harlequin (UK title).

Footnotes

References

  • Andrew Ayton, Philip Preston, et al., The Battle of Crecy, 1346 (Boydell Press, 2005).
  • Amt, Emilie, Ed., Medieval England 1000–1500: A Reader (Broadview Press: Peterborough, Ontario, 2001). ISBN 1-55111-244-2
  • Cornwell, Bernard, Harlequin (Harper Collins, 2000). ISBN 0-00-651384-D
  • Nicolle, David, Crécy 1346: Triumph of the longbow (Osprey Publishing, 2000). ISBN-13: 9781855329669

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