The Battle of Crécy
An article by Jonathan Blair
Saturday, August 26, 1346: after a long march from Cherbourg to the town of Crécy, the invading English forces faced off against an overwhelmingly larger French and Genoese army. It was a battle royale that shook France to the core and established an English presence in France that was to last for over one hundred years.
Phillip IV of France, called le Bel or "the Fair" (born 1268), had died during a hunt on November 29, 1314, supposedly due to a legendary curse laid upon him by Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, as he was burned at the stake by order of Phillip earlier that year. He was succeeded in rapid succession by his sons Louis X (1289-1316), Phillip V (1293-1322), and Charles IV (1294-1328). When Charles died without a son, thus ending the 300-year old Capetian dynasty, Phillip de Valois (1293-1350) claimed the throne as Phillip VI (his father Charles of Valois was a younger son of Phillip III of France).
However, Phillip IV had another child, Isabelle (circa 1295-1358). She had married Edward II of England (1284-1327) and her son, Edward III (1312-1377), claimed the throne of France for himself as Charles IV's closest male heir (nephew). Aghast at the prospect of an English king on the French throne, Phillip VI and other French nobles protested Edward III's claim by reinterpreting Salic law, which had previously only denied inheritance of the French throne by a woman. The new interpretation made inheritance through a woman illegal as well. Edward already controlled the fief of Gascony, which was the last remnant of the French holdings inherited from Edward's forebears. Although a compromise in 1329 between Phillip and Edward left England in control of Gascony as a French vassal and Phillip without an English rival to the throne, Phillip could not withstand the temptation of the rich province. While Edward fought the Scots under David II in 1333, Phillip made his move, declaring Edward in violation of his feudal oath to his lord (Phillip). Edward countered by declaring war on France in July 1337, while securing an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, the Low Countries, and the burgher of Flanders.
Early on, the English were having difficulty with the failing alliance with Flanders, bankruptcy due to the cost of subsidies to the German princes and maintenance of an army in France, and the French fleet raiding settlements along the northern shore of the English Channel. A stunning victory at Sluys (June 24, 1340) changed that as the French fleet was nearly destroyed, securing both sides of the Channel for the English. On July 12, 1346, Edward began his invasion of France, landing near Cherbourg in Normandy and dividing his army into three regiments. The first was under the command of Edward's son, 16-year old Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (1330-1376), the second under William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton (circa 1310-1360), and the third under the king himself as a reserve force. Two weeks later, The English had sacked the town of Caen and held the mayor hostage. After marching three hundred miles and skirmishing along the way with the local levies of peasant troops, Edward's weary army arrived near Crécy on August 25, 1346, poised to make a stand near the forest located there.
After a night's rest, the English army took the high ground between the towns of Crécy and Wadicourt. Incorporating strategies learned by fighting the Scots, Edward ordered his army to fight on foot. It is unknown exactly how large Edward's total forces were; however, it is estimated between 9,000 and 12,000 with approximately 7,000 of them a mix of English and Welsh archers. Edward spent part of the morning and early afternoon exhorting his troops with personal visits, which lifted the spirits of the flagging army.
The French army came upon them later in that day, having followed from the crossing of the river Somme at Abbeville. As in the case of the numbers attributed to the English army, the strength of the French forces can only be estimated as between 30,000 and 72,000 strong with perhaps as many as 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen. The French army outnumbered the English anywhere from three-to-one to six-to-one. After the delay in crossing due to the tides (the bridges across the Somme had been burned at Phillip's command to resist Edward's advances), the French were eager for battle and the glory of the victory. Even though Phillip had been advised to wait until the following day, the impatient French nobles ordered the advance of the Genoese mercenaries, which were still in preparations after the long march. The first attack occurred around 4:00 pm and approached from the southeast. Their pavises still stored on wagons, the unprepared and footsore Genoese charged uphill to the English positions.
Several things happened which helped to break that first charge. The rain which had been falling all day stopped, leaving the field a muddy mess, and the westerly sun broke from the clouds, dazzling the charging Genoese. About 150 yards out, the English archers began raining arrows on the Genoese, who suffered heavy casualties. Furthermore, some scholars contend that the brief shower had damaged the strings of the Genoese crossbows, inhibiting their ability to counterattack, whereas the English archers had kept their bowstrings protected by simply unstringing their bows. Finally, Edward had with him several cannons, whose noise only added to the confusion. Stunned by the treatment, the Genoese mercenaries sounded a retreat, only to be run down by the forces of the infuriated Charles de Alençon (born 1297), Phillip's brother. Again the longbows sang, the bodkin-tipped arrows piercing the armour of the French gendarmes, causing devastating losses and claiming the life of de Alençon.
The French charged the English position fifteen times (some accounts say sixteen) and each time was turned away. Jean Froissart (circa 1337-1405) in his Chronicles wrote, "The lords and knights of France came not to the assembly together in good order, for some came before and some came after in such haste and evil order, that one of them did trouble another." One such attack was lead by the blind John I, King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg (born 1296), who, in searching for his son, Charles, charged into the thick of the fighting tied to his escort of two knights. Valiant at it may have been, the action cost him his life. The next day, Prince Edward would honor the fallen John by adopting part of John's coat of arms, three white plumes, and John's motto, Ich dien ("I serve").
During the course of the fighting, Prince Edward was at one point hard-pressed, and several of King Edward's nobles asked to ride to the heir's aid. Upon determining that the prince was not in immediate danger of death, the king's response was, "Return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth, as long as my son is alive: and also say to them that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for if God be pleased, I will this journey be his and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him." This statement of faith by the king in the abilities of the prince, the stance that the heir was not to be pampered, and the earlier interaction with the mostly peasant forces contributed to the high morale of the exhausted English army late in the day.
Finally, wounded and exhausted, Phillip VI retreated under the cover of darkness to the castle at Broye, where after a short refreshment, he continued at midnight onwards to Amiens. Only sixty men accompanied Phillip to Amiens, the rest of his forces lay dead or dying or else scattered to the four winds. The next morning would reveal that an estimated 12,000 French lay dead or dying on the battlefield (although some claim as many as 30,000 were killed). The yeomen archers went amongst the dying and dispatched them with daggers to the armpit, thus violating the codes of chivalry, since knights were to be ransomed rather than killed by peasants. This action greatly displeased Edward, as he hoped to ransom the captive and injured French nobles. Amongst the French dead were eleven princes, including the aforementioned Charles de Alençon and John of Bohemia, and twelve hundred knights, the cream of the French nobility. Although too tired to follow up and completely annihilate the French forces, Edward III soon pressed on to Calais and successfully besieged the city, which remained an English possession until January 7, 1558. Phillip was largely unable to mount any resistance to Edward and only the Black Death (1348) curtailed further English in-roads into French territory.
Crécy stands as a monument in military history. Continuing the trend begun at the battle of the Golden Spurs at Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314), and Mortgarten (1315), Crécy was a stunning blow to the pride of the upper class as once again a smaller force of well-trained peasant soldiers were able to decisively take the strategic advantage on the field of battle while facing a numerically superior mounted force. With the best of France's nobility dead, it was a hard lesson in patience and planning. Unfortunately for the French, the lesson was not learned and many of the mistakes were repeated at the battle of Poitiers.
About the Author
Jonathan Blair is a telecom detail engineer, i.e. a technical writer. He’s been interested in anything medieval since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. He lives in Hanover, PA, with his wife, Laura, and daughters, Meghan and Brianna. He dedicates this work to his Savior, Jesus Christ.
Armies of Crecy and Poitiers (Men-At-Arms Series, No 111), by Christopher Rothero
Chronicles, 1369, by Jean Froissart (Translated By Lord Berners, Edited By G. CIRCA Macaulay)
Chronicles (Classics S.), by Jean Froissart