The Battle of Poitiers
An article by Chad Arnow
On September 19, 1356, the English delivered the second of their three devastating Hundred Years War defeats of the French with a victory at Poitiers. What had begun decades earlier as a power struggle for control of ancestrally-held English fiefs in Normandy and Guyenne had evolved into a war over territory and the rule of France that was to last over a hundred years. The English had enjoyed success in land and sea battles and had dealt a crippling blow to the French at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. A peace treaty and the first major outbreak of the Black Death had slowed the war to a crawl in the years immediately following Crécy; the 1350s, though, saw a flurry of activity as campaigning resumed.
The chevauchée (literally, ride in French) was designed to have a variety of effects. Certainly, there were some military objectives in mind: some towns were taken or re-taken in the course of these campaigns. Judging by how eager the English were to pass by heavily fortified towns, though, military gains don't seem to have been the main focus of these rides. The main purpose seems to have been to wreak general havoc on the French populace, burning towns and crops and looting anything of value. This had two effects. Destroying crops and people's livelihoods inhibited King John II's ability to raise the levied taxes he needed to fund the war. Additionally, the French had not been prone to mount much opposition to this looting and pillaging, and the brazen rides of the English no doubt led the peasants to question the authority of their government and its ability to protect them.
The Prince's chevauchée of 1355 was wildly successful, though the other two armies fared less well. Edward III was forced to abandon his siege of Calais to deal with an uprising by the Scots in northern England. The Duke of Lancaster's expedition was to have met up with the King of Navarre and holder of Norman lands, Charles "The Bad," who had been quarreling with King John II of France. Charles made his peace with John, though, around the time Lancaster left for France. These last two expeditions ended with little success.
The English had again decided on a multi-pronged attack for the campaigning season in France during 1356. An army under the Duke of Lancaster was to help the rulers of Navarre, as Charles the Bad had fallen out of favor with the French yet again, having been arrested by King John. Lancaster's army landed at La Hogue and met up with Philip of Navarre for his own chevauchée. The Black Prince was to set out with his Anglo-Gascon army on another chevauchée.
Prince Edward and his army rode out of Bordeaux in July of 1356, their sights set on a repeat of the successful campaign of the previous year, when they did a great deal of damage and collected a great amount of booty while remaining largely unmolested by the French. They enjoyed a great deal of success that summer and their baggage train became increasingly laden with booty. As in the previous year, a French army was sent out to meet them. Unlike the previous year, though, the French put themselves in a position to give battle to the English.
Unable to meet up with the Duke of Lancaster's army as originally planned, the Prince aimed to return to Bordeaux. King John's army, though, was drawing closer. Finally the two armies neared each other enough that the vanguard (or perhaps scouts) of Edward's army actually ran into the stragglers from the rear of John's army, resulting in a skirmish between the forces. Captured prisoners told of the French army's position. Near Poitiers, the armies gathered to do battle.
Debate surrounds the events that immediately preceded the battle. Some insist the Black Prince had no wish to fight (and had offered generous terms of surrender) and was in the act of retreating when the French attacked. Others believe the English were doing no such thing and were drawn up, awaiting battle. Another version is that the Prince had sent his baggage train ahead, either to keep it out of French hands or to give the cumbersome, slow-moving wagons time to reach their next destination.
What is generally agreed is that there were three main English divisions, all dismounted. The forward two were commanded by the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick. The reserve division was under Edward's command; additionally, a small group of hand-picked cavalry was placed under the Gascon Captal de Buch, Jean de Grailly. The three divisions were deployed in what had become fairly typical formations for the English. The recent English successes in battle, of course, did not stem solely from dismounting their men-at-arms. In fact, dismounted soldiers had in years past been fodder for mounted armies. The difference now was that English combined disciplined infantry with effective archery, sound formations, and defensible positions. These elements are seen in the majority of English victories of the period.
The English drew up behind a great hedge, facing northwest. Two roads ran through the hedge, beyond which a vineyard lay that separated them from the French. To the left of the English lay a marshy area; to their right, a barricade made of their wagons. Their backs were protected by a wood. The two forward divisions of English formed into the Crécy formation: wide columns of foot soldiers flanked by forward-projecting triangles of archers. These clusters of archers could fire into the fronts and side of the enemy, funneling them toward the waiting men-at-arms. The English army is thought to have numbered about 6,000, though the chroniclers and historians vary widely in their estimates.
The French army is thought to have numbered 20,000 or more. The vanguard, or leading division, was under the command of the Marshals Audrehem and Clermont, and consisted of two small groups of mounted men-at-arms, with about 250 in each group. The rest of the divisions were dismounted, something the French had been trying since 1351 in response to English successes. The second, third, and fourth divisions were commanded by the Duke of Normandy, the Duke of Orléans, and King John respectively.
As in previous battles, the French chose to advance upon the English position. The mounted divisions wound through the vineyard, nearly single file, and were believed to have headed to the gaps in the hedge created by the roads. These initial attacks were not terribly successful, as the English had blockaded one of the gaps and defended the other well. The archers also earned their pay with devastating showers of arrows; the archers on the far left were able to fire from the relative safety of the marshy area (impassable by heavy horses) into the unprotected sides of the French and their horses.
Had the Duke of Orléans then led his division against the wearied and unsuspecting English, the Black Prince's Anglo-Gascon army might have been routed. Unfathomably, though, the Duke and his forces sounded retreat and headed for safety. Many attribute this withdrawal to the cowardice of the young man (no more than twenty years of age), and the sight of two divisions suffering defeat and capture at the hands of a disciplined, war-hardened force could not have brought much comfort to him.
King John II did what his brother had not: he led his column, larger than any of the previous divisions, towards the English. As they trudged across the field toward the English, the Black Prince made a bold and unexpected decision. He ordered his army out from behind the protective hedge, advancing them toward the oncoming French. According to Lt.-Col. Alfred H. Burne in his book The Crécy War, this was likely done for two reasons: 1) the position behind the hedge was better for opposing mounted troops than dismounted and 2) allowing his weary troops to sit and watch the enemy approach might have been disheartening; moving them forward might serve to galvanize the troops and keep morale from sagging. At the same time, he dispatched the Captal de Buch's cavalry to flank the enemy.
The two forces met with a thunderous roar of battle cries and the sound of weapons meeting shields and armour. The English men-at-arms pressed forward while the archers exhausted the rest of their arrows (most picked up weapons and joined the fray when they had run out of arrows). Though the French had picked up the English tactics of dismounted men-at-arms, they had not yet developed the resolve needed to hold their ground when faced with a charge of mounted warriors. The arrival of the Captal de Buch's small mounted force turned the tide, leading to another English victory.
As at Crécy, the French suffered tremendous losses. Two thousand knights were said to have been captured, including King John. A further two thousand lay dead in the field. The capture and ransom of the King would have enormous and political ramifications for the French. John II would die in England, unable to pay a ransom that was more than the yearly income of France (some say twice as much). His son, the young Dauphin, was unable to rule effectively, and conflict continued despite a treaty signed in 1357.
The ability to adapt can be a key to military success. The English had learned from their defeats at the hands of the dismounted Scots at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn as well as from reports of similar incidents elsewhere in Europe, and had been deploying their men-at-arms on foot to great effect since then. The French, using the centuries-old mounted tactics, had been soundly defeated by dismounted Flemings (at Courtrai in 1302) and by dismounted English forces at Morlaix, Crécy, and other smaller engagements. By the Battle of Saintes in 1351, however, the French began employing similar tactics, though with less success than the English aggressors.
Though the French had begun to adapt to tactics similar to those used by the English, the English continued to adapt as well, simply shifting tactics when they found a well-prepared enemy. It should be noted that this victory cannot be placed solely at the feet of some perceived English brilliance, despite what some have written. The combination of tactics, an experienced army, favorable lay of the land, lack of cohesion in the French leadership, the retreat of the Duke of Orléans' forces, and the effect of Jean de Grailly's small band of cavalry proved to be too much for the larger French army.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
Chronicles (Classics S.), by Jean Froissart
The Crecy War: A Military History of the Hundred Years War from 1337 to the Peace of Bretigny, 1360, by Alfred H. Burne
The Hundred Years War, by Robin Neillands
Hundred Years War : The English in France 1337-1453, The, by Desmond Seward