Battle of Crécy
|Battle of Crécy|
|Part of the Hundred Years' War|
Image from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles
| Kingdom of England
Holy Roman Empire
| Kingdom of France
Kingdom of Navarre
Kingdom of Bohemia
Kingdom of Majorca
|Commanders and leaders|
| Edward III of England
Edward, the Black Prince
| Philip VI of France (WIA)
John of Bohemia †
|Casualties and losses|
|100–300 at most||c. 2,000 men-at-arms
unknown number of common soldiers
The Battle of Crécy (occasionally written in English as "Battle of Cressy") took place on 26 August 1346 near Crécy in northern France. It was one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years' War because of the combination of new weapons and tactics used.
The English knights knew the importance of being willing to fight dismounted elbow to elbow with the pikeman and archers, a tactic which was learned from the earlier Saxons and also by their battles with the Scots from whom they learned tactical flexibility and the adaptation to difficult terrain.
All of these factors made Edward III's army powerful, even when outnumbered by the French forces.
The Battle of Sluys on 24 June 1340 was the first great battle of the Hundred Years' War. It was fought by infantry aboard the ships moored side by side. The French, accompanied by Genoese troops, lost the battle giving the English the freedom over the seas.
In the years following Sluys, 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 major battles of the war.
The English army landed at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue on 12 July 1346. The resistance to the landing was light, in part because a contingent of five hundred Genoese crossbowmen had withdrawn from the French forces only a few days previously due to lack of pay. After approximately six days the English army began their march through the Cherbourg peninsula with considerable pillaging as they advanced. On 26 July the English took the town of Caen and Count d'Eu and other French nobles were captured. Then Edward took Lisieux. When they neared Rouen they found the French had destroyed the bridges. Edward proceeded along the Seine. At Poissy the English repaired the bridge and crossed the river.
Edward III's army left Poissy and marched north, estimates were that they covered several miles per day and met slight resistance by French allies of King John's army. Edward was separated from the Flemish allies, once again, by the destroyed bridges. Edward received word of a tidal crossing across a shallow part of the Somme. The Meauz chronicle states the entire army crossed in one hour. The French tried but could not follow as the tide began to rise and were forced to retreat to Abbeville on or about 25 August.
The English army finally reached the forest of Crécy which was 4 or 5 miles (6.4 or 8.0 km) deep and 8 miles (13 km) long. The English took to a small hill north of Crécy-en-Ponthieu. Just a short distance away was Wadicourt which provided protection for the left flank. The right flank was close to an area beyond which was the Maye. The location of the wagons and baggage carts is conjecture. The formation was described as three-dimensional. Estimates are that the English had, by this time, traveled approximately 300 miles (480 km) and rested the day before the battle. The French army did not rest, putting them at a disadvantage.
The English army was divided into three divisions. The vanguard were led by Edward, the Prince of Wales, the central division by the King of England, Edward III, and the rearguard by the Earl of Northampton.
Size of forces
The size of the forces are not known exactly, though modern historians[which?] have agreed on estimates of around 10,000–15,000 on the English side and 20,000–25,000 on the French side. The size and composition of the English army is considered to be more exact since there are administrative and financial documents that recorded the organization and transportation of the army that crossed the English Channel. The much higher figures given by contemporary chroniclers such as Froissart (100,000) and Richard Wynkeley (80,000) have been described by historians as quite exaggerated and "unacceptable" going by the extant war treasury records for 1340.
The English force consisted of around 2,700–2,800 men-at-arms, heavily armed and armored men that included the English King and various nobles with their retinues as well as lower-ranking knights and other contingents. Accompanying them were around 11,000–12,000 other troops. The estimated composition of these varies somewhat; according to Rogers there were 2,300 Welsh spearmen, 7,000 Welsh and English foot archers and 3,250 mounted archers and hobelars (light cavalry); Ayton puts his estimate at around 3,000 mounted archers and hobelars, 5,000 foot archers and additional 3,500 other troops. Sumption believes the force was somewhat smaller based on calculations of the carrying capacity of the transport fleet that was assembled to ferry the army to the continent. Based on this he has put his estimate at around 7,000–10,000.
French financial records from the Crécy campaign are lost, and the estimates are less certain, though there is consensus that it was considerably larger than the English. There were around 12,000 mounted men-at-arms, several thousand Genoese crossbowmen and "large, though indeterminate number of common infantry". Several historians have accepted the figure of 6,000 Genoese mercenary crossbowmen. The figure has been questioned by Schnerb as unlikely based on estimates on the number of available crossbowmen in all of France (2,000) in 1340, only a few years previously. That the city-states of northern Italy, or Genoa on its own, could have put several thousand mercenary crossbowmen at the disposal of the French king is described by Schnerb as "doubtful". The contingent of common infantry soldiers are not known with any certainty except that it was considerable and in the thousands.
Nobles and men at arms at the battle
The young Prince of Wales had with him the Earl of Warwick, and Earl of Oxford, Sir Godfrey de Harcourt, the Lord Raynold Cobham, Lord Thomas Holland, Lord Stafford, Lord Mauley, the Lord De La Warr, Sir John Chandos, Lord Bartholomew Burgherst, Lord Robert Neville, Lord Thomas Clifford, the Lord Bourchier, the Lord Latimer. In this first division, about eight hundred men at arms, two thousand archers, and a thousand Welshmen. They advanced in regular order to their ground, each lord under his banner and pennon, and in the centre of his men. In the second division were the Earl of Arundel, the Lords Roos, Willoughby, Basset, St Albans, Sir Lewis Tufton, Lord Multon, the Lord Lascels. Sir Thomas Felton, a member of the Order of the Garter, fought at the battles of Crécy and Poitiers. Others included Sir Richard Fitz-Simon, Sir Miles Stapleton, the Earl of Northampton, Sir John Sully and Sir Richard Pembrugge (Pembroke).
In front of the French army were the Moisne of Basle, the Monk of Bazeilles, the lords of Beaujen and Noyles and Louis of Spain. The French army was led by Phillip VI, and surrounding him were the Counts of Alençon, Flanders and Blois, the Duke of Lorraine, Jean de Hainaut and de Montmorency, and a gathering of the lords Moisne of Blasle related the location and formation of the English forces.
The King of England decided they would go no farther and wait for the enemy. He sent his best men to choose the exact site of the battle. It is also said that he chose this time to knight his son, Edward.
They had carried with them much food and wine from their prior victories and were allowed to prepare their weaponry and to rest before the battle. The French had no time to rest, a disadvantage in that the men were tired and the crossbowmen's equipment was still wet.
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, the English King ordered that everybody fight on foot and distributed the army in three divisions, one commanded by his sixteen-year-old son, Edward, the Prince of Wales and known as 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. Forcing the knights to fight on foot had several advantages: it prevented them from starting a premature charge, ensured protection for the archers should the French manage to close the distance, and ensured that the archers and supporting infantry stayed on the battlefield rather than running at the first opportunity (a common occurrence in medieval warfare).
The French army commanded by Philip VI was unrested and commenced fighting immediately after their arrival, rather than gathering their strength for a battle the next day. Philip stationed his crossbowmen, under Ottone Doria, in the front line, with the cavalry in the back. The French even left behind the pavises, the big wooden shields that were the only means of defence for the crossbowmen, in the wooden carts in the rear along with the other infantry. 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 wet crossbows. They told the constable that they were not in a fit condition to do any great things that day in battle. The Count of Alençon, hearing this, was reported to say, "This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fail when there is any need for them."— Chateaubriand, after Froissart's middle French, gives: "On se doit bien charger de telle ribaudaille qui faille au besoin"
The first attack was from the French crossbowmen, who launched a series of volleys with the purpose of disorganizing and frightening the English infantry. This was accompanied by the sound of musical instruments, brought by Philip VI for scare tactics. The crossbowmen proved completely useless; with a shooting rate of around 1–2 shots per minute, they were no match for the longbowmen, who could shoot five or six arrows in the same amount of time, and also had superior range due to their bows and elevation. Furthermore, their weapons were damaged by the brief thunderstorm that had preceded the battle, while the longbowmen had unstrung their bows until the rain stopped – Froissart relates that they did not withdraw their bows from their covers or sheaths till the first volley from the Genoese failed: "Les archers anglois découvrent leurs arcs, qu'ils avoient tenus dans leur étui pendant la pluie". The crossbowmen also did not have their pavises, which would have provided cover for the men during the long reloading procedure but which remained in the baggage train. Under the hail of English arrows, the crossbowmen suffered heavy losses and were unable to approach the English lines to where their crossbows would have been effective. Their commanders, including Doria, died trying to rally their men. Frustrated and confused, the crossbowmen retreated. The knights and nobles, upon seeing the mercenaries routed, hacked them down as they came back to their lines.
French chronicler Jean de Venette's account differs slightly. De Venette places the time and day of the battle on "Saint Louis's Day, 1346, at the end of the ninth hour". He mentions the failure of the Genoese crossbows to function; he states they were useless because they were wet and not given time to dry out. He states that the French King ordered the massacre of the crossbowmen because of what he conceived as cowardice. He blames this and the further disorder and confusion of the French on the "undue haste" of the French King. He describes the English longbowmen's arrows as "rain coming from heaven and the skyies which were formerly bright, suddenly darkened".
By the time this contretemps ended, several volleys of longbow arrows had already fallen among the French. At this the French knights decided it was time to charge, and they ran over the retreating mercenaries in an unorganized way. At this point that the mercenaries cut the strings of their crossbows, presumably to indicate surrender. The English and Welsh longbowmen continued shooting as the knights and men-at-arms advanced, and the French fell along the way. The English cavalrymen were just behind the footsoldiers, another important difference from the French. The French cavalry was composed only of nobles.
Ribaldis, a type of cannon, were first mentioned during preparations for the battle between 1345 and 1346. Similar cannon appeared at the Siege of Calais in the same year, although it was not 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 Crécy, 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.
Froissart writes that English cannon 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 early artillery. These were believed to shoot large arrows and primitive 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:
The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire...They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses...The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners...[by the end of the battle] the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls.
With the crossbowmen neutralized, the French cavalry charged again in organized rows. The slight slope and man-made obstacles disrupted the charge. At the same time, the longbowmen continued shooting volleys of arrows upon the knights. Each time, more men fell, blocking successive waves of advance. The French attack fought bravely but could not break the English formation, even after several attempts, and they suffered many 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. Philip himself was wounded, and, at nightfall, ordered the French to retreat.
The losses in the battle were highly asymmetrical. Contemporary sources provide total figures of losses for the French that are generally considered as exaggerated as those of the total size of the army, but convey the sense that casualties were immense. Although estimates vary, the English casualties in the battle were very light and perhaps only a tenth of those of the French army. An estimate by Geoffrey le Baker deemed credible by Prestwich states that 4,000 French knights were killed. According to a count after the battle, the bodies of 1,542 French knights and squires were found in front of where the lines commanded by Prince of Wales, and Sumption assumes another "few hundred" men-at-arms that were cut down in pursuit. Ayton estimates that at least 2,000 French men-at-arms were killed, and notes that over 2,200 heraldic coats were taken from the field of battles as war booty by the English. Besides the superior defensive tactics of the English army, the heavy losses on the French side are explained by the high chivalric ideals held by knights at the time. Nobles would have "preferred the likelihood of death or capture to a dishonourable flight" according to Ayton. The losses among the common soldiers are nowhere mentioned in any exact figures, but are considered to have been heavy as well.
All contemporary sources give very low casualty figures for the English. Geoffrey le Baker gives among the highest estimates of around 300 English knights killed; overall, the casualties were counted in tens rather than hundreds. While most historians consider the low English casualty figures to be improbably low, Rogers has argued that they are consistent with reports of casualties on the winning side in other medieval battles. The fighting style of the tight formations of foot soldiers, especially if they were heavily armored, generally meant very low casualties as long as they remained disciplined and kept in formation; it was when armies broke and fled the field that serious casualties were inflicted, and would often result in markedly lopsided victories. The death of knights and other nobility in battle generally also left traces in records, but only two English killed have been identified: the squire Robert Brente and the newly created knight Aymer Rokesley. Two English knights were actually taken prisoner, though it is unclear at what stage in the battle.
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, that of an archer, and from that of a neutral observer. This novel was made into a telefilm in 2012 and the Battle of Crécy is included, but in a very summary form.
It also appears in "The campaign of 1346, an historical drama" by Christopher Godmond.
The protagonist, Edmund Beche, in P.C. Doherty's The Death of a King (1985) is present at the battle and describes it from the perspective of a bowman on the right flank near the village of Crécy.
In G. A. Henty's historical fiction book, St. George for England the protagonist is present at the battles of Cressy and Poitiers.
The battle is a crucial episode in the life of hero Hugh de Cressi (his name apparently a coincidence) of the H. Rider Haggard novel "Red Eve". The battle is described in some detail, including, for example the failure of the Genoese bowmen, attributed in the book, as above, to wet strings; and also the merciless treatment of the French wounded.
- Medieval warfare
- Battle of Agincourt in 1415 for a similar battle won by English/Welsh longbowmen
- Battle of Poitiers (1356)
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