Battle of Caen (1346)
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|Battle of Caen|
|Part of Crécy Campaign, Hundred Years' War|
|Kingdom of England||Kingdom of France|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Edward III of England||Raoul II of Brienne, Count of Eu|
|12,000 (not all engaged)||1,500 soldiers|
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown, light||~5,000 soldiers and civilians|
The Battle of Caen in 1346 was a running battle through the streets of the Norman city during the English invasion of Normandy under King Edward III in July of that year. It was the first significant action of the campaign which would ultimately lead to the crushing French defeat at the battle of Crécy and the subsequent siege of Calais, which had a significant effect on the remainder of the Hundred Years' War.
Landing in France
The campaign began on 11 July 1346 when Edward's fleet departed the south of England and landed the next day at St. Vaast la Hogue, 20 miles (32 km) from Cherbourg. The force was estimated to be between 12,000 and 15,000 strong and consisted of both English and Welsh soldiers combined with a number of German and Breton mercenaries and allies, including several local barons who were unhappy with the rule of King Philip VI of France. The English army marched southwards, Edward's aim being to conduct a chevauchée large scale raid across French territory to reduce his opponent's morale and wealth. His soldiers responded by burning towns in their path and looting whatever they wished from the populace. The towns of Carentan, Saint-Lô and Torteval were razed as the army passed, along with many others. Caen, the cultural, political, religious and financial centre of North-West Normandy was Edward's initial target; he hoped to recoup his expenditure on the expedition and terrorise the French government by taking this important position and destroying it.
Caen itself was an old city broken into two parts. It sat on the north bank of the River Orne and was further divided by a branch of the River Odon which split the town into old and new parts. The old part was a walled city with a very strong castle, but was vulnerable to an English attack at positions where the walls had crumbled. The new part of the city was a wealthy district of merchants and landowners who lived on the island formed between the Orne and its branch which divided the city. This district was more easily defended, as its perimeter was formed by the river and was connected by three fortified bridges to the neighbouring banks. It was possible, especially in summer, for a man to ford the branch of the river although such a crossing was inevitably risky. The town also possessed two large fortified abbeys, one on each side of the city, which could be used to form bastions against an attacking force.
The English army arrived outside the walls on 26 July 1346 and immediately seized the undefended abbeys, before forming up for a planned attack on the old town. Edward intended to waste no time on siege preparations as his army possessed no siege engines. The French defenders led by Raoul II of Brienne, Count of Eu, had originally planned to defend the old town and the castle, but pressure from wealthy citizens persuaded him to shift the defence to the island once the English had arrived. This hasty withdrawal proved disastrous as important precautions, vital for the city's defence, were overlooked in the hurried relocation.
With their initial plan now unnecessary, the English changed the axis of their advance and prepared to assault the defended bridges onto the northern bank, while a small force was dispatched to blockade the 300 soldiers remaining in the castle in the north of the town under the command of the Bishop of Bayeux. As Edward maneuvered his troops into position, the English archers and men-at-arms, eager for plunder, preempted his orders and rushed the bridges before the assault force was fully in place. The attack was nominally led by the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Northampton, and Richard Talbot, although these men had very little control over the troops supposedly under their command. When Edward saw the assault developing before he was ready, he ordered a retreat but was ignored by his men.
As hundreds of English soldiers flung themselves across the bridges and into a furious melee on the far side, which had drawn in the entire French garrison, teams of English longbowmen and Welsh lancers waded across the shrunken river while others found boats which had not been removed from the northern bank during the hasty relocation at the start of the action. The French force was stretched too thin in defending the whole river bank and broke at several points. This allowed the English to enter the city and attack the bridge defenders from the rear, prompting a collapse in the city's defence. The most senior French officers took to their horses and rode through the English to the castle's safety while a few others barricaded themselves in the tower overlooking the bridge. The rest of the French forces were cut down as they ran, only a handful of prisoners being taken.
The victorious English began a furious sack of the town, burning most of it to the ground, seizing hundreds of pounds worth of valuables and gold as well as killing approximately half the town's population, with the remainder fleeing into the countryside, pursued by cavalry. At least 2,500 French bodies were later buried in mass graves outside the town, and total fatalities are said to have topped 5,000. English casualties were not recorded except that one man-at-arms was killed, although losses amongst the enlisted archers and lancers must have been heavy. The sack of the city continued for five days, during which Edward attempted and failed to capture the castle, and paid homage over the grave of his ancestor William the Conqueror who was buried in the town.
Amongst the spoil from the city were several senior French noblemen who had not escaped and were later ransomed by their English captors including the Count of Eu who would remain a prisoner in England until 1350 when he returned voluntarily to France and was summarily executed by the king. Also discovered was a proclamation from the French king for Norman raiding parties to despoil the south coast of England, which was used by recruiting parties in England for some years to come to stir up anti-French feeling. The English army moved off on 1 August 1346, leaving behind the castle and devastated city and pushing southwards towards the River Seine and potentially Paris beyond. That goal would be denied to Edward, but in the subsequent victories at Blanchetaque, Crecy and Calais, he would establish an English presence in northern France for two hundred years to come.
In other media
- Bernard Cornwell's novel Harlequin (UK) (Published as The Archer's Tale in the US) provides a dramatised yet substantially accurate portrayal of this action.
- Ken Follett's novel World without end has a scene in Caen in the aftermath of the battle.
- Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief references year 1346, when this battle took place.
- Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War, Vol 1, Trial by Battle, 1990, ISBN 0-571-13895-0
- A.H. Burne, The Crecy War, 1955, ISBN 1-85367-081-2