Monday, August 26, 2013

The Battle Of Crécy, 1346 - The Age Of Knighthood Ends

File:Battle of crecy froissart.jpg

The Battle of Crécy, fought this day 667 years ago in Normandy was one of the most decisive battles in history. It marked the beginning of the end of knighthood as a military force, the beginning of the age of infantry and the start of England's rise as a world power.

The series of off again, on again conflicts known as the Hundred Year's War began in 1337, 9 years before Crécy over a dispute between Edward III, King of England and Phillip VI of France over the French throne. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy and a French noble was the last man in history to successfully invade the Island of Britain in 1066. He also retained lands in France as a vassal of France's king. Over the next two and a half centuries or so, Williams' descendents retained their official status as French vassals and paid tribute to France, but the two kingdoms had become different peoples.

When Edward III stopped paying tribute to Phillip VI of France, Phillip confiscated Edward's land in Aquitaine, in Western France. Edward, in turn claimed that Phillip was not the rightful King of France anyway, because Edward's uncle, Charles IV of France, died without a direct male heir. Phillip VI was the dead king's cousin.

That was politics in the 14th century, and the war was on.

The first few years were mainly occupied with political maneuvers, as each side sought allies to counterbalance the other. In those days, warfare was largely a matter of corralling support from vassals rather than raising large national armies, something the Hundred Year's War was to change. Both kings also allied with kingdoms on each others' borders. The French allied with Scotland, while England allied with Flanders, a key partner in the wool trade.

In 1340 Edward III sailed across the Channel to the Zwyn Estuary, where a French/Scottish fleet had assembled outside the port of Sluys.The French originally thought they had frightened the English fleet into withdrawing, but when the wind changed in the late afternoon, the English attacked with the wind and sun behind them and decimated the French fleet in what became known as the Battle of Sluys. French losses were so heavy that chroniclers of the time said the Channel ran red with blood and that the fishes had learned to speak French. More importantly, French naval power was effectively ended for the duration of the war, so the Channel route was free and clear.

Edward lacked the funds and the men to follow up at that time, and the next few years were taken up by proxy wars in the French provinces of Brittany and Gascony.

But in 1346, Edward III assembled an invasion force and landed in France at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue on July 12, 1346. Resistance was light because crucial elements of the French forces were not French, but mercenaries and they hadn't been paid on time. One of them was a contingent of 500 Genoese crossbowmen, who figured prominently in the battle to come.

The English army continued to advance along the Cherbourg Peninsula, pillaging as they went - another feature of war at that time. Finding out that he had been separated from his Flemish allies because the French had destroyed key bridges along the Seine River, Edward, who had intelligence of a huge French Army King Phillip had gathered to attack the invaders had his troops retreat until his forces could be consolidated, taking a defensive position on a small hill in the forest of Crécy, just outside Calais,where he dug in and rested his forces.


The French, seeing an opportunity to destroy Edwards forces pursued him without resting their troops. Edward's army was outnumbered with nowhere to go except the English Channel.

Before the battle, King Edward addressed his troops,reminding them of the victories they had won together and urging them to follow the orders of their commanders, to stand together and not falter. He then divided his troops into three divisions, one commanded by his 16-year-old son Edward, the Prince of Wales, known better to history as the Black Prince because of the armor he wore, a central force under the King's command but led by Sir John Chandos, and a third reserve group under the Earl of Northampton.

What was most interesting was the differing make up of the armies. The English had five early cannons, around 8,000 archers, most of them sporting the English longbows 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, and around 4000-5000 Welsh and English spearmen, billmen and other troops. Per Edward's orders the English knights and men at arms fought dismounted in the battle, as heavy infantry.

The French forces consisted of between 8000-10,000 mounted knights and men at arms, a force of 4,000 Genoese crossbowmen and an unknown amount of light infantry. They were commanded by King Phillip, his ally the blind King John of Bohemia (who went into battle with his horse tied to two of his knights so he could be led into battle) Philip's brother, Charles II of Alencon and King Louis of Nevers.

The English used tactics they had learned to their cost fighting the Scots at battles like Bannockburn. They positioned themselves on high ground with natural barriers on both flanks and had the time to build a system of ditches and pits and obstacles to slow up and impede the enemy cavalry. The archers were put in prominent positions to rain arrows on the enemy forces, while the heavy infantry of the dismounted knights and men-at-arms was positioned in the center.King Edward, no fool, retired to a nearby windmill where he could observe the battle, give any orders he needed to and escape if necessary.

The French opened the assault at around 4 PM with the Genoese crossbowmen, mercenaries commanded by Antonio Doria and Carlo Grimaldi.The normal way these troops were used was a throwback to the old Roman legions. They would come in range, protected by large shields known as pavises, launch their missiles and then reload or operate as light infantry while the mounted knights charged in as heavy cavalry to break the battle line.

Unfortunately for the French, a sudden rain squall hit the two armies. The English were able to remove their bowstrings from the longbows and keep them dry, but the Genoese had no way of protecting their crossbows...especially since, in order to mount a quick attack, they had been ordered to leave their pavises behind.

As the rain stopped, the Genoese came within range and released their bolts, with reduced effectiveness because the crossbows were still damp.

The crossbowmen's attack proved almost useless. The best they could manage was a shooting rate of around 1–2 shots per minute. The highly trained longbowmen could shoot five or six arrows in the same amount of time, and also had superior range and power due to their bows, their dry bowstrings and the elevation.

According to Froisart, a contemporary chronicler, the English did not respond to the Genoese attack until after the crossbowmen had fired their first round of bolts.Then they responded with mass arrows "with a sound like snow".

The Genoese had no protection without their shields and were slaughtered. Both their commanders, Doria and Grimaldo were killed trying to rally their men. As the surviving Genoese retreated towards the French lines, most of them they were cut down by the French knights and men at arms for their 'cowardice'. French chronicler Jean de Venette wrote that this was done on the direct orders of King Phillip VI. The cynic in me thinks this just might have been King Phillip's method of solving a budget problem to avoid paying the mercenaries. Small wonder the survivors cut the strings of their crossbows and refused to fight any further.

In true chivalric form, the French launched their heavy cavalry at the English lines, figuring that they could simply smash through the battle line. That turned out to be a simply horrible idea.

The English and Welsh longbow was a weapon designed for exactly this kind of situation. Roughly the height of a man and without much in the way of re-curvature, it allowed an extremely long draw and thus a very powerful thrust and penetration. With the bodkin and broadhead arrowheads, they could easily penetrate most of the armor of the time, and the highly trained and disciplined archers were deadly accurate and could keep up a steady rain of fire.

The French charge was broken up not just by the carnage the longbows inflicted but by the ditches and pits the English had dug for exactly that purpose..and by the corpses of the French knights and horses littering the battle field. The few that managed to reach the battle line were dealt with by the heavy infantry and the yeoman billmen, who wielded a billhook, a particularly deadly early form of halberd, essentially a razor sharp scythe on a pole designed for military use. A trained billman was fully capable of pulling a knight from his horse and killing him before the heavily armored knight was able to rise to fight back.

At one point, King Edward watching the battle from the windmill received a messenger telling him that his son, the Black Prince’s division might need reinforcements. King Edward saw that the French were making little headway up the hill in spite of their outnumbering the English, and asked the messenger if his son was dead or wounded. When he heard that his son was alive and whole, the King responded, “I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help.” Turning to one of his courtiers the King said, “Let the boy win his spurs."

We still use that expression today, over six centuries later.

And the teenaged Black Price did indeed win his spurs that day, going on to become a murderously effective general and to kill many a Frenchman.

Finally, at around midnight, King Philip, himself wounded abandoned the carnage, riding away from the battlefield to the castle of La Boyes as the rest of the French forces fled in a disorganized retreat back towards Paris. Challenged as to his identity by the sentry on the wall above the closed gate the King called, bitterly, “Voici la fortune de la France” and was admitted.

Crécy was a slaughter, the triumph of infantry and ranged weapons, of foot soldiers and yeoman infantry over mounted knights and chivalry. Reliable estimates of English casualties rang from a high of 300 to a low of around 100. The French losses are estimated at between a high of 4,000 and a low of 1,500, and were probably much higher because only knights and men at arms were counted, not the unfortunate Genoese crossbowmen or common soldiers. Any of the French who fell wounded on the field and were judged not able to come up with a ransom were killed forthwith, a common practice in the days before refinements like Club Gitmo and POW status.

Among the fallen were the King John of Bohemia (who was found surrounded by his knights, who died trying to protect him) King Louis of Nevers, Philip's brother, Charles II of Alencon, the Duke of Lorraine, the Count of Flanders, the Count of Blois, eight other counts and three archbishops.

Interestingly enough, after the battle, the Black Prince adopted the emblem of the King of Bohemia, the three white feathers, and his motto “Ich Dien” (I serve); it is still the emblem of the Prince of Wales.

Edward the Black Prince's Badge

After the debacle of Crécy, the French lost huge swaths of territory to England that took years to recover under the leadership of Joan of Arc.

The French made the classic mistakes of underestimating their enemy and using yesterday's tactics to fight today's war, mistakes that have continued to be repeated in our own times.

Crécy changed the entire way battles and war were fought, and signaled the change from feudal kingdoms to nations, from wars being fought by the king's vassals and men at arms levied from feudal dukedoms to national armies of yeoman soldiers.

It was a battle that changed the history of Europe.


Syd said...

I love your history posts. I wish you would do more of them.

Old School said...

"..underestimating their enemy and using yesterday's tactics to fight today's war, mistakes that have continued to be repeated in our own times."


Well done, Rob!

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.