By 1356, the conflict that historians would later call ‘the Hundred Years War’ was already nearly two decades old. On the battlefield, thanks to superior tactics and their powerful new weapon, the longbow, England had dominated, winning battle after battle. But strategically, little had changed since the outbreak of war. France still seemed as powerful as ever, and England was no closer to victory.
The situation in Gascony, the English territory in south-western France that included the rich wine region around Bordeaux, was particularly dangerous. An energetic local French commander, the Count of Armagnac, had seized several towns and coerced local Gascon noblemen into abandoning their allegiance to England and joining France.
Realising the danger, in 1355 King Edward III of England ordered an army to be raised for service in Gascony. His eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, was appointed commander.
Twenty-five years old, the Prince had never held an independent military command. He had, though, seen plenty of active service. Aged sixteen, he had served with the vanguard division at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, where his father had inflicted a crushing defeat on a French royal army; he had been in the thick of the fighting there. He was also a veteran of the naval battle of Winchelsea in 1350.
But no one yet knew whether the young Prince had the makings of a military commander in his own right.
A leader of men?
Vain, a spendthrift who was never out of debt, a lover of bling who delighted in jewellery, fine clothes, and scarlet hats embroidered with silver roses, Edward of Woodstock nonetheless appeared to have some of the attributes of a military leader: he was energetic, and he knew how to pick good men.
By 1355, he had gathered around him a circle of talented captains. William Montecute, Earl of Salisbury, was a close friend; the Prince would later marry his ex-wife, Joan of Kent. Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley were two knights from comparatively humble backgrounds whom Edward had singled out and promoted.
Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, was one of the architects of victory at Crécy and probably the best tactician of his day. Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, formerly the Prince’s tutor, had also fought at Crécy.
Oldest of all was Sir John Sully of Iddesleigh in Devon, another veteran of Crécy, who had also fought at Bannockburn under the Prince’s grandfather. Now in his mid-seventies, Sully was still hale and hearty.
Like Nelson’s ‘band of brothers’, these were men the Prince relied on and trusted absolutely.
Arriving in Gascony in September 1355, Prince Edward summoned his local Gascon allies and launched a devastating raid into French territory, burning and plundering his way as far as Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast.
These raids, or chevauchées in the parlance of the time, were a form of economic warfare, intended to waste the enemy’s strength, weaken his ability to fight, and goad him into precipitate action.
In 1356, the Prince prepared to strike again. He knew that King Jean II of France was dealing with a revolt in Normandy, and saw a chance to do yet more damage while the enemy’s back was turned. His target this time was the rich cities and agricultural lands in the Loire valley.
In late July, the English army assembled at Bergerac on the Dordogne. The force was small, no more than 7,000 men: 3,000 men-at-arms, 3,000 archers, and 1,000 foot soldiers armed with spears or swords. Around half the men were English and Welsh. Many of the archers were recruited from the Prince’s own lands in north Wales and Cheshire. The rest were local Gascons.
On 4 August 1356, the army marched north. Towns and villages were pillaged and burned, and the line of march was marked by columns of smoke. A few isolated castles and towns resisted. Some of these were bypassed and left behind; others, like Issoudun and Romorantin, were stormed and destroyed.
In early September, the army reached the Loire, closing in on the city of Tours. Bartholomew Burghersh was sent forward to reconnoitre, while the rest of the army prepared for an assault.
The French response
Preoccupied with Normandy, King Jean did not at first react to the English provocation, but once alive to the danger, he moved rapidly.
Even as Burghersh rode forward through rain and thunder, probing the defences of Tours, the first of Jean’s troops were crossing the Loire further upstream at Blois and Amboise. The French army may have numbered as many as 30,000 men, including a powerful corps of around 10,000 men-at-arms.
Prince Edward’s position was now highly dangerous. If he remained at Tours, the French would trap him against the city and the river. On 11 September, therefore, the English withdrew to the south.
They were nearly too late. Moving more swiftly than anyone could have guessed, the French moved south to Loches, and then angled across the English line of march towards Poitiers, cutting off their retreat.
Another commander might have lost his nerve at this point, but Prince Edward remained calm. The army moved off the main roads and marched through a dense woodland, out of sight of French scouts. Emerging from the forest, the English surprised a French detachment east of Poitiers and destroyed it, inflicting several hundred casualties before continuing south. The line of retreat was clear once more.
But the situation remained perilous. The English were short of food. At least half their men were on foot, and the baggage wagons were heavily laden with plunder taken during the chevauchée. If they tried to march on, the mounted French men-at-arms would quickly overtake them and ride them down. The Prince and his captains realised there was no alternative but to stand and fight.
Deploying for battle
On 18 September, the English army halted near the abbey of Nouaillé, seven miles from Poitiers. The French followed, making camp not far away. It was a Sunday and, according to the medieval law known as ‘the Truce of God’, fighting was prohibited on that day.
Cardinal Talleyrand, the papal envoy charged with the thankless task of negotiating peace between England and France, brought the two sides together. A battle would result in needless bloodshed, the cardinal said. Was there any chance that the English and French could resolve their differences amicably?
There was not. Warwick, the chief English negotiator, was blunt. England was ready for battle: if the French wanted a fight, they should have one.
Near the end of the negotiations, a quarrel broke out between John Chandos and one of the French marshals, Jean de Clermont. Both had the same heraldic device on their shields, and Clermont challenged Chandos’s right to wear it. Chandos refused to back down. Tomorrow, on the battlefield, he said, they would see who was right.
At dawn on 19 September, the French broke camp and began to form up for battle. One chronicler who was present at the battle described the scene: ‘The banners and pennants were unfurled in the wind, purple and gold and ermine: trumpets, drums, horns, and bugles rang out.’
It was a brave scene, but beneath the surface the French army was riven with dissension. King Jean was a violent, argumentative man who had managed to alienate most of his own nobles.
The Constable of France, the chief military officer after the king, was Gauthier de Brienne, who also styled himself Duke of Athens. A mercenary and political climber, he had schemed for years to oust the previous Constable, Jacques de Bourbon, and take his place.
The two marshals, Arnoul d’Audrehem and Jean de Clermont, despised each other; Clermont came from the old nobility, while Audrehem was a parvenu who owed his favour to the king’s patronage.
There were professional soldiers in the French army, men like Geoffrey de Charny, the king’s standard-bearer, author of the Book of Chivalry, and, obscurely, owner of the holy relic later known as ‘the Turin Shroud’, and William, Lord Douglas, an exiled nobleman from Scotland. But they too were ambitious and fractious, as anxious to scheme against each other as they were to fight the enemy.
If the Prince of Wales’s captains were a band of brothers, the men around King Jean more nearly resembled a gang of quarrelling schoolboys.
The English order of battle
English scouts quickly reported the French advance, and the English army ate its meagre breakfast and prepared for battle.
The front line was a narrow lane, flanked with trees and hedgerows, running roughly north–south. To the west lay a vineyard, rows of vines running parallel to the English position; to the east, behind the English line, was a densely wooded hill. On the left, southern end of the line, the ground sloped down sharply to a small river, the Miosson.
The army comprised three divisions of roughly equal strength. The first, commanded by Warwick, held the left side of the line, running north from the Miosson.
To their right was the second division, commanded by the Prince’s friend Salisbury with another veteran, Robert Ufford, Earl of Suffolk, in support.
The third division, led by the Prince himself and including Chandos, James Audley, and Gascon captain the Captal de Buch was held in reserve.
Each division had a mixture of archers, dismounted men-at-arms, and foot soldiers. It was expected that the archers would play a primary role. Shooting their powerful bows at a rate of 12-15 arrows a minute, they would blunt the French attack. The men-at-arms and foot soldiers were there to protect the archers if the French passed through the arrow storm and reached close-quarters. It was a tactical system that had been tried and tested at Crécy and a dozen other battles, and it had never yet failed.
The French plan
But the French had learned lessons of their own. At Crécy ten years earlier, the mounted French men-at-arms had charged the English line on horseback and been shot to pieces by the archers. The French horses had been particularly vulnerable, and many men had been killed or wounded when their horses were shot from under them.
Now King Jean ordered his men-at-arms to dismount. The vulnerable horses were sent away to the rear. The French army would advance on foot, trusting that their armour would keep out English arrows.
Two companies only, each of about 200 men, remained on horseback. The heads and chests of the horses were heavily protected with metal plates and quilting to keep out arrows. The two marshals, Clermont and Audrehem, were to lead these companies forward in the vanguard of the main assault, protecting the advance of the dismounted men-at-arms from the arrow storm, and, it was hoped, achieving initial penetration and disruption of the English line.
By late morning, the English could clearly see the first French division advancing to the attack. Archers tossed blades of grass into the air to gauge the wind, then strung their bows and checked the fletchings of their arrows.
On the French side, Audrehem urged his fellow marshal, Clermont, to attack at once. Clermont demurred; if the mounted men charged too soon, without support from the rest of the army, it would be tantamount to suicide.
Audrehem taunted Clermont, implying he lacked courage. Clermont lost his temper. ‘By St Denis, marshal, you are very bold,’ he snapped, ‘but not so bold your lance will ever come near my horse’s arse.’ Then he spurred his horse to a gallop, shouting at his men to charge.
The French cavalry attack
In the English lines, the captains gave the order. The archers raised their bows – nocking, drawing, and releasing in one swift, smooth motion – and a hail of feathered death descended on the French horsemen.
Despite their heavy armour, many were shot down, men and horses crashing to earth. But Clermont and most of his men reached the English line. Finding a gap in the hedgerow in front of Salisbury’s division, they poured through.
Salisbury counter-attacked at once, throwing his dismounted men-at-arms at Clermont’s cavalry. The rest of the French army was still too far away to come to their aid. Surrounded and outnumbered, Clermont’s men stood no chance. Clermont himself was killed and the rest were hacked down.
On the other flank, Audrehem’s men could find no way through the hedgerow. One of Warwick’s captains, John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, led some of his archers around the French flank and directed them to shoot at the horses, especially at their unprotected hindquarters.
‘The horses, smarting under the pain of their wounds, would not advance,’ says the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker, ‘but turned around and through their unruliness threw their masters, who could not manage them, nor could those who had fallen get up again.’ Some of the French were trampled to death by their own horses.
The attack of the marshals had been a bloody failure, but it had partly achieved its object. The leading French division, commanded by King Jean’s brother the Duke of Orléans, had been able to approach unmolested, and now the dismounted men-at-arms crashed through the vineyard and forced their way through weak points in the hedgerow. Within moments, hand-to-hand fighting was raging along the entire line.
The crisis of the battle
‘There was no break now in war’s grim madness,’ wrote Geoffrey le Baker. ‘Man fought frenziedly against man, each one striving to bring death to his opponent so that he himself might live.’
The French suffered terrible casualties. Brienne, the Constable, was killed in this first attack, and William Douglas was badly wounded.
But the English line began to buckle. On the right, Salisbury’s men were forced back from the hedgerow. Suffolk, running down the line, rallied the Welsh archers, directing their fire towards the points of greatest danger, but the issue still hung in the balance.
The Prince of Wales, however, had seen the danger. A company from the reserve division led by Sir James Audley arrived on the run, throwing themselves into the fighting. Audley fought like a tiger, carrying on even after he had been wounded several times.
His charge tipped the balance. Orléans’s division broke, stumbling and scrambling back through the hedgerow and vineyard. Their retreat disrupted a second French division so badly that it too fell back. A second counter-attack by Warwick turned the retreat into a rout. Half the French army had been swept away.
But the other half was still coming on and, as King Jean’s division advanced, many fugitives from the first two divisions rallied and joined the king.
Glittering in polished armour, with brilliant surcoats and painted shields, the French seemed unstoppable. The Oriflamme, the red-and-gold battle standard of the King of France, flapped in the breeze above their ranks.
The English were weakened from the fighting – Audley had lost so much blood he could barely stand – and, worst of all, the archers were nearly out of arrows. Watching the French onset, some of the men around the Prince of Wales cried out in fear: ‘Alas, we are beaten!’
‘Miserable cowards!’, Prince Edward snarled at them. ‘Are you suggesting that I can be defeated while I am still alive?’
The English counter-attack
Once again, the Prince kept his nerve. He had seen how vulnerable the dismounted French were to a counter-attack, and now he ordered two companies of the reserve to mount. The first, 80 men-at-arms and 100 archers under the Captal de Buch, was ordered to slip around the French flank and approach from the rear. When the Captal was ready to attack, he would signal by waving the banner of St George. The second force, 400 men-at-arms, was under the Prince’s personal command.
As the French approached, the Welsh archers began to shoot. In a matter of minutes, their quivers were empty, and the arrow storm faltered and died.
Shouting and cheering, the French smashed their way through the hedgerow and fighting erupted once more. The archers joined in the melee, attacking the French with swords or knives or even their bare hands.
Once again, the English line began to buckle. Behind them, the Prince of Wales sat on his horse, waiting for the signal. Then, in the distance, he saw it: a fleck of white and red, the banner of St George.
One last order was given: ‘Banners, advance!’ Trumpets and drums sounded the attack. Shouting their war cries, the Prince and his little force charged into the French line. Once again, James Audley led the way, and once again he was wounded; this time, he had to be dragged out of the battle by his esquires.
But the Prince of Wales rode on, Chandos and the others beside him, carving their way through the French, their horses knocking men over like skittles as they ploughed forward. And then, just as the French began to resist, the Captal de Buch charged into them from behind.
The French broke, and this time their rout was final. The English pursued them, mounted men riding in among the fleeing French and cutting them down. Some 2,000 French were killed, and another 3,000 were taken prisoner. The remainder, the lucky ones, found safety behind the walls of Poitiers.
The capture of a king
King Jean was not one of them. He and his bodyguard were driven back and pinned down in a water meadow by the Miosson, standing back to back and defending themselves against wave after wave of attack.
Geoffrey de Charny, the standard-bearer, was cut down and killed beside the King, the Oriflamme ripped from his dying hands.
Jean fought heroically, but there came a time when there was no longer any point in resistance. Ironically, it was a French exile fighting for the English, Denys de Morbecque, who took him captive.
From the narrowest edge of disaster, the Prince of Wales had plucked a victory of astonishing magnitude. The King of France was a prisoner of the English, and would spend the next several years in captivity in London. There was also the loot taken from the French camp: horses, weapons, jewels, even King Jean’s personal illuminated Bible. The plunder alone more than covered the costs of the campaign.
The war should have ended there and then, and, indeed, peace negotiations began the following spring. But the English, so adept at winning battles, could not manage to win the peace. Although a settlement was reached and the Treaty of Brétigny was eventually signed in 1360, the deal soon collapsed and war erupted once more. This time it would go on until the final English defeat in 1453. •
Marilyn Livingstone is an economic historian and professional writer. Morgen Witzel is a writer and lecturer on leadership. Their book, The Black Prince and the Capture of a King: Poitiers, 1356, is published by Casemate.
All images: WIPL. unless otherwise stated.