Medieval warfare is sometimes caricatured as a matter of crude frontal collisions lacking in tactical finesse.
This was sometimes true. Anglo-Saxon and Viking warfare seems to have consisted of little more than head-on clashes between dense blocks of spearmen ranged behind their respective shield-walls. Much later, the Wars of the Roses seems to have been similarly lacking in tactical sophistication, perhaps because the English way of war developed in the early 14th century – discussed in this special – culminated in tactical stalemate when both sides deployed the same system, especially as armoured protection reached its dizzy peak in the late 15th century.
But stalemate is a recurring feature of warfare. The wars of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) tended to be tedious wars of position on heavily fortified frontiers involving one long siege after another. The generals of the First World War were unable to break the deadlock of the trenches until the development of embryonic blitzkrieg tactics in the last year of the conflict. It was not that medieval commanders necessarily lacked subtlety; more often they simply lacked the means to do anything other than accept a crude slugging match.
Periods of technical and tactical impasse are, however, invariably followed by periods of innovation. So it was in medieval times. There seems little doubt that scholars who see a ‘revolution in military affairs’ in the first half of the 14th century are right to do so – though it might be more accurate to see the innovations of this period as the first stage in a long process that would conclude only with the combined-arms operations of the pike-and-shot era, when mobility and manoeuvre were fully restored to European battlefields.
But the process certainly began with the eclipse of heavy horse – the feudal chivalry of the early medieval period – by solid lines of professional and semi-professional infantry, the bulk of them recruited from ‘the middling sort’ of burghers and yeomen, a social class of growing importance across much of European society at the time. One thinks of the Scots peasant pikemen deployed by Wallace at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bruce at Bannockburn (1314), the Flemish town militias who won the Battle of Courtrai in 1302, and the Swiss mountain pikemen who chalked up their first great victory at Mortgarten in 1315.
This was a military transformation with the capacity to change the balance of power – between both social classes and major states. This was especially true of England, which now emerged for the first time as a European power to be reckoned with. It is no exaggeration to say that Edward III (r. 1327-1377) turned his country into an armed camp of professional soldiers and developed a new combined-arms defensive tactical system based on dismounted men-at-arms and massed longbowmen.
Graham Goodlad introduces our special (below) by charting the military careers of Edward III and his son the Black Prince, who eventually become his father’s leading military commander, heading major expeditions in France and Spain. Neil Faulkner then offers a detailed analysis of the first great English victory of the Hundred Years War at Crécy on 26 August 1346. Click here to read Neil Faulkner’s article.
The King and the Prince
Prowess as a military commander was one of the most important attributes of a medieval monarch. Yet surprisingly few of England’s successful warrior kings had immediate successors who demonstrated equivalent battlefield skill. Rulers rarely campaigned alongside their heirs. A major exception is the remarkable pairing of Edward III and his eldest son, also named Edward and remembered as the Black Prince.
The Battle of Crécy in 1346 was one of the outstanding victories in the long struggle between England and France known as the Hundred Years War. Here the 16-year-old Prince Edward exercised junior command under the King’s overall authority, learning skills that helped him inflict a second crushing defeat on the French at Poitiers ten years later.
An in-depth analysis of Crécy is the subject of an accompanying article in this issue’s special. Here, we examine the relationship between father and son, and the factors that, under their leadership, transformed mid-14th-century England into a front-rank military power.
A tough apprenticeship
Edward III (r. 1327-1377) remains a controversial figure. His military successes in France gave him heroic status in his own lifetime. The king’s creation of the Order of the Garter at Windsor Castle generated a propagandist image of knightly chivalry. This positive image was enhanced by the length of Edward’s reign – at 50 years, it was of unusual duration for the Middle Ages. On his Westminster Abbey tomb, the inscription hails him as ‘the glory of the English… the unconquered leopard’.
Later commentators were more critical, accusing Edward of wasting national resources on self-indulgent continental adventures. In our own time, a more balanced view has taken shape, with greater appreciation of the king’s ability to mount large-scale military enterprises. He possessed a firmness of purpose, a grasp of tactics, and a capacity to inspire loyalty. These were all qualities that his eldest son was to exhibit.
Edward had matured rapidly after ascending the throne in uniquely adverse circumstances. As a boy, he was caught up in a lethal conflict between his estranged parents, Edward II and Isabella, which culminated in 1327 in his father’s deposition and murder. For the first three years of his reign, the young Edward was largely a cypher of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer.
A turning point came in October 1330, when Edward led a small party through an underground passage at Nottingham Castle to surprise Mortimer and Isabella. He had the former summarily executed and his mother packed off into retirement.
In establishing his personal authority, Edward had shown the inner steel that would make him a formidable war leader. Moreover, still short of his 18th birthday, he was already a parent. The Black Prince had been born to Edward and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, earlier that year.
Edward gained his first military experience against Scotland. Anglo-Scottish relations were punctuated by cross-border raids, set-piece battles, and uneasy stand-offs. At the heart of the troubled relationship was the unwillingness of the English crown to recognise the independent kingship of its northern neighbour. After the abortive Weardale campaign against the Scots in 1327, Edward was obliged to accept disadvantageous terms under the Treaty of Northampton.
This was little more than a temporary truce. Not long after the start of Edward’s personal rule, he gave support to a rival claimant to the throne, the compliant Edward Balliol, who was prepared to hold Scotland as a fief of the English crown. Balliol’s rout of a Scottish army up to ten times larger than his own at Dupplin Moor in May 1332 provided a tactical model on which Edward himself would draw.
An Edwardian military revolution
The renewal of hostilities with Scotland coincided with what some historians term a ‘revolution in military affairs’ – a coming together of technological, tactical, and organisational factors that amounted to a paradigm shift in the conduct of warfare.
The early 14th century saw the displacement of an older battlefield model, which had relied on the mass use of heavily armoured cavalry as shock troops. In its place came a new approach based on close-order formations of dismounted men-at-arms, using lances and bills against enemy cavalry charges, and flanked by archers equipped with the cutting-edge weapon of the time: the yew longbow.
Organisational changes went hand in hand with battlefield innovation. Edward’s men-at-arms and bowmen were professionals who fought for pay, augmented by the prospect of loot. The old system of recruiting had depended on landed magnates responding to the king’s feudal summons. This was now being superseded by indentures – a system of raising troops by awarding contracts to individual captains and their followers.
Material rewards tended to improve military discipline, making it less likely that troops would break formation to take prisoners for whom they could demand a ransom.
The effectiveness of the new tactics depended on provoking the enemy into taking the initiative. Edward’s first successful battle, at Halidon Hill in July 1333, provided an outstanding example of this.
He faced a Scottish force almost twice the size of his own, which was marching to relieve the English siege of the strategically important border town of Berwick. Edward’s forces took up a strong defensive position uphill, forcing the Scots to advance towards them across swampy ground.
They were not aware of the marshy terrain until it was too late. Repeated waves of arrows, described by one writer as falling ‘so thickly as the rays in sunlight’, decimated the attackers and plunged their lines into disarray. The rout also sealed the fate of Berwick.
In the long run, the battle was not decisive. Balliol’s restoration to the Scottish throne proved short-lived, and Edward was soon to be diverted by a larger conflict across the Channel. But Dupplin Moor and Halidon Hill provided a template for warfare against a more formidable foe.
The six-foot longbow had an average draw weight of 100 pounds, making it a much more effective weapon than the shorter bows of the early Middle Ages. Its use required considerable physical strength and skill, nurtured by continuous training.
In the hands of a professional, the longbow had an effective range of more than 200 yards and was capable of piercing all but the thickest armour. Its adoption by the English armies gave them a critical advantage over the French, who continued to rely on the slower crossbow. A longbowman could fire up to 12 arrows a minute, compared with between three and five crossbow volleys in the same time.
It was the conflict with France that would define Edward’s reign. The key issue between the two countries was the status of Aquitaine, a region of south-west France held by English kings for two centuries – but as vassals of the French monarch. Edward was obliged to perform homage to Philip VI as a condition of retaining his title, an act which implied subordination to an overlord. Matters came to a head in May 1337, when a long-running legal wrangle culminated in Philip’s outright confiscation of Aquitaine.
Beyond this dispute lay a more ambitious prize – the crown of France itself. The conquest of the entire territory of France was almost certainly beyond England’s capability. Yet this did not stop Edward from mounting a series of expeditions against his continental opponent.
Tension was increased by France’s alliance with the Scots and by periodic raids on targets on England’s south coast. The most devastating of these attacks came in October 1338, when the port of Southampton was occupied and burned.
Edward put an end to these cross-Channel attacks with a decisive victory at sea in the Battle of Sluys, fought in June 1340 in a now silted-up inlet of the Flemish coast. Dismissing the warnings of his more cautious advisers, he assembled some 150 ships to take on the 213-strong French fleet. According to the chronicler Jean Froissart, the king ‘saw such a number of masts in front of him that it looked like a wood’.
Yet Edward was fortunate in the mistakes made by his opponents. The French drew their ships up in three lines, chained together to create an impassable barrier. This fatally reduced their manoeuvrability, and they became hopelessly confused as they tried to disentangle themselves.
Taking advantage of the wind and tide, and with the sun blinding the enemy, Edward attacked without delay. Arrows fell on the French ‘like hail in winter’ as the ships closed with each other, the English crews grappling and boarding their opponents’ vessels.
They showed no mercy, capturing 190 ships and killing an estimated 18,000 French sailors in the bloody hand-to-hand fighting that followed. Edward reported to his son that every tide brought up a fresh wave of dead bodies.
Sluys ended the danger of a French invasion of England, though without delivering long-term command of the seas.
Edward’s initial expeditions on land met with limited success. His attempts to enlist the cooperation of Flemish and German allies yielded little in return for ruinously expensive subsidies. Nor did he manage to draw the French into battle.
Instead, in Edward’s most successful campaign in 1346, he took a different approach. The chevauchée (literally a ‘ride’) was a fast-moving, well-organised raid designed to inflict maximum damage on the civilian population. This was no random act of terror by poorly disciplined, marauding troops. Nor was it merely a means of enabling the English army to live off the land. The aim was twofold: to wreak havoc on the economy and thus reduce the French king’s tax revenues; and to demonstrate that Philip VI was powerless to protect his own subjects.
As one writer put it, the English were ‘burning, devastating, and driving away the people; then did the French greatly sorrow, and loudly cried: where is Philip, our king?’ The latter faced a stark choice: to tolerate the destruction, thus incurring a fatal loss of prestige, or to accept Edward’s challenge to meet him in battle.
Training an heir
This was the background to Edward’s greatest victory, at Crécy in August 1346. It was also the battle that saw the emergence of the Black Prince as a leader in his own right.
In the campaign he commanded the vanguard of the army, with responsibility for forward reconnaissance and scouting. The king ensured that the young man ‘won his spurs’, or proved himself in combat, by withholding assistance when he came under heavy attack.
Honoured for his role in the battle, the Prince then supported his father through the siege of Calais, whose capitulation after almost a year gave English armies a critical entry point to the Continent for the next two centuries.
The young prince’s apprenticeship had begun many years earlier, before he was old enough to understand military realities. As a boy, he served three times, in name at least, as ‘guardian’ of the kingdom in his father’s absence, being awarded the title for the first time at the age of six.
Soon after he was presented with his own miniature armour and attended his first tournament, still regarded as a rite of passage for the knightly class. The prince was being trained to follow in his father’s footsteps.
At the beginning of 1350, Edward III and the Black Prince led a daring mission to Calais, after hearing that it was about to be betrayed from within.
Arriving incognito with a small force, Edward devised an ingenious trap for the enemy. He positioned his knights inside the gateway, behind a hastily constructed wall, and had the beam of the drawbridge partly sawn through. It would be broken with a stone dropped from above, after the French had been admitted to the fortress.
Those who crossed the drawbridge found themselves cut off from their followers and unexpectedly surrounded. Edward’s bold plan almost misfired when he led an attack on the French force outside the gate, leaving him at risk of being captured. But as his men wavered, the Black Prince cut his way through to his father’s aid. The French withdrew, leaving their commander a prisoner and Calais still in English hands.
The Black Prince
Prince Edward was not described as the Black Prince until the 16th century, more than 150 years after his death. In his lifetime he was known, after his birthplace, as Edward of Woodstock.
There are two main theories about the origin of the name. One is the tradition that he wore black armour or carried a shield with three ostrich feathers on a black background. The other explanation is that the name reflects his reputation for brutal treatment of the French civilian population on his campaigns. Neither theory has ever been conclusively proved.
The renewal of hostilities in 1355-1356 saw the Black Prince exercise independent command, but applying methods learned from his father.
In the autumn of 1355, Edward planned to invade Normandy while his son launched a raid across southern France. The king’s forces were diverted to Calais on learning of a threat to the port, but soon had to return home to counter a Scottish incursion into northern England – an illustration of how the ‘auld alliance’ of France and Scotland could unexpectedly complicate English strategy.
This left the Black Prince to mount a chevauchée from Bordeaux to Narbonne and back, a total distance of almost 500 miles. As with earlier raids, the English forces moved rapidly, spread out in three parallel columns, in order to maximise the devastation.
The principal victim was the Count of Armagnac, who had led French forces against supporters of English rule in Aquitaine. What followed was an orgy of destruction, with a reported total of 11 cities and 3,700 villages laid waste.
The invaders took with them a thousand wagons filled with booty. The riches of the region were so abundant that the soldiers reportedly ignored silver coins and goblets, looting only gold florins and jewels.
The raid was crucial for the making of the Black Prince’s reputation. At the walled city of Carcassonne, he turned down a ransom of 250,000 gold écus – a considerable sum – as the price of sparing it. In order to justify his father’s appointment of him, he insisted that he sought ‘justice not money’.
Although the strongly defended citadel survived, the lower town was sacked, the Prince reporting that ‘we spent the whole day in burning, so that it was completely destroyed’.
The Prince failed, however, to draw the French into battle. The opportunity for this would occur when he returned the following summer.
Victory against the odds
The 1356 campaign was based on an elaborate, perhaps overly ambitious, two-pronged plan. This time Edward remained in England. The Black Prince was to start in Gascony and move northwards, while the Duke of Lancaster was to pass through Normandy and Brittany to link up with him. By September, the two armies were almost within sight of each other, when the unusually swollen River Loire presented an insuperable obstacle to their combining. The Black Prince had no alternative but to retreat.
A few miles south of Poitiers, halfway between Paris and Bordeaux, the French caught up with him. Led by John II, who had succeeded his father as king six years earlier, the 11,000-strong French army enjoyed a numerical advantage of almost two to one. The odds were daunting, but the prince decided to attack without delay.
His supplies were running low and further postponement would only allow the enemy to bring up reinforcements. Discipline and unity were critical to the survival of the Anglo-Gascon army. Echoing his father’s morale-boosting words on an earlier campaign in Scotland, the Prince toured his army, telling his troops that ‘we all drink from the same cup, we fight together, in victory or to the death’.
The action began on the morning of 19 September with a clever feinting manoeuvre. The English moved their baggage train away as if withdrawing, luring the French into making the first move. As the enemy cavalry charged towards them, the English archers and men-at-arms held firm behind the natural obstacles afforded by hedges and trees.
The first wave weakened the Anglo-Gascon line, but the English archers now moved so that they could hit the less well-protected flanks of the oncoming horses and the infantry who followed them. This blunted the force of the enemy assault.
The battle now became a close-quarters slogging match. It seemed for a time that the exhausted Anglo-Gascon forces would succumb as fresh enemy forces were poured in. But the day was saved by the prince’s decision to break the rules and abandon his army’s purely defensive posture.
Towards evening, he sent a mounted force under Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch, a Gascon baron, to circle around the battlefield and attack the French from the left rear. Meanwhile, the prince led the rest of the army in a frontal assault, supported by intense longbow-shooting.
The manoeuvre took the French by surprise, spreading widespread panic. Although they still far outnumbered the Anglo-Gascon forces, they lacked the flexibility to cope with a rapidly changing situation. As their cohesion began to crumble, suddenly the outcome was no longer in doubt. John himself was taken prisoner, along with one of his sons and many nobles.
Poitiers had a devastating impact on France. The king’s capture, and subsequent imprisonment in England, plunged the country into chaos. The governing class faced the task of raising a vast ransom for his release while also contending with peasant uprisings.
It took a further three years, however, to bring about an interim resolution of the Anglo-French conflict. Another English invasion in late 1359 failed to bring about the capture of Rheims or Paris. But both sides were now prepared to negotiate.
The outcome, finalised in October 1360, was the Treaty of Brétigny, by which Edward renounced his claim to the French throne in return for full rights over an enlarged Aquitaine and Calais.
In practice, the promised transfer of sovereignty did not occur and under a new ruler, Charles V, hostilities resumed in 1369. The truth was that a permanent settlement was never likely. Holding on indefinitely to territorial gains at a distance was ultimately beyond England’s resources, as the French knew.
The final years of both king and prince were a tragic anti-climax. In 1367, the Black Prince led an expedition to Spain to restore the exiled King Pedro of Castile to his throne. He won a crushing victory over Pedro’s opponents at Nájera, but the cost of the expedition proved crippling.
His governing ability was not equal to his military skills and his administration of Aquitaine, which his father had granted him, was notoriously extravagant. Unable to meet the costs of running the duchy, he was eventually obliged to hand it back to the king.
The Black Prince’s reputation was also damaged by an incident during his last campaign. Hearing in August 1370 that Limoges had been treacherously betrayed to the French, he laid siege to the city. After retaking it, he is alleged to have ordered the widespread killing of civilians and destruction of property.
The medieval laws of war allowed a commander to sack a city that refused terms of surrender. Yet there remains some doubt over the extent of the reprisals. Most modern accounts dispute the contemporary claim that some 3,000 inhabitants were massacred, suggesting that the real figure was closer to 300.
By this stage, the Black Prince was in poor health. The true nature of his illness, which he seems to have contracted in Spain, is not known.
His relationship with his father deteriorated in his final years. The prince disapproved of the influence exercised over the king by his much younger mistress, Alice Perrers. Father and son were reconciled shortly before the prince died in June 1376. Edward III followed the prince to the grave a year later.
Both men were widely mourned. The prince’s French opponents held a memorial mass for him – a rare mark of respect for a foe. He chose not to be buried in Westminster Abbey, where his father would be entombed. Instead, the prince’s richly decorated bronze effigy is to be found in Canterbury Cathedral, with his helmet, surcoat, shield, and gauntlets displayed nearby.
In spite of Crécy and Poitiers, by the end of Edward III’s reign England had made no overall territorial gains in France. The Black Prince’s premature death meant that he did not inherit the throne, which passed instead to his ten-year-old son, Richard II. At their best, however, Edward and his eldest son had taken the art of medieval command to a high point of achievement. They combined strategic grasp with boldness and flexibility in tactics, and an ability to sustain their troops’ morale. This enabled them to overcome the logistical problems of campaigning far from their home base, despite the difficulties posed by limited communications. Both leaders inspired the respect of their opponents, and carved a lasting place in the folk memory of their own country. •
Graham Goodlad teaches History and Politics at St John’s College, Southsea and is a regular contributor to MHM. Click here to listen to him discuss his article in more depth on an episode of The PastCast. And click here to read the second part of this feature, in which Neil Faulkner offers a detailed analysis of the first great English victory of the Hundred Years War at Crécy.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.
Birth of Edward III
Succeeds his father Edward II as king
Birth of the Black Prince; start of Edward III’s personal rule
French navy defeated at the Battle of Sluys
Edward and the Black Prince invade France; Battle of Crécy
Edward and the Black Prince repulse French attempt to take Calais
The Black Prince’s ‘great raid’ across southern France
Battle of Poitiers
Treaty of Brétigny ends the first phase of the Hundred Years War
The Black Prince campaigns in Spain
Death of the Black Prince
Death of Edward III