In the 1330s, in the course of the Scottish wars, the English developed a new tactical system and made a major contribution to what some describe as a ‘revolution in military affairs’.
Under Edward III’s father, the unwarlike Edward II, the English had crashed to defeat at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, when a Scottish army under King Robert Bruce, formed mainly of dense phalanxes of peasant pikemen (called ‘schiltrons’), had shattered an English army of heavy feudal cavalry. Lessons were learned.
At the Battle of Dupplin Moor (11 August 1332), and again at Halidon Hill (19 July 1333), there had been a very different outcome: crushing Scottish defeats at the hands of dismounted English men-at-arms standing on the defensive, flanked by large numbers of English longbowmen.
On both occasions, the schiltrons had launched frontal attacks uphill. On both, facing an arrow-storm on either flank, they had crowded inwards, becoming funnelled towards the waiting men-at-arms in a state of mounting disorder, while taking heavy casualties from the shot. This was the genesis of a new tactical system.
As early as 1337, the system was being tested in France. The Earl of Derby was victorious in a contested landing on the Flanders coast that year when he used massed longbow archery on his flanks to support an assault in the centre by his men-at-arms.
A more set-piece battle was fought at Morlaix in 1342. The Earl of Northampton, heavily outnumbered, dismounted his men- at-arms, dug trenches and pits in front of his line to break the impetus of enemy cavalry, and probably – the sources are unclear – deployed his archers on the flanks.
These events – remote clashes in northern Britain, relatively minor engagements on the Continent – seem to have had no impact on French military thinking. It was Crécy that was transformative.
To raise an army for a full-scale invasion of the Continent, Edward III had recourse to new methods of recruitment. By decision of Parliament, military service obligations were systematised. Every man worth £5 in land and rent was required to supply an archer, each rated £10 a hobelar (a mounted spearman or light cavalryman), each rated £10 to £20 two hobelars, each rated £25 a man-at-arms, and so on upwards ‘according to the quantity of their lands’. It was the responsibility of local sheriffs to draw up lists of landowners and enforce compliance.
Most men so raised seem to have been enrolled in the retinues of barons, bannerets, and knights, so that the new system incorporated elements of the old feudal one. But in addition, sheriffs, mayors, and other royal officers were required to raise separate shire levies.
We are blessed with exceptionally detailed archival sources for this army. We know that Richard Lord Talbot’s retinue comprised 14 knights, 60 squires, and 82 archers; that of John de Vere Earl of Oxford, 23 knights, 44 squires, and 63 archers. Altogether, in the retinues, we can estimate a total of 2,400 cavalry (500 knights and 1,900 other men-at-arms) and perhaps 2,500 archers, while the shire levies amounted to 3,780 men. There was also a sizeable Welsh contingent, half spearmen, half archers, perhaps numbering several thousand.
While some men must have remained at home, especially to guard the Welsh and Scottish Marches, Edward III’s army of invasion in 1346 was probably at least 10,000 strong, perhaps even as many as 15,000.
These men, moreover, were for the most part professionals – trained in the use of weapons and often veterans of earlier campaigns against the Scots and the French.
The contrast with the French army was extreme. Though King Philip mobilised a great body of communal militia from northern France and hired a large contingent of mercenary Genoese crossbowmen, the core of the huge army that fought at Crécy was a traditional feudal host of mounted chivalry.
Perhaps 30,000 strong, its ranks were a roll-call of Philip’s vassals, with most of the barons, greater and lesser, of northern and central France present, along with large allied contingents of German and Bohemian lords.
Edward’s strategy is far from clear. He seems to have made a last-minute decision not to land in Guienne, where the Earl of Derby was campaigning, but instead to land in Normandy. He then mounted a leisurely chevauchée, destroying towns and villages, laying waste the countryside, accumulating plunder, and thereby challenging the French king to fight in defence of his territory.
Philip needed time to assemble his army, so he attempted to confine the English to Normandy by breaking down all the bridges over the Lower Seine, meantime massing his men to cover Paris.
Edward was soon in danger of being trapped, especially as his fleet had mutinied and returned to England, leaving him with no line of communications back through Normandy. He therefore headed for the relative safety of Flanders, where his Flemish allies were already in action.
The English succeeded in rebuilding one of the Seine bridges, driving off the local militia, and crossing to the north bank of the river. They then confronted a second obstacle, for the French king had also ordered the destruction of the Somme bridges. In this case, however, escape was secured by offering a large reward for information about any useable ford, and by this means the English army again wriggled away.
By now, however, Philip was on the move; he even captured some of the English baggage during the crossing of the Somme. Whereas Edward, no longer at risk of fighting with his back to the wall, was determined to bring on a decisive battle. He had entered Ponthieu, his own territory, and he had an obligation to defend it. He was, in any case, especially given the huge investment in the invasion, bound by the code of chivalry to accept the test of battle and not slink away.
Having crossed the Somme, Edward passed the huge Forest of Crécy and took up a position on a hill just to the north-east of it. Philip, at first unaware of the English army’s direction of march, was compelled to conform when his scouts reported the news – an abrupt change of direction that contributed to mounting disorder in the ranks of the huge French army.
Edward’s position was ideally suited to the new English defensive tactics. The hill on which he took station lay just north of the River Maye, the Abbeville–Hesdin road, and the village of Crécy, with the Forest of Crécy closing off the southern side of the valley: this gave him a secure right flank. The high ground on which he took position extended to the village of Wadicourt, and on this he anchored his left flank.
In front of the English position was the Valley of the Clerics. Beyond this, to the south-east, lay the village of Fontaine-sur-Maye, which, like Crécy, lay in the valley of the River Maye, and a second hill, on which lay the village of Estrées. Two main roads gave access to the battlefield from this direction: the Abbeville–Hesdin road, which followed the valley, and an old Roman road, which traversed the high ground via Estrées.
It was late in the day when the forward elements of the French sighted the waiting English. A sudden thunderstorm darkened the sky and drenched both armies, but then the sun burst forth again.
By this time, all command and control had broken down on the French side. Attempts to halt the army for the night so that it could be properly drawn up for battle on the following day were abortive. Instead, in utter disarray, without any semblance of organisation into divisions, successive feudal retinues simply pushed forwards as quickly as they could in an effort to get to grips with the enemy.
The first French charge
The battle was opened by the Genoese crossbowmen, who advanced into the Valley of the Clerics and commenced shooting long-range volleys at the English line. When the longbowmen replied in kind, it proved a hopelessly unequal exchange: their greater numbers and far superior rate of shot quickly overpowered the Genoese, who fell back in disorder after only a few minutes.
The leading contingent of French chivalry, under the Count of Alençon, might have opened its ranks to allow the Genoese to retire. Instead, intent on getting forwards and contemptuous of the apparent cowardice of the lowly Italian mercenaries, they simply rode them down, slashing to right and left as they did so.
This compounded the disorder in the French ranks and afforded the English longbowmen a superb target: a seething mass of horse and foot in the valley below them. The French chronicler Froissart describes the result (albeit with extreme exaggeration):
For the bowmen let fly among them at large, and did not lose a single shaft, for every arrow told on horse or man, piercing head, or arm, or leg among the riders and sending horses mad. For some stood stock-still, and others rushed sideways, and most of all began backing in spite of their masters, and some were rearing or tossing their heads at the arrows, and others when they felt the bit threw themselves down. So the knights in the first French battle fell, slain, or sore stricken, almost without seeing the men who slew them.
Whether any of this first wave succeeded in mounting the slope and coming to grips with the English men-at-arms is unclear. Either way, the attack was a shambles from start to finish.
The English formation
The English were ranged in a conventional three battles. On the right front was that commanded by the young Prince of Wales (the Black Prince). On the left front, and echeloned back somewhat, lay the slightly smaller division of the Earls of Arundel and Northampton. Behind both, higher up the slope, was the reserve battle commanded by the king. He took post by a windmill on the southern edge of the high ground, from which he was afforded a panoramic view of the battlefield as a whole.
So far so good. There has, however, been great debate about the formation adopted by each battle: specifically, about the arrangement of archers and men-at-arms that was so fundamental to the new English tactical system.
The coordination of shock and shot is, of course, a recurring problem in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance warfare; not until the advent of the all-round infantryman equipped with musket and bayonet is the problem resolved.
Much of the debate about the 14th-century English system has focused on Froissart’s use of the term en herce (which means ‘like a harrow’) to describe the arrangement of the longbowmen at Crécy. Much of this debate seems tendentious. The most notable thing about a harrow is that it comprises a series of blades designed to cut up the sod on recently ploughed soil, and the most straightforward way of interpreting Froissart’s metaphor is to assume a succession of wedges.
This was how the great military historian Sir Charles Oman, author of the seminal A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, understood the matter. His assumption was that the archers were arranged in forward-projecting wedges on either side of the men-at-arms. The arguments in favour of this seem compelling.
It corresponds with what we know of the tactics of Dupplin Moor and Halidon Hill. It would ensure that the archers and the men-at-arms did not impede each other’s action, but also that the archers would be operating at sufficiently close range against enemy attacks to make their shot effective. It makes good sense of the additional information we are given that the archers dug a series of horse traps – small holes one foot wide by one foot deep – along their front (though a hedge of sharpened stakes, known at Agincourt, may have been a later innovation).
This reconstruction also allows us to understand the French debacle. The horse traps and the arrow-storm would have caused the French chivalry to crowd away from the longbowmen and bunch towards the waiting men-at-arms – much as the Scots schiltrons had done at Dupplin Moor and Halidon Hill. This, in any case, would have conformed to their class instinct: only the English nobility, unlike the longbowmen, were honourable opponents.
The Count of Alençon’s charge set the pattern for the battle. No sooner had it been repulsed than the second wave came on, commanded by the near-blind King John of Bohemia, who demanded to be led against the enemy. His retinue seems to have closed briefly with the English men-at-arms, but the king and almost all his followers quickly perished.
So it went on all evening and long into the night. The English counted a total of 15 or 16 separate charges, each one an ill-coordinated and disorderly mounted assault, each one crumbling away before the arrow-storm on its flanks.
The main weight of the French attacks fell on the Prince of Wales’s battle, and he may at times have been hard-pressed; but if so, never seriously. The king at one point dispatched 30 knights under the Bishop of Durham from the reserve to reinforce him – but no more – and the Earls of Arundel and Northampton may have swung their battle forwards on the right flank to give additional support. But there is no evidence in the medieval chronicles that the English line was at any time in any real danger.
The following day, the English awoke to see the Valley of the Clerics choked with dead and dying Frenchmen. Late-arriving elements of the French army were still in the field, but these, some men-at-arms, more communal militia, were dispersed with heavy loss by an armed reconnaissance ordered forwards by King Edward. Then the English were at liberty to make count.
They found that 1,542 lords and knights had fallen in front of the English line. They included many premier French, German, and Bohemian aristocrats, among them the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Lorraine, and the Counts of Alençon, Auxerre, Blamont, Blois, Flanders, Forez, Grandpré, Harcourt, Salm, and Sancerre. In stark contrast, the English had lost two knights, one squire, 40 men-at-arms and archers, and a few dozen Welsh.
Crécy was a victory of professionalism, combined arms, and tactical finesse over a chaotic host of feudal chivalry. It stands with Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314), Morgarten (1315), and a number of other early 14th-century battles as the harbinger of a new way of war based on control, discipline, and solid infantry. Edward III and the Black Prince were pioneers of that ‘revolution in military affairs’. •
Click here to read the first part of this special feature, in which Graham Goodlad analyses the joint careers of the father and son who led England’s armies in the early campaigns of the Hundred Years War.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.