And that it was a great pity, so it was,Henry IV, Act I, Scene III
This villainous saltpetre should be digged
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good fellow had destroyed
So cowardly, and but for these vile guns,
He would himself have been a soldier.
The so-called ‘Hundred Years War’ (1337-1453) was a struggle between the French Valois and English Plantagenet royal houses for sovereignty over territory on the European continent.
When French king Charles IV died without issue in 1328, his English nephew Edward III saw an opportunity to assume control of the French throne and asserted his claim. The French feudal elite rejected him out of hand, and Philip, Count of Valois, was quickly anointed King Philip VI.
Animosity intensified when Philip confiscated lands on the continent considered by Edward to be English possessions. Royal prestige was at stake, and armed conflict became inevitable. Few imagined that the conflict now beginning would persist for more than a century.
During that time, the art of war changed radically: the organisation, equipment, and employment of armies would be very different in its final stages. Some changes were contingent on resources and manpower, and affected the methods by which armies were raised and equipped. Others concerned technological innovation. One in particular would change forever the complexion of armed conflict in the Western world, and indeed that of future conflicts worldwide.
Late medieval warfare in Europe The horse
The Hundred Years War was, in actuality, a series of wars. They are commonly divided into three distinct periods: Edwardian (1337-1360), Caroline (1369-1380), and Lancastrian (1415-1453).
For much of that long period of conflict, punctuated by two extended phases of relative peace, combat was typically waged by classic forms of feudal armies.
English and French forces were dominated by heavy cavalry, which was comprised, of course, of the nobility and their retainers.
While chain-mail was prevalent at the beginning of the 14th century, by the end of the century it had largely been replaced, among the chivalry, by sophisticated assemblages of exceptionally produced and articulated plate armour. Thus, the heavily armoured man on horseback was an exorbitantly expensive military asset.
Created by highly skilled craftsmen, each suit of armour took months of intense labour to produce, and, in addition to being proof against blade weapons and most arrows, they were wonderfully flexible.
Despite the modern impression that medieval armour was cumbersome and weighty, most suits weighed no more than 20kg (45lbs), which is less than the weight of gear worn by today’s combat infantryman. While the more fanciful tournament armour we see in museums was of heavier plate, to withstand the shock of the joust, field armour was generally well suited to the battlefield.
The mounted warrior, in addition to his defensive armour, was apt to carry a lance and a broadsword, battleaxe, mace, or morning star.
Men so armed and equipped generally performed military service in fealty to their prince or some other higher lord. They were considered the backbone of any armed excursion. They did not, however, fight alone.
Accompanying any force of mounted nobles was a somewhat larger force of dismounted supporting troops. Drawn from the yeomanry – the better-off peasant class – these infantrymen were not members of any standing professional army, a development which would not be seen until the 17th century. Rather, they were recruited for specific and usually limited campaigns.
Without access to expensive plate armour, they relied largely on a gambeson or brigandine – a padded jerkin, also referred to as an ‘arming jacket’ – which was sometimes reinforced with metal or boiled-leather strips, sometimes supplemented by chain-mail and simple steel caps.
Weapons varied widely, but most medieval infantry were either bill-or bowmen, with daggers, swords, axes, maces, and clubs as secondary weapons.
For English and Welsh soldiers, of course, there was the longbow. This was a fearsome weapon. Constructed of a stave of yew wood, the English longbow averaged between 5½ and 6½ feet in length, fired an arrow up to 3 feet in length, and had a draw-strength that has been variously described as being between 80 and 150lbs.
The range of these weapons was between 200 and 300 yards, while the arrows were typically tipped with bodkins or a short barbed head.
As important as the weapon itself was the number of skilled archers available. For longbowmen – like medieval infantry more generally – were trained men, forming a kind of standing reserve, even though hardly any were professional soldiers.
An edict of Edward III in 1363 noted that:
Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery, whence by God’s help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises…
But the tradition had not always been maintained, and the King was eager to restore it, proclaiming that:
Every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practise archery.
This provision would prove to be of enormous worth to English arms in combat on the Continent. Outnumbered by their French opponents, English forces were forced to adapt their tactics and frequently fought with their knights dismounted. The longbow provided a great combat multiplier for English operations.
Whenever possible, the commander selected terrain that would allow him to deploy his forces to maximum effect. Edward III did this at Crécy, where the knights were placed in two ‘battles’ (formations) with bands of archers between them and at each end of the line, with a third force of dismounted knights, again flanked by archers, in reserve.
The French, though vastly outnumbering their foes, were over-hasty in moving into the attack after a long march. They were further hampered by a sudden rainstorm that turned the ground into a morass and damaged the bowstrings of the Genoese crossbowmen (whereas the English archers had prevented rain damage by removing their bowstrings and storing them under their caps during the downpour).
The results were almost predictable, as the English arrow-storm devastated the Genoese, who turned and fled, only to be cut down by the angered French nobles as they surged towards the English positions, where they in turn were brought down by the longbow and the waiting men-at-arms.
While the longbow’s arrows would not penetrate plate armour, except at very close ranges, the deployment of an arrow-storm had a tremendous psychological effect on the attackers. Body areas protected only by chain-mail and the vision ports of war helms were vulnerable.
Especially susceptible to the arrow-storm were the largely unarmoured horses, which, when pierced by multiple shafts, were maddened by the pain and became uncontrollable. Rearing and bucking horses caused chaos in the attacking ranks.
A decade later, at Poitiers, the French, now recognising the vulnerability of their horses to English arrows, elected to assault Edward’s forces dismounted, using cavalry only on the flanks.
But the mounted forces, in their eagerness to close with the enemy, quickly outdistanced the supporting infantry and crossbowmen, only to be cut down as they closed with the defenders.
The bulk of the French forces had dismounted at such a distance that they were all but exhausted after slogging uphill to engage the English defenders. Once again, the arrow-storm wreaked havoc on the French army’s disjointed and poorly coordinated attack.
A little more than a half century later, the obstinate French nobility would once again throw mounted knights across a muddy field against a compact group of dismounted English knights and archers at Agincourt, with equally devastating results.
The French nobility, perhaps even more than their English counterparts, embraced the concept of chivalry, and its military forces were therefore dominated by heavily armoured knights. They were supplemented by infantry, normally spearmen and crossbowmen, the latter typically foreign mercenaries, but the nobility held them in low regard and their tactical effectiveness was thus undermined by caste snobbery.
The disasters at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415) were as much a consequence of French neglect of effective combined-arms tactics as they were of English professionalism.
A changing conflict
For the French, the continual warfare on the Continent was physically and psychologically devastating. The English made frequent use of the chevauchée, whereby the invading army cut a swathe through French territory, raiding, burning, and pillaging. This was intended to discredit the enemy’s government and thus alienate the citizenry.
Beginning in the 15th century, the French king, now Charles VII, took steps to reorganise his military forces under the Ordonnance sur le Gendarmerie.
With the nation ravaged by war, repeated outbreaks of bubonic plague, and the depredations of ‘Free Companies’– essentially foreign mercenaries left unemployed on the Continent between episodes of warfare – Charles formed Compagnies d’Ordonnance sur Roi, military organisations that incorporated these Free Companies into royal service under the direct control of the king. Those mercenaries who resisted amalgamation were considered outlaws and subjected to being hunted down and exterminated. Thus the Compagnies d’Ordonnance represented the first true standing army in European history.
The game changes
Along with his Compagnies d’Ordonnance, Charles VII took advantage of technological developments in weaponry to maximise the combat-effectiveness of his forces.
Artillery began to come into its own on the battlefield. Artillery had made its initial appearance on European battlefields during the first phase of the Hundred Years War. Supplementing and eventually replacing their earlier cousins, such as the trebuchet and catapult, these fearsome weapons were, of course, destined to transform warfare.
Introduced to English armies by Edward III, their debut was probably during the 1333 Siege of Berwick, when small artillery pieces supplemented the trebuchet in battering the walls of the besieged castle. It was then in 1346, when Edward first ventured into France, that artillery made its debut on the Continent.
There is evidence for the use of a small multi-barrelled weapon called a ribauldequin at the Battle of Crécy. Also called an ‘organ gun’, it consisted of some 12 barrels in a fan configuration or ranged in parallel, sometimes set on a small cart, and firing small ball projectiles. The five weapons at Crécy, however, managed just three volleys in total.
Though larger pieces were employed at the Siege of Calais, it is apparent that gunpowder weapons, however novel and fear-inducing, were overshadowed by the English longbow. It was not until the final years of the conflict that artillery began to play a significant role in the clash of armies in the field – but not in the way the English had hoped.
For England, the continuing wars on the Continent necessitated higher taxes, leading to popular disaffection. By 1450, the domestic situation in England had become fairly dire, as taxation and corruption triggered peasant revolts, while territory was lost through a series of military reverses in France. Henry VI, distracted by domestic crises, delegated operations in France to the Duke of Somerset, who performed so poorly that English possessions on the Continent were soon reduced to little more than Calais on the Channel coast.
A costly reverse
Henry dispatched a relief force of some 3,000 men under Sir Thomas Kyriell to Cherbourg. Combining his troops with those of Somerset, Kyriell’s force numbered approximately 1,200 men-at-arms and 3,000 archers.
Opposing the English was a French force of perhaps 3,000 men, under the Comte de Clermont, located 30 miles south at the town of Carentan. Further to the south, at Coutances, was an additional force of 2,000 knights and men-at-arms under the command of the Constable Richemont.
Kyriell’s initial aim was to lunge to the east to relieve the garrison at the town of Bayeux, under siege by French forces. As his force followed the coastline eastwards, it easily beat off a small foray from Carentan. Clermont, fearing he had insufficient strength to deal with the threat, sent word to Richemont asking for assistance. On 15 April 1450, however, Clermont closed in on the English, encamped at Formigny.
Alerted to the oncoming enemy, Kyriell prepared for battle by arranging his forces into two large ‘battles’ astride the main road from Carentan. All were dismounted, with knights and men-at-arms carrying shortened lances, swords, axes, and maces. On each flank and between the two ranks of infantry were detachments of archers.
Although there had been no time to construct the usual defensive measures – ditches and hedgerows of sharpened stakes – the English outnumbered the attacking force (not yet reinforced by Richemont) and were confident of victory. The French halted well out of effective bow-range and assessed the situation.
Initially, they launched an infantry attack on the defenders, but were easily beaten back. Two subsequent probes by French cavalry against the flanks of the English line were also repulsed. But as the cavalry retired, the Comte de Clermont decided to play his trump card.
In addition to his regular forces, he had brought with him two small cannon – breech-loading culverins – and with these guns he delivered a severe pounding to the English archers on each flank.
The results were devastating. So much so that the archers broke from their formations and rushed the guns, slaughtering their crews. As the English dragged the captured pieces back to their lines, the French withdrew several hundred yards.
But the fight was not over. Moving up from the south, the Constable de Richemont had heard the guns in action and taking 1,200 mounted men with him, in true cavalry fashion, ‘rode to the sound of the guns’.
As evening fell, Richemont’s force arrived on the battlefield. Kyriell recognised the threat and reformed his forces into an L shape to receive the enemy, but had to thin out his line to effect the change. Thus, when Clermont and Richemont launched a coordinated two-pronged assault, the defending force quickly folded and then disintegrated entirely.
The subsequent slaughter was tremendous, with more than 2,500 Englishmen killed or wounded in the fight and some 900 captured.
While they had played only a minor part in the battle, the culverins may well have served a vital role in first disrupting the English line and then spurring Richemont’s ride to Clermont’s relief. Until this fight, artillery had been restricted to static engagements, primarily in besieging walled towns and cities, but with Formigny the guns had, in however small a role, arrived on the battlefield.
A last desperate gamble
Formigny confirmed the reduction of English possessions on the Continent to the Calais enclave. For Henry VI, this represented a serious diminution of authority, and for a great many residents of the lost territories, who had been under Plantagenet rule for nearly 300 years, an uncomfortable situation. In desperation, a group of prominent citizens of Bordeaux implored Henry to restore English sovereignty in the region.
By September 1452, the English king was ready to act, dispatching 65-year-old Lord John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, along with 3,000 men. A professional soldier since his teens, Talbot was a fierce and ruthless fighter. Having first campaigned for years in Ireland, he had then spent decades fighting in France, where his aggressive actions earned him the titles ‘Terror of the French’ and ‘The English Achilles’. Talbot had a hard-won reputation for daring and audacious performance, and he was an obvious choice as commander of the new expeditionary force.
Anticipating Henry’s effort to reclaim lost territory, Charles VII positioned his forces around Calais to meet the threat. But Talbot’s force waded ashore in the Médoc region of Gascony, just north-west of Bordeaux, almost 560 miles to the south of Normandy. Meeting little opposition, he quickly retook Bordeaux and then began to subdue other French garrisons, so that by the end of the year the bulk of Gascony was once more under English control.
Caught off guard, Charles VII spent the winter gathering and preparing fresh forces to counter Talbot’s campaign. By the spring of 1453, he was ready to launch a three-pronged counter-offensive.
The main body was under the command of the Comte de Clermont, one wing – mostly of mounted lancers – was commanded by the Count of Penthièvre, while the other was led by Jean Bureau.
Bureau was an excellent choice. Having seen the effective use to which the English had put their cannon, Charles VII had not neglected his own artillery. The French king had directed that large numbers of guns be produced for use against the English, and he appointed Bureau as Master Gunner of the French royal artillery.
Jean Bureau was ‘a perfectionist with a methodical, mathematical mind’. The true father of French gunnery, he was further described as ‘an imaginative technician who knew how to get the best out of his primitive weapons’.
He also learned from his mistakes. Having had charge of the two culverins that had been used to great effect at Formigny but were then captured by the English, he had determined that henceforth his guns would have better support. Thus his column of 300 guns was accompanied by a force numbering nearly 7,000 men.
By the time Clermont’s force was in motion Talbot – worried by the growing threat – had received reinforcements from England: an additional 3,000 men, under the command of his son John, Viscount Lisle.
Watching developments from his headquarters in Bordeaux, Talbot planned to lure one or both of the supporting wings of the French army into battle and destroy them piecemeal, before taking on Clermont’s main force.
But the French would not cooperate and dismissed Talbot’s invitation to meet him in open combat. It was only when Bureau’s force arrived at Castillon, an English-held town 30 miles east of Bordeaux, and prepared to lay siege to it that Talbot saw an opportunity to isolate at least one wing of Clermont’s force.
A final, deadly error
Bureau’s wing reached Castillon on 13 July 1453. Rather than taking up positions to the west of the town, where he might have been sandwiched between the English defenders and any relief column originating in Bordeaux, the French commander established an artillery park to the east of the town.
Wasting no time, Bureau quickly had his force at work building a fortified position along the banks of the Lidoire River. The camp, at 700 yards long by 200 yards wide, enclosed a 30-acre interior surrounded by a deep ditch and a wooden palisade with a gate opening opposite the Dordogne River.
Within this fortification, Bureau stationed some 6,000 of his troops and set up his artillery, side by side, with smaller pieces mounted on the wall.
Meanwhile, he detached 1,000 men – primarily archers – to take up positions in the nearby St Laurent Priory, serving as a covering force for the guns.
In Bordeaux, Talbot was under pressure from the city fathers, who insisted he move against Bureau’s force. Prodded to action, Talbot took his force of some 8,000 men, a combined English-Gascon army headed by a vanguard of 500 men-at-arms and 800 mounted archers, and moved towards Castillon.
The heat, humidity, and swirling clouds of dust from the poor road put a great strain on the force, especially the overburdened infantry.
The expedition reached the outskirts of Castillon on the morning of 17 July, where they surprised the covering force at the priory, inflicted casualties, and caused most to scatter.
Shortly afterwards, Talbot was informed of a rising cloud of dust from beyond the town and assumed that the French forces were in flight. He was delighted and spurred forward with his advance guard, hoping to hit the French retreat in the flank.
Unfortunately for the English, the dust cloud was actually produced by the movement of the French camp’s horses being repositioned to make room for the archers who had fled the priory. The reconsolidated fighting force remained secure in their positions.
Talbot, with typical aggression, dismounted his force and ordered an assault on the French. Sir Thomas Everingham tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.
Talbot apparently envisioned a strong attack to force the French out of their bulwark. Thus he directed a two-pronged assault against the fortification from the east and west. It turned out to be a complete disaster.
Bureau’s 300 guns opened fire on the attackers, creating a maelstrom of lead and iron shot and swirling clouds of gunsmoke.
Finding temporary refuge in the defenders’ ditch, the English again leaped forward all along the palisade, fighting desperately, only to be cut down in swathes. Everingham was himself felled by a bullet as he tried to force through the barricade.
As wave after wave of attackers threw themselves at the palisade, the guns continued to spew death. As one French defender recalled, ‘The artillery caused grievous harm to the English, for each shot knocked down five or six men, killing them.’
Undeterred, the obstinate and maddened Talbot insisted on hurling his battered forces against the French guns. Still the slaughter continued, until, more than an hour later, a large detachment of French lancers emerged from a nearby wooded area and smashed into the English flank. The attack dissolved as the English forces turned and fled in an attempt to cross the Dordogne River.
Now the French defenders burst out of their stockade and plunged headlong into the conflict, killing the Viscount Lisle and dispatching any Englishmen thought not worth ransoming.
Talbot himself remained mounted, trying to direct the retreat, until a cannon- ball killed his horse, trapping him beneath long enough for a French archer to dash out his brains with an axe.
Used previously as siege weapons against hardened fortifications and only sparingly on the open battlefield, artillery had now been used for the first time in a primarily anti-personnel role, and to devastating effect. When the fighting was over, more than 4,000 English and Gascons were killed or captured, while the French lost as few as 100 dead.
Surviving English forces fled to Bayeux, but by October of that year it too was lost to the French. The Hundred Years War was over.
A new player emerges
While the longbow and full suits of armour would continue to feature prominently on European battlefields for another century, their utility was being rapidly eroded by a new weapon: artillery.
It had begun with relatively small pieces – hand-bombards firing shaped stones and large arrows, and the ribauldequin seen at Crécy. But it evolved rapidly to more substantial siege-guns, as used against Calais, Falaise, and Rouen, with their large iron balls battering down fortifications. And finally it developed into relatively easily transported culverins and field artillery.
The capacity of these weapons to influence combat would be recognised and further developed by far-sighted and technically adept men such as Jean Bureau. Over the coming centuries, the technology would only improve, transforming completely the battlefield and the conduct of war.
At Castillon, artillery arrived on the battlefield, and its influence was such that the motto Ultimo Ratio Regum would later be found cast on the barrels of large guns by order of the French king Louis XIV. The phrase translates as ‘The Final Argument of Kings’. •
Fred Chiaventone is a military historian, retired cavalry officer, and Professor Emeritus for International Security Affairs at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College.