The Battle of Crécy – the massacre of French chivalry

Beginning of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The battle when 8000 soldiers of the English army defeated a French force of 35,000. French knights charged the enemy sixteen times and they were sloughtered, mostly by English elite bowmen.

Who has not heard about the Hundred Years War being fought in France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? This bloody conflict between England and France began with British claims to the rights of French crown. One of the first, and the most important events of this war was the Battle of Crécy. In this battle one disciplined army won against the army twice bigger, but poorly led by ignorant leaders.

Edward The Black Prince
Edward The Black Prince (son of Edward III) on the battlefield
Before the Battle

On 26 August 1346 the English army led by Edward III met French forces of Philip VI near Crécy, in northern France. Before that, Edward’s army was retreating north and Philip’s plan was to chase them and fight at the fords of the Somme, what would give an advantage for the French. The English, however, overcoming the weak resistance of the ford’s defences, managed to cross the river at the last minute and they chose the convenient for themselves place for a battle.

Before the battle Edward and his army took up positions on a hill, what gave them strategic advantage on French. They spent entire day on strenghtening their defensive lines with barbed wires, ditches and palisade. English troops were set in three lines, 2 km (1.2 miles) wide. Before the first line they prepared lots of pits and sharpened logs to slow down the French charges. The battlefield was also covered with a large number of metal stars mutilating horses’ hooves. Edward’s royal command ordered English knights to fight alongside ordinary soldiers and there was no opposition to it, however this situation was very unusual in those days.

English lines during the battle - source
English line during the battle – source
Two armies

English forces consisted of 8 to 14 thousand soldiers, including 2-3 thousand heavy knights, 5-10 thousand elite archers and 1 thousand spearmen. They also had 3 cannons (and this is the first confirmed use of an artillery on a field of battle in the history) but their effectiveness was rather psychological.

English archers were one of the deadliest forces of medieval warfare. Equipped with long, made of yew wood bows they could shoot at range of 300 metres (1000 feet) and penetrate heavy knight’s armor from close distance. However, their biggest advantage was the fact that a proficient archer could take a shot every 5 to 6 seconds, while a crossbowman could shoot only twice a minute. These archers were fast-shooting killers, and if properly use in combat, they were extremely hard to stop.

English army was prepared and ready to take a fight. French king Philip came after them, having 20 to 40 thousand soldiers, including 12 thousand heavy knights and 6 thousand famous Genoese crossbowmen.

French knights, XIV Century, source:
French knights, XIV Century
The rain of arrows

The battle started with a duel between Genoese crossbowmen and English Archers. These mercenary crossbowmen were known for their superior combat training and discipline. However, on that day they were exhausted after long march and strings in their crossbows were wet because of heavy raining (the English managed to hide their strings in their helmets before the battle). Furthermore, the Genoese left their pavises in camp – it meant no protection against enemy fire.

Despite all of these setbacks, the crossbowmen were sent to attack English lines and bravely began to march. They had to climb on a slippery slope with low visibility because of sun’s rays shining right at them. Somehow they managed to shot, but their bolts, launched by wet strings, did not reach the English lines. In the same time the crossbowmen were under a rain of English arrows, which were taking their lifes very quickly.

Genoese commander, watching hundreds of his men lying dead or wounded ordered his troops to retreat. French king Philip was sure their withdrawal was cowardly and sent French knights to charge. They did not wait for crossbowmen’s return and massacred them while Genoese were retreating.

French charge, not coordinated and left unorganized after killing their allies, was not able to break through English lines. They charged sixteen times, dying under the rain of English arrows, stopped by the mud and wolf pits. Only few groups of French knights reached their enemy, but they were all killed by Welsh and Irish spearmen.

English Archer, source:
English Archer
After the Battle

Many French nobles and their allies died on that day. One of them was Czech king John of Bohemia. 50-year old, blind warrior ordered his squires to tie him to his two knights and they charged the English army, choosing death before dishonor.

The Battle of Crécy is a rare example where smaller army defeated distinctly larger one. The French lost over 1500 knights and a few thousand infantry troops. The English army lost between 100 to 300 soldiers. Discipline won against impatience and conceit.  Some historians claim that Crécy was the beginning of the end of chivarly.

After the battle, Edward besieged and captured Calais. The Hundred Years War began…

Fun Fact

Fact reminded to me by friend – everybody knows the gesture of showing somebody the middle finger. Did you know this gesture came from the Hundred Years War? As you know from the article, French hated English archers who used their longbows with such devastating effect. If they managed to capture one, they usually cut off his index and middle fingers. Before any fight, English archers taunted French by showing them these two fingers, what meant “I still have my fingers, and I’m ready to shoot you!”.

Thank you for reading.

Source Book - Sławomir Leśniewski, Pożegnanie z rycerstwem, Book - Wielkie bitwy i kampanie, Bellona

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