Battle of Crecy
The 26th of August 1346 AD
The Battle of Crécy was of massive significance to England, giving Edward III a victory that weakened France enormously, allowed him to take Calais, which was held until the reign of Mary Tudor , and demonstrated the power of the English and Welsh longbow. It was also the beginning of the end for chivalric warfare, demonstrating the superiority of firepower and good generalship over the idiot bravery of noble knights – though France failed to learn its lesson, repeating the error at Poitiers 10 years later, and at Agincourt almost 60 years on.
Edward III had landed his army in Normandy and progressed north in what was in effect a raid rather than an invasion. Eventually a great French army caught up with them at Crécy-en-Ponthieu. Edward commanded perhaps 14,000 men; the French numbered at least twice and possibly even six times that.
It was Edward though who chose his ground: his flanks covered by forests and a river to engineer a frontal attack by the French; his army on high ground, meaning the French would need to charge uphill. Edward took a position in a windmill commanding a view of the entire battleground; Philip mixed with his knights, and was even wounded in the clash.
The French king, Philip VI, had little control over his over enthusiastic (and over confident) knights. He and his army made error after error, beginning with choosing to attack at once rather than recover from their march. Philip sent forward his Genoese crossbowmen, exhausted by that long march, without their shields: they could fire one or two bolts a minute; the English and Welsh 10 or 12 arrows in the same time; the crossbowmen had a far shorter range, made worse by their weapons having been drenched in a storm whereas the longbowmen had unstrung their weapons until it was over. The Genoese were decimated, and retreated to find the French knights angered by their ‘cowardice’ cutting more of them down.
Next the French knights charged, but only piecemeal, each wave largely slaughtered well before reaching the dismounted English, their progress slowed by mud and the slope. Those approaching the English line had to negotiate caltrops and ditches, bringing their horses to a halt, offering perfect close range targets. Any who made it through were cut to pieces by the fresh troops awaiting them.
Philip had brought trumpeters to frighten the English; Edward had five cannons (though this is open to dispute), which fired grapeshot at the approaching horsemen, the noise maddening the horses and some of the shot hitting home.
The English and Welsh lost two knights and 300 or so common soldiers; France lost 11 great nobles and more than 1500 aristocratic knights – perhaps a quarter of the male nobility of fighting age died at Crécy, some despatched much against the rules of chivalry by mere peasants. It is estimated that Philip also lost some 12,000 foot-soldiers, including more than 2,000 Genoese.
Philip’s ally King John of Bohemia, almost totally blind but with his guards roped to him to guide his advance, was determined to attack. Inevitably he and all his men were killed, encapsulating the bravery and stupidity of the French day. Edward, the Black Prince, won his spurs at just 16 at Crécy, commanding one of his father’s three divisions. Out of respect for King John’s chivalry Edward adopted his emblem, the three feathers used by all Princes of Wales and by the Welsh themselves.
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