The Battle of Crecy (1346)
At the dawn of the Hundred Years’ War, Edward III, King of England, lead a military campaign to pillage northern French provinces. In July 1346, Edward III landed in Normandy with around 40,000 men. Afraid, the cities opened their gates to the English forces who plundered the lands.
The next move for King Edward is to join his Flemish allies but he has to cross the Seine and Somme rivers. The first one is to be avoid, when the cities, well fortified, refused to let the English through. Unwilling to lay siege to the city of Rouen (the key to crossing the Seine), King Edward ordered a bridge to be built. He has to be quick, the French King Phillippe VI of Valois is gathering a great number of troops and is coming to fight his English cousin Edward III.
With the Seine crossed, the English army is avoiding battle against the French but now has to cross the Somme. King Edward knows the land since he is its liege but the locals are unwilling to help him find the ideal position to fight King Phillippe. Gobin Agache, a local prisoner of the English, accept to help the King cross the Somme and find the good position for the coming battle. Gobin won a hundred gold for his information (certainly more than he would have won in his entire life) and his freedom.
King Phillippe arrived at the rive of the Somme when the last Englishman crossed it but he is blocked by the tide with his thousands strong army. Meanwhile, Edward III is now free to choose the battlefield.
The lands around the city of Montreuil (in the Nord Pas de Calais department) are full of swamps and extremely difficult for an army to pass through. The host is slowed and King Edward doesn’t want to tire his men. He has to go back to Abbeville (the city close to where he crossed the Somme) but he knows that the French army is currently resting there. He can’t avoid the coming battle much longer and has to choose the right place for it.
We are now at the end of August and Phillippe VI of Valois managed to assemble a huge army composed of the best French knights, mercenaries from Genoa and the Kingdom of Castile. He also had help coming from his European friends (King John I of Bohemia, Roman King Charles IV and Charles II, Duke of Alençon and the King’s brother).
Preparing for the battle, King Edward decided to form two lines. The first was commanded by Edward the Black Prince (the King’s son) and the second by the King himself.
Today’s estimations say that the English had around 20,000 men and the French 50,000.
The day of the Battle, the weather turned with rain and thunder. The French are coming from Abbeville and the men seemed to be excited about the coming fight. King Phillippe wanted to cancel the battle and wait for the morrow but the excitation of the soldiers made his orders impossible to be heard. Some squadrons stopped at the King’s command, but others pushed them into the general confusion and rushed toward the English lines. At the sight of his entire army running, Phillippe VI would have said : “I see my foe and by my soul, I want to fight him”.
He gave the command to the Genoese crossbowmen (around 15,000) to fire but the rain made the crossbows useless. During the march, the crossbowmen let their pavises (shields) in the baggage wagons and did not had time to take them. While the crossbow volleys where ineffective, the English long-bowmen, stationed on the top of the hill, were able to shot around six arrows per minutes.
It did not took a long time for the mercenaries to run away from the English army and their raining arrows. King Phillippe took this as treason and ordered his knights to execute the “cowards”. The French chivalry launched a deadly charge … Against their own men. They charged the Genoese crossbowmen all the way to the English lines where their traps killed the horses and unhorsed the knights until they finally ended butchered by the English army and their own madness.
What happened next was a succession of confused and non-organized charges. The Welsh archers (able to shot more than ten arrows per minute), around 6,000 of them, managed to push back every French offensive. It was only at sunrise that the English army sustained real casualties. The King’s brother, Duke of Alançon, lead a deadly charge on the Welsh long-bowmen who could not stand a cavalry charge in mêlée. But they finally were reinforced by men-at-arms and English knights. The remaining bowmen aimed the French horses, obliging the knights to fight on foot awaiting to be killed. Among them was the brave but imprudent Duke of Alençon.
King Phillippe, wounded on the face, followed the advice to leave the battlefield and order the general retreat.
King John of Bohemia tried to keep fighting alone with the remaining forces until annihilation of his men.
On the evening of the end of this terrible battle, King Edward gave the command to count the dead. They wrote the name of eleven princes and high-born nobles, 1,300 knights and and estimated 16,000 common soldiers for the French side. Of course, the casualties are subject of disagreement among historians. Among the high-born deceased, we can name :
King John I of Bohemia, the Duke of Lorraine, The Duke of Alençon who also was the King’s brother, the Counts of Flanders, Nevers, Blois, d’Aumale, Bar, d’Harcourt and his two sons, Sancerre. Also six German Earls, the arch-bishop of Nîmes and Sens and the Lord of Thouars.
When half the French chivalry died and many nobles with them, the English army sustained between 200 and 300 casualty. The issue of the battle of Crécy was the captured of the city of Calais by the English army the year after. Leading western Europe to the darkest period of the Hundred Years’ War.