Prelude to the Hundred Years War, the Battle of Crécy saw the defeat of the armies of the French King Philippe VI of Valois against those of King Edward III of England on August 26, 1346. This first major engagement of the war, which had the effect of a thunderclap in Christendom, took place on a battlefield in northern France, near Crécy-en-Ponthieu (today in the Somme). The English victory will deal a severe blow to the old feudal warrior concept by demonstrating that a combination of archers and infantry can withstand a charge of armored knights. However, the lesson will not be learned and it will be the beginning of a long series of defeats for French chivalry.
The context of the Battle of Crécy
In 1328, the death without heir of Charles IV of France caused a major break in the long line of Capetian sovereigns, the latter succeeding each other until then from father to son since Hugues Capet in the tenth century. However, if all the sons of Philippe IV le Bel had died young and without an heir (Louis X had a son, Jean, but he died at 4 days old), his daughter Isabelle, wife of Edward II of England had she gave birth to Edward III, who became king of England following his father. Wasn't he entitled to reign over France too? An election bringing together the great aristocrats of the kingdom of France preferred Philippe de Valois, grandson of another king of France, Philippe III le Bold, but who was therefore only the first cousin of the late king of France.
The rivalry between the Kingdom of France and the Kingdom of England was already in centuries-old times. The clashes between the two powers date back to the reign of Louis VI le Gros in the 12th century and reached a first paroxysm under Philippe Auguste. Following the election of Philippe VI de Valois to the throne of France, tensions resumed (it must be said that they have never really subsided since Saint Louis) around the thorny question of homage. Edward III of England was indeed to declare himself a vassal of the King of France by virtue of his territorial possessions in the kingdom (Guyenne). But for the kings of England, this humiliating ritual for their power had to disappear. The fact that a king had to pay homage to another, was in this case a strangeness of the feudal system but finding a very logical explanation; the Plantagenet dynasty is of French origin and therefore vassal of the crown of France.
Hundred Years War:the first hostilities
It all started with Henry II Plantagenet, father of the famous Richard the Lionheart, who was originally Count of Maine and Anjou, then Duke of Normandy on the death of his father, and finally Duke of Aquitaine, who, after his marriage to Eleanor, became King of England (he was also the grandson of Henry I Beauclerc, King of England and great rival of Louis VI the Fat). It was therefore in this imbroglio that the election of Philip VI caused a rupture. The new king of England having been removed from the throne under the Salic law (prohibition of succession by women) benefited from the tendentious aspect of manipulation and the uncertain power of Philip.
The tensions led to the first hostilities which began with the proclamation by Philip of the seizure of the French domains of the King of England on May 24, 1337. The first operations were laborious and above all composed sieges and capture of towns around the domains of Edward in Guyenne. The fighting changed in intensity in the north of the kingdom, in Flanders where the King of England knew he could find supporters by playing on the resentment of this province against the French crown (it should be remembered that since Philip IV especially Flanders is regularly invested by the French armies to bring it back in obedience, the Capetians fearing its links with England) especially since Philippe won there at the beginning of his reign on August 23, 1328 the battle of Cassel.
Edward therefore exploited this county as a rear base and in 1339 launched a cavalcade (rapid offensive of devastation) that Philip countered by raising an army against which Edward defiled. The year 1340 was calamitous for the King of France since his fleet was annihilated by the English who were to retain control of the seas for a long time and could therefore disembark wherever they pleased. It was then in the South West that Count Derby, under the orders of Edward, performed further feats for the English camp by removing the French threat to Guyenne. Also in Brittany, the two competitors clashed, each supporting a pretender to the duchy. However, it was only in 1346 that the war took on a new dimension.
Strong in his mastery of the seas, the King of England chose to land in the Cotentin on July 12. He then embarked on a dazzling offensive from West to East, looting the outskirts of Paris before returning to the North laden with booty. After many prevarications coming from his fears towards fidelities which he thinks tottering in his nobility, fruits of his ambiguous seizure of power, Philippe finally hastily raised a host and launched himself in pursuit of the King of England to compel him to fight. The chase then took a very different turn; the English army comes up against the passage of the Somme with a stubborn resistance of the Picards, alerted by the columns of smoke enameling the road of the king of England. He tries to force his way over several bridges but he is repelled each time.
At the same time Philippe keeps getting closer. He thinks he can trap his opponent in a real trap and confront him decisively on his ground. The English are also fatigued by skirmishes and forced marches. But this situation, so favorable to Valois, collapsed because of a poor prisoner, Gobin-Agache, who bought his freedom by signaling a ford to a desperate Edouard on August 23. The resistance is still very strong there but the English army ends up passing. It only remained for Philippe, master of the bridges, to go and confine himself to Abbeville.
The Battle of Crécy
On August 25, Edward III resumed his journey and decided to settle in Crécy to wait for the King of France, whom he knew was more difficult to dodge. But now he has the advantage of choosing the place of confrontation. For their part, the French set off the next day with the firm intention of engaging in a glorious battle where they could demonstrate their bravery before God and their king. They therefore travel all day for nearly 25 kilometers before joining the perfectly aligned battles of the English.
Path making scouts reported to Philip that the enemy was far away and that the army was going to be exhausted in a vain advance to arrive on the battlefield only very late. They suggest the king halt and set up camp for the night since the English would still be there the next day. Philippe then gives the order to stop. But discipline is not the hallmark of the French aristocracy, and organization does not preside over the constitution of feudal hosts.
Most of the French army continued on its way and Philip VI of Valois was forced to follow suit. It was therefore in the evening that the French came into contact with Edward's army, although the column was still stretching on the road to Abbeville. The marshals and Philippe have the greatest difficulty in forming the ranks. For their part, the English waited there all day. Edward, receiving regular reports from his scouts, even broke ranks during the day so that everyone could eat and drink as they pleased. While the French are plodding along the dusty roads of this hot and stifling day of August 26, 1346, the English are waiting for them seated. The contrast is therefore striking between well-ordered, well-rested Englishmen and a dispersed, chaotic and completely exhausted French army.
The commitment of the Welsh archers
Philippe had bought the Genoese crossbowmen's competition at a gold price to complete his ost and therefore oppose once again to the Welsh archers. The lesson of the naval battle of the Lock does not therefore seem to have been learned. The archers' large bow, two meters high, allowed a high rate of fire with very high power. The crossbow, although more powerful, required slow reloading, sometimes using a crank to stretch the overpowering steel bow. In Crécy the meeting will once again demonstrate the superiority of the first.
The Genoese are sent forward to engage the English archers. The volleys of arrows, very dense, quickly did their job and the mercenaries, whose monetized commitment did not incline to feats of courage, broke ranks and fled in disorder. But behind them came the compact ranks of French knights. Seeing the cowardice of the mercenaries and with the blessing of Philip they massacred them, under a rain of English arrows which did not stop falling.
Froissard even tells us that none of them missed their mark in this compact mass. Jean de Luxembourg, blind but still on horseback, would have said when he got wind of this affair “poor beginning”... From this tangle some manage to extricate themselves and charge on this hill where the English have fortified themselves. They advance under a hail of arrows that the defensive equipment does not yet really manage to deflect. They are received by rows of stakes stuck in the ground who break clean the first assaults and quickly deliver the first knights to the knives and daggers of the English foot soldiers.
The powerful charge of the French knights, once invincible, had already suffered for some time in the face of new tactical dispositions, as was the case in 1302 in Courtrai where the Flemish pedestrians had massacred the French army in what remains the Battle of the Golden Spurs. The English had also learned a lesson during the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 against the Scots, but if it had been profitable for them, for the French nothing had changed, especially since the humiliation had been avenged twice.
It would take many more massacres for the institution of chivalry to be called into question. The charges multiplied and each came to smash on the stakes offering the French aristocrats to the blows of the foot soldiers. Finally a corps of cavalry ends up crossing the barrage. The French knights could then speak all their valor and their courage, the battle took for them a more conventional turn.
The battle of the Black Prince was tested and he himself had to work hard. But the French were too few on this point to jeopardize the English ordinance and they all ended up being killed. Faced with the inability of his army to shove the enemy, in the darkness of the evening, Philip VI resigned himself to leaving the battlefield defeated and vexed, leaving the last irreducible knights to continue their desperate fight. He went through the countryside and found refuge in the Château de Labroye and then in Amiens. The battle ended in disaster; Edward III didn't even have to engage his own battle left behind in reserve.
The consequences of the Battle of Crécy
The French nobility has once again been crushed, at the same time delivering French royalty to a deep crisis of conscience. Indeed Philip VI no longer risked finding the English in open country and no longer had the slightest initiative in this war. Following his triumph at Crécy, Edward III laid siege to Calais, which fell eleven months later. Philip had indeed assembled a relief army, but fearing the English power he preferred to withdraw without a fight. Calais was to remain English until 1557, thus forming an excellent bridgehead for the English monarchy to plan new attacks on French territory.
The greatest Western power had therefore just been completely defeated, exposing its weaknesses in full light; its old feudal organization in the face of which the royal power had difficulty in imposing itself, especially in the present case where its succession was tendentious. The higher interest of the state was still an unknown concept and the private interest was yet to poison the conflict for the side of the king of France. Militarily, of course, Crécy once again marked the sclerosis of the massive charge tactic against an organized and motivated enemy. In this case, the volleys of arrows from the English undermined the heavy knights who, once they fell violently from their horses, were often too stunned to get up quickly enough. The honorable war had just been cruelly recalled to the harsh reality of the circumstances of the real.
- Great battles in the history of France, by Bernard Vincent. Southwest, 2014.
- The Hundred Years War, by Georges Minois. Tempus, 2016.
- Philippe Contamine, Military History of France. PUF, 1997