Known as one of the most decisive battles in English history and The Hundred Years war, Crecy has come to be known as a military revolution in its massive use of the longbow and the ultimate demise of the age of chivalry.
Previous battles had been fought mostly by the infantry and mounted knights. Battles before had adhered to chivalric code that had mostly kept the knights protected. Crecy was a game changer.
Edward III had inherited an England at war. He was fighting on two fronts, Scotland and Aquitaine in south west France. The battle of Dupplin Muir (moor) in Scotland proved to be a crucial turning point for Edward III for future conflicts. He had tried a new tactic whereby he arranged his advancing army into a crescent shape. As the Scots came in toward the middle where the enemy knights were wielding their swords and pikes, they forced the knights back but as they did so the left and right flank closed in on them. These flanks were armed with longbows and as the arrows rained down on the Scots they became crushed together, unable to use their weapons. Those that could turned and ran. This was followed by the battle of Halidon Hill which, once again using the longbow from an elevated position, obliterating the Scottish army. The tightly packed Scottish ranks were decimated while English losses were light.
King Edward III, only 20 years old, had now learned a valuable lesson in warfare which he would eventually put into great effect at Crecy.
This battle about as the culmination of a long running dispute between Edward and Phillip over the French crown, which Edward felt was rightly his through his mother Isabella of France. Phillip VI of France threatened to confiscate Aquitaine, land under the dukedom of Edward III.
In the time running up to the battle there were losses and gains by both the English and French navy in the channel. The threat of a French invasion on the south coast emboldened Edward to ask for an increase in taxes to send an army to Aquitaine. Parliament agreed the taxes. Subsequently on July 12th 1346, with an invasion force of 14,000 men and his sixteen year old son, Edward, later known as the Black Prince, he landed on the coast of Normandy.
The English army plundered their way through the countryside as they headed toward Paris. On hearing that Edward had landed in France, Phillip mustered an army of 12,000 men. His army was roughly made up of 8,000 mounted knights and 4,000 crossbowmen. A few miles short of Paris, Edward stopped and began to head north. They were being closely followed by Philips army which hoped to catch and crush them before they crossed the Somme. They failed. On 24th August Edward successfully crossed the Somme via a small ford near Saigneville. Phillip had not expected Edward to be able to cross the river, thinking by the time he reached Edward’s army they would most likely have either starved or drowned. As a result, he had not placed any defences at Saineville, which allowed Edward’s army to plunder and restock.
Edward reached Crecy and using the available time before Phillip caught up to his advantage. He placed his army into a defensive position on a slope knowing this would make it harder for the French cavalry. He also used the time to dig small pits with spears to impale the horses in the front line.
The English army was comprised of three main flanks. The sixteen year old Black Prince took command of the right flank that was placed slightly ahead of the other two and would take the brunt of the attack. Each division consisted of spearmen at the rear, dismounted knights and men at arms in the centre and in a jagged line at the front stood the archers. At the rear were the reserves, positioned centrally, and led directly by King Edward.
Late in the afternoon on 26th August, Philip’s army attacked. The Genoese crossbowmen led the assault. However due to heavy rain the night before the Genoese bows had become slack and ineffective. As a result, when they fired, their shots fell short. In contrast the English longbows were able to be unstrung and therefore were dry by the time it came to fire any arrows. The Genoese crossbowmen were quickly overwhelmed by Edward’s 10,000 archers, who able to loose ‘arrows flying so thick they appeared as snow’. Upon seeing the ineffectiveness of his crossbows, Phillip sent out his mounted knights, who trampled over the Genoese dead and dying and mowed down those trying to run back. At first the masses of the dead beneath them sent the knights into confusion but they soon gathered pace towards the English lines. Sixteen times the French mounted cavalry tried to charge upon the slope but each time were taken down either by arrows or were halted by their own dead horses and men on the battlefield.
At some point during this offensive the Black Prince came directly under attack and a messenger was sent to the king for aid. He is reputed to have asked whether his son be ‘wounded or dead?’ when he was reassured he was neither he said ‘I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help’ and turning to one of his knights famously adding ‘Let the boy win his spurs!’
During the battle, upon hearing of the impending defeat of the French, the blind King of Bohemia rode into battle with his two knights by his side. He aimed for the Black Prince’s position and was cut down along with his knights who it was said could easily have made their escape, but refused to leave their Lord, preparing to die in battle beside him. Popular legend states that at this point the Prince plucked three ostrich feathers from his helmet and these became his emblem and the emblem of The Prince of Wales. It is seen today on one side of the current two pence piece.
At around midnight King Phillip abandoned the carnage and retreated from the field, where he was soon followed by his few remaining knights and men at arms. The English forces followed him to Poitiers where the French king was captured and taken to the Tower of London where he was held ransom for 3,000,000 gold crowns. Edward was heralded for his victory which sent a shockwave throughout Europe. For many kings that followed he was emulated and came to be known as one of the greatest kings England has ever had.