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Impearls: 2003-10-05 Archive

Earthdate 2003-10-05

The Battle of Crécy

Since quoting Winston Churchill and Mark Steyn in the same breath, I was amused (and a bit saddened) by Steyn's recent piece “Henry Goes to Baghdad,” about two productions (London and New York) of Shakespeare's Henry V, one of which uses the play to proclaim an antiwar theme, while the other basically fails to get (or is consciously anti-) Shakespeare altogether. 1

Still, there have been so many films and productions over the years based on Shakespeare's work that most people, I would think, who are at least slightly susceptible to Shakespeare or history, have seen and become somewhat familiar with his story of the Battle of Agincourt, England's famous and lopsided victory during its Hundred Years War with France.  Many fewer people, however — since Shakespeare never documented it for us — know today of the much earlier (69 years before, in 1346) Battle of Crécy, which pretty much opened the confrontation between infantry shooting missile weapons versus sword and lance wielding knights-cavalry — between a national army and a militarized elite — which characterized much of the Hundred Years War.  Fortunately for us all, Churchill has told the tale in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

The Long-bow

At the same time [as the Welsh wars of Edward I] a counter-revolution in the balance of warfare was afoot.  The mailed cavalry which from the fifth century eclipsed the ordered ranks of the legion were wearing out their long day.  A new type of infantry raised from the common people began to prove its dominating quality.  This infantry operated, not by club or sword or spear, or even by hand-flung missiles, but by an archery which, after a long development, concealed from Europe, was very soon to make an astonishing entrance upon the military scene and gain a dramatic ascendancy upon the battlefields of the Continent.  Here was a prize taken by the conquerors from their victims.  In South Wales the practice of drawing the long-bow had already attained an astonishing efficiency, of which one of the Marcher lords has left a record.  One of his knights had been hit by an arrow which pierced not only the skirts of his mailed shirt, but his mailed breeches, his thigh, and the wood of his saddle, and finally stuck deep into his horse's flank.  This was a new fact in the history of war, which is also a part of the history of civilisation, deserving to be mentioned with the triumph of bronze over flint, or iron over bronze.  For the first time infantry possessed a weapon which could penetrate the armour of the clanking age, and which in range and rate of fire was superior to any method ever used before, or ever used again until the coming of the modern rifle.  The War Office has among its records a treatise written during the peace after Waterloo by a general officer of long experience in the Napoleonic wars recommending that muskets should be discarded in favor of the long-bow on account of its superior accuracy, rapid discharge, and effective range. 2  […]

The English people stood at this time possessed of a commanding weapon, the qualities of which were utterly unsuspected abroad.  The long-bow, handled by the well-trained archer class, brought into the field a yeoman type of soldier with whom there was nothing on the Continent to compare.  An English army now rested itself equally upon the armoured knighthood and the archers.

The power of the long-bow and the skill of the bowmen had developed to the point where even the finest mail was no certain protection.  At two hundred and fifty yards the arrow hail produced effects never reached again by infantry missiles at such a range until the American civil war.  The skilled archer was a professional soldier, earning and deserving high pay.  He went to war on a pony, but always with a considerable transport for his comfort and his arrows.  He carried with him a heavy iron-pointed stake, which, planted in the ground, afforded a deadly obstacle to charging horses.  Behind this shelter a company of archers in open order could deliver a discharge of arrows so rapid, continuous, and penetrating as to annihilate the cavalry attack.  Moreover, in all skirmishing and patrolling the trained archer brought his man down at ranges which had never before been considered dangerous in the whole history of war.  Of all this the Continent, and particularly France, our nearest neighbour, was ignorant.  In France the armoured knight and his men-at-arms had long exploited their ascendancy in war.  The foot-soldiers who accompanied their armies were regarded as the lowest type of auxiliary.  A military caste had imposed itself upon society in virtue of physical and technical assertions which the coming of the long-bow must disprove.  The protracted wars of the two Edwards in the mountains of Wales and Scotland had taught the English many hard lessons, and although European warriors had from time to time shared in them they had neither discerned nor imparted the slumbering secret of the new army.  It was with a sense of unmeasured superiority that the English looked out upon Europe towards the middle of the fourteenth century. 3 

The Battle of Crécy

By the spring of 1346 Parliament had at length brought itself to the point of facing the taxation necessary to finance a new invasion.  The army was reconstituted, more efficiently than before, its old elements were refreshed with carefully chosen levies.  In one wave 2,400 cavalry, twelve thousand archers, and other infantry sailed, and landed unopposed at St. Vaast in Normandy on July 12, 1346.  Their object this time was no less than the capture of Paris by a sudden dash.  The secret was well kept; even the English army itself believed it was going to Gascony.  The French could not for some time collect forces sufficient to arrest the inroad.  Caen fell, and Edward [III] advanced, burning and laying waste the country, to the very walls of Paris.  But by this time the whole power of the French monarchy had gathered against him.  A huge force which comprised all the chivalry of France and was probably three times as big as Edward's army assembled in the neighbourhood of St. Denis.  Against such opposition, added to the walls of a fortified city, Edward's resources could not hope to prevail.  King Philip grimly invited him to choose upon which bank of the Seine he would fight a pitched battle.

The thrust had failed and retreat imposed itself upon the army.  The challenger was forced to quit the lists at a pace which covered sixty miles in four days.  The French army moved on a parallel line to the southward and denied the Seine valley to the retreating English.  They must now make for the Somme, and hope to cross between Amiens and the sea.  [...]

After a narrow escape crossing the mouth of the Somme, Edward's army was brought to bay by King Philip's host next to the forest of Crécy.

Edward and his army were intensely convinced of the narrowness of their deliverance.  That night they rejoiced; the countryside was full of food; the King gathered his chiefs to supper and afterwards to prayer.  But it was certain they could not gain the coast without a battle.  No other resolve was open than to fight at enormous odds.  The King and the Prince of Wales, afterwards famous as the Black Prince, received all the offices of religion, and Edward prayed that the impending battle should at least leave him unstripped of honour.  With the daylight he marshalled about eleven thousand men in three divisions.  Mounted upon a small palfrey, with a white wand in his hand, with his splendid surcoat of crimson and gold above his armour, he rode along the ranks, “encouraging and entreating the army that they would guard his honour and defend his right.”  “He spoke this so sweetly and with such a cheerful countenance that all who had been dispirited were directly comforted by seeing and hearing him….  They ate and drank at their ease … and seated themselves on the ground, placing their helmets and bows before them, that they might be the fresher when their enemies should arrive.”  Their position on the open rolling downs enjoyed few advantages, but the forest of Crécy on their flanks afforded protection and the means of a final stand.

King Philip at sunrise on this same Saturday, August 26, 1346, heard Mass in the monastery of Abbeville, and his whole army, gigantic for those times, rolled forward in their long pursuit.  Four knights were sent forth to reconnoitre.  About midday the King, having arrived with large masses on the farther bank of the Somme, received their reports.  The English were in battle array and meant to fight.  He gave the sage counsel to halt for the day, bring up the rear, form the battle-line, and attack on the morrow.  These orders were carried by famous chiefs to all parts of the army.  But the thought of leaving, even for a day, this hated foe, who had for so many marches fled before overwhelming forces, and was now compelled to come to grips, was unendurable to the French army.  What surety had they that the morrow might not see their enemies decamped and the field bare?  It became impossible to control the forward movement.  All the roads and tracks from Abbeville to Crécy were black and glittering with the marching columns.  King Philip's orders were obeyed by some, rejected by most.  While many great bodies halted obediently, still larger masses poured forward, forcing their way through the stationary or withdrawing troops, and about five in the afternoon came face to face with the English army lying in full view on the broad slopes of Crécy.  Here they stopped.

King Philip, arriving on the scene, was carried away by the ardour of the throng around him.  The sun was already low; nevertheless all were determined to engage.  There was a corps of six thousand Genoese cross-bowmen in the van of the army.  These were ordered to make their way through the masses of horsemen, and with their missiles break up the hostile array in preparation for the cavalry attacks.  The Genoese had marched eighteen miles in full battle order with their heavy weapons and store of bolts.  Fatigued, they made it plain that they were in no condition to do much that day.  But the Count d'Alençon, who had covered the distance on horseback, did not accept this remonstrance kindly.  “This is what one gets,” he exclaimed, “by employing such scoundrels, who fall off when there is anything for them to do.”  Forward the Genoese!  At this moment, while the cross-bowmen were threading their way to the front under many scornful glances, dark clouds swept across the sun and a short, drenching storm beat upon the hosts.  A large flight of crows flew cawing through the air above the French in gloomy presage.  The storm, after wetting the bow-strings of the Genoese, passed as quickly as it had come, and the setting sun shone brightly in their eyes and on the backs of the English.  This, like the crows, was adverse, but it was more material.  The Genoese, drawing out their array, gave a loud shout, advanced a few steps, shouted again, and a third time advanced, “hooted,” and discharged their bolts.  Unbroken silence had wrapped the English lines, but at this the archers, six or seven thousand strong, ranged on both flanks in “portcullis” formation, who had hitherto stood motionless, advanced one step, drew their bows to the ear, and came into action.  They “shot their arrows with such force and quickness,” says Froissart, “that it seemed as if it snowed.”

The effect upon the Genoese was annihilating; at a range which their own weapons could not attain they were in a few minutes killed by thousands.  The ground was covered with feathered corpses.  Reeling before this blast of missile destruction, the like of which had not been known in war, the survivors recoiled in rout upon the eager ranks of the French chivalry and men-at-arms, which stood just out of arrow-shot.  “Kill me those scoundrels,” cried King Philip in fury, “for they stop up our road without any reason.”  Whereupon the front line of the French cavalry rode among the retreating Genoese, cutting them down with their swords.  In doing so they came within the deadly distance.  The arrow snowstorm beat upon them, piercing their mail and smiting horse and man.  Valiant squadrons from behind rode forward into the welter, and upon all fell the arrow hail, making the horses caper, and strewing the field with richly dressed warriors.  A hideous disorder reigned.  And now Welsh and Cornish light infantry, slipping through the chequered ranks of the archers, came forward with their long knives and, “falling upon earls, barons, knights, and squires, slew many, at which the King of England was afterwards exasperated.”  Many a fine ransom was cast away in those improvident moments.

In this slaughter fell King Philip's ally, the blind King of Bohemia, who bade his knights fasten their bridles to his in order that he might strike a blow with his own hand.  Thus entwined, he charged forward in the press.  Man and horse they fell, and the next day their bodies were found still linked.  His son, Prince Charles of Luxembourg, who as Emperor-elect of the Holy Roman Empire signed his name as King of the Romans, was more prudent, and, seeing how matters lay, departed with his following by an unnoticed route.  The main attack of the French now developed.  The Count d'Alençon and the Count of Flanders led heavy cavalry charges upon the English line.  Evading the archers as far as possible, they sought the men-at-arms, and French, German, and Savoyard squadrons actually reached the Prince of Wales's division.  The enemy's numbers were so great that those who fought about the Prince sent to the windmill, whence King Edward directed the battle, for reinforcements.  But the King would not part with his reserves, saying, “Let the boy win his spurs” — which in fact he did.

Another incident was much regarded.  One of Sir John of Hainault's knights, mounted upon a black horse, the gift that day of King Philip, escaping the arrows, actually rode right through the English lines.  Such was their discipline that not a man stirred to harm him, and, riding around the rear, he returned eventually to the French army.  Continuous cavalry charges were launched upon the English front, until utter darkness fell upon the field.  And all through the night fresh troops of brave men, resolved not to quit the field without striking their blow, struggled forward, groping their way.  All these were slain, for “No quarter” was the mood of the English, though by no means the wish of their King.

When night had fallen Philip found himself with no more than sixty knights at hand.  He was slightly wounded by one arrow, and his horse had been shot under him by another.  Sir John Hainault, mounting him again, seized his bridle and forced him from the field upon the well-known principle which, according to Froissart, he exactly expounded, of living to fight another day.  The King had but five barons with him on reaching Amiens the next morning.

“When on the Saturday night the English heard no more hooting or shouting, nor any more crying out to particular lords, or their banners, they looked upon the field as their own and their enemies as beaten.  They made great fires, and lighted torches because of the obscurity of the night.  King Edward who all that day had not put on his helmet, then came down from his post, and, with his whole battalion, advanced to the Prince of Wales, whom he embraced in his arms and kissed, and said, ‘Sweet son, God give you good perseverance.  You are my son, for most loyally have you acquitted yourself this day.  You are worthy to be a sovereign.’  The Prince bowed down very low, and humbled himself, giving all honour to the King his father.”

On the Sunday morning fog enshrouded the battlefield, and the King sent a strong force of five hundred lancers and two thousand archers to learn what lay upon his front.  These met the columns of the French rear, still marching up from Rouen to Beauvais in ignorance of the defeat, and fell upon them.  After this engagement the bodies of 1,542 knights and esquires were counted upon the field.  Later this force met with the troops of the Archbishop of Rouen and the Grand Prior of France, who were similarly unaware of the event, and were routed with much slaughter.  They also found very large numbers of stragglers and wandering knights, and “put to the sword all they met.”  “It has been assured to me for fact,” says Froissart, “that of foot-soldiers, sent from the cities, towns, and municipalities, there were slain, this Sunday morning, four times as many as in the battle of the Saturday.”  This astounding victory of Crécy ranks with Blenhiem, Waterloo, and the final advance in the last summer of the Great War as one of the four supreme achievements.  [Footnote: Written in 1939.]

Edward III marched through Montreuil and Blangy to Boulogne, passed through the forest of Hardelot, and opened the siege of Calais.  Calais presented itself to English eyes as the hive of that swarm of privateers who were the endless curse of the Channel.  Here on the nearest point of the Continent England had long felt a festering sore.  Calais was what Dunkirk was to become three centuries later.  The siege lasted for nearly a year.  Every new art of war was practised by land; the bombards flung cannon-balls against the ramparts with terrifying noise.  By sea elaborate barriers of piles stopped the French light craft, which sought to evade the sea blockade by creeping along the coast.  All reliefs by sea and land failed.  But the effort of maintaining the siege strained the resources of the King to an extent we can hardly conceive.  When the winter came his soldiers demanded to go home, and the fleet was on the verge of mutiny.  In England everyone complained, and Parliament was morose in demeanour and reluctant in supply.  The King and his army lived in their hutments, and he never recrossed the Channel to his kingdom.  Machiavelli has profoundly observed that every fortress should be victualled for a year, and this precaution has covered almost every case in history.

Moreover, the siege had hardly begun when King David of Scotland, in fulfilment of the alliance with France, led his army across the Border.  But the danger was foreseen, and at Neville's Cross, just west of the city of Durham, the English won a hard-fought battle.  The Scottish King himself was captured, and imprisoned in the Tower.  He remained there, as we have seen, for ten years until released under the Treaty of Berwick for an enormous ransom.  This decisive victory removed the Scottish danger for a generation, but more than once, before and after Flodden, the French alliance was to bring disaster to this small and audacious nation.

Calais held out for eleven months, and yet this did not suffice.  Famine at length left no choice to the besieged.  They sued for terms.  The King was so embittered that when at his demand six of the noblest citizens presented themselves in their shirts, barefoot, emaciated, he was for cutting off their heads.  The warnings of his advisers that his fame would suffer in history by so cruel a deed left him obdurate.  But Queen Philippa, great with child, who had followed him to the war, fell down before him in an edifying, and perhaps prearranged, tableau of Mercy pleading with Justice.  So the burghers of Calais who had devoted themselves to save their people were spared, and even kindly treated.  Calais, then, was the fruit, and the sole territorial fruit so far, of the exertions, prodigious in quality, of the whole power of England in the war with France.  But Crécy had a longer tale to tell. 4 


No, I didn't have Winston Churchill's copyright permission to post the foregoing!  Somehow I doubt he would object to my popularizing this excerpt of his words and work here.  However, for any present publishers' benefit — as well as my own conviction — I will say this: go check out (there are such things as libraries, you know) or buy the friggin' books!  You won't be sorry.


1 Mark Steyn, “Henry Goes to Baghdad,” The New Criterion, 2003.09.

2 Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume 1: “The Birth of Britain,” Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1956, p. 300.

3 Ibid., pp. 332-333.

4 Ibid., pp. 341-351.


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