Ian Mortimer remembers the English triumph at Poitiers in September 1356, and suggests that this victory was the dramatic culmination of Edward III’s visionary approach to waging war, the consequences of which are still with us today.
Six hundred and fifty years ago, on the evening of Sunday, September 18th, 1356, Edward ‘the Black Prince’ ordered his army to camp for the night near the abbey of Nouaillé in western France. With him were about 7,000 men, including about a thousand archers. They had left Bergerac in Gascony on August 4th, and marched more than 260 miles through the heart of the kingdom, trying to engage in battle one of the several French armies in the field. At Romorantin they had found the Lord de Craon and the famous knight Jean le Maingre, also known as Boucicaut, holed up with a small force, and had besieged them for eight days in the hope that either the Count of Poitiers or King John II of France himself would march to relieve them. But neither commander had risen to the bait. The lords at Romorantin had surrendered. The Prince had allowed them to go free, then burnt the castle and town and marched on, towards Tours.
Despite the ease of his march, there were many reasons for the twenty-six-year-old prince to be worried. The first was that his father, Edward III (r.1327-77), had directed him to lead his army to north-central France, where it was planned he would meet up with two other English armies, one led by the Duke of Lancaster and the other by the King himself. Neither of these supporting forces had appeared; the duke’s had progressed no further than Brittany, King Edward’s had not set sail at all. Thus the Prince’s army was alone in the middle of a hostile country, 180 miles from safety. He could not proceed further north because the bridges over the Loire had all been broken. Worse, the army commanded by John, Count of Poitiers, had combined with that commanded by his father, the King, to form one large force of at least 14,000 men. This had now moved strategically to the Prince’s south, near the town of Poitiers, so he had no way to retreat.
The Prince had a choice: he could either negotiate a way out of his predicament or he could fight. With supplies running short, he had no other option. Cardinal Talleyrand, a Frenchman with a keen interest in brokering peace, came and
threatened him with the size of the oncoming French army and accused him of overbearing pride and presumption. Although terms for a truce were drawn up, the prince demonstrated he had no intention of capitulating by insisting that any agreement had to be ratified by his father, Edward III, who was still in England. When Cardinal Talleyrand returned that evening and told him that the King of France had decided that there was now no hope of peace, the Prince accepted the news, and summoned his captains to tell them to expect to do battle.
On the morning of September 19th, the Prince heard mass. He went among his men, encouraging them, and dubbing knights. He ordered the main battalion to march to a well-defended position nearby, hoping thereby to entice the French into the attack. However, the French were more wary than to launch all their men straight at an Anglo-
Gascon army. The key English tactic – which had proved unbeatable for more than twenty years – was to allow the enemy to charge first, and then to cut them down using two sections of archers, one arranged on each flank of the main army. So, first, two vanguards came forward from the French position, each of 500 men, to break up the flanking archers. Their horses had been specially armoured to enable them to do this. But the Prince had not set his archers on the flanks, for he had too few. The result was that the French vanguards were unsure where it was they should aim for. They hesitated, and then pride, misinformation and nerves got the better of them. The 500 men commanded by Marshal d’Audrehem advanced towards the Prince’s army.
At this critical point, a small, hitherto-concealed English vanguard under the command of the Earl of Warwick charged against d’Audrehem’s men, driving them back towards the main French line. A few minutes later Warwick’s men found themselves in the open, facing the second vanguard, commanded by Marshal Clermont. They took shelter behind a thick hedge. In the middle of the hedge was a wide gap, through which the French riders tried to force their way; but the Earl of Salisbury anticipated the attack and forced his own men into the gap, fending them off. As the second French vanguard fell back, they impeded the advance of the troops under the Dauphin, who nevertheless pressed on and engaged with the English until his standard bearer was killed. Then the French front ranks faltered, and gradually fell back to rejoin the main army.
King John of France now staked everything on one huge onslaught. His plan was to overwhelm and crush the Prince through sheer force of numbers. When the size of the advancing French army became obvious to the English, and the word went around that their archers had run out of arrows, they began to panic. Some shouted that they should flee while they had time, for they were beaten. The Prince himself rallied the men, responding that the man who said they were beaten was a liar, for how could they be beaten while he was still alive? In the terrifying minutes before the great wave of the French army came upon them, English and Gascon infantry ran forward to yank the arrows out of the corpses in no-man’s-land, running back to give them to the archers. The Anglo-Gascon soldiers realized that flight was not an option; they had to stand together now, or they were lost.
The prince ordered a small contingent under Sir Jean de Grailly – better known as the ‘Captal de Buch’ – to leave the battlefield and hurry to cut off the French retreat. But seeing this famous warrior’s banners leaving the field, the English thought that he was fleeing, and they began to shout in dismay. At the critical moment, just when the army was about to break up and run, the prince made one of the bravest, most important and unexpected decisions of the entire war. He controlled the urge to flee by ordering his panic-stricken army to advance. The English and Gascons had to steady their nerves or break ranks. In spite of their fear they marched, as ordered, straight towards the Oriflamme, the sacred red-and-gold war banner of the kings of France. Those who faced it in war knew they could expect no mercy. The prince signalled to his trumpeters to sound the charge. Men started running. The mounted contingent charged. Archers loosed their last arrows into the faces of the approaching men, then threw away their bows and drew their knives. Infantry, knights and men-at-arms all rushed forwards, waving swords, maces, spears and axes, shouting the war cry ‘Guienne, St George!’
In the ensuing struggle it was the English who gradually prevailed. Those Frenchmen who stood by their king were pressed back. Turning to check their escape route they panicked as they saw the Captal de Buch unfurling the banner of St George behind them. Hemmed in by their own troops, the great commanders of France could not escape. They fell as they fought around the billowing Oriflamme. One of the last to stand was Geoffrey de Charny, renowned as the greatest knight of his age, who died fighting beside his king, defending the Oriflamme to the last.
The reaction in England to the news of the victory was sheer euphoria. Edward III gave the man who brought the message to him a present of twenty-five marks and wrote to all the bishops of England asking them to give thanks for the victory. With David II of Scotland already in his custody (he had been captured at the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346), the capture of the King of France gave Edward a pre-eminence among medieval kings: no one could remember another ruler who had imprisoned two kings at once. Thus, when King John was brought to England by the Prince in May 1357, there was jubilation. Five hundred men dressed as foresters in emulation of Robin Hood’s band of men were paid to waylay the Prince and ‘rob’ his entourage on the way to London, as an entertainment for the Prince and his royal prisoner. In the city itself the fountains were made to run with wine. Beautiful girls sitting in specially made wooden birdcages scattered gold and silver leaves on the Prince’s procession as it entered the city.
The destruction of French military power seemed to guarantee the success of Edward’s war with France for the sovereignty of Aquitaine, which had already been going on for nineteen years. In the end, it took another devastating campaign to bring about a final agreement, and even that proved an illusory victory, after the French rekindled the conflict in 1369; but at the time, it seemed that nothing could stop the English. As the Pope was French and living in France, at Avignon, Englishmen quipped, ‘now the Pope is French and Jesus has become English, we’ll see who’s the greater: the Pope or Jesus’.
Today, assessing the real importance of this battle, that bad English joke is significant, for it is indicative of the mood of the nation. The English ‘Jesus’ was not the Prince but Edward III himself: the mastermind behind all the campaigns in France since 1337. That his people associated him with a miracle-worker is hardly surprising; the English had fought battle after battle with the Scots and the French, and, apart from a few minor skirmishes, had triumphed in every single one. So it is in this context that we have to reckon the value of the battle of Poitiers: the culmination of a string of extraordinary victories, the value of which as a whole was considerably more than the sum of the individual battles.
The march to victory had begun, strangely, in 1332, on a Scottish hillside. A renegade army of English and Anglo-Scottish lords under the command of Edward Balliol and Henry Beaumont had landed on the east coast of Scotland hoping to reclaim lands given away by Sir Roger Mortimer four years earlier. On August 11th, on Dupplin Moor, they had found themselves out-numbered ten-to-one by a Scottish army commanded by the Earl of Mar. Preparing to fight to the death, they had taken a defensive position at the top of a slope and spread out, with their archers on the flanks. As the predictable charge came forward, the front ranks were caught in the arrow-storm, and fell, their corpses piling up and inhibiting the charge of those behind.
Within a week Edward III had been told of the remarkable battle. Immediately he set about learning how to employ this new method of fighting. A year later, at Halidon Hill, near Berwick, he put his learning to the test. Although still only twenty, he had an incredible confidence in himself, and he stood on foot in the front line of the English army as a Scottish army twice the size of his own charged towards him. One chronicle even has him rushing forward to be the first to engage the Scots in the bitter hand-to-hand fighting which followed the initial waves of arrows. Whether this was true or not, the English were victorious. Moreover, the victory was obtained against a larger army. This is significant, for rarely did a medieval war leader ever engage superior numbers; it was simply too dangerous. At Halidon Hill, Edward saw for himself that he could encounter a larger army and still be sure of victory. Pick the right ground, arrange the archers on the flanks, and use arrows to counter the force of the oncoming enemy which would then falter on its own dying front ranks. It was a blueprint for success.
The next few years saw Edward take this simple tactic and develop it. Archers were summoned from the northern counties by the thousand to join his armies on the Scottish borders. In 1337, one of his most charismatic knights, Sir Walter Manny, adapted the longbow strategy for a naval engagement at Cadsand. In June 1340, at Sluys, Edward sailed an English fleet straight into a much larger French one, which had been waiting for him, and destroyed it. In September 1342, at Morlaix, one of his armies under the Earl of Northampton defeated a much larger force commanded by Geoffrey de Charny. In 1345 another army led by the then Earl of Lancaster won victory after victory in Gascony in quick succession, including Bergerac and Auberoche to name just the most significant. All this time Edward was encouraging the use of firearms, so that cannon could be refined to perform the same task as his archers. By 1346 he was manufacturing gunpowder at the Tower of London by the ton. When Parliament urged him to go to France to bring the war finally to a close, on his terms, he knew it was time for a full-scale onslaught.
The campaign which culminated in the battle of Crécy, and which was followed by the siege of Calais, is one of the most extraordinary series of events in European history. In fact one could argue that the battle of Crécy itself, fought on August 26th 1346, is the most important single battle ever fought. This is not because of the strategic implications of the victory – the most common reason for describing a battle as ‘important’ – but rather because of Edward’s methods, and the social implications of those new methods.
Edward landed in Normandy on July 12th, 1346 and took his army on a march westwards towards Paris, in emulation of William the Conqueror marching on London. Like the Conqueror, he staged a diversion several hundred miles away, by having his Flemish allies attack in the north-east. Although the French king at the time, Philip de Valois (r.1328-50), was able to call upon many thousands more men, Edward knew that his calculated tactics could defeat the French, as long as he managed to get them to attack him as a single body on ground suitable for him to deploy his archers and guns. Thus Edward had to choose his battlefield carefully, to draw the French into a single-front attack. There followed a protracted cat-and-mouse game as Philip tried to pin the English against one great river after another. Each time Edward managed to avoid the trap. At Poissy, as his engineers were frantically trying to rebuild the bridge over the Seine, a large contingent of Frenchmen arrived on the far side. A crossing was made, just one plank wide, across which rushed just enough Englishmen to defend the far bank. At Blanchetacque, crossing the Somme, the Earl of Northampton and Sir Reginald Cobham led an attack across a narrow ford against 3,000 men commanded by Godemar du Fay. By advancing units of one hundred archers and one hundred men-at-arms alternately and in stages, they defeated du Fay and opened the road to Crécy.
On August 26th, 1346, Edward probably had about 6,000 archers remaining and about 3,000 knights, men-at-arms and other men. The numbers they faced were between three times (according to the Italian chronicler, Villani) and six or eight times (according to Froissart) as many. Most sources agree on four times as many in the French army. The French were confident, and had even settled in advance who was to take whom prisoner. Edward’s methodical tactics changed everything. Even if each bowman loosed one arrow every twelve seconds – and there is good reason to believe they could shoot twice as fast – then 30,000 deadly arrows per minute would have rained down on the French and their Genoese allies. The question thus became one of how long the English could sustain such an onslaught. If Edward’s orders for arrows for his previous campaigns are anything to go by – on one occasion he placed a single order for three million – then the answer to this question has to be reckoned in terms of hours. To this one has to add the fact that Edward had a number of cannon – perhaps as many as a hundred – performing a similar function to the archers.
The battle of Crécy was not the end of the age of chivalry but it signalled the beginning of the end. It was the first major international battle to be won predominantly by projectile fighting, rather than by hand-to-hand combat. Most importantly, it was obvious that it was not an accidental victory. By learning how to fight with projectile weapons, one could defeat a much larger army which was limited to spears and slow-firing, short-range crossbows – even if it was three or four times the size. To contemporaries it was clear that English ‘firepower’ was unassailable. Following the battle, Edward spent a year besieging Calais, confident that if the French army approached him again he could simply repeat what happened at Crécy. Rather than risk a second defeat, the French abandoned Calais and its inhabitants. Logistical calculation had defeated sheer courage.
Until the 1340s, the most valuable unit of military power in medieval society had been the knight, or rather the massed charge of knights. Thus military power was vested in the richest element of society, those who could afford the equipment and who were given the training to become knights. It followed that this group, a fighting aristocracy, also wielded political power. At Crécy that began to fall apart. From then on, a thousand peasants armed with longbows were more than a match for a thousand knights, as long as they were well-trained and well-led. Coupled with the economic independence of the wealthier peasant classes which followed the Black Death of 1348-49, the awareness that the social and political control had shifted towards commoners spread rapidly. The most obvious manifestation of this is to be seen in 1381, when the yeomen of Kent and Essex took arms. Their uprising is known as ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ but they were no rabble. They had strict discipline – anyone caught looting was punished with death – and they had been trained how to fight systematically. By 1381 the ‘peasants’ had learnt that the military authority they had wielded on behalf of the King in France could be used with equally devastating effect in their homeland, with the most profound political consequences.
A third fundamental consequence of these victories lies in the development of the idea of England as a nation, and with it, the idea of nationalism. At the start of Edward’s reign, England had been a disunited kingdom, with little real political power vested in its parliament. Obligations were feudal, or personal, and there was little collective sense of direction or purpose. The drive to war, and the successes which could be expected by supporting a nationalist war, tend to be frowned upon today by writers aware of parallels in the twentieth century, yet it is important not to let this obscure the fact that it was through this propensity to wage war that the English Parliament developed in importance. Each time Edward faced fighting in France, he put the question before Parliament. He needed to do this in order to raise the levels of taxation for an overseas offensive. But in so doing he encouraged lords, the prelates and the representatives of the people from Cornwall to Northumberland to speak with a single voice on matters of national security. In repeatedly supporting Edward’s wars, Parliament gained in power and authority, effectively becoming a financial controller of overseas military activities. By the end of Edward’s reign, Parliament was in a position to hold the King’s ministers to account, and through this empowerment, the English king and people were able to begin to talk in terms of common, or national, interests.
The capture of the French king at Poitiers, therefore, was a symbolic victory which confirmed and accentuated the less dramatic but more significant victories of earlier years. It was not a traditional English battle, in that it was not won by bowmen or firepower, but it was yet another English victory, and perhaps the most amazing of all. It reinforced the idea that the English were the dominant military nation in Christendom, and gave them a sense of pride which was quite unlike anything which had gone before. No other English king had so firmly placed England at the heart of European affairs as Edward III. Indeed, no other English king had managed so completely to unify the people in a common cause.