Things were different back in the Middle Ages on so, so many levels. You didn’t get to vote your leaders in, they pretty much decided themselves. Well, that is if other country leaders allowed them to. You see, these were not lawless times … there were processes and agreements … and by-and-large the rule of the day was: if you die, your oldest son takes the reins. And it doesn’t get any simpler than that, right?
Except things can get messy, real fast, if blood legitimacy, the lack of a son, a son by from a casual fling in the hay, previous promises from generations prior, or IOU notes are brought into the mix. Suddenly “my eldest son,” becomes “what, that bastard child from the farmhand? My ass he’s taking the crown! Anyway, it was promised to my uncle Phil six generations back, so I’m cashing in!”
And thus we find ourselves in the early part of Medieval times; times in which English rulers – following the Norman conquest of 1066 – are vassals of France for anything that they happened to own in France; yeah, you’re a king over THERE, but the minute to come and hang out playing croquet in Gascony, you’re my VASSAL, and you’ll damn well kiss my feet.
And then you have the whole problem that French aristocracy spent way too much time stealing back everything that belonged to England that used to have a French flag in it; “Guyenne? Ours now, get your arse back across the channel!”
Let’s just say that the situation was … tense.
“But what has this got to do with birthright and such?” I hear you ask. Well …
Through his mother, Isabella of France, Edward III of England was the grandson of Philip IV and nephew of Charles IV, both of France. Which means that the English king had some mighty fine French royal blood pumping through those veins of his. Shoot, if something were to happen to Charles IV, well old Edward III would have a GREAT claim on the throne, right?
Well Charles did die.
And he died without a male heir.
And with him the senior lineage of the House of Capet went with him.
France had a succession issue.
But … but hold on a second! He had a 1 year old daughter, Mary, surely she coul-NOPE! You see, France passed a law twelve years prior that forbid “the wimmen folk” from being eligible to succeed to the throne, so Mary could never become queen. France still had a problem.
But wait, all was not lost! His wife – Jeanne – was pregnant with his child when his passed, so holy heck in a handbasket, there was hope that she would have a boy! Philip of Valois – the next most senior branch of the Capetian dynasty – was set up as the heir presumptive, and the country sat on their hands for the next two months in wild anticipation of the royal birth.
*bites knuckles* I’m excited.
“It’s a GIRL!!!!!”
Oh … poo.
So, Philip became the King of France, there was wild rejoicing, lots of bunting, a few drinks, and the Medieval times rolled on as peaceful as a Barry Manilow concert.
Edward III disagreed.
Edward claimed that while French law prevented a silly little woman from succeeding to the throne, it didn’t prevent a male heir from inheriting it through her lineage. Ergo ipso facto, bish bash bosh: “I’m the rightful heir to France! Yay me!”
The French rejected the claim, maintaining that Isabella could not transmit a right that she did not possess, which sounds like Medieval legal mumbo-jumbo, but after a few years of the whole land-wrangling that had been going on, and before you know it the 100 Years War was kicking off.
On July 11th, 1346 – yeah, this one took a while to gear up into anything significant – Edward III set sail from Portsmouth with a little flotilla of 750 ships and about 15,000 soccer hooligans. He happened to have his 16 year-old son with him, Edward of Woodstock, and a large contingent of Welsh dudes; because nothing says “I’m ‘avin you and your stuff!” more like an unruly mob of drunk Welsh guys.
The plan was simple: land at St. Vaast la Hogue, 20 miles from Cherbourg, and – quite literally – ride through the countryside pillaging, burning, and looting everything in sight. No, I am not kidding, they even had a word for it: “chevauchée.” In theory, such actions would weaken the prestige of the crown, demonstrate that the French lords were a bunch of wussies, and thus force them into open combat.
Think of it like the neighbor coming onto your front lawn and taking a dump while you watched … you’d probably want to go and have a word with him about it. With a baseball bat.
Carentan, Saint-Lô, Torteval and Caen were all razed, the latter sprouting out boss-fight purple treasure like a piñata hit with a freight train; and on August 1st the English army headed directly for Paris. And at this point Philip made his move, for the English had managed to position themselves between the rivers of Seine and Somme, perhaps trapping themselves and allowing for a good, righteous, French plate-clad boot to the baby-maker.
Edward was forced to move along the Somme looking for a river crossing, which proved pretty darn difficult when all of the crossing either had been burned to the waterline or came complete with angry Frenchmen protecting them. With the French army in pursuit, the English managed to dodge their way for three whole weeks, eventually forcing a crossing on August 24th.
Amazingly, the French had been so cock-sure that the English wouldn’t be able to cross the Somme, that the area beyond had not been stripped of people or assets. So the English army chevauchéed the crap out of the area, too, and then sat back, had a cup of tea, and waited for the French to arrive.
And I’m barely aggregating here: the English army cross the Somme, had a bit of a scuffle along the way, and then sacked the heck of everything on the other side, and when I say this, think: “filled up their supplies, had a good nosh, and then sat back and rested for a while.” And this is important, because at this present time the French were marching their asses off to try and catch up!
As the French army approached, Edward positioned his army on a natural slope, facing the inevitable advance; which would be right handy against any ongoing charges. Such as French knights, for example. He ensured his flanks were secure against Wadicourt and Crécy on either side, threw his archers forwards, and – knowing that the French cavalry would come right at him in an attempt to smash through his ranks – he promptly had ditches, holes, and caltrops planted all over the place. ‘cos: horses.
And I want, for a moment, to just reflect on the mounting benefits the English army was beginning to accrue: they were well fed, well rested, had secure flanks, were on a hill, AND had booby-trapped the whole area in front of them.
The army itself had 2,500 men-at-arms, nobles and knights, 3,000 light cavalry, 3,500 spearmen, and 5,000 longbowmen. And the longbowmen need a little bit of a side discussion:
The longbow – under Edward III – became a true part of English military doctrine. 6’ of yew, with a 150 lb pull capable of hurling a thumb-thick arrow through plate armor at anything less than 60’* Edward believed firmly that when used well, the longbow could wreck an enemy advance before it ever got going, so by the time melee ensued, he’d already won the day. And bows were cheap, man, way cheaper than trying to equip aristocratic knights. So if you just happened to be a king, with a worthy peasant population, you could – in theory – give them all bows and say “shoot those guys.”
But – naturally – Edward went one stage further. In fact, Edward went several stages further.
He ingrained archery into English culture, encouraged it to be practiced regularly, and continually had bows and arrows produced, even during peacetime. It would be a few years from this particular battle, but Edward eventually ended up BANNING all sports across England in 1363 and required – by law – that archery be practiced instead.
This was beginning to look like a very tough fight for the French indeed.
But all was not lost: the French army massively outnumbered the English by maybe as much as 3-to-1; 12,000 mounted men-at-arms, knights, a huge blob of common infantry, and thousands of Genoese crossbowmen.
And if you are looking at this and are thinking “well, shoot, crossbows are powerful, and those large shields right there would protect them from the English arrows while they loaded and fired back,” well, you’d be CORRECT. These guy could well be a bit of an equalizer here.
The crossbow was the dominant ranged weapon on the continental European battlefield; it required much less physical strength than the longbow and were much deadlier at close range. Their only disadvantage was their slower loading times, and thus fire-rates. Forget all that nonsense you may have read about “1 bolt every two minutes” and just reference my little footnote** at the end; but while the crossbow was not as slow as molasses, it certainly wasn’t quick, and the longbow enjoyed a 2-for-1 shot advantage.
This was certainly shaping up to be an interesting duel.
The French arrived around mid-day on the 26th of August, and their lead scouts assessed the situation well: “holy shit!” is the report that was given to Philip (completely not true), and they advised him to camp and wait until “thy morrow!” (I just wanted to type that, and it doesn’t make sense) Philip agreed, but he met such stiff resistance from the stupid nobles, that he –quite literally – was forced to acquiesce and agree to give battle right here and now.
Right after his men had already been marching a good long time, were dog-tired, hungry, and really not feeling it.
Philip’s plan was delightfully “French:”
- Line-up the crossbowmen.
- Line up the knights.
It was already four in the afternoon by the time the French were in position, and at this precise time an almighty thunderstorm broke out, which set about the battlefield and men alike, drenching everything in its path. Now, if you’re a longbowman or a crossbowman, you’re probably going to want to keep that string on your weapon nice and dry, right?
Knowing that the rain would truly screw up their bows, the English took the strings off and popped them into their pockets: bob’s your uncle, nice and dry.
The Genoese had a problem … they couldn’t remove their strings, so they were forced to stand there in the rain and watch their crossbows go all limp and ineffectual.
It was not a good omen for things to come.
The crossbowmen started their advance once the storm had abated, and plodded their way towards the thousands of bowmen arranged on the hill ahead (which, if you think about it, requires some serious stones). At least they’d have their shields to protect them on the way, right?
Their pavises were still back on the French baggage train, so the moment that the Genoese moved within range, the English opened up with a murderous tsunami of pointed death; arrows so thick that they looked like black snow falling.
The Genoese were OBLITERATED. And, because their own returning soggy-fire was completely ineffectual, they did what any sane man would do while standing under a hail of never-ending arrows: they ran for it.
The English, who were drawn up in three divisions and seated on the ground, on seeing their enemies advance, arose boldly and fell into their ranks… You must know that these kings, earls, barons, and lords of France did not advance in any regular order… There were about fifteen thousand Genoese crossbowmen; but they were quite fatigued, having marched on foot that day six leagues, completely armed, and with their wet crossbows. They told the constable that they were not in a fit condition to do any great things that day in battle. The Count of Alençon, hearing this, was reported to say, “This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fail when there is any need for them.”
~ Chateaubriand, after Froissart’s middle French, gives: “On se doit bien charger de telle ribaudaille qui faille au besoin”
The knights in the next rank were considerably unimpressed … so much so that they felt compelled to demonstrate their lack of enthusiasm for their ally’s behavior: BY RIDING THEM THE HELL DOWN.
And as French knights smashed through Genoese crossbowmen, a general cluster of complete mayhem ensued where the French front line should have been. And all of the time the English were pouring arrows and cannon fire into the maelstrom of anarchy.
Yup, “Cannon fire.”
Did I not mention that Edward brought along some early cannon hurling stone balls across the battlefield as an early precursor of “you’re wearing a breastplate? That’s cute!”?
He also brought a few of these:
So really, the French had no bloody business approaching the battle in the way that they were currently demonstrating.
The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire…They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses… The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners… [by the end of the battle], the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls.
Once the knights smashed through the crossbowmen, they charged onwards towards the English lines.
On the slope.
With obstacles in the way.
And a hail of arrows filling the air.
Sure, at range perhaps these arrows would not penetrate good steel, but horses? Yeah, the horses were MEAT.
Wave one failed. Bodies mounted up.
Wave 2 charged in, attempted to avoid the bodies in the way, and just ended up adding their own.
Wave after wave charged forth, each being neutralized and unable to break the English positions, and while they pressed the young 16 year-old Black Prince’s position very hard (Edward refusing to help him with a fatherly “let the boy win his spurs”), the struggle, and the slaughter, continued well into the night with absolutely no chance that the French were going to take the day.
Philip had his horse killed from underneath him twice during the battle and took an arrow to the jaw. His sacred and royal banner, the Oriflamme, which when raised meant that no quarter was to be given to the enemy, was also captured and taken (one of the five occasions this occurred during the banner’s century spanning history).
Eventually Philip realized that the situation was completely and utterly lost, and he fled the field of battle … the remnants of the French following swiftly thereafter.
And here I wish to pause for a moment and reflect upon what occurred here: the English had the high-ground, they were well rested, they had prepared the field of battle ahead of their battle line, they had a lethal array of archers ready to bring down death from the heaven’s themselves … and the French decided to attack this, head on, with crossbowmen without shields, and knights attacking in every dismal waves.
Let that sink in.
It still doesn’t account for the actual casualties: The English lost 300 guys – AT THE TOPS – and potentially less. Only two Englishmen killed at the battle have been identified: the squire Robert Brente and the newly anointed knight Aymer Rokesley.
The French? 2,000 men-at-arms, 4,000 knights, and lord knows how many crossbowmen.
It had been a TURKEY SHOOT.
But the results were far more significant than sheer body count: the French army had been MAULED beyond recognition, so when the English looked at Calais and said “ooh, that’s pretty!” the French were completely unable to prevent its capture. Calais then sat under English rule for the next two hundred years.
Additionally, the longbow was set to become the dominant battlefield weapon on mainland Europe, and the death knell had been rung for the mounted knight.
And now go and read about Agincourt to see how the French took all the wrong lessons from Crécy and managed to repeat this all over again.
*I think this one is actually worth throwing a citation against. Look at me, getting all professional:
A controlled test conducted by Mike Loades at the Royal Military College of Science’s ballistics test site for the program Weapons That Made Britain – The Longbow, found that arrows shot with a force of 150lbs with a terminal velocity of around 52 metres per second against a plate of munition-quality steel (not specially-hardened) were ineffective at a range of around 80m, enough to mildly bruise/wound the target at 30m, and lethal at a range of 20m.
** A common exaggeration of the crossbow is its reload time of one bolt every 1–2 minutes. A test conducted by Mike Loades for Weapons That Changed Britain – The Longbow found that a belt-and-claw span crossbow could discharge 4 bolts in 30 seconds, while a longbow could shoot 9. A second speed test conducted using a hand-span crossbow found that the weapon could shoot 6 bolts in the same time it took for a longbow to shoot 10.