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Battle of Crécy

The Battle of Crecy, from a 15th-century French Manuscript

The Battle of Crécy, fought between Edward III of England and King Philip VI of France,
was one of the most important battles in the Hundred Years' War.  Sources disagree over
the size of the armies, the English army cited as numbering 10-34,000 strong, the French
army 35-120,000 strong. Due to their organization, their cannons, and their longbowmen,
the English won the day.  The new weapons and tactics employed marked an end to the
era of the feudal warfare of knights on horseback. —AJ.

BATTLE OF CRÉCY (August 26, 1346)

by David Hume

"IT is natural to think that Philip, at the head of so vast an army, was impatient to take revenge on the English, and to prevent the disgrace to which he must be exposed if an inferior enemy should be allowed, after ravaging so great a part of his kingdom, to escape with impunity. Edward also was sensible that such must be the object of the French monarch; and as he had advanced but a little way before his enemy, he saw the danger of precipitating his march over the plains of Picardy, and of exposing his rear to the insults of the numerous cavalry, in which the French camp abounded. He took, therefore, a prudent resolution: he chose his ground with advantage, near the village of Crecy; he disposed his army in excellent order; he determined to await in tranquillity the arrival of the enemy; and he hoped that their eagerness to engage and to prevent his retreat after all their past disappointments, would hurry them on to some rash and ill-concerted action.

Map of the Crecy Battle

He drew up his army on a gentle ascent, and divided them into three lines: the first was commanded by the Prince of Wales, and, under him, by the Earls of Warwick and Oxford, by Harcourt, and by the Lords Chandos, Holland, and other noblemen: the Earls of Arundel and Northampton, with the Lords Willoughby, Basset, Roos, and Sir Lewis Tufton, were at the head of the second line: he took to himself the command of the third division, by which he purposed either to bring succor to the two first lines, or to secure a retreat in case of any misfortune, or to push his advantages against the enemy. He had likewise the precaution to throw up trenches on his flanks, in order to secure himself from the numerous bodies of the French, who might assail him from that quarter; and he placed all his baggage behind him in a wood, which he also secured by an intrenchment.

It is related by some historians that Edward, besides the resources which he found in his own genius and presence of mind, employed also a new invention against the enemy, and placed in his front some pieces of artillery, the first that had yet been made use of on any remarkable occasion in Europe. The invention of artillery was at this time known in France as well as in England; but Philip, in his hurry to overtake the enemy, had probably left his cannon behind him, which he regarded as a useless incumbrance. All his other movements discovered the same imprudence and precipitation. Impelled by anger, a dangerous counsellor, and trusting to the great superiority of his numbers, he thought that all depended on forcing an engagement with the English; and that, if he could once reach the enemy in their retreat, the victory on his side was certain and inevitable. He made a hasty march, in some confusion, from Abbeville; but after he had advanced above two leagues, some gentlemen, whom he had sent before to take a view of the enemy, returned to him, and brought him intelligence that they had seen the English drawn up in great order, and awaiting his arrival. They therefore advised him to defer the combat till the ensuing day, when his army would have recovered from their fatigue, and might be disposed into better order than their present hurry had permitted them to observe.

Philip assented to this counsel; but the former precipitation of his march, and the impatience of the French nobility, made it impracticable for him to put it in execution. One division French pressed upon another: orders to stop were not seasonably conveyed to all of them: this immense body was not governed by sufficient discipline to be manageable; and the French army, imperfectly formed into three lines, arrived, already fatigued and disordered, in presence of the enemy. The first line, consisting of 15,000 Genoese crossbow-men, was commanded by Anthony Doria and Charles Grimaldi: the second was led by the Count of Alençon, brother to the King: the King himself was at the head of the third. Besides the French monarch, there were no less than three crowned heads in this engagement: the King of Bohemia, the King of the Romans, his son, and the King of Majorca; with all the nobility and great vassals of the crown of France. The army now consisted of above 120,000 men, more than three times the number of the enemy. But the prudence of one man was superior to the advantage of all this force and splendor.

The English, on the approach of the enemy, kept their ranks firm and immovable; and the Genoese first began the attack. There had happened, a little before the engagement, a thunder-shower, which had moistened and relaxed the strings of the Genoese crossbows; their arrows, for this reason, fell short of the enemy. The English archers, taking their bows out of their cases, poured in a shower of arrows upon this multitude who were opposed to them, and soon threw them into disorder. The Genoese fell back upon the heavy-armed cavalry of the Count of Alençon; who, enraged at their cowardice, ordered his troops to put them to the sword. The artillery fired amid the crowd; the English archers continued to send in their arrows among them; and nothing was to be seen in that vast body but hurry and confusion, terror and dismay.

The young Prince of Wales had the presence of mind to take advantage of this situation, and to lead on his line to the charge. The French cavalry, however, recovering somewhat their order, and encouraged by the example of their leader, made a stout resistance; and having at last cleared themselves of the Genoese runaways, advanced upon their enemies, and by their superior numbers began to hem them round. The Earls of Arundel and Northampton now advanced their line to sustain the Prince, who, ardent in his first feats of arms, set an example of valor which was imitated by all his followers. The battle became, for some time, hot and dangerous; and the Earl of Warwick, apprehensive of the event from the superior numbers of the French, despatched a messenger to the King, and entreated him to send succors to the relief of the forcements.

Edward had chosen his station on the top of the hill; and he surveyed in tranquillity the scene of action. When the messenger accosted him, his first question was, whether the Prince was slain or wounded? On receiving an answer in the negative, "Return," said he, "to my son, and tell him that I reserve the honor of the day to him: I am confident that he will show himself worthy of the honor of knighthood which I so lately conferred upon him: he will be able, without my assistance, to repel the enemy." This speech being reported to the Prince and his attendants, inspired them with fresh courage: they made an attack with redoubled vigor on the French, in which the Count of Alençon was slain; that whole line of cavalry was thrown into disorder; the riders were killed or dismounted; the Welsh infantry rushed into the throng, and with their long knives cut the throats of all who had fallen; nor was any quarter given that day by the victors.

The King of France advanced in vain with the rear to sustain the line commanded by his brother: he found them already discomfited; and the example of their rout increased the confusion which was before but too prevalent in his own body. He had himself a horse killed under him: he was remounted; and though left almost alone, he seemed still determined to maintain the combat; when John of Hainault seized the reins of his bridle, turned about his horse, and carried him off the field of battle. The whole French army took to flight, and was followed and put to the sword, without mercy, by the enemy; till the darkness of the night put an end to the pursuit. The King, on his return to the camp, flew into the arms of the Prince of Wales, and exclaimed, "My brave son! Persevere in your honorable cause: you are my son; for valiantly, have you acquitted yourself to-day: you have shown yourself worthy of empire."

This battle, which is known by the name of the battle of Crecy, began after three o'clock in the afternoon, and continued till evening. The next morning was foggy; and as the English observed that many of the enemy had lost their way in the night and in the mist, they employed a stratagem to bring them into their power: they erected on the eminences some French standards which they had taken in the battle; and all who were allured by this false signal were put to the sword, and no quarter given them. In excuse for this inhumanity, it was alleged that the French King had given like orders to his troops; but the real reason probably was, that the English, in their present situation, did not choose to be incumbered with prisoners. On the day of battle and on the ensuing, there French fell, by a moderate computation, 1,200 French knights, 1,400 gentlemen, 4,000 men-at-arms, besides about 30,000 of inferior rank: many of the principal nobility of France, the Dukes of Lorraine and Bourbon, the Earls of Flanders, Blois, Vaudemont, Aumale, were left on the field of battle.

Edward the Black Prince's Badge The kings also of Bohemia and Majorca were slain. The fate of the former was remarkable: he was blind from age; but being resolved to hazard his person, and set an example to others, he ordered the reins of his bridle to be tied on each side to the horses of two gentlemen of his train; and his dead body, and those of his attendants, were afterward found among the slain, with their horses standing by them in that situation. His crest was three ostrich feathers; and his motto these German words, Ich dien (I serve): which the Prince of Wales and his successors adopted, in memorial of this great victory. The action may seem no less remarkable for the small loss sustained by the English, than for the great slaughter of the French: there were killed in it only one esquire and three knights, and very few of inferior rank; a demonstration, that the prudent disposition planned by Edward, and the disorderly attack made by the French, had rendered the whole rather a rout than a battle; which was indeed the common case with engagements in those times.

The great prudence of Edward appeared not only in obtaining this memorable victory, but in the measures which he pursued after it. Not elated by his present prosperity, so far as to expect the total conquest of France, or even that of any considerable provinces; he purposed only to secure such an easy entrance into that kingdom as might afterward open the way to more moderate advantages. He knew the extreme distance of Guienne: he had experienced the difficulty and uncertainty of penetrating on the side of the Low Countries, and had already lost much of his authority over Flanders by the death of D'Arteville, who had been murdered by the populace themselves, his former partisans, on his attempting to transfer the sovereignty of that province to the Prince of Wales. The King, therefore, limited his ambition to the conquest of Calais: and after the interval of a few days, which he employed in interring the slain, he marched forward with his victorious army, and presented himself before the place."

      Excerpted from:

      Hume, David and Tobias Smollett. History of England. Vol 2.
      London: A. J. Valey, 1834. 333-339.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study: Allmand, Christopher. The Hundred Years War: England and France at War.
           Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ayton, Andrew and Philip Preston. The Battle of Crécy, 1346.
           Boydell Press, 2007.

Barber, Richard. Edward III and the Triumph of England.
           Penguin Books, 2014.

Burne, Alfred H. The Crécy War.
           Frontline Books, 2016.

Livingston, Michael. Crécy: Battle of Five Kings.
           Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Livingston, Michael and Kelly DeVries, eds. The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook.
           Liverpool University Press, 2016.

Nicolle, David. Crécy 1346: Triumph of the Longbow.
           Osprey Publishing, 2000.

Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453.
           Penguin, 1999.

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