In July 1346, King Edward of England mounted a major invasion of France, landing at Saint Vaast on the Cotentin Peninsula with a force between 10,000 and 15,000 men; first destroying the French ships in the harbour and then burning the town. Edward landed around midday and Froissart records that he tripped with his first step on the beach. This was regarded by some as a bad omen, but Edward was reported to have remarked “I look upon it as a sign that the land desires to have me”. His force marched through Normandy towards Flanders, pillaging as he went in a manner that became known as “chevauchée”, merely destroying rather than attempting to occupy captured land.
Between 13th and 17th July he continued landing men and supplies, his forces attacked Barfleur and pillaged and burned the town and the warships in the harbour. It was said that there was so much loot that the soldiers could hardly carry it all and an area 35 kilometers around the landing area was devastated. Edward advanced northwards in three divisions while some of his fleet sailed along the coast destroying or capturing any French warship they found. It was Edward’s intention to link up with another invasion force led by Sir Hugh Hastings that he had dispatched to Flanders to join with a force being collected by Count Henry of Flanders.
Arriving at the city of Caen the English forces attacked, and after fierce fighting, defeated the French and proceeded to rape, massacre and loot. Over 2,500 citizens died, many being buried in a mass grave at the church of St Jean. The English rested for the next five days, systematically burning and destroying the surrounding area. Edward sent orders to England for an additional 1,500 archers, more weapons and equipment and 100 more ships to bring reinforcements, instructing them to land at Le Crotoy on the northern side of the Somme, in territory the English had yet to conquer, giving some insight to Edward’s confidence.
Philip was in the meanwhile gathering forces, but had to spread them thinly to cover all potential areas of the English advance. Edward left a small force at Caen and moved on to the Seine, threatening Paris. The French sent two cardinals to discuss terms, even proposing a marriage between the houses of Valois and Plantagenet, but Edward would have none of it, he even issued a challenge to battle south of Paris forcing Philip to move his army to the southern wall in preparation. Edward’s challenge was merely a ruse to gain time. He had to cross the Seine, but all the bridges were destroyed. Edward’s forces moved to Poissy and started to rebuild. When Philip learned of this attempt at a crossing he sent a force to intercept, but by then the English had managed to span a single beam across and sufficient troops were now over the river and able to drive them off.
On the 16th August English marauders rode south to confuse the French, but Edward’s main force crossed the river and headed north towards the Somne, being harassed all the way by local militias, brushing them off easily except at the village of Poix where the English turned back and burned the town. Edward’s forces needed to cross the Somme before Philip and began to abandon some of the baggage wagons for the sake of speed, but as foraging became more difficult in the abandoned countryside, the English were forced to scour far afield thus slowing the army down. The French force overtook Edward, arriving at the Somme on 20th August. The people of Picardy, heartened by the arrival of French forces, began to attack isolated groups of English troops. On the 22nd Edward’s tired army reached Airaines, whose garrison had been withdrawn to guard the bridge at Pont-Remy.
The main French army had now reached Amiens and Philip ordered the destruction or garrisoning of the Somme bridges. Edward sent scouts to look at the Somme bridges, but found that all were too strongly defended. The English seemed trapped, but Edward was on familiar territory; Ponthieu had been his own county before Philip had confiscated it at the outbreak of war and some of his commanders knew the area. Edward had been gone from Airaines only two hours before the French arrived and the trap was closing. Edward had some hard choices: he could make a stand and fight, he could retreat to Saint Valery and take ship home, or he could try to cross the Somme. Some of his men through local connections knew of the ford at Blanchetaque (whitestones) on the Somme estuary, so called because the traffic using it stirred up the chalk bed of the river and left white trails on the banks.
The English had little choice but to head for the ford and arrived at nearby Saigneville on 24th. Before dawn they began their crossing and within a few hours had the bulk of their forces across, a remarkable feat for the time. The French had also set out at dawn, a party of some 500 men at arms and 3,000 foot soldiers being sent to oppose any English attempt at crossing. The French crossbowmen attacked the English vanguard and some men at arms charged into the water to close with them, but the English under the command of Hugh Despenser, Reginald Cobham and the Earl of Northampton drove them off.
By the time the English rearguard came ashore the battle was over. Edward’s position was precarious; he received information that his Flemish allies with whom he had hoped to unite had suffered some setbacks at Bethune and Lillers and that the Flemish forces had began to argue among themselves and had lifted their siege on Merville. Edward clearly could not rely on any aid from them and sent Hugh Despenser to capture the coastal towns of Novelles, Le Crotoy and Rue, which they did, but there was no sign of the English ships bringing urgently needed supplies.
He decided he had no option but to stand and fight and sent Warwick, Cobham, Suffolk and Sir Geoffrey Harcourt ahead with the main force to occupy the high ground on a hill outside the village of Crécy while the rest of his force followed. Philip’s scouts reported that the English had made a stand and called a council to decide on the next move. Some advocated moving ahead of the English to cut them off, others suggested waiting for reinforcements who were still moving to join the main group, but many demanded an immediate attack.
Was not the French army the most experienced and ablest in Christendom? Philip’s forces were strung out over a wide area on the road from Abbeville and Philip placed his infantry ahead of the cavalry as a precaution against ambush as they marched through the forestland. This decision meant that his Genoese crossbowmen were separated from their pavisse shields in the baggage train, an error that would have serious consequences later.
Philip called a halt; the Genoese who had been leading were tired and the men at arms following were greatly disorganized, the bulk of the army and baggage was further back while hordes of locals filled the lanes hoping for a chance to strike a blow or to collect loot. Once Philip decided to fight the disarray became worse, every unit jostling to be first through pride and everyone wishing to surpass his neighbour.The French unfurled the sacred Oriflamme banner indicating no quarter and the Genoese were ordered to advance.
Edward had placed his divisions in the same three lines as when they marched. His son, Edward the Black Prince, now 16 was placed with his division on the right of the battle line with archers in a block in front and to one side together with some artillery. The left was held by Northampton and Arundel also with a wing of archers in front, while Edward commanded the rearguard. Potholes were dug in front of all positions to slow down cavalry. The baggage train was to the rear at the edge of Crécy Grange wood surrounded by field fortifications of carts and wagons with just one opening for the speedy replenishment of arrows. Food was cooked in the baggage area and troops were sent back by units to eat and relieve themselves leaving their bows or helmets as a marker for their place in the line.