Crécy

The Genoese were not keen to advance; they were tired and did not have the protection of their pavisses which were normally used for shelter while rewinding their crossbows. Furthermore they did not have adequate reserves of ammunition and with the lowering sun in their eyes were at a disadvantage, but their complaints to the Count of Alençon were ignored. Nevertheless, the 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen and spearmen began their advance on the Black Prince’s line. To the sound of drums and trumpets, the force, under the leadership of Carlo Grimaldi moved forward in three stages, each pause being signaled by a great shout to dishearten the enemy and also to enable them to adjust ranks.

A sudden and violent rainstorm erupted, quickly turning the lower ground into slippery mud. The rain also soaked the strings of their crossbows making them lose power. A combatant, Jean de Venette, records that the English longbowmen took the strings from their bows and kept them dry beneath their helmets. This cannot be done with a crossbow and explains how the English easily outranged their opponents. The Genoese opened fire after their third shout at about 150 meters range; they did so uphill with the sun in their eyes, a major disadvantage for men who aimed direct at targets rather than dropping arrows on them. They were then hit by the English arrow storm from the Black Prince’s division and from the bombards on the wings.

Outshot and outranged and without the protection of their pavisses the Genoese faltered and began to fall back into the path of the following  Count of Alençon’s cavalry who were trying to ride past the archers to get to the Black Prince’s position. It is said that the men at arms attacked the Genoese for cowardice or treachery, riding over them to get at the English bowmen who continued to rain storms of arrows into the confusion. Furthermore, the cavalry had to attack uphill over muddy fields and through the broken remnants of the crossbowmen. French plate armour was good enough to protect from most types of English arrowheads, but visors, joints and chain mail were vulnerable.

Furthermore, the horses were only protected by padded caparisons easily penetrated and the arrows caused fearful damage, throwing their riders and trampling them in the mud. The frightened horses reared, fled or panicked and lay down refusing to move. The French knight Jean le Bell describes how “The English arrows were directed with such skill at the horsemen that their mounts refused to advance. Stung to madness some reared hideously, some turned their quarters to the enemy; others simply fell to the ground”. The English, seizing the initiative, advanced into this melee and slaughtered the struggling horsemen. The straggling French forces, arriving on the field, rushed impetuously forward, eager for a share of the glory.

Among Philip’s commanders was the near blind John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia and Poland and knowing that his son Charles, King of the Romans was with Alençon, ordered his companions to to tie their bridles to his before leading them in a charge against the Black Prince, saying “place me so far forward that I am able to strike a blow”. The charge broke through the archers and the fighting became so fierce that at one time the Prince was forced to his knees before being rescued by his standard bearer Sir Richard FitzSimon.

The English line held and pushed the French back. King John and his companions were all killed. The Earl of Northampton, seeing the French charge, ordered his nearest unit under the Earl of Arundel to help the prince and a message was also sent to King Edward for help. The King was reported to have replied “is my son dead, fallen, or wounded so that he cannot help himself? Then let him earn his spurs, for it is my wish that the glory of the day be his”.

Despite the death of Alençon and Luxembourg, the French made a further 13 cavalry charges, mostly against the Black Prince’s division and some against Northampton’s but were met with the same arrow cloud, breaking the charges and enabling the English to hack down the survivors. As dusk fell, the charges became fewer and less intense. Edward ordered the English to advance. The horses were brought forward and forming in conrois formation, charged. The remnants of the French fled, leaving Philip and some 50 of his followers, plus his Orleans militia to fight on. The royal banner and the sacred Oriflamme were captured and the standard bearer killed. Philip himself had two horses killed under him and was wounded in the face by an arrow before being dragged off the field by the Count of Hainault. The king and a few survivors fled to Labroye castle.

Some fighting continued until after dark when the English infantry moved forward to kill the wounded and loot the bodies. Edward ordered the burning of a windmill that stood behind his position, plus French baggage wagons to illuminate the battlefield during the first tense hours of the night as French troops were still arriving, separated from their leaders, wandering around and shouting their passwords as they tried to find their units. Many were found and killed as the English still refused to take prisoners. Many estimates have been made of the French losses at Crécy, but the most realistic gives combined losses of men of aristocratic rank as 1,542. Of the men at arms, spearmen and other infantry, estimates range from 8,000 to 12,000 who were unceremoniously tipped into grave pits.

The old king of Bohemia was carried from the field, his body washed, wrapped in linen and returned to Luxembourg with honour.It is said that Edward the Black Prince of Wales adopted John’s motto “ich dien” (I Serve) and John’s badge of three feathers as his personal arms, this being quite separate from the Prince’s own Royal Arms with the three vertical white stripes indicating his status as heir apparent.

The English army continued slowly northwards, staying close to the coast in the hope of receiving supplies by sea. They followed the usual pattern of looting and foraging, destroying an area over 30km wide. On September 1st they rested at Neufchâtel and next day stopped at Wimille to review the situation after hearing that the English force at Caen had been destroyed. Edward realized that he would not be able to retain Normandy, a heavy blow to the Norman knights that had supported him against the French king.

Edward decided to besiege Calais rather than Boulogne because it would be a better base and was closer to his Flemish allies. Moving north he destroyed the port of Wissant and on 4th September reached the marshes surrounding Calais. On the same day, the English fleet attacked Boulogne but were driven off, they did however make contact with Edward who sent letters home demanding fresh troops and supplies for the siege of Calais.The supply fleet arrived a few days later under the command of Sir John Montgomery and the English settled down for the siege. Edward was here to stay!

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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