26 August 1346, Edward III of England’s heavily outnumbered army defeated the French at Crecy in Picardy, Northern France, in the first major battle of the Hundred Years’ War.
“The King asked the knight, whose name was Sir Thomas of Norwich: "Is my son dead or stunned, or so seriously wounded that he cannot go on fighting?" "No, thank God," replied the knight, "but he is very hard pressed and needs your help badly." "Sir Thomas," the King answered, "go back to him and to those who have sent you and tell them not to send for me again today, as long as my son is alive. Give them my command to let the boy win his spurs, for if God has so ordained it, I wish the day to be his and the honour to go to him and to those in whose charge I have placed him." (Jean Froissart, “Chroniques”)
It was almost ten years since King Edward had refused in his role as Duke of Normandy to pay homage to King Philip VI of France. Quite the reverse actually. Edward declared himself to be the rightful King of France, since he was the nephew of the last French king, Charles IV, although through his mother and that didn’t entitle him to inherit according to Salic law. War broke out and skirmish followed bloody skirmish in Northern France, Brittany and Flanders, until Edward launched a major invasion. “Major” meant nonetheless that the English and their allies were inferior in numbers in regards to the French.
|Josef Mathauser's (1846 - 1917) imagination of blind King John of Bohemia charging into battle clad in 16th century armour|
After taking Caen, Edward’s army marched towards Flanders, laying waste to the countryside with the French in hot pursuit. When Edward realised he could no longer evade Philip, he decided to give battle, 12.000 English, half of them archers, against 20.000 or even 25.000 French, with about 6.000 Genoese crossbowmen among them as well. But Philip’s men were far from being ready when they stumbled across the English, it was a rainy day, the Genoese bowstrings were all wet and the deadly crossbows virtually unusable, their pavises, large shields to protect them from enemy fire, still loaded on the baggage train, in short, everything was a bit on the sloppy side, when Philip decided to charge the well prepared English positions. The English longbowmen’s bowstrings were dry, kept under the archers’ helmets until the action began, while the knights had dismounted and protected the archers who fired volley after volley into the French charge instead of withdrawing after the first one, probably half a million arrows were shot on that day, supported by the use of the first small artillery pieces the English had with them.
|Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy - |
Illustration from Jean Froissart's "Chronicles"
Only on the English right wing things were not a complete disaster for the French army. Here, Philip’s childhood friend and his liege man as Count of Luxembourg, King John of Bohemia, 50 years old and blind, pushed back the English under Edward’s 16-years-old son, Prince Edward of Woodstock. The Prince of Wales and his men finally reasserted themselves after John was killed in melee, young Edward won his spurs and was knighted on the battlefield. Blind John’s bearing seemed to have impressed the young man significantly and he made John’s German motto “Ich dien” (“I serve”) part of the emblem of the Princes of Wales. The battle ended with a crushing defeat for the French, who had lost between 2.000 and 10.000 men at Crecy, while no more than 300 English lay dead in the field. Philip had to withdraw to Paris, while Edward’s campaign ended pro tempore with the capture of Calais when the “Black Death” descended on Europe, making no distinction between the French and the English.
and about the Battle of Crecy on: