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Battle of Crécy
The Battle of Crécy took place on August 26 1346, near Crécy-en-Ponthieu, in the Somme département of northern France and was one of the defining combats of arms of the Hundred Years' War. Because of new weapons and tactics used, the battle is seen by many historians as the beginning of the end of chivalry.
Crécy was a battle in which a much smaller English army of approximately 12,000, commanded by Edward III of England, was heavily outnumbered by Philip VI of France's force of between 30,000 and 40,000, was victorious as a direct consequence of superior weaponry and tactics. It was a battle where the effectiveness of the Welsh longbow, used en masse, was proven against armored knights. The French knights, in plate armour, were famously cut down by the bodkin arrows as they charged the English position up a hill. The result was that the flower of the French nobility died, perhaps as many as a third (the actual number for each army varies considerably according to the source used).
The battle is seen by many historians as the beginning of the end of chivalry, because during the course of the battle many of the prisoners and wounded were dispatched contrary to chivalric codes of warfare, and the illustrious noble cavalry was no longer undefeatable by infantry. The site of the battle is preserved and nowadays can be overlooked from a special viewing tower.
The Battle of Sluys was the first great battle of the Hundred Years' War, on June 23, 1340. After this battle, Edward attempted to invade France through Flanders, yet failed. 6 years later, Edward attacked Normandy, and the number of easy victories that followed culminated in the Battle of Crécy, the second great battle of the war.
As in the previous battles against the Scottish, Edward III chose to place his forces in an area of flat agricultural terrain, surrounded by natural obstacles in the flanks. The king placed himself and his staff in a windmill at the small hill that protected the rear, where he could control the course of the battle.
In a strongly defensive position, Edward III ordered that everybody should fight on foot and distributed the army between three groups. His sixteen-year-old son, Edward, the Black Prince, was to command one of them. The army's secret weapon, the longbowmen recruited from his Welsh dominions made up of peasants who could speak neither French nor English, were arrayed in a V-formation along the crest of the hill. In the period of waiting time that followed, the English built a system of ditches, pits and caltrops to maim and bring down the enemy cavalry.
The French army, commanded by Philip VI, was much more disorganized, due to an excess of confidence on the part of his noble knights. Roughly, Philip stationed his Genoese mercenary crossbowmen in the front line, with the cavalry in the back.
The first attack was from the crossbowmen, who launched a shower of volleys with the purpose of disorganizing and frightening the English infantry. This first move was accompanied by the sound of musical instruments, brought by Philip VI to scare the enemy. But the crossbowmen would prove completely useless. With a firing rate of 3 to 5 volleys a minute, they were no match for the longbowmen, who could fire 10 to 12 arrows in the same period of time. Furthermore, their weapons were damaged by the rainfall that occurred before the battle while the longbowmen were able to avoid harm to their weapons by simply unstringing their bows until the weather improved. Frightened and confused they retreated with heavy losses, some of them accidentally smashed by the French cavalry.
Seeing the feeble result of the crossbowmen, the French cavalry charged, organized in rows. However the slope and man made obstacles, disrupted the might of the charge. At the same time, the Welsh peasants discharged a curtain of arrows on the knights. The French attack could not break the English formation, even after several attempts, and they took frightful losses.
At nightfall, Philip VI, himself wounded, ordered retreat. The result was a humiliating defeat for France.
The losses were enormous:
- French and Genoese casualties are estimated from 10,000 to 30,000. The most likely figure is 12,000. Of these, eleven were princes and 1200 were knights.
- English lost 150-250 men. (This is probably a low estimate, and quite unreliable.)
Among the dead were important nobles such as:
- Charles of Valois, count of Alençon, Philip VI's brother (b.1297)
- John I, Count of Luxemburg and King of Bohemia (b.1296)
- Louis I, Count of Flanders (b.1304)
- Rudolph, Duke of Lorraine (b.1320)
After the French left the field, the Welsh and English checked the wounded French, to see who was worth taking prisoner for ransom. Those knights who were too severely wounded to be easily carried off the field were dispatched with misericordias (mercy-givers) which are long daggers inserted through the unprotected underarms and in to the heart. This was contrary to chivalric codes of warfare where peasants, such as the Welsh, would kill a knight, as were knights dying from anonymous arrows.
This battle established the military supremacy of the English/Welsh longbow over the French combination of crossbow and armored knights (due to significantly greater rate of fire and a longer range in the hands of a skilled user), and was to significantly alter the way in which war was conducted for a considerable period of time thereafter. After the Battle of Crécy, Edward III proceeded to besiege the city of Calais, which surrendered to him shortly afterwards, establishing the English dominion on northern France. The next major battle in the Hundred Years War, Poitiers in 1356, would return an equal utter defeat for the French, under very similar conditions.
- Jean Froissart, "The Battle of Crecy (1346)", from the Chronicle of Jean Froissart.
- Henri de Wailly, Crecy, 1346: Anatomy of a Battle, 1987, ISBN 0713719303
- Donald Kagan, The Western Heritage, Seventh Edition; From 1300, 2001, ISBN 0130277193
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