Saturday, March 7, 2015

Crécy 1346

Hundred Years War

26 August 1346


English under Edward III, very approximately 9,000

French under Phillip VI, very approximately 27,000


Weather: Temperate. Late afternoon thunderstorm, which made the low ground muddy.

First Light: 05:37  Sunrise: 06:11  Sunset: 19:54  End of Twilight: 20:28
(approximate times calculated from U.S. Naval  Observatory based on location. However as the calculator does not figure for dates prior to 1700, this was based on that date. It may have been a few minutes earlier. Also the date of the battle preceded the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar by England in 1752, so may have actually been 18 Aug. N.S. My sources don't say which date this was.)

Location: 50° 15’ 39” N    1° 53’ 38”E   Crécy-en-Ponthieu in Picardy, about 106 km (66 miles) south of Calais, France.  And just 25 km (16 miles) from the English Channel at the Somme estuary. 

Crécy was one of the first major battles of the imprecisely named Hundred Years War between England and France. It is hardly an obscure battle--at least in British history, for it pumped up that nation's sense of its specialness as much as Agincourt, the Armada, and Waterloo-- but the accounts of it vary widely. In the 14th century the discipline of historiography was, to put it mildly, in its infancy. The primary chronicler of the Hundred Years War, Jean Froissart, was himself only nine at the time of the battle and wrote about it much later, putting together his narrative from the fuzzy recollections of veterans who may or may not have been there. His reliability also depended on which side was currently sponsoring him at various stages of his career.

The thing that interested me from an obscure point of view about this battle was how little like an actual battle it was, and how more like a systematic slaughter of livestock in a chute--a conveyor belt of death. The one-sidedness of the casualties attest to that; tens of thousands versus fewer than a couple hundred English. This also stood in ironic contrast to the reported overwhelming superiority of the French over the English.  There were, it seems, a few factors that led to this human disaster, some tactical, some technical, and some sociological. Those are the obscure but critical factors I want to look at in this article.

Speculative deployment around 17:00. For larger map, scroll down. 

Origins of the War: The Original Game of Thrones

The Hundred Years War, in fact, had been going on for nine years by the time Crécy was fought (if you don't count the almost three hundred years of war between England and France before this). There had been a number of lesser battles fought all over France (and even in Spain) prior to this, and several large-scale raids, or chevauchées, by the English through France. It was already a long and weary war.

Like the War of the Spanish Succession 363 years later (see my post on Blenheim 1704), this war started over a disagreement about who should inherit a throne; in this case, the French throne. Like that later war, a monarch died without male heirs. First, the old king, Philip IV (the infamous mass-murderer of the Knights Templar and known as "Philip the Fair"), died in 1314. He had at least three seemingly hale sons in line to succeed him. But these all died in quick succession between 1314 and 1328. And all three were sonless. So that ended the dynasty of Capet.

Now, according to Salic Law, which had been instituted by the Frankish kings in the 6th century and still prevailed throughout most of western continental Europe until the 14th century, if a man died without legitimate male issue, the closest male linear relative would inherit. In 1328 this would have been Philip IV's grandson, Edward III of England (whose mother was Philip's only daughter, Isabella, also known as the "She-Wolf of France"). Ah, but there's a catch, because according to original Salic Law, no male heir could inherit through a female line. But as far back as 570, over seven centuries before, seeing that this was already causing trouble, another Frankish king amended this law to allow for female line inheritance should there be no direct males. Problem solved. And for almost eight centuries everybody was happy as you could be during the Dark and Middle Ages.

But that didn't matter because shortly after Philip the Fair's oldest son's sudden and--ahem-- mysterious death after a game of tennis in 1316  (Louis X, known as Louis the Stubborn, or Louis the Quarreler, or Louis the A**h***), certain lawyers and politicians in Paris came up with some pretzelogical arguments to invalidate the 746 year-old amendment allowing female successors to inherit (or at least their sons; the French were never going to allow a queen; that would be absurd!). Apparently the feeling in Paris was that Edward III, Philip IV's grandson, was just too close to claiming the throne for himself. The French couldn't see themselves being ruled by an English king (even one of Norman lineage who only spoke French himself). Sacre bleu! Even more absurd.

Two more of Philip IV's sons followed Louis X in rapid order. But they didn't last long either and also died without sons. The last, Charles IV (also known as "The Fair"), left a pregnant wife when he died at the ripe old age of 34 (or 68 by today's actuarial equivalents), and in that era before ultrasound it was not known whether it was to be a boy or a girl.
Philip VI "The Fortunate"

On that basis, Philip, Count of Valois and Philip IV's nephew, was named regent until the last king's pregnant wife had given birth, to see if it was a son or not. And if not, Philip of Valois himself would be named least according to the latest interpretation of Salic Law. And so it came to pass...the baby was a daughter. Therefore in 1328 the Count of Valois became Philip VI, the first Valois king of France (known, for some evidently sarcastic reason, as "Philip the Fortunate"). There had been a Philip V  for those of you counting the Roman numerals, Philip IV's next son ("Philip the Forgettable"), but we can skip his inconsequential reign.
Are you following all this?  Because it will be on the test.

It got so complicated that Shakespeare himself made it an object of slapstick comedy in the opening act of Henry V, as two churchmen attempt to explain it to the laughing, Elizabethan audience (themselves very aware of all the convoluted arguments over royal succession in their own time). Of course, we in the enlightened 21st century--at least those of us living in purported democracies--can snicker at this silly lawyering on the part of a system of government that has long since gone out of style. But it was no more silly than today's gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, manipulation of elections, and legislation by corporate lobbyists. We may have the Internet and Facebook, but some things never change.
Edward III in later life,
Looking uncannily like Santa Claus

Anyway... Anyway... Edward was seemingly fine with things as they were in France. The English already owned many of the sweetest bits of the kingdom anyway (Gascony, Guyenne, Aquitaine, Picardy, etc.) and were related to everybody over there. Also Edward had enough things to worry about. He had only just seized power for himself at the tender age of 18 (or 36 in 21st century years) when he and some friendly barons staged a coup d'etat against his own regent (and his mother's lover and father's murderer), Roger Motimer. Then, after his accession, he had inherited a perpetual situation from both his grandfather and father (Edwards I and II) in seemingly incessant wars with Scotland, whose armies kept coming down to raid England. Finally Edward had money issues with Parliament and the Italian banks. All the usual problems of a Medieval head of state. The last thing he wanted was another war with France.

But Philip VI, on the other hand, did want a war with England. He coveted all the English possessions in France (Gascony, Guyenne, Aquitaine, Picardy, etc.), about a third of the kingdom. So, for some ginned-up reason, (his proclamation justifying the war read, "...because of the many excesses, rebellious and disobedient acts committed by the King of England against Us and Our Royal Majesty, etc. etc..."--Seward, p.35) on 24 May 1337, Philip issued a formal declaration of war on Edward. This has been identified by historians ever since as the official beginning of the Hundred Years War (though, at the time, obviously, it wasn't known as the Hundred Years War...which was, anyway, to last 116 years). At first it just seemed like a continuation of the incessant warfare over English possessions in France that had been going on for over two centuries. It was hard to tell the difference. In one sense, the perpetual war between France and England had probably started in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England and ended in 1558 under Mary Tudor, when the French finally retook Calais, the final piece of English-held property in France. So it should have more appropriately been called the Five Hundred Years War.

Of course, Philip had all the same money issues that Edward had (both were in hock to Italian and Flemish banks and noble investors, and both had troublesome tax bases). But at least Philip reasoned that he had a much larger army and stood to make a handsome profit by seizing the English-held provinces. France, at the time, was the richest nation in Europe, with five times the population of England (21 million vs 4 million). All he had to do was capture some castles and ports and toss the English pig-dogs out. And since Gascony, Guyenne, Aquitaine, Picardy, etc. were so rich, Philip calculated the war would pay for itself; much as Donald Rumsfeld, 665 five years later, reassured the American people that Iraqi oil revenue would pay for the Iraq War. Ooops. (Important lesson from history: Never go to war as a business venture.)

Philip also began building up a large invasion fleet at Sluys on the river Zwin in Flanders to take an army to England and (with Scottish help) overthrow Edward.While doing this, he also launched a number of raids on English ports, burning Portsmouth, Southampton, the Isle of Wight, Dover, and several smaller ports. And he handed out letters of marque to French privateers to seize English shipping (even fishing boats). At the start, the boss was on a roll.

Edward, for his part, was now forced to go to war, even though he couldn't afford it. So, while he was at it anyway, he decided it was time to play his right-of-succession card for the French throne, via his mother's father, Philip IV (see above). Screw the Salic Lawyers. To this end, he spent considerable diplomatic effort and capital winning allies inside France and the rest of Europe to support his claim.  

Does this all sound familiar? Like the War of the Spanish Succession? Didn't I say? I knew you were already thinking that.

Since Edward, too, recognized that Philip's aggression was primarily acquisitive, he would make France pay dearly. The English king's strategic objective was not to defend his French possessions in the south directly, but to make a series of raids on the French mainland; pillaging, burning, raping, torturing, murdering, and generally making a mess of the French economy. These raids were known by the civilized French term of  chevauchées, and over the next century would bankrupt France, as well as cause hundreds of thousands of deaths (on top of those millions killed by the Black Death in 1348). English historians have rationalized these chevauchées as shrewd strategies to draw forces away from Philip's main attacks on Guyenne in the south and expose Philip as an ineffectual monarch, unable to defend France. Though how Edward's "strategy" of raping, burning, pillaging, etc. was supposed to endear the French to him as their savior is a head-scratcher. Or maybe, as a later vice-head-of-state once said of another foreign war, "I expect we'll be welcomed as liberators."

Plantagenet heraldry. No subtlety there.
(image by Sodacan on Wikipedia)
It was at this time, too, (1340) that Edward decided to change his logo, from the Plantagenet three lions waving "hi there" to the now-familiar, quartered lions and fleurs-de-lys of France, signifying his claim to both thrones. I'm sure this graphic design ploy impressed nobody. But it was sure to inflame Philip and his loyal retainers when they saw Edward's impudent banner on the battlefield.

If you've ever wondered why there were French fleurs-de-lys in English royal symbolism, it was from this bit of graphic nose-thumbing.

See? This is every bit as lurid and complicated as Game of Thrones. Only without the gratuitous pornography in the background.

The 1346 Chevauchée

From the beginning of the war in 1337, Edward had conducted a number of his chevauchées in France. The one in 1346 was to be just one more. The French economy was starting to really suffer because of these massive raids. And, perversely, the economy on the other side of the Channel was starting to pick up with all the loot that Edward and the English soldiers brought back with them. It was an economic stimulus package for England, "taxed" on the backs of the French people. So, at least at this stage of the war, the English economy was benefiting. Philip's original business venture was backfiring.

Having destroyed the French invasion fleet at Sluys in 1340, Edward had removed, for the time being, any threat of a counter-chevauchée in England, allowing his country to prosper from war profit. It was France that was paying the price. Ironically for the English, the French reaction to this neverending predation was to galvanize French nationalism and ultimately throw the English out of France entirely by the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. That and Joan of Arc, of course.

But getting back to the 1346 campaign, the original plan was for Edward to launch his latest raid in June. It was not known by either side (though it may have been in the back of Edward's mind) where his landing was to be; Gascony in the south, Brittany in the west, Normandy in the center, or Flanders in the north. He kept the French guessing all summer, not knowing where to concentrate their field army. And as Edward was also aware of a sizable Genoese fleet of mercenaries heading up the Bay of Biscay from the Mediterranean to aid Philip, he himself wanted to avoid a confrontation at sea. In a way, too, this was also like the invasion of Europe in 1944 in which the Germans did not know where or when it would fall. 

Like that later cross-Channel invasion, Edward's descent was also delayed by the unpredictable weather in the Channel. He had at least three false starts, only to have his 750 ships and 15,000 men forced back into port. Then, finally, on the night of 11 July, the wind, the tides, and the weather were all perfect and he made his jump across the Channel to the closest landfall from Portsmouth, the Cotentin Peninsula of Normandy. His force landed at St.Vaast-la-Hogue (just west of the later D-Day beaches of 1944). And his men jumped off their boats and got right to it; burning St. Vaast, and all the shipping in the port. 

For the next several weeks Edward led his army and fleet in a devastating rampage eastward through Normandy, burning, looting, and extorting towns and villages. This culminated in the capture of the city of Caen, in which his men indulged in an orgy of massacre, murdering as many as 2,500 people after the city had surrendered to assurances that no such thing would take place. By Caen Edward had given orders for his men to lighten up on the raping, slaughtering, and pillaging, but they largely ignored him. The reason they had been coming to France every year for the past nine was precisely for the loot. Of course, they were paid soldiers, but the real profit and fun was to be had in the raping, slaughtering, and pillaging. This was the Middle Ages, after all. And English armies then were not known for their gentility or restraint. Think of modern English soccer hooligans armed to the teeth with very sharp swords, knives, longbows, pikes, spears, glaves, bodkins, and billhooks.

Philip, for his part, was trying to muster his army around Paris and Amiens.  He sent marshals to Normandy to rouse the local militias and fight the ravaging English with asymmetric warfare tactics; hit and run counter-raids on their columns and picking off isolated stragglers and freebooters. His Genoese mercenaries were still making their way north along the coast in their fleet of galleys. But the bulk of his field forces were down south in Guyenne, besieging English castles there.  Philip appealed to the Pope, of course, to mediate. And the Pope (Clement VI, a Frenchman at Avignon) sent two cardinals to negotiate on Philip's behalf with the English. Edward, who didn't recognize the authority of the French puppet pope or the Papal See in Avignon, ignored these appeals. He was riding high and his annual "harvests" of France were working really well for him and his kingdom. But for Philip, trying diplomacy bought some time and gave him a PR weapon that, at least, he had tried negotiating for peace, establishing himself as the aggrieved party to the rest of Europe.

Edward's great raid started to peter out by the time it got to the outskirts of Paris. By this time Philip had amassed a quite sizable army of men-at-arms, militia, and mercenaries, all itching to exact bloody revenge on the bloody English. Edward, who had done about all he wanted in France this time, saw that his edible supplies were running out, his wagons were groaning with loot, and he was about ready to head home. 

The trouble was, he couldn't go back the way he had come, for that route was pretty much devastated. The only way home he could see was to make his way across the rivers Seine and the Somme and head north toward his allies in Flanders with its friendly ports. As another argument for this route, an allied Flemish force, under the command of an Englishman, Sir Hugh Hastings, was beginning its own southward drive into Picardy from the north. It was Edward's intention to link up with this Flemish army and together seize either Boulogne or Calais on the coast as a port from which to head home. He had no intention of hanging onto any of Normandy or his "conquests". He was just in France this year to devastate and eat, like a swarm of locusts. Next year it would be some other region, giving Normandy time to heal and regrow. It was the plot of The Magnificent Seven. Or A Bug's Life.

Edward head fakes Philip

But the problem for Edward, with every bridge burned or knocked down and every ford guarded by strong French forces, was how to get over the Seine River and head north to Flanders. He solved this problem  by sending a diversionary force of about 1,500 men southwest from Paris, in the direction of Chartres, making as much smoke from burning towns as possible and drawing off Philip in that direction. Meanwhile, while Philip chased this diversion, Edward's engineers frantically repaired a broken bridge over the Seine near the aptly named Pontoise, northwest of Paris and everybody scrambled over. The head fake worked. On 16 August Philip, preoccupied with stopping the decoy southern raid, learned that Edward had crossed the Seine behind his back and was heading north. Philip yanked his horse's head around, sent frantic messengers to alert his forces at Amiens that the British were coming, and set off in parallel pursuit to prevent Edward from crossing the Somme River to escape north.

The French moved on a parallel course east of the English (see campaign map above), sending parties ahead to burn the bridges and at every ford over the Somme posted strong defenses. The English attempted several crossings, but were driven back each time. At some points, it was reported that the French on the right bank of the Somme would all pull their pants down and show their backsides at the English on the left bank, in true Chaucerian spirit (or maybe it was Pythonian spirit). At Caen, earlier in the campaign, this obscene gesture caused the French 105 undignified deaths when they wiggled their naked butts within arrow range of the English longbowmen. But at the Somme they evidently made sure they were out of range before indulging in this puerile gesture.

Finally on 24 August, after over a week of Philip blocking every crossing, the English army, becoming weaker all the time while the French grew stronger, reached the estuary of the Somme at Blanchetaque. When the tide was out, here was a mile-wide ford across the river where the bottom was made of a slab of hard chalk instead of muddy silt (hence the slangy name, Blanchetaque, "white plate"). The French, evidently, did not anticipate how wide and firm the ford of the Somme would be here at low tide. But the English and their local guides were aware that there was a firm, chalk-bedded ford here, allowing them to cross on a wide front at low tide, and overwhelm the 3,500 French who had been sent to block the passage. These outnumbered defenders fought valiantly in the estuary but had to pull back. Edward was able to wade his army across into friendly country. By the time Philip's main army had caught up to the English on the south side of the Somme, the tide had come in again, blocking a pursuit.

Edward's army was now all safely across the Somme and a short distance from Flanders. Unfortunately, though, his expected rendezvous with the Flemish army supposedly coming south was to be frustrated. That army had been thwarted by a series of disastrous battles and failed sieges and had headed back north. So Edward would have to deal with Philip alone when the latter crossed to catch up with him.

Edward pulls over at Crécy

This is where it gets interesting. Because instead of Edward continuing his race to get out of France--as had been his usual practice in previous chevauchées--once across the Somme and in Ponthieu, he saw his chance to rest and feed his army and finally bring the much larger French army to battle on favorable ground. Just northeast of the town of Crécy, Edward found a perfect position from which to take on Philip's gigantic host, neutralizing its overwhelming numbers. So on the 25th he called a halt to his long retreat and prepared for battle.

The ground was perfect for defense. The English occupied a low ridge linking the town of Crécy and the village of Wadicourt to the northeast (see map below). Their flanks and rear were protected by dense forest and coastal wetlands. The main road north to Calais ran parallel to the east of the ridge, so as the French marched north, they would come across the English on their left flank. The shallow valley in front of the English (later known as la Vallee des Clercs, for reasons that will become revealed), across which the French would have to attack, was seemingly ideal for a frontal cavalry charge, which Edward knew the French would not be able to resist.

The King made a laager camp to the rear (northwest) of the ridge, fortifying it with a barricade of all of his wagons. This was also to be his main ammo dump during the battle, stocked with hundreds of thousands of arrows for his longbows, and close enough to his battle line to keep his archers continuously stocked with fresh ammunition. 

Late afternoon view from the site of Edward's camp, looking toward the English line and beyond the French. 

On the front slopes of the ridge, which was steeper on the south side closest to Crécy village, his troops dug tens of thousands of little holes, about a foot across and a foot deep. These were then covered in freshly mowed straw to match the ground. To have dug a large trench or erected field fortifications would have taken time and have been an obvious obstacle to French cavalry, which could have circled around to outflank it. Edward wanted the French to come right at him, up the slope, across seemingly open ground. And the little holes, easy to make and conceal, would prove to be the undoing of the French, as we will see.

At this point of the campaign, Edward's army had shrunk to around 9,000 men (though exact numbers are impossible to confirm). Though they hadn't suffered much from stand-up combats, his men had been reduced by the normal wastage of the five weeks of marching, as well as detachments to garrison key castles, and from retaliation by French peasants, out for ghastly revenge on any straggling English marauders. 

Meanwhile, by contrast, Philip's army had grown to enormous proportions. Six thousand Genoese crossbowmen (the most professional soldiers in his army) had finally disembarked from their fleet at Harfleur and joined him. In addition he had possibly 7-8,000 men-at-arms (knights and non-noble heavy cavalry armed and trained as knights), and 14-16,000 militia infantry, themselves armed and armored. The whole force was anywhere (depending on whom you ask) from 25-30,000 (though Froissart, in his history, says there were 100,000--medieval historians were more melodramatic than accurate).

The Day of Battle

Ever since the English successfully crossed the Somme estuary two days before, Philip had assumed they were still heading up toward either Boulogne or Calais to get away. He wanted to catch them before they had a chance to escape. So he gave chase up the main road to Boulogne. By the late afternoon of the 26th, his lead elements had begun to cross the little stream of the Maye that ran through Crécy. Much to their surprise, they saw the entire English army drawn up for battle to their left. Word was sent back to Philip immediately.

A very wise knight, Le Moine de Bazeilles--the one who had been in the advanced element that discovered the English--gave Philip some sound advice. He told him that the English evidently were in battle array and seemed there to stay; they would, in all likelihood, wait for battle, so that it would be prudent for His Majesty to bring up his entire army in the night, rest them, probe the English vulnerabilities and plan his battle. Philip thought this very sound advice and so ordered his army to start making camp, the field bakeries to start baking, and the cooks to start their pots. Meanwhile he went forward to observe the English positions.

View from left of French position looking toward English line.

The sacred Oriflamme de St Denis
unfurled at the battle by the French
to show this was to be a battle to
the death, with no quarter given to
the English.

Except... le Comte d’Alençons, Philip's headstrong brother, champing at the bit to get at the English, said he, for one, would not be so cowardly as to allow the swine to escape again. He intended to attack as soon as his division came up. This was seconded by a crowd of other knights; it would be dishonorable for the Flower of France to wait. It was this "le' me at 'em, Sire" spirit that was to doom the Age of Chivalry. They were going to attack at once, orders or no. Strategy was for cowards.

Philip, realizing now that he had no control over his impetuous brother and vassals, sighed and ordered for his more disciplined Genoese crossbowmen (who were in the van anyway) to attack first and at least soften up the English. He had the sacred Oriflamme banner of France unfurled, signifying that this was to be a fight to the death and that no prisoners were to be taken. But things were already out of hand. There was no plan of attack and no order in his army, which was, in effect an angry mob (but for the Genoese mercenaries), bent on avenging the insult to French honor and the devastation of Normandy. It was turning into a general stampede toward the enemy.

On the English side, Edward and his men had been preparing all day, digging their little holes, sharpening their weapons, eating, peeing, and regaining their strength. He arranged his line in three divisions, or "battles". The right division was under the nominal command of his sixteen-year-old son, Edward, Prince of Wales in his first battle (eventually to be known as The Black Prince), but ably assisted by a staff of veteran soldiers like Sir John Chandos and Godfrey d'Harcourt. This division consisted of roughly 900 men-at-arms (all dismounted), 2,200 longbowmen, and 500 spearmen, or about 3,600 in all. On the left flank the Earls of Arundel and Northumberland commanded a similar sized force; 900 men-at-arms, 2,200 longbowmen, and 500 spearmen. Everybody was dismounted with  the men-at-arms standing about six ranks deep. In the center, a little back from the crest of the ridge, the king himself with a smaller division consisting of about 450 men-at-arms, 1,100 bowmen, and 250 spearmen stood in reserve. Numbers, of course, are wildly approximate. Prior to the battle, Edward had established his main headquarters at a windmill on the hill just northeast of the town, whose vantage gave him a panoramic view of the French movements.

View southeast from approximate site of Edward's windmill toward French positions across the shallow Vallee des Clercs. the English line would have run right to left across the middle of this picture. (photo Chris Hartford)

According to the principle contemporary historian of the Hundred Years War, Jean Froissart, the English line was arranged in the manner of a herce, which subsequent historians have interpreted a number of ways. One is that he was referring, by simile, to the shape of a medieval harrow, an agricultural instrument that was a square rack with spikes sticking out of the bottom used for breaking up the ground. Another interpretation is that he was referring to a hedgehog. There has been much controversy by medieval historians what this meant exactly, but the latest convention seems to be that the archers were arranged on each flank of the three divisions of men-at-arms in wedge-shaped formations, acting like living bastions, who could shoot into the flanks of enemy cavalry heading for the English men-at-arms.  From above, this formation would have resembled a harrow (or herce) when tipped on its side. Other interpretations (namely Bradbury's and Seward's) have been that all of the English archers arranged themselves on the outer flanks of the entire line, facing inward.  But as the line of men-at-arms in this case would have been some 400 yards wide, this would have left a vulnerable zone in the center out of effective range of the archers on the flanks, so it is not unreasonable to assume that there was at least a center wedge of archers between the two forward divisions.

In addition to all of this, the English also had a handful of primitive field guns. Froissart doesn't mention where these were, but logic suggests that they may have been stationed on the extreme right of the Prince of Wales' line, at the highest part of the ridge and aiming northeastward down the valley in enfilade.This would have been one of the first European battles in which field artillery was used. It would, in the event, prove to be more shock-and-awe than effective, given the rate of fire and range of medieval artillery, but as a psychological factor it probably just added more insult to injury.

The English had been in their deployment positions all day, waiting for the French to show up. During that time, Edward allowed shifts of them to go back to the camp (a couple of hundred yards to the rear) to eat and relieve themselves in the woods behind. So by the end of the day, when the French did arrive, the whole army was rested, fed, with empty bladders and bowels, and ready to fight.

Speculative deployment around 17:00. Footprint of the English divisions based on strengths from Nicolle, assuming 6 ranks and about 4 feet (1.2 M) per file, the operational spacing required for shooting and hand-to-hand fighting with swords. Footprint of French divisions wildly approximate since they came on in disorganize mobs and herds and estimates of their strength are conjectural.

The weather cooperates, at least for the English

It was about 17:00 when the French started arriving on the road from Abbeville, opposite the English line. At just this time a violent, late afternoon thunderstorm struck. I do not know how long it rained, but apparently it was enough to muddy the ground in the Vallee des Clercs and get the crossbows of the Genoese mercenaries thoroughly soaked. This would have meant that their bowstrings would have been slackened, giving them much less range. You would have thought that the rain would have presented the same problem to the English archers, but, seeing the sky darken, these quickly unhooked their linen bowstrings and tucked them under their helmets to keep them dry. The more complicated nature of the crossbow's design did not make this so easy for the Genoese.

This being said, it is hard to believe that professional crossbowmen would have not have had some means to keep their bowstrings dry; rain was not exactly a rare condition in European warfare. However, given, too, that it had apparently not rained in this area in a few weeks, the sudden thunderstorm coming off the Channel might have taken the Genoese unprepared, and whatever coverings or means of waterproofing might also have been left back in the rear with the rest of the baggage.

Ordered forward in spite of their lack of adequate equipment, the 6,000 Genoese formed up and started across the valley and up the slope toward the English. The thunderstorm had ended by this time, but it was enough to turn the little valley into mud, which slowed the crossbowmen. They were further hampered by the fact that most of their ammunition and their pavises (the man-tall shields carried by an assistant) under which they would normally duck to reload in safety, were back behind the army with the baggage train. The pavisarii, the men in charge of carrying and holding the shields, also carried long pikes, and probably accompanied their crossbowmen forward with these. But nobody would have been protected from the English arrows. Most had open-faced helmets, a few some cuirasses or leather jerkins, but most were only partially armored. 

And now a final hindrance: The thunderstorm passed, the sun was now glaring right in the eyes of the crossbowmen, making it difficult to see their targets. To the English archers, however, with the sun at their backs, the entire French army would have been brilliantly illuminated. From their view, too, with the low, bright sun and the rain receding in the east, there was undoubtedly a rainbow over the French, as well. It must have been a glorious sight.

When the Genoese were between 200 and 250 yards from the English lines, the English and Welsh longbowmen would have let fly. A massive cloud of six thousand arrows fell with devastating accuracy on the squinting Genoese,; "like snow" one of them later recounted. Then another volley, five seconds later, and another. The longbowmen could shoot at a rate of 15 flights a minute, and, aiming high, could bring down lunging fire from above. The Genoese, with their wet crossbows and trying to aim into the sun, were not yet within effective range (the crossbow being a flat-trajectory weapon). And without their protective pavises, they began to fall in bunches, heavily into the mud, unable to reply. After a very short time crossbowmen realized they would all be annihilated by the incredibly accurate longbow barrage before they got within range. They started to balk

It was at this time that the arrogant idiot, le Comte d’Alençons, galloping forward with his men-at-arms, saw the Genoese wavering in front of him. Rather than wait for them to rally, or give them support, he instead yelled at his men to "ride down this rabble who block our advance!" (Seward, p. 65). Being an nobleman, he had nothing but contempt for common infantrymen, particularly mercenaries, and Italians at that. In contrast to the integrated combined arms discipline of the English, Alençons thought that the only way to win battles was for noble knights alone to go straight at the enemy, as in a joust. 

So he led forward a stampede of almost 4,000 knights, the "Flower of France", that crashed into the rear of the Genoese, trampling hundreds and skewering hundreds more with their lances. Naturally, the Genoese didn't take kindly to this literal stab in the back, which added insult to the injury done by the English archers. They downed tools and vacated the field. Later, many of them would be executed for cowardice and/or treason by their employer, Philip. And the survivors of this unjust sentence just abandoned Philip entirely, heading for Genoa.

Having swept aside his "churlish" infantry, Alençons started to urge his horses up the muddy slope on the other side of the valley, aiming for the English men-at-arms between the wedges of longbowmen. He was not interested in fighting the lowborn archers on his flanks; glory was only to be gained in crashing into the English knights directly. But before his panting mass of horseflesh and steel could get to those enemy knights, the despised longbowmen poured in thousands of high-velocity arrows into his men from the wings. The heavy plate armor that the French knight wore was probably proof enough against a longbow arrow, but not his more lightly covered arms and legs. And their poor horses were not armored at all. So hundreds of the animals went down, or plunged about in mad pain from their wounds, throwing their riders to the ground, stunning if not killing them. These impeded the cavalry behind, who hesitated at the piled bodies in front of them (horses are instinctively loathe to trod upon another horse; it scares them). As the mounted survivors made it closer to the English line, picking their way around the fallen horses and men, they next encountered another nasty surprise; the thousands of hidden potholes the unscrupulous English had dug, breaking the legs of even more pitiful horses. The screaming of the poor animals must have been heart-rending. More knights took a tumble into the mud.

A Conveyor Belt of Death

Hardly any of this first wave of the French cavalry charge got through the arrow-storm to the English men-at-arms. But the latter held fast against those that did, easily surrounding and pulling the knights from their horses and murdering them on the ground by killing stabs into the slits of their helmets (a dagger into the eye, nose, or mouth and hammered back into the brain) or the openings in the joints of their armor, where their long stilettos probed for vital arteries and organs. The Welsh knifemen with the English dashed forward to the stunned French knights lying in the mud and murdered them in the same grisly manner.

The methods of killing during this period were particularly gruesome and painful. Forensic archaeology on skeletons exhumed from mass graves near medieval battlefields has revealed truly awful wounds (especially to the head) . The reality of 14th century European battle was every bit as horrific as that of Gqokli Hill, the previous battle I wrote about between the Zulus and Ndwandwes five centuries later in southern Africa. Of course, in no battle do people die peacefully or painlessly. But in the Middle Ages the killing was up close, personal, and gruesome in the extreme.

A fairly inaccurate, 15th century illustration of the battle from a
later edition of Froissart's Chronicles. The English (right) were
not mounted. And there were no pretty castles nearby.  But this
view at tellingly shows a French man-at-arm shacking at his
Genoese ally  (left).
Like Philip, Edward had also issued an order that he wanted no prisoners taken. The overwhelming size of the French host attacking him would have made this dangerous, for he didn't have enough men to spare to guard a large number of prisoners. So the polite courtesies of surrender between the highborn in hopes of ransom were, at least for Crécy, ignored. Both nobleman and baseborn were slaughtered indiscriminately. This is where the Welsh and Irish spearmen, too, had particular fun butchering their helpless "betters", lying dazed from their falls off their horses. And that included the French king's impetuous and arrogant brother, Alençons.

Seeing the fate of the first two waves did not in the least inhibit the thousands of French showing up on the field behind them. The army was stacked up on the road to Abbeville for miles and as each band of knights or militia marched onto the battlefield, it went in at once in small groups (called conrois) and in the same disorder. Everybody just wanted to get at the hated English. The result was that for the next few hours, until dark, crowds of French cavalry and infantry charged up the bloody slope, clambering over stacks of dead and dying men and horses.  Each attack was as uncoordinated as the last, and each met the same fate. 

Philip looked on in dismay. Nothing seemed to be able to stop this military disaster to his army. He lost count of the friends and families of friends that went to their deaths and felt helpless to do anything about it. There was no formal command structure; even the king, seeing his army being ground up in the English killing machine, could not issue any order that would have stopped the carnage.

This annihilation was probably inevitable. The French nobility were simply following the imperative of 14th century chivalric culture. As Taylor Craig illustrates in his essay on the interplay of military courage and fear in medieval chivalry, knights of the age were driven by an almost insane, suicidal compulsion to either triumph or die gloriously in battle. Barbara Tuchman, in her book, A Distant Mirror, also remarks about this military ethos. Any knight who hesitated or fell back to regroup might as well have slit his own throat, the shame would have been so great. There was no concept in the French army of maneuver, combined arms coordination, or command and control. The role of the leader of each unit was to lead by example, straight into the teeth of the enemy, followed by his loyal retainers. And the role of the each subsequent leader was to do exactly likewise. So, like Alençons, each lord, knight, and man-at-arms who came onto the battlefield simply followed the crowd to their doom. There was no one on the scene to redirect or call off the attack, or even to try to work around to the flanks of the English line (which were, in fact, vulnerable). It was, literally, every man for himself.

Soon after Alençons' first charge spent itself, the aged and blind Count of Luxembourg, King John of Bohemia, led his own 2,000 Czech men-at-arms forward. He had two of his knights tie their horses' bridles to his own so that they might lead him in the right direction. It must have been perilous duty enough riding next to this old, blind man, swinging his sword wildly. Comedic but sad.

Luxembourg's charge was nearly successful. A handful of these Czech knights managed to break through the Prince of Wales' line and out the back. At one point, as he saw the Prince's banner fall, it seemed to Edward that his sixteen-year-old son might die in his first battle and that his right wing may crumble. A frantic lieutenant asked if he should go over and rescue the Prince, but the king, confident in the ability of his son and the men around him said, "I order that today the lad be allowed to earn his spurs, for if the day be his, the glory of it belong to him and those in whose charge I have entrusted him." 

It was actually probably more terse than that, but he could also see that Luxembourg's charge had spent itself and was being handily mopped up all along the line. The King nevertheless sent over twenty knights just to make sure, and was relieved to see the Prince's banner up again. Meanwhile all of Luxembourg's division, including the blind, old, valorous King of Bohemia himself, were pulled off their horses and stabbed to death by the English men-at-arms and Welsh "knifemen".

And so the massacre continued, hour after hour in the lengthening light. The slope became piled with quivering bodies of horses and men, the already muddy ground made more slippery from all the blood. The chronicler Jean le Bel described the scene of thousands of dead horses in a line as looking "like a litter of piglets suckling a sow." Poor horses.

The English, for their part, were not even that tired, even though the conveyor belt of French knights presenting themselves for execution went on for the next three-and-a-half hours, until after sunset. While the French had been marching in the August heat all day (after weeks of marching), the English had had a day of rest, were well fed, and constantly resupplied with new arrows and drink from their magazines in their camp to their immediate rear. It was an entirely one-sided fight.

At some point, Philip VI, with his reserve division of some 2,700 men-at-arms, finally threw himself into the slaughter and received an arrow wound in his neck. The wound was not fatal, but the king was led off the field by his retainers to save his life. They eventually led him back toward a local, royal hunting lodge (La Broye) where his five companions had trouble convincing the night watchman to let them in. Some say that the castelaine didn't recognize his own king, but it might also have been that he wasn't sure it was safe to let the losing king in since the winning one might very well end up being his monarch. Remember, at the time, the reason for the war was which was the legitimate king of France, Edward or Philip, and Picardy, the site of the battle, was allied to England. So the gatekeeper probably had to do some soul searching before he let the wounded Philip in.

Sometime after dark the French assaults finally began to wane. At this point, the English men-at-arms, having fought on foot all this time, reportedly had their horses brought up from their camp and made a mass cavalry charge down the slope to chase away what was left of the French army. (Though if this were true, how would they have avoided all the potholes themselves?) During the night, pathetic Frenchmen who had become separated from their colleagues, stumbled around the battlefield looking for their friends.  English soldiers lured them over with false greetings in French and treacherously murdered them. This went on until midnight. So much for the Age of Chivalry.

The Aftermath

The battle, as I have said, was ridiculously one-sided. The next morning Edward had several clerks on his staff comb over the battlefield  to count the dead. Their knowledge of heraldry allowed them to identify the slain noblemen by their shields and hauberks. The tally of dead Frenchmen varied widely (given the Medieval tendency to exaggerate), but Edward's clerks recorded between 1,542 noblemen and 10,000 commoners on the low end and 12,000 noblemen and 16,000 commoners on the high end. Unfortunately there are no surviving original records. Since the total number of combatants has also varied widely, either of these statistics can be taken as equally valid. Let's just say there were a lot. The name of the shallow valley, Vallee des Clercs, came from the day-long work that Edward's administrative assistants did that day. 

For their part, the English reported losing only two knights, 40 men-at-arms and archers, and about 100 Welsh "knifemen". Less than 200 (Dupuy, Evolution p.84). It is little wonder that Edward thought God was on his side that day.

After resting and picking up the booty from the battlefield, Edward next led his victorious army north to Boulogne and Calais, to try first one then the other as a base from which to secure his foothold on the Continent in the north and to withdraw to England.
Of the two ports, Calais seemed more promising and on 5 September he sat down to a long siege. The people of Calais, having been ordered by Philip, their king, to hold out until he could come and rescue them, endured for eleven months. Finally, in July of 1347, Philip finally showed up with another gigantic army and challenged Edward to a standup battle in the open field, like honorable knights. The English king, however, saw no reason to leave his cozy siege works and respectfully declined. He invited Philip to attack him again, since that seemed to work so well for the French king the last time. All Philip could do, not wanting to risk another Crécy, was march away frustrated. This time, since all of his impetuous relatives and nobles had been killed the previous year, none of his knights disobeyed him to attack without orders. The French were learning. But apparently there was a huge cry of anguish that could be heard from within Calais as the poor citizens saw their king march away over the hill, abandoning them. The next day they hauled down the royal flag, threw it contemptuously into the moat, and surrendered.

Rodin's Les Bourgeois de Calais. 1884
Under the terms of capitulation, Edward pledged there would be no massacre, but all the citizens had to leave their homes and possessions and march out of the town with only their clothes on their backs. The only people he would execute would be six members of the town council, who nobly volunteered themselves to spare the lives of their people. But Edward's wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, cranky at having endured a sea-sickening trip across the Channel to be with her husband, admonished him to give it a rest. So he let these burghers live, too. This incident was immortalized poignantly by the sculptor Auguste Rodin in his Les Bourgeois de Calais 537 years later. From 1347 for the next two hundred years, Calais became an English town, populated by Englishmen. Just like Boston. Or Singapore.

Post Script: The Black Death

  • P.S. In the year following the capture of Calais, one of the greatest disasters the human race has ever faced swept over Europe: The Black Death. Between 30-60% of human beings in Europe died of bubonic and pneumonic plague in the space of eighteen months. It was as close to a Mass Extinction Event as humanity has ever faced, with perhaps from a third to half of all human beings on the planet dying. And while it did not sober the Europeans enough to get them to stop the Hundred Years War (which didn't even stop after a hundred years), it did claim the life of the hapless Philip VI in 1350, who started the whole thing. What is amazing is that the war, with its own economic and societal devastation went on during and in spite of the plague years (which recurred multiple times in the century after the initial onslaught of 1348-1350). And we think the world is going to hell now!

Evaluation of Crécy

It is hard to analyze this battle as most of the near-contemporary narratives we have of it are patron-serving propaganda, written by men like Jean le Bel and Froissart while the war was still going on. In some sense it would be like trying to figure out what happened in WWII by watching movies from 1939-1945. But I'll try.

Relative Size of the Armies 
For instance there's the matter of the size of the forces. I could find no commonly accepted figure from the (admittedly limited) sources I used (see references below). Even within his single book, Crécy 1346, David Nicolle cites different numbers, at one point conceding that the French might not have outnumbered the English on the day of battle at all. And in his section on wargaming Crécy, he arbitrarily assigns strengths for the purposes of setting up an order of battle for the game (9,000 vs 27,000). Archer Jones, in his tome on the history of Western warfare, gives the ratio as 20,000 vs 60,000. Froissart claims there were as many as 100,000 French and allies. Also, as of this time there were no set distinctions about organization and who and who was not a combatant. So an army of 30,000 might have only included 8,000 actual fighting men and 22,000 "varlets" (servants, squires, priests, camp followers, and angry peasants with pitchforks). Contemporary chroniclers were a little vague on these "little people". 

The Superiority of the Longbow
Crécy was supposed to have been the epitome of the tactical superiority of the English longbow over the crossbow and the mounted knight, signalling an end to medieval warfare. T.N. Dupuy, in his exhaustive statistical models for historical weapons systems, gives it a Theoretical Lethality Index (TLI) of 36 vs 33 for the crossbow (for comparison, a 17th century musket has a TLI of 19, a Napoleonic era musket of 43 and a WWII machine gun of 4973).

There were several factors that went into this evaluation. For one thing, it was a cheaper and simpler weapon system. In dry weather its battle range was longer than the crossbow (max 400 M, eff 250 M vs 250/100). Moreover, the longbow's rate of fire (15 shots per minute) was as much as five times as great as the windlass-cranked crossbow, which took about 20 seconds to reload. Finally the longbow was an ideal defilade weapon, for the English could send mass volleys of arrows in high-angle trajectories, coming down on the heads and shoulders of enemy troops as much as 400 meters away, even behind pavises and earthworks. (Interestingly, this was the same technique the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho archers employed against the troopers of Custer's 7th Cavalry, lying behind their dead horses at Little Big Horn in 1876). The high fire angle was also used by the Anglo Saxon bowmen at Stamford Bridge in 1066 against the Viking invaders. The crossbow, as I have mentioned, was basically a flat-trajectory weapon.

As we saw at Crécy, too, and later at Agincourt, the longbow could be unstrung quickly and kept dry during rainy weather. Stringing a crossbow was a considerably more involved process, and keeping it dry more problematic. Logistically and operationally, the crossbow was a more complicated weapon system.

However, one has to ask, if the longbow was clearly so superior to the crossbow (as was demonstrated repeatedly in subsequent battles like Poitiers and Agincourt), why didn't the rest of Europe adopt it? 

Two reasons:  

1) It required years of intense training to make a skilled bowman, while only a matter of hours to train a soldier to shoot a crossbow. It had taken generations of yeomen (mostly from, Wales, Sussex and Kent) and laws imposed by the crown mandating Sunday practice and archery tournaments, forbidding all other sports but archery, to create an elite force of longbowmen.

2) Crossbows, when employed correctly (as they weren't at Crécy), in combined use with protective pavises (large shields) and cavalry support, could out-range the longbow in direct fire. They were also, at point-blank ranges, able to penetrate all but the thickest plate armor. So the crossbow (eventually to be replaced by hand guns) was still a superior weapon against armored cavalry when used properly.

At Crécy, however--as at Poitiers, Agincourt, and numerous other battles in the Middle Ages--the longbow, in the hands of skilled English archers, did prove its tactical superiority. The reason it didn't survive as a weapon past the 16th century was the enormous investment cost in a lifetime of training a populace (who would rather be golfing or playing football anyway).


Command and Control
Besides the deft use of the longbow, the other notable feature of Crécy was the tight command and control on the part of Edward III's army and the apparent complete lack of it in Philip VI's. This partly had to do with the more centralized form of government in England at the time. Edward was, to be frank, a more autocratic sovereign, and his men were used to obeying the king's orders. In return, he took very good care of them and made them rich. It was a happy relationship, for a time.

The French king, on the other hand, was still not that sure of his regal authority, having come to the thone by, shall we say, legal gymnastics (remember the Salic Law?). His army was composed of feudal lords with military fealty obligations, but with enormous political power of their own. Many even switched sides during the war (e.g. Hainault, Brittany, Burgundy). France, as a nation state, was not yet a reality, with large chunks of it owned outright by England (Piccardy, Gascony, Guyenne, the Aquitaine) and other large chunks (Savoy, Burgundy, Brittany, Normandy) acting like independent states of their own. Consequently, the command that Philip VI had over his subordinates was much looser, based more on on personal loyalty than a sense of duty. And that it was his impetuous brother (Alençons) who precipitated the disaster should have been familiar to anyone trying to get their family to listen to them. So the result was that, at Crécy, there was almost no command or control of the French army. It was a mob.

As a consequence, once the French host was committed to the frontal attack, there was no way that it could have been stopped or subsequent forces redeployed in a way that could outflank Edward's line. This was exactly what the English king anticipated would happen. To be sure, he was counting on the French nobility to throw themselves on his center in a glorious but futile attack. He knew his enemy.

Another critical factor of the battle was the position that Edward chose to defend. Not only was it on high ground, he had time to prepare it to avoid being outflanked or overrun. The thousands of potholes dug by his men on his front and flanks proved to be decisive in stopping the all-out cavalry charge of the French. He had also fortified and so positioned his camp that it served as a handy "fort" in case of retreat and a magazine to keep his archers stocked with ammunition. Moreover, situated as it was next to the monastery of the Crecy Grange, it was next to a ready-made hospital to handle his wounded.

The hill on which Edward deployed was also not so steep as to deter a cavalry charge by the French; as Edward was counting on. But it was steep enough to tire heavily burdened horses and slow the momentum of a charge.

He could not have known that it was going to thunderstorm that afternoon, but when it did, this also served him tactically by making the shallow valley muddy and the enemy's crossbows all but useless.

The fact that Philip's army didn't show up until very late in the afternoon meant that the sun was going to be directly in their eyes. Edward may have anticipated this, but had it not stopped raining shortly before sunset, this glare effect would have been lost. So we can chalk this effect up to luck.

Also, taking the entire day to rest his army and prepare the ground, Edward had a decisive advantage over his opponent, who would have been marching all the hot day. He also anticipated that, contrary to the wise advice given Philip to take the night to rest and deploy his full force, the French would immediately attack the English in penny packets (centimes packets?), starting the fight already tired and with little time left in the day to achieve anything but their own destruction.

The Rain
This is something that Edward could not have planned for, but the late afternoon thunderstorm worked as a bonus, rendering the enemy's crossbows more-or-less useless and the ground to his front muddy. Had it not rained, it is still doubtful, given the other factors I've mentioned (lack of command and control, the shorter range of the crossbows vs his longbows, the ground and its preparation), that the French could have prevailed.The rain was just bonus.

Wargame Considerations

It would seem to me that a wargame of Crécy would not, on the surface. be very interesting. In the first place, a game that was to be a true representation would not give any maneuvering or command options to the French player. Rather he'd be in charge of just moving his pieces straight forward into the center of the English line, one after another, and rolling diceIt would be more like a game of Tetris than a wargame.

However, I can conceive of certain testable scenarios that would turn a Crécy game into a more "what-if" exercise.

Greater French Control
What if, for instance, Philip had been able to stop the impetuosity of his brother, Alençons, and been able to deploy his entire army, delaying the onset of the battle until the next morning? This would allow the Genoese to bring up their ammunition carts and their pavises, giving them a greater chance of surviving and perhaps even prevailing over the English archery.

What if it had not rained that afternoon, allowing the Genoese to keep their bowstrings dry?  Whatever game rules you do use should provide for a significant range reduction on the part of the crossbows if it rains (which event can be determined randomly by dice). If it does rain, too, then the movement of French horse should be slowed across the Vallee des Clercs.

Dismounted French Option
What if the French men-at-arms had not gone into a frontal cavalry attack but had dismounted, meeting the English men-at-arms on the same terms? This is not inconceivable, for the French had gone into battle dismounted on numerous occasions before, and would later do so at Poitiers and Agincourt. This would have allowed them to avoid the hazards of the potholes. They would have also spared their horses the lethal rain of arrows, and not risk being plunged into the mud.  

A further "what if" would have been allowing the dismounted French men-at-arms to have have been able to coordinate with and support the crossbowmen, much as the English did with their archers, spearmen and men-at-arms. This is a huge what-if, given the culture of chivalry and the sociopolitical factors in France at the time. They eventually learned the lessons of command and control, as well as combined arms tactics, but not in 1346.

Armor-Piercing Arrows and Crossbow Bolts
I have read in a few sources, as well as have seen weapons demonstrations on various cable documentaries, of the armor-piercing capabilities of longbows and crossbows. There is still some debate about this. However, one variation of medieval rules could allow for longbow and crossbow AP effect under a certain range (say 50 meters, or one hex, depending on the scale of the game).
Rules without this armor-piercing provision, though, should still provide for the wounding of horses of heavily armored men-at-arms; e.g. stopping movement, dismounting the cavalry, or even rendering arrow-wounded cavalry incapable of movement or combat for a turn.

Longbow vs Crossbow Weapons Effectiveness
Dupuy rates the English longbow as a superior weapon to the crossbow (TLI of 36 to 33) owing to its range, armor penetration ability and rate of fire. The longbow should be allowed a rate of fire of 15 rpm, or 5 times that of the crossbow. Its max range should be set at 400 meters, effective range at 250. The crossbow, on the other hand, should be set at a max range of 250 meters with an effective range of 100.
To Ransom or Not
Tradition in chivalric warfare encouraged the participants to spare the lives of wounded or captured enemy nobility for the purpose of ransom. Since warfare in this age was also a business, rules could govern points acquired for captured knights, lords and princes. This was certainly an option at Crécy. That both sides ordered "no prisoners" was elective. Edward's restriction in this was that he couldn't afford to detail off soldiers to guard the captured enemy nobility, not with the overwhelming numerical superiority of the army facing him; he needed every man in the line. 

If ransom is part of a wargame's victory tally, then the cost for that should be a certain percentage of each player's forces would have to be used to "sit on" the captured enemy pieces, taking them, too, out of the battle.

In a later battle in this war, Agincourt, Henry V infamously ordered the murder of his prisoners halfway through the battle when he realized that his camp had been attacked by rogue Frenchmen (who slew all the little boys left in it). Besides revenge, this infamous order came from a sense that he couldn't trust his prisoners to sit by themselves on "their honor".  

Solar Glare
Edward occupied a position in which, at the time the battle started (about 17:00), the Genoese and French were squinting right into the sun. Wargame rules should take this into account, particularly in terms of the accuracy of the Genoese crossbows. It might have also affected the last-minute morale of the charging French cavalry as they would not have been able to see their targets well. 

Early 14th century illustration of a cannon. Note that it seems to
be firing a large bolt (vs a stone or cannonball) and is mounted
on what looks like an Ikea drafting table.
There is passing mention by historians that Edward had at least a couple of primitive cannons on the battlefield with him. Froissart mentions that some of the the French casualties came from these, but they seem more of a psychological than physical factor in the outcome of the battle. They could certainly be added to any wargame, but with a very limited rate of fire (say one round every twenty minutes) and range (probably 200 yards). These were not the galloping guns of Napoleon's day, or even the artillery of the Thirty Years War.

Size of the Armies
Since  there seems to be no consensus for the sizes of the armies among historians, but there does seem to be an overall agreement about the relative size of the two forces (1:3), I would recommend using the ratio rather than actual numbers for a game. So if you have 100 model figures in your English army, you should have about 300 for your French. In my order of battle below, I have taken Nicolle's speculative numbers, which are, as far as I can see, as good as any.

Order of Battle

The following order of battle for both armies is, as I have said, very approximate. It is based on David Nicolle's order of battle, which even he admits is speculative.


Bradbury, Jim, The Medieval Archer, 1985, Boydell Press, ISBN 0-85115-675-4

Dupuy, Trevor N., The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, 1980, Bobbs-Merrill, ISBN 0-672-52050-8

Dupuy, Trever N., Numbers, Predictions & War: Using History to Evaluate Combat Factors and Predict the Outcome of Battles, 1979, Bobbs-Merrill, ISBN: 0-672-52131-8

Froissart, Jean, les Chronicles. Translation by Thomas Johnes, 1803

Jones, Archer, The Art of War in the Western World, 1987, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-01380-8

McNeill, William H., The Pursuit of Power, 1982, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-56158-5

Newark, Timothy, Medieval Warfare, 1979, Jupiter Books, London, ISBN 1-870630-56-4

Nicolle, David, Crécy 1346: Triumph of the Longbow, 2000, Osprey Publishing,Ltd. ISBN: 978-1-85532-966-9

Nicolle, David, European Medieval Tactics (2): New Infantry, New Weapons 1260-1500, 2012, Osprey Publishing, Ltd. ISBN: 978-1-84908-739-1

Norman, A.V.B. and Pottinger, Donald, English Weapons & Warfare 499-1660, 1966, Dorset Press, ISBN: 0-88029-044-7 

Seward, Desmond, The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, 1978, Atheneum, New York, ISBN: 0-689-10919-9

Taylor, Craig, "Military Courage and Fear in the Late Medieval Chivalric Imagination" Cahiers de Recherches Medievales et Humanistes, #24 (2012)

Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, 1987, Random House, ISBN:  0345349571

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  1. Wonderful. Thank you so much for the work.

    1. Thank you both for not just your kind compliments, but for reading it at all. I love doing these.

  2. Hi Jeff,
    Just wanted to say thank you so much for writting this series! It has been incredibly interesting reading your write ups. I'm hoping you post more soon as I have current reached the end!

    I was just wonder what your thoughts were on the proposed 'new' site of the Crecy battlefield? (


    1. Interesting but unconvincing article on Medievalists. Doesn't offer any forensic or archaelogical reasons for the new claim other than his assertion that Philip would not have been so dumb as to attack the English on top of a ridge. I should like to read his book, which, I hope does offer concrete evidence. I go by Sagan's Rule: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

      And thank you so much, Ed, for your kind words about my blog. That you have read all the articles swells my heart with pride. I am currently working on another post (hopefully to be published soon) but have been sidetracked by my day job.

    2. Jeff,
      I find it fascinating that there are still such discussions, about the exact locations of such history defining battles during the ancient and medieval periods! Perhaps his book does provide more evidence, it would be an interesting read.

      It is a pleasure to read your writing! I've long been a student and wargamer of Napoleonic warfare (ever since seeing Sharpe as a kid on TV!) However I'd never realised that the WSS and SYW were so dynamic. One is always lead to believe that is was all rather dull and linear!!

  3. Some historians speculate that John of Bohemia committed "suicide by battle". He made sure his (slightly injured) oldest son and co-ruler Charles is in safety and went to die.

  4. Great summary, very interesting.

  5. I really enjoyed your article on Blenheim and I have enjoyed this one equally. Your attention to detail and your writing style are engaging and left me wanting more. Great stuff, many thanks!

    1. Thank you so much, David. It is heartening to learn of your appreciation. I do love doing these. But you can probably tell.

  6. Thanks for the article, great stuff and enjoyable style.
    Having wargamed the battle yesterday I confirm that the French don't stand a chance if playing "historically".
    I'll try the game once more, ahistorically what if the Connétable de France had been present and commanded the French forces?

    1. An interesting premise for a wargame. It does, though, present a whole new set of potential rules to govern the game engine, ones involving interpersonal dynamics. Would it have made a difference, though, is questionable given the tempestuous infighting in Philip's court, and the many enemies Raoul de Brienne had among Philip's relatives. Also, since the Constable was himself made the scapegoat for losing Caen to the English earlier that year (even though his own monarch refused to come to his aid), I doubt if he had the political clout or charisma to take control of the mob that was the French army at Crecy.

      As I studied this period and this campaign, it seemed to me that the lesson learned from Crecy is that the English had a coherent command structure under Edward and the French had virtually none at all. I think there is a valuable lesson to be applied even to our present geopolitical climate

  7. Thank you Jeff. So how do you think that the Battle at Crécy could have had another result? King Philipp not present and maybe the venerable John of Luxembourg in command?

    1. I don't think a change of command would have helped the French. It seems that it was more of a systemic flaw in the French chivalric culture that doomed it. No charismatic leader or brilliant tactician could have stopped the avalanche started by d'Alencon and the mob of knights. Edward's England had a more established and centralized government and command authority. Philip's France was, in the 14th century, still just a loose collection of independent nobles with no tradition of discipline or central authority. It should be remembered that Philip himself was not feeling too stable on his throne and could not afford to impose his will on his nobles. He was not Louis XIV. He even got some sage tactical advice prior to the battle (e.g. from de Bazeilles)and started, wisely, to act on it, but he was unable to stop the battle once his idiot brother had started charging.

      As to what other factors might have made a difference, I think that the time and weather were important. Had it not been raining (soaking the bowstrings) and had the sun not been right in the eyes of the Genoese crossbowmen, they might have been able to make a decisive impact on the English line with their fire. This would be something to test in a wargame.

      Another alternative scenario might have been the time of day that the French started to arrive on the field. Had it been earlier, not only would the sun not have been in their eyes, but they might not have felt the urgency to "get this thing over with", allowing cooler heads to prevail and move the army up through Estrees and toward Wadicourt in an attempt to envelop the English. As it was, the late hour only fanned the impatience of d'Alencons and the French knights.

      Another factor might have been if the English had not prepared the slope with pot holes to trip up and blunt the French cavalry. As this was a standard defensive tactic among the English, it would be an artificial rule in a wargame to prevent the side playing Edward to do this. But it would be interesting to see if it would have made a difference to the momentum of the French cavalry charge. Perhaps they might not have had time to prepare their position (as a timing variant above).

      By all means, experiment away.

  8. Knowing the general practices of medieval European warfare, Edward would probably not have stayed to fight if Philip had been able to exert enough control to hold his army back and deploy it during the night or early the next morning. The English would probably have viewed the delay resulting from the French deployment as an opportunity to pack up and get back on the move, especially since the larger size and less uniform organisation of the French host would also have made it more difficult (and take longer) to redeploy it back from battle formation into a marching column. This might, in fact, have been Edward's preferred outcome since he couldn't have been 100% certain that the battle would develop the way it actually did. He wouldn't have had the freedom to besiege the Channel ports in this case (since the French king's army would still have been hanging onto his rear) but the delay could have bought him time to march with a minimum of hindrance towards allied cities in Flanders, where he would have had the luxury of using friendly ports to reembark his army (or alternatively to resupply and reinforce it for the next year's raiding season).

    1. My point in this article exactly. The French lost this battle due to indiscipline in their central command. Had they had as tight control of their army as Edward had of his, I'm sure that Edward would not have hung around to wait for them to deploy. As it was, the French proved their own worst enemies.

  9. It is difficult to get the perspective of the battlefield from some of the pictures. If you stand in Edward's position you are at the top of a significant hill looking down. I would not want to be a Frenchman or a Genoese crossbowman attempting to come up that hill in the face of highly trained longbowmen.

    Good article - interesting detail.