Hundred Years War Tour

In the footsteps® of the Crécy Campaign, 1346 — 1347

Part One:
Before the battle — Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue to Crécy-en-Ponthieu

Edward of Windsor, who became Edward III King of England, was born on 13th November 1312 to King Edward II and Queen Isabelle, the daughter of Philippe IV King of France.

King Edward III

King Edward III.

On 1st February 1328 Charles IV King of France, Queen Isabella's brother, died at the Château de Vincennes leaving behind his pregnant wife, Jeanne d'Évreux, and their 1 year old daughter Marie. If Queen Jeanne's unborn child was a boy then he would inherit the French throne, if not the throne would be vacant. Two months after her husband's death Queen Jeanne gave birth to a baby girl, Blanche. The French throne was vacant.

Charles IV's closest living male relative was the fifteen year-old Edward of Windsor, by now King Edward III of England. His claim was through his mother Queen Isabella and she claimed the vacant French throne on her son's behalf. The French nobility, however, were not about to accept an English King on the throne of France and passed a law excluding any claim through the female line. Edward's cousin, Philippe Count of Valois was Charles IV's closest living relative in the male line and Instead of crowning Edward, the French nobility chose Edward’s cousin, Philippe Count of Valois and he was crowned Philippe VI King of France on 29th May 1328.

King Philip VI

King Philip VI.

Following his assumption of the throne the new King Philippe VI insisted that Edward did homage for his lands in Aquitaine and Ponthieu. The young King Edward did not see himself as subordinate to Philippe VI and consequently reluctantly carried out this act of fealty. This led to an increase in tension between the two kingdoms, a tension that was further heightened by the French sending aid to the Scots in their war with Edward.

For nine years it appeared as if Edward had been willing to accept Philippe VI's ascendancy to the French throne and an uneasy peace existed between the two kingdoms. Then on 24th May 1337 King Philippe's Great Council at Paris confiscating Edward's lands in Aquitaine and Ponthieu on the grounds that he was in breach of his obligations as vassal and sheltering the French King's mortal enemy Robert d'Artois. In reply King Edward began to reassert his claim to the French throne and on 25th January 1340 proclaim himself "King of France".

Coat of arms adopted by King Edward III

The coat of arms adopted by King Edward III, as King of England and of France.

The first clashes of the Hundred Years War were a series of naval battles fought in the Zwin Estuary on the coast of Flanders and the nearby Scheldt Estuary in which the French fleet was virtually destroyed and the English gained control of the English Channel.

This was followed up by a Campaign in 1345 when King Edward intended to mount a simultaneous three-pronged attack against France from Brittany, Flanders and Aquitaine. Henry of Grosmont, the Earl of Derby and the son and heir of Henry of Lancaster, led the campaign in Aquitaine and whilst the actions in Brittany and Flanders did not amount to much, the actions of Henry of Grosmont's army did. The principle actions in Aquitaine were the Battle of Bergerac on 26th August 1345 and the Battle of Auberoche on 21st October 1345; both of which were resounding English victories.

On 1st January 1346 Edward III ordered an invasion fleet to be assembled at Portsmouth. His intention was to undertake a chevauchée through Normandy and across northern France plundering its wealth in order to severely weaken the prestige of King Philippe.

Edward III embarking for France.

Edward III embarking for France. [Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook Chronicle]

On Monday, 11th July 1346 Edward III and his sixteen-year-old son, Edward Prince of Wales, later to become known as the Black Prince, set sail with a fleet of 750 ships from Portsmouth. The English army consisted of over 15,000 men: knights, men-at-arms, mounted archers, archers, foot soldiers and mercenaries from the Holy Roman Empire. The following day this army came ashore on the beaches near Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. Among the first ashore were Godefroy d'Harcourt the Viscount of Saint-Sauveur, one of the most powerful lords in Normandy who had been banished from France by King Philippe two years before, and Thomas Beauchamp 11th Earl of Warwick.

There was no initial significant French response to the English landing as the main French force was some distance away. The company of Genoese crossbowmen based at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue deserted a few days before and eight ships that had been assembled to defence the port and had been abandoned on the beach and were burnt. The villagers in the area fled as the English approached and Robert Bertrand de Bricquebec, the former Marshal of France, was the senior Frenchman in the area and he had summoned all local men of military age to muster. The force mustered numbered just a few hundred men and with these he made a half-hearted effort to drive the English back, but was easily beaten off.

King Edward came ashore around midday, tripped and fell, and hit his head which caused a nose bleed. Edward characteristically picked himself up and shrugged it off saying that "the land was ready to receive him", some however saw it as an ill-omen. Thereafter the King and his entourage climbed the nearby hill to the Église Saint-Vigor de Quettehou where Edward III knighted his son Edward Prince of Wales, William Montagu, Roger Mortimer, William de Ros, Roger de la Warre, Richard de la Vere and a number of other young noblemen. Godefroy d'Harcourt also paid homage to King Edward for his lands in Normandy formally recognising him as he liege-lord.

The plaque at Saint-Vigor de Quettehou

The plaque at Saint-Vigor de Quettehou commemorating the knightings that took place here on Tuesday, 12th July 1346. [© Ian R Gumm, 2018]

On 18th July 1346 the English army broke camp and moved southeast from Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue towards Valognes. At Valognes Godefroy d'Harcourt split off from the main army and headed for his ancestral home the Château de Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte; this he found in ruins having been destroyed three years before by his arch enemy Robert de Bricquebec. The main body of the English army turned southwards down the Cotentin Peninsula passing through Montebourg and Sainte-Mère-Église to Saint-Côme-du-Mont where they spent the night; an area known today for the American Paratrooper drops and seaborne landings at UTAH Beach on D-Day, 6th June 1944.

On 19th July 1346 the English army approached Carentan along the causeway leading from Saint-Côme-du-Mont across the marshlands of the Marais, in three divisions. The French had burnt or destroyed the bridge over the River Douve on the approaches to the town, but this had been repaired by the English carpenters overnight. They entered Carentan the that morning and the bourgeoisie capitulated without a fight. There was a brief struggle at the castle, but this too surrendered after a brief show of defiance. The English army subsequently looted the town and by midday it was a burning.

From Carentan, the English army continued its advance southwards following the causeway through the Marais towards Saint Lô. They were harried by a small French force all the way and when they reached Pont-Hébert they found that the bridge over the River Vire had been destroyed. The English carpenters set to work repairing the bridge and King Edward and his army crossed the River Vire on 22nd July 1346.

Robert de Bricquebec hoped to make a stand against the English in the medieval walled town of Saint Lô. On reaching the town he put his men and the town's people to work repairing the defences that had long been neglected. When the English army approached from the north, however, he decided that Saint Lô was not strong enough to hold the English off and withdrew his force. On entering Saint Lô the English discovered the severed heads of Jean de la Roche-Tesson, Guillaume Bacon and Richard de Percy, the three Norman knights who had been executed for supporting King Edward three years earlier, impaled on spikes over the gate. These were taken down and given a proper burial, probably by their friend and former ally Godefroy d'Harcourt.

In Saint Lô were over 1,000 barrels of wine and the English army, probably under the influence of some of this, went on the rampage. The town was sacked and the inhabitants were either killed, or if wealthy enough shipped back to England for ransom. The town was looted and when the English army left to continue its advance, Saint Lô was left in flames.

Once beyond Saint Lô the English army moved into the rolling countryside of Calvados and advanced on a wide front. Here was rich picking – farms, orchards, cattle and horses – all of which was plundered and burnt as part of Edward III's classic chevauchée tactics. At the same time Edward's navy was harrying the Normandy coast destroying everything within an 8 Kilometre strip of coast between Cherbourg and Ouistreham. In all some 100 or more French ships were burned and a great deal of plunder taken.

By 25th July 1346 the English army was just 18 kilometres from Caen. That evening King Edward sent Geoffrey of Maldon, an English monk, to the officials of Caen calling on them to surrender. He offered to spare the lives of their citizens, their goods and their homes, but the officials of Caen rejected the offer. Guillaume Bertrand, the Bishop of Bayeux and Robert de Bricquebec's brother, had Geoffrey thrown into prison.

Early the next morning, Wednesday 26th July 1346, the English army left Fontenay-le-Pesnel and crossed the relatively flat plain towards Caen. They advanced on a broad front with Edward III's division to the south and the Prince of Wales' division taking the more northerly route.

The Battle of Caen 1346

The Battle of Caen 1346. [Froissart Chronicles]

The English army's appearance before Caen was of course no surprise; for days the refugees fleeing in front of the English advance had converged on the city with their carts and animals and now thronged the streets. Although defensible the Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames were abandoned due to lack of manpower. Inside the city walls Raoul II de Brienne the Count of Eu and Guînes and Constable of France, and John de Melun, the Lord of Tancarville and Montreuil-Bellay, had a force of some 1,500 men including some 300 Genoese crossbowmen under the command of Robert de Warignies. They had improved the defences as best they could by using palisades and ditches to the north and west, and thirty ships had been moored along the banks of the River Odon to act as platforms for their archers to the south.

When the English army appear, however, the French were seized by doubt and decided not to defend the old city but to concentrate their forces in the Île St-Jean. A detachment of 200 men-at-arms and 100 Genoese crossbowmen were sent to defend the castle while the remainder withdrew across the Pont-St-Pierre. The defences of the Île St-Jean were weak. The ships along the River Odon and the fortified Porte-St-Pierre to the north offered some protection, but to the south and east only the tributaries of the River Odon provided a barrier. The water level of the river was low due to the dry summer making it possible for men to wade across where normally ships would pass.

The English assault on Caen began in an uncoordinated and haphazard manner with each division seemingly acting upon their own accord. The Prince of Wales' division seized a gate and entered the old city. The Earl of Warwick entered with by a different gate with men-at-arms and archers. Both forces converged on the Porte-St-Pierre. On reaching the barricade a fierce hand-to-hand battle commenced and the houses in the vicinity were soon alight. King Edward seeing what was happening sent William de Bohun and Sir Richard Talbot to order the Earl of Warwick to withdraw his men. For whatever reason, that did not happen and the assault continued.

The fighting soon spread along the riverbank and two of the ships moored on the river were set alight. Others ships were boarded and men waded the river under fire of the Genoese crossbowmen. The French defenders at the Pont-St-Pierre quickly found themselves cut-off and surrounded, some managed to take refuge in the old city and others joined the defenders in Île St-Jean or the gate's fortified towers.

For the French, however, the writing was on the wall and those of rank began looking for opponents of equal status to take their surrender. Raoul de Brienne the Constable of France surrendered to Sir Thomas Holland and John de Melun, the Lord of Tancarville and Montreuil-Bellay and Chamberlain of France, surrendered to Sir Thomas Daniel a retainer of the Prince of Wales. The former spent the next three years in England waiting for his ransom was paid and the latter was held at Wallingford castle until his release in 1348.

Several hundred prisoners were taken including a number of rich citizens of the city, but those Frenchmen of lesser rank or of little value died where they stood. By comparison it is said that just one English man-at-arms was killed in the assault. It is more likely however that the number of casualties amongst the archers and infantry of both sides would have been high due to the savage nature of the fighting.

As dusk descended that evening only the 300 men-at-arms and crossbowmen, who were under the command of Robert de Bricquebec and his brother Guillaume, the Bishop of Bayeux, in the castle continued to resist. The English established their camp on the plains of Ardennes to the west and north of the city, in the vicinity of the present day communes of Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe, La Folie-Couvrechef and Hérouville-St-Claire.

On Monday, 31st July 1346 the English army left Caen to continue its journey eastwards in the direction of Rouen. On Wednesday, 2nd August 1346 they entered Lisieux where Edward III remained for two-days. They left Lisieux on Friday, 4th August 1346 intent on finding a crossing over the River Seine near Rouen. On Monday, 7th August 1346 they reached the river at Elbeuf, only to find that the bridge had been rendered unusable and a large French force commanded by Jean IV d'Harcourt, Godefroy d'Harcourt elder brother and Comte d'Harcourt, guarding the northern bank. On Tuesday, 8th August 1346, having failed to find a crossing over the River Seine at Elbeuf, the English army turned southwards towards Paris seeking another place at which to cross. They headed for Pont-de-l'Arche the next bridge over the River Seine south of Elbeuf. At Pont-de-l'Arche they found the town walls manned and well protected, the castle garrisoned and the crossing denied to them. Edward III ordered an assault, but this was repulsed and English army moved on south to halt in the vicinity of Léry and Le Vaudreuil that night.

On 9th August 1346 the English army recommenced their journey towards Paris, burning Léry and La Vaudreuil when they left, and crossed the River Eure near Louviers. It was a similar situation at Vernon, Mantes-la-Jolie and Moeulan-en-Yvelines with each crossing point being denied to King Edward's English, the bridges had been rendered unusable and crossings being held by the French in force.

On Sunday, 13th August 1346 the English arrived in the vicinity of Poissy, just 20 kilometres from Paris. The bridge at Poissy had been broken and the town and neighbouring town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye had both been abandoned. The arches of the bridge, however, were still standing and the English carpenters began repairing it. A temporary span across the river was put in place using a 20 metre long tree and later that day the English established a small bridgehead on the far bank. When news of this reached the French a force led by the Lords of Aufremont and Revel was sent to deny the crossing to the English. The English bridgehead was only lightly held as the French approached, but William de Bohun led several hundred men across the narrow span to reinforce their tenuous hold on the northern bank. The French were too late.

The old bridge at Poissy

The old bridge at Poissy. [© Ian R Gumm, 2018]

King Edward's army crossed the River Seine on 16th August 1346 and once across turned northwards intent on joining up with reinforcements that were due to arrive at Le Crotoy and the Flemish under Hugh Hastings. After crossing the river, they destroyed the bridge and left Poissy in flames behind them.

By now King Philippe VI's main force was south of Paris intent on meeting the English south of the River Seine outside of the city. The English crossing the river at Poissy, however, changed everything.

By nightfall on 16th August 1346 Edward III's army had reached Grisy-les-Plâtres 26 kilometres north of Poissy. The following day they continued their journey northwards across the undulating countryside to Auteuil, a further 25 kilometres to the north and just 11 kilometres southwest of Beauvais. They tried probing the crossings at Hangest-sur-Somme and Pont-Rémy without success and continued to move northwards. The crossing of the River Somme was proving to be as difficult for Edward III's English as had crossing the River Seine as all the bridges were either heavily guarded or burned.

King Philippe VI had responded quickly to the English army's departure from Poissy. He turned his French army around and retraced his steps to Paris. Once through the city he commenced a series of forced marches covering around 40 kilometres a day. The local French levies, knowing that King Philippe was in hot pursuit, made life as difficult as possible for the English hiding supplies and harrying them whenever possible. This caused the English to have to forage far and wide for supplies and slowed them up even more. By the time the English army left the area of Beauvais the French army was closing up fast.

King Edward knew that time was of the essence and that he had to get across the River Somme before King Philippe VI's larger army caught up with him. He ordered that a potion of the English baggage train was abandoned and the foot soldiers to be mounted on captured horses. He also tried to keep his army focused on speed rather than plunder, but that was easier said than done. He managed to stop them from sacking Beauvais, but time was lost while they plundered the village of Vessencourt, now part of the commune of Frocourt, and set light to the Abbaye Saint-Lucien de Beauvais where Edward III had spent the previous night.

When the English reached Poix-de-Picardie it was spared the torch on payment of a ransom. After the bulk of King Edward's army had marched on, however, the townsfolk attacked the small party that had remained to collect the money and they had to be rescued by the rearguard. Poix-en-Picardie was consequently put to the torch and its two castles raised to the ground.

Despite these diversions, which were beginning to eat up valuable time, the English army's progress remained good and they reached Camps-en-Amiénois, about 20 kilometres from the River Somme, on 20th August 1346. As he drew close to Abbeville, Edward knew he was running out of options. He had to find a crossing or get caught between the River Seine and River Somme.

On 21st August 1346 as the English army approached Airaines a French force threatened the English rear guard and Hugh Despencer and Robert d'Ufford were sent to drive them off. The French chose to fight and sixty of them were taken prisoner and more than 200 were killed.

The following day scouting parties were sent out to look for crossing places over the River Somme. These found that the French had destroyed many of the bridges and those crossing places that remained were well defended. The Earl of Warwick and Godefroy d'Harcourt tried to force a crossing at Pont-Rémy where they were opposed by forces under the command of John, King of Bohemia. They then tried the causeway about 3 kilometres upriver from Fontaine-sur-Somme, but they found that this too was heavily defended. They made no attempt to cross and pushed onwards to the next potential crossing at Longpré, but this too was well defended and once again no attempt to cross was made. The Earl of Warwick and Godefroy d'Harcourt continued upriver to Hangest-sur-Somme, but once again found the bridge had rendered unusable and a French force was present in numbers to deny them passage. This left just Picquigny a further 8 kilometres upstream, but again that town was too well defended. Unsuccessful, the Earl of Warwick and Godefroy d'Harcourt turned their men around and made their way back to Airaines to report the situation to King Edward.

By Wednesday, 23rd August 1346 Edward III was aware that King Philippe's French army was closing fast and that he would either have to find a place to cross the River Somme or turn and give battle. English reinforcements were due to arrive at Le Crotoy and the Flemish army under Sir Hugh Hasting was supposedly on route to join him once he was across the river. He was not yet ready to give battle to the French and when he did King Edward wanted it to be on ground of his own choosing and at a time to suit him. The English army consequently left Airaines with some haste that morning. They initially moved west towards the coast, but at Oisemont they turned northwards to bivouac at Acheux-en-Vimeu that night. They met with some resistance at Oisemont as the inhabitants had mustered to resist them, but these were easily dispersed by a cavalry charge by Edward's men-at-arms. More time was lost, however, while the English army pillaged and burnt Oisemont.

During 23rd August 1346 King Edward rode to Monts de Caubert, approximately 3 kilometres from Abbeville, to get a clear view of the town. The French rode out from the town to threaten King Edward's small party, but the swift action of the Earl of Warwick drove the French back and allowed the King's party to ride away. From this reconnaissance King Edward realised that taking the bridge at Abbeville was not a practicable option and that he would have to find somewhere else to cross the River Somme.

The last remaining known crossing point was at Blanchetaque where there was a narrow ford stretching across the widening expanse of the river as it neared the sea. There are a number of varying accounts that related to how King Edward learnt of the existence of a ford at Blachetaque, including one that a Frenchman from the nearby village of Mons-Boubert, Gobin Agrae, revealed its location to the King in return for 100 pieces of gold. Whatever the case, it was to Blanchetaque that the English army made its way next.

In the early hours of Thursday, 24th August 1346 the English army set off from Acheux-en-Vimeu towards the ford at Blanchetaque. When they arrived at the river just before sunrise the tide was just beginning to turn and the water level still too high to cross. 500 French men-at-arms, Genoese crossbowmen and around 3,000 infantry under the command of Godemar du Fay were present on the far back ready to defend the crossing and it was apparent that the English were going to have to fight if they were going to cross the River Somme at this point.

The probable site of Blanchetaque

The probable site of Blanchetaque. [© Ian R Gumm, 2018]

After a four-hour wait and with Frenchmen approaching the rear of their column, the Earl of Northampton and Reginald de Cobham, 1st Baron Cobham, led a small vanguard of 100 men-at-arms and 100 archers forward into the waist-deep river of the ford at around 08:00 hrs. Their intent was to cross the fourteen feet wide ford and establish a bridgehead on the far bank into which King Edward could push his army and force the French back. They waded through the waist high water in a tightly packed formation with the main body of mounted knights and men-at arms under the Earl of Warwick following close behind.

As they neared the far bank the Genoese crossbowmen fired their bolts and the English column seemed to shiver as some of the missiles struck home. The English archers returned fire and let loose their arrows sending five or six clothyard barbed shafts into the Genoese for every bolt fired. As the Genoese fire began to slacken the Earl of Northampton and Reginald de Cobham led their small force of men-arms forward. As the vanguard began its advance King Edward suddenly spurred his horse into the press crying "Let those who love me follow me!" and the knights and men-at-arms under the Earl of Warwick plunged forward forcing the archers to the very edges of the causeway.

King Edward III at Blanchetaque

King Edward III at Blanchetaque. [R Caton Woodville]

The French drawn up across the narrow path leading from the ford dashed forward to engage the knights instead of standing firm and holding their ground. Perhaps they were eager to take the knights prisoner and hold them for ransom, but whatever the case they sacrificed their advantage and the fighting at the head of the ford soon descended into a mêlée at the water's edge.

Crossing the River Somme at Blanchetaque

Edward III crossing the River Somme at Blanchetaque. [Benjamin West circa 1788]

The English archers' arrows continued to rain down on the French unable to join the mêlée and the Frenchmen began to give ground. This rearward movement gradually took on a life of its own as the French were forced back until they finally broke and fled in the ensuing confusion. The English army was across the ford, but at the other end the vanguard of the pursuing French army commanded by John I, King of Bohemia and Jean IV d'Harcourt caught up with the English rearguard and wagon train as it entered the water. The killed or captured the few that still remained on the river bank, but the rising water prevented pursuit and they watched on in frustration as the English army crossed the River Somme to safety.

Once across the River Seine King Edward, knowing that the French were hot on his heels, gave thanks to God before dispatching Hugh Despenser with a force to Le Crotoy to meet up with the reinforcements and supplies that were due to land there. The Earl of Warwick's men-at-arms pursued Godemar du Fay's fleeing Frenchmen the bulk of whom made their way to Abbeville while some made for Sailly-Bray 5 kilometres to the north. The Earl of Warwick's men-at-arms cut many of them down as they fled and the French loses at Blanchetaque were said to amount to 2,000, but whatever the figure they were certainly heavy.

Hugh Despenser's force arrived at Le Crotoy to find that the expected English reinforcements and supplies had not arrived. The supplies had in fact not yet been loaded into the ships and the men were yet to assemble let alone set sail for France. Hugh Despenser's men sacked the town that evening before beginning to forage for supplies. Noyelles-sur-Mer was sacked and Rue 10 kilometres further north was put to the torch. Cattle, provisions and wine from ships moored in Le Crotoy harbour were taken before they made their way to re-join King Edward's main force.

At Blanchetaque, the two armies faced each other across the river; King Edward's English on the eastern bank and King Philippe's French on the western bank. They continued to watch each other for the remainder of the day and into the next. On 25th August 1346 King Philippe, knowing that he had little chance of securing a crossing at Blacnhetaque, gave the order for the French army to disengage and return to Abbeville, where they could cross the River Seine in order to continue the pursuit. King Edward now free to leave Blanchetaque led his army through the Forêt de Crécy towards the small town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu.