Hundred Years War Tour

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

Part Three:
After the Battle of Crécy — Crécyen-Ponthieu to Calais

Following the battle there was no immediate pursuit and the English Army remained in their battle positions until after midnight when they were allowed to stand down, but not disarm. It was late in the day and King Edward dined with his senior commanders.

The following morning the French that were still present on the battlefield were driven off by Thomas Beauchamp the Earl of Warwick and William de Bohun the Earl of Northampton. It appears that a large number of the common French soldiers thought that the approaching English were men of their own side, they paid dearly for their mistake and many of them were killed.

Fearing that the French might regroup and return to the battlefield King Edward kept his army in the field and alert throughout the day.

It was later on Sunday, 27th August 1346 that Sir Reginald de Cobham and a herald were sent out by King Edward to assess the scale of his victory, and draw up a list identifying the French casualties. The king also ordered that the armour and equipment strewn across the battlefield was gather in and burnt to prevent its future use. King Edward may have won a great victory, but King Philippe VI of France was not among the dead and was still at large and had a considerable number of his army still at his disposal despite their loses.

On Monday, 28th August 1346 French heralds arrived requesting a three-day truce. This was granted and the dead were collected from the battlefield and buried in a communal grave.

The blind King John of Bohemia

King Edward beside the mass grave of the dead. [Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook Chronicle]

King Edward order that the English army marched towards Calais and despatched two of his Royal Councillors, Bartholomew Burghersh and John Darcy, to report the victory and intention to take Calais to the council of Bishops at Westminster. Just a week later, on 6th September 1346, writs were sent across England to the principle towns of the realm proclaiming the great victory and calling upon the merchants to bring supplied to the Siege of Calais. That evening the King and his retinue arrived at the nearby Cistercian Abbaye de Valloires where they stayed the following two nights. The approach to the Abbaye took the English Army down the valley of the River Authie.

On Wednesday, 30th August 1346 the English Army crossed the floodplains of the River Authie, probably near Maintenay, and climbed out of the valley to the higher ground. They crossed the undulating terrain to Saint-Josse, 15 kilometres to the northwest, on a broad front burning and pillaging as they went.

On Thursday, 31st August 1346 they moved on to Neufchâtel-Hardelot by a route that probably took them across the River Canche south east of Étaples before moving up onto the higher ground. They stayed in the vicinity of Neufchâtel-Hardelot the next day before continuing their journey on 2nd September, setting light to the town before leaving and raiding in the vicinity of Boulogne as they went. Once at Wimille the English Army was now just 30 kilometres from Calais. They halted here for two-days while King Edward consulted his advisors and decided on his next move.

On Monday, 4th September 1346 the English Army continued the journey towards Calais crossing the undulating countryside to Wissant which they also razed putting it to the torch. From Wissant they continued along the coast to the low-lying marshland at Sangatte, just a few kilometres from the City port of Calais.

The Siege of Calais

Siege of Calais. [Jean de Wavrin Chronicles]

On Monday, 4th September 1346 King Edward III's army began their siege of Calais which was to last for eleven months, until 3rd August 1347.

King Edward knew that if he was going to continue his campaigning he needed a base from which to operate. He also knew that he needed a port through which he could resupply and reinforce his army. Calais, with its double moat, substantial city walls and citadel in the north-west, was readily defensible. Its port was an ideal landing point for supplies and reinforcements. It was therefore ideal as both a forward operating base for future operations and a resupply base for troops and supplies from England.

Calais had long been seen as a potential target for King Edward's English and his Fleming allies. Since the beginning of 1346 it had been defended by a strong well equipped garrison, that included stone-throwing and gunpowder artillery, and its stores had been well provisioned. In July and August 1346 reports from spies in Flanders suggested that the Flemish were attempting to persuade King Edward III to attack the town and were making their own preparations for a siege. These reports were not taken seriously by King Philippe, but Duke Odo, the Duke of Burgundy and ruler of Artois, did. He assigned two of his most able and loyal men to command the town's defences. One was Jean de Vienne, a Burgundian knight, and the other a local knight called Enguerrand de Beaulo. On 14th August 1346 Jean du Fosseux, one of the two lieutenant-governors of Artois, arrived in Calais to take command of the citadel in person. Thus, when King Edward and his English army arrived outside of the town's walls it was ready and well prepared to withstand a siege.

On Tuesday, 5th September 1346, the day after the English army's arrival, the first of their resupply ships appeared off the harbour. They had been gathering off Winchelsea and Sandwich, as King Edward's army marched through Picardy, and they brought with them a large portion of the supplies and reinforcements that the King's Council had been able to collect in England. The additional men and supplies were brought ashore across the beaches in full view of the town and brought the strength of the English army to somewhere in the region of 10,000 to 12,000 strong.

Even the most cursory inspection of Calais' defences showed clearly that a direct assault was out of the question and the English army set about establishing their main encampment on the island of firm ground that surrounded the Église Saint-Pierre about a kilometre from the town on the Boulogne to Gravelines road. King Edward deployed his army outside the three landward sides of the town and they began digging trenches across the causeways and paths, and constructing improvised fortifications around the bridges to guard themselves against attack from the rear. In the following weeks their encampment, which they called Villeneuve-la-Hardie, grew along the line of the causeway. It included mansions of timber for the King, his principal officials and noblemen, market halls, public buildings, stables and thousands of small ‘houses’ of brushwood and thatch.

For King Philippe the weeks immediately following the Battle of Crécy marked a low point of his reign and he was still reeling from the defeat that had sent shockwaves across France. The successions of funerals, as the bodies of one French nobleman after another were recovered from the battlefield or Abbaye de Valloires and brought home to be given a proper burial, added to the disbelief and enormity of what had happened.

When news of the English presence at Calais reached him King Philippe refused to believe that King Edward would embark upon a long siege. The Siege of Tournai that had taken place just six years before had not gone too well for the English and King Philippe thought that King Edward would not want to risk repeating that experience. Despite the advice of his senior commanders in Artois King Philippe dispersed the greater part of his army on 5th September, the day after the siege began.

On Thursday, 7th September 1346 King Philippe left Amiens for Pont-Sainte-Maxence, his favourite residence by the River Oise. On the way to Pont-Sainte-Maxence he was met by his son, John of Normandy, who had learnt of the disaster that had befallen his father at Crécy while he was marching across the Limousin. Prince John brought with him news that only added to King Philippe's woes; the complete failure of his own campaign on the Garonne and the disbanding of his army just a few days before.

News of the elaborate arrangements being made by the English at Calais continued to reach the French King and he consulted his advisors. For King Philippe it must have been a gloomy conference, the outcome of which was a complete volte-face. It was decided that a new French army was to muster at Compiègne on 1st October 1346 and from there march north to the relief of Calais before winter set in. The orders for it to assemble were issued on 9th September 1346, just three weeks before the day on which it was to muster.

On 13th September 1346 the English Parliament met and the King Edward's commissioners delivered their report on the campaign. The document found at Caen, revealing the French King's plans to conquer England, was read out once more and the piratical deeds of the seamen of Calais were recounted. Letters from the leading men of the army calling for special effort and generosity from those at home were used to add weight to the proceedings. The Commons, whilst they may have grumbled about past abuses, voted in a subsidy for the coming year and another for the year after that.

There was one bright note for the French. At the beginning of September 1346 King Philippe had re-commissioned the French galley fleet that had been laid up in the Seine. On 17th September 1346 these French galleys caught the first English supply convoy since the beginning of the siege just as it was approaching Calais. All twenty-five English vessels were destroyed and their crews killed. This first blow by the French in the defence of Calais significantly added to the cost of future English supplied as it became necessary to provide large escorts for convoys and to post strong guards of archers and men-at-arms on every ship.

On land, however, King Philippe's orders and counter-orders in early September had proved to be catastrophic and for most of September and October the English before Calais had the field to themselves. In Gascony there was no organized French defence what-so-ever as every Frenchman available was used for garrisons around the marsh of Calais and along the frontier of Flanders. Even then there were still great gaps in the defences of the north.

In Flanders the Flemish raised a large number of men that joining forces with the remnant of the army that had just returned from Béthune. These crossed into France and blazed a trail across the countryside of Artois all the way to the great garrison town of Saint-Omer. Here they joined forces with the Earl of Warwick, who come from Calais with several hundred English soldiers. On 19th September 1346, as King Philippe and his advisors looked on helplessly, this combined force moved south to ancient ecclesiastical city of Thérouanne. They left behind enough men to keep the garrison of Saint-Omer as they marched the 13 kilometres to Thérouanne where the famous commercial fair was in progress. Bishop Raymond Saquet was in the town with a large military retinue, but having passed his life in official and diplomatic service about the court the Bishop was no soldier. With no confidence in the ability of the crumbling Roman walls of Thérouanne to keep the Anglo-Flemish out, Bishop Raymond marched his men and the citizens out of the city out into the open countryside to face the approaching enemy. The result for the French was a disaster; their makeshift army was massacred and Bishop Raymond was severely wounded. The spoils taken from the fair by the Anglo-Flemish filled a large wagon-train and the buildings of the city were so thoroughly ransacked that it was several months before the survivors plucked up the courage to return and rebuild their homes.

Encouraged by lucrative booty and the almost complete absence of resistance, the Anglo-Flemish forces spread across north-western Artois from Boulogne to the River Aa. Within a month they had destroyed everything there that would readily burn outside the walled towns and principal castles. By the end of September the Flemings had taken so much booty that they had enough; they stopped their raids, abandoned the siege of Saint-Omer and returned home.

The months of the siege of Calais were to a large degree stagnant. The English sat before the walls of Calais, but were unable to blockade the town from the sea resulting in supplies and fresh drafts of troops continued to reach the town. In the second week of November, just before the foul weather set in, the French got a convoy of requisitioned merchant ships into the harbour with enough food to preserve the garrison until the spring. After that the English navy tightened their blockade.

On land the French were largely inactive and the English continued to receive supplies from Flanders via Gravelines. The army ordered to muster at Compiègne was slow to assemble and by the end of October it was still only a little over 3,000 strong. Realising that his chances of resuming the fight against the English in 1346 were dwindling, Philippe resorted to diplomatic means. He offered a truce to King Edward who rejected it out of hand. An approach through the cardinals was made, but by then it was too late. On 27th October 1346 King Philippe ordered all French naval and military operations in northern France to cease except for the defence of the principal garrison towns. The troops at Compiègne were dispersed without ever leaving the town and new arrivals were turned away. The Genoese galleys of the French fleet were laid up on the banks of the River Somme at Abbeville on 31st October and the French fleet a week later. The French court was in crisis as King Philippe blamed one official after another for the failings that had beset France in 1346.

By mid-November King Edward had amassed enough of the paraphernalia of war necessary to mount assaults against the town's walls. An elaborate plan was devised for storming Calais by introducing a fleet of small boats into the moat and scaling the walls from ladders placed on their decks. This enterprise required a great deal of energy and ingenuity. Fifty fishing vessels were ordered from England; 25-foot and 40-foot ladders were obtained; wooden catapults and at least ten cannon with powder and ammunition were shipped across the English Channel. Reinforcements that had been held back in England when the French army had dispersed were ordered across the English Channel and more men were called to arms from their homes. Most of these men reached Calais during the second half of December, but the repeated assaults on the town's walls all failed. The last attempt was made on 27th February 1347, after which the English settled in for a long siege designed to starve the citizen's into submission.

King Philippe raised the Oriflamme once again at Saint-Denis on Sunday, 18th March 1347. He intended to move his army north at the end of April, however, was once again slow to assemble. When Philippe reached Amiens his army was by no means ready to march to relieve Calais. Undaunted, however, king Philippe left Amiens in the second week of May 1347 and began his progress north in short stages to give his troops time to gather. It was not until he arrived at Arras that his were finally eyes were opened and he realised his predicament. Insistent calls for reinforcement were made, but the strength of the French army was only slightly greater by the end of June. There could be no serious military operations undertaken until July at the earliest, more than two months late, and even then these had to be conducted on a much smaller scale than King Philippe's first plans had envisaged.

Within the walls of Calais the defenders suffered from terrible privations. The English blockade was doing its job and their stores, which had not been replenished since early April, were approaching exhaustion. There was hardly any grain, wine or meat left. They were eating cats, dogs and horses and some of the men were reduced to gnawing on their leather saddles. As the summer lengthened the wells of the town began to dry up; fresh water became scarce and disease began to take hold. On 25th June 1347 a French supply convoy was attacked by the English fleet as it passed the mouth of the River Somme. That same evening Jean de Vienne sat down and compose a very sombre report to King Philippe. "We can now find no more food in the town unless we eat men's flesh," he wrote. None of the garrison's officers, he said, had forgotten King Philippe's orders to hold out until they could fight no more. They had agreed that rather than surrender they would burst out of the gates and fight their way through the English siege lines until every one of them was killed. "Unless some other solution can be found, this is the last letter that you will receive from me, for the town will be lost and all of us that are within it." The message was entrusted to a Genoese officer who tried to slip out of the harbour mouth with a few companions in two small boats at first light on the morning of the 26th. They were seen by the English who gave chase. When his own boat grounded south of the town, within the siege lines, the Genoese officer attached the letter to an axe and flung it as far as he could into the sea. The English, however, managed to retrieve the letter at low tide and it was taken to King Edward who read it and then attached his own personal seal to the letter and forwarded it to King Philippe.

With remarkable courage and persistence another supply convoy was formed, this time at Dieppe. Eight barges full of armed men and loaded with supplies set out in the middle of July. They had hoped to creep into Calais unnoticed, but they were seen and the whole convoy was captured.

Realising that supplies were not going to get to them, the town's defenders rounded up everyone in the town whom they judged to be useless to the defence; women, children, the old, the wounded and infirm. In all there were about 500 people, and these they ejected from the town's gates. For months these poor wretches had defied King Edward's summons to surrender and now the English would not let them pass. Instead they driven them back towards the town's walls where they remained in the town ditch starving to death within sight of both sides.

While King Philippe had struggled to raise an army the same could not be said of King Edward. Since the end of May reinforcements had been arriving adding to his army's strength and by the end of July King Edward III had around 32,000 men in the field; more than 5,300 men-at-arms, 6,600 infantry and 20,000 archers. In addition to this English army the Flemish had mustered a force of 20,000 under command of Margrave William of Juliers and they were gathered further east along the coast behind the River Aa.

The French army moved north from Hesdin on 17th July 1347. King Edward leant of their movement almost immediately from spies placed around the fringes of the French camp and paroled English knights released to raise their ransoms.

Henry of Grosmont, who had earlier been recalled from Gascony, was out on a foraging party in Picardie with a large body of troops when the news of the French army's moved reached the English King. He was immediately called back to Calais by King Edward and the Flemish crossed over the River Aa and entered the English lines.

King Philippe's army advance northwards at a slow pace covering between 10 and 12 kilometres per day. At Lumbres, a small town near Saint-Omer they paused while the troops guarding the Flemish border and serving in the garrisons of north Artois came in to swell their numbers. At Guînes, some 11 kilometres or so from Calais, they were joined by the Frenchmen who had been stationed along the southern flank of the English army for much of the year. King Philippe's army is reported to have had 11,000 cavalry and the number of infantry is not known, but in total his force numbered somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 strong.

On Friday, 27th July 1347 the French army appeared on the heights of Sangatte, the line of escarpments which abruptly marked the southern edge of the marsh of Calais 10 kilometres south of the town, and their banners could be clearly seen from the walls of Calais by the defenders. The only navigable approaches to the town from the south or east were by the beaches and dunes along the shore or by two narrow paths across the marsh. Spread out across the vast expanse of marshland between the French army and Calais was King Edward's much larger Anglo-Flemish force. Between the two armies the River Ham, just in front of the escarpment on which the French were standing, meandered towards the sea and the only one usable bridge over the river was at the hamlet of Nieulay.

King Edward had taken full advantage of these natural obstacles. Palisades had been erected to obstruct the beaches and the coast was lined from Sangatte to Calais with English ships, which were full of archers and augmented with artillery. Behind the bridge at Nieulay were arrayed several thousand men in prepared positions under the command of Henry of Grosmont. South of the bridge, along the main line of approach, was a tower that the English had surrounded with trenches full of soldiers. North of it, behind the Duke of Lancaster's lines were the English and Flemish encampments, which were defended by a series of earthworks and trenches.

The first clashes between the two opposing forces began almost as soon as they came within sight on one-another. The French soon captured the tower guarding the road to the bridge at Nieulay and from there they sent forward scouts to reconnoitre the English positions.

That evening when the French scouts returned they brought with them dire news. The ground between the French and the English was unsuitable for cavalry, probably as bad as anything they had hitherto seen, and the English were deployed in such a way that there was not a single approach that could be forced without a massacre that would surpass the loses of Crécy. Within hours of his arrival before Calais, King Philippe had decided that relief of Calais was impossible. He kept the French army on the heights of Sangatte for nearly a week while he sought some means by which he could avoid another humiliating defeat.

At first King Philippe tried diplomacy and sent for the two cardinals. That same evening the cardinals passed through the French positions and came to the bridge of Nieulay. There they delivered letters requesting an audience with someone of suitable rank with who they could speak. King Edward on receiving the letters conferred with the Earl of Lancaster and the Earl of Northampton who subsequently went out to meet the two cardinals with a small group of officials. King Philippe, the cardinals told them, was most anxious to discuss peace and he had some proposals that they felt King Edward would find acceptable. The two Dukes were naturally guarded, but a three-day truce was agreed to allow for peace negotiations to take place.

On the morning of 28th July 1347 two large pavilions were erected at the edge of the marsh just within the English lines. Representing the English were the Dukes of Lancaster and Northampton, Margrave William of Juliers, Sir Walter Manny, Sir Reginald Cobham and King Edward's Chamberlain Bartholomew Burghersh. Representing the French were the Duke of Bourbon, the Duke of Athens, the French Chancellor Guillaume Flote and Geoffrey de Charny. As soon as the negotiations began, it became clear that the French regarded Calais as lost. Their main concern was to try to get reasonable terms for the garrison and townsmen, guarantees that their lives would be spared and that those who wanted to leave the town could do so with all their goods and chattels. It also became clear that the French delegation were authorized to offer a permanent peace. The peace terms that they proposed, however, were not as attractive as the two cardinals had portrayed. King Philippe was willing to restore all of Aquitaine to King Edward III, but only on the basis on which his grandfather, King Edward I, had held it; that is as a fief of the French Crown. These were the same terms that King Philippe had offered three weeks before the Battle of Crécy and thus King Edward's representatives would not even discuss them. They said that Calais was as good as theirs in any case and as for the offer of Aquitaine, that seemed "too small a reward for all their pains".

On Tuesday, 31st July 1347, after four days of fruitless discussions, another French delegation arrived; this time with a challenge. They proposed that the English should come out of the marsh and fight a battle in a 'fitting place' to be chosen by a joint commission of eight knights, four from each side. The proposal was designed to save King Philippe's face and no sensible person in King Edward's strong position would have accepted it, but then again no one with King Edward's reputation could be seen publicly to turn it down. Events conspired, however, to make any such contest unnecessary. The defenders of Calais had seen the French army arrive and had celebrated their deliverance, but that deliverance had not been forthcoming and they could not hold out any longer. In the evening of 1st August 1347 the defenders signalled to the French army on the heights of Sangatte that they intended to surrender. That same night the French army burned their tents and equipment, spoiled their stores, and before dawn they broke camp and marched away.

The following day Jean de Vienne appeared on the town's battlements asking to speak to Sir Walter Manny. Sir Walter, accompanied by three other councillors of the King, subsequently crossed the area on no-man's-land to parley in front of Calais' gates. The message he carried from King Edward was stark and brief, he would take everything in the town for his own and ransom or kill whom he pleased. "You have defied him too long, too much money has been spent, too many lives lost." Jean de Vienne replied that his men were "but knights and squires who have served their sovereign as loyally as they could and as you yourself would have done in their place". The English party returned to their lines where Sir Walter amongst other pleaded with the King saying that his terms were too harsh saying "By Our Lady I say that we shall not go so willingly on your service if you put these men to death, for then they will put us to death though we shall be doing no more than our duty." In the fourteenth century the principle common to both sides in the Hundred Years War gentlemen were admitted to ransom, not killed. Like many chivalrous conventions it was founded in the mutual self-interest of the knightly class. King Edward, perhaps sensitive to the potential cost of insisting on his own way, eventually agreed that all but six of defenders of Calais were allowed their lives but not their liberty or their possessions. The six exceptions were to be chosen from the most prominent of the town's citizens and King Edward is reported as saying that "They shall come before me in their shirtsleeves, with nooses round their necks, carrying the keys of the town and they shall be at my mercy to deal with as I please."

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais. [Benjamin West]

On Friday, 3rd August 1347 the six 'Burghers of Calais' emerged from one of the town's gates in their shirtsleeves with nooses around their necks and carrying the keys of the town; exactly as King Edward had commanded. The entire English army was drawn up in front of the town's walls and King Edward, Queen Philippa, the King's principle councillors, allies and commanders were all seated on a raised dias ready to receive them.

The six, who were among the most prominent men of Calais were: Eustache de Saint Pierre, Andrieu d'Andres, Jean de Fiennes, Jean d'Aire, Jaques and Pierre de Wiessant. Arriving in front of the King they threw themselves on the ground, begging for mercy. King Edward angry that the town had defied him for so long and wanting to show other towns the consequences of defying him called for the executioner. He ordered that the six were beheaded at once. His advisers were shocked and some protested noisily pointing out the damage it would do to his reputation if he killed them in cold blood. But King Edward would have none of it. It was only when Queen Philippa, who was heavily pregnant with their eleventh child, pleaded with him to spare their lives that the King revoke his instructions and allowed the six to go free.

Calais had surrendered to the English and would remain in their hands for the next two hundred years.