The Battle of Crécy. [Froissart Chronicles]
The English army spent the night of 25th August 1346 on the eastern edge of the forest before moving the 4 kilometres to take up a defensive position at the eastern end of Crécy-en-Ponthieu where King Edward III of England had decided to make a stand. He was by now aware that Sir Hugh Hastings and the Flemish army and the expected reinforcements due to land at Le Crotoy would not be joining his army and that he would only have the survivors of his original army at his disposal. This was somewhat depleted since it had left Caen and, whilst no accurate recorded figures exist, it is thought to have been between 14,000 and 15,000 strong. It consisted of some 3,000 knights and men-at-arms; 3,000 hobelars, many of who were mounted archers; 5,000 archers; 3,500 spearmen and 5 ribauldequin.
On returning to Abbeville King Philippe found that the bridge had been damaged and need to be repaired before his army could cross and it was not until Saturday, 26th August 1346 that he could continue his pursuit of King Edward's English army. From Abbeville he set off on the Hesdin road and followed a route east of the Forêt de Crécy passing Saint Riquier and Noyelles-en-Chaussée. Just after passing Saint Riquier King Philippe leant that the English army had passed through the forest and were now in the vicinity of Crécy-en-Ponthieu, which was about 15 kilometres to his northwest. The French king sent out scouts to determine what King Edward's forces were doing and turned his own army towards Crécy-en-Ponthieu. Henri le Moine de Bâle, a Swiss knight in King Philippe's army, returned to report that the English were drawn up in battle order between the villages of Crécy-en-Ponthieu and Wadicourt. By this time the French army was advancing along the Chemin de l'Armée and their leading elements were about 5 kilometres from King Edward's men.
The historical sources and accounts of the Battle of Crécy while fairly numerous are somewhat scant on detail about the dispositions and tactics employed by both sides. It is, therefore, impossible to say exactly where the battle was fought, though it is generally accepted that this was along the ridge in the vicinity of the Moulin de Crécy between the villages of Crécy-en-Ponthieu and Wadicourt, and precisely how the battle was played out.
It is thought that King Edward's English approached the town from the south through the Forêt de Crécy along the line of the modern day D111 and moved through the town to the ridge where he deployed his forces on advantageous ground to await the arrival of the French.
The French had crossed the River Somme at Abbeville and headed towards Noyelles-sur-Mer when King Philippe received word that the English were drawn up in battle order between the villages of Crécy-en-Ponthieu and Wadicourt. He order his army to change direction and skirt around the southern edge of the Forêt de Crécy to approach the English along the axis of the track that we now call the Chemin de l'Armée.
The ground over which the French approached was in the main across the gentle slopes of open undulating down land. As they closed with the English, however, they had to cross the Vallée aux Clercs. On the eastern side of this valley is a bank, which was probably the result of terracing for farming. The slope of the bank is steep, in excess of 45 degrees, and it rises in places by up to six metres above the cultivated valley floor. At best it is over two metres high and it presented the French cavalry with an obstacle similar to that used in today's equestrian sporting events to test the abilities of a modern rider and their horse. It would have been a significant challenge to an individual rider and horse, but to a formed body of heavily armoured medieval horsemen crossing the ground at speed this bank was a major obstacle.
The precise alignment of English army is unknown and open to debate. It is generally accepted that that they were arrayed in three divisions and that King Edward set up his headquarters at Crécy windmill, which stood on the spot where the current viewing platform stands. This gave him an excellent view of the battlefield from which to direct his forces.
My research leads me to believe that:
3D-map showing the dispositions of the English army and the French line of approach. [© Ian R Gumm, 2017]
The French approached the waiting English Army along the Chemin de l'Armée, across the modern D56 and passing close to the site of the Croix du Roi de Bohême. It continued north to cross the D938 before turning west to advance directly towards the English line.
King Philippe had despatched four knights to reconnoitre the English dispositions as soon as he had learnt that they had deployed at Crécy-en-Ponthieu. During the approach march he had consulted many of his senior knights and it was agreed that, as it was getting late in the day, they would halt overnight short of the English line to organise the French army ready for an attack early the next day. However, events seemed to take on their own momentum and by the time the decision was reached and messengers sent forward it was too late.
On receiving news that the French Army was not to attack until the following day the vanguard halted. Those immediately following the vanguard also halted, but would not retire until the vanguard did. Others further behind continued to press forward and in the chaos that ensued the vanguard came into contact with the waiting English. By now it was late in the afternoon and may possibly have been as late as 6.00 p.m.
The actual organisation of the French Army when it came into contact with the English is unknown. Reports vary that it consisted of between three and nine divisions, though it is likely to be the former as that was the standard for the day. It appears that the Genoese crossbowmen under the command of Carlo Grimaldi and Anton Doria were the closest to the English when the battle began. The Count D'Alencon led the following division of knights and men-at-arms; among them Jean de Luxembourg, the blind King of Bohemia. In D'Alencon's division rode two more monarchs; the King of the Romans and the displaced King of Majorca. The Duke of Lorraine and the Court of Blois commanded the next division, while King Philippe led the rearguard.
Carlo Grimaldi and Anton Doria ordered their men to advance. This they did in three movements each of which were accompanied by loud whopping and shouting intended to goad their enemy. They would normally have advanced behind the cover of their pavises; large oblong shield that covered their entire body and behind which they would shelter while loading their weapons. These and their resupply of crossbow bolts were back in the wagon train and had as yet not been brought forward and unloaded. The crossbow was an effective weapon, but had a significantly slower rate of fire than the English longbow. In addition it had been raining and the sodden conditions made the crossbow difficult to reload as the crossbowmen sought to gain sufficient purchase on the slippery ground to place a foot in the stirrup and draw back the string.
The initial bolts fired by the French crossbowmen fell short. The English stood their ground and the English longbowmen held their fire. The crossbowmen advanced forward to shorten the range and fired again, but still their bolts fell short. Again no reply came from the waiting English and the Genoese crossbowmen advanced a third time. The Froissart chronicles describe the response: "The English archers each stepped forth one pace, drew the bowstring to his ear, and let their arrows fly; so wholly and so thick that it seemed as snow."
The rate of fire of the longbow was about 10 to 12 arrows per minute, while that of the crossbow was between 3 and 4 bolts per minute. Without their pavises to hid behind when reloading the crossbowmen were soon taking casualties. The impact of the first flights of arrows on the Genoese crossbowmen and waiting French heavy cavalry was quite dramatic. The unprotected Genoese crossbowmen turned and began to flee. The sting of the English arrows as they bit into the mounts of the French cavalry maddened the horses causing them to buck and crash into the men on foot. Some of the French cavalry, seeing the Genoese crossbowmen retreat, perceived this to be cowardice and spurred their mounts forward to them ride down.
To add to this confusion, the English ribauldequin, their volley guns, opened fire into the packed French and Genoese ranks. These probably did little damage, but the noise they added to the cacophony of the battle would have added to the chaos in the French line. Soon not only were the Genoese fleeing, but many of the French were quitting the field in disarray before they had even formed up.
There are varying accounts of what happened next, the most popular of which is that the French made as many as fifteen successive assaults against the English lines. These attacks were in the main mounted and had to cross the Vallée aux Clercs with its steep bank. The bank would have broken the charges of the French horsemen up and significantly reduced their speed, and it was speed that they relied upon to break into the dismounted Englishmen's line.
Some Frenchmen dismounted to attack on foot, but struggling up the incline of the hill towards the waiting Englishmen would have take its toll on a Frenchman wearing his heavy armour. One to do this was the Count of Blois who strode forward into the English line to meet his end.
At one point it appears that the battle in the vicinity of the Prince of Wales' division became particularly fierce and Sir Thomas Norwich, a knight of the Prince's division was sent to the King to request assistance. King Edward is said to have replied "I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help. Let the boy earn his spurs." No help was forthcoming. Whether or not this is true, it was certainly the Prince of Wales' division that bore the brunt of the battle.
Charge of the French Knights at Crécy. [Harry Payne]
There were many acts of gallantry during the battle. It was reported that the Prince was twice brought to his knees, but that he rose up again to continue the fight. There is little doubt that the sixteen year old Edward, Prince of Wales earned his spurs on that day.
King Philippe fought bravely that day and had two horses killed under him. He suffered several wounds during the hand-to-hand combat and was eventually led from the field by the Count of Hainault. Miles de Noyers, who carried the French war banner the Oriflamme that signified no quarter was to be given, wrapped the banner about his person to prevent it being captured. He went down in the fighting and the Oriflamme taken, ripped to shreds and destroyed.
The Count D'Alencon's standard bearer refused to put on his helmet until he was ready, saying that once he had done so he would not take it off again. This proved to be correct as he was one of those who fell during the ensuing battle.
The Prince of Wales' own banner was in the thick of the fighting and at one point was in danger of capture. Richard Fitzsimon, the Prince's standard bearer laid it down and stood over it as he fought to protect the Prince. He and Thomas Daniel raised it up again to be rewarded for their valour by the Prince after the battle.
Jean de Luxembourg, the blind King of Bohemia, was one who passed into legend on that day. On hearing of the flight of the first waves of the French it is said that he asked two of his knights to lead him into the mêlée and the three of them road to their deaths with their horses tied together. On his helmet Jean de Luxembourg wore three ostrich feathers, which were presented to the Prince after the battle. The Prince subsequently adopted these as his symbol on his jousting armour and and his motto "Ich Dien" (I serve). This is said to be the origins of the modern Prince of Wales' heraldic feathers and motto.
Jean de Luxembourg, the blind King of Bohemia, riding to his death in the Battle of Crécy. [The Story of France by Mary Macgregor]
The fighting was ferocious and the French loses were heavy. The struggle continued far into the night and at around midnight King Philippe abandoned the carnage, riding away from the battlefield to the castle of La Boyes. Challenged as to his identity by the sentry on the wall above the closed gate the King Philippe is said to have replied bitterly: "Voici la fortune de la France" (Here is the fortune of France) and was admitted.
The battle ended soon after King Philippe's departure, the surviving French knights and men-at-arms fleeing the battlefield. The English army remained in its position for the rest of the night.
Many of the French nobility were among the dead, including: King Philippe's younger brother the Count D'Alencon; Jean de Luxembourg, King of Bohemia and James II, King of Majorca; the Duke of Loraine; the Archbishop of Sens; the Bishop of Noyon; and the Counts of Blois, Flanders and Hancourt. Both commanders of the Genoese crossbowmen were also among the dead as were Godefroy d'Harcourt's brother and nephew, and another 1,500 knights and esquires.
In all the French losses were said to be in the region of 14,000 while the English are reported to have lost just 200. What seems to be extraordinary, however, was that Edward III’s force of just 16,000 had defeated a French force of 35,000.