26 August 1346

This image of the Battle of Crécy fought between the army of the English king, Edward III, and the king of France, Philip VI, on 26 August 1346 appears in the chronicles of the French author Jean Froissart (c.1337–c.1405). The key to the English victory was the longbow, which could be shot faster and further than the French crossbow, visible on the lower left.

The Battle of Crécy was an exceptional medieval battle. The risks of actual combat were high for monarchs and the nobles and knights they took with them to war, so in many cases in the High Middle Ages, battle was not actually joined. Raids, skirmishes and sieges were common, but a full-scale battle between two major armies was a relative rarity. Crécy, so it is estimated, pitted an estimated 10–14,000 Anglo-Welsh men-at-arms and archers against perhaps 20,000 French and mercenary forces, at least 12,000 of them mounted and armoured men-at-arms. What made the battle so remarkable was that this smaller force inflicted a devastating defeat on the ‘flower of Christendom’ fighting for the French king, Philip VI. The army of the English king Edward III won the battle as a result of a simple cluster of operational and tactical innovations, which turned a kingdom regarded as militarily mediocre into Europe’s most dangerous battlefield opponent.

England and France were old enemies. The campaign which ended with the English triumph at Crécy was part of a long-drawn-out struggle between the French and English crowns over lands in France. In 1346, Edward III planned a major operation to stake his claim to the French throne. After raising a great deal of money, men and supplies, and requisitioning, it is estimated, up to 1,000 vessels, his vast armada landed, with complete surprise, at St-Vaast-la-Hougue on the Normandy coast. This combined arms assault on France was the first major innovation: no army of this size, complete with thousands of horses, had ever engaged in an amphibious operation of this size and complexity – a remote ancestor of D-Day, 600 years later.

Not much is known about Edward’s motives, but historians now suggest that he had planned to lure Philip to battle on ground of his choosing and that the area of Ponthieu south of Calais (which was technically English territory), in which the forest and village of Crécy were situated, was his intended destination. This was a high-risk strategy, and for six weeks the English army forced its way along a 30-kilometre (20-mile) wide corridor towards the Seine and then the Somme, devastating everything in its path and risking retaliation. This was a challenge to the honour of France that Philip could not ignore and he summoned his military nobility, allies and paid mercenaries to march on the impertinent English and offer them battle.

Edward’s army reached its destination, having broken across the River Somme on 24 August. After marching through the Crécy forest, they arrived at the slope at the top of the Vallée des Clercs, where Edward positioned his forces to block the northwards advance of Philip’s vast army. The English had many advantages from their ability to choose the place and time of engagement, but the critical factor was the way in which Edward disposed his forces. The various early accounts of the battle are inconsistent, but it seems clear that Edward divided his army into three divisions, probably one behind the other, with the king’s son, the Black Prince, leading the vanguard so that, according to legend, he could ‘win his spurs’.

The long wagon train that had accompanied the army was drawn into a tight circle like an improvised fortress, with the pack animals and horses inside, protected by archers and cannon. Most accounts agree that the English longbowmen, the key to the new English battlefield tactics, were positioned in triangles facing the oncoming French, probably on each wing of the English men-at-arms, as well as in front. Pits and trenches were dug to hamper the French cavalry, but once the archers had done their damage, Edward’s military elite abandoned their horses in favour of fighting on foot. This was a tactical arrangement tried a number of times before, but Crécy saw its triumphant fulfilment.

Edward was fortunate that Philip VI had little room for manoeuvre in every sense. Recent study of the topography of the battle has demonstrated that the French had to advance on a narrow and difficult front to get at the English, an outcome almost certainly planned by Edward and his commanders. On other occasions, Philip might have mustered his forces while avoiding open combat, but on this occasion the savage passage of the English through northern France had been a calculated challenge. He pursued the English and arrived at Crécy late on the afternoon of 26 August. Some of his senior advisers cautioned delay until the morning rather than fighting in the twilight; others, it seems, were impatient to get at the English and felt any delay would dishonour them. Philip hesitated, but before a clear decision could be taken, numerous French cavalry moved forward towards the English lines, eager to take up the challenge.

The decision was taken out of the king’s hands. He ordered the sacred banner of France, the Oriflamme, to be raised, indicating that no quarter was to be given. Edward responded by raising the Dragon banner, which meant the same. Few prisoners were taken at Crécy.Philip expected his mercenary Genoese crossbowmen to open the battle. They hurried forward, hampered by the crowd of French horsemen. The crossbow was a formidable weapon with a range of up to 400 metres (1,300 feet) and a heavy, lethal bolt; but it could only be fired intermittently, after laborious reloading.

Some accounts have a shower of rain just before the Genoese advanced, which would have damaged their bowstrings. Whatever the truth, the crossbow was outdone by the simple English longbow, with a rapid rate of fire, three times that of a crossbow, and a deadly impact at 300 metres (1,000 feet). The Genoese had been sent forward without their shields. After the first hail of arrows they panicked and fell back among the advancing French cavalry.The nature of the narrow approach maximized the damage the English archers could inflict and made it impossible for Philip to use his greater numbers to his advantage.

As the first divisions of French horsemen moved forward, they were mown down by the missiles. The English men-at-arms then joined the mêlée, taking advantage of the French confusion and pushing back the enemy until, so it now seems, those behind were crushed to death by the retreating knights. The ebb and flow of the battle has differing accounts, but there is no doubt about the outcome. Over 1,500 of the French elite lay dead on the field for the loss of 300 English knights. Philip fought bravely on some accounts and was wounded, but he was eventually led from the field to avoid his capture. The most famous knight in Europe, John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, though now blind, tied his horse together with those of his retainers and plunged into the fray. He and his companions were all found dead the following day on the battlefield. This news perhaps shocked Europe more than the battle itself.

Reports and newsletters swiftly travelled to Europe’s major cities. Crécy was seen at the time as a stunning victory for an upstart king against the very flower of Europe. Edward moved on to besiege Calais, which fell the following year. Philip tried to salvage his reputation by blaming others. The real explanation for French defeat lay in the new English way of warfare. The defensive longbow, properly exploited, together with the deployment of armoured men on foot, unhinged the traditional domination of battlefield cavalry. The battle demonstrated that quite simple tactical innovations could transform, if temporarily, the art of war.