Battle of Poitiers II
The Battle of Poitiers was an important English victory on land over the French during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Following English king Edward III’s capture of Calais in 1347, both sides entered into a truce (1347–1354) while they dealt with the ravages of the Black Death (bubonic plague). After failing to reach a permanent peace, Edward crossed the English Channel in 1355 to lead devastating raids through northern France. In 1356 he sent his second son, John of Gaunt (the Duke of Lancaster), and some 6,000 men to raid into Normandy from Brittany and Anjou and meet up with a somewhat larger force under Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), that would at the same time raid north from Bordeaux, the English base in Guyenne in southwestern France.
The English did not seek battle with the far more numerous French army; their intent was simply to plunder and destroy. Edward III landed in France to strengthen the northern troops but was forced to return to England within a few days because the Scots had taken Berwick. John was unable to cross the Loire and effect a juncture with his brother’s force.
The Black Prince had set out from Bergerac on August 4. Most of his men were from Aquitaine except for a number of English longbowmen. He reached Tours on September 3. There he learned that French king John II (John the Good) and as many as 35,000 men had crossed the Loire at Blois on September 8. The Black Prince had only about 8,000 men and ordered a rapid withdrawal down the road to Bordeaux, but the English were slowed by their loot. The French succeeded in cutting off the raiders and reaching Poitiers first. In the late afternoon of September 17 the English advance guard ran into the French rear at La Chabotrie. The prince did not want to fight, but he realized that his exhausted men could go no further without having to abandon their plunder, and he cast about for a suitable position from which to fight, moving to the village of Maupertuis some seven miles southeast of Poitiers.
John II wanted to attack the English on the morning of September 18 but the papal envoy, Cardinal de Perigord, persuaded him to try negotiations. The Black Prince offered to return towns and castles captured during the raid along with all his prisoners, to promise not to do battle with the French king for seven years, and to pay a large sum of money, but John II demanded the unconditional surrender of the prince and 100 English knights.
Edward refused. He had selected an excellent defensive site facing north, and his men used the time spent in negotiations to improve their positions. His left flank was protected by a creek and marsh, and his open right flank ended in a wagon park. The 1,000-yard front of the English position was a vineyard ending in a hedge line at the crest, traversed only by sunken lanes. Edward distributed his archers to the flanks but also placed a few bowmen forward in the vineyard as skirmishers. He dismounted his men-at-arms and placed them behind the hedge with archers in three separate divisions, or “battles,” of about 2,000 men each. His small cavalry reserve was on the exposed right flank.
John II’s army greatly outnumbered his opponent. It included 8,000 mounted men-at-arms, 8,000 light cavalry, 4,500 professional mercenary infantry (many of them Genoese crossbowmen), and perhaps 15,000 untrained citizen militia. Rejecting advice to use his superior numbers to surround the English and starve them out or turn the English position, the king decided on a frontal assault. He organized his men into four “battles” of up to 10,000 men each. He hoped to advance his mounted men-at-arms through the hedgerow on the largest of the sunken roads and deal with the English longbowmen before the main attack. The men-atarms in all three French “battles” were to march the mile to the English lines in full armor.
The resulting Battle of Poitiers on September 19, 1356, was a repeat of the August 1346 Battle of Crécy. Early that morning Edward moved his wagons and two of his “battles” across the creek, apparently in an effort to escape. John II had not completed his preparations but, on learning of this movement by the English, ordered the select 300 knights on horseback to advance and deal with the English archers. The longbowmen, however, decimated the knights; many of them were slain on the ground by English knights on foot under the Earl of Salisbury, who came out from behind the hedge. On being informed of what was happening, the Black Prince returned with the other two “battles.”
Meanwhile, the footmen in the first French “battle” who had not fallen prey to arrows reached the hedge. Salisbury’s men were soon hotly engaged, but Edward’s other two “battles” came up in time to relieve them. Still, the majority of the French troops were not yet engaged.
The next French division, under the Dauphin Charles, Duc d’Orléans, moved forward to the hedge, where there was desperate fighting. The French almost broke through, but Edward committed everything except a final reserve of 400 men, and the line held. The remaining French reeled back. The English were now in desperate straits, and if the next French “battle” commanded by the Duc d’Orléans, the brother of the king, had advanced promptly to support its fellows or had struck the exposed English right flank, the French would have won a great victory. Instead, on seeing the repulse of their fellows, d’Orléans’s “battle” withdrew from the field with them.
This produced a slight respite for the defenders to reorganize before the arrival of the last and largest French “battle” of some 6,000 men, led by John II in person. The French were exhausted by the long march in full armor, but the English were also at the end of their tether. Fearing that his men could not withstand an attack by such a large force, the Black Prince ordered his cavalry and infantry, along with the archers who had used up their arrows, to charge the French. He also sent about 200 horsemen around to attack the French rear. Desperate fighting in the vineyard ensued in which John II wielded a great battle-ax.
The issue remained in doubt until the English cavalry struck the French rear. The French then fled, and the English were too exhausted to pursue. Thousands of John II’s forces were taken prisoner, including the king, his 14-year-old son Philippe and two of Philippe’s brothers, and a multitude of the French nobility, including 17 counts. As the chronicler Jean Froissart remarked, at Poitiers all the nobility of France were slain. The French suffered perhaps 2,500 dead and a like number of prisoners. The English may have sustained 1,000 killed and at least as many wounded.
Following the battle the Black Prince withdrew to Bordeaux with both his booty and prisoners. Vast fortunes were made over the ransoming of the French nobles. Meanwhile, there was chaos in France with the collapse of the central government. The next 10 years saw the English raiding the French countryside almost at will, as did bands of freebooters known as routiers. Unwilling to meet the English in open combat, those French who could do so sought refuge in castles and fortified cities. In 1358 the peasants, who had been unable to defend themselves against their many attackers, rose up against the nobles in a short-lived jacquerie.
In 1360 the Dauphin signed the Treaty of Brétigny, ransoming John II in return for 3 million gold crowns (raised by heavy taxes on the French peasantry), Guyenne in full sovereignty, and the Limousin, Poitou, the Angoumois, the Saintonge, Rouerque, Ponthieu, and many other areas. King Edward III now possessed an independent Guyenne but also Aquitaine, a third of the area of France. Edward set up the Black Prince at Bordeaux as the Duke of Aquitaine. John II was allowed to return home from England, but his three sons remained behind as hostages until the ransom was paid. When one son escaped, the good king returned of his own free will to take his place, dying in England in 1364.
Incredibly, the lessons of the Battle of Poitiers seem not to have taken; it is said that the French remembered everything but learned nothing. The battle was virtually replicated in form and effect in October 1415 at Agincourt.
Barber, Richard. Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine. London: Allen Lane, 1978.
Hewitt, H. J. The Black Prince’s Expedition of 1355–1357. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press, 1958.
Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years’ War: The English in France, 1337–1453. New York: Atheneum, 1978.
Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years’ War: Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.