The Battle of Crécy

The Battle of Crécy (occasionally called the Battle of Cressy in English) took place on 26 August 1346 near Crécy in northern France, and was one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years' War.

The combination of new weapons and tactics have caused many historians to consider this battle the beginning of the end of chivalry.

Following the outbreak of war in 1337, the Battle of Sluys was the first great battle of the Hundred Years' War, on 24 June 1340. In the years following this battle, Edward attempted to invade France through Flanders, but failed due to financial difficulties and unstable alliances. Six years later, Edward planned a different route, and put into action a massive raid through the lands of Normandy, winning victories at Caen on 26 July and the Battle of Blanchetaque on 24 August. A French plan to trap the English force between the Seine and the Somme Rivers failed, and the English escape led to the Battle of Crécy, one of the greatest battles in the whole war.

As in previous battles against the Scots, Edward III disposed his forces in an area of flat agricultural land, choosing high ground surrounded by natural obstacles on the flanks. The king installed himself and his staff in a windmill on a small hill that protected the rear, where he could direct the course of the battle.

In a strong defensive position, Edward III ordered that everybody fight on foot and distributed the army in three divisions, one commanded by his sixteen-year-old son, Edward, the Black Prince. The longbowmen were deployed in a "V-formation" along the crest of the hill. In the period of waiting that followed, the English built a system of ditches, pits and caltrops to maim and bring down the enemy cavalry.

The French army, commanded by Philip VI, was much more disorganized, due to overconfidence on the part of his knights. Against Philip's orders, his knights insisted upon fighting immediately after their arrival, rather than gathering their strength for a battle the next day. Philip stationed his Genoese mercenary crossbowmen, under Ottone Doria, in the front line, with the cavalry in the back. The French even went as far as to leave behind the pavises, the only means of defence for the crossbowmen, along with the other infantry. Both decisions proved deadly mistakes.

The first attack was from the crossbowmen, who launched a series of volleys with the purpose of disorganizing and frightening the English infantry. This first move was accompanied by the sound of musical instruments, brought by Philip VI to scare the enemy. But the crossbowmen proved completely useless. With a shooting rate of around 1-2 shots every minute, they were no match for the longbowmen, who could shoot five or six arrows in the same ammount of time. Furthermore, their weapons were damaged by the brief thunderstorm that had preceded the battle, while the longbowmen simply unstrung their bows until the rain stopped. The crossbowmen did not have their pavises, which were needed to cover their bows during the long reloading procedure and had remained in the baggage train. Under the hail of English arrows, the Genoese crossbowmen suffered heavy losses and were unable to approach the English lines to the point where their crossbows would have been effective. Frustrated and confused, they retreated, as any trained professional soldier would have done. The knights and nobles, however, hurled insults at the crossbowmen, calling the crossbowmen cowards, and even hacked down some of them. The fault was not the crossbowmen's: it was King Philip's order to leave the pavises behind.

By the time this contretemps ended, several volleys of longbow arrows had already fallen among the French. At this the French knights decided it was time to charge, and they ran right over the retreating Genoese in an unorganized way. The Welsh longbowmen continued shooting as the infantry advanced, and many French knights fell along the way.

Froissart writes that English cannon had made "two or three discharges on the Genoese", which is taken to mean individual shots by two or three guns because of the time necessary to reload such primitive artillery. These were believed to shoot large arrows and primitive grapeshot. The Florentine Giovanni Villani agreed that they were destructive on the field, though he also indicated that the guns continued to fire upon French cavalry later in the battle:

"The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire...They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses...The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners...[by the end of the battle] the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls."

With the crossbowmen defeated, the French cavalry charged again in organized rows. However, the slope and man-made obstacles disrupted the charge. At the same time, the longbowmen continued shooting volleys of arrows upon the knights. Each time, more men fell, blocking successive waves of advance. The French attack could not break the English formation, even after 16 attempts, and they suffered frightful casualties. Edward III's son, the Black Prince, came under attack, but his father refused to send help, saying that he wanted him to "win his spurs". The prince subsequently proved himself to be an outstanding soldier.

Philip himself was wounded, and at nightfall, ordered the French to retreat. It was a disastrous and humiliating defeat for France and a majestic win for England.