I initially envisioned this post as a one-off stand-alone. However, the gods of brevity decided otherwise. Tis always more difficult to be concise than verbose and my florid blogging style helps not at all. And tis always a challenge to decide what is relevant, germane and important in order to maintain credibility, and coherence and render the topic intelligible. So thusly, I have had to render/rend this topic into two parts. My first post will be an introduction, whilst the second will deal with the battle itself. I'm hoping to follow up this introductory post, with the second, in just a couple of days. May Woden steady my writing hand, and shit.
When attempting to describe the 'Battle of Crecy' we are faced with the problem that the battle has accrued a certain mystique, at least in English speaking countries. No doubt the English longbowmen played an important, nay major, part in the victory. However, there were other salient factors at play, notably the differences in professionalism displayed by the respective armies. I also suspect the French army acted precipitously due to the 'smell of blood in the water'. The French outnumbered their foe by over three to one and therefore expected an easy victory on that sultry August afternoon in 1346.
The battle of Crecy between the English and French marked a serious escalation of armed conflict between these nations which had been simmering away since 1337. The battle's outcome resolved nothing, and intermittent warfare, of varied intensity, would grind on until 1453.
The battle has been enshrouded in mythology in part due to the pivotal role of the English longbowmen in the battle's outcome. Furthermore, it seems, to some folk at least, as if the battle came out of historic nowhere as if there was no antecedent or prior bellicose interaction between these two proud nations. This is but naive fiction. In fact, the English and French had quite a long history of engaged warfare up to this point. But, as it came to pass, twas the battle of Crecy that really introduced the French to the battlefield prowess, and power, of the simple 'stick of Yew'. The Genoese mercenaries, serving with the French, had never sampled the sting of the yard shaft before this battle and they seemed mightily impressed and unwilling to undergo the experience again. But for the lure of high pay, men will do anything. Gallic tarts at 10 groats a brace, ain't cheap.
The cause of the battle and the subsequent long term struggle between the warring nations lies within the complex political and familial relationships (Nobility, of course) between France and England during the Medieval period. From what I can uncover, the turbulent interactions between these nations oft revolved around the convoluted relationships between the respective nation's royal 'houses' and their various dynastic ambitions. To do justice to these 'political machinations' would require several, separate articles. A task, in which, I have no interest or technical competence to attempt. Suffice to say, at the time of the battle, a large part of Western France and its nobles and common folk owed allegiance to the king of England. Two hundred years prior to the battle, a marriage alliance resulted in the English king becoming the duke of French Aquitaine. In return, England supposedly became the nominal vassal of the French king. Clearly, this situation pleased no one and tensions between the two nations was intense and manifested in armed combat, of various degrees of intensity up and until, Crecy. In the Middle Ages, the degrees of hostility were decreed by economics; a poor state undertook war poorly unless large scale appropriation of wealth occurred. This explains why much of Medieval warfare was messy and low key. Of course, the Crusades proved very lucrative and changed European society, forever, and to some degree, kick-started our early modern era (discuss).
As is often the case, the death of a leader provided the pretext for a major war. On the death of Charles IV, the French nobles declared Phillipe de Valois, Charles' cousin, as the future king of France. The English found the candidate less than ideal and had their own 'ruler in the wings' ready to encompass the royal French mantel. Enter war, stage left.......... That is enough politics.
And so it came to pass that in the July of 1346 king Edward invaded northern France and began to ravage the land as he moved south. The French responded and Phillipe with an army estimated at 60,000 marched north to engage the English. After crossing the River Somme, Edward picked his position to fight near the town of Crecy. He chose a ridge to disperse and emplace his men and abutted his right flank on the River Maye. The English army, in total, consisted of no more than 13,000.
As an interlude, it will be mildly informative to review and inspect the composition of the respective armies. At this stage of the 14th century, it appeared that Medieval society, in Europe, was entering a stage of transition, if not upheaval and this was reflected in the armies about to engage. The French army was classically feudal. It had a large contingent of mounted knights. These knights received no pay for the fight but considered their presence as an obligation to the king in return for land. Although these knights were tough and formidable fighters they were also ill-disciplined, haughty, independently minded and not easily controlled. The accompanying French infantry was a levee en mass and poorly trained. Not much was expected of this variously armed rabble and the serious fighting would be the province of the knights. A hint of professionalism was afforded by a contingent of mercenary Genoese crossbowmen.
The English army facing the French, although superficially similar to the Gallic host, was in fact organised in a radically different way and unlike the French army was no longer feudal- what a wonderful time to be alive. Regardless of status, high and low alike were paid for their service. Therefore the English army was more akin to a mercenary host and served at the king's wage. This distinction would manifest in discipline and the ability to act in a coordinated way under the direction of the lead knights, generally battle-tested higher nobility.
Edward split his force into three divisions. The vanguard was placed under the nominal control of the king's son, known as the 'Black Prince'. The rear echelon was placed under the command of the Earl of Northampton, a highly experienced warrior, while the king took charge of the central reserve in a vantage point to watch the battle unfurl. From this position Edward could reinforce his other divisions, as he saw fit, and in response to developments on the battlefield. The baggage and wagon train was placed in the rear to act as a barrier. The lines of foot soldiers were interspersed with wedges of doughty English and Welsh longbowmen. In total, the 'arrow chuckers' made up about 50 % of the English army, some 7,000 men. Before the French arrived at the scene the English had time to rest and enjoy a hot meal.
The scene is thus set for the epic battle about to unfold. The next thrilling instalment will detail the actual battle and barring any unforeseen personal issues, will unfurl within the next couple of days.