In 1346 Edward III launched an invasion of Medieval France. Mounting the largest medieval invasion ever, he gained an overwhelming victory of the French army at Crécy. Since then, scholars have asked whether he was just lucky or a superb strategist.
The hostilities had been smouldering for a long time when the disagreements between King Philip of France (1328-1350) and Edward III (1327-1377) came to a crucial turning point in 1337. Edward was both King of England and Wales and Duke of Aquitaine. As the latter, he was a vassal of his liege lord, the French King. As a young boy, Edward had been obliged to pay hommage to the French king, altough Edward was, according to English law but not the Salic French law, a closer contender to the French Throne than Philip of Valois. In 1337 Philip and his French government – the Great Council in Paris – agreed that Edward had breached his obligations as a vassal and forfeited his rights to Aquitaine and other minor parts of France, which was part of his mother’s inheritance. Later, these formal disputes were considered the official start of the Hundred Years’ War.
After several years of more or less indecisive warfare, the English King and his councillors agreed to invade France. Arguably, the intent was to bring Philip and France to submit to British overrule once and for all. Finally, in 1346 Philip was lured to enter into a decisive battle at Crécy, where the French army was soundly defeated. While casualties suffered by the regular armies have been up for discussion, the exact number of dead princes and men-of-arms is known. At least 1542 esquires and knights plus eleven great princes, an archbishop and a bishop, eight grand lords of the realm, eighty bannerets (principal knights) were killed on the battleground, including the blind King John of Bohemia, the Count of Flanders, the Duke of Lorraine and Philip’s brother and nephew. Perhaps no more than three to four men-at-arms were killed on the English side, while two were taken as prisoners. Perhaps, this is too low an estimate, but the defeat of the French army was devasting. Not until the mid-15th century did the French once again recoup their position. We know the exact number of French casualties as Edward sent two of his trusted men and two heralds to search the battlefield and collect the surcoats.
Murky Plans and Fake News
One of the more interesting questions is how much this outcome resulted from a planned strategy? Or was the result of last-minute deliberations carried out aboard the royal flagship while crossing the Channel or on the road to Créchy through Normandy?
Today, most historians believe that the strategy and the set of actions were carefully planned. However, the exact details are still unknown. While account books, distinct newsletters sent from the battleground to London and the administrative bureaucratic remnants, detail the events as they unfolded – it still appears overwhelming and genuinely astounding how much communication was carefully orchestrated to become a subterfuge.
Indeed, Edward and his entourage took from the beginning great pain to keep the French public guessing what would indeed happen. Of course, Philip and his men were well-informed about the amassing of troops, the 700 ships commandeered, and the planned embarkment from Portsmouth. However, they had no way of knowing whether Edward planned to sail for Gascogne to relieve the besieged town of Aiguillon? Alternatively, whether he was “just” planning a traditional chevauchee tour of pillaging through Northern France. As it happened, Edward carefully planned to lay Normandy – the economic hothouse of France – waste while trying to lure Philip into both a split of his armies and a decisive, pitched battle. By letting him second-guess the exact choice of landfall, Edward was able to secure the former. The latter followed when Philip’s strategy of catching Edward between the Seine and the Somme was foiled.
Occasionally, we get a glimpse of this deliberate policy concerning the highhanded information policy of the English King. For instance, in a letter dated to the 7th of July, Edward forbade anyone leaving the shores of England for eight days after his departure. The only exception to this prohibition was a small group of 250 archers under the leadership of Sir Hugh Hasting, who was early on sent to Flanders as the Kings’ captain to create a diversion there. At the embarkment for Flanders, these archers belonging to Hasting’s personal retinue were nevertheless stripped and searched for documents. This veil of concealment and secrecy has made military historians’ work particularly difficult.
The Road to Crécy
From Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue in Cotentin, Edward finally marched his army through Normandy, ending up on the Western Bank of the Seine just north of Paris. However, wisely, he did not attempt to lay siege to Paris, where the Parisians planned to defend themselves from street to street, but turned north along the Seine. Along the eastern riverbank, the English could occasionally glimpse the outposts of the French King busy destroying bridges and defending crossing points. He had – in vain – invited the English King to let the matter be decided in the form of a staged battle outside Paris. An invitation, carefully declined by Edward.
Albeit Normandy was a rich land for picking, the English army was nevertheless, in the end, running out of supplies. However, the army succeeded in crossing the Seine at Poissy and the Somme at Blanchetaque to head for Crécy, which some historians believe was the original plan. Crécy was part of the English King’s inheritance from his French mother and not far from Ponthieu, where Edward had been obliged twice to pay homage. Undoubtedly, another quality was the layout of the land, well-known for years of administrative focus administered by Westminster. Also, Edward was a keen student of Vegetius, who wrote, “The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage”.
We know from numerous descriptions that Edward placed his new standard on top of the hill, featuring a painted dragon clothed in his coat of arms, the quartered Plantagenet lions (or leopards) with the golden fleur-de-lis of France. Here, he corralled the horses too, while he set the men to digging trenches and traps. Also, he unveiled his new superweapon – the ribalds – a series of bound gun barrels designed to shoot metal bolts. Indeed, these guns represent some of the significant evidence as to the meticulous planning of Edward. Already, in March, the gunpowder had been produced at the Tower, packed and preserved dry while being hauled across the whole of Normandy and (not least) across the ford at Blanchetaque at the river Somme. The wagons, which had been used to transport the canons and the powder, was reused to make defences for the archers. Edward was a seasoned military strategist and tactician, taking the medieval war to another level by reusing strategies developed in Scotland and introducing state-of-the-art new military technologies and weapon systems. Crécy is considered the battlefield where modern artillery was for the first time seriously deployed.
The Battle at Crécy
In the end, Philip was lured by his chagrin and hatred to attack the English, who had chosen not only a superb high ground at Crécy but also spent a day or two digging trenches and laying traps.
The outcome was astounding. Despite mustering an enormous army, the French King and his men suffered a devasting military and strategic humiliation, enforced by the disgrace of the fleeing Genovese crossbowmen, the mud and the melee of felled cavalry horses and knights riding into the volleys of arrows from the English and Welsh longbowmen and the frightening never-before-heard sound of artillery and bombing.
Philip barely escaped while the English captured the “Oriflamme”, the famous banner of the French King. Ransomed, the flag was once again captured at Poitiers in 1356 and (perhaps) at Agincourt in 1415. This loss of the banner was particularly devastating. Unfurling the Oriflamme, the French King had called his men to fight to the death. And yet, he took flight in the afternoon and was afterwards – tells chroniclers – utterly despised for this action. Not least, the Parisians turned their back to their King, while Philip went looking for scapegoats and found them in the form of financiers. Three of these were arrested and tortured. Afterwards, their fortunes were expropriated and used to fill the coffers of the French King, while Edward moved on to Calais, which ended up in the hands of the English Crown for the next two hundred years. And then, the great pestilence hit…
In conclusion, let us recapitulate: the war, which broke out in 1337 between England and France, was fought over slighted honours, inheritance, and prestige. After ten years of warring on the outskirts in France, Brittany, England and Scotland, the English – the aggrieved party and presumed underdog – invaded France to conquer and establish full sovereignty over their former English dominions – Aquitaine, Gascogne, and Normandy. Perhaps, even France was the ultimate goal. Exactly how this invasion was planned and carried out involved a marked deployment of news manipulation (fake news) and stealth. The strategic goal was to lure the French King and his army to participate in a pitched battle, which the English expected to win by deploying superior tactics and better weapon technology. The way to entice the French King went trough a harrowing attrition dealt to the people, their villages and towns in Normandy.
Afterwards, the English were forced to find a way to hold their new (old) territories. In the short run, this endeavour failed because of the plague. Also, in the long run, the aftermath of the Hundred Years’ War fomented national sentiments, eventually leading to a new “Europe of Nations”. These new sentiments, nourished by Jeanne D’Arc, created a new kind of political order. Perhaps, this new medieval nationalism was the primary outcome of the late medieval history forged in the crucible at Crécy.