The archers were tired. They had marched 18 miles that day, in armor and carrying their heavy crossbows. Most of them were Genoese mercenaries, hired to assist the French during this battle of the Hundred Years War between France and England. It was raining that day, and the strings of their crossbows had become wet. They could no longer count on their weapons for accuracy or range.
They would have been glad to rest after their long trek, and begin the assault in the morning. King Philip had thought so, too, and had given the order to camp for the night. But the French knights were eager to prove their mettle, and had decided to go to the field that day. King Philip could do nothing about it: on the battlefield, the knights were the ones who counted, not the king.
The archers led the attack. The ground was muddy from the rain, and the terrain led uphill. They entered the field from the east, and by 4:00 in the afternoon the rain had stopped and the sun had come out — directly into their eyes. They ran up the hill as best they could, carrying their crossbows until they were within range. Normally they would have been carrying their pavises as well, large shields that could be planted into the ground with spikes while they wound their bows, but today they had been left behind in the baggage train.
Meanwhile, the English had taken the high ground. King Edward had decided to fight this battle on foot, and had ordered his troops to dismount. He had ordered pits, stakes, and caltrops planted, so that the French would be unhorsed as well. The troops had been divided into three divisions, one of them commanded by his 16-year-old son, Edward, sometimes called the Black Prince. The King intended that Edward would be given every opportunity to “earn his spurs” that day.
It had rained on the English, too, of course, but their archers were using longbows, and needed only to detach their strings and keep them under their clothes until the rain stopped. The English were disciplined and had an orderly plan of attack. The French knights were a law unto themselves, and entered the fray whenever they thought best — there was no coordinated attack.
As the Genoese archers climbed the hill, they attempted to shoot at the English, but came nowhere near them. The range of a crossbow is far shorter than that of a longbow, and theirs were compromised by the wet and the angle of attack. The English longbows could easily pick them off, and there was nothing they could do about it.
A good longbowman can fire 10 shots a minute. In the same time, a crossbowman can shoot perhaps twice. Jean Froissart, a medieval chronicler, said that the arrows flew so thick that they were “like snow.” The crossbowmen, with no pavises to take shelter behind, were sitting ducks long before they were close enough to slay a single Englishman.
Before long, the commanders of the archers had all been slain, and the rest of the men were in confusion. They tried to retreat, but the French knights were behind them, and cut them down as they tried to flee. The arrows continued. The knights now had to contend with the barrage of arrows while attempting to ride over rough ground — mud and slain archers covered the field.
A longbow can shoot an arrow up to 300 yards, with a draw force of 80 to 120 pounds. Such an arrow can pierce armor, and many did that day. But an arrow doesn’t need to puncture armor in order to be effective. A non-piercing arrow can knock the breath out of a man, or knock him from his horse. It can also kill a horse. None of the French mounts were armored.
The French made 15 sallies against the English that day, each more difficult than the last. They had massively outnumbered the English, although of course accounts of the numbers differ. The English are thought to have had somewhere between 9,000 to 15,000 men, about 7,000 of them Welsh archers. The French may have had anywhere from 35,000 to 100,000 men. When it was all over, the French had lost somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 men, including 1,542 knights and 11 noblemen. The English lost two knights and several hundred men.
Many of the French casualties were dispatched after the battle by men using misericordias, “mercy-givers”, a long dagger used to finish off those too injured to move. Such a knife was designed to be inserted through the armor and under the arm, piercing the heart, or through a visor slit into the brain. It was totally against the laws of chivalric warfare — after all, it was a case of peasants killing knights — but it was done all the same.
During the battle, the English had taken some 80 French standards, and displayed them triumphantly. On the day following the battle, the French common folk saw the standards and thought that it meant the French had won. They gathered at Crecy, where they were met by English foot soldiers, who killed and robbed them.
One of the casualties on the side of the French was King John of Bohemia, son of the Holy Roman Emperor and deeply allied to France. He was 50 years old at the time of his death, and had been blind for 10 years. His son Charles was in the fray, and when he was told that no one could see him or knew how he fared, he said, “Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you to bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.”
His men complied, and tied their horse’s reins together so that they would not lose him in the melee. According to Froissart, he struck not just one stroke, but “more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company.” The next morning they were all found together, their horses still tied to each other.
After the battle, Edward the Black Prince did not go immediately to his father, but sought out the body of King John of Bohemia, though he had never met him. He had been impressed with the man’s courage, and wanted to pay his respects. He adopted the shield of the dead king as his own emblem: three white feathers rising from a golden coronet.
In many ways, the Battle of Crecy was the beginning of the end of the Age of Chivalry. Not only were the laws of chivalry flouted by the killing of the injured and the lack of face-to-face warfare, but the importance of the knight on horseback — the chevalier — was drawing to a close. It would not be immediate — in fact, this battle would be replayed 69 years later at the Battle of Agincourt, where once again superior strategy — and the English longbow — would triumph over superior numbers.
Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_26; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cr%C3%A9cy; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Bohemia; “The Battle of Crecy 1346,” BritishBattles.com; “The Hundred Years War – Battle of Crecy,” Archeryweb.com; http://www.chronique.com/Library/Knights/crecy.htm; http://home.eckerd.edu/~oberhot/crecy.htm; Jonathan Blair, “The Battle of Crecy,” MyArmory.com; John Bourcher, trans., “Froissart on the Battle of Crecy,” Sam Houston State University website.