English Peasant Archers Once Mowed Down Thousands of French Nobility
The Battle of Crécy was the '300' of medieval war
England’s army had moved through the French countryside, razing and pillaging, but now it had stopped. King Edward III of England faced an army that both outnumbered and outclassed his own.
His distant cousin, King Philip VI of France was coming with the full force of the French army and he aimed to crush the upstart king.
Philip’s army was terrifying. Historians argue the exact numbers, but modern estimates put the number at 30,000 strong–a mix of French knights, nobles and professionals well versed in the art of war. Most of that was heavy cavalry and well trained men-at-arms.
Between two and six thousand elite Genoese crossbowmen also served Philip. The continent feared the crack Italian bowmen for their ability to launch an accurate bolt every eight seconds out to 150 yards.
Edward’s army was substantially smaller, around 10,000 strong. He also had knights, cavalry and men at arms as well as cannon. But peasant archers wielding longbows made up the vast bulk of his force.
It didn’t look good. The French outnumbered the English at least three to one. The French soldiers were well trained, elite warriors. The English forces were a motley mix of working class commoners. The French aristocracy thought it would make quick work of the scraggly army.
But that’s not what happened. This was the Battle of Crécy, where French arrogance clashed with English pragmatism and lost. The battle marked the beginning of the Hundred Years War, spawned dozens of legends that we still trade today, changed the face of medieval warfare and–at least according to the French–marked the end of chivalry.
It was a battle where a few thousand archers felled tens of thousands of the European elite.
French aristocrats had ruled England for centuries. In 1066, Norman soldiers stormed the British Isles, killed the Anglo-Saxon king and put Normans in charge of everything. Normans come from Normandy … in France.
The two countries spent the next few hundred years fighting over territory and pestering each other back and forth. For every generation that passed, however, the French kings of England got a little more English. But in the eyes of the European aristocracy, they were French.
Things got weird in 1328 when the French king died and Edward III, then king of England, was the nearest male heir. Edward III played nice at first, and allowed the French nobility to crown Philip VI, a distant cousin. Edward was also a duke in France and in that capacity he recognized the sovereignty of Philip.
Then Philip confiscated Gascony–a small wine-producing province in southwest France–away from Edward. The city was part of Aquitaine, the French lands Edward ruled as duke. The English king had had enough.
Edward crossed the English channel with peasant archers, cannon and a few thousand cavalry in 1346. When he landed, he knighted his son, also Edward, and sent the ships back home to England. He and his army then proceeded to rip the French countryside apart.
These were not nice battles–nor were they chivalric battles. Edward and his troops marched across Normandy setting fire to villages, murdering peasants and destroying farms. This wasn’t about capturing and holding territory. It wasn’t about conquest. It was about terror.
Edward wanted to make his cousin Philip look weak. He wanted everyone to know the French king couldn’t protect his people.
Edward’s march of horrors neared Paris, but cut across the Somme and backed into the small village of Crécy. By this time, Philip had roused tens of thousands of troops to his cause. A powerful force of heavy cavalry, noble warriors and men-at-arms marched with Philip, all intent on crushing the English upstart.
While Philip and his forces marched miles to meet their enemies, Edward and his troops waited and rested in the forests near Crécy.
Edward positioned his men on a hillside. The town of Wadicourt sat on the east flank and Crécy was on the west flank. A river ran through Crécy, making it impossible for the coming French onslaught to outflank the English.
Edward put his archers in front. The French leadership pushed their Genoese crossbowmen to the fore. The goal was to use the Genoese to wipe out the archers and clear a path for the French heavy cavalry. That’s not what happened.
The Genoese crossbowmen were an elite force in the medieval world. The Italians carried a curved, spiked shield called a pavise. They would thrust the pavise into the ground when they performed the cumbersome act of reloading the crossbow. The shield’s curved surface deflected arrows.
But at Crécy, the Genoese were without their shields. The pavises were in the supply train well behind the front lines, and the French wanted to attack immediately. It had also rained most of the day, soaking and warping the strings of the complicated crossbows. They would not fire as far or as true. Worse, the Genoese would be firing uphill with the sun in their eyes. They only fired one volley.
The English longbowmen could easily detach their strings from their bows–and had throughout the day’s storms, tucking the bands under their caps and under their armor. The sun was at their backs and the enemy downhill. Killing the Italians was like shooting fish in a barrel.
After an impotent volley from the Genoese, the well-rested longbowmen unleashed a torrent of arrows. The English cannon accompanied the arrows. The mix of thundering shot and thousands of arrows killed many of the troops.
The thought of facing another wave of English arrows demoralized the elites.
The crossbowmen routed. Which left the battle to the French heavy cavalry. The idea was for the cavalry to charge as soon as the bolts had thinned out the English archers. But when the Genoese routed, some historians claimed the cavalry ran them down–a punishment for cowardice.
Yet, “The idea that Philip VI would have intentionally ordered his horsemen to ride down the broken Genoese is inconceivable,” historian David Nicolle wrote in Failure of an Elite–The Genoese at Crécy.
Nicolle argued that turning the horses to attack fleeing troops would have wasted too much time. It’s far more likely that reports of the cavalry running down the fleeing Genoese occurred as stragglers got caught in the initial charge.
The cavalry rushed the English lines. The English poured more cannon and arrows from the hillside. The cavalry fell. Knights in armor squirmed, suffocated and died under their horses. The field was muddy, bloody and full of corpses. It was impossible for the French to mount another successful cavalry charge.
But they kept trying. “On this day,” France’s Grand Chronicler noted, “Men were killed by their horses.” Thousands of French nobility wallowed in the mood and blood.
England’s 10,000-strong army lost somewhere between 100 to 300 soldiers. France lost close to its entire force. The English counted 1,542 French knights and around 2,000 men-at-arms among the dead. That included 11 princes and assorted nobility, including King Philip VI’s brother.
The King of Bohemia fought on the French side. The king was 50 years old and had been blind for the past 10 years. His son, Charles, was also in the fray. When the battle turned against the French, John worried he might lose his son and instructed his men to accompany him into battle.
They did so, but the old king couldn’t see, so they tied their bridles to his and escorted him into the carnage. All three of them died during John’s blind charge. His son, Charles, the smarter of the two Bohemians, had already fled the battle. He ascended to the throne.
As the French routed, the English peasantry brandishing misericordes moved through the field of dead and dying nobility. The long slender knives’ Latin name literally translates to act of mercy.
The peasants drove the knives into the eye slits of the knights’ visors, into their throats and under their breastplates. They took no prisoners. “It is a shame that so many French nobleman fell to men of no value,” the French Kings chronicler wrote.
So many legends were born that day. It’s said that Edward–later known as the Black Prince–plucked the white ostrich feather from the King of Bohemia’s helmet and gave it to his father saying, “I serve.”
The feather, and the saying, appear on the back of the British two pence coin. It’s also the heraldry for the Prince of Wales. Historians debate the validity of the legend.
The longbowmen too would become legend. In the later years of Edward III’s reign, he issued an edict making the practice of archery a legal requirement of every English man’s Sunday routine. Archery was a good, English sport and made good English archers for the king’s wars.
The same edict, passed 1363, also outlawed soccer.
As our British readers know, a V made with the first two fingers of the hand is an insult akin to flipping the middle finger in America. The story goes that during the battle of Agincourt that followed Crécy, the English longbowmen flashed these fingers at the French to insult them.
They were the fingers needed to draw back the mighty longbow, and they were all a peasant needed to kill a noble. But the myth behind that old English insult is just that, a myth.
The war Edward III began would outlast him, raging for more than 100 years. It would give rise to personalities such as Joan of Arc and Henry V. It would change the landscape of Europe, helped define the cultural identity of England and France and end the supremacy of mounted cavalry in warfare.