Post-classical history


Aiguillon and Crécy 1346

At the beginning of February 1346 a Great Council of all the lay and ecclesiastical magnates of England met at Westminster to contemplate the coming campaign. Representatives of Edward III’s only remaining continental allies, the Flemings and the Bretons, were also there.1 But Edward had learned the limits of his allies’ usefulness in 1340. It was always clear in 1346 that the enterprise was to be undertaken primarily by English troops and not by subsidized Flemings, Germans or Bretons over whom the King could exercise control only indirectly and sometimes not at all. This meant recruiting troops in the English provinces on a scale hitherto unheard of for a continental expedition. It meant shipping the whole of the army and not just a modest English contingent across the Channel, in requisitioned fleets much larger than those which Edward had needed in 1338 and 1342. It meant purveying victuals and other stores throughout the country to supply the enlarged army and fleet for several weeks while the men waited to embark on the south coast of England or marched through territory in France which its inhabitants had scorched or emptied of all usable supplies.

Of the two-year subsidy voted by Parliament in 1344 the first year’s instalment had been spent and the second year’s was still coming in. Edward needed, like Philip VI, to resort to heavy borrowing, necessarily from his own subjects. The year 1346 saw the final collapse of the Bardi Bank in Florence, a dreadful warning to any foreign financier who might have thought of lending money to the English government without security. The King began with the Church. Ninety rich ecclesiastics were assessed in February 1346 for forced loans amounting to nearly £15,000. The towns were also assessed for loans by a process of haggling case by case. Edward proceeded more brutally against others. Foreign clergymen beneficed in England, hardly any of whom resided there, were an unpopular and vulnerable group, in England as in France. Their agents and receivers were summoned before the Council early in March and invited to contribute a whole year’s income to the English war effort. When they refused, Edward told them that he would take it anyway. The proceeds were farmed out for ready money to a syndicate of financiers controlled by John Wesenham, a wholesale grocer from Lynn who had also been for some time the farmer of the customs. Men of his kind were unpopular, but they were enjoying growing influence and power in Edward’s realm as the King’s ambitions and needs expanded. In May, another syndicate of equally shadowy men, led by two London merchants, Walter Chiriton and Thomas Swanland, began to lend money to the government on an even larger scale than Wesenham in return for a promise that they should be allowed to take the Customs over from him in the autumn. They raised the necessary funds from businessmen in London, York and other towns, an expanding network of financial dealingsreaching into the English provinces and swelling, like the efforts of the purveyor, the tax collector and the recruiting officer, the numbers drawn into the support of Edward’s campaigns.2

Money was only part of Edward’s problem and not even the greater part. It was in fact cheaper for him to fight with his own subjects than to pay the Duke of Brabant and his like to fight with theirs, provided that the formidable administrative difficulties could be overcome. The English King seems to have envisaged an invasion force of between 15,000 and 20,000 men. This was not only four or five times the number which had crossed to the Low Countries in 1338. It was more than Edward III had previously recruited even for service against the Scots. To raise them he embarked on a controversial experiment in compulsory military service which had been in preparation for some time. During the previous year the government had had a census of lay landowners carried out. They were classified by income from £5 a year upwards. A £5 man was assessed to serve as a mounted archer, a £10 man as a hobelar, a £25 man as a man-at-arms, a £1,000 man as the leader of forty men-at-arms and so on. The ostensible purpose of this exercise had been to update the ancient and rusty system of recruiting troops for the defence of the realm against invasion. But in February 1346 the government went a step further, as perhaps they had always intended. They demanded service in accordance with the assessment not only in the defence of the realm against invasion but in the army overseas. Those who would not, or for their age or infirmity could not, go abroad were made to find substitutes or pay a fine in lieu. It was a radical break with past practice. Compulsion had hitherto had only a limited place in the manning of Edward’s armies and among the men-at-arms none at all, one of the reasons why opposition to the war had been restrained and brief.3

The compulsory purchase of stores during the winter of 1345–6 was the largest exercise of its kind that the English government had carried out. Some thousands of new, white-painted bows and tens of thousands of sheaves of arrows were requisitioned by the sheriffs’ agents and collected at central stores in the Tower of London, Greenwich and elsewhere. Quivers, nails, rope and chain, loading ramps and horse pens were all required in quantity. The major enterprise, however, was the collection of victuals: meat, poultry, grain, vegetables and fodder. The accounts, which survive only in part, reveal something of its scale. In Yorkshire alone ten mounted men were engaged in assessing, buying and collecting victuals, delivering debentures or occasionally cash in payment. There were seven collection points at which the goods were taken off carts to be packed into barrels and loaded into barges for carriage by river to Hull. Outside Hull, two mills continuously ground the corn into flour. Warehouses were hired. Clerks prepared inventories and receipts. Stevedores laboured to fill up coasters hired by the Admiral of the north. Hull handled the output of only four counties: Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. Similar operations were taking place in almost every other county of central and southern England. From Boston, Lynn, Maldon, London, Sandwich and Bristol small vessels ferried supplies round the coast to the embarkation port of the army at Portsmouth. The whole operation was completed with remarkable speed and success. Indeed, more food was supplied than the army could eat before it soured or rotted. Some of it had to be brought back from France and sold off as surplus later in the year.4

In spite of the burden which the English were being asked to bear resistance was muted. There was a barrage of propaganda. From January 1346 onwards Englishmen were warned in proclamations and officially inspired sermons about the French King’s determination to reject every offer that might be made to him, about his incitement of the Scots, and about his aggressive designs against the language and life of the English nation. The news of Philip VI’s naval plans was broadcast across the realm as soon as it was received.5 Whether this was taken at face value it is difficult to say. Probably by most people it was, and without doubt it softened the impact of fresh burdens and hardships by persuading Englishmen to look upon the war as part of the ordinary condition of life, something which most Frenchmen could still not bring themselves to do even in 1346. Adequate harvests during the mid-1340s made the government’s task easier. Parliament, which was the natural focus of resistance, did not meet in 1346 until September. By then victory had to some extent disarmed criticism. It is unlikely that Edward would have got away with so much if the military tide had not turned in his favour.

Neither the target for recruitment nor the King’s ambitious timetable was achieved. The ships requisitioned in the previous year were supposed to be at Portsmouth by the middle of February 1346. Few of them were. Great storms lashed the south coast of England. The vessels that were on their way were scattered. Others were imprisoned in their ports. But even if they had all arrived there would not have been enough. To transport in one crossing the enlarged army which was now envisaged would have required at least 1,500 ships, which was probably more than the entire English merchant marine could furnish. There was a fresh round of requisitions in March. The traditional limitation to vessels over 30 or 40 tons’ burden had to be abandoned. The requisitioning officers were told that anything better than a fishing smack would do, even if it carried only 10 tons. The date of sailing was put off from 1 March to 1 May 1346, then to 15 May.6

The army which was to fill these ships took even longer to raise. Some of the troops, particularly the Welsh archers and spearmen who were recruited in larger numbers than ever before, refused to move from their homes until they had been paid their advances. A significant number of those who were recruited according to the new census of landed income turned out to be infirm, unfit or inadequately armed. They had to be sent home to find substitutes.7 In March and April the recruiting programme was severely disrupted by fresh threats to the security of England, from the Scots and from French naval activity. Neither of these appears to have been taken into account when the plans were laid. In the case of the Scots it was decided at a fairly early stage to run risks. The counties north of the Humber were left to defend themselves in the ordinary way with their own manpower and with only limited financial assistance from the royal treasury. The border lords, Lucy, Neville, Percy, Segrave, Mowbray and others agreed to expand their military retinues. Plans were made to raise the county levies at short notice. On 27 March 1346 the clergy and nobility of the north gathered at York to hear the King’s representatives expound his plans and promise a small contribution to their cost, half the proceeds of the Parliamentary subsidy in the northern counties. Even that had to be found out of a budget already committed to operations elsewhere. The threat to the coast of southern England, although it was much exaggerated, was taken more seriously. Beacons appeared once more on hill tops. Commanders were appointed in every coastal district. All those living within 15 miles of the coast were placed at their disposal, instead of being available for the expedition to France. These measures alone must have deprived Edward III of several thousand men. From one cause or another he raised only about half of the army that he conceived was needed, and only just enough ships to carry even those, late, across the Channel.8


The King went to great lengths to hide his plans from the French. There had been a general arrest of French traders in England in the autumn of 1345. The ports were watched. Newgate prison was once again packed with aliens who had aroused suspicion for one reason or another. But effective concealment was out of the question. The scale of the King’s preparations made them impossible to hide, and his timetable was known all over England, where in every county purveyors and recruiting officers were struggling to keep to it. Moreover, Edward’s plans had to some extent to be shared with the Flemings, whose role was to launch diversionary attacks from the north. Flanders was full of French spies. Some of them penetrated into England, passing themselves off as Flemings and picking up valuable gossip in London. In the middle of February 1346 the French government received a ‘vivid’ report of the proceedings at Edward’s Great Council at Westminster on the 3rd and the state of preparations at Portsmouth.9

What they did not learn until a very late stage was the destination of Edward’s great expedition. Edward himself changed his mind more than once, and if he talked about it to his friends and lieutenants, he did so discreetly. Not only did the King avoid announcing his plans (as he had usually done in previous years) but judging by the silence of the administrative records he said nothing to those who were to execute them until the last moment. The probability is that he originally intended to land in Brittany. But this idea must have been abandoned at an early stage. Edward was losing interest in Brittany, partly because the political possibilities appeared to have been exhausted there, partly because the Earl of Northampton had failed to capture any significant place along the north coast during the winter. In January 1346, the Earl was recalled to England to attend to greater things. For some time the King appears to have kept all his options before deciding in about April or May 1346 that he would proceed to Gascony. This decision was probably made in the short-lived mood of alarm in Bordeaux and Westminster which followed the arrival of the Duke of Normandy’s legions in the Garonne valley. Edward had obligations to the Earl of Lancaster. He had promised that if the Earl were ‘attacked by so great an army that he cannot survive without help from the King, then the King shall rescue him in one way or another if he can’.10

The French government seems to have assumed that Edward would land somewhere in Brittany or Gascony, where he already had secure bases, although whether this was knowledge or guesswork is hard to say. Their assessment of the position was reflected in the disposition of their troops. They kept most of the men that they had mustered and all their most experienced commanders on the southern front. They left the defence of Brittany to Charles of Blois. But he was allowed to recruit heavily among the French nobility; he was also spending large sums of money in hiring mercenaries beyond France’s frontiers, much of which is likely to have come from the royal treasury. In May, Philip VI went further and sent him some powerful infantry contingents form the seneschalsies of Béziers and Carcassonne which had been withdrawn from the army of the Duke of Normandy.11

North of the Breton peninsula the only troops available were coastguards thinly stretched from Mont-Saint-Michel to Calais, and garrison troops in the major towns by the coast and along the Flemish border. They were stiffened by large numbers of Genoese crossbowmen who began to arrive in April and May. There were some crude attempts to fortify the coast. The entrances to the main harbours were obstructed with wooden piles. But the French could hardly construct an Atlantic Wall. If the English tried to land in the north-east of France it would be up to the French war fleet to stop them.

Philip VI had an altogether exaggerated idea of what armed ships could achieve against a seaborne invasion. He might perhaps have learned from his own successes against the south coast of England in the late 1330s that the very limited techniques of reconnaissance and navigation available to his seamen made it virtually impossible to intercept a hostile fleet at sea. One needed to blockade it in its ports of embarkation or to have precise information about its destination. Nevertheless, an attempt was made. A census of merchant shipping in the French Channel ports was begun at the end of March 1346. The larger ships were requisitioned and elaborately fitted out with castellated wooden superstructures. At least seventy-eight ships were made ready in Lower Normandy alone. In Upper Normandy and Picardy, which were more important shipping centres, there must have been more. In the event they were never used. The reason was that the French plan of defence called for them to serve as auxiliaries of Grimaldi’s galleys, with Genoese officers and crossbowmen on board. But the galley fleet of 1346, like that of 1338, arrived too late. These low-freeboard vessels could not cross the Bay of Biscay until May, and they were not due to reach Boulogne according to their contracts until the 20th. In the event Grimaldi did not leave Nice until 6 May and the other galley masters were later still. Thereafter every possible delay befell them. They paused to plunder shipping off Majorca. They were scattered by Atlantic storms. They took refuge in the mouth of the Tagus. They were still there in the first week of July.12

During the weeks in which the French waited for the invasion, things began to go badly wrong on both of the principal fronts on which their troops were operating.

In Brittany a succession of defeats encouraged the myth of English invincibility. There were some incidents in the Tréguier peninsula, the work of Richard Totesham and his garrison at La Roche-Derrien. They raided and sacked the town of Lannion by night, carrying off valuable stores and prisoners. The event was famous for the heroic defence of a single French knight, Geoffrey de Pont-Blanc, who awoke to find the enemy already inside the gates and blocked a narrow street, fighting them off with his sword and lance, and then with his bare hands until they shot him with an arrow and clubbed him to death on the ground. One of Charles of Blois’ lieutenants attempted to intercept Totesham’s men as they returned to La Roche-Derrien. But his force, although it was much larger than Totesham’s, was ambushed in the marshland south of the town and driven off with heavy losses.13

It was shortly after these catfights that Charles Blois began his major offensive of the summer. According to English sources (which may have exaggerated his strength), Charles now had a substantial army under his command. It included his vassals among the nobility of northern and eastern Brittany with their retainers, and a large number of mercenaries from the Imperial territories of Frisia, Burgundy and Savoy, as well as the Genoese crossbowmen of Ayton Doria and the infantry contingents which had recently arrived from Languedoc. With some of these forces he proceeded to lay siege to three of the principal English garrisons, at Brest, Lesneven and La Roche-Derrien. Then, gathering the main body of his army around him, he conducted a sweep across the north coast. The English garrisons in Brittany had received no significant reinforcements for some time and their total strength probably amounted to no more than a few hundred men. There were disturbing indications that some of their Breton allies were reading the signs and preparing to abandon them, setting up as independent captains or selling their loyalty and their strongholds to Charles of Blois. It was the most serious threat to the English position in the duchy since 1342.

It came to an abrupt and unexpected end. The English deputy lieutenant in Brittany, Sir Thomas Dagworth, had decided to leave the beleaguered towns to be defended by their commanders while he made a rapid tour of the other English strongholds in the peninsula and saw to their security. He had with him no more than a strong escort: eighty men-at-arms and a hundred archers. On 9 June 1346, shortly after dawn, he was suddenly confronted by Charles of Blois and his army in northern Finistère, near Saint-Pol de Léon. His men were trapped and forced to fight it out against an overwhelmingly superior force. They dug themselves in on the summit of a hill and, although surrounded on three sides, fought off their assailants until nightfall. The French attacked them on foot with dismounted men-at-arms, crossbowmen and some of the men of Languedoc, a tribute to the influence of English battle tactics which Charles of Blois learned to imitate long before any other French commander. The last and strongest assault on the English lines, which was led by Charles himself, came in the early evening and failed. He was forced to retreat as darkness fell, leaving many of his men dead or wounded on the hillside. The Picard knight Guillaume (‘Le Galois’) de la Heuse, who led the first attack, was said to have promised to bring Dagworth trussed up into the French camp. He was disabled and captured. After the battle a roll-call showed that all the English men-at-arms had survived. But almost every one of them was wounded, some seriously. ‘I commend my troops to you,’ Dagworth wrote in his report to the King; ‘you will not find better men in all your realm.’14

At Aiguillon there was no progress at all. In spite of their numbers and their great field works and river barriers, the Duke of Normandy’s men could not even seal off the town. Small groups of English and Gascon men-at-arms got in by stealth, bringing supplies with them. One intrepid Gascon made several round trips. In July a detachment of the Earl of Lancaster’s army fought its way through the French lines with victuals for the garrison. Evidently there was concern about its ability to hold out, or desperate enterprises like these would not have been attempted. But their situation was, as it turned out, rather better than that of the besiegers. The Duke of Normandy had to feed at least ten times the numbers of the garrison and townsmen of Aiguillon combined, probably more when camp followers were included. As the Bishop of Beauvais had discovered in 1339, when he had tried to take Bordeaux, a large besieging army is rooted to the spot and cannot live off the land for more than a short time. The circle round the French army from which supplies had to be drawn expanded steadily as they exhausted those which could be had close at hand. To the north and west, foraging was made difficult by the tight ring of English-held castles in southern Périgord and the lower Garonne valley. French purveyors were requisitioning herds of cattle in the Aubrac hills of southern Auvergne, some 200 miles away by road, and in the Pyrenean foothills of Béarn, one of the sparsest regions of France. The whole of the seneschalsy of Toulouse was stripped, according to its disgruntled inhabitants, of grain, wine and foodstuffs for the use of the army. Even so, the besiegers began to suffer from hunger and from that other great scourge of medieval military encampments, dysentery. The Earl of Lancaster moved from Bordeaux to La Réole with his army, harassing the enemy’s lines of communication, killing foragers and messengers, seizing cart-trains and falling on detached groups of French soldiers.

The besiegers switched the main thrust of their attack from the southern side of the town to the older and lower north wall by the Lot. A scheme was devised for assaulting the northern citadel from three specially constructed wooden towers mounted on barges. It was a failure. On the day fixed for the attack one of the towers was struck by a stone from a trebuchet as it was being manoeuvred across the river. It capsized, drowning all its occupants. The others were withdrawn.15


Edward III had been at Porchester since 1 June 1346. He could now look out from the old twelfth-century keep across the enclosed water of Portsmouth harbour, where his fleet was assembling, more than a month late. The army was encamped about the harbour and along the Winchester and London roads. By the end of the month there were about 750 ships in the harbour according to the most reliable estimate, ranging from coastal barges to cogs of 200 tons. The combined carrying capacity of these ships suggests an army of between 7,000 and 10,000 men. Judging by the King’s orders to his recruiting officers, archers accounted for more than half of them. There were specialists and camp followers: miners from the Forest of Dean to work as sappers, masons, smiths and farriers, engineers, carpenters and tent-makers, surgeons, several dozen officials, clerks and household servants. The men were paid up to date and for another fortnight in advance. The ships were victualled for two weeks, the length of the passage to Gascony.16

They were not destined to go to Gascony. The King changed his mind and decided instead to land in northern France. It was generally believed at the time that this decision was made at the last moment, when the army was already embarked and on the point of going to sea. But the probability is that it was in fact made earlier, at a secret meeting of the King’s closest military advisers on about 20 June. Edward Ill’s new plan was to invade the Cotentin peninsula of southern Normandy. Jean le Bel and Froissart after him attributed the decision to the influence of Godfrey of Harcourt, who was certainly with the King at Porchester.

The country of Normandy is one of the most plenteous countries of the world [Froissart has the old traitor say]; Sire, in jeopardy of my head if you will land there there is none that shall resist you. The people of Normandy have so far had no experience of war, and all the chivalry of France is gathered outside Aiguillon with the Duke. And Sire, there you shall find great towns without walls where your men shall have riches to last them twenty years.

The thought, if Godfrey ever uttered it, can hardly have come as a revelation to the English King. An invasion of Normandy had been discussed as one of a number of possibilities ever since the outbreak of the war. It had been Edward’s preferred point of entry into France in 1337, before he was drawn by his allies into the scheme for invading by the Scheldt valley from Brabant. He had made occasional attempts to stir up trouble in Normandy long before he met Godfrey of Harcourt. The main reasons for choosing the Cotentin in 1346 were probably that it was the closest landfall to Portsmouth and that the winds were blowing from the west. Edward must have remembered the long delays which the weather had forced on him in 1342 when he invaded Brittany and the even longer ones which had held up the Earl of Lancaster in 1345. But Godfrey may well have had something to do with the new plan even if he did not devise it. It was true that the region was virtually undefended, something which he is likely to have known. It was his home country and he spoke for some significant men there. Godfrey no doubt exaggerated their numbers.17

In order to increase the impact of the invasion and divide the forces of the French it was proposed to stage a noisy diversion on France’s northern frontier. Hugh Hastings, an enterprising and ambitious Norfolk knight who had recently returned from Gascony, was appointed as Edward’s lieutenant and commander in Flanders on 20 June 1346. He was assigned as assistants John Montgomery and John Moleyns, old hands in the affairs of Flanders, and a devious adventurer called John Mautravers who was believed to have been one of those responsible for the murder of Edward II and who had for some years unofficially represented Edward III’s interests in Ghent. These men were provided with eighteen barges, 250 archers and a handful of men-at-arms and told to leave for the Low Countries at once. Edward had been working on the Flemings. The representatives of the three great towns deliberated, first at Bruges then at Ghent. On 24 June, while Hastings was in the midst of his preparations, they agreed to give the English King all the help he needed.18

Edward III made no secret of Hugh Hastings’ destination, but his own was still wrapped in secrecy. His Chancery was informed only that the King would go where God’s grace and the caprice of the winds might take him. The masters of his ships were given sealed orders to be opened only if the fleet was scattered by the winds. Until then they were to follow the admirals. Instructions were given early in July 1346 to close the port of London, which was believed to be full of French spies, as well as those of Dover, Winchelsea and Sandwich. No one of whatever rank or status was to be allowed to leave the country until a week after the sailing of the fleet except Hugh Hastings, and he was to have his men searched in case they were carrying indiscreet papers about them.19

How much information reached the French government cannot be known. But they certainly learned something in the last ten days of June 1346, for at about that time there was a sudden panic about the security of the north. Towards the end of the month the Constable was recalled from Aiguillon with part of the army of the Duke of Normandy. He was put in command of Harfleur at the mouth of the Seine. The Count of Flanders was sent to join him there. The Marshals seem to have been recalled from the south at the same time. Artillery and equipment were delivered to the garrisons of Leure, Étretat and Chef-de-Caux. All this suggested that they were expecting a descent in northern Normandy. But they took precautions everywhere along the coast. All the local men of military age were called to arms. At about the same time summonses were issued for the recruitment of a fresh army for the defence of the north.20

In these straits, Philip VI turned to Scotland. ‘In Scotland,’ the English Chancellor had told Parliament two years before, ‘they are saying quite openly that they will break the truces as soon as our adversary [of France] desires, and will march against England doing all the damage in their power.’ The Scots did not break the truces. But they began to mass by the border as soon as they learned that Edward had broken them. The English believed that they were deliberately acting in concert with the French government and they were probably right. Fighting against the English was one of the few unifying factors in Scotch politics. For David II it was a source of plunder to restore his impoverished treasury, a chance to shine before friends and rivals older and more experienced than himself, as well as a long-standing obligation owed by treaty to France. Nevertheless, the raids of the Scots, however damaging to the three northern counties, had so far achieved no significant diversion of resources from Edward’s continental adventures. David’s invasion of the north in October 1345 had lasted only six days before his men exhausted the more accessible sources of loot and returned home.21 It is almost certain that Philip VI had been pressing for a more sustained campaign in the north. In June 1346 the French King’s pleas took on a note of desperation as English troops gathered around Portsmouth and hints of their destination began to escape: ‘I beg you, I implore you with all the force I can, to remember the bonds of blood and friendship between us. Do for me what I would willingly do for you in such a crisis, and do it as quickly and thoroughly as with God’s help you are able.’22

As at similar moments in 1340 and 1342 Philip brooded on real or imaginary betrayals. The cause célèbre of these months was the case of a rich citizen of Compiègne, Simon Pouillet, denounced by a relative for declaring at his dinner table that it was ‘better to be well governed by an Englishman than badly by a Frenchman’. Pouillet was dismembered with a meat axe in Les Halles in Paris. The event marked a new degree of savagery in the official treatment of traitors, even if they offended only by word of mouth and in private. ‘Of such shameful death’, a loyal Frenchman wrote about it, ‘all France might say as our Lord did: “now begins the time of our sufferings”.’23


Edward III boarded his own ship and sailed out of Portsmouth on 28 June 1346. For several days the wind impeded every movement of his fleet. He made his way west along the coast of the Isle of Wight until he reached Yarmouth. Here it was necessary to stop and wait for the other ships to tack through the channel and catch up. Then, when they had all arrived, the wind changed. The whole mass of shipping made its way back along the Solent and reassembled between Portsmouth and the Forland. Two weeks were lost. It was not until 11 July 1346 that they sailed south for Normandy in perfect conditions of wind and tide. The Genoese fleet was still several days’ passage south of La Rochelle. The merchantmen which the French government had armed lay beached in their harbours. Before dawn on 12 July 1346 the English fleet anchored off the great open beach south of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue (next to ‘Utah Beach’ of 1944).24

If there had been any serious resistance on the beaches it would probably have been impossible to land. But there was none. The main French forces in Normandy were north of the Seine. The senior representatives of the King in southern Normandy were the Marshal, Robert Bertrand, who was captain of the ‘sea frontier’ there, and various officials of the baillages of Cotentin and Caen.25 They had only very limited forces at their disposal. A troop of Genoese crossbowmen which had been stationed at La Hougue since the end of April had deserted for want of pay only three days earlier. Bertrand had summoned all local men of military age to present their arms and equipment district by district. By coincidence the inspection of the district of La Hougue was to take place on the very day that the English arrived. It had to be abandoned. The local inhabitants had vanished into the woods and marshes as soon as they saw the English fleet stretched out across the bay. As the news spread towns, villages and manors were abandoned for 20 miles around. La Hougue itself was completely deserted. Eleven ships, including eight which had been armed for its defence, were lying unattended on the beach. The English burned them. Robert Bertrand hovered all day behind the town, struggling to find able-bodied men to resist. During the morning he managed to gather some 300 men about him and made a brief attack on the beach. But the English must have had several thousand men ashore, including seamen, by this time and Bertrand’s men were driven off. Most of them deserted him soon afterwards.

At about mid-day Edward III landed with his attendants and climbed a hill by the shore. There he knighted many of the young noblemen of this army. They included his sixteen-year-old son, the Prince of Wales; William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, the son of the man who had planned his coup d’état of 1330; and Roger Mortimer, the grandson of its main victim. Godfrey of Harcourt did homage to the King for his possessions in Normandy. Robert Bertrand, his long-standing rival, retreated southward towards Carentan with the handful of men, about thirty, who remained at his side.

On the first day of the invasion, Edward issued a proclamation ‘out of compassion for the wretched fate of … his people of France’ commanding that no one should molest any old man, woman or child, or rob any church or shrine, or burn any building on pain of death or mutilation. A reward of forty shillings was offered to anyone who found men disregarding these orders and brought them before the King’s officers. It was a dead letter from the beginning. The Constable and the Marshal of the army were responsible for discipline, and they maintained deputies and drumhead courts for dealing with looters, brawlers and insubordinates.26 But without any clear chain of command it was quite impossible for them to control the formless mass of men about them. From a hill overlooking La Hougue the King could see for himself the bursts of flame spreading outward across the country, slowly coalescing into a radiant red ring round the horizon and lighting up men’s faces at night. On 13 July, La Hougue itself was burned. The King was forced to abandon his quarters there and move to an inn at the nearby village of Morsalines. On the 14th the first English raiding parties reached Barfleur, the main harbour of the district, from which the invasion fleet of William the Conqueror had set out three centuries before. They found only a few men there, whom they took for ransom, and more armed ships abandoned by the shore, which they burned. The mobs of seamen which followed on their heels looted the place so thoroughly that ships’ boys were reported to be turning their noses up at fur coats. Then they reduced the whole town to ashes. In the country around there was only isolated and uncoordinated resistance. The Earl of Warwick and his men were ambushed as they took over an inn by a group of local men who had hidden in the woods nearby. Occasionally some villagers came out of hiding to resist the plunderers. Most of them were killed. Within a day of two all those who were capable of carrying arms had withdrawn to the nearest walled towns. Refugees filled the roads south.

It took five days to rest the army, disembark the horses and discharge the enormous quantity of stores from the ships. On 17 July the King’s Council drew up a plan of campaign. They intended to march along the coast towards Rouen, then to invade the Ile de France by the valley of the Seine. Three divisions were formed. The Prince of Wales took command of the van with the earls of Northampton and Warwick to guide him. The command of the rear was given to the Bishop of Durham, the magnificent and worldly Thomas Hatfield (‘I should promote a jackass if the King nominated one,’ Clement VI was supposed to have said when appointing him). Edward himself took command of the centre. 200 ships of the fleet, presumably the larger ones, were chosen to pace the army along the coast. The rest were sent back to England.

The fleet began by sailing north around the Cape of Barfleur, passing from village to village, landing their crews and destroying everything within 5 miles of the coast. At Cherbourg the garrison of the castle held out, the only one in the Cotentin which stayed at its post. But the town was destroyed. The abbey of Notre-Dame du Voeu, a foundation of Henry I’s daughter Matilda, was burned by Englishmen for the third time in half a century.27

The army moved out of its encampment on 18 July 1346 and marched toward Valognes, a market town 10 miles inland across a windy expanse of coastal marshland. Valognes was an open town, its walls unmanned, its castle ungarrisoned and its gates open. The population came out to meet the King on the road. They asked for nothing more than their lives. Edward reissued his proclamation safeguarding the lives and property of the Normans, and took possession of the town, installing himself in a manor house of the Duke of Normandy. But the army helped themselves to what they wanted, and on the following morning, when they marched south by the Rouen road, they left the town in flames,

Philip VI had no army to challenge the English in pitched battle but only scattered coastguards and garrisons. The Duke of Normandy’s troops were still in the south, clinging to their dwindling chances of capturing Aiguillon. The government’s military summonses of June could not possibly produce an army of any size before the beginning of August. The great nightmare which had justified the premature termination of every campaign in Gascony since 1337 had finally come about. In the second half of July all the efforts of the French were bent towards delaying the progress of the invaders while a force was collected which was strong enough to confront them. The plan was to stop the English at Caen, which was the largest walled town west of Rouen. The River Orne, on which the town stood, was probably the best natural line of defence before the Seine. This decision appears to have been taken on his own initiative by the Constable, Raoul II, Count of Eu, who commanded the largest concentration of troops in Normandy. He transferred his entire force by boat from Harfleur to Caen as soon as the news of the English landings reached him. The Chamberlain, Jean de Melun, lord of Tancarville, joined him. The royal Council endorsed the decision later. During the next fortnight every available man was sent to reinforce them and great stores of victuals were accumulated in the castle.28 The Orne from Caen to Ouistrehan was clogged with ships and barges carrying supplies and reinforcements. Robert Bertrand struggled to gain time for these preparations to be completed. He did not have enough troops to defend every place in the English King’s path. But garrisons were left in some of the citadels, and Robert himself retreated steadily before the English army with his small force of locally recruited troops, harassing them where he could and breaking every bridge after he had crossed it.

Hugh Hastings and his men arrived in Flanders on about 21 July 1346. The purpose of his mission was already known to the French ministers, and spies set to watch for his landing dispatched the news post-haste to France.29 Part of the French army was instructed to assemble at Amiens to hold the line of the Somme against the Flemings and their English auxiliaries. The rest was directed to Rouen. Philip VI himself went to Saint-Denis, where he received the Oriflamme on 22 July 1346. He set out with his entourage on a slow progress down the Seine valley. Small groups of confused troops arrived daily to swell his numbers. Philip wrote his second letter to David II of Scotland in little more than a month. ‘The English King’, he said, ‘has landed in the Cotentin … He has most of his army with him there, another division in Gascony and yet others in Flanders and Brittany.’ From these menaces, Philip took refuge in fantasy. In England, he told David, there was a ‘defenceless void’. If the Scots invaded the north of England, surely Edward III would abandon his campaign and return with all his men across the Channel. When that happened, Philip declared, he would embark his own army in the French Channel ports and lead them into England behind the retreating King. ‘I implore you to remember our friendship and our treaties and to strike as hard at England as you can.’30

The Scots hardly needed Philip VI’s lessons on strategy. The defence of the northern march of England was in disarray, as anyone could see. The guardians of the march had very few troops. The government’s promises to assign tax revenue in their favour had not been honoured. The garrison of Berwick and many of the retained men stationed on the border were threatening to desert. There was a gloomy and acrimonious meeting between representatives of the government and the leading barons of the north on 17 July 1346. One of them pointed to the terms of his indenture and said ‘curtly’ that he would march away at once if he was not paid in accordance with its terms. The Scots had already begun to mass on the border at the end of June, and in July they started to raid Cumberland. But they were not yet ready for the major invasion of England which Philip required and their leaders were rent by private feuds. Percy and Neville attacked the raiders and pursued them into lowland Scotland. At the end of July a brief truce was agreed until 29 September.31


Robert Bertrand’s strategic retreat from the Cotentin went badly from the beginning. The English army reached Saint-Côme-du-Mont by the River Douve on the evening of 19 July. Beyond Saint-Côme lay a vast marsh which, until the drainage works of the eighteenth century, extended as far as Carentan (2 miles away) and beyond Carentan for 5 or 6 miles towards Bayeux to the east and Saint-Lo to the south-east. The bridge had been broken, but the carpenters rebuilt it during the night and the whole of the army passed unimpeded across the river on the following day. Beyond the river the soldiers had to pick their way in single file along a narrow path with water on both sides. No attempt was made to defend the approaches of the town or to challenge the vulnerable files of English soldiers. When they reached the castle it was promptly surrendered by two Norman knights of the garrison, protégés of Godfrey of Harcourt who had been in the pay of the English for a long time.32 Edward III was unable to restrain his raw troops. Much of the great store of food which was found there was pillaged. Even more of it was wantonly destroyed. In spite of the King’s express orders the town was burned as the soldiers left it. ‘Not a man or woman of substance dared to wait in the towns and castles or in the country around,’ Bartholomew Burghersh wrote back to England; ‘wherever our army appeared they fled away.’ Only the common people stayed behind. Most of them were cut down in the streets and houses.

24 The English army in northern France, July-September 1346

From Carentan the English did not proceed eastward towards Bayeux and Caen, as perhaps they had been expected to. They followed the narrow causeway which passed south through the marsh towards Saint-Lô. The bridges were intact here until they reached the River Vire at Pont-Hébert, about 4 miles before Saint-Lô. At first Robert Bertrand intended to make a stand on the Vire. He broke the bridge at Pont-Hébert and put all his men into Saint-Lô. The citizens co-operated with enthusiasm, manning the walls and filling the breaches left by more than a century of peace. Unfortunately, no attempt was made to defend the crossing of the river. The Prince of Wales, who reached Pont-Hébert first on 21 July, had the bridge repaired and crossed it with his men on the following day. Once the English had established themselves on the east bank of the river Bertrand changed his mind and gave up the defence of Saint-Lô as hopeless. He retreated along the Caen road as the English took possession of the town without striking a blow. Over the main gate they found the skulls of the three Norman knights who had been captured fighting for Edward III in Brittany in 1343 and executed for treason, the source of one of Edward’s bitterest complaints against the French King. Saint-Lô was a rich town, the major market of the Cotentin and an important cloth-making centre. There was an orgy of theft and destruction. Great quantities of food, cloth and money, and several hundred barrels of wine were looted. Robert Bertrand’s sudden failure of nerve had left the inhabitants no time to escape. The richest were taken for ransom. The others were killed.

Between Saint-Lô and Caen, a distance of about 40 miles on the ground, the English passed through some of the richest country in France, difficult country for an army on the march, with its warrens of narrow, sunken paths, but dense with signs of Normandy’s agricultural wealth: farms, orchards, cattle and horses. The soldiers spread out, burning a swathe of land between 12 and 15 miles wide. What Edward’s soldiers did to the Cotentin and the southern Bessin regardless of his orders, the seamen of his fleet did to the villages of the coast by deliberate policy. Their object was to do as much damage as possible to the communities which sustained French seapower in the Channel. One of Edward’s clerks, Michael Northburgh, estimated that everything had been destroyed or carried off within 5 miles of the sea from Cherbourg to the mouth of the Orne at Ouistrehan. They burned more than a hundred ships, including sixty-one which the French had fortified for war service. So much spoil was taken into the holds of the English ships that many of them could carry no more. The masters began to desert in large numbers, making their way back to England to land their prizes at home.33

On 25 July 1346 the English army was encamped about 10 miles west of Caen around the small Cistercian priory of Fontenay-le-Pesnel. Inside Caen there were high feelings among the soldiers and officials. They knew about the devastation which the enemy had left behind them and could see for themselves from their quarters in the castle the mass of refugees crammed with their carts and animals in the streets and spaces below. In the evening an English friar arrived with letters of Edward III summoning the town to surrender. The citizens were promised their lives, their goods and their homes. But the council of the garrison rejected Edward’s demands out of hand. The Bishop of Bayeux, who was presiding, tore up the letters and had the messenger thrown in prison.

Caen was the largest town of Normandy after Rouen, with a population in normal times of between 8,000 and 10,000 people. It was set on low, marshy ground among the branches of the Orne and Odon rivers, which separated and coalesced in a lacework pattern of islands as they approached the sea. The huge mass of William the Conqueror’s castle occupied a position of great natural strength. But the old town beneath it was weak. Its fixed defences consisted of low walls of the eleventh century, incomplete, unmaintained and in places crumbling away. The modern Boulevard du Maréchal Leclerc follows the dried-out course of the River Odon which in 1346 flowed by the south wall of the town. South of the Odon, unwalled but entirely enclosed by water, lay the Ile Saint-Jean, the richest and most populous suburb of Caen, which extended from the church of St Pierre to the River Orne along the axis of the rue Exmoisine (now the rue Saint-Jean). The suburb was connected to the town by a large fortified bridge over the River Odon. The two great foundations of the Conquerer, the Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames, both lay outside the town, surrounded by their own walls. Those of the Abbaye aux Hommes had been constructed very recently, a rare display of foresight by one of the richest churches of western France. But it was wasted, for there were not enough men to defend it.34 Both foundations had to be abandoned to the enemy. Inside Caen the Count of Eu and the lord of Tancarville had between 1,000 and 1,500 men, including several hundred  Genoese crossbowmen. The inhabitants armed themselves as best they could. The garrison had passed some days in strengthening the walls on the north and west sides with trenches and palisades. The south wall had been reinforced by mooring thirty ships and barges along the banks of the Odon and posting archers on their decks.

25 Caen

On the following morning, 26 July 1346, the English army appeared over the brow of the low ridge surrounding the town, a crowded mass of lances and standards. It was about nine o’clock. They had marched since before dawn, spread out across a front several miles wide and preceded by their camp followers to make them seem more numerous than they really were. Their arrival, although it had been expected for several days, caused a great commotion in the town and an abrupt change in the arrangements for its defence. Instead of fighting at the walls and gates of the old town the Count of Eu and the lord of Tancarville now decided to abandon it and instead to defend the suburb on the He Saint-Jean. There may have been sound military reasons for this remarkable change of mind, but it is more likely to have been forced on the commanders by the townsmen. Their assistance was essential. Most of them had their homes and wealth on the island. So about 200 men-at-arms and 100 Genoese crossbowmen were left in the castle under the command of the Bishop of Bayeux. The commanders then withdrew across the Pont-Saint-Pierre onto the island, bringing with them the remainder of the garrison and the population of the old town. The island was very weak. Its only fixed defences were the line of ships and barges along the Odon, and the Pont-Saint-Pierre, which was fortified on the wrong side. An improvised barricade was thrown out to hold the unfortified north side of the gate against the enemy. On the south and east, the suburb was protected only by the branches of the rivers. Unfortunately, it had been a dry summer and the water level was low.

The attack began earlier than either side had expected. The Prince of Wales led his men round the north of the town and encamped by the deserted buildings of the Abbaye aux Dames. Suddenly, some of them seized one of the western gates of the old town. The Earl of Warwick rushed through the gate into the empty streets with a few men-at-arms and a troop of archers. He was followed by the Earl of Northampton and Richard Talbot, leading a disorderly mob of men. When they reached the church of St Peter and the bridge beyond, some of them began to fire the houses about while others rushed to the barricades in front of the bridge and engaged the French troops in hand-to-hand fighting. Within a short time almost all the French garrison were crammed into the small space behind the bridge, supported by townsmen armed with building timbers and any other weapons that they could find, while more and more English and Welsh joined in the fighting on the other side. Edward III, who had encamped with the greater part of the army at the opposite end of the town, was alarmed to see an assault developing before he had had time to concentrate his men. He ordered the Earl of Warwick, who was the Marshal of the host, to sound the retreat. But the signal was ignored. Warwick, unable to break off the fight, threw himself into the thick of it instead. The battle spread from the bridge along the line of the river. The archers and Welsh lancers tried to wade across in the face of concentrated fire from the crossbowmen on the boats. When they reached the line of boats they set fire to two of them and clambered on board the others, fighting their way over the top of the vessels and on to the river bank on the far side. The French line of defence along the river failed at several points. As the defenders fell back the troops at the bridge, who were still holding, found themselves outflanked and attacked from behind. They included most of the men-at-arms of the garrison and all the commanders. A few, including Robert Bertrand, managed to flee into the old town and found sanctuary in the castle. The Constable and the Chamberlain and some of their men escaped into the upper storeys of the bridge tower. Below them the archers and the spearmen, ‘gens de petite conscience’ Froissart called them,35 were killing every man they encountered. Only the men-at-arms of the English army paused to take prisoners whose fine armour and coats of arms revealed their wealth and value. The French knights looked out for men of rank to take their surrender and grant them their protection, a point of honour as well as self-preservation. The Constable recognized Sir Thomas Holland, with whom he had fought in the Baltic crusades of the 1330s,36 and yielded up his sword to him. The Chamberlain surrendered his to Sir Thomas Daniel, a retainer of the Prince of Wales. About 100 knights, more than 120 squires and a very large number of the richer citizens were taken alive. They were fortunate. When the English had completed their rampage through the He Saint-Jean, more than 2,500 bodies were counted in the streets, houses and gardens. This figure did not include those who were cut down as they fled into the fields outside. One eyewitness estimated the total French casualties at about 5,000. The bodies of 500 Frenchmen, stripped of their clothes and of every mark of rank were collected together to be buried in a great communal grave in the churchyard of St Jean on the island.37 Nobody recorded the casualties of the English. Only one man-at-arms died, but there must have been heavy losses among the infantry and archers who had led the assault against the better judgement of their superiors and whose reckless courage had won Edward the day.

The English stayed for five days at Caen. They tried and failed to take the castle. They completed the plundering of the town. They rested in their encampments and treated their wounds. A few, including Michael Northburgh, inspected the Abbaye aux Hommes and the tomb of William the Conqueror. Edward occupied himself with the forthcoming march into the Seine Valley. The King planned to cross the river between Paris and Rouen, and then to make for the Somme 60 miles north of it. He needed reinforcements, particularly of archers. Orders were given to raise 1,200 archers in those parts of England, principally East Anglia and the southeast, which had not already been emptied of them in the spring. There were warrants to purvey 2,450 bows and 6,300 sheaves of arrows. One hundred large ships were to be requisitioned to replace the ones which had deserted the fleet and to convoy men and supplies from Winchelsea to the continent. Edward wanted all these arrangements completed by 20 August. To receive them, it would be necessary to capture a port. Edward told his Council to send the fleet to him off Le Crotoy, a small harbour on the north shore of the estuary of the Somme a few miles from Abbeville.38

About 300 captives were loaded on to the ships at Ouistrehan at the mouth of the Orne a few days after the fall of Caen and taken back to England in the charge of the Earl of Huntingdon. They were distributed among a number of castles about the country. Some of the lesser prisoners redeemed themselves quite quickly. But the greater ones were destined to spend several years in captivity. Edward III learned earlier than the French did the danger of releasing prisoners to rejoin the armies of his enemy. The Count of Eu was kept by Sir Thomas Holland until the following year, when the King bought him for 80,000 florins (£12,000). It was three years before he was to return to France and then only on parole to raise his ransom. Since he was executed not long after his return it is possible that the ransom was never paid. The Chamberlain, the lord of Tancarville, was claimed by the Prince of Wales because his captor, Sir Thomas Daniel, was a knight of his retinue. Unlike Holland, Daniel received only a tip for his pains, 1,000 marks (£666)and a pension of 40 marks (£26 13s. 4d.) per annum. The Chamberlain’s brother, who had been captured at the same time, was allowed to return to France on parole in March 1347 to find ransoms for both of them. But Tancarville himself was closely confined in Wallingford Castle until the end of 1348. His ransom was paid by a complicated arrangement by which the prisoner mortgaged several estates to a Norman abbey, which surrendered £6,000 worth of land in England to Edward III, who in turn reimbursed the Prince of Wales. It was not as rich a haul as Henry of Lancaster’s at Bergerac and Auberoche, but these were men much closer to the French King. The political impact of their capture and ruin was far greater.39


The arrival of the prisoners at the beginning of August 1346 was not the first or the only sign of the events happening in France to strike public opinion in England. Shipmasters had been returning with their spoils throughout the second half of July. John Stratford, who presided over the royal Council in England in the King’s absence, received several letters from friends with the army which were copied and widely circulated. The King himself wrote to both archbishops a week after the fall of Caen with instructions to organize prayers daily and processions twice a week, and sent an account of his deeds to be published throughout England. In the records of the municipality of Caen, Edward’s clerks found a copy of the agreement made in March 1338 between Philip VI and the communities of Normandy, which contained detailed stipulations for the invasion and despoiling of England. This document was shipped to England and read out by Stratford to a great crowd of Londoners in St Paul’s churchyard. The King, Stratford said, was wasting Normandy for the better security of England.40

The English army moved out of its camp at Caen on 31 July 1346. Edward left a small force behind him to continue the siege of the citadel and then moved slowly east towards Rouen, covering an average of only 5 or 6 miles a day. His men burned everything in front of them. Philip VI could do nothing to stop them. The two cardinals, who had left Arras as soon as they had received the news of the landing at La Hougue, made their way from the Seine valley towards the English army in a courageous attempt to halt its progress which their master in Avignon had already written off as hopeless.41

At the end of July the French King was at Vernon when a spy reported that the second invasion of France, from Flanders, was about to begin. The King’s arrangements for the defence of the march of Flanders were hardly more satisfactory than those which had failed him in the Cotentin. The army of the north was not yet in existence. There was a barely adequate garrison in Calais. The war treasurers made available some materials for making gunpowder ‘but nothing more is to be done for them’. East of the Calais marshes, in Artois, some troops had been deployed by the Duke of Burgundy’s officials and every town was recruiting for its own defence, but there were no royal garrisons. The invaders set out on 2 August 1346, a tiny band of English archers and men-at-arms, some crossbowmen supplied by the three great towns, and a large, undisciplined crowd of Flemings. The nominal commander, Henry of Flanders, was the uncle of the Count of Flanders. But he was virtually a prisoner of Ghent. It was Hugh Hastings who was in control. When they reached the boundary at Estaires on the River Lys, they were stopped by troops holding the bridge. A large number of Flemings with more enthusiasm than sense were cut down or drowned in the attempt to force a passage. Hastings withdrewdownstream. On 4 August the French commanders in the north-west sent out orders to find garrisons for all the principal castles of Artois. On the 10th Hastings, having outpaced them to the east, entered the French King’s territory.42

At the opposite extremity of the kingdom the original strategic purpose of besieging Aiguillon was receding into the background as its capture became an object in itself. The Duke of Normandy insisted on saving his face before marching north to meet the main threat, a point on which he quarrelled with his military advisers and probably also (the facts are obscure) with his father.43 Everything went wrong. The pressure on his lines of supply intensified. From the castle of Bajamont above Agen the ‘Archdeacon’ Gaillard de Durfort made frequent descents on the suburbs of the town and the vital French river corridor between Aiguillon and Moissac. Robert Houdetot, the Seneschal of the Agenais, had deployed several hundred men against the garrison of Bajamont without success. On 18 July 1346 the Duke’s council decided to detach a much larger force to go to Houdetot’s aid. Their instructions were extraordinarily cautious. They were to contain the Archdeacon’s men with field works and starve them into submission. The citizens of Agen levied a man from every household to reinforce them. But the result was a dismaying humilation. The French force, which must have been at least 2,000 strong, was attacked and defeated by the garrison of Bajamont before they could build their field works. Many of them lost their lives. Houdetot himself was captured. It was the last significant action in which the Duke’s army was engaged.44

Beset with problems and threatened from three directions at once Philip VI does not appear to have had any coherent plan of campaign. On 29 July he ordered the arrière-ban to be proclaimed and called every available man of military age to Rouen. Quite a large number of soldiers had already gathered there, but they were disorganized and badly equipped, and too many of them were raw local levies. Within a few days they were reinforced by the Genoese who, having arrived too late to do useful work at sea, were ordered to beach their galleys in the Seine and fight with the army on foot. Of the rest of the French King’s forces in the north, some were on the march of Flanders, some were assembling in Paris or at Amiens, some were still on their way from their homes.45

Philip’s intentions changed daily. At first he proposed to meet the English south of the Seine. He reached Rouen on about 31 July, and crossed the river at the beginning of August, moving hesitantly west. Then, on about 3 or 4 August 1346 there was a major shift of strategy. The news of Hastings’ manoeuvres on the march of Flanders was almost certainly the reason. Instead of meeting the English King in his path the French army withdrew again to Rouen, breaking the Seine bridge as soon as they had crossed it. The new plan was to hold the enemy at the river. South of the Seine the population was to be left to its fate. They sheltered in the towns and prepared to defend themselves as best they could. At Pont-l’Évêque the vicomte emptied the prisons to find men for the walls.46

The King of England received the cardinals at Lisieux on 3 August 1346. But they had nothing to offer him. They exhorted him to stop. They complained about the Welsh, who had stolen their horses. Edward’s answer was frigid. He told them that he would have to receive serious proposals before he would contemplate calling off his campaign. He called for their letters of authority empowering them to make such proposals on the French King’s behalf, and when it turned out that they had none he dismissed them.47 On the following day the English army quickened its pace through the fertile basin of the lower Seine. On 7 August it reached the river at Elbeuf. Runners spread across the countryside lighting fires right up to the deserted south-bank suburbs of Rouen. Sir ThomasHolland, the captor of the Constable, rode up to the end of the broken bridge with a handful of other exhibitionists, killing two Frenchmen in their path and shouting ‘St George for Edward!’ across the water. Philip was being pressed by the cardinals to produce the ‘serious proposals’ which Edward had demanded. He sent them back, accompanied by a French archbishop, to meet the English King on the road, bearing the first formal concessions that he had yet offered. He was willing, he said, to restore Ponthieu and the lost provinces of Aquitaine. But they were to be held as Edward’s father and grandfather had held them, as fiefs of the French Crown. This was always to be the sticking point. Philip also proposed a marriage alliance. The cardinals delivered their message to Edward III, but they could not conceal their pessimism. They did not think that Philip would yield anything else of importance and they said so. Edward was not interested. He told them, that he would respond to the French King’s proposal at some future date, but meanwhile he did not intend to lose a single day’s march in discussion of them.

Philip now began to concentrate all his resources on stopping the English army at the Seine. The troops assembling at Amiens were diverted in all haste southward and the march of Flanders left to be defended by a few small detachments of men against Hastings’ army. The wishes of the Duke of Normandy were finally overruled. Orders went out peremptorily recalling the army of Aiguillon to the north.

There were four principal bridges over the Seine between Rouen and the Paris area, at Pont de l’Arche, Vernon, Mantes and Meulan. All of these places except the last were walled towns on the south bank of the river which were open to unlimited reinforcement and supply for as long as the French held the north bank. When the English tried to rush the walls of Pont de l’Arche (the nearest of the four bridge towns) they were held off by the vicomte of the town for long enough to enable the main army to arrive from Rouen.48 So the English had to continue their march upstream, shadowed by the French from the opposite bank. They began by burning the rich cloth town of Louviers. It had probably been evacuated. Then they spread out, wasting everything in a 20-mile band south of the river as they moved slowly eastward towards Paris. The English stormed the great fortress of Longeville outside Vernon and massacred the entire garrison. But the town itself was found to be impregnable. They got no further than the suburbs. At Mantes, the next bridge town, there were several thousand French troops drawn up in prepared positions under the walls. They were left alone. On 11 August the English army passed close to Meulan, the one town that lay north of its bridge. The earls of Warwick and Northampton approached to investigate the possibility of forcing a crossing. But they found that the bridge had been broken by the north bank and was guarded at its southern end by a heavily fortified barbican whose defenders yelled abuse at them as they rode up. The English were stung into attempting a disorganized assault, but they were driven back ignominiously and several of the leading men-at-arms received serious wounds from crossbow bolts. Upstream of Meulan, French soldiers stood at the edge of the water laughing and baring their backsides to the enemy. The only notable feat of arms on the march was the courageous and profitable but useless enterprise of a Staffordshire knight, Sir Robert Ferrers, who crossed the river with some companions in a rowing boat and fought his way into the outer bailey of the fortress of La Roche-Guyon on the north bank. The garrison commander thought that he was under attack by the whole English army, and instead of withdrawing to the keep, surrendered the whole fortress together with all the men under his command. Ferrers took their parole to pay ransoms in due course and then scuttled back across the river.

                 Quand le Châtel de Guyon est pris,

                 Donc fletra le fleur de Lys,

ran a popular song: ‘When La Roche-Guyon falls then shall the Fleur de Lys wither.’

On 12 August the King of England came within 20 miles of Paris. From high ground near the road he could see the walls and towers of the city across the five great bends of the Seine, enclosing the huntsman’s landscape in which the kings of France scattered their lodges and palaces from the twelfth century to the eighteenth: Marly, Poissy, Saint-Cloud, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, ‘the principal residences and recreations of the King’, complained the chronicler of Saint-Denis; ‘for which reason [he added] it was not only discreditable but plain treason that all the nobility of France could not boot out the King of England but instead left him to take his ease in the palaces of the King of France, drinking his wine and smashing his property as he pleased’. Paris was in a state of great alarm and excitement. Public order was beginning to break down. The government was obliged to deploy 500 men-at-arms of John of Bohemia and his son about the city in order to keep control. In the quarters close to the gates men were building barricades at street corners and accumulating stores of stones and other missiles at upper windows. Outside in the spreading suburbs preparations were being made to demolish whole districts.

26 Western approaches to Paris

There was a renewed crisis of Philip’s counsels, intensified by the pressures of opinion in his capital. The King’s army, although more than equal to Edward III’s, was small by comparison with the huge hosts of 1339 and 1340. Most of the unsatisfactory infantry force which had been scratched together at Rouen had been disbanded at the start of the march up the Seine. The Genoese seamen had been dispersed to serve as garrison troops in ports and towns from the Loire to the Somme, relieving the specialized Italian infantrymen and bowmen already there, who now joined the main French army.49 According to well-informed contemporary estimates Philip had about 8,000 men-at-arms, about 6,000 Genoese and a large body of infantry of uncertain number and quality.

The deployment of these men was a difficult matter. The Seine, which had hitherto been Edward’s main problem, now became Philip’s. He could not defend Paris both north and south of it without dividing his army into two perilously small units. He could not defend both of the two principal bridges west of Paris, at Poissy and Saint-Cloud, without running the same danger, for they were separated by the bends of the river: more than 40 miles for the French army by the north bank, but only 12 for the English army by the south. A bold spirit might have crossed the river and confronted the enemy before he could reach either place. But Philip VI was not a bold spirit. On 12 August he decided to break the bridge of Poissy, evacuated the population of the town to Paris and abandoned it to the enemy. A small force of infantry was left to guard the stumps of the bridge from the north bank. Philip established his headquarters in the abbey buildings of Saint-Denis. His army marched round the north-west suburbs of Paris and encamped on the right bank by the bridge of Saint-Cloud.

The English occupied Poissy and Saint-Germain-en-Laye without resistance on the following morning, 13 August. They wandered astonished among the empty buildings: the famous priory of Dominican nuns; the brand new mansion of the King next door to it, where Edward III installed himself; the old palace nearby, which the Prince of Wales occupied; the fine churches with their beautiful stained-glass windows and treasures of painting and jewellery which in their haste the inhabitants had had to leave behind them.

The King of France and the principal officers of his court were still at Saint-Denis, preparing to celebrate the feast of the Assumption, when they learned that the English had begun to rebuild the bridge of Poissy. The paroled prisoner of war who brought them this news was received with incredulity and, at first, derision. When Philip was finally persuaded that it was true, he tried to find troops to stop them. There was a contingent of men on its way south from Amiens. The men were met on the road and diverted to Poissy. But by the time they reached the river bank opposite the town the English carpenters had already thrown a 60-foot tree across the gap and several dozen soldiers had made their way across it on to the northern side. There was a sharp encounter on the strand. The French, most of whom were ill-trained infantry levies, were driven back in confusion. The more quick-witted among them unharnessed the horses from their supply train and fled, three to each animal. The rest, at least 200 of them, were cut down as they ran. By the following morning, 14 August 1346, a temporary timber bridge was in place fit to drive carts over. The foundation of Philip VI’s campaign strategy had been destroyed.

When the French King learned that the English were installed on both banks of the Seine he broke the bridge of Saint-Cloud, where his army had been encamped, and withdrew them northward to the plain between Paris and Saint-Denis. The English stayed south of the river. Paris was in uproar. From the southern quarters of the city the towns of Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain-en-Laye could be seen in flames. Smoke rose from the villages and hamlets along the Chartres road and spread slowly round to the south of the city as groups of raiders detached from the English army took courage from the immobility of their enemy. The Parisians were contemplating abandoning all of the left-bank quarters of the city and breaking the Petit Pont which joined them to the He de la Cité.

From Saint-Denis, Philip issued a public challenge to Edward III to meet him in battle on chosen ground, the kind of challenge which was so often made and so rarely accepted in the course of the war. Philip suggested a date between 17 and 22 August and a site south-east of the Augustan wall of Paris in the great open meadows between the Bourg Saint-Germain and the village of Vaugirard, the area now covered by the VIIearrondissement which was then the traditional battleground of the students of the university and the louts of the city. An alternative venue was suggested in the plain west of Pontoise.50 This invitation was issued on 14 August and carried to the English King by the Bishop of Meaux. What, if any, answer Edward gave him was a controversial question. There was no reason why he should help Philip to resolve his strategic quandary. On the other hand there were good reasons why he should try to draw Philip’s army south of the Seine. French sources are insistent that even if Edward deferred his formal reply he gave Philip to understand that the challenge would be accepted. This version of events is entirely consistent with Philip’s movements during the next few days. It is probably what happened.

On 15 August Philip VI moved his entire army through the streets of the capital to the southern wall by the abbey of St Germain. Here the marshals and their deputies conducted their muster, counting numbers, sorting troops by skill and status, recording the condition of horses and weapons, and the pay to which every man was entitled. Philip had his men assembled in battle order. Then he marched them some 4 miles south of the city wall and drew them up on rising ground among the vineyards of Bourg-la-Reine and Antony, rich suburban villages now engulfed by the industrial outskirts of Paris. The chosen battleground stretched out below them.

Away from Paris the French position deteriorated daily. Hugh Hastings and Henry of Flanders, having burned a track across Walloon Flanders since 10 August, arrived outside the town of Béthune on the night of the 14th and laid siege to it on the day Philip VI crossed Paris. They began to destroy the outlying villages and a widening circle of territory around them. The region had been almost denuded of troops. Just 180 men had been spared for the defence of Béthune itself. Many of these were Genoese crossbowmen who, like their countrymen in Normandy, were unpaid and mutinous.51

Henry of Lancaster received a deputation from the Duke of Normandy in his quarters at Bergerac on the same day. The Duke, who had now received his father’s orders, had no choice but to abandon his campaign and take his army away to shore up the French position in the north. He only wanted to save what he could of his dignity. His emissaries offered to ‘suspend’ the siege of Aiguillon if Henry would agree to a local truce. But Henry intended to take the maximum advantage of his opponent’s discomfiture. He was well informed about the course of events in the north. He had summoned all the nobility of Gascony who were not already in arms and had stripped his garrisons to the limit to strengthen his field army. He rejected the Duke of Normandy’s proposal out of hand. So, on 20 August, the French abandoned the siege of Aiguillon in which they had invested five months of effort and suffering. The decision was so suddenly made and swiftly executed that there was no time to draw up the army in marching order. Some of the men were pushed into the river and drowned as they struggled across the wooden bridge over the Garonne. The whole of their camp with its valuable tents, horses and equipment was left behind in the charge of some of the locally recruited men. They were quickly dispersed by the garrison of Aiguillon and the spoil carried in triumph into the town. That arch-spoliator Walter Mauny took the lead. As for the Duke and the men still with him, they marched east up the Garonne to Agen and Moissac, travelling as fast as they could, with Lancaster’s men snapping at their heels.52


On 16 August 1346, as soon as the march of the French army across Paris presented him with his opportunity, Edward III bolted northwards, leaving Poissy in flames and breaking the bridge again behind him. Once he had travelled a safe distance he wrote a disingenuous letter by way of formal answer to Philip VI’s challenge.53 It was probably prepared chiefly for consumption in his own army, among which copies were immediately circulated. Philip, he said, could have had his battle at any time during the three days which the English army had passed at Poissy. But since the French King had done nothing he had resolved to continue his march so as to help his allies and punish ‘those rebels whom you call your subjects’. If Philip still wanted it, Edward would be ready for battle wherever Philip might find him.

At this point Edward was to be found at Auteuil, a short distance south of the great cathedral city of Beauvais. The King of France reacted to Edward’s flight with unaccustomed speed and decisiveness. He recrossed Paris with his army, loudly proclaiming to the emotional crowds gathered in the rue Saint-Denis that he had been tricked. He led his men in a succession of forced marches covering up to 25 miles a day across the northern French plain towards the Somme, which was now the principal natural barrier between the English army and the Flemish border. There was already a French army on the Somme, but it was still in the process of assembling and, although its strength cannot be precisely known, it was certainly smaller than the army about the King.54 Edward knew the importance of reaching the river first. He abandoned as much as possible of his wagon train and mounted his footsoldiers on the great number of captured horses which had been taken in Normandy and the Seine valley. But he could not move with the speed of the French. They had emptied the countryside of supplies, forcing the English to forage over great distances from their line of march in order to feed themselves. A great deal of time was also lost in the quest for plunder and ransom. The Prince of Wales division was principally at fault. These troops wasted a day attacking the insignificant village of Vessencourt. They were stopped as they were on the point of assaulting Beauvais, but could not be prevented from burning the suburbs and most of the outlying churches, villages and farms. According to Froissart, the King had twenty men summarily hanged whom he found burning a monastery.55 But the King and his marshals could not be everywhere. The walls of Poix-en-Beauvaisis were undermined and assaulted with artillery and scaling ladders in defiance of Edward’s express instructions and threats of retribution. The result was that the French army overtook them. On 18 August, the day on which the English passed west of Beauvais, Philip reached Clermont-sur-Oise due east of it. On the 20th, he arrived at the Somme with the advance guard of his army. On the following day, when the English were still some 25 miles south of the river, they came briefly into contact with troops of the French rearguard commanded by John of Bohemia. The inhabitants of the plain of Picardy took courage. They began to gather in armed bands to pick off isolated groups of English troops, the first time that Edward’s army had encountered any popular resistance on a significant scale.

The English King stopped on the evening of 21 August in the small town of Airaines. From here he sent out detachments of troops to test the defences of the Somme. The river was found to be everywhere impassable. The French had broken every bridge except those of Amiens and Abbeville, which were enclosed by walled cities, and a handful of other places which were heavily guarded. There were French troops stationed everywhere between Amiens and the sea where the river was low enough to be forded. On 22 August the Earl of Warwick tried to force a passage by the village of Hangest, but he was driven back. At Pont-Rémy the bridge was found to be defended by a powerful force of cavalry, archers and local men commanded by John of Bohemia and Edward III’s erstwhile friend and ally John of Hainault, now in French service. Warwick suffered heavy casualties here and failed to capture the bridge. At Fontaine-sur-Somme the English made their way across marsh tracks towards the river but they were defeated in front of the bridge of Long. At Longpré, nearby, it was the same story. Edward III was in his own territory, the county of Ponthieu which he had possessed until the outbreak of the war, like his father and grandfather before him. But by all appearances he was trapped there, boxed in between the river, the main body of the French army to the east and the sea at his back. His troops were beginning to suffer from their month of marching. They were completely out of bread and were rapidly exhausting their other supplies. Many of them had gone through their shoes.

On the 23rd the French moved west out of Amiens along the south bank of the Somme towards the English army. Edward might now have had his battle. But he hurriedly left Airaines and retreated towards the coast. Philip VI’s officers ate the meal which had been laid out for him. Then they spread their troops out to close off Edward’s corner. Behind the English army, at Oisemont, the chief market town of the district, all the local men of military age were gathering to block his path.

27 Crossing of the Somme

The English reached Oisemont late in the morning of 23 August. The scratch army, which had been drawn up in front of the gates, was dispersed with a single cavalry charge. Most of its members were butchered as they fled. Edward’s troops wasted some time in burning and pillaging this place before turning north towards the mouth of the Somme. When night fell they had reached Acheux, a small village about 6 miles from the river. The French were still keeping their distance. Philip VI himself fixed his quarters in the town of Abbeville.

About five miles downstream of Abbeville there was a ford known as Blanchetaque. Here, long before the construction of the Abbeville canal, the Somme broadened out into a great tidal marsh about 2 miles wide, a desolate landscape of reeds and dunes which could just be crossed at low tide by men wading in water up to their knees. The French commanders had anticipated that Edward III might make for this place. But Edward himself seems to have been unaware of its existence until the last moment. Either a prisoner of war in his camp or a Yorkshireman living in the district (there are conflicting accounts) offered to show him where it was and to guide him across. On 24 August, shortly after midnight, the English army rose and picked their way in darkness across the marsh.

When they reached the main stream of the river they saw that the opposite bank was heavily defended. One of Philip VI’s more experienced commanders, Godemar du Fay, had been stationed there with about 500 men-at-arms and 3,000 infantry. Moreover, the tide was still too high to cross, so the English were obliged to sit down in full view of the enemy as the sun rose and Godemar drew up his men at leisure in three lines along the water’s edge. At about 8 a.m., 100 men-at-arms and about the same number of archers began to wade into the river, led by the Earl of Northampton and Reginald Cobham, a veteran whose fifty years had done nothing to dull his energy. When the archers arrived within range of the French troops on the opposite bank, they loosed a rain of arrows down upon them. Under cover of the archers’ fire the men-at-arms pressed on to the north bank of the river and held a beach-head there while others crossed behind them. As the beach-head expanded Godemar’s men, who had fought ferociously at the water’s edge, were slowly pushed back before breaking and fleeing towards Abbeville, pursued by the exultant English up to the gates.56 Within an hour and a half the whole English army together with its carts and equipment had crossed to the north bank. It was a remarkable feat of arms.

Philip VI was no longer in Abbeville. He had left the town by the south at dawn hoping to catch the English army in the angle of the river and the sea. He followed in their tracks as far as the southern end of the Blanchetaque ford. But by the time he arrived there the last English soldier had escaped. The tide was coming in. Pursuit was impossible.

The French commanders assumed that Edward III would now make a dash for the north and try to join forces with the Flemings outside Béthune. The main garrisons north of the Somme were reinforced at once as heavily as resources would allow. Hesdin, which was the most significant town on the road from Abbeville to Béthune, received nearly 300 men.57


On the very day that the English army forced the Somme, the Flemings unexpectedly abandoned their campaign and dispersed. They had been held up outside Béthune since 14 August by the enterprising captain of the town, Godfrey d’Annequin. His main asset was the enthusiasm of the townsmen. They settled the arrears of the Genoese garrison (who had been threatening to desert). They burned their suburbs (the richest quarters of the town).58 They ambushed the Flemings as they arrived in disorderly groups at the beginning of the siege, inflicting heavy casualties on them. On 16 August 1346 they beat back an assault which lasted from dawn to vespers, wounding Henry of Flanders among others. It was the day on which Edward III began his march from Poissy to the Somme. On the 22nd, when Edward was still 60 miles away at Airaines, Godfrey led a sortie from the town into the main camp of the besiegers and destroyed a large part of it. The Flemings were disheartened. They fell to quarrelling among themselves. Fights broke out between the men of Bruges and the men of the western provinces. The decision to call off the siege was probably made at this time. The exact chronology is obscure. On 24 August the Flemings burned their siege engines and marched away. Edward III had remained in fairly regular contact with Hugh Hastings by runners ever since he had landed in Normandy.59 His actions suggest that he learned of the Flemings’ decision on 24 or 25 August, at about the same time as it was being executed. Philip VI may not have learned until later.

Once the English King had escaped from the pocket south of the Somme, his most pressing need was to replenish his stores. They were now so low as to imperil the fitness of his men. Part of his army was therefore detached under the command of Hugh Despenser and sent on a major foraging raid along the coast. Despenser carried out his orders with the utmost violence and efficiency. He sacked Noyelles-sur-Mer in the afternoon of 24 August and burnt Le Crotoy in the evening in spite of the efforts of its Genoese garrison. Le Crotoy, an important harbour and victualling station, yielded a rich haul of cattle and provisions. But of the reinforcements and supplies from England which should have been waiting off the shore, there was still no sign. The ships were not yet loaded. The men were still gathering in Kent.60

The main armies of England and France stood watching each other across the flow and ebb of the Somme estuary, the French deliberating whether to fight their way across, the English drawing up their battle lines. Philip allowed two tides to pass without crossing. Then, on the morning of 25 August, he returned to Abbeville where he spent the rest of the day. His army followed on behind.

It was not until the early morning of Saturday 26 August that Philip left Abbeville on the Hesdin road to try to cut off Edward by the north. He rode ahead with the principal commanders, the vanguard of the army and the troops of his household, followed at disorderly intervals throughout the day by the rest of the French cavalry, the Genoese and the slow-moving crowds of infantry. In the fourteenth century the great forest of Crécy, part of the domain of the counts of Ponthieu, covered most of the territory between the banks of the Somme below Abbeville to the valley of the River Authie some 14 miles north. Philip’s men rode round the eastern edge of it by Saint-Riquier and Noyelles-en-Chaussée towards the Roman road from Amiens to Montreuil. A short distance north of Saint-Riquier Philip was met by a group of scouts who had been sent ahead to reconnoitre. They reported that the English had passed through the forest and that they had crossed the River Maye and halted beyond the village of Crécy.

Crécy lay north-west of Philip’s position, about 10 miles away by road. The King sent another scouting party forward, five knights led by a French-speaking Swiss, Henri le Moine, to obtain more detailed intelligence of the English army’s position. They found the English drawn up waiting for them in battle order between the villages of Crécy and Wadicourt. By the time they had completed their reconnaissance the first standard-bearers of the French army were scarcely 3 miles from the English lines. Le Moine halted the French column. Philip and his commanders conferred by the roadside. It was by now late morning. Most of those who were with the King were against advancing any further. The greater part of the French cavalry and the Genoese crossbowmen and their auxiliarieswere close behind. But they were tired, having been several hours on the road. And the rest of the army, including most of the infantry and almost all the baggage train, was spread out along the road back to Abbeville. Some important contingents had not even reached Abbeville yet. Philip’s advisers, even bold spirits like John of Hainault, wanted him to march round to the north of the English position and encamp for the night at Labroye on the River Authie. Once they had cut off the English King’s line of advance, they reasoned, there would be time to collect their forces and rest their men. But others took a different view. They remembered the humiliations of Buirenfosse in 1339, of Bouvines in 1340 and Ploermel in 1342, when powerful French armies had come within sight of the English line and failed to engage them. Philip was of their opinion. By 1346 his reputation could not bear a stalemate any more than a defeat. So the trumpeters called to arms everyone who was within earshot. The first units moved forward into open ground beyond the village of Fontaine-sur-Maye.

Philip arranged his army in three battalions, one behind the other. In the first he placed the Genoese crossbowmen. With them were John of Bohemia and his son Charles and about 300 cavalry, including their own German and Czech retainers. In the second battalion stood the elite of the French cavalry, including many of the greatest noblemen of the realm. They were commanded by the Count of Alençon, the King’s impetuous younger brother. The third division, which the King commanded in person, included the rest of the cavalry. It is probable that the infantry (or such of them as arrived in time) were placed in their own formations on the wings of each of the three main battalions.61 Reinforcements continued to swell the ranks of the French army during the afternoon. The number who were present at the battle is a matter of conjecture. There were about 12,000 men-at-arms according to reliable contemporary estimates. There were the 6,000 Genoese who had marched north from Paris with the King. But as for the rest of the infantry, said by the chroniclers to have been ‘innumerable’, most of them were left behind on the road. Philip VI may have had between 20,000 and 25,000 men under his command.

At the far end of an expanse of gently rising ground the English could be seen waiting in their lines with the forest of Crécy-Grange behind them. Edward III had deployed his troops in person, laughing with them according to Jean le Bel and urging every one of them to do his duty, ‘making even cowards into heroes’. They were stretched out across the hillside, the Prince of Wales in the front line with the earls of Warwick and Northampton and the cream of the English nobility. The English King commanded the reserve at the rear. The archers, who made up about half of his army’s numbers, were placed at the wings, forward of the main lines of soldiers after the fashion of Dupplin Moor and Halidon Hill. To protect them from the enemy’s cavalry a circle of baggage carts was drawn up around them. In front, a large number of shallow pit-traps had been dug across the approaches to the English lines. Behind the English positions another circle of carts enclosed the horses. All the English men-at-arms fought dismounted.

28 Battle of Crécy, 26 August 1346

Underneath the carts which Edward had placed around the archers at the wings of his army was a number of gunpowder cannon. The English had experimented with these weapons in their campaigns against the Scots, and had probably used them in the siege of Berwick in 1333. The French had certainly employed them for some years in defending and attacking fortified towns, although not on a large scale. Neither side, so far as is known, had ever used them on the battlefield, where they were likely to be most effective. Gunpowder artillery of the early fourteenth century was light, short-ranged and inaccurate. There were no machines capable of firing heavy projectiles and replacing the stone-throwing trebuchets and mechanical slings which in more or less refined forms had been standard siege equipment for centuries. But they caused noise, confusion and fear. Most of the English machines were ‘ribalds’, which were ideal for these purposes, extremely primitive field pieces consisting of clusters of barrels bound together and mounted on small carts about the size of wheelbarrows from which bolts were fired rather like those out of crossbows. There were about 100 of these. There was also a smaller number of rather heavier pieces which fired metal pellets like grapeshot.62

Towards the end of the afternoon the sky clouded over and it began to rain. At this point (it was about five o’clock) the French attacked. The desultory shouts of abuse suddenly gave way to a deafening noise of trumpets and kettledrums. The crossbowmen advanced against the English lines from the south-east, shooting their bolts as they came. From the right wing of the English army the longbowmen began to loose volleys of arrows into the air towards the advancing Genoese. It was an unequal contest. The longbowmen caused carnage among the Italians while the bolts of the crossbows fell well short. The great protective shields which the Italians usually had carried before them into battle by their ‘paviseurs’, were still on the road from Abbeville. So was most of their spare ammunition. The rain got into their machines and slackened the cords. When the English saw that the crossbowmen were wilting they intensified their fire and began to fire their cannon. The Genoese fell back, then broke into headlong flight towards the shelter of their own lines.

Few of the French army had any experience of massed longbowmen. They did not understand what was happening to the Genoese. A murmur spread around the ranks of horsemen that the crossbowmen were cowards and traitors in the pay of the enemy. Without warning and apparently without orders the Count of Alençon suddenly charged forward with the second French battalion, running down the fleeing Italians, trampling them under the feet of their horses and cleaving them with their swords. ‘Kill this riff-raff! Kill them all!’, Philip is supposed to have shouted from the rear; ‘they are doing nothing but getting in our way.’63 After a moment of hesitation, much of the French cavalry careered pell mell after them. They charged in a dense mass across the English lines towards the centre where the Prince of Wales was. As they came within range of the archers men began to fall from their horses into the path of those behind. Others lost control as their animals turned in terror away from the arrows and cannon fire, dragging their masters after them. When the survivors reached the first line of the English army, there was a savage fight around the Prince of Wales. These formless mêlées were murderous affairs at a time when few men wore uniform or recognizable liveries, and the yelling of war-cries was the main means of identification: ‘Saint George!’ for England, ‘Montjoie Saint Denis!’ for France.64 The sixteen-year-old Prince, who had never been in action before, stood out from the ranks by his great height and his standard carried beside him. He ‘ran through horses, cut down their riders, crushed their helmets, split their lances, all the time shouting encouragement at his troops’. Men advanced from the lines behind to fill the gaps left by the wounded and the dead. At one point the Prince’s standard was seen to fall. It was Sir Thomas Daniel, one of the heroes of Caen, who forced his way into the thick of the fight to raise it up again.65 Many years later the chronicler Froissart told the famous, perhaps apocryphal, story of the knight who was sent out from the dense mass of men around the Prince to summon help from the reserve gathered about the King:

Then the King said, is my son dead or hurt, or on the earth felled? No sir, quoth the knight, but he is hardly matched, wherefore he hath need of your aid. Well, said the King, return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth as long as my son is alive; and also say to them that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for if God be pleased I will this journey be his and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.66

It was not until the end of the battle that Edward committed part of his reserve to his son’s assistance.

By then it was clear that the English had triumphed. The French cavalry repeatedly wheeled, rallied and charged. But as darkness fell, and the mounds of dead men and horses accumulated across the battlefield, the attacks tailed off. When the blind King of Bohemia was told what was happening he ordered his men to lead him directly into the English line nearest Edward III. It was the incident by which the battle was most often remembered by both sides, the great example of that reckless valour that made a knight into the preux chevalier of contemporary poets. They galloped into the centre of the field shouting John’s war-cry ‘Prague!’ until, surrounded by Englishmen, the King was dragged from his horse and killed.67 From behind the English lines the horses were brought forward and the English men-at-arms remounted, charging the surviving groups of French horsemen on the field and the infantry still standing in their lines behind. All around them the French were fleeing into the darkening night. The bulk of the infantry escaped as soon as they saw the English cavalry coming towards them. Philip VI was left with no one around him except for a handful of companions, his personal bodyguard and some infantry levies from the city of Orléans. He was briefly caught up in a ferocious soldiers’ battle. His standard-bearer was killed beside him. He himself had two horses killed under him and received an arrow wound in the face before he was extricated by John of Hainault. John, who had lost much of his own retinue and had had at least one horse killed under him, led the King off the field under cover of darkness, and took him to a village a few miles away where there was a fortified house. The royal standard and the Oriflamme of Saint-Denis were abandoned on the ground behind them.68

On the following morning, 27 August, at dawn, at least 2,000 French infantrymen, escorted by a detachment of men-at-arms under the command of the Duke of Lorraine, stumbled on to the battlefield. They were part of the army for which Philip VI had refused to wait. They had passed the night sleeping in ditches and under hedges along the Abbeville road. They knew nothing of the fate of their fellows. They thought that the English horsemen who suddenly appeared out of the morning mist were friends. The earls of Northampton, Suffolk and Warwick and their men scattered them with a single charge and pursued the fleeing survivors across the countryside, killing as many as they could catch and running down dazed groups of men-at-arms who had escaped from the slaughter of the previous night.

It was not until late in the morning that the English knew the full extent of their victory. Their own casualties were light. A roll-call showed forty men-at-arms missing. The number of dead and wounded among the infantry and archers must have been higher. But the losses of the French were catastrophic. Edward III had been determined not to allow the main point to be lost in the scramble for plunder. He had given orders that there was to be no pillaging of the dead and no quarter for the living, orders which he steadfastly refused to revoke until the battle was over. In the course of the 27th, the heralds passed through the field identifying the dead by their arms. The bodies of 1,542 French knights and squires were counted close to where the Prince of Wales’s line had stood. Somehundreds more lay in the fields around where they had been cut down in the pursuit at the end of the battle or on the Sunday morning. No one troubled to count the infantrymen who had died. Their equipment was not worth looting. The heralds had not yet mastered their arcane science and their lists of French casualties were full of errors. But there was no doubt about the more famous of them. The bodies of John of Bohemia and his companions were found where they had fallen. Eight other princes of the blood were identified. They included the Count of Alençon, who had contributed more than any one man to the disaster; Philip VI’s nephew Louis, Count of Blois, brother of the claimant of Brittany; John, Count of Harcourt, head of the clan whose most famous member was fighting in the English army; the Duke of Lorraine, who was married to Philip’s niece; and Louis of Nevers, Count of Flanders. Their bodies were set aside to be buried decently with the English dead. The others were left to be tipped into vast grave pits dug by the returning peasants.

The French who survived looked about for scapegoats and found them among the foreigners, as they had done after the battle of Sluys six years before. When Philip VI reached Amiens on the morning of 27 August, one of his first acts was to order the massacre of the Genoese ‘traitors’ wherever they could be found. Many of them were murdered in Amiens and the nearby garrison towns before the King’s anger cooled and his orders were countermanded.69 Longer reflection persuaded most Frenchmen that it was not the crossbowmen but the French heavy cavalry which was at fault for attacking the English lines in impetuous disorder and allowing themselves to be defeated by men fighting on foot and mere archers, ‘gens de nulle value’ as a monk of Saint-Denis indignantlydescribed them. But his view, although common, was almost as absurd as the one which laid the whole blame for the disaster on the Genoese. The French battle lines had been carefully drawn, and although the Count of Alençon’s battalion probably charged too early, there is no reason to suppose that their charge was any more disorderly than a massed cavalry charge necessarily is, or that a charge at any other time would have succeeded better. To rally and reform as often as the French cavalry did at Crécy is no mean feat of horsemanship and discipline. There were two main reasons for their defeat. One was that the English had the incomparable advantage of fighting on the defensive. However powerful the impact of their charge, heavy cavalry in the fourteenth century were generally ineffective against dismounted men fighting in prepared positions. Philip VI was well aware of this. It was the reason why he had refused to attack the English army in 1339 and 1340. He took the risk in 1346 because public opinion demanded it. The second reason for his defeat was the technical superiority of the longbow over the crossbow, which was never more convincingly demonstrated. It may be that in spite of Sluys, Morlaix and Auberoche this came as a surprise to Philip VI, and it was certainly incomprehensible to the rest of his army. The King had invested large sums in hiring contract armies of crossbowmen of unprecedented size drawn from the best source of skilled bowmen in Europe. The crossbow was an ancient and formidable machine, the preferred weapon of bowmen in most European armies since the twelfth century when a Byzantine princess had called it ‘diabolical’ and the Church had forbidden its use against Christians. The longbow probably never achieved the impact and penetration of the crossbow. But it outranged it by a significant margin and continued to do so until the introduction in the course of the fifteenth century of machines with bows of steel in place of the laminated horn which was usual in the fourteenth. The crossbow never, even in the following centuries, matched its rival’s main advantage, which was its speed of fire. Three arrows could be shot from a longbow, according to the Florentine Villani, in the time it took an experienced crossbowman to rearm his weapon once. Modern experiments suggest that the disparity of striking rates was even greater.

Edward III and his army passed the whole of 27 August on the battlefield, the traditional sign of possession and victory. The next two days were spent near Maintenay and at the Cistercian abbey of Valloires. Here Edward buried the French princes, surrounded by all the commanders of his army wearing black, and by walls and altars stripped bare when the monks had fled. On 30 August the English army resumed its march north, advancing across a front stretching from the sea for 20 miles inland. They destroyed everything which would burn. The main walled towns, Hesdin, Montreuil and Boulogne, had been stuffed with garrison troops since Edward’s crossing of the Somme. Some of them had been reinforced by men-at-arms escaped from the battlefield. These places lost their crops and suburbs. Étaples was stormed and sacked. The unwalled towns and villages around were reduced to clusters of charred stumps. Wissant, for long the traditional landing place of English travellers to the continent, was obliterated.70

On 2 September 1346 Edward III sat down to take stock of his situation with his counsellors and commanders in the village of Wimille, a short distance north of Boulogne. It must have occurred to some of them that they had achieved little of real strategic value in spite of the scale of their victory. ‘We have crossed the kingdom of our adversary,’ Edward himself wrote to the towns of England; ‘we have burned and ruined many castles, manors and towns and killed many of the enemy.’71 That was all they had done. Crécy was a political catastrophe for the French Crown, but its military consequences were small because Edward III did not have the manpower to set up a permanent occupation in the territory through which he had passed.

There is little doubt that he had originally intended to do so, at least in Normandy, just as he had done before in Brittany. This was why Godfrey of Harcourt, who had already done homage to Edward in England, did it again on the hill overlooking the bay of La Hougue after the English had landed. It was no doubt also the reason for Edward’s orders to his men to abstain from looting and violence. These orders appear to have been issued only while the army was in Normandy. Valognes, the first significant town to be taken after the landings, was ‘received within the King’s peace’ and a small garrison may have been left there. Carentan was certainly occupied after the departure of the army by a garrison of Godfrey’s renegade Normans. Edward had sent runners through much of southern Normandy proclaiming that he had come ‘not to ravish the land but to take possession of it’ and inviting the inhabitants to come over to him. The response was mixed. Some of Edward’s runners were lynched as they endeavoured to declare his good intentions to angry villagers. But there were many Normans, particularly at the beginning of the campaign, who took Edward at his word. Great numbers of peasants of the Cotentin arrived in Edward’s camp at La Hougue to acknowledge him. The men of Bayeux sent messengers after the invader begging him to accept the surrender of their town and the homage of themselves even though the army had passed them by. Edward’s answer was revealing. He refused their offer until he should be in a position to give them his protection, which in the event was not until after he had captured Caen. But the truth was that Edward was never able to protect his newfound subjects in France, as they quickly realized. He could not even protect them against his own troops, and when he had passed through he could not protect them against the reprisals of French soldiers and officials. So, what began as a campaign of conquest became a chevauchèe, a great mounted raid passing swiftly through the country before it disappeared. All the places which Edward III and Godfrey of Harcourt occupied were recovered by the French within a short time after the storm had passed overhead. The English garrison of Caen was rounded up and killed by the French troops in the citadel. Godfrey’s men in Carentan were surprised and captured by an improvised force of local troops as soon as the English had left. They were sent to Paris to be executed at Les Halles. Edward’s march into the north had sealed their fate.72

To men like Godfrey of Harcourt the change of strategy was a bitter pill to swallow. Very few of the French malcontents in Edward’s allegiance had either the resources or the breadth of local support to maintain themselves without constant assistance from the English. Godfrey’s horizons, like those of most of the other dissident noblemen of France, were more narrowly provincial than Edward’s own. The decision made at Wimille was to capture the port of Calais and occupy the coast immediately about it.73 It was a better gateway to France than any Norman port, easier to supply and reinforce from England. It was also closer to the Flemings, who were still Edward’s most reliable allies on the continent. Not long afterwards Godfrey himself left the English army and fled to the court of Brabant, where he found friends to work his reconciliation with the French Crown. In December the man who was widely believed to have inspired Edward III’s Norman campaign appeared with a halter round his neck and a prayer on his lips to receive his pardon and his Norman lands from Philip VI.74


1 RDP, iv, 556–7; ‘Compte de P. de Ham’, 244–5 (Flemings); PRO E403/336, m. 40 (Bretons).

2 CCR 13469, 46–7, 72–4, 186–7; CFR 1337–47, 463–5; E. Fryde (3), 3–8, 11–16.

3 CPR 1343–5, 414–16, 427–8; PRO C76/22, mm. 2, 13, 16, 34d; RF, iii, 77–8; RP, ii, 160; CFR 1345–8, 112–13; Murimuth, Chron., 192–3, 198.

4 Hewitt, 54–8, 64–6, 68–9; CCR 1346–9, 44; CPR 1345–8, 113; CFR 1337–47, 486; Murimuth, Chron., 245; Knighton, Chron., ii, 32.

5 RF, iii, 67, 72.

6 RF, iii, 71, 78; PRO C76/22, m. 6.

7 RF, iii, 67–8; PRO C76/22, mm. 3, 3d, 16; Cal. A. C. Wales, nos LIV:53, 93.

8 Border: RS, i, 680–1; *Baldwin, 483–4. Coast: RF, iii, 72, 77, 81; PRO C76/22, mm. 10, 12.

9 Aliens: CIM, ii, nos 1946, 1990; RP, ii, 161(27). Spies: ‘Compte de P. de Ham’, 244–5, 246–7; *Bel, Chron., ii, 338.

10 Northampton: Prince (1), 370–1. Gascony: *Fowler, 232; Murimuth, Chron., 200.

11 *Jones (2), 637.

12 Crossbowmen: Acta bellicosa, 159. Piles: Chron. anon. Cant., 187. Merchant ships: DCG, no. XXXII(76); JT, no. 1959; Avesbury, G. Edwardi, 358, 359–60; Roncière, i, 475–6. Galleys: AN P2291, pp. 553–6; DCG, nos 427, XXXII (84–758); *Lecoy, ii, 354.

13 Grandes Chron., ix, 265–9; Lescot, Chron., 69–70.

14 Galbraith, ‘Hist. aurea’, 213–14; *Jones (2), 637–9.

15 Bertrandy, 329–30, 332–3, *334n, *341n; Knighton, Chron., ii, 40–1; *HGL, x, 1002; Bel, Chron., ii, 62–4.

16 Murimuth, Chron., 198; PRO C76/22, mm. 10d, 17, 18; RF, iii, 78.

17 Baker, Chron., 79; Froissart, Chron., iii, 131 (tr. based on Berners, i, 277); the decision was probably made at the same time as the decision to send Hastings to Flanders, see below. Earlier interest in Normandy: *KOF, xviii, 38; CPR 1338–40, 454.

18 RF, iii, 83, 86; PRO C76/22, m. 25, C76/23, m. 23, E372/191, m. 49 (Wendyngburgh); ‘Compte de P. de Ham’, 247; Knighton, Chron., ii, 34–5. Mautravers: RF, iii, 56; *KOF, xxii, 189. Flemish deliberations: RSG, ii, 492; Muisit, Chron., 151; Lucas, 547–8.

19 *Bel, Chron., ii, 337–8; RF, iii, 85; Murimuth, Chron., 201; Baker, Chron., 79; Villani, Hist. XII:62, col. 944.

20 BN Fr.n.a. 7413, fols 472–5; DCG, nos 431–2, XXXII(1016); Acta bellicosa, 159.

21 RP, ii, 147; RS, i, 664–7; CIM, ii, no. 2051; Chron. Lanercost, 341; Walsingham, Ypod. Neustr., 285; Murimuth, Chron., 189; Anonimalle Chron., 19.

22 Text in Hemingburgh, Chron., ii, 420–2.

23 Noyal, ‘Fragments’, 253; AN JJ75/425; Muisit, Chron., 171; Grandes Chron., ix, 269–70.

24 *Bel, Chron., ii, 337–8; RF, iii, 85; Acta bellicosa, 157–8; Murimuth, Chron., 198–9, 200; Avesbury, G. Edwardi, 360. Genoese: DCG, no. XXXII(105).
    Crécy campaign, July–Sept. 1346: (a) Acta bellicosa, a detailed eyewitness account to 20 Aug.; (b) two letters from Edward III (1. PRO C81/314/17803, of which extracts, edited by the Council, at Chron. Lanercost, 342–3, *KOF, xviii, 285–7, RF, iii, 89–90; 2. *Chandos Herald, The Black Prince, ed. H. A. Coxe, 1842, 351–5), and letters from members of the army and household, Thomas Bradwardine, Michael Northburgh and Richard Wynkeley (Murimuth, Chron., 200–4, 212–17, Avesbury, G. Edwardi, 358–63, 367–72); (c) Edward’s itinerary in *Baker, Chron., 252–7; (d) English chronicles, Baker, Chron., 79–86, Chron. anon. Cant., 187–92, Knighton, Chron., ii, 32–9,Eulogiumhist., iii, 206–11, Chron. Lanercost, 341–4, Anonimalle Chron., 20–3, Chandos Herald, Vie, 51–9, Chron. mon. Melsa, iii, 55–60; (e) French chroniclers, Chron. Norm., 75–83, Chronographia, ii, 223–35, Istore de Flandre, i, 23–6, 39–46 (valuable for the preliminaries of the battle), Lescot, Chron., 71–5, Venette, Chron., 196–203,GrandesChron., ix, 270–85 (important); (f) ‘neutral’ chroniclers, Bel, Chron., ii, 70–110 (the principal continental account based, for the battle, on John of Hainault), Muisit, Chron., 151–66 (laconic, very accurate), Récits d’un bourgeois, 214–36, Villani, Hist. XII:62–7, cols 944–52 (probably based not on Genoese accounts but on Florentine newsletters from London and Bruges, in turn based on newsletters from the English army); (g) ‘Itin. Philippe VI’. Other references below.

25 JT, nos 1959, 2583.

26 RF, iii, 89; Acta bellicosa, 160. Courts: cf. in an earlier period, Cal. doc. Scot., ii, no. 822; Guisborough, Chron., 246.

27 Denifle, 36; JT, nos 1963, 3736.

28 BN Fr.n.a. 7413, fol. 472, Fr. 20363, fol. 175; JT, no. 1539.

29 Hastings: PRO E372/191, m. 49 (Wendyngburgh); ‘Compte de P. de Ham’, 247.

30 Text in Hemingburgh, Chron., ii, 422–3.

31 RS, i, 672–3; *Baldwin, 483–4; Chron. Lanercost, 341; Anonimalle Chron., 19; Knighton, Chron., ii, 32–3; Raine, N. Reg., 387–9.

32 Norman knights (Roland de Verdon, Nicholas de Grouchy): PRO E403/336, mm. 21, 26, 30, E403/339, m. 46, E403/340, m. 7; Cazelles (1), 152.

33 Desertions: PRO C76/23, m. 21.

34 Topography of Caen: Prentout, 20–5; AN JJ68/220; Denifle, 37n.

35 Chron., iii, 147.

36 Holland’s Baltic crusade (Bel, Chron., ii, 82) is confirmed by Cal. Pap. R. Letters, iii, 252.

37 AN JJ68, fol. 439 (struck out).

38 Reinforcements, supplies: PRO C76/23, mm. 22, 22d, 21, 20, 19; RF, iii, 87. Le Crotoy: PRO C81/314/17803.

39 Eu: RF, iii, 126; Avesbury, G. Edwardi, 414. Tancarville: Accounts Chamberlains of Chester, 126; RBP, i, 28, 33, 45, 48, 60, 62, iv, 14; AN JJ77/216, JJ79A/32; JT, nos 1018, 1245, 2640, 2651, 2935.

40 RP, ii, 158–9; Murimuth, Chron., 211–12.

41 Cardinals: Clément VI, L.Cl. (France), nos 2726, 2760; RF, iii, 88.

42 ‘Compte de P. de Ham’, 248; Inventaire AD P.-de-Calais, i, 115; PRO E372/191, m. 49 (Wendyngburgh); Muisit, Chron., 151–2; Knighton, Chron., ii, 34–5; Chron. Com. Flandrensium, 219.

43 Bel, Chron., ii, 63–4.

44 ‘Chartes d’Agen’, 152; Jurades d’Agen, 71, 73, 75–6, 889, 903; JT, no. 4358.

45 Arrière-ban: Arch, admin. Reims, ii, 1124. Genoese: cf. DCG, XXXII(106).

46 Pont-I’Évêque: AN JJ79A/14.

47 Call for authority: Oxford, MS Bodley 462, fol. 28vo.

48 Cf. Actes Normands, 347.

49 Genoese: DCG, no. XXXII(611, 768). Pay records show only about 5 per cent casualties among galley crew; they cannot therefore have fought at Crécy: DCG, no. XXXII(84 768).

50 *KOF, iv, 4967.

51 Genoese: lnventaire AD P.-de-Calais, i, 115.

52 Avesbury, G. Edwardi, 3723; Knighton, Chron., ii, 401; Bel, Chron., ii, 117; Baker, Chron., 78; Murimuth, Chron., 249. John’s itinerary after Aiguillon: AN JJ77/313; BN Coll. Doat 189, fol. 263.

53 CPR 1345–8, 516–17.

54 Somme army: JT, nos 806, 936, 2276, 3206, 3340, 3370, 4433, 4527, 4540.

55 Hangings: Froissart, Chron., iii, 1512.

56 Gates: cf. AN JJ77/384.

57 lnventaire AD P.-de-Calais, i, 115.

58 Townsmen: lnventaire AD P.-de-Calais, i, 115; Ordonnances, iv, 1435; Loisne, ‘Ordonnances’, 70810.

59 Runners: PRO E372/191, m. 49 (Wendyngburgh).

60 Noyelles: LE, no. 467. Crotoy: cf. AN JJ100/151. Reinforcements, supplies: PRO C76/23, mm. 19, 19d, 18, 18d, 14d.

61 Hence Baker’s nine ‘turmae’, Chron., 82.

62 Tout (2), 2379, 254, 25862. Berwick: Nicholson (1), 1212.

63 Froissart, Chron., iii, 177.

64 War-cries: Contamine (2), 666 (French); Récits d’un bourgeois, 220 (English).

65 Holland: RBP, 1, 45.

66 Chron., iii, 183 (tr. Berners, i, 300).

67 Cf. Léger, ‘Poème tchèque’, 3267.

68 Cf. Moranvillé (1); Clément VI, L.Cl. (France), no. 2790.

69 Cf. JJ107/310.

70 Wissant: Suppliques de Clément VI, no. 1470.

71 RF, iii, 89.

72 Valognes: Acta bellicosa, 161. Carentan: Grandes Chron., ix, 271,290; *Lescot, Chron., 71n. Runners: AN JJ76/393. Peasants: Murimuth, Chron., 200. Bayeux: Avesbury, G. Edwardi, 360. Caen: Chronographia, ii, 2256.

73 Muisit, Chron., 166.

74 Grandes Chron., ix, 290; *Delisle, 10911; CFR 1337–47, 490, 495.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!