Battle of Crecy 1346Crecy

Crecy was the first major battle in which archers were pitted against knights. There is also some evidence that primitive small arms fire or "hand gonnes" were used. Until Crecy, knights fought each other on horseback, as chivaliers or knights, hence the term chivalrous or chivalric. Here the French expected to have a battle with the knights of the smaller English army but the latter had been practising new ways of bringing down men in armour. Most of the English army dismounted to do battle with the French, which was not the normal procedure. The longbow made a major debut at this battle which changed the way battles were fought for at least another fifty years. The English reinvented warfare, making chivalric battles an outmoded form of warfare.Hand gonnes of the early 1300's
he longbow was probably first developed by the Welsh and introduced into England about the year 1250. Shorter bows had been used down the centuries, they appear in use by both Anglians and Normans in the Bayeaux Tapestry. The longbow however had a much greater effective range, some claim up to 200 yards.

Edward I had been the first to experiment with the longbow in warfare and Edward III later pitted archers against Scottish nationalist knights at Halidon Hill, Berwickshire (1333). In 1298 Edward I used Welsh archers at the battle of Falkirk but here they were used to fire directly into the bristling  haggis or 'schiltrons'. However, the archers at Crecy fired their arrows in an arching trajectory into the air. The descent of the arrows was given added velocity from the acceleration due to gravitational force, enabling them to more easily pierce armour. Any archer firing from an elevated position had a distinct advantage in this respect. The longbow was as tall as the man who used it, anything up to six feet high. Arrows fitted with a bodkin (metal tip) could pierce chain mail at 100 paces if they contacted their target perpendicular to the body. The arrow flights were made from grey goose feathers. The bowstrings were the most difficult part to maintain, they had to be kept dry, spare ones were often secreted in hats for this purpose. However, the longbow was not considered to be a noble weapon, for it was the English yeomanry who brought down much of the French nobility here at Crecy. The cross bow had a shorter range than the longbow and had a less rapid firing rate. The French at Crecy used about 6,000 Genoese crossbow men in their frontal attack and literally ran them down as their own knights charged in.

The Battle
At the tender age of sixteen, Edward III's son, the "Black Prince" as the French dubbed him, [from the colour of his armour, although some later say his black character] was in command on the wing at Crecy. The manor of Crecy is known to have been a possession of Edward II in 1307, a place of refuge for the exiled Gascon upstart, Gaveston. Edward perhaps knowing the topography chose the battle site on the brow of a low hill where he set his archers and men-at-arms where he surveyed the battle from a windmill2.

Prince Edward the 'Black Princes' helm Prince Edward's shield

                                                      The Black Princes' helm and shield, England quartered with France

The archers had been enlisted in England by royal officials and were paid for from the king's exchequer. This money had only become available because parliament had agreed to support King Edward's claims to his estates in France. With a victory, it was expected that the costs would be diffrayed by booty and secured estates. In all there were between 12,000 and 20,000 men under Edward (different sources vary - the first casualty in war is truth), the French cavalry was at least that number and all told Phillip VI's army consisted of 30,000-40,000 men. But Edward had his secret weapon, the longbow, carried by some 3,000 to 11,000 archers who had been trained in the manner of a rapid rate of shooting.  Three thousand archers loosed 10-20 arrows each per minute, more arrows wereEnglish Bowmen brought forward or archers moved back to collect another supply. In the words of one commentator "arrows fell like snow". This mass volley of arrows was a new method of fighting and was first tried at Crecy.
On one side of the hill lay a marsh and on the other side a forest. The battle line was 2000 yards long. The men-at-arms and spearmen were in three groups with the archers at either end arranged in a open "V' shape towards the enemy. Each archer had two sheaves of arrows each holding 24 arrows. These arrows were sheaved in their belts, not as often depicted, in quivers. The French were drawn up with the Genoese crossbow men and then behind them French knights on horseback.

The archers built defences against the cavalry, pits or holes in the ground were dug and caltraps (related to the tribulus of the 4th century B.C.) were laid at Crecy to lame and bring down the horses. Later in the 1400's at Agincourt, they carried six foot sharpened stakes fixed into the ground or caltraps were used instead.

Broadhead Arrows
The knights horses became very vulnerable to a special type of arrow called the broadhead. These were similar to the barbed hunting arrow but were much larger. This arrow had a large barb on it which would be almost, if not impossible to remove from a horses flesh. Once embedded it could work its way in but not out, leaving the animal to bleed out and die. The battle at Crecy  lasted from 4pm to midnight on Saturday 26th August 1346. French and Genoese casualties are estimated at 5,000-10,000 and the English several hundred.Broadhead arrows In five minutes at Crecy the English archers loosed more than 30,000 arrows and 1500 expensive French knights and their squires were cut down by peasant archers paid six pence a day, the mounted knight was out of business.1 An English army on foot had destroyed the French chivalry with the medieval equivalent of an Exocet missile. Incidentally, it was during the capture of Caen, in Normandy, on the march to Crecy, that the French exposed their "rear ends" to the English archers, the French got the point in the end!

The Effects of Crecy
In the fifty years after Crecy, knights dismounted to fight, they abandoned their horses and engaged in slogging matches on foot. For 200 years the longbow and infantry were placed to the fore in any battle replacing the position of  the cavalry.
Pictures of the battle of Crecy emphasise the stab in the back, the underhand blow. The French interpreted the new method of combat as anti-chivalric.
The horse did not return to the battlefield until the 1400's when armour for these animals was developed and refined.

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1. The War Horse, Part II -The Iron Horse
2. Fraser, A., The Life & Times of Edward III, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1973.

© Copyright Tim Midgley, 2000 revised April 2018.