On 26 August 1346, one of the most famous battles of the Hundred Years War was fought. Near the village of Crécy in northern France, King Edward III’s English army was confronted by a larger, formidable French force – which included thousands of heavily-armed knights and expert Genoese crossbowmen.
The decisive English victory that followed has come to epitomise the power and deadliness of what is arguably England’s most famous weapon: the longbow.
Here are 10 facts about the Battle of Crécy.
1. It was preceded by the Battle of Sluys in 1340
Several years before the Battle of Crécy, King Edward’s invasion force encountered a French fleet off the coast of Sluys – then one of the best harbours in Europe.
The first battle of the Hundred Years War ensued, during which the accuracy and faster rate of fire of the English longbowmen overwhelmed their crossbow-wielding French and Genoese counterparts. The battle proved an overwhelming victory for the English and the French navy was all but destroyed. Following the victory, Edward duly landed his army near Flanders, but he soon returned to England.
The English victory at Sluys helped pave the way for Edward’s second invasion of France six years later and the Battle of Crécy.
2. Edward’s knights did not fight on horseback at Crécy
Following early success in northern France, Edward and his campaigning army soon discovered that the French king, Philip VI, was leading a large force to confront him.
Realising that the impending battle would be a defensive one, Edward III dismounted his knights before the battle. On foot, these heavy infantrymen were placed alongside his longbowmen, providing Edward’s lightly-armoured archers ample protection if the French knights managed to reach them.
It soon proved a wise decision.
3. Edward ensured his archers were effectively deployed
Edward probably deployed his archers in a V-shaped formation called a harrow. This was a much more effective formation than placing them in a solid body as it allowed more men to see the advancing enemy and fire their shots with accuracy and without fear of hitting their own men.
4. The Genoese crossbowmen were famed for their prowess with the crossbow
Among Philip’s ranks were a large contingent of mercenary Genoese crossbowmen. Hailing from Genoa, these crossbowmen were renowned as the best in Europe.
Generals from far and wide had hired companies of these expert marksmen to compliment their own forces in conflicts as ranging as bloody internal Italian wars to crusades in the Holy Land. Philip VI’s French army was no different.
For him, his Genoese mercenaries were essential to the French battle plan at Crécy as they would cover the advance of his French knights.
5. The Genoese made a grave mistake before the battle
Although it was their most-feared weapon, the Genoese mercenaries were not armed solely with a crossbow. Along with a secondary melee weapon (usually a sword), they carried a large rectangular shield called a “pavise”. Given the reload speed of the crossbow, the pavise was a great asset.
Yet at the Battle of Crécy, the Genoese had no such luxury, as they had left their pavises back in the French baggage train.
This made them very vulnerable and they soon suffered heavily from the English longbow fire. So fast was the rate of fire of the English longbows that, according to one source, it appeared to the French army as though it was snowing. Unable to counter the longbowmen’s barrage, the Genoese mercenaries retreated.
6. The French knights slaughtered their own men…
Upon seeing the Genoese crossbowmen retreating, the French knights became outraged. In their eyes, these crossbowmen were cowards. According to one source, upon seeing the Genoese falling back, King Philip VI ordered his knights to:
“Kill me those scoundrels, for they stop up our road without any reason.”
A merciless slaughter soon followed.
7. …but they soon became victims of a slaughter themselves
As the French knights took their turn at approaching the English lines, the reality of why the Genoese had retreated must have become clear.
Coming under a hail of archer fire from the English longbows, the plate-armoured horsemen soon suffered heavy casualties – so high that Crécy has become famous as the battle where the flower of the French nobility were cut down by the English longbows.
Those who made it to the English lines found themselves confronted not only by Henry’s dismounted knights, but also by infantry wielding vicious pole-arms – the ideal weapon for knocking a knight off his horse.
As for those French knights who were injured in the assault, they were later cut down by Cornish and Welsh footmen equipped with large knives. This greatly upset the rules of medieval chivalry which stated that a knight should be captured and ransomed, not killed. King Edward III thought likewise as after the battle he condemned the knight-killing.
8. Prince Edward earned his spurs
Although many French knights never even reached their opponents, those who engaged the English on the left side of their battle lines encountered the forces commanded by Edward III’s son. Also called Edward, the English king’s son earned the nickname “The Black Prince” for the black armour he possibly wore at Crécy.
Prince Edward and his contingent of knights found themselves hard-pressed by the opposing French, so much so that a knight was sent to his father to request aid. However, upon hearing that his son was still alive and wanting him to earn the glory of victory, the king famously replied:
“Let the boy win his spurs.”
The prince consequently won his fight.
9. A blind king went into the battle
King Philip was not the only king fighting with the French; there was also another monarch. His name was John, the King of Bohemia. King John was blind, but he nevertheless still commanded his retinue to take him into battle, desiring to land one blow with his sword.
His retinue duly obliged and guided him into battle. None survived.
10. Blind King John’s legacy lives on
Tradition has it that after the battle, Prince Edward saw the emblem of the dead King John and adopted it as his own. The emblem consisted of three white feathers in a crown, accompanied by the motto “Ich Dien” – “I serve”. It has remained the emblem of the Prince of Wales ever since.