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The battle of Crécy, August 26, 1346, is the prelude of a dynastic quarrel which will oppose for more than a century the kings of France and England. Act I of the Hundred Years War, which had the effect of a thunderclap in Christendom, will take place on a battlefield in northern France, near Crécy-en-Ponthieu (today ' hui in the Somme). First major engagement of the war, this Franco-English battle takes place after the second invasion of France by the King of England Edward III. It will be the start of a long series of defeats for the French knighthood.
Prelude to the Hundred Years' War
In 1328, the death without heir of Charles IV of France caused a major break in the long line of Capetian rulers, the latter succeeding each other until then from father to son since Hugues Capet in the 10th century. Now, if all the sons of Philip IV the Fair had died young and without an heir (Louis X had a son, John, but he died at 4 days old) his daughter Isabelle, wife of Edward II of England had she gave birth to Edward III, who became King of England following his father. Wasn't he also entitled to reign over France? An election bringing together the great aristocrats of the kingdom of France preferred Philippe de Valois, grandson of another king of France, Philippe III le Bold, but who was therefore only the first cousin of the late king of France.
The rivalry between the kingdom of France and the kingdom of England was already in secular times. The clashes between the two powers date back to the reign of Louis VI the Fat in the 12th century and reached a first paroxysm under Philippe Auguste. Following the election of Philippe VI of Valois to the throne of France, tensions resume (it must be said that they have never really fallen since Saint Louis) around the thorny question of homage. Edward III of England was indeed to declare himself vassal of the King of France by virtue of his territorial possessions in the kingdom (Guyenne). But for the kings of England, this humiliating ritual for their power had to disappear. The fact that a king had to pay homage to another was in the present case a strangeness of the feudal system but finding a completely logical explanation; the Plantagenet dynasty is of French origin and therefore vassal of the crown of France.
The first hostilities
It all began with Henri II Plantagenêt, father of the famous Richard the Lionheart, who was originally Count of Maine and Anjou, then Duke of Normandy upon his father's death, and finally Duke of Aquitaine, who, after his marriage to Aliénor became king of England (he was also grandson of Henri Ier Beauclerc, king of England and great rival of Louis VI the Fat). It is therefore in this imbroglio that the election of Philippe VI provoked a rupture. The new king of England having been removed from the throne by virtue of the Salic law (prohibition of succession by women) benefited from the tendentious aspect of the manipulation and the uncertain power of Philip.
The tensions led to the first hostilities which began with the proclamation by Philippe of the seizure of the French domains from the King of England on May 24, 1337. The first operations were laborious and especially composed of sieges and seizures of towns around the domains of Edward in Guyenne. The fighting changed in intensity in the north of the kingdom, in Flanders where the King of England knew he could find supporters by playing on the resentment of this province against the French crown (it should be remembered that since Philippe IV especially Flanders is regularly invested by the French armies to bring it back into obedience, the Capetians fearing its links with England) especially as Philippe won there at the beginning of his reign on August 23, 1328 the battle of Cassel.
Édouard therefore exploited this county as a rear base and in 1339 launched a cavalcade (rapid devastation offensive) that Philippe countered by raising an army in front of which Edward defeated. The year 1340 was calamitous for the King of France since his fleet was annihilated by the English who had to keep for a long time still the mastery of the seas and could therefore disembark wherever they wanted. It was then in the South West that Earl Derby, under Edward's orders, performed further feats for the English camp by warding off the French threat to Guyenne. In Brittany, the two competitors also clashed, each supporting a claimant to the duchy. However, it was only in 1346 that the war took on a new dimension.
On the strength of his mastery of the seas, the King of England chose to land in Cotentin on July 12. He then embarked on a dazzling offensive from west to east, plundering the outskirts of Paris before returning to the north loaded with loot. After many procrastinations stemming from his fears towards loyalties which he thinks faltering in his nobility, the fruit of his ambiguous seizure of power, Philippe finally hastily raised a host and launched himself in pursuit of the King of England to force him to fight. The pursuit then took a very different turn; the English army comes up against stubborn resistance on the passage of the Somme from the Picards, alerted by the columns of smoke enamelling the road of the King of England. He tries to force the passage on several bridges but he is pushed back each time.
At the same time Philippe keeps getting closer. He thinks he can corner his opponent in a real net and face him decisively on his field. The English are also tired by skirmishes and forced marches. But this situation so favorable to Valois collapsed because of a poor prisoner, Gobin-Agache, who redeems his freedom by signaling a ford to a desperate Edward on August 23. The resistance is still very strong there but the English army ends up passing. It only remained for Philippe, master of the bridges, to go and stay in Abbeville.
The battle of Crécy
On August 25, Edward III resumed his journey and decided to settle in Crécy to wait for the King of France, whom he knew to be difficult to dodge further. But now he has the advantage of choosing the place of the confrontation. For their part, the French set in motion the next day with the firm intention of engaging in a glorious battle where they could demonstrate their valor before God and their king. They therefore walk all day for nearly 25 kilometers before joining the perfectly aligned battles of the English.
Along the way, scouts reported to Philippe that the enemy was far away and that the army was going to be exhausted in a vain advance, only to arrive on the battlefield very late. They suggest to the king to stop and set up a camp for the night since the English would still be there the next day. Philippe then gives the order to stop. But discipline is not the hallmark of the French aristocracy, and the organization does not preside over the constitution of the feudal osts.
Most of the French army continued on its way and Philippe VI de Valois was forced to follow suit. It was therefore in the evening that the French came into contact with Edward’s army, although the column still stretched out on the Abbeville road. The marshals and Philippe have the greatest difficulty forming the ranks. For their part, the English waited there all day. Edward, receiving regular reports from his scouts, even broke ranks during the day so that everyone could eat and quench their thirst at will. While the French trudge along the dusty paths of this hot and stifling day of August 26, 1346, the English await them sitting down. The contrast is therefore striking between well-ordered, well-rested Englishmen and a dispersed, chaotic and completely exhausted French army.
Philippe had bought the Genoese crossbowmen competition at a gold price to complete his host and therefore once again oppose the Welsh archers. The lesson of the naval battle of the Lock does not seem to have been learned. The large arch of the archers, two meters high, allowed a great rate of fire with a very important power. The crossbow, although more powerful, required slow reloading, sometimes using a crank to tighten the overpowered steel bow. In Crécy the meeting will once again demonstrate the superiority of the former.
The Genoese are sent forward to engage the English archers. The volleys of arrows, very dense, quickly do their job and the mercenaries, whose minted engagement did not incline to feats of courage, broke ranks and fled in disorder. But behind them came the compact ranks of French knights. Seeing the cowardice of the mercenaries and with the blessing of Philippe they massacred them, under a rain of English arrows which did not cease falling.
Froissard even tells us that none of them missed their mark in this compact mass. Jean de Luxembourg, blind but all the same on horseback, would have said having heard of this affair “poor beginning” ... From this tangle some manage to extricate themselves and charge on this hill where the English have been fortified. They advance under a hail of arrows that the defensive equipment does not yet really manage to deflect. They were received by rows of stakes driven into the ground which broke the first assaults cleanly and quickly delivered the first knights to the knives and daggers of the English footed people.
The powerful charge of the French knights, once invincible, had suffered for some time already in the face of new tactical arrangements as was the case in 1302 in Kortrijk where the Flemish pedestrians had massacred the French army in what remained the battle to the spurs of 'gold. The English had also received a lesson during the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 against the Scots, but if it had been profitable for them, for the French nothing had changed especially since the humiliation had been avenged twice.
It was going to take many more massacres for the chivalrous institution not to be called into question. The charges multiplied and each came to smash on the stakes offering the French aristocrats to the blows of the foot. Finally a body of cavalry ends up crossing the dam. The French knights could then make speak all their valor and their courage, the battle took for them a more conventional turn.
The battle of the Black Prince was tested and he himself had to work hard. But the French were too few in number on this point to jeopardize the English ordinance and they all ended up being killed. Faced with the inability of his army to jostle the enemy, in the twilight of the evening, Philippe VI resigned himself to leaving the battlefield defeated and vexed, leaving the last irreducible knights to continue their desperate fight. He went through the countryside and found refuge in the castle of Labroye then in Amiens. The battle turned into a disaster; Edward III did not even have to engage in his own battle remained behind in reserve.
The consequences of the battle of Crécy
The French nobility has once again been crushed, at the same time delivering the French royalty to a deep crisis of conscience. In fact, Philippe VI no longer risked finding the English in the open countryside and no longer had the slightest initiative in this war. Following his triumph at Crécy, Edward III laid siege to Calais which fell eleven months later. Philippe had indeed assembled a relief army, but fearing the English power he preferred to withdraw without a fight. Calais was to remain English until 1557, thus forming an excellent bridgehead for the English monarchy to plan new attacks on French territory.
The greatest Western power had therefore just been completely defeated, bringing out its weaknesses in full light; its old feudal organization against which the royal power had difficulty in asserting itself, especially in the present case where its succession was tendentious. The best interest of the state was still an unknown concept, and private interest was yet to poison the conflict for the king of France's camp. Militarily, obviously Crécy once again marks the end of the tactics of a massive charge in the face of an organized and motivated enemy. In this case, the English flocks of arrows undermined the heavy knights who, once violently fallen from their horses, were often too stunned to get up quickly enough. The honorable war had just been cruelly recalled to the harsh reality of the circumstances of reality.
- Great battles in the history of France, by Bernard Vincent. Southwest, 2014.
- The Hundred Years' War, by Georges Minois. Tempus, 2016.
- Philippe Contamine, Military History of France. PUF, 1997