A day in the 100 Years War

Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Gisors, Haute-Normandie, France
I left the hotel after breakfast and drove 15 km north to Crécy (en Ponthieu) the site of the battle of 1346 that bears that name. An observation tower has been constructed just outside the town on the site of the windmill at the top of the hill from where the King Edward III of England directed his army in a defensive position. He had come to France with his army to press his claim to the French throne. The King of France, refused his claim of course, and marched to meet him.

There was an orientation table at the top of the tower, which showed the route of the French advance and their repeated attacks up the hill . This is farmland now as then, but the part of the field where the English lines had stood and where the hand-to-hand fighting took place was lying fallow in this season, so I felt free to go and walk the positions of the front line and down the hill a ways over the land where the French advanced and took such murderous casualties.

The 8 to 12,000 English stood at the top of the hill, their knights dismounted and fighting on foot. The French 30 to 40,000 strong including 7000 knights, assembled at the bottom of the hill after having advanced north from Abbeville. 6000 Genoese mercenary crossbowmen opened the attack, but a heavy rain had loosened their strings, they were shooting up hill and staring into a blinding sun, so their bolts were ineffective. The French king had not allowed them to bring forward their special large shields that they needed for protection while laboriously reloading their crossbows (which took about 30 seconds each time), so when the English and Welsh longbowmen fired back with great accuracy, the Italians took heave casualties and began withdrawing . This so angered the French nobles that they killed a few of the crossbowmen themselves, calling them cowards, and charged up the hill in disorganized masses.

An arrow from a longbow was capable of piercing the best armor available at the time, and in the mid 1300s the horses were scarcely armored at all. The thousands of archers shot at a high angle at first so the arrows would have come down at an angle at a range of 300 yards or perhaps even up to 400. They could shoot 10 arrows or more a minute, so that one archer might have 3 arrows in the air at the same time. They fell in clouds on the charging knight and horses, who fell thick on the field. About 16 charges were made between 4:00 pm and around midnight when it was finally too dark to see anything. Some charges made it all the way to the English lines where fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place. King Edward's son, 16 year-old Edward, called the Black Prince, commanded the English center and won his spurs that day . Edward was in danger several times, but his father wanted him to distinguish himself and declined to send reinforcements.

I stood near the point where Edward had commanded the English center. I tried to imaging what it would be like to stand against a charge of thundering knights intent on killing me.

Some place on the hillside fell John of Luxembourg, the King of Bohemia who had come with 500 knights in support of the King of France. John was old and blind, but went into battle anyway, guided by a knight on either side. He and his knights fell very early in the battle. The day after the battle Prince Edward found John’s body on the field and was moved by his example and his heraldic badge: the words "Ich dien" (“I serve” in old German). Edward took those words and the ostrich feathers that lined the old king’s helmet and made them his own heraldic badge. They became the badge of every Prince of Wales since then to the present .

I used that story as part of my graduation address when I finished my Bachelor’s Degree 25 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. It was a moving moment to be able to walk the field where those events occurred.

Some historians maintain that Crécy was the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of the chivalric dominance of the nobility in Europe. Up to that point a knight didn’t have much to fear in battle from anyone but another knight. But the longbow put paid to their impunity. Commoners could now destroy masses of nobility.

I took some photos on the field and then around town where there are some monuments. There is an old “cross of Behemia” in a field near a neighboring village. It honors the memory of old King John, whose last words were reported to be something to the effect of “get me close enough to strike a blow,” which he never did.

From Crécy I drove half an hour north to the village of Azincourt, which is where another famous battle from the Hundred Year’s War Agincourt as it’s called in English .

This battle happened on Friday, October 25th 1415, about 70 years after Crécy. King Henry V of England had again landed in France to press his claim to the French throne (or at least to enlarge his territories on the Continent). The French king was going mad, and two noble houses were fighting civil war. It seemed a good time for the English to press an attack. Henry landed with around 2000 infantry and 6000 archers. He besieged Harfleur (near modern Le Havre) and took it after a difficult siege during which many of his men sickened and or died of dysentery. He left a garrison and headed for Calais which was solidly English at the time. The French army gave chase with an army of 40,000 to 60,000 men of which around 20,000 were knights. AFter a cat an mouse chase the English were finally hemmed in and forced to fight. At Agincourt. It was a desperate situation, and seemed a lost cause to the English. A small, sick and tired army faced a well-rested, well-armed, supremely confident army up to 10 times as numerous, and bent on revenge for their defeats at Crécy and Poitiers. But the English who had tried to avoid battle, now had no choice but to fight.

Whether by design or chance the battlefield was very narrow, about 7-800 yards wide between two forests around the villages of Azincourt on one side and Tramécourt on the other. It had rained hard during the night, so the field was boggy and 20,000 horses milling around during the night had turned up the soil even more . On the English side men were praying and confessing, and setting their affairs in order as best they could. Henry told them the nobles would be ransomed if captured, but the commoners would be killed. So most didn’t think they’d survive the next day.

In the morning the English set their line in order, four men deep, about a half a mile from the French, archers mostly on the flanks and infantry mostly in the center. Each English longbowman had a large pointed stake which was pounded into the ground at an angle to prevent horses from charging among them. The French also waited. Both armies waited in place for several hours. During the wait Henry attended 3 masses. Finally Henry felt further delay would be to his disadvantage, so he ordered the archers to pull up their stakes and the whole army to advance to a line approximately between the Azincourt and Tramécourt. There they pounded their stakes in again (if the French had attacked at that time things might have turned out very differently) . With their defenses in place and set, the English longbowmen, now within range of the French began shooting.

The French were so numerous in the confined space that their lines were about 40 men deep! The French knights charged, some on horseback and some dismounted (having taken the lesson of Crécy). The field was so narrow that it was essentially only knights in plate that charged at first. As nobles they had priority, and with all of them on the field there was little room for French archers, crossbowmen or even lesser infantry.


It was another massacre. The French were so many they impeded each other’s movement. Many couldn’t even use their weapons properly because there was such a crush. And as men at the front line found themselves in trouble, they were still pushed from behind by others trying to engage. The French army walked over its own dead and wounded and they began piling up . Some accounts say the piles of bodies in some places reached the height of a man.

And again the longbow was decisive. But at times the lightly protected and nimble archers would leave their bows and run forward with spears and axes to finish off the knights encumbered by their plate armor. The English began taking many prisoners to be held for ransom. But when they had a great many prisoners, Henry became fearful of a new movement from the last rank of still fresh French soldiers, that might have freed and rearmed the prisoners. He ordered the prisoners killed, all except the highest ranking nobles. The English protested, probably mostly for financial reasons: they wanted the ransoms. But many of the prisoners were massacred. From a military point of view the act is defensible, but from a humanitarian point of view, it was not Henry’s finest hour.

The French retired. The English army pillaged and stripped the dead, and during the night the French peasants joined in. The chroniclers state that in the morning most of the thousands of dead on the field were completely naked.

The English moved on to Calais, and the war continued.

Agincourt was important in English history, a defining moment. A small, outnumbered and weary army prays to God and fights under a courageous king, and wins a crushing victory. Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and has been made on film several times.

The battle field today is very similar to what it would have been in 1415. The forests and villages are still where they were. The castle of Azincourt is gone, but the rest is very similar. I got oriented on the field and imagined each phase of the battle, driving along from village to village and from one side to another.

I drove into Fruges a few km away for lunch. The only place I could find was the café du centre. They only offered two choices for a first course and two choices for the main course, no menu. So I had quiche and beef bourguignon. The food was ok but not great to be honest, but it was inexpensive and as I finished the main course the waitress asked if I’d had enough. She would have brought more if I were still hungry. That’s unusual for French restaurants, but this is la France profonde (“deep France” doesn’t quite do the phrase justice). A glass of red wine was only 1 Euro, also very unusual.

I then drove back to Azincourt where there is a medieval history center, which I found very interesting. They have exhibits about longbows and crossbows, and the armor of the time. They have an exhibit where one can pull on a rope to feel the strength it takes to pull a 50 pound bow. It has been established that the English longbow had a 100 pound pull or even more. The longbowman was a very strong athlete, who had to practice every day from a young age. A bow with a hundred pound pull firing tempered steel arrow tips could put a shaft right through even plate armor.

As an interesting bit of trivia: the practice of showing one’s middle finger (apparently sometimes the English use two fingers) as a sign of insult probably comes from the days of the longbow. That finger (or fingers) was used to draw the bow string. The French let it be known that they would cut those fingers from the right hand of any archer captured in battle. So for the English, flipping the bird was a reminder of the crushing defeats inflicted by the commoner longbowmen on the nobility of France. If our hooligans only knew the history behind that crass gesture….

It was a very interesting, educational and thought-provoking day. Tomorrow I fly on to Bordeaux to continue with the trip.

Comments

Tatiana Meeker
2009-11-19

To my dad the history buff :) haha
I'm glad your trip's going well so far. I love you and miss you!

Roger Hearn
2010-10-28

my brother made a replica longbow and it was quite hard to pull, and that was only rated at 50lbs, these archers must have been walking power houses to be pulling 100+lb long bows with such speed and accuracy...

joelmeeker
2010-10-28

I've read that developing the muscle strength required to pull those longbows brought even about modifications to the skeletal system that could be noticed when remains were examined after death. Strong men.

2022-07-01