The battle that took place in the little village of Crecy in the Somme is legendary. A story of omens, a blind King, a boy prince and a battle that seemed doomed for the English invaders in France.
I took a tour with local guide and historian Gary Ashley and he started with a brief explanation of the Hundred Years War and the events that led up to Crecy.
Let battle commence
Under the Salic Law of 14th Century France only a male heir could inherit the throne. When the then French King died leaving no child but a pregnant queen, everyone waited impatiently for the result and none more so that Edward III King of England. The baby was born – a girl, and Edward famously declared “By the Grace of God – I will be King”, via his sister’s line to the French throne.
On 12 July 1346, Edward invaded Normandy, landing at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. He appeared to have no real plan but took Caen just 14 days later – the English troops had been pillaging and looting the entire time.
Edward marched his men up the Seine, around 9000 of them it is thought. Gary tells me “you could smell the army two miles before it got to you”. The enraged French King Philip VI and his troops, estimated at some 30,000 men, pursued the English who made for Calais which was under English rule. Henry’s army consisted of mainly English and Welsh soldiers versus an army of French, Bohemians, Flemings, Germans, Savoyards and Luxemburgers.
After several days of marching Edward’s army reached Crecy en Ponthieu. He decided to stop and fight despite being massively outnumbered.
As we stood at the bottom of the hilly fields that now look up to Crecy en Ponthieu in the sunshine, surrounded by rows of potatoes and wheat, wild meadow flowers gently swaying in the breeze, Gary started to paint a picture of the fateful day of the Battle of Crecy….
A bad omen
The French were considered to have the bravest Knights in Europe. They were brilliant in tournament. Fighting as individuals they were virtually unbeatable. As a group, not so good. The French had many mercenaries in their ranks, including crossbowmen commanded by a Grimaldi. The men wore emblazoned, brightly coloured clothes, a full face of armour, chain mail. And there was a large element of horses – particularly on the French side.
The French army stopped at the town of Crecy at the bottom of the hill. The English were at the top of the hill, having arrived the day before and rested. It was said that the line of French troops was so long that as the first men arrived, the last men were still in Abbeville 10 miles away.
As the troops prepared for battle on that foggy day, a swarm of black crows flew up – the French saw this as a bad omen…
Edward III rode his white charger around the English camp telling his men they had the moral right to win. He instructed them to dig numerous small holes down the hill where the French would have to climb. Stone cannonballs were lined up for use in the primitive canons they had. The archers were prepped. The battle plan drawn up.
But it wasn’t all good news. The English side were suffering from dysentery. They were as much as a quarter of the size of the French. They were tired. The odds were stacked against them.
A surprising outcome
On the French side, though a superior force, they were tired from marching. And not all their men had arrived by the time the battle began. Commanded by the French King, supported by the Blind King John of Bohemia and his men – who despite his handicap was an experienced leader, there were numerous aristocrats and their men in the ranks.
The battle began. The French raced in with the cry “God and St Denis”. The English battle cry was “God and St George.”
The charging French horses led by the Blind King John of Bohemia fell into the holes dug by the English earlier (“he didn’t see that coming” Gary says drily). Numerous injuries resulted, including the Blind King who died the next day. Legend has it that his personal crest (a pair of black wings) and motto Ich dien (“I Serve”) were adopted and modified by the Black Prince. Ever since they have been part of the badge of the Prince of Wales. The phrase “to fight blindly” came from the battle and the death of a blind warrior king.
Edward’s 16 year old son, later to become known as the Black Prince, the Prince of Wales, was in charge of his own division. At one point he appeared to need support but his father was confident in his son’s abilities even at that age. He famously refused to send help saying “let the boy win his spurs”.
The battle ploughed on. The English fought hard and smart utilising their position, their weapons. The French King was wounded and ordered a retreat. Crecy became a land of history.
Although it wasn’t really a big battle it was important because of the role of the infantry in battle. Foot soldiers took a more important role and supported the cavalry, working as a unit. It was an innovative way to do battle and a watershed event in terms of military warfare. It was also a battle in which the English lost very few men compared to the French who lost thousands including the Kings of Bohemia and Majorca, the Duke of Lorraine, the Count of Flanders, the Count of Blois, eight other counts and three archbishops.
We walked to the tower where Edward III is said to have established his lookout in an old mill, looking down the hills. We went into the town where a monument stands from the 13th Century. It would have been there when the battle took place. It’s incredible to think that those battle of Crecy soldiers, if they returned today, would recognise it still.
At the centre Historique Crecy la Bataille, you can discover all about the battle right where it took place. There’s also a section on local archeology and regular exhibitions. It’s a fascinating visit. crecylabataille.com
Don’t miss a visit to the nearby Centre Azincourt 1415, about 30 minutes by car. It’s the other most important battle of the 100 years war, a legendary event. The museum is dedicated to the history of the Battle of Agincourt as well as life in the Middle Ages. It’s a must see for all history buffs and perfect for families. azincourt1415.com