Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Battle of Poitiers, 19th September 1356

By some miracle, I've actually managed to catch an anniversary date. This one is for The Battle of Poitiers, fought on this day in 1356 between an English army led by Edward of Woodstock - later known as The Black Prince - and a French army led by King Jean II of France.

As anyone with a passing knowledge of the period knows, Poitiers was one of those smashing English victories that looked impressive on the day, but had less long-term effect on the course of the war. In some ways a chivalrous affair, with many pretty speeches uttered and a large number of noble French prisoners captured rather than slaughtered, it's difficult to drag such a famous battle out of the realms of cliché and make it come alive for a reader. Still, I'll have a go.  

The Battle of Poitiers

In 1356 Prince Edward landed in France with a small army and started to ravage the surrounding countryside from his base in Aquitaine. These 'chevauchée' tactics, invented by his father Edward III, essentially consisted of obliterating everything within a certain area - burning, looting, slaughtering, and practicing all the other chivalrous techniques of the era. The idea was to strip anything of value, rob the enemy of his ability to subsist off the land, and terrify the local populace into surrender. It generally worked well for the English, and Edward's army met with little resistance as it carved a fire-blackened path of death and destruction, all the way to the Loire River at Tours.  

At this point it started to rain. Frustrated in their desire to burn the castle and town, Edward and his fellow arsonists were obliged to lay siege. This gave King John II of France time to bring his army down from Normandy to Chartres, dismissing thousands of his slow-moving peasant infantry on the way. The key was speed, for John wanted to trap the crafty English before they could get away. . 

Tomb effigy of the Black Prince

Being gentlemen, both parties held negotiations before gearing up to slaughter each other. Little came of them, though one French noble named Geoffrey de Charny suggested a chivalrous alternative to fighting a battle:

"Lords," (saideth Geoffrey), "since it is so that this treaty pleases you no more, I make offer that we fight you, a hundred against a hundred, choosing each one from his own side. And know well, whichever hundred be discomfited, all the others, know for sure, shall quit the field and let the quarrel be."

Such challenges were not unusual - the famous Combat of the Thirty in Brittany, in which thirty Anglo-Breton knights and thirty French knights chivalrously murdered each other on a fair open field, took place just a few years earlier - but on this occasion everyone dismissed it as a daft idea. The talking ended, and all was set for a big fight in a muddy field. 

As usual, sources disagree on the actual numbers of the armies, but it seems likely that the English had about five thousand men, as opposed to twice or even three times the number of French. The famous chronicler Jean Froissart lists the names of the lords who fought on both sides, and it sounds a pretty formidable gathering. Froissart claims there were twenty-six earls and dukes on King John's side, though like many medieval writers he has a tendency to exaggerate. What is clear is that the English were in a tight spot. 

Prince Edward was as capable a soldier as his father, and arranged his dismounted archers and men-at-arms behind a series of dykes and hedgerows. He clearly intended to fight a defensive battle, as at Crécy a decade earlier, and hoped that the French would charge forward in their usual dashing style and break their teeth on his defences. 

It was at this point, with the massed ranks of the French host advancing in a huge glittering tide, that an English soldier nervously remarked that things weren't looking great. Edward turned on the man and spat: "Fool! Thou liest, if thou sayest that we can be conquered as long as I live!"

No-one ever accused the Plantagenets of lacking confidence. 

Some sources suggest that Edward cleverly provoked the French into attacking by ordering his baggage train to move away from the English army, tricking the French into thinking that their enemies were trying to scarper. Whatever the reason, the French had learned little from Crécy and came on in the same old style, mounted knights to the fore. 

The English (and Welsh) longbowmen poured volleys of arrows at them, but apparently the arrows had little effect, pinging off the heavy French armour or breaking on impact. Frustrated, the archers switched to shooting at the flanks of the French horses. This worked like a charm. Hundreds of the poor beasts were mowed down, throwing their riders and halting the French charge in its tracks. 

Despite the falling horses and the arrows whizzing about his head, the Dauphin bravely led his men on to the hedges to close with the Earl of Salisbury's division. The heavily-armed French tried to batter their way through, hacking and stabbing with sawn-off lances, broadswords, glaives and other murderous tools, and the English archers and men-at-arms responded with interest. Two hours of toe-to-toe bludgeoning followed, at the end of which the French were forced to retreat, leaving scores of dead and wounded strewn in heaps behind them. 

Sadly for the French, it was at this point that everything started to fall apart. Their army was arranged into three divisions, and the second wave under the Duke of Orléans was supposed to go in after the failure of the first. Instead, seeing their comrades retreat, the Duke's men panicked and started to flee. 

Only the third French division remained intact. This was led by the King in person, and large enough to take on the English by itself. Ignoring the ruins of the rest of his army, King John ordered his men forward. By this time the English archers were running low on arrows. One more push might just be enough to send the accursed 'goddams' (contemporary French slang for the English invaders) scrambling back to Albion

The capture of King John 

Prince Edward had no intention of allowing the French a second wind. He was still outnumbered, and his men were exhausted after hours of heavy fighting, but he had deliberately kept back a reserve of cavalry led by the Captal de Buch. While the French were in disarray, he sent these men to work their way around the edges of the battlefield and hit the enemy in flank and rear. At the same time, Edward put himself at the head of his weary, bloodied, mud-spattered knights, and ordered them to charge. Not many generals could scrape together a rabble of exhausted men and goad them on to one last effort against overwhelming numbers, but Edward was one of the bravest and best soldiers his dynasty managed to produce, and hauled his troops up by their boot-straps. 

A frontal attack from the English was the last thing King John expected, and his men were stunned as the goddams came streaming out from behind their half-wrecked barriers and charged his division. At the same time the Captal de Buch's cavalry burst from the surrounding woods and got busy with lance and sword. 

To his credit, King John refused to yield, and kept on fighting even as the remains of his army were gutted. His son, Prince Philip, fought beside him, yelling "Guard to the left, father! Guard to the right!" as the English knights and their allies swarmed around the French banner, every one of them eager to capture the king. 

At last, with every French knight around him taken prisoner or killed - Geoffrey de Charny was cut down while he tried to defend the royal banner - John was obliged to yield. There was a scrum of knights desperate to take his sword and accept his surrender, but he chose to give himself up to one Sir Denis Morbeke, a delightfully chivalrous character who had previously fled France on a charge of murder. John gave this knight his gauntlet. With that, the battle was over save for the usual chivalrous cutting of throats and stripping of the dead. 

Shortly afterwards, Prince Edward wrote a letter to his father in London modestly claiming to have 'discomfited' the French and captured the King of France and his son. The subsequent joy in England was unrestrained. With the destruction of another French army and the capture of King John, Edward III's reign had reached its glittering peak. He now had two kings in custody - the King of Scots was already a prisoner - and his armies and navies reigned supreme on land and sea. It was all a far cry from the sorry depths that England had fallen into during the reign of his father, Edward II. Nothing would be quite so good for for him, or the English cause in France, after this point. 

As for the French, they eventually recovered their fortunes, but the immediate aftermath of Poitiers was miserable. The country now lay open to the ravages of the English and the bands of savage mercenaries known as the Free Companies . As a French chronicler stated:

"...From that time on all went wrong with the kingdom and the state was undone. Thieves and robbers rose up everywhere in the land. The nobles despised and hated all others and took no thought for the mutual usefulness and profit of lord and men. They subjected and despoiled the peasants and the men of the villages. In no wise did they defend their country from enemies. Rather did they trample it underfoot, robbing and pillaging the peasants..." 

Sounds like fun, eh? Happy Anniversary! 


  1. A fascinating tale, told with detail and wit!

  2. As always pure joy to read, David! Thank you... Would you mind if I shared it on my personal FB?

    1. Thank you Kasia! Please do share it. Sorry I have been not very communicative recently :)

  3. Do not feel sorry. You are a writer, for God's sake ;-)

  4. Thanks for drawing attention to Poitiers. Because Shakespeare didn't write about it, people are more familiar with Agincourt, although Poitiers was more significant. Incidently, some historians believe the speech Shakespeare put in Henry V's mouth before Agincourt was based on Chandos' Herald's account of Edward's speech to his troops before Poitiers.

    I will note, however, that Edward wasn't just on a raid when he was caught at Poitiers; he was trying to meet up with the forces of the Duke of Lancaster, who had landed in Normandy. THe strategic plan was to cut France in two.

    1. Thanks Helena - it was written in a bit of a hurry, and I knew I had missed some context! I expect whole essays could (and have been) written about the Poitiers campaign.

  5. great description, why are not there more books and films about these characters and many other fascinating stories than more books / movies about Henry VIII (even I, who am fascinated by the Tudors, cannot stand anymore stories about him and his 6 wives) or the thousands of books on Richard III.

    1. Very true. Certain historical figures are far too exposed, while others are ignored. The Black Prince would make an epic subject for a drama.

  6. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.