As anyone with a passing knowledge of the period knows,
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. Poitiers
The Battle of Poitiers
In 1356 Prince Edward landed in
with a small army and started to ravage the surrounding countryside from his
base in .
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 Aquitaine Loire River
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 , 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. . Chartres
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
, 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. Brittany
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
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
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. France
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
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 England , after this point. France
As for the French, they eventually recovered their fortunes, but the immediate aftermath of
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: Poitiers
"...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