BATTLE OF POITIERS
Poitiers and its surroundings are geographically located in such a way that they connect the north and the south of France. Seuil du Poitou lies between two hills, and is more accessible than they are. Therefore, the battles near Poitiers took place regularly, but today we are interested in the one that took place on September 19, 1356. It was one of the episodes of the Hundred Years’ War, which got its name a long time later, while at the times it was in process, contemporaries saw it as a series of military conflicts between England and France held mainly for French lands. Continental lands, as they are called by the British. In that battle, Britain was represented by Edward, the Black Prince, the French army was led by King John the Good.
Having succeeded in the destruction, sieges and other cute actions, Edward was forced to retreat in the end, as his troops on march were chased by John the Good, who was not very pleased with the situation. Edward had to take the battle, and it was won by the British, despite the fact that the French army was five times bigger. The most famous French knights were killed in the battle, which was expected to be won by the French, and the King John was taken prisoner by the English.
Edward troops that included less than ten thousand men managed to kill and dispel army of King John consisting of 50000 men, take John the Good prisoner, and get a huge ransom, that almost undermined the economy of France. And that's not counting the spoils taken by the British in this campaign beyond all contracts!
The battle is remarkable among a huge number of other battles of the Hundred Years’ War due to brilliant tactics of Edward, which allowed him to win even having less warriors.
As for the famous English archers, according to the chronicles they weren’t good in this battle: they had few good arrows, while the French had a lot of good armor, so the arrow shooting didn’t give any remarkable results.
At dawn on September 19, 1356, an English army found itself trapped and facing battle outside the city of Poitiers in central France. The soldiers were so short of water they had given their horses wine to drink just to keep the beasts alive. Even drunken horses were better than dead ones.
There was a river close by, but it was impossible to carry enough water for 6,000 men and thousands of horses up the steep hill to the position where the English were trapped. The enemy, the army of France, was almost twice as strong. But that would not stop the English force from fighting its way to one of the greatest victories in our military history.
It has always seemed strange to me that we remember the Battle of Crecy and we celebrate the Battle of Agincourt, but most people seem to have forgotten Poitiers — the other great victory in the Hundred Years War — yet it was just as remarkable a triumph. In some ways, even more so.
Savage: A 14th century illustration shows the Battle of Poitiers, between the French and the English in 1356
At Agincourt, the English were outnumbered at least five to one, but the fighting at Poitiers was much harder. For the French nobles were desperate to drive their hated foe from the land and back across the Channel after years of bloody conquest.
Their king, Jean II, was a little more circumspect, for he could remember the crushing defeat the English had inflicted at Crecy in northern France ten years earlier. On that occasion, a 16-year-old Edward of Woodstock, the Prince of Wales — son of Edward III — had made a name for himself. Since then, the French had tended to avoid battle because they feared the deadly accuracy of the English longbowmen. So they shut themselves behind stone walls in castles and fortified towns. The English response was to mount raids known as chevauchees.
The army advanced slowly across the countryside; killing, pillaging, raping. In 1355, the prince had led one such assault across southern France, from the English base at Bordeaux to the Mediterranean and back. They had captured castles and towns, burned villages, and taken vast amounts of plunder in a relentless expedition.
Highlighting: We ought to remember Poitiers, says Bernard Cornwell, creator of Captain Richard Sharpe
Such a chevauchee achieved three things: it enriched the invaders, it weakened the enemy’s economy and so reduced the amount he could tax his subjects, and finally, it might, just might, tempt the enemy to come out of their castles and face the English in open battle.
That is what happened in 1356 when the Prince of Wales, by then an accomplished commander in his mid-20s, struck north out of Gascony, which was English territory, and aimed his rapacious army at the heartland of France, a dagger thrust towards Paris.
The plan was to join up with another English army coming out of Normandy, but that plan failed when violent weather forced the prince to retreat back to Gascony. The French king assembled his army and followed.
The English were travel-weary, the French were fresh. The English were weighed down by wagonloads of plunder, and so King Jean II’s army slowly overtook the prince’s army until, on September 17, the two armies were so close that a battle seemed unavoidable.
The prince, knowing the French were close, had taken refuge on a high, wooded ridge close to the village of Nouaille. It was a strong position.
An enemy wanting to attack him would need to come uphill through tangling vineyards and, more importantly, the English had massed behind a thick hedge, which represented a fearsome obstacle for any attacker.
The prince — who came to be known long after his death as the Black Prince — may have taken up a strong position, but the evidence still suggests he would have preferred to avoid battle because of his inferior numbers.
But the French were also wary of those devastating English longbows that unleashed ash-shafted, steel-tipped arrows with fearsome accuracy.
The French crossbowmen were no match.
At Crecy, the French had attacked on horseback and the English arrows had ripped into the stallions, causing dreadful pain, death and horror. So at Poitiers, the French resolved to fight largely on foot, because a man’s armour would be more likely to stop the arrows.
And it was on the morning of September 19 that the French king overcame his doubts and ordered an attack.
Seeking to protect his plunder, the Prince had ordered part of his army and his baggage train to cross the river and march away southwards. But the river crossing went wrong, the planned English retreat was stalled and the French soon saw the commotion in the valley. They sent horsemen to attack the English left wing, and ordered an uphill advance on the main position.
Fictional work: Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe in the television programme 'Sharpe' based on the books written by Bernard Cornwell. The Battle of Poitiers had begun. The Chandos Herald, the poem written about the life of the Black Prince, describes it thus: ‘Then began the shouting, and noise and clamour raised and the armies began to draw near. Then on both sides they began to shoot; there were many a creature who that day was brought to his end.’ The first French attacks were by cavalry mounted on thundering warhorses that would have made the ground shake as they thundered across the field — a terrifying sight for the line of Englishmen waiting to receive them. The French had collected their most heavily armoured stallions, ridden by plate-armoured men, who made their charges with the intention of shattering the archers on the English wings. For a time, it worked. The horses were hung with leather and mail, their faces guarded by plate armour, but only the fronts of the beasts were so protected. As soon as the archers realised the animals’ flanks and rears were unarmoured, they moved to the side and shot the attackers into bloody ruin — as scores of horses collapsed under their masters in floundering terror.
English men-at-arms moved into the chaos and slaughtered fallen riders. And it was a gruesome business. Death came through horrific injuries inflicted by lead-weighted maces and battle-axes, hammers, spikes, poles and knives.
But this was no more than a setback for the French, whose main attack did not depend on the horsemen.
It was made by armoured men advancing on foot, and we know that this attack reached the prince’s line, and that there was savage hand-to-hand fighting that lasted some hours while exhausted men slashed, stabbed and wrestled for their lives.
That French attack on foot was led by the dauphin — the king’s heir — but it failed to break the disciplined English line. Eventually the king, seeing that his eldest son’s attack had not broken the enemy, ordered the dauphin to retreat to nearby Poitiers, where he would be safe from capture.
But King Jean himself was in no mood to abandon the struggle. He marched his men up the slope and through gaps in the thick hedge, where they flung themselves on to the exhausted English line.
The close fighting began again, but the English prince was a master strategist, and chose this moment to unleash a surprise attack that would turn the tide decisively in his favour.
He sent about 200 horsemen around the rear of the French army — led by a Gascon lord but including some English archers. They managed to reach the enemy’s rear without being detected, and then they charged. When they slammed into the back of the king’s force of infantry, the French panicked and fled.
Hundreds of English soldiers then mounted their horses and followed, and in a nearby field — called the Champ d’Alexandre — the flower of French chivalry was cut down. It was a slaughteryard, and at its end 2,500 were dead, and half the great lords of France were among the 3,000 prisoners taken by the English, as was King Jean himself.
He was forcibly taken to London and paraded through the streets before being thrown in the Tower, to show what Englishmen had achieved near Poitiers on that September day in 1356.
The tale of the Black Prince’s victory is a magnificent story, unfairly forgotten, but worth remembering. Because there was a battle, long ago, and great deeds were done.
The weapon of the English and Welsh archers was a six foot yew bow discharging a feathered arrow of a cloth metre. The rate of fire was up to an arrow every 5 seconds. For close quarter fighting the archers used hammers or daggers.
Winner: The English and Gascons decisively won the battle.
Account: Edward III, King of England, began the Hundred Years War, claiming the throne of France on the death of King Philip IV in 1337. The war finally ended in the middle of the 15th Century with the eviction of the English from France, other than Calais, and the formal abandonment by the English monarchs of their claims to French territory.
The war began well for Edward III with the decisive English victories at Sluys in 1340 and Creçy in 1346 and the capture of Calais in 1347. In the late 1340s the plague epidemic, called the Black Death, decimated the populations of France and England, bringing military operations to a halt; one of the plague’s victims being the French king Philip VI.
In 1355 King Edward III again planned for an invasion of France. His son, Edward the Black Prince, now an experienced soldier 26 years of age, landed at Bordeaux in Western France and led his army on a march through Southern France to Carcassonne. Unable to take the walled city, the Black Prince returned to Bordeaux. In early 1356 the Duke of Lancaster landed with a second force in Normandy and began to advance south. Edward III was engaged in fighting in Scotland.
The new king of France, John I, led an army against Lancaster forcing him to withdraw towards the coast. King John then turned to attack the Black Prince, who was advancing north east towards the Loire pillaging the countryside as he went.
In early September 1356 King John reached the Loire with his large army, just as the Black Prince turned back towards Bordeaux. The French army marched hard and overtook the unsuspecting English force at Poitiers on Sunday 18th September 1356.
The local prelate, Cardinal Talleyrand de Périgord, attempted to broker terms of settlement between the two armies; but the Black Prince’s offer of handing over all the booty he had taken on his “chevauchée” and maintaining a truce for 7 years was unacceptable to King John who considered the English would have little chance against his overwhelming army, and the French demand that the Black Prince surrender himself and his army was unacceptable to the English. The two armies prepared for battle.
The English army was an experienced force; many of the archers veterans of Creçy, ten years before, and the Gascon men-at-arms commanded by Sir John Chandos, Sir James Audley and Captal de Buche, all old soldiers.
The Black Prince arranged his force in a defensive position among the hedges and orchards of the area, his front line of archers disposed behind a particularly prominent thick hedge through which the road ran at right angles.
King John was advised by his Scottish commander, Sir William Douglas, that the French attack should be delivered on foot, horses being particularly vulnerable to English archery, the arrows fired with a high trajectory falling on the unprotected necks and backs of the mounts. King John took this advice, his army in the main leaving its horses with the baggage and forming up on foot.
The French attack began in the early morning of Monday 19th September 1356 with a mounted charge by a forlorn hope of 300 German knights commanded by two Marshals of France; Barons Clermont and Audrehem. The force reached a gallop, closing in to charge down the road into the centre of the English position. The attack was a disaster, with those knights not shot down by the English archers dragged from their horses and killed or secured as prisoners for later ransom.
The rest of the French army now began its ponderous advance on foot, in accordance with Douglas’ advice, arrayed in three divisions; the first led by the Dauphin Charles (the son of the King), the second by the Duc D’Orleans and the third, the largest, by the King himself.
The first division reached the English line exhausted by its long march in heavy equipment, much harassed by the arrow fire of the English archers. The Black Prince’s soldiers, Gascon men-at-arms and English and Welsh archers, rushed forward to engage the French, pushing through the hedgerow and spilling round the flanks to attack the French in the rear.
After a short savage fight the Dauphin’s division broke and retreated, blundering into the division of the Duc D’Orleans marching up behind, both divisions falling back in confusion.
The final division of the French army, commanded by the king himself, was the strongest and best controlled. The three divisions coalesced and resumed the advance against the English, a formidable mass of walking knights and men-at-arms.
Thinking that the retreat of the first two divisions marked the end of the battle, the Black Prince had ordered a force of knights commanded by the Gascon, Captal de Buche, to mount and pursue the French. Chandos urged the Prince to launch this mounted force on the main body of the French army. The Black Prince seized on Chandos’ idea and ordered all the knights and men-at-arms to mount for the charge. The horses were ordered up from the rear; in the meantime Captal de Buch’s men, already mounted, were ordered to advance around the French flank to the right.
As the French army toiled up to the hedgerow the English force broke through the hedge and struck the French like a thunderbolt, the impetus of the charge taking the mounted knights and men-at-arms right into the French line. Simultaneously Captal de Buch’s Gascons charged in on the French flank. The English and Welsh archers left their bows and ran forward to join the fight, brandishing their daggers and fighting hammers.
The French army broke up, many leaving the field, while the more stalwart knights fought hard in isolated groups. A mass of fugitives made for Poitiers pursued by the mounted Gascons to be slaughtered outside the closed city gates.
King John found himself alone with his 14 years old younger son Philip fighting an overwhelming force of Gascons and English. Eventually the king agreed to surrender.
The battle won, the English army gave itself up to pillaging the vanquished French knights and the lavish French camp.
Casualties: In his dispatch to King Edward III, his father, the Black Prince stated that the French dead amounted to 3,000 while only 40 of his troops had been killed. It is likely that the English casualties were higher. Among the French prisoners were King John, his son Philip, 17 great lords, 13 counts, 5 viscounts and a hundred other knights of significance.
Follow-up: On the night of the battle the Black Prince entertained the King of France and his son to dinner and the next day the English army resumed its march to Bordeaux.
The effect of the defeat on France and the loss of the King to captivity was devastating, leaving the country in the hands of the Dauphin Charles, escaped from the ruins of his division at Poitiers. Charles faced immediate revolts across the kingdom as he attempted to raise money to continue the war and ransom his father.
The release of King John proved difficult to negotiate as Edward III sought to extract more and more onerous terms from the French. Meanwhile the war continued to the misery of the wretched inhabitants of France.
King John was released in November 1361 against other hostages. Due to the default of one of those hostages John returned to London and died there in 1364.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
France was full of rovers--disbanded soldiers ready for anything that might turn up. Several times, at intervals, when Joan's dull captivity grew too heavy to bear, she was allowed to gather a troop of cavalry and make a health-restoring dash against the enemy. These things were a bath to her spirits.