“Come on, John (Chandos), come on. You won’t see me hanging back. It’s forward now!” Then he called to his banner-bearer, “Advance, banner, in the Name of God and St. George!”
Beginning in the year 1337AD, all of
Western Europe found itself in the grips of
the closest Medieval equivalent to a world war.
Known to us now as the “Hundred Years War,” the conflict started when
King Edward III of England –
the epitome of the bold warrior-king – proclaimed his right to the throne of
via his Capetian mother and sought to revive the Angevin Empire of his
Plantagenet forbears. The war would rage between the kingdoms of
France, England, and their respective allies for the next 117 years and would
see some of the greatest military leaders of both realms’ armies conduct some
of the most spectacular and decisive campaigns in Western Medieval history. By the eventual end of the war in 1453,
engagements had been fought all across the whole of Western Europe and on the
high seas between English and French forces and a medley of allies and
mercenaries from France Germany, Flanders, Italy,
and . The war would also have a lasting impact on European
history as a whole, with some historians like Clifford Rogers of Scotland West Point arguing that the Hundred Years War was
instrumental in bringing about the nascent prototypes of the Modern
nation-state. Regardless of where one stands on the theory
– or on the “Military Revolution” debate as a whole – no historian can escape
from admitting that the war left a profound historical impact on Western
However, unlike most wars in our own times, the Hundred Years War was not 117 years worth of incessant combat. It progressed in phases, with some periods seeing intense campaigning and others in which shaky truces allowed for tense ceasefires. The first of these phases (sometimes known as the “Edwardian War”) began with King Edward III’s claim to the French throne in 1337 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Brètigny in 1360. This phase saw some of the greatest gains for English-held
in the entire war – not to mention the famous English victories at Crècy,
Sluys, and . It also saw the adoption by the English of a
radical grand strategy while in Poitiers
– that of the chevauchèe, or, “great
ride.” These essentially served as
large-scale raids-in-depth that primarily targeted the vast French civil
economic base and forced the much larger French forces to attack on terms
heavily in favor of the outnumbered, but far more cohesive English. In the summer of 1356, Prince Edward of France Woodstock – known to history as “the Black Prince” and
perhaps one of the most famous English commanders of the war – would lead one
of these chevauchèes deep into
central French territory from his base in . After a brilliant campaign of tactical
maneuver and strategic-level economic warfare, the Prince’s raid would climax
in the battle at Poitiers and the capture of the French king, Jean II – the
results of which, in the words of Professor Rogers, “imposed on France in 1360
the worst humiliation suffered by that country until 1940.” This campaign will serve as the topic for
this work, which will investigate its leadership, strategy, and the overall
social, political, and economic impact on the countries that participated in it
utilizing both primary sources from the time and professional analysis from
historical experts today. Bordeaux
In 1356, the
and her possessions across the Channel were led by perhaps one of the greatest
collections of warriors in her history. King Edward III began his military
career at the age of 14 in the 1327 Weardale Campaign against his country’s old
nemesis in the north, Scotland. Although
the campaign itself ended in disappointment, the young King took to heart the
lessons he learned and used them to inflict crushing defeats upon the Bruce
kings of Kingdom of England Scotland at Dupplin
Moor in 1332 and Halidon Hill in 1333, permanently reversing the Scottish
military successes that had humiliated during the reign of his
hapless father, Edward II. In 1337, he formally declared war on King
Philippe de Valois of England
and applied the same strategic skill and leadership he had learned fighting the
Scots. At his great victory at Crècy in
1346 – where Philippe’s vastly larger army of mounted knights was destroyed
piecemeal by the dismounted English men-at-arms and archers wielding the famous
longbow – King Edward presided over his own son and heir’s baptism in
warfare. Prince Edward of France , Prince of
Wales and known as the “Black Prince” (named so for the color of his armor),
was every inch his father’s son and displayed a natural skill for combat and
leadership since he first led his father’s right flank at Crècy at the age of
16. He was also unwaveringly loyal to
his King and father – a rare phenomenon for strong English kings who usually
sired rebellious or troublesome heirs. Woodstock
In 1355, the lords of English-aligned Gascony (located in extreme Southwest France) petitioned King Edward for military support and royal English leadership to meet the French threat posed by the Count of Armagnac based in the Languedoc and to tip the balance of power in the largely neglected south of France in England’s favor. Being tied up with campaigns around
Normandy and Picardy, the King dispatched the now-25 year
old Prince to
to command all English and Gascon forces as the newly-titled Prince of
Aquitaine. The Vie du Prince Noir, a biography of Prince Edward written by a
retainer of Sir John Chandos, records that the Prince and his army were
enthusiastically welcomed by the Gascon nobles who all rode to Bordeaux to
swear fealty to him on the spot. The Prince also brought along a field staff
manned by some of the most experienced English military leaders of the day –
knights and nobles who had fought alongside his father their entire lives – who
were charged to essentially serve as Edward’s advisors. With his own natural leadership abilities
reinforced by the sound counsel of his father’s senior veteran commanders and
the ardent loyalty of the native Gascon nobility, the Black Prince was in an
ideal position to execute the war in the resource-rich south of Bordeaux
to devastating effect. France
Facing the Prince in this campaign would be the
Valois king of France himself,
Jean II. Jean – called “the Good,”
although it is unclear how he earned this sobriquet – succeeded his father,
Philippe VI, after his death in 1350 and resolved to mount a stiff defense
against King Edward in the north of France
and in the Low Countries. Unlike his more cautious father, Jean was a
more ardent devotee to the mandates of chivalry and saw the English chevauchèes as personal affronts to his
honor that required him to ride out and meet them head-on. Aiding him in this endeavor was the simple
fact that, despite the set-backs suffered in his father’s reign, Jean still
ruled over one of the largest and richest realms in Christendom and could field
armies many times larger than anything the English could deploy. An additional benefit he enjoyed was the
implicit favor of the Papacy as the popes had been seated in since 1309. Although the Avignon popes publicly claimed to be
concerned only with peace, it was no secret that they displayed greater
generosity to their French hosts. In
fact, shortly after Jean ascended to the throne, Jean le Bel records that Pope
Clement VI granted the new King’s request to receive all the tithes from French
clergy – a favor certainly not granted to the English! However, he experienced great difficulty in
rallying his nobles and their respective forces into armies that exhibited the
same unity of command and cohesion that English armies regularly
displayed. While this was a persistent
problem in 14th Century France, it was most likely exacerbated by
Jean’s decidedly heavy-handed approach to demanding war resources from his subjects
and his shockingly violent and unjust treatment of perceived traitors among his
nobility. In short, Jean II was neither well-regarded
nor trusted by his own aristocracy and this lack of cohesion would prove
disastrous in his engagements with the Black Prince. Avignon
Strategy and Tactics
Among an older generation of historians, there arose a belief that sound strategic thinking was entirely absent from Medieval warfare. Historians like Charles Oman, Tourneur-Aumont, and Sir Basil Liddell Hart expressed this view about English actions in the Hundred Years War. Professor Rogers sums up their attitude concerning the Poitiers campaign in particular:
"Like the Crécy campaign of 1346, the Poitiers chevauchée has often been interpreted as “nothing more than the razzia of a ravenous pirate,” a simple booty-collecting expedition rather than the execution of a strategic plan aimed at obtaining a decisive result. When his attempts to escape a pursuing French army and avoid battle failed, the argument runs, the prince was forced to fight, and once again the tactical prowess of the English soldiers rescued their leaders from a disaster nearly brought on by incompetent generalship."
However, this revisionist attitude does not make sense when one examines the sources, as other historians point out. The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker explicitly states when discussing the Black Princes grande chevauchée into the Languedoc the year before that the Prince “was eager for battle because of the peace which usually comes with it.” It is fairly obvious that the English chevauchées were far more than just mere economic destruction, but were a vital tool that allowed the outnumbered English commanders to shape the conflict and dictate terms of engagement favorable to them. On the tactical defensive, English armies of crack men-at-arms and longbowmen had proven to be near invincible, however, this only worked when the French could be goaded into attacking. The chevauchée performed that by putting immense pressure on French leadership to hastily react to the widespread destruction inflicted upon their civilian subjects. In the case of the Black Prince in 1356, the famous Hundred Years War chronicler, Froissart, explicitly states that the Prince intended to raid northwards in the hopes of conducting a rendezvous with the armies of his father and his brother, John of Gaunt, in a coordinated multi-pronged attack into the heart of France. No matter where he turned, Jean II would be forced to confront the armies of one of these three.
As the staging point for his forces, the Prince chose the friendly town of Bergerac. The plan was to march north towards the Loire River and apply pressure to the countryside around the vitally rich cities of Tours and Poitiers, possibly drawing out the army of King Jean’s son, the Count of Poitiers, into an open battle as an added bonus. The Anglo-Gascon army that Edward led from Bergerac on 4 August was around 6,000 strong, with about 3,000 English and Gascon men-at-arms, 2,000 archers equipped with the lethal longbow, and 1,000 additional infantry. While these seem like small numbers with which to seek out a battle with vastly numerical foes in enemy territory, the secret to English success was to keep their armies nimble and capable of prolonged periods of sustained maneuver. On the move, almost the entire army would have been mounted to facilitate speed and allow them to range out farther and increase the area of destruction they could inflict. Professor Rogers estimates that the Prince’s army, while on chevauchée, would have marched in widely spaced divisions that could spread out over a 36-mile breadth. Within that corridor, no town, village, or farm was spared from looting and destruction.
The Prince continued his march north until reaching the castle of Romorantin just north of the River Cher around 30 August. While there, he curiously settled down for a five-day siege as the castle served as the refuge for two French nobles that had run afoul of the Prince’s army earlier. While this action made for excellent story-material for writers like le Bel and Froissart who revealed in the chivalric tales of combat between knights, it makes no sense if one believes the Prince was seeking to avoid battle with the French. It becomes clearer if one considers that his lengthy stay at Romorantin was for the precise purpose of encouraging an attack – especially since it was at Romorantin that the Prince received word that Jean II was pressing down on him in a hurry from Chartres with the expressed desire to seek battle. The Prince finally moved out from Romorantin, but marched due west towards the city of Tours, using the Loire River to protect his right flank – not a move he would have made if his sole goal was to escape south back to Bordeaux. Geoffrey le Baker wrote that the Prince “directed the day’s march towards the usurper (Jean II).” Upon reaching Tours, the city proved to be invulnerable to attack and, not wanting to be caught between Jean’s approaching army and the city, Edward turned his army south towards the next rich city of the region, Poitiers. In the words of Professor Rogers, we see in the Prince’s movements “the delicate balance between avoiding a trap and not avoiding battle.” Essentially, the Prince was teasing Jean with his presence, staying just long enough in a particular spot to encourage the French to continue to advance on him without allowing his small army to be trapped in an unfavorable position. Such maneuvers were not only sound strategic actions, but would have also required an incredible amount of command and control, proving that Edward’s leadership ability and that of his seasoned companions was already paying dividends.
On 16 September, the Prince halted his army within the vicinity of Poitiers. He heard rumors that Jean and his army had arrived in the area as well, but he was not sure of their exact position. Froissart records that the Prince sent out a small detachment of English and Gascons who, upon discovering the French rear-guard (Jean was unknowingly passing by the Prince), launched a harassing attack on the French column before withdrawing back to the Prince’s position. Jean immediately turned his force around to confront Edward. Again, had the Prince been seeking to avoid battle, this action would have made no sense. When informed that the French had turned towards him, Edward was jubilant. “The Prince was in no way disturbed by this,” wrote Froissart, “but said: ‘May God be with us! Now we must consider how to fight them to the best advantage!’”
After the skirmish, the Black Prince turned his own army and advanced towards the Jean as he turned to meet him. Once within sight of the encamped French, Edward deployed his own army in the defensive position classic to English armies during this war – men-at-arms in the center and archers on the flanks – on a patch of gently sloping ground intersected by a crossroads (today called Croix de la Garde), several thick hedgrows, and abandoned grape-vines. To Edward’s south lay the River Miosson and a large marsh that can still be seen today and to his rear was a patch of woodland. It was an ideal spot to stand on the tactical defensive. Froissart records a French knight, Sir Eustace de Ribemont, reporting the English position as he observed it to King Jean: “It is a very skillful piece of work in our opinion, for if one wants to engage them by force of arms, the only way in is between those archers, whom it will not be easy to overcome.” However, it may have almost been too good. Jean and his followers would have no doubt remembered the lethal results of charging at an English army in the defensive with their wings of longbowmen and their infamous arrowstorm. The French outnumbered the Prince by at least two to one (figures for the French army vary wildly between the sources), but Jean doubtless would have remembered that his father had faced Edward’s father with far better odds at Crécy and had lost spectacularly. The Prince is recorded as fearing that Jean might simply sit and blockade his little army and force a submission by starvation and, hence, begrudgingly entertained the efforts of the Papal legate, Cardinal Tallyrand of Périgord, who approached him as a mediatory negotiator. While the Prince and Jean would trade terms back and forth through the Cardinal for an entire day with no effect. Finally, after being berated by his more impetuous counselors for dallying, King Jean resolved to attack.
The French army divided itself into four divisions (“battles”). The first was commanded by the two Marshals d’Audrehem and Clermont and composed of a crack contingent of cavalry meant to sweep aside the archers and a mass of dismounted infantry and crossbowmen to follow up. However, the two nobles were political rivals of each other and d’Audrehem rushed forward with his knights while Clermont held back. This uncoordinated attack became fodder for the English archers who were protected from the French knights by the thick vines and hedgerows they used for cover. Froissart, in a rare moment of recognition for “common” soldiers, vividly records the decisiveness of the English archers at Poitiers:
"If the truth must be told, the English archers were a huge asset to their side and a terror to the French; their shooting was so heavy and accurate that the French did not know where to turn to avoid their arrows. So the English kept advancing and slowly gaining ground."
As their forces were mowed down by the archer-fire, Clermont fell slain and d’Audrehem was captured. The Earl Douglas, a key Scottish ally of King Jean’s, abandoned the field and fled. So far, the battle had begun disastrously for the French. Next advanced the Dauphin’s division – commanded by King Jean’s son and heir – and, while they got closer to the English lines than the first, they too suffered immensely from both the dismounted Anglo-Gascon troops and the longbow fire and withdrew from the field. The third division was led by King Jean’s own brother, the Duke of Orleans, and included three of the King’s sons. For reasons that are still unclear, the Duke withdrew from the field before it even reached the English lines and took over half his division (an estimated 1,600 men) and all of Jean’s sons except for the youngest, Philippe, with him. The remainder were eventually scattered easily. While the Prince and his commanders watched Orleans quit the field, many in their tired and depleted army began to cheer as they had thought the third division would be the last. The cheering turned to dismay when they saw the banners of the fourth division – led by King Jean himself – come into view.
In a bold move, the Prince gave his men the order to regroup and advance, uttering the words quoted at the start of this essay. As they advanced, the archers collected spent arrows from the battlefield and replenished their ammunition. In addition, the Prince also deployed the Gascon Captal de Buch to flank around to the rear of the King’s division with a party of mounted knights and archers. Both forces met one another dismounted and a fierce melee commenced. The French were led in person by Jean, who fought bravely on foot along with his youngest son, Philippe, who had returned to him after his brother Orleans had quit the fight. While the fight seemed evenly matched, archers made their way to the flanks and began pouring fire into the sides of the French. Finally, the Captal and his detachment advanced from behind, shattering what resolve the King’s division still possessed. King Jean’s standard bearer, the famous knight Geoffrey de Charny, was slain while defending the Oriflamme and the King himself was surrounded and captured along with his young son. As soon as Jean was brought before Prince Edward, he submitted to him and conceded defeat. While it may have only been apparent to a few in that moment, the Black Prince had just won perhaps the most decisive victory in the war for his father and England.
|The moment King Jean and his son are surrounded during the closing actions at Poitiers.|
To the far left, Geoffrey de Charny is slain defending the Oriflamme.
(Source: Graham Turner)
After the King Jean handed over his gauntlet to the Black Prince, the fortunes of France were doomed. The surviving English and Gascon veterans carried off an enormous amount of loot from the French camp (to include many of the Crown Jewels of France) and commenced an orderly march back to Bordeaux. Behind them they left around 6,000 French dead – nearly half of them nobles and knights – and took with them around 1,900 noble captives. The natural leadership of France had been gutted once again, only this time, the King himself was in English hands. That alone proved to be instrumental in breaking the political deadlock that had impeded King Edward III’s efforts at bringing the French to sue for peace. However, peace would still prove elusive and the French would not arrive at the treaty table until four years later and not before another large chevauchée led by King Edward himself in the north of France and a shockingly violent uprising by French peasants in Picardy known as the Jacqueire.
The physical, political, and economic devastation that was inflicted upon France during this phase of the Hundred Years War was almost without comparison in the annals of Medieval warfare. Chroniclers on both sides spoke of entire regions depopulated and once-vibrant towns reduced to burned out shells reclaimed by nature. In the 14th Century, the destruction of a realm’s agricultural base meant economic ruin. After receiving word of King Jean’s capture and the enormous ransom that would be levied for his return, the remaining noble and clerical leadership in Paris scrambled to find a way to stave off economic ruin. While English armies prowled about Normandy and Aquitaine, the French royal government (or, what was left of it, rather) debased the currency and called for even higher taxes to be collected from a populace that had already suffered the ravages of nearly two decades of enemy chevauchées. Unsurprisingly, those knights and nobles that survived Poitiers were held in derision by their own people, so much so that Froissart notes that many of them “were reluctant to go into the big towns.” And it’s little wonder, since many would have rightly seen them as the ones to blame for serving up a choice victory to the Black Prince due to their impetuous and elitist conduct in warfare. English historian and longbow enthusiast Robert Hardy captures best the great flaw of the French knightly class during the Hundred Years War.
"The nobility of France, intensely proud, haughty, regretting the slow moves away from feudalism, mixed ill with the ordinary soldier and with the newly evolving kinds of warfare brought to them from across the Channel … We have seen and we shall see that, until such attitudes were relegated to heraldry alone, the way was constantly open for the English armies to destroy the high chivalric posture of those who led France in war, the French aristocracy."
This disdain for the aristocracy was compounded exponentially by the physical and economic privations inflicted on the French common people by the sheer destruction visited upon them by the English chevauchées. The renowned Italian writer Petrarch, who had been to France before the war had begun, wrote of a visit in 1360 that the English “had reduced the entire kingdom of France by fire and sword to such an extent that I … had to force myself to believe that it was the same country I had seen before.” While many of the time saw the raids to be little more than rapacious plundering, there was a strategic element to it. As discussed before, England was at a significant numerical and logistic disadvantage when fighting on French soil. The chevauchées allowed them to apply significant pressure on the enemy civil populace and shape the conflict in a way that emphasized their strengths and exploited their opponents’ weaknesses. However, it also had significant unintended consequences, like the rise of the routiers and “free companies” that essentially eschewed allegiance to either crown and simply went rogue to earn a profit off of professional banditry.
Lastly, the French people themselves tried to register that they too had breaking points. In a curious episode that was, in several ways, uncannily reminiscent of the French Revolution four centuries later, several thousand dispossessed and war-weary peasants in Picardy rose in revolt in 1358 in an episode called the Jacqueire. Like its future Jacobin successor, this uprising was directed exclusively towards the French aristocracy and was shockingly violent in its execution. Froissart provides a vivid depiction of great houses being seized and ransacked, noble women being either forced to flee or suffering violation and death, and displays of barbarism worse than the Saracens. The French nobility responded in kind, bringing in fellow knights from the Flanders and even English allies under truce, like the Captal de Buch, and waging a retaliatory campaign in which no quarter was the norm.
Finally, in 1360, the French were finally prepared to discuss peace terms. In what would be known as the Treaty of Brétigny, King Edward III dropped his claim to the throne of France in exchange for not only all the lands previously owned by England in Aquitaine and Ponthieu, but Gascony, Poitou, and Brittany – essentially over a third of French territory – in addition to a ransom of £500,000 sterling for King Jean’s freedom. Although these gains would slowly be chipped away as France gradually recovered under the Fabian-like leadership of Charles the Dauphin and the famed general Bertrand de Guscelin, it would take nearly an entire generation before the Kingdom of France could even remotely stand on its own again. None of this would have been possible without the Black Prince and his strategic masterpiece of 1356 – the campaign that, more than any other, was responsible for the winning of English France. Professor Rogers sums it up best:
"Over six centuries since, France has been so completely defeated only once: in 1940. For the humiliation of 1360 to have been inflicted on the mightiest realm of Christendom by a nation with only a fraction of her population and wealth … represents a martial accomplishment the likes of which very few men have ever matched."
Chandos Herald. La Vie du Prince Noir, trans. Diana B. Tyson. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1975.
Froissart, Jean. Chronicles, trans. Geoffrey Brerecon. London: Penguin Group, 1978.
le Baker, Geoffrey. Chronicon, trans. E. M. Thompson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889.
le Bel, Jean. The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel 1290-1360, trans. Nigel Bryant. Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011.
Hardy, Robert. Longbow – A Social and Military History, 5th Ed. Somerset, UK: Haynes Publishing, 2012.
Hoskins, Peter. In the Steps of the Black Prince – The Road to Poitiers, 1355-1360. Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2013.
Rogers, Clifford J. War Cruel and Sharp – English Strategy under Edward III 1327-1360. Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2014.
_______. “By Fire and Sword – Bellum Hostile and ‘Civilians’ in the Hundred Years War” in Civilians in the Path of War, ed. Mark Grimsley & Clifford Rogers. Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
 Jean Froissart, Chronicles, trans. Geoffrey Brereton (London: Penguin Group, 1978), 136.
 Peter Hoskins, In the Steps of the Black Prince – The Road to Poitiers, 1355-1356 (Suffolk UK: Boydell Press, 2013), 8-12.
 Clifford J. Rogers, War Cruel and Sharp – English Strategy under Edward III 1327-1360 (Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2014), 1.
 Ibid., 1-3.
 Hoskins, Black Prince, 8.
 Rogers, War Cruel and Sharp, 7-9.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 75-76.
 Hoskins, 1.
 Ibid., 15.
 Chandos Herald, La Vie du Prince Noir, trans. Diana B. Tyson (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1975), 63.
 Hoskins, 15.
 Jean le Bel, The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel 1290-1360, trans. Nigel Bryant (Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), 209.
 Rogers, 332-333 & le Bel, 223-224.
 Rogers, 6-7.
 Rogers, 349.
 Geoffrey le Baker, Chronicon, trans. E. M. Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889), 141-142.
 Froissart, 122 / Rogers, 349-350 / Hoskins, 127-128.
 Rogers, 351.
 Rogers, 352 & Hoskins, 128.
 Rogers, 355.
 Froissart, 123-126 & le Bel, 226.
 Hoskins, 151.
 Rogers, 361.
 le Baker, Chronicon, 142.
 Rogers, 363.
 Froissart, 127.
 Hoskins, 171.
 Froissart, 127-128.
 Hoskins, 176.
 Rogers, 369.
 Froissart, 131-132.
 Rogers, 370-371.
 Ibid., 377.
 Froissart, 135.
 Hoskins, 187.
 Rogers, 380.
 Froissart, 136.
 Rogers, 381.
 Hoskins, 188-189.
 Froissart, 138.
 Froissart, 139-143.
 Ibid., 143.
 Ibid. & Rogers, 384.
 Rogers, 391-392.
 Froissart, 146-147.
 Froissart, 146.
 Robert Hardy, Longbow – A Social and Military History, 5th Ed. (Somerset UK: Haynes Publishing, 2012), 91-92.
 Clifford J. Rogers, “By Fire and Sword – Bellum Hostile and ‘Civilians’ in the Hundred Years War” in Civilians in the Path of War, ed. Mark Grimsley & Clifford Rogers (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 34.
 Ibid., 63.
 Froissart, 148-150.
 Froissart, 151-152.
 Rogers, “By Fire and Sword,” 53.
 Rogers, War Cruel and Sharp, 2-4 & Hoskins, 202.
 Rogers, 421.