Post-classical history


Crécy 1340-1350


Therefore Valois say, wilt thou yet resign, Before the sickle’s thrust into the corn?

The Raigne of King Edward III

From battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.

The Litany

The next stage of the Hundred Years War is the story of Edward III’s relentless perseverance despite setbacks both at home and abroad, and of how he was eventually rewarded. Blocked in Flanders, this dogged and rather terrifying man attacked in Brittany, in Guyenne, in Normandy and even in the Ile de Paris. First, however, he won a great victory at sea.

When the King arrived back in England from Ghent in the spring of 1340, he summoned Parliament and told it that unless new taxes were raised he would have to return to the Low Countries and be imprisoned for debt. Parliament made plain that it was very unhappy about Edward’s extravagance, but reluctantly granted him a ‘ninth’ for two years—the ninth sheaf, fleece and lamb from every farm, and the ninth part of every townsman’s goods. In return the King had to promise to abolish certain taxes and make a number of reforms in government. However he could now return to Ghent to redeem his wife and children and recommence operations against Philip. He collected reinforcements, assembling a fleet on the Suffolk coast for their transport. En route he intended to deal with the French armada at Sluys.

Contrary to what the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker seems to have heard, the King had been planning this move for some time. The enemy invasion fleet was now dauntingly large ; it included not only French but also Castilian and Genoese vessels, Castile being an ally of France while the Genoese were mercenaries under the veteran sea-captain Barbanera (or ‘Barbenoire’ as the French called him). Edward had requisitioned all the ships he could find, literally pressganging men to sail and to fight on them. Even so, his sailing masters, Robert Morley and the Fleming Jehan Crabbe, warned him that the odds were too high. The King accused them of trying to frighten him, ‘but I shall cross the sea and those who are afraid may stay at home’. On 22 June 1340 he finally set sail from the little port of Orwell in Suffolk, he himself on board his great cog Thomas. En route he was joined by Lord Morley, Admiral of the Northern Fleet, with fifty vessels—together their combined force amounted to 147 ships.

Probably these vessels were nearly all cogs. The English government had commissioned a number of converted cogs, the ‘King’s Ships’, which for all their shortcomings were intended for war. The cog was basically a merchant ship, designed for carrying cargoes which ranged from wool to wine and from livestock to passengers. Shallow-draughted and small-sized—usually 30 to 40 tons, though sometimes as big as 200—it could use creeks and inlets inaccessible to bigger ships. Clinker-built, broad-beamed and with a rounded bow and poop, it was a boat for all weathers and for the North Sea. But while the cog made an excellent troop transport, it was hardly a warship—even though special fighting tops could be built on the fore and stern castles. Tactics were brutally simple—to move to windward of the enemy ship and then try to sink her by ramming or by running her aground.

With its single square sail and rudimentary rudder, a cog was slow to manoeuvre. The King’s Ships were particularly at risk when confronted by a purpose-built battle-craft, like the Mediterranean galley which was armed with a proper ram and a stone-throwing catapult, and whose oars gave it superior speed and manœuvrability. For the last forty years the French had maintained a royal dockyard, constructed by Genoese experts, which specialized in producing these galleys—the Clos des Galées at Rouen—and a battle on the open sea might have placed Edward at a considerable tactical disadvantage.

The English fleet anchored off the Zeeland coast, opposite Blankenberghe, on 23 June. Scouts were landed and sent out to reconnoitre. They returned to report how they had seen at Sluys ‘so great a number of ships that their masts seemed to be like a great wood’. Edward stayed at sea and spent all day discussing what to do.

The French Admirals, Hue Quiéret and Nicolas Béhuchet, were ‘right good and expert men of war’ but no seamen—Béhuchet was a former tax collector—and there was a marked lack of liaison with their Castilian and Genoese colleagues. Barbanera begged the Admirals to put to sea, no doubt so that he could use his three galleys against the English cogs, but they insisted on staying in the estuary where they could fight a land battle, which was just what Edward wanted. The French massed their fleet in three squadrons, one behind the other, the ships lashed together with chains and barricaded by planks and by small boats weighted with stones. The first squadron had captured English cogs at one end of the line, each vessel mounting four cannon and defended by crossbowmen and crewed by Flemings and Picards. The second squadron was manned by men from Boulogne and Dieppe, the third by Normans. But the 20,000 men on board were largely pressganged and few of them had ever seen a battle. There were no more than 150 knights and 400 professional crossbowmen all told in the whole of this Grand Army of the Sea—the rest were frightened fisherfolk, bargees and longshoremen.

That night King Edward divided his own fleet into three squadrons, marshalling his ships in threes—two filled with archers flanking one of men-at-arms. He kept in reserve a fourth squadron, of ships defended entirely by archers. Then at 5 in the morning he tacked away from his anchorage into the wind and waited for the tide to turn. When his sailing-masters finally put their helms over and steered towards Sluys, they had the wind and the sun behind them and the tide running with them. Barbanera at once realized the danger. ‘My Lord’, he told Béhuchet, ‘the King of England and his fleet are coming down on us. Stand out to sea with your ships, for if you remain here, shut in between these great dykes, the English, who have the wind, the tide and the sun with them, will hem you in and you will be unable to manoeuvre.’ But this last desperate warning went unheeded, whereupon the Genoese galleys slipped anchor and escaped just in time.

At about 9 o’clock the English fleet sailed straight into the French ships who, still at their moorings, were ‘arrayed like a line of castles’. According to an enthralled English chronicler, ‘an iron cloud of quarrels from crossbows and arrows from long-bows fell on the enemy, dealing death to thousands’. Then the English ships crashed into the French and grappled together. The men-at-arms boarded with swords, axes and half-pikes, while the bowmen continued to shoot flight after flight and seamen threw heavy stones, iron bolts and quicklime from the mast-tops; there were even divers who tried to sink the enemy ships by boring holes in their hulls below water. The battle surged backwards and forwards from one vessel to another.

An early casualty was a fine English cog which was carrying ‘a great number of countesses, ladies, knights’ wives and other damosels, that were going to see the Queen at Ghent’. Although strongly guarded by archers and men-at-arms, their ship was sunk—it is said—by cannon. The screams of the drowning ladies must have maddened the English.

Froissart, who had met men who were there, writes: ‘This battle was right fierce and terrible [moult felenesse et moult orible] ; for the battles on the sea are more dangerous and fiercer than the battles by land; for on the sea there is no reculing nor fleeing ; there is no remedy but to fight and to abide fortune, and every man to shew his prowess.’ The King was in the thick of the mêlée and was wounded in the leg—his white leather boots were covered in blood. There was an especially murderous struggle to regain the great cog Christopher which was defended by Genoese crossbowmen, but at last it was ‘won by the Englishmen, and all that were within it were taken or slain’. The English found considerable difficulty in capturing the Castilian ships because their sides were so tall. The battle ‘endured from the morning till it was noon, and the Englishmen endured much pain’.

Eventually archers gave the advantage to Edward’s men —they could shoot two or even three arrows for every one crossbow quarrel—and the first French squadron was overwhelmed. Many of the enemy jumped overboard, their wounded being thrown after them. The sea was so full of corpses that those who did not drown could not tell whether they were swimming in water or blood, though the knights must have gone straight to the bottom in their heavy armour. Hue Quiéret, after being badly wounded, surrendered—to be beheaded immediately. Béhuchet was also captured, to be strung up by English knights within a matter of minutes.

The sight of their Admiral’s corpse swinging from the yardarm of the Thomas (the King’s flagship) caused panic among the French second squadron, many of whose crews leapt overboard without resisting. The onset of dusk went unnoticed, so bright was the light of the burning ships. When darkness fell the King remained before Sluys, ‘and all that night abode in his ship ... with great noise of trumpets and other instruments’.

During the night thirty enemy vessels slipped anchor and fled, while the Saint-Jacques of Dieppe continued to fight on in the dark—when she was finally taken by the Earl of Huntingdon, 400 corpses were found on board. Those French ships who stayed were attacked from the rear by Flemish fishermen in barges. When morning came Edward sent Jehan Crabbe and a well-armed flotilla in pursuit, but he had no reason to be dismayed that a few enemy vessels escaped. The entire French fleet, with the exception of those who had fled during the night, had been captured or sent to the bottom, while thousands of its men had died—‘there was not one that escaped but all were slain’, Froissart boasts with pardonable exaggeration.

Edward made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the shrine of Our Lady of Ardembourg. Later he commemorated the battle of Sluys on a new gold coin, the noble of six shillings and eight pence ; he is shown on board a ship floating on the waves, crowned and bearing a sword and a shield which quarters the royal arms of France and England. These coins so impressed contemporaries that some people said they had been made by alchemists in the Tower of London. They gave rise to a jingle:

Foure things our Noble showeth unto me,
King, ship, and sword, and power of the sea.

But Sluys had not won Edward command of the Channel, let alone of the seas—only two years later the French sacked Plymouth for a second time. None the less, he had rid England of a very real threat of invasion. With hindsight one can see that Sluys marked the passing of the initiative to the English—indeed, to the men of 1340 God had shown he was on their side.

However, King Edward still seemed no nearer to achieving the conquest of France. Towards the end of July, accompanied by seven earls and an army which included 9,000 archers, several thousand Flemish pikemen, and a multitude of mercenaries, he laid siege to Tournai. But though he may have had as many as 30,000 troops, he had no siege engines—mangonels or battering-rams—and could do little apart from camping before the walls. And, as in 1339, his army included Dutch and German lords who had been hired under the indenture system ; these quarrelled incessantly with each other, insisted on being paid on time, and left when they felt like it.

Meanwhile Philip who was ‘very angry at the defeat of his navy’—only his court jester had dared tell him the news —marched to relieve Tournai with an army even bigger than Edward’s and mustering nearly 20,000 men-at-arms. The French King adopted his usual tactics, refusing to offer battle and keeping his troops in the surrounding hills from where they raided Edward’s outposts and ambushed his supply lines. The English King grumbled to the young Prince of Wales, in a letter: ‘He dug trenches all round him and cut down big trees so that we might not get at him.’ Edward’s army was already unpaid and mutinous, and soon supplies and fodder began to run out. Shorter of money than ever and totally unable to pay his angry mercenaries, the English King was forced to negotiate a truce, at Espléchin on 25 September. For once even Edward seems to have been discouraged; in October he had told the Pope’s envoys that he was ready to surrender his claims to the French crown if Philip would give him the Duchy of Aquitaine (as it had been in Henry III’s day) in full sovereignty. For he could expect no money from England; many of his subjects had refused to pay the promised ninth and in some places tax collectors had been met with armed resistance. Two months later, Edward fled secretly from the Low Countries to escape his clamorous creditors.

The King returned to England in a fury. As he saw it, years of work had been ruined by the failure of his government to find him enough money. The chief villain in his eyes was the Chancellor, John Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he believed to have mishandled the taxes. Edward actually informed the Pope that Stratford had deliberately kept him short of money in the hope that he would be defeated and killed; incredibly, the King insinuated that the Archbishop had adulterous designs on the Queen and had tried to set her against him. Stratford saved himself by bolting to Canterbury where he took sanctuary, but many of his officials were arrested. However, after casting himself as a second Thomas à Becket, the wily prelate then managed to shift the dispute from the administrative to the constitutional field—he accused Edward of infringing Magna Carta, insisted on the right of ministers to be tried by Parliament, and manoeuvred him into summoning one in April 1341. The Archbishop found massive support in the Parliament, and the King was wise enough to give way in return for supplies ; soon he was reconciled with Stratford. Edward knew very well that he had to keep his subjects’ support, above all that of the magnates, not only to continue with his French ambitions but to keep his throne.

Despite the subsidies granted in 1341, King Edward could not repay his loans. These included £180,000 which he had borrowed from the Florentines. In 1343 the Peruzzi, who were owed £77,000 (quite apart from interest) went bankrupt; the Bardi followed them three years later. For a short time the small group of native English financiers—among them an enterprising Hull merchant, William de la Pole, whose family will be heard of later—who controlled the wool trade tried to make a profit by lending money to the King, but in 1349 they in their turn crashed. However, by then Edward was at least able to rely on the maletote or export duty on wool. The Parliament, which included many wool producers, had at last grown reconciled to this hateful tax becoming an annual subsidy, partly because they had wrested from the King the right of controlling taxes. Indeed the growth of parliamentary power was one of the most important side effects of the Hundred Years War for the English.

In the spring of 1341 Duke John III of Brittany died. The ducal succession was disputed by Jeanne, Countess of Blois, the daughter of the late Duke’s younger brother who had predeceased him; and by John, Count of Montfort, the Duke’s half-brother. Jeanne was the niece of Philip VI, who—with a certain irony, in view of his inheritance through an exclusively male line—recognized her as Duchess of Brittany. John of Montfort thereupon sailed to England, where he acknowledged Edward to be the rightful King of France; in return he was accepted as Duke of Brittany and was also created Earl of Richmond (Robert of Artois having recently been killed). There were sound economic and strategic reasons why Edward should intervene in this struggle. On their way to Bordeaux, or to Portugal and Castile, the little English ships dared not cross the stormy Bay of Biscay but hugged the coast; it was essential that they should be able to put in at Breton ports and sail without fear of Breton privateers. A friendly Duke had to reign at Rennes if the Gascon sea-route was to be guaranteed, just as later British communications with India depended on a biddable Cairo and a biddable Aden.

A vicious little war ensued in Brittany, the lesser nobles and the peasants of the Celtic west rallying to John of Montfort, the great lords and French-speaking bourgeois of the east supporting Jeanne of Blois. In November 1341 Count John was besieged in Nantes by the French, who catapulted the heads of thirty of his knights over the walls which so terrified the defenders that they surrendered, John being taken prisoner to Paris. However, his gallant Countess kept his cause alive. She was saved by the arrival of Edward III in person in the autumn of 1342, bringing 12,000 men with him. He launched a savage chevauchée, and laid siege to the duchy’s three great cities—Rennes, Nantes and Vannes. King Philip’s son and heir, John, Duke of Normandy, marched to relieve them with a host which outnumbered the English army by at least two to one. Edward thereupon copied Philip’s precedent by digging in at a strong position. Autumn turned into a wet midwinter and soon both camps were waterlogged. In these dismal conditions Papal envoys were able to negotiate a truce in January 1343. The King returned to England, but he left troops behind him in well-chosen fortresses, under the redoubtable Sir Thomas Dagworth, to keep the Montfort cause alive. When John of Montfort died in 1345, his young son took refuge at the English court where he was brought up; eventually he regained his duchy. In consequence Edward could always count on finding support in Brittany.

In 1334 Pope Clement VI succeeded in arranging a peace conference between the English and the French. It took place in the autumn at Avignon. The English tried to discuss Edward’s claim to the throne of France, but the French refused even to consider the matter. Then the English asked for compensation in the shape of an enlarged Guyenne, free of any obligations to the French King and in full sovereignty. Indeed Edward may well have been ready to settle for this. But Philip was not prepared to give away a single foot of French soil—his final offer was a slight enlargement of Guyenne’s frontiers on condition that the duchy was held not by Edward but by one of Edward’s sons as a vassal of France. Philip VI believed that he was negotiating from a position of strength.

Edward now adopted a new strategy, attacking in France on three fronts with comparatively small armies. His interim objective may have been to strengthen his position in Guyenne while reinforcing the alliance with Flanders. In the spring of 1345 his Plantagenet cousin, Henry of Grosmont, Earl of Derby and future Duke of Lancaster, assisted by Sir Hugh Hastings, struck in upper Gascony. He caught the French off guard, capturing Bergerac and many other towns and castles; the latter included La Réole, which the English had lost in 1325 and which only fell after a determined siege of nine weeks. This stronghold, high above the river Gironde and forty miles from Bordeaux, enabled the English to regain the long-disputed Agenais. They also penetrated as far north as Angoulême, which they took by storm. Simultaneously Sir Thomas Dagworth took the offensive in Brittany, overrunning French garrisons.

The following spring there was a massive French counter-attack in the south-west, Duke John of Normandy besieging the Earl of Derby at Aiguillon (where the rivers Lot and Garonne meet). The Duke may not have had 100,000 troops as Froissart tells us, but he could well have had 20,000—a considerable proportion of the French military might. Edward now prepared his third front. Reading the chronicles with all their tales of chivalry and knightly deeds, one tends not to realize the surprisingly modern thoroughness and professionalism of his strategy.

The French anticipated an English invasion from Flanders. But Jacob van Artevelde had been overthrown and a pro-French count returned. Against all expectations Edward chose to launch his third front, and main attack, in Normandy. It may have been an accidental choice. Froissart heard that Edward actually set sail for Guyenne, but was blown back to the marchesof Cornwall, where, while waiting, he was advised to try Normandy instead by an important Norman lord, Godefroi d‘Harcourt, who had fallen foul of Philip VI and fled to England. He told Edward that the people of Normandy were not used to war, and that ‘there shall ye find great towns that be not walled, whereby your men shall have such winning, that they shall be the better thereby twenty years after’.

When King Edward sailed from Porchester on 5 July 1346 he had with him ‘a thousand ships, pinnaces and supply vessels’, carrying about 15,000 men. (This was a considerable logistic achievement; even the great host which his father had led—on land—to defeat at Bannockburn thirty years before had numbered no more than 18,000.) As one of the most successful expeditionary forces in English history its composition—knights, lancers, bowmen (mounted and on foot) and knifemen—is worth examining in detail. It is significant that there was a far larger proportion of volunteers than hitherto, attracted by the prospect of plunder; noblemen had no difficulty in recruiting big companies under ‘indentures of war’.

In 1346 an English man-at-arms was still armoured mainly in ‘chainmail’ of interlinked metal rings. A shirt of this mail, over a padded tunic, covered him from neck to knees and was laced on to a conical helmet which was open faced but which occasionally had a visor. (The great barrel helm was seldom worn in battle nowadays.) He had steel breastplates and plates on his arms, together with elbow pieces and articulated foot-guards over mail stockings. Over all he wore a short linen surcoat. English knights were noticeably old-fashioned compared to the French, for across the Channel Philip VI’s paladins had their shoulders and limbs also covered by plate, and helmets (bascinets) with hinged, snout-like visors which had breathing holes. Their surcoat had been replaced by the shorter leather jupon. The horses also wore armour, with plate for their heads and mail or leather for their flanks. The basic weapon of both English and French was a long straight sword, hung in front at first but later moved to the left side and balanced by a short dagger on the right (called a misericord or ‘mercy’ on account of being used to dispatch the mortally wounded). On horseback, a ten-foot lance was carried and a small, flat-iron-shaped shield, and sometimes a short, steel-hafted battle-axe. On foot the principal weapon was usually the halberd—a combined half-pike and axe.

Only the men-at-arms—a term which covered knightbannerets (paid 4s a day), knights bachelor (2s a day) and esquires (is a day)—could afford this enormously expensive equipment which (in theory at least) also required two armed valets and three mounts per man-at-arms—a warhorse, a packhorse for the armour and a palfrey to ride when not on the battlefield. Some men-at-arms who could only afford a single horse wore instead the lighter, cheaper brigandine which was a leather jacket sewn with thin, overlapping metal plates. The light lancers or hobelars (also is a day), who rode with the men-at-arms, made do with a metal hat, steel gauntlets and a ‘jack’—a short quilted coat stiffened with iron studs and rather like a modern flak-jacket.

The jack was the armour of the more fortunate archers, whether mounted or on foot. Their weapon, the famous English long-bow, was to revolutionize military tactics. It was in fact of Welsh rather than English origin, having first come to attention in the twelfth century during campaigns in Gwent, where its ability to send an arrow through the thickness of a church door had much impressed the English. Since Edward I’s reign every village in England had contributed to a national pool of archers, every yokel being commanded by law to practise at the butts on Sundays. By 1346 the long-bow had become standardized, each archer carrying as many as two dozen arrows; further supplies were carried in carts. The long-bowmen could shoot ten or even twelve a minute, literally darkening the sky, and had a fighting range of over 150 yards with a plate-armour-piercing range of about sixty. There was a huge arsenal of bows and arrows in the Tower of London ; perhaps it was ironical that many of the bow-staves had been imported from Guyenne. The archer also carried either a sword, a billhook, an axe or a maul—a leaden mallet with a five-foot-long wooden handle.

Mounted archers on ponies first appeared in Edward III’s Scottish campaigns. They carried a lance and were paid 6d a day—the wage of a master craftsman. The King valued these archers so highly that he had a bodyguard of 200 mounted bowmen from Cheshire in green and white uniforms. Together, horse-archers and men-at-arms combined fire power and armour with the utmost mobility. Yet although increasingly employed, mounted archers were probably always outnumbered by foot archers. Nor must it be forgotten that they had to dismount when in action as they could not shoot from the saddle. It cannot be too much emphasized that all long-bowmen were essentially defensive troops who could only play a decisive part in a battle if they were attacked by an enemy advancing towards them over the right terrain.

The long-bow and its murderous potential were so far unknown outside the British Isles. The favourite missile weapon of the French was the crossbow, a complicated instrument with a bow reinforced by horn and sinew; to draw it the crossbowman had to place his foot in the stirrup at the front end of the bow, fasten the string on to a hook on his belt, which meant crouching down by bending his knees and back, and then stand up, pulling the string until it could be engaged in the trigger mechanism. The crossbow had sights and fired small, heavy arrows known as quarrels. Its advantages were its longer range and greater accuracy and velocity, its disadvantages being its weight (up to 20 lbs) and slow rate of fire—only four quarrels a minute, at best.



Though various woods were used in their construction, yew was the best. Bows were made from the main trunk or from thick boughs. Under the scaly bark is a layer of white sapwood that withstands tension very well. Beneath this is the red heartwood that is resistant to compression and gives drive to the bow. It is the combination of these two characteristics that results in the excellence of yew for making bows. The maker, or bowyer, had to follow the run of the grain in the wood so as to leave a layer of the sapwood, about007“ in thickness, on the outside of the heartwood. For this reason there are, almost invariably, irregularities in the curve of the yew long-bow.

The left-hand drawing shows a section of yew split from the main trunk. The next sketch shows a part of the rough stave with the thin layer of sapwood left on the outer surface. The two limbs were tapered to give a smooth curve when the bow was drawn. Horn tips with notches—or nocks, as they were called—for the bowstring were fitted to the better bows, but alternatively grooves were cut into the wood. The length of bows varied from about 5’ 8” to about 6’ 4”.

The arrows were about 30” in length and though many forms of head have been found, the so-called bodkin was generally accepted as the most deadly in warfare. It was basically a four-sided, case-hardened steel spike, as shown in the illustration. The string was of hemp with a spliced loop at one end and secured with a timber hitch at the other. The centre was served with thread to protect the strands from the abrasion of the arrow nock and from the fingers of the drawing hand, on which a leather shooting-glove was often worn.

With a typical war bow, having a draw-weight of 80—100 Ib, the instantaneous thrust on the string at the moment it checks the forward movement of the two limbs when it is shot is in the order of 400 Ib, so it needed to have a breaking strain of about 600 Ib to allow an adequate safety margin. but they produced plenty of noise, flame and acrid black smoke.

In addition King Edward seems to have had guns in 1346. This has been disputed, but the previous year he definitely ordered the manufacture of 100 ribaulds. The ribauld was a bundle of many small-bore tubes—a bit like the mitrailleuse of the 1870s—mounted on a cart. Such weapons were seldom lethal, except to those firing them,


Edward’s army also included large numbers of light infantry, who were paid 2d a day. These scouts and skirmishers were Welsh, Cornish and even Irish ‘kern’, armed with dirks and javelins—‘certain rascals that went on foot with great knives’. Their speciality was creeping beneath the men-at-arms’ horses and stabbing them in the belly, though they seem to have spent most of their time cutting the throats of the enemy wounded.


A military crossbow, one of the types used in the latter half of the fourteenth century and during the fifteenth century. The length overall is about 30”, the span of the bow about 26”, the weight about 4009lb.

The stock or tiller is of wood, surfaced along the top with antler. The actual bow, or lath, is of composite construction, employing wood, horn and sinew. The fore end is fitted with an iron stirrup in which the foot is placed to facilitate spanning the bow—or drawing the string—with the belt and claw back to the revolving nut mechanism.

The bolt shown was the most widely used form for military purposes. It is about 15” long, the shaft is of wood and the flights, or vanes, are of leather, horn or wood. The rear end is tapered to fit between the lugs of the nut, while the fore end of the shaft is supported by a grooved rest, made from antler.

Modern research has revealed a far greater degree of sophistication in medieval logistics than one might expect from reading Froissart’s ‘honourable and noble adventures of feats of arms’. Even if most armies lived off the country, supply depots were needed while their troops were assembling. Victuals included salted and smoked meat, dried fish, cheese, flour, oats and beans, together with vast quantities of ale. These were gathered from all over England, usually by the sheriffs, and sent to the embarkation point in wagons along the rough, muddy roads, in barges down the rivers, or by sea—in the latter case on board commandeered ships. In addition there were fuel and munitions—among the latter being siege engines (springalds, arbalests, trebuchets and mangonels), weapons (especially bow-staves and arrows and bow-strings), gunpowder and shot. Huge numbers of horses were needed for such an expedition. The ships to transport them, and also the men and their supplies, were requisitioned by royal sergeants-at-arms, who ‘arrested’ them together with their crews, their original cargoes being compulsorily unloaded. The requisitioning took time and troops often had to wait at the ports for long periods before they could cross the sea.

On 13 July 1346 the English armada landed at La Hogue, on the north of the Cherbourg peninsula. As at D-Day in 1944, they were completely unexpected by the Normans, many of whose towns—as Godefroi d‘Harcourt had told Edward—proved to be unwalled. The following day the King launched a chevauchée through the Cotentin, deliberately devastating the rich countryside, his men burning mills and barns, orchards, haystacks and cornricks, smashing wine vats, tearing down and setting fire to the thatched cabins of the villagers, whose throats they cut together with those of their livestock. One may presume that the usual atrocities were perpetrated on the peasants—the men were tortured to reveal hidden valuables, the women suffering multiple rape and sexual mutilation, those who were pregnant being disembowelled. Terror was an indispensable accompaniment to every chevauchée and Edward obviously intended to wreak the maximum ‘dampnum’—the medieval term for that total war which struck at an enemy King through his subjects. All ranks of the English army tasted the sweets of plunder. When Barfleur surrendered it did not escape from being sacked and burnt, ‘and much gold and silver was found there, and rich jewels : there was found so much riches, that the boys and villains of the host set nothing by good furred coats’. They then burnt Cherbourg and Montebourg and other towns, ‘and won so much riches that it was marvel to reckon on it’. A party of 500 men-at-arms rode off with Godefroi d’Harcourt for a distance of ‘six or seven leagues’ to lay waste and to plunder, and were astonished by the plenty which they found—‘the granges full of corn, the houses full of all riches, rich burgesses, carts and chariots, horse, swine, muttons and other beasts ... but the soldiers made no count to the King nor to none of his officers of the gold and silver that they did get’. The burgesses were probably sent back to England to be ransomed, a fate which seems to have been the lot of the entire town of Barfleur.

On 26 July Edward’s army reached Caen, larger than any town in England apart from London, and soon stormed their way through the bridge gate. When the garrison surrendered, the English started to plunder, rape and kill, ‘for the soldiers were without mercy’. The desperate inhabitants then began to throw stones, wooden beams and iron bars from the rooftops down into the narrow streets, killing more than 500 Englishmen. Edward ordered the entire population to be put to the sword and the town burnt, ‘and there were done in the town many evil deeds, murders and robberies’—although Godefroi d‘Harcourt persuaded the King to rescind his order. The sack lasted three days and 3,000 townsmen died. One chronicler says that the English took ‘only jewelled clothing or very valuable ornaments’. The plunder was sent back to the fleet by barges. Edward seems to have done better than anyone: Froissart relates how from Caen the King ‘sent into England his navy of ships charged with clothes, jewels, vessels of gold and silver, and other riches, and of prisoners more than 60 knights and 300 burgesses’—the latter for ransom.

One of the prisoners was the Abbess of Caen, who must surely have complained that her captivity was against all the usages of Christian war. The King had issued the customary order to spare churches and consecrated buildings, but even so, nuns were raped and many religious houses suffered. The priory of Gerin was burnt to the ground and later the strongly defended monastery town of Troarn fell by storm.

Among the spoils of Caen was Philip VI’s ordonnance of 1339 for the invasion of England. Edward, who possessed an almost modern flair for propaganda, at once had copies made to be read in every parish church in England; in London, after a splendid pontifical procession, it was read at St Paul’s by the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘that he might thereby rouse the people’.

The English King then continued his march in the direction of Paris, still slaying and burning. He was able to pay his soldiers generously in addition to their loot, Jean le Bel tells us. The approach of the English was announced by flames in the distance and by mobs of terrified refugees. Philip massed as many troops as possible and sent reinforcements to Rouen—it seems likely he feared that if Edward captured the Norman capital he would control the lower Seine and be able to obtain fresh troops of his own from Flanders. Edward’s main objective had been achieved—to distract the French from Guyenne and Brittany, and lessen the pressure on Lancaster and Dagworth.

The English army finally stopped at Poissy, advance parties burning Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain within sight of the walls of Paris. The English King had no intention of attacking the French capital—he had no proper siege train, and in any case his troops were hopelessly outnumbered by the vast army which Philip was assembling at Saint-Denis just outside Paris. The French had demolished all the bridges along that part of the Seine, hoping to trap the English. However, Edward managed to repair the bridge at Poissy over which he retreated northwards, destroying everything he could; at Mareuil he burnt the town, the fortress and even the priory. He next found his way barred by the river Somme, along which the bridges had also been broken down. Fortunately a local peasant showed him a sandy-bottomed ford just below Abbeville—‘the Passage of Blanche-taque’. The opposite bank was defended by several thousand enemy troops including Genoese crossbowmen, but after some volleys from their own archers the English forced their way across ‘in a sore battle’ : Philip was snapping at their heels and even captured some of their baggage, but luckily the river rose and prevented the French from crossing too.

Once over the Somme Edward thanked God. Although outnumbered he was no longer frightened of a battle—the way was now clear for him to retreat to Flanders if things went wrong. In any case a halt was essential, as his men were exhausted by their forced march; it is known that their food and wine, and even their shoes, were used up. Accordingly he camped on the downs near the little town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu.

The English King had found a perfect position, on rising ground. In front of him was the ‘Valley of the Clerks’, both his front and his right were protected by the little river Maie, while his flank was guarded by the great wood of Crécy which was ten miles long and four miles deep. The most obvious direction from which he might be attacked, the front, led up a downland slope which gave his archers an admirably clear field of fire. His army, now somewhat reduced, consisted of about 2,000 men-at-arms and perhaps 500 light lancers together with something like 7,000 English and Welsh bowmen and 1,500 knifemen—approximately 11,000 men, though estimates vary. The enemy was obviously near, so Edward drew up his troops in order of battle. On the right, on the slope above the Maie, he placed 4,000 men under the sixteen-year-old Black Prince (supported by such veterans as Sir Reynold Cobham, Sir John Chandos and Godefroi d’Harcourt). The centre of this division consisted of 800 men-at-arms on foot in a long line, probably six deep ; 2,000 archers were placed on the flanks—deliberately, so they could shoot at the French from the side when the latter attacked the centre—while behind these archers stood the knifemen. On his left Edward sited a second division, under the Earls of Northampton and Arundel, with 500 dismounted men-at-arms and 1,200 archers in the same formation as the division on the right. The archers of both divisions dug a large number of small holes, a foot deep and a foot square, in front of their positions in order to make the enemy horses stumble. Edward himself commanded the third division—700 men-at-arms on foot, 2,000 archers and the remaining knifemen—which he stationed somewhere behind to serve as a reserve.


Edward, having drawn up his army, says Jean le Bel, ‘went among his men, exhorting each of them with a laugh to do his duty, and flattered and encouraged them to such an extent that cowards became brave men’. He also warned them not to plunder the enemy wounded until he gave permission. ‘This done,’ adds the chronicler, ‘he allowed everyone to break ranks so that they could eat and drink until the trumpets sounded.’ (Large supplies of wine had been found at the nearby town of Le Crotoy by the quartermasters, while herds of cattle had been driven into the camp.)

‘Then’, says Froissart, ‘every man lay down on the earth and by him his helmet and bow to be the more fresher when their enemies should come.’ Meanwhile Edward established his command post at a windmill on the high ground on which his own division was stationed, from where he could see the entire battlefield. At noon news reached him that the French were coming up, whereupon he ordered the trumpets to sound and everyone rejoined his ranks.

Thomas Cheyne, shield-bearer to King Edward III. He is wearing armour of a type that came in a few years after Crécy and stayed in fashion for the rest of the century, with a tight fitting cloth jupon over a steel breastplate on top of a chainmail shirt. Brass of 1368 in the parish church of Drayton Beauchamp, Buckinghamshire.

It was Saturday 26 August 1346. King Philip, who had spent the night at Abbeville, had some reason to feel confident as his troops outnumbered Edward’s by nearly three to one—at least 30,000 including 20,000 men-at-arms. Unfortunately for Philip, when he rode out of Abbeville at sunrise after hearing Mass, his army was still arriving and it continued to do so throughout the day. With his usual caution the French King sent four men to investigate the enemy position. One, a knight called Le Moine de Bazeilles, reporting that the English were waiting in a carefully arranged order of battle, told Philip: ‘My own counsel, saving your displeasure, is that you and all your company rest here and lodge for this night for ... it will be very late and your people be weary and out of array, and ye shall find your enemies fresh and ready to receive you.’ The knight continued that next morning the King would be able to form up his troops and look for the right place to attack the English, ‘for, Sir, surely they will abide you’. Philip thought this excellent advice and gave orders for his troops to halt and make camp.

But there was always a problem in controlling excessively large medieval armies, and by now ‘the flower of France’ was completely out of control. While those in front tried to halt, the men-at-arms behind kept on coming and the front had to move on again. ‘So they rode proudly forward without any order or good array until they came in sight of the English who stood waiting for them in fine order, but then it seemed shameful to retreat.’ At the same time all the roads between Abbeville and Crécy were jammed with peasants and townsmen waving swords and spears, yelling ‘Down with them! let us slay them all !’ Eventually Philip, who was up in front, realized that he had lost any hope of restraining his troops. In desperation he ordered an attack—

‘Make the Genoese go on before, and begin the battle, in the name of God and Saint Denis.’ By then it was evening. The sun was beginning to set.

Trumpets, drums and kettledrums sounded, and a line of Genoese crossbowmen advanced to within 200 or even 150 yards of the English. As they did so they were drenched to the skin by a short but violent thunderstorm. At the same moment that they began to discharge their quarrels the English archers stepped forward and shot with such rapidity that ‘it seemed as if it snowed’. The Genoese had marched long miles carrying their heavy instruments, and it is probable that they had discarded the pavises or large shields which crossbowmen normally used to protect themselves while reloading. Highly vulnerable, they at once began to drop beneath the arrow-storm, which they had never before experienced. Tired, demoralized—even the setting sun, which had reappeared, was in their eyes—the survivors started running. This stage of the engagement may have lasted no more than a minute.


A panel of the Wilton Diptych, c. 1390. Richard II kneels before three saints. It is possible that Edward the Confessor (centre) is an idealized portrait of Edward III, and that Edmund of East Anglia (right) is a similar portrait of Edward II. John the Baptist may be the Black Prince.


The noble King Edward III. 1312-1 1377) whose face was said to be like the face of a god’.


The Count of Alençon was so shocked by what he considered to be cowardice on the part of the crossbowmen that he shouted, ‘Ride down this rabble who block our advance!’ His fellow men-at-arms immediately responded to his appeal with a hopelessly disorganized charge. The shrieks of the miserable crossbowmen trampled under horses’ hooves made the French in the rear think that the English were being killed, so they too pressed forward. The result was a struggling mob at the very foot of the slope where the English archers were positioned and from where they shot with murderous precision, not wasting a single arrow; each one found its mark, piercing the riders’ heads and limbs through their mail and above all driving their mounts mad. Some horses bolted in a frenzy, others reared hideously or turned their hindquarters to the enemy. ‘A great outcry rose to the stars.’ Jean le Bel, who had spoken to men who were there, tells of horses being piled on top of one another ‘like a litter of piglets’.

Almost certainly Edward’s guns added to the confusion. At least one chronicler says that the King’s cannon—only three are mentioned—terrified the horses. If of little use as weapons, their noise and smoke must have appalled those who had never experienced them.

Surprisingly, some French knights reached the forward English divisions, where the men-at-arms hacked them down with axes and swords. Either in this charge or during a later one the sixteen-year-old Prince of Wales was knocked off his feet, whereupon Richard de Beaumont, the standard-bearer, in a magnificent gesture covered the boy with the banner of Wales and fought off his assailants till the Prince could stand up. Froissart has a romantic tale of how when the Prince’s companions sent to Edward for help, the King refused, saying, ‘Let the boy win his spurs for I want him, please God to have all the glory.’ However another chronicler (Geoffrey le Baker) says that the King did in fact send twenty picked knights to relieve his son. They found the boy and his mentors leaning on their swords and halberds, recovering their breath and waiting silently in front of long mounds of corpses for the enemy to return.

An enemy who reached the English lines was the blind King John of Bohemia. He ordered his attendant knights to lead him forward ‘so that I may strike one stroke with my sword’. Somehow the little party, tied to each other by their reins, managed to ride through the archers and then charge the English men-at-arms. There the Bohemians fell with their King, save for two who cut their way back to the French lines to tell his story. The bodies were found next day, still tied together. The Prince of Wales was so moved that he adopted the old King’s crest and motto—the three feathers with the legend Ich dien—I serve.

The French charged fifteen times, ‘from sunset to the third quarter of the night’, each charge beginning as well as ending in hopeless disorder beneath the arrow-storm. Froissart says that no one who was not present could imagine, let alone describe, the confusion, especially the disorganization and indiscipline of the French. The slaughter was heightened by the Welsh and Cornish knifemen who ‘slew and murdered many as they lay on the ground, both earls, barons, knights and squires’. The last French attacks were launched in pitch darkness. By then there were few French knights left—apart from those who were dead, many had been quietly slipping away since the onset of dusk. King Philip, who had been hit in the neck by an arrow and had had at least one horse killed under him, found that he could only muster sixty men-at-arms when he tried to mount a final desperate charge through the gloom. The Count of Hainault took hold of the King’s bridle and persuaded him to leave the field—‘Sir, depart hence, for it is time. Lose not yourself wilfully; if ye have loss at this time, ye shall recover it again at another time.’ They rode to the royal château of La Broye six miles away. When he arrived there, with only five companions, Philip shouted to the castellan, ‘Open your gate quickly, for this is the fortune of France.’ The King only stopped to drink and then rode on through the night to find a safer refuge at Amiens.

The English who, because of the dark, did not realize the fearful casualties which they had inflicted, slept at their positions, so relieved at having escaped annihilation that they prayed to God in thanksgiving. They had lost less than a hundred men themselves. Next morning they awoke in such thick fog ‘that a man might not see the breadth of an acre of land from him’. Edward forbade any pursuit. He sent out a scouting force, 500 men-at-arms and 2,000 archers under the Earl of Northampton, who soon found themselves facing some local militia and then a force of Norman knights who had arrived too late. Northampton’s men quickly routed these last opponents, killing many. The King now saw the extent of his victory and ordered heralds to count the slain. They identified the bodies of more than 1,500 lords and knights, among them the Duke of Lorraine and the Counts of Alençon, Auxerre, Blamont, Blois, Flanders, Forez, Grandpré, Harcourt, Saint-Pol, Salm and Sancerre. Froissart exaggerates the number of ‘common people’ on the French side who died, but it was certainly well over 10,000.

Edward had won one of the great victories of Western history. Until Crécy the English were very little thought of as soldiers, while the French were considered the best in Europe. Tactically and technologically the battle amounted to a military revolution, a triumph of fire-power over armour. The King of England became the most celebrated commander in Christendom.

However, Edward was in no position to exploit his victory. Although Philip’s army had been destroyed, he dared not march on Paris with his tired troops. On 30 August he set off for the coast to capture a port. He chose Calais, which he reached on 4 September. It was only a few miles from the Flemish border and was the nearest port to England. Soon English ships arrived with reinforcements and took home the wounded as well as prisoners and plunder. The King had expected to take the town without much trouble but found that it was stronger than he had thought—surrounded by sand dunes and marshes on which it was impossible to erect siege engines. Deep dykes made mining out of the question. Moreover it had a strong garrison commanded by a gallant Burgundian knight, Jean de Vienne, who was determined to hold out until winter came and the English would be forced to withdraw. But Edward was equally determined, and built wooden huts to house his troops during the winter. Jean le Bel says that he ‘set the houses like streets and covered them with reed and broom, so that it was like a little town’; it even had market days which did a thriving trade. Many Englishmen died from disease, but the rest kept on grimly with the siege throughout the winter, devastating the country for thirty miles around. In the spring Edward brought over more reinforcements, in case Philip should try to relieve the town. Parliament was co-operative, supplying the necessary funds, and by mid-summer 1347 the English had over 30,000 men outside Calais. All this represents a remarkable administrative achievement—not only the new troops but also vast quantities of food to feed them had to be ferried across the Channel.

King Edward’s real weapon was a ruthless blockade by his ships, calculating that ‘hunger, which enters closed doors, could and should conquer the pride of the besieged’ according to the Oxfordshire chronicler Geoffrey le Baker. Palisades running out into the sea prevented small boats from bringing supplies along the shore to the beleaguered garrison. A large English fleet was always waiting outside the harbour, and they built a wooden tower with catapults to destroy any vessel which might possibly slip through. The citizens expelled 500 of their poor to save food, but by the spring supplies were running out; they decided that they would have no option other than to surrender if Philip did not relieve them by August.

One reason why Edward was able to find so many troops was the recent elimination of any danger from Scotland :

For once the eagle England being in prey
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking, and so sucks her princely eggs.

In October 1346 David II had invaded Northumberland and Co. Durham, to meet with the fate of all Scottish invaders at Neville’s Cross near Durham. The Scots were annihilated, their King being taken prisoner to the Tower of London where he spent nine years. His nation’s most sacred relic, the Black Rood of Scotland, was triumphantly hung up in Durham Cathedral.

In July 1347 Philip at last marched to relieve Calais. His army was neither so large as that of the previous year nor so eager for battle. Looking down on Edward’s camp from the cliffs at Sangatte only a mile away, he set up his own camp and then sent a challenge to the English King to come out and fight, but Edward refused to leave his snugly fortified siege lines. Philip knew that to attack would be to invite another Crécy and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a truce. On 2 August he ordered his men to strike camp and set fire to their tents. The retreating French army could hear the lamentations of the doomed people of Calais as they rode away—its garrison threw the royal standard down into the ditch.

By now even the richest of those inside Calais were dying from lack of food and the day after Philip’s withdrawal Jean de Vienne appeared on the battlements to shout that his garrison was ready to negotiate. He was told how the English King was so furious at the town’s resistance that its people would have to submit to being killed or ransomed as he chose. Eventually Edward was persuaded to limit his punishment to the six chief burgesses, who had to appear before him clad only in their shirts and with halters round their necks. ‘The King looked felly on them, for greatly he hated the people of Calais.’ Then he commanded their heads to be struck off. They were only saved by the intercession of the pregnant Queen Philippa who knelt before her husband in tears and pleaded, ‘Ah, gentle sir, since I passed the sea in great peril, I have desired nothing of you; therefore now I humbly require you in honour of the Son of the Virgin Mary and for the love of me that ye will take mercy of these six burgesses.’ Nonetheless Edward turned all the inhabitants out of the town in the clothes they had on and nothing else, later re-peopling it with English colonists who were assigned shops, inns and tenements. He gave many of the fine houses of the rich bourgeois to his friends.

For two centuries Calais was to be the English gate into France—both entrepôt and bridgehead. A commentator has written, ‘The vital importance of Calais to the English is perhaps best realized if one were to imagine France in possession of Dover throughout the war, and the advantage this would have given her.’ The English soon felt passionately about Calais ; as Philip Contamine, the modern French historian, says, ‘For two centuries it remained a little piece of England on the continent,’ and it was even part of the diocese of Canterbury.

Yet the town’s acquisition should not be seen in isolation, as the Crécy-Calais campaign was only one of the three interdependent operations of Edward III’s grand strategy. In the south-west the Earl of Derby was able to hold on to most of his gains ; he had been besieged at Aiguillon, but the Duke of Normandy raised the siege as soon as he heard of his father’s defeat and took his army north of the Loire. One of the reasons which may have made Philip abandon Calais was news of another English victory, in Brittany at La Roche Derrien where an English garrison was besieged. On 27 June 1347 Sir Thomas Dagworth wiped out the forces of Charles of Blois, who was captured and sent to join the King of Scots in the Tower of London. Only in Flanders did the English position grow weaker, the new Count (the strongly pro-French Louis de Male) managing to win over the towns.

The Papacy deplored the misery caused by Edward’s campaigns. In 1347 Clement VI remonstrated with the King, writing to him of ‘the sadness of the poor, the children, the orphans, the widows, the wretched people who are plundered and enduring hunger, the destruction of churches and monasteries, the sacrilege in the theft of vessels and ornaments of Divine worship, the imprisonment and robbery of nuns’.

At the Pope’s intervention England and France agreed to a truce, in September 1347. King Philip was in a desperate position. Not only had his armies been routed but he was without money. Yet he had to rebuild his strength without delay in case of another invasion. This proud and haughty man abased himself before the Estates when they met in Paris in November. Their spokesman told him, ‘You, by bad counsel, have lost everything and gained nothing,’ adding that the King had been ‘sent back scurvily’ from Crécy and Calais. They would not grant him any money. With great difficulty Philip’s officials managed to extract a little from the local assemblies and the clergy. Even now, after so many years of frustration and humiliation, he still planned to invade England.

Edward III basked in the adulation of his subjects. The Parliament Roll records how both Lords and Commons approved motions thanking God for their King’s victories and agreeing that the monies which they had voted him had been well spent. The ‘realm of England hath been nobly amended, honoured and enriched to a degree never seen in the time of any other King’.

It was probably in June 1348 that Edward formally founded the Order of the Garter at Windsor, based on an association of knights on the model of the Round Table some years before. It seems that the legend is true, that the first Garter was dropped by the beautiful Countess of Salisbury while dancing and that the King—who was in love with her—fastened it round his own knee, saying ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ to save her from embarrassment. (The blue, different from today’s Garter blue, was no doubt derived from the royal blue of the French arms.) Membership of the Order was to be the crown of a successful military career throughout the Hundred Years War ; it is noticeable how many leading commanders received the Garter right up to the very end of the War, both English and Guyennois—with some exaggeration it may be compared to the Companionship of the Bath (CB) during the Peninsular War.

The incident of the Countess of Salisbury and her garter is said to have taken place at a triumphant banquet at Calais, in celebration of its capture. The King nearly lost his new town when its governor, an Italian mercenary, offered to sell it to the French. Unfortunately for the latter Edward got wind of the plot, persuaded the governor to co-operate, and with the Prince of Wales crossed the Channel so secretly that no one knew he was in Calais. When the French arrived to take possession they were ambushed and all taken prisoner. With his accustomed style King Edward, ‘bareheaded save for a chaplet of fine pearls’, entertained his captives to a sumptuous dinner on New Year’s Eve.

In 1350 Edward won yet another victory. The Count of Flanders had allowed the Castilians to assemble a fleet at Sluys, from where they wrought havoc on English merchant shipping and menaced the sea-link with Guyenne. Edward gathered his ships at Sandwich in August and, accompanied by his third son John of Gaunt (who was only ten), sailed to meet the enemy. The Castilian fleet of forty vessels was commanded by Don Carlos de la Cerda—a prince of the royal house of Castile. In a famous passage Froissart describes how Edward appeared to those on board the cog Thomas,the same vessel in which he had fought at Sluys ten years earlier. ‘The King stood at his ship’s prow, clad in a jacket of black velvet, and on his head a hat of black beaver that became him right well; and he was then (as I was told by such as were with him that day) as merry as ever he was seen.’ He made his minstrels play on their trumpets a German dance which had just been brought to England by Sir John Chandos, and commanded Chandos to sing with the minstrels, laughing at the result. From time to time he looked up at the mast, for he had put a man in the crow’s nest to warn him when the Castilians were sighted. On seeing the enemy Edward cried, ‘Ho! I see a ship coming and methinks it is a ship of Spain!’ When he saw the whole Castilian fleet he said, ‘I see so many, God help me! that I may not tell them.’ By then it was evening—‘about the hour of vespers’. The King ‘sent for wine and drank thereof, he and all his knights ; then he laced on his helm’.

The battle which ensued—off Winchelsea, but known as Les-Espagnols-sur-Mer—was a far more dangerous and close-fought business than Sluys. The advantage of galleys over cogs has already been emphasized, and the Castilians were armed with stone-throwing catapults, giant crossbows and cannon. They also had the wind in their favour. Both the King and the Prince of Wales had their ships sunk beneath them and only survived by boarding enemy vessels. After a ferocious combat which continued till nightfall, fourteen Castilian galleys—some say more—were captured and their crews thrown overboard, the remaining enemy vessels fleeing. England rejoiced at the news, especially the coastal counties of the south.

But France had already suffered a far worse disaster, the Black Death—bubonic plague—which had broken out in Marseilles and spread all over France during 1348 and 1349. According to one chronicler, the death-toll in Paris alone reached 80,000. People said that the end of the world had come. The King, who obviously believed that God was punishing France for her sins, imposed a somewhat unusual sanitary precaution : he issued an edict against blasphemy. For the first offence a man was to lose a lip, for the second the other lip and for the third the tongue itself. There can have been few unhappier monarchs than Philip VI in the last years of his reign.

However, the plague also crossed the Channel. It appeared in Dorset in August 1348, spreading all over England where it raged until the end of 1349. It is generally believed that about a third of the entire population died. Land was abandoned, rents fell off or were unpaid. In consequence the yield from taxes declined drastically. The resulting shortage of both men and money had a dampening effect, to say the least, on any thoughts of invasion or large-scale military operations by the English and French monarchies.

On 22 August 1350 King Philip of France died at Nogent-le-roi. ‘On the following Thursday his body was buried at Saint-Denis, on the left side of the great altar, his bowels were interred at the Jacobins, at Paris, and his heart at the convent of the Carthusians at Bourgfontaines in Valois.’ He has gone down to history as a lamentable failure. France has never forgiven him for Crécy, while historians blame him for weakening the French monarchy by granting too many privileges and exemptions for ready money. Yet Crécy was a single tactical error. He raised vast armies and kept them in the field by triumphing over an almost inoperable fiscal system, and in his bargains with the local assemblies he made them realize that the English threatened the entire kingdom. Although he lost Calais, he left France a far larger country : in 1349 he bought the town of Montpelier from the King of Majorca, while the same year, after long negotiation, he succeeded in buying the Dauphiné from its last Count or Dauphin in the name of his grandson, the future Charles V. This was the biggest acquisition of territory since the reign of St Louis—the frontiers of France had at last reached the Alps. Moreover this grandson, who was to prove one of the greatest of all French kings, would follow many of the policies of Philip VI.

Although Edward III was to take the field again, the victory of Les-Espagnols-sur-Mer marks the end of the period when he was the dominant protagonist in the Hundred Years War. He had shown himself to be a superb soldier and had humiliated his Valois rival. He was no nearer his ambition of gaining the crown of France, but he remained as determined as ever to take their kingdom from the Valois—or a large part of it—and he was ready to wait for the right moment to restart the War, even if someone else was to lead his armies.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!