On 19th September 1356 the English won a notable victory against the French at the Battle of Poitiers.
This was one of many battles fought at various times during the period that has become known as the Hundred Years War. This is something of a misnomer because it actually lasted for 120 years and it was not a single war but a series of eight separate conflicts between the royal houses of England and France.
Poitiers was fought during the third phase of the war, which had been interrupted for seven years by the ravages of the Black Death, which had had devastating consequences in both England and France.
In 1355 King Edward III of England launched a three-pronged attack on France. He led an army into northern France while one of his sons, John of Gaunt, raided Normandy and his eldest son and heir, Edward (also known as the Black Prince) raided south-western France from English-held Bordeaux.
In August 1356 Prince Edward began a raid into central France with the deliberate aim of attacking soft targets and gathering as much booty as possible. His force, consisting of cavalry, infantry and archers, numbered around 12,000 men in total.
Opposing Edward was the French King Jean II, who began pursuing Edward on 8th September. King Jean could move faster because of the huge amount of booty that Edward was taking with him. The chase was on, but neither side was aware of where the other actually was and the routes they took were somewhat confused. On the late afternoon of 17th September the English advance guard accidentally ran into the French rear guard, three miles east of Poitiers, and Edward realised that battle was inevitable. He therefore sought a good defensive position.
18th September was a Sunday, on which a truce was arranged. However, Edward used this breathing space well by arranging his troops above a gentling sloping vineyard with his left flank protected by a marsh and a creek. He stationed his cavalry behind a hedge on his left flank, but dismounted them. He left a force of mounted cavalry on his right flank, which was more exposed. Archers were posted in hiding along a front 1,000 yards long.
The French force was more than three times the size of the English one, divided into four divisions each of around 10,000 men. In three of these divisions Jean dismounted his cavalry, in the belief that this was the way to defeat the English who had adopted the same tactic. Jean’s plan was to attack the English in a frontal assault, launching each division at them in turn.
The battle began early on the morning of 19th September, with the only mounted French division making its attack. However, they did so prematurely, which took the French crossbowmen out of the action. The cavalry charge was easily beaten back by the English archers.
The second French division was also met by a hail of English arrows but had more success than the first. Edward was forced to bring most of his reserves into the battle, and only just managed to hold on. Both sides suffered heavy losses.
However, had the French appreciated just how exposed Edward’s right flank was at this stage, they could have won the battle. Instead, the third division, led by the King’s brother, was so alarmed by the French losses that they fled the field before getting in range of the English archers, whose numbers were now much depleted.
This only left the largest French division, led by King Jean himself. Although they had marched for a mile in heavy armour to reach the point of attack, Prince Edward also knew that his men were exhausted and were heavily outnumbered. He therefore brought his last reserve of 400 men to the front of his force. He ordered a “do or die” frontal attack that included his archers who had by now run out of arrows. He also sent 200 light cavalry to encircle the French division and attack its rear.
There was fierce hand-to-hand combat in the vineyard and the battle was still in the balance when the French realised that they were being encircled by the English cavalry. They then either fled or gave themselves up to capture. Among the prisoners was King Jean himself.
The losses at Poitiers were about 2,500 French and 1,000 English dead, but the French also had more than 2,500 of their finest fighting men captured. King Jean was taken to London, where he spent four years in captivity, although he was treated more like a royal guest than a prisoner.
Edward did not advance further at this stage but returned to Bordeaux, safe in the knowledge that the French would not meet him again in open battle. For the next few years he was free to range all over France and raid as and where he wished.
The Peace of Bretigny in October 1360 recognised English land claims in France, but King Edward gave up his claim to the French throne. King Jean was allowed to return to France, after a ransom of three million gold crowns was paid.
© John Welford