The Battle of Crecy was fought on 26th August 1346, when King Edward III of England, with an army of 11,000 men, took on the might of France. The size of the French army is variously estimated at anything from 35,000 to 60,000.
The Battle of Crecy
The result was an overwhelming victory for the English side. One reason for this was that the English fought as a unified force under central command, whereas the knights who lined up on the French side had different motives in mind. Their basic plan was to capture as many English noblemen as possible and hold them for ransom. Patriotism took second place to pure greed!
Crossbows versus longbows
Another major difference between the assembled forces was that the English relied on their longbowmen, who numbered about 7,000, whereas the French bowmen, although greater in number at around 8,000, were armed with crossbows.
The medieval crossbow was a formidable weapon in that a crossbow bolt could pierce anything that it hit. However, it needed both hands to pull the cord back to its locking point before the bolt was loaded. The fastest rate of fire was no more than two shots per minute.
The English longbow, despite needing a strong arm to pull the string back, could be fired much more rapidly. A trained and experienced bowman could send five or more shots per minute. This immediately meant that 7,000 longbows were superior to 8,000 crossbows.
The course of the battle
The French opened proceedings by sending their crossbowmen (who were mostly Genoese mercenaries) forward to get within range of the English. However, they were immediately met by a hail of English arrows which reduced their numbers considerably.
The French mounted knights were impatient to get to work on their English counterparts, so they charged forward, riding over the crossbowmen on their way. They were in turn met by a hail of arrows and those who were unhorsed were despatched by English foot soldiers armed with swords and maces.
As each wave of knights charged forward, fresh fusillades of arrows rained down on them. Any knight who got close to the English lines found that progress was impeded by sharpened stakes that the bowmen had thrust into the ground as protection.
It has been estimated that about half a million arrows were fired by the English during the battle.
The French defeat was total. They lost 15,000 French and Genoese soldiers, with a further 1,500 French knights killed or captured. English losses were no more than 100.
One lasting outcome of the battle came from the capture of the crest of King John of Bohemia, who, despite being blind, had fought bravely before being killed. The crest, consisting of three ostrich feathers and the motto “Ich dien” (I serve), was presented to King Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince. He adopted the crest and motto as his own, and the Princes of Wales have used it ever since.
Crecy was one of the earliest engagements of the long drawn-out series of hostilities that was later given the title of the Hundred Years’ War (which was always an approximation). Despite the crushing nature of the victory it settled very little, given that the War was to last for another 107 years.
© John Welford