France’s Defeat: Battles of Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt
Exploring the significance and outcomes of the battles of Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt and what led to French losses.
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The Battles of Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt are some of the most famous battles in European history. Each of them proved to be an unmitigated disaster for the French, which nearly proved their undoing in the Hundred Year’s War between them and the English. First, we will begin with the Battle of Crécy.
The Battle of Crécy was the first major engagement of what would become popularly known as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). This was a century-long contest between the Kingdoms of England and France over the right to claim the crown of France. It began when King Edward III of England made a claim to the French throne over that of King Phillip VI of France.
The first decade of the conflict was inconclusive and attritional in nature, with several campaigns being conducted in Northern France by King Edward, as well as continual conflict in Gascony, then an English possession. It was here in the Gascon Campaign of 1345 that the commander of the Anglo-Gascon forces, Henry, the Earl of Derby, requested assistance from King Edward III after a much larger French force assailed him in Gascony.
Being under legal obligation to oblige, King Edward would depart England with over 700 ships and land on the Cotentin Peninsula near St. Vaast. From here the army, composed of about 4,000 men-at-arms and around 10,000 English Longbowmen immediately set out on a campaign of looting and burning in Normandy. They would loot and burn much of Western Normandy and make their way as far south as Poissy, dangerously close to Paris.
As quickly as could be managed, King Phillip VI would muster a large force to pursue the rampaging English. Realizing the danger, Edward would turn his force northeast; crossing both the Seine and Somme Rivers, before taking up defensive positions near Crécy-en-Ponthieu.
The English were severely outnumbered in this fight; perhaps 2:1, although exact figures are not known. Regardless, the core of the French force was composed of men-at-arms (perhaps as many as 8,000), 2-3,000 Genoan crossbowmen, and an unknown, but considerable, number of infantry. The English force was primarily composed of English Longbowmen, with about 4,000 men-at-arms.
Arrayed on top of a hill, the English right flank was commanded by Prince Edward, the Black Prince, while the left flank was under the command of the Earl of Northampton, both of whom commanded cavalry. At the center were dismounted men-at-arms, with archers making up the wings.
The battle began on August 26, 1346 with an attack by Genoese crossbowmen on the English positions. However, they were quickly routed by the English Longbowmen. Upon seeing their retreat, the French men-at-arms launched a cavalry charge (that would cut down many of the retreating Genoese). This charge would fail thanks to the withering fire of the English Longbowmen. The few that managed to make it to the English center were cut down by English men-at-arms. This same pattern would continue through the day and night, with the French launching thoughtless and fruitless cavalry charges at the English center only to be cut down by arrow fire.
The battle itself would peter out at around midnight, with the battered and humiliated French forces quietly leaving the battlefield. The casualties on the French side were nothing short of horrific with perhaps 16,000 dying in the battle, including King Philip’s brother, Charles II of Alençon, King John of Bohemia, and Louis II of Nevers, count of Flanders, King Phillip himself would be wounded in the fighting.
For the English, the battle was an unmitigated success. Their casualties numbered in the low hundreds. With King Phillip’s forces out of the way, the English made their way to the port of Calais where they besieged and took the strategic port. They would use this port as a launchpad for numerous future campaigns and held it long after the closing of the conflict (only losing it in 1558). On September 28, 1347, the French and the English agreed to a truce. This was due to the disastrous state of both kingdom’s finances and the outbreak of the Black Death.
The next French disaster would occur barely a decade later at the Battle of Poitiers on 19 September 1356. The French and the English would attempt to solve their differences with a treaty in 1354. However, the newly crowned King John II of France opted not to ratify the treaty after many in his inner circle had turned against this. It would once again be war.
King Edward III of England would decide to launch simultaneous campaigns in Northern France and in Gascony. So in 1355, Prince Edward, the Black Prince, would be dispatched to Gascony, while King Edward and his other son, John of Gaunt, would arrive in Northern France. Here Edward and John would raid Northern France, while the Black Prince set out from English-held Aquitaine and began raiding central France.
Known as a chevauchée, Prince Edward’s forces, reinforced by the Gascons, set on massive mounted raids on the French countryside over the course of the next year. Herein, a huge amount of economic damage was inflicted on France. Along with this, many strategic towns and fortresses were sacked and captured by the Anglo-Gascon forces.
On August 4, 1356, the Anglo-Gascon forces under Prince Edward once again set out. This time, he and his forces would attempt to besiege and take the fortress town of Tours. However, King John II attempted to isolate the Prince’s army and marched south to face him. Hearing of this, Prince Edward retreated south with his forces. The French forces would quickly catch up with the slow-moving Anglo-Gascon army near the town of Poitiers.
Realizing that he could not escape the impending battle, Prince Edward set up the English defenses on a slope, whose left was guarded by a marsh and stream and its front by a hedge with a very narrow gap. His right would be covered by his wagons. Initially, there were attempts to negotiate, but when this proved fruitless, both sides prepared for battle.
Again, the French forces greatly outnumbered the English, having perhaps 40,000 men overall. The English would have a mixed force of only 12,000. Prior to the attack, the French would divide their forces into four parts, with most of their men-at-arms fighting dismounted.
The battle would begin on the 19th of September, 1356. The first French contingent attempted to storm the gap in the hedge that guarded Prince Edward’s front. English longbowmen and Gascon crossbowmen rained arrow fire on the attackers, with those that made it to the English line engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the English men-at-arms.
After this, the second French contingent, under the Dauphin, attacked. Again the French would experience heavy arrow fire but were almost able to break through the English lines before they were pushed back by English reserves. The third French contingent would never come, as they fled the field. With only his contingent left, King John II ordered his contingent to advance.
However, Prince Edward instead ordered his forces to charge the advancing French. The English cavalry, until then held in reserve, went around and attacked the French flanks. The English men-at-arms were even joined by many of the English Longbowmen with their knives, as they had run out of arrows at this point in the battle. The French were soon overwhelmed and King John II was captured.
The Battle of Poitiers was yet another crushing defeat for the French. Once again they were outfought and out-witted by a numerically inferior opponent. The battle would result in over 2,000 French dead and 2,600 captured (including their king). This compared to a little over 1,000 on the English side.
Instead of continuing to raid or besiege the nearby towns, the Anglo-Gascon force retreated back to Gascony. Here Prince Edward would triumphantly escort his prisoner, King John II into the city of Bordeaux. The French would agree to a two-year truce. The English and French negotiated the Treaty of London (1358) which ceded nearly a third of France to the English.
After initially refusing and widespread peasant revolts known as the Jacquerie, the French Estates-General finally conceded to the treaty’s demands and ratified the Treaty of Brétigny (1360). At the same time, the French would finally pay the enormous ransom the English demanded to free their captured king. The Battle of Poitiers would signal the end of the first phase of the Hundred Year’s War; decisively in England’s favor.
Immortalized in William Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt, which occurred on the 25 of October 1415, would be the last of the trio of French disasters. By 1415, the conflict in France had been frozen by a tentative peace that lasted since 1396. Prior to this peace, however, the French position had dramatically improved after the deaths of King Edward III and his heir Prince Edward, the Black Prince. As a result, the French managed to recapture most of the territory they had lost in the first phase of the conflict.
However, Henry V, who had ascended the English throne in 1413, in a real sense needed a war in France to boost his legitimacy. His father, Henry IV, had usurped the throne from King Richard II, and as a result the Henry’s had been on rather bad terms with the nobility. In France, King Charles VI had gone insane, which resulted in a civil war among the nobility for power. This was the perfect time to strike.
On 13 August 1415, Henry would land in Normandy with a force of around 12,000 men. Herein, he would lay siege to the port of Harfleur. However, the siege would last longer and be more costly than anticipated, with the city falling on September 22. On October 8, Henry and 9,000 men marched out of the newly captured port and attempted to make their way to Calais.
However, a French force defending the Somme River prevented Henry and his forces from crossing, forcing them to detour further upstream. This gave French forces under Marshall Jean II le Meingre (called Boucicaut) and Constable Charles d’Albret to gather a large force and move to intercept the English troops. They would overtake the retreating English near the village of Agincourt about 45 miles south of the safety of Calais.
The French force once again heavily outnumbered the English. Though numbers are disputed, they perhaps had 20,000-30,000 men. The English, weakened by the siege of Harfleur and disease numbered around 6,000. The English would choose to take positions at a field that narrowed in width, with woodland on either side. This negated the French numerical advantage. Henry placed his men-at-arms in the center, with Longbowmen on the sides.
On October 25, the battle would begin. The French advanced with cavalry, who were hampered by the muddy and freshly plowed field. The longbowmen, as per usual, rained arrows on the advancing French. The French were unable to break the lines of the English archers, in part because of the stakes they had driven into the ground. Soon, the archers would drop their bows and enter the melee alongside the English men-at-arms.
The advancing second line of French were unable to properly fight as they were so packed in at the English end of the field. The tide soon began to turn and a great number of prisoners were taken by the English. However, a false report of an attack on the English rear (it was a group of French peasants raiding the English baggage) scared Henry V into ordering the execution of the prisoners. The French third line was unable to make an effective charge due to the number of corpses in front of them, and, thus, were quickly overwhelmed and massacred.
While the true numbers are not known, the French lost perhaps as many as 6,000 at the Battle of Agincourt. The English on the other hand might have suffered as few as 400 killed. What’s more, those killed on the French side were among the greatest and most powerful of the kingdom, with the battle wiping out entire noble households.
Henry would not use the decisiveness of the battle to immediately conquer more territory, but would instead return to England on November 23. Here he was welcomed as a conquering hero, with this victory cementing his legitimacy as a ruler. For the French, the defeat would shatter the tentative peace between the Burgundians and Armagnacs, who would almost immediately turn on one another.
This gave Henry time to prepare for another campaign. With no serious opposition from the French nobility, Henry would be able to subjugate Normandy by 1419. The war had turned decisively in England’s favor once more. It would take a hero, or perhaps a heroine, to turn the tide once more.
What all three of these French disasters have in common is that a numerically, to varying degrees, superior French force was defeated by a numerically inferior English one. What is more, the English forces were in each case a good distance from friendly lines and so were isolated, which is exactly what the French had planned for each time. So what gives?
The first failure of the French in each case is that they relied too heavily on numerical superiority to win the day. The Battle of Crécy proved to be the worst example with the French repeatedly charging head-on into English lines. A similar issue took place at Agincourt and Poitiers, although in the latter they came closest to breaking English lines.
However, it was ultimately the ability of the English to pick their battlefield, and the French engagement on said battlefield, that proved the ruin of the French. In all cases, despite being on the run, the English took the time to pick a position that most benefited them. The French in each case chose to enter the battlefield though it was unfavorable to them. In the end, the battles, however great of disasters they were for the French, could not save the English war effort as they would eventually be pushed out of France in 1453. But that is a story for another time.