Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

The Battle of Crécy

I N July 1346, six years after the battle of Sluys, Edward III. landed at La Hogue in Normandy. His plan was to march eastward and join the Flemings (people of Flanders), who were in alliance with him, and who had themselves invaded France. He got as far as Rouen, but found there that the bridge over the Seine had been broken down, and that King Philip of France was on the opposite bank with a large army.

Edward then marched towards Paris, as if he were going to attack it, and when the French king followed him, suddenly turned back, and got across the Seine. He then marched on and came to the river Somme. Here again all the bridges had been broken down. Three times he tried to cross the river, but in vain. At last a peasant told him of a ford over the river known as Blanchetaque (from the white stones in the bed of the river). He crossed by this, but not without a fight.

Marching a few miles further on he came to a place called Crécy, about ten miles from the ford of Blanchetaque, which is between Abbeville and the sea. Here he determined to fight, and waited for the French king, who was following him with an army much larger than his own. For when King Edward came to Crécy, he said, "Let us post ourselves here; we will not go further till we have seen our enemies. And indeed I have good reason to wait for them in this place; for this is the inheritance of my mother, which was given to her for a marriage-portion, and I am resolved to defend it against my adversary King Philip."

Here then the King pitched his camp. That evening—the day was Friday—he gave a supper to the earls and barons of his army. When they were gone, he fell on his knees and prayed to God that, if he fought with his enemies on the morrow, he might come out of the battle with honour. The next morning he and the Prince of Wales received the Holy Communion, as did also the greater part of his army.

After this he commanded that the army should be drawn up in three divisions. In the first he placed the young Prince of Wales, with the Earls of Warwick and Oxford, and many other nobles and knights. In this division were about eight hundred men-at-arms, two thousand archers, and a thousand Welshmen. There were in all about eight thousand nine hundred men, of whom about half were archers.

The army having been thus ordered, the King mounted a small white palfrey, and rode at a foot's pace, having a marshal on either side, throughout all the ranks, encouraging and entreating the army that they would guard his honour and defend the right. When he had gone through all the battalions, it was ten o'clock in the forenoon. He ordered that every man should have his meal, and drink a glass after. So the men ate and drank at their ease, sitting on the ground, having their bows and helmets before them on the ground, that they might be the fresher when the enemy should come.

The King of France and his army had lodged that night at the town of Abbeville, so that by the time they came near to the English they had marched already six miles or more. Four knights rode on to see what they could find out about the English, and these, when they returned, counselled King Philip that he should advance no further that day, but quarter them for the night where they were. "For," said they, "if you will wait till the rear shall come up it will be late, and your men will be weary, but the enemy will be fresh and in good order. Take then your own time, and be sure that they will wait for you."

This counsel seemed good to King Philip, and he commanded that it should be done accordingly. So the marshals rode, one to the front, and the other to the rear, crying, "Halt, banners, in the name of God and St. Denys!" The front indeed halted, but the rear pushed forward, saying that they would not be behind any. And when the front saw this, then they advanced also, and neither the King nor the marshals could stop them. So the army marched on till they came within sight of the English. Then the front ranks fell back, to the no small fear of them that were behind, who thought that the fighting had already begun. As for the confusion and bad ordering of the French, no one could say how great it was, who did not see it.

The English, on the other hand, when they saw their adversaries approach, stood up from the ground on which they were sitting without fear, and fell into their ranks. The first so to do was the Prince's division, having the archers in front and the men-at-arms in the rear. On either wing was a part of the second division, drawn up to give him help, if it should be needed. As for the third division, with which was the King himself, it was the hindermost of all. So the English stood in good order, but the French came on just as it seemed good to them, each man going his own way.

When the King of France first saw the English, his blood began to boil, and he cried to his marshals, "Order the Genoese forward and begin the battle." These Genoese carried cross-bows, and they were some fifteen thousand in number. But they were very weary, for they had marched eighteen miles that day, clad in armour and carrying their cross-bows. They told the Constable of France, "We are not in fit condition to do much this day." Thereupon he cried out, "This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, for when there is most need of them, then they fall off."

About this time there was a very heavy rain, with thunder and lightning. Also there was an eclipse of the sun; and before the rain a great cloud of crows was seen to hover over the two armies, making at the same time a great noise. Then the sun shone out, but so that the Frenchmen had it in their faces, and the Englishmen on their backs. The Genoese being by this time somewhat in order, approached the English, and set up a loud shout, with which they thought to frighten their adversaries. But the English stood still and took no heed. Then the Genoese shouted again and came a little forward; but the English never moved. A third time they cried out, holding their cross-bows forward, and began to shoot. Then the English archers also advanced, taking one step forward, and shot their arrows with such force and quickness that one had thought it snowed.

When the Genoese felt the arrows piercing through heads and arms, and through their armour, many of them cut the strings of their cross-bows and cast them on the ground and fled. When the King of France saw them flying, he cried, "Slay these rascals, for they do but hinder us." Then the men-at-arms dashed in among them, and slew many of them; and all the while the Englishmen shot where the press was thickest; the men-at-arms and their horses were pierced with the arrows, and fell in the midst of the Genoese; nor when they had fallen could they recover themselves; so thick, of a truth, was the press that they overthrew each other. The Welshmen also went on foot with their long knives among the men-at-arms, and slew many, both earls and knights and squires, a thing at which King Edward was afterwards much displeased, for he had sooner that they had been taken prisoners.

In this battle was slain a very valiant man, the King of Bohemia. When he heard how the battle had been ordered, he asked, "Where is my son, the Lord Charles?" His people answered, "We know not, but we believe that he is fighting." (The Lord Charles had come to the battle, but when he saw that it was likely to turn against the French, he departed.) Then said the King, "Gentlemen, you are all my people, my friends, and my brethren-in-arms this day; therefore, as I am blind, I beg of you that you will lead me so far into the battle, that I may be able to strike one stroke with my sword."

The knights answered that they would forthwith lead him as he desired. And that they might not lose him in the crowd, they fastened all the reins of the horses together, and putting the King at their head, that he might have his wish, so advanced towards the enemy. Then the King made good use of his sword, and his companions also fought most gallantly. So far did they go with the press that they were all slain. On the morrow they were found upon the ground, with their horses all tied together.

None fought on the side of the French more valiantly than the Constable of France and the Earl of Flanders. These two, with their companies, came to the place where the Prince's division stood, and fought there right valiantly. There too the King of France would fain have joined them, but could not, for there was a hedge of archers between him and them.

Here must be told an adventure of a certain knight that followed Sir John of Hainault. The King of France had given that day a very handsome black war-horse to Sir John, who mounted his own standard-bearer upon the beast. The horse ran away with its rider, and passed through the English army from front to rear without receiving any hurt. Then, as it was about to come back, it stumbled and turned the knight into a ditch, hurting him greatly. In truth, the man would have died but for his page, who had followed, and found him in the ditch without any power to raise himself out of it. This he now did with the page's help, and so returned safe to his own people, though not by the same way as that by which he came. He had fared worse, but that the English did not quit their ranks that day to make prisoners.

Before the battle had continued any long time, a number of soldiers, Frenchmen, Germans, and men of Savoy, broke through the archers of the Prince's division, and came to blows with the men-at-arms. The Prince had been hard pressed at that time but for the second division, which came quickly to his help. But before their coming, the leaders of the Prince's division, seeing the danger they were in, sent a knight in great haste to the King, who had taken his stand near a windmill on a hill.

The knight said, "Sir, the lords that are about your son are vigorously attacked by the French; they entreat, therefore, that you would come to their help with your battalion, for if the number of the enemy should increase, they fear that the Prince will have too much to do." The King answered, "Is my son dead, or wounded, or felled to the ground?"  "Nay, sir," said the knight, "he is not so; but he is so hard pressed by the enemy that he has need of your help."  "Then," the King answered, "return to him and to them that sent you hither, and tell them from me that they do not send to me again this day, or look for my coming, so long as my son shall live; tell them also that they suffer him this day to win his spurs, for I am determined that, if it please God, all the glory and honour of this day's battle shall come to him, and to them into whose hands I have committed him." The knight returned and delivered this message to the lords. It greatly encouraged them, and they repented that they had asked for help.

As the day drew to an end, the King of France had but sixty men with him. Then Sir John of Hainault, who before this had given him a fresh horse, when that on which the King rode had been slain with an arrow, said to him, "Sir, retreat while you have the chance; do not expose yourself thus to danger; if you have lost the battle to-day, yet another day you will be conqueror." So saying, he laid his hand on the bridle of the King's horse, and led him away by force; for this was not the first time that he had begged him to retreat.

By this time the Frenchmen were altogether in confusion, and their army broken up into small bands, which wandered up and down without any leader, and falling in with the English, were mostly destroyed. The English did not stir from their place to pursue or to take prisoners; but when, about the time of vespers, they heard no more shouting or crying, or voices of men calling to their lords, they considered that they had won the victory.

As it grew dark, they made great fires and lighted torches. King Edward, who all that day had not put on his helmet, then came down from his post, and, with his whole battalion, advanced to the Prince of Wales. He took him in his arms and kissed him, saying, "Sweet son, God give you grace to go on as you have begun; you are my son, for you have acquitted yourself well this day; you are worthy to be a king." Thereat the Prince bowed very low, humbling himself before his father.

That night the English offered thanksgiving to God, for that He had given them the victory; this they did without any rioting, for the King had forbidden all noise or riots.

On the day that followed, that is, Sunday, there was so great a fog that one could not see a hundred yards. The King sent out a company of five hundred lances and two thousand archers to see if there were any bodies of French collected. This company fell in with a division that was coming from Abbeville to join King Philip, having been told that he would not fight before Sunday. They thought that the Englishmen must be their own countrymen, and hastened to join them, When they found out the truth there was a short fight, but the French soon turned and fled in great disorder. Many were slain; indeed, had it not been for the fog, not one would have escaped.

The same thing befell a company that was coming to the help of the French King, under the command of the Archbishop of Rouen. For a time they held their ground, for there were brave knights with them, but in the end were almost all slain. Many other bands that came from the towns round about perished in the same way. 'Tis said that there were slain on this Sunday morning four times as many men as had perished in the battle.

When the King knew that the French had no thought of collecting another army, he sent two lords, with three heralds, and two secretaries to count the dead. These were all the day about their work, coming back to the camp as the King was about to sit down to supper. Their report was that they had found eighty banners, and the bodies of eleven princes, twelve hundred knights, and thirty thousand common men.

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