Edward, the Black Prince
When Edward III became King of England, being young and brave, he was anxious to do something to win fame as a soldier. War seemed to be the business of all kings at that time and very little excuse was needed for raising an army and engaging in battle. In fact, there was little else than fighting and war to engage the attention of the people.
A chance came to quarrel with Philip, King of France. Philip had declared that Edward's possessions in France were forfeited, which, of course, offended the English king so that he now had an excuse for war. An army of thirty thousand men was raised and with it Edward sailed across the channel and invaded France.
Much success attended England's arms as they went farther and farther into the country, plundering the rich cities. They gathered much booty and the knights were in great glee over their success. When at last Edward decided that he had gone far enough and wished to return to Calais, a city which was in his possession, he found that the French army had gotten between him and the sea and the English could not go back to their ships without fighting an army much larger than their own.
The French king, thinking he had Edward in a trap, marched rapidly to intercept him and give him battle. Edward stopped his army at a little village called Crécy, and calling his leaders around him, said to them, "To-morrow we give battle to Philip of France. If we win, we shall keep our possessions in this fair land. If we lose, we shall probably all be buried here upon this soil. I shall rest the battle upon your strength and the skill of my son Edward, who must now try his strength as a leader of English soldiers."
To this his knights and men replied with loud clanking of arms, and Edward, who was called the Black Prince, because he always wore black armor, said to his father, "We shall remember that we are English and that we fight for our country and our kin."
The evening before the battle there was great preparation among the English. There was polishing and mending of armor and much feasting among the soldiers. The king himself gave a banquet to the earls and barons of the army and did much to encourage them to carry out his plans for the battle. When they had left, the king went into his room, and falling on his knees, prayed that he might come off victorious in the morrow's battle.
About daybreak he awoke and called for his son Edward, Prince of Wales, and together they took the sacrament, as was the custom in those days before any great battle was fought. After that the army did the same, and so everything was set for the day's conflict.
Riding out from his tent the king gave directions for the men to be drawn up on the sloping ground in front of the little village. He divided his army into three divisions and the first one he put under the command of Edward. Turning to his son, he said:
"My son, you are but sixteen years of age, but you are a knight and are the son of the king of England. To-day this battle shall be yours, and therefore I give you a command that will try the blood that is in your veins."
The young prince raised his sword and bent low before his father, saying, "The end of the day shall not find my father ashamed of his son."
When the battle array was set the English archers were placed in front. They were famous for their good shooting and it was hoped that they would be a great help on this day. The king himself commanded the last division, but it remained on the hill behind, as a reserve in case of need. The king retired to a windmill to watch the progress of the battle.
All day long the English stood in battle array waiting for the French to arrive, but it was near five o'clock in the afternoon when they drew near to Crécy. Four knights were sent forward to see how the English were displayed. When they returned they said to Philip, "The English have rested all day and are fresh for the battle. It is now late and our men are wearied with the long march. It is best to let them sleep to-night and be ready for the battle to-morrow. Mayhap the English will sleep in battle-line, with much discomfort. They now have the advantage."
The king himself was willing to listen to this advice, but the French knights, knowing that their strength was greater than that of the English and not counting upon the weariness of the soldiers, were eager to begin battle at once, and without waiting for orders from the king they pressed on toward the English battle-lines.
As soon as the English saw the enemy advance they sprang from the ground where they were calmly sitting, and made ready for the fight. When Philip came in sight of the English he shouted an order for his archers to begin the battle.
Just at that time a fearful thunder-storm broke over the country and rain fell in torrents. So quickly had it come that the archers had not time to protect their strings from the water, so that their bows would not shoot well. On the other hand, the English bows were quite dry, for they had carried them in canvas bags. The result was that when the French archers came within range, the English arose with a great cry and discharged their arrows with such force and number that it seemed as if it snowed.
The French archers fled in dismay and recoiled upon the ranks of the French knights, who were advancing behind them.
The French king cried out in a rage, "Kill those scoundrels! They are without courage and they block the road."
Whereupon the French knights fell upon the runaways, killing them as they came in their way.
The English archers shot on, and with deadly aim. Their arrows fell among the horsemen, killing and wounding so many that the horses themselves, freed of their riders, ran wildly among the soldiers.
Among those who rode in the battle that day was the blind king of Bohemia, who always wore three white feathers in his helmet. He was old, but very warlike, and desired to be led into the battle that he might deal one more blow against his enemies. He was an ally of Philip, king of France. The battle was raging and word came to the old king that the French troops were in disorder and it seemed as if the day were going against his friends.
"Bring me my armor and my shield, my helmet and my sword," cried he, "and order my horse to be made ready!"
His attendants hastily prepared him for battle and mounted him on his horse and tied him to the saddle.
"Give the bridle to two knights and lead me to the charge," he commanded.
This also was done, and with his old battle-cry the blind king raised his sword and dashed into the battle behind the knights, who were pushing their way through the flying archers against the oncoming ranks of the Black Prince.
In a short time the old man was in the midst of his enemies, though he could not see at whom he struck. It was not long before both of his knights lay upon the field and the old king himself was stretched dead upon the ground. The tide of battle surged around him and then away from him, and Edward, the Black Prince, came to that portion of the field where the king lay dead. Reaching down he took off the helmet of the king and removed the three feathers, which he ever afterwards wore himself and which to this day are in the coat-of-arms of the Prince of Wales. He then appropriated the king of Bohemia's motto, "Ich dien," which means "I serve."
The French knights and the English knights now met in deadly combat. Hand to hand they fought, and it seemed at one time as if the French must drive back the English. A knight rode in great haste to Edward III, who was watching the fight from his windmill on the hill.
"My lord," said he, "the battle goes against us unless you and your reserves come to the aid of the prince. He is fighting manfully, but the French knights outnumber us and he is sorely pressed."
"Is my son dead, or is he unhorsed, or is he so badly wounded that he cannot help himself?" inquired Edward III calmly.
"Thy son is not dead nor unhorsed nor wounded, but is fighting bravely and with all his strength," said the knight, "but he still is in sore need of your help."
The king turned to him and said, "Return to those who sent you and tell them not to send again to me this day or expect that I shall come so long as my son is alive. I will that the boy shall win his spurs this day, and all the glory of this battle shall be his. If he be dead, let me know. Otherwise I desire no news."
The messenger carried back the word of the king, and the young prince was cheered by his father's confidence in his bravery.
Two hours went by and the day began to wane. The French knights could make no impression upon the English archers or spearmen and the bravery of the English knights was undismayed. The French retired from the field. King Philip had lost his horse and was fighting afoot. One of his knights, seeing his plight, brought him another horse and said, "Sire, retire while you can. You have lost this battle, but another time you may have victory."
Then making the king mount, he took hold of the bridle and led him away. With a few attendants the monarch fled through the darkness until he reached Paris.
Night fell upon the battle-field. It was too dark to distinguish between friend and foe and the fighting ceased. The dead lay around on all sides. The French knights wandered about seeking their friends and shouting to one another in the gloom. The English were doing the same, and occasionally hand to hand encounters took place. Late in the night all shouting from the French ceased and then the English knew that their enemies had fled and that the battle of Crécy had become another great English victory.
Bonfires were lighted upon the field of battle. The dead were piled in great heaps, to be buried upon the next day. Edward III came down from his windmill when he was told that the French had retired, and going to the tent of his son, took him in his arms and, according to the custom, kissed him upon the cheek, saying, "May God help you to go on as you have begun. You have borne yourself nobly this day and all the victory is yours."