The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) was a dynastic struggle between France and England that laid the foundations of national consciousness in both countries. It was also a drawn-out slogging match, with major battles few and far between. The decisions of England’s King Edward III and France’s King Philip VI to break the pattern of maneuver and siege and fight a pitched battle near the village of Crécyen-Ponthieu on Aug. 26, 1346, marked a watershed moment in the conflict and had sweeping consequences.
Edward left Portsmouth, England, on July 11, 1346, with more than 600 vessels carrying about 15,000 troops. These included some 7,000 foot archers and 3,000 mounted archers, along with knights, men-at-arms and spearmen. It was a formidable force of seasoned and disciplined soldiers, devoted to their king and bent on plunder. The expedition landed against slight opposition near Cherbourg. Edward’s army marched into Normandy, and Philip organized his forces in opposition.
Historians have traditionally described the subsequent campaign as an ad hoc affair in which Edward drifted vaguely across northern France, seeking to secure his line of retreat while avoiding battle—and fighting at Crécy only by accident. Recent reappraisals by historians Clifford Rogers and Andrew Ayton, however, suggest that Edward plotted every move of his army with deliberation, fully intending to force a showdown with Philip.
Edward’s army marched eastward across the rich farmland of Normandy, plundering all the way. Pillage kept the English soldiers well fed and happy while undermining Philip’s standing. The French king had previously avoided open battle, but he could not ignore the destruction of one of his wealthiest domains.
The English crossed the Seine at Poissy, threatening Paris, then moved north, probing the guarded crossings of the Somme. Philip pursued in hopes of trapping them with their backs to the river. On August 24, however, the English forced their way across the Somme at a tidal ford called Blanchetacque. But instead of fleeing for the coast, Edward turned to challenge Philip.
The French king swallowed the bait. With his prestige crumbling, his finances fading and his anger brewing, he led his army over the river at Abbeville and advanced on the impertinent English. Edward faced a hard decision. The French army was double the size of his own. With his line of retreat secure, withdrawal was an option. The English king nevertheless chose to face the French and, he hoped, “make an end” to this troublesome war.
On August 26 Edward moved his army toward Crécy-en-Ponthieu, some nine miles from Blanchetacque. Selecting a strong defensive position in a field, he carefully deployed his forces in three “battles,” or divisions. Dismounted men-at-arms stood at the center of each battle, flanked by archers. The archers, most armed with the famed English longbow, angled forward to take attackers in the flanks. The French advanced almost pell-mell, anxious to grapple with the enemy. A force of 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen formed their vanguard, with some 12,000 impatient French cavalry crowding up behind. Ignoring advice to wait and deploy carefully, Philip ordered an immediate attack.
The Genoese advanced directly against the English and quickly fell victim to clouds of arrows that smothered their attack. Within minutes they broke and fled. Enraged at such apparent cowardice, the French cavalry rode down the Genoese from behind. A melee ensued as the French knights slaughtered their allies before breaking through to charge the English. Again and again they assaulted the English positions, only to be tripped up by caltrops and holes dug in the rain-slicked turf, mowed down by arrows and butchered by Edward’s men-at-arms.
Within a few hours the English had reduced Philip’s army to a rabble. The French king fled the field with his surviving knights, leaving behind more than 2,000 dead, including 1,542 noblemen. The English suffered fewer than 300 casualties. The outcome returned infantry to the fore and presaged the long decline of cavalry as a fighting force.
Edward’s decision to fight at Crécy had profound consequences. After the battle the English king led his army toward Calais, capturing the strategically important port after an 11- month siege. France collapsed into political and financial chaos after 1347 as the Black Death swept across Europe. Following another major English victory at the 1356 Battle of Poitiers and several more years of internal chaos, the French signed the humiliating Peace of Brétigny. Afterward, England dominated much of France until the rise of Joan of Arc in the 1420s.
Edward III’s strategic vision—long underappreciated—and tactical brilliance shone in his decision to fight at Crécy, establishing him as one of the great captains of military history.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.