Battle of Crécy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Crécy in France established England as an important military power because of its battlefield use of the resoundingly successful longbow, demonstrating that the mounted knights and the age of chivalry were doomed.

Summary of Event

The Anglo-Norman kings of England were so impressed with the powerful longbow Longbow they encountered in their military expeditions against Wales that they adopted it and ordered the inhabitants of every English village to practice its use on a regular basis. Thus the “Welsh” longbow had become the “English” longbow by 1346, the year of the Battle of Crécy. [kw]Battle of Crécy (August 26, 1346) [kw]Crécy, Battle of (August 26, 1346) Crécy, Battle of (1346) France;Aug. 26, 1346: Battle of Crécy[2800] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 26, 1346: Battle of Crécy[2800] Edward III Philip VI

Longbows varied in length from slightly more than 5.5 feet (1.5 meters) to slightly less than 6.5 feet (2 meters). The advantage of the longbow over its shorter cousins came from the increased leverage that resulted from drawing back its longer “arms.” Knowledge of the principle involved was certainly no secret, but the longbow had significant disadvantages that limited its popularity. Its unwieldy length meant that the archer could carry few if any other weapons. He certainly could not put it over his back and use a sword in offensive operations. This limitation meant that it was unsuitable for any situations other than defensive battle. Perhaps more important, it was difficult to master without extensive practice, hence the royal order for regular training and practice.

Yew was the favored wood for longbow construction. Like the American aromatic cedar, the yew has an inner, red core of heartwood and an outer, white layer of sapwood. The former is strong under compression, while the latter has greater strength under tension. The bowyer took advantage of these natural properties of the yew by splitting the bow staff from the log and shaping it in such a way that the red layer formed the “belly,” which faced the archer in use, and the white layer was on the “back” of the bow.

The French charge the English at Crécy.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Arrows had to be straight to preserve their stability in flight and their accuracy. They were about 30 inches (75 centimeters) long with feathers, or “fletching,” on one end to give stability in flight and a metal tip on the other. The favored tip shape was the “bodkin,” which was a very elongated pyramid, square at the base and tapering to a point. On the fletched end was a notch, or “nock,” made to receive the bowstring. To prevent repeated “nocking” from fraying the hemp bowstring, its central area had a thread wrapping. An archer might carry up to two dozen arrows, and an intelligent military commander would be careful to have plenty more in his baggage train.

Longbows had a “pull” of about 80 to 100 pounds (36 to 45 kilograms). They had an extreme range of more than 100 yards (90 meters) and an effective range of about 60 yards (55 meters). In other words, a good archer could expect to kill or disable an armored opponent out to 60 yards (55 meters) and could drop an arrow from a high trajectory on a general area as far as 150 yards (135 meters) away. It is difficult to be more precise because much depended on the skill of the individual archer and weather conditions such as wind. A skilled man could shoot up to twelve arrows per minute, and this speed was the greatest advantage the longbow had over its major rival—the crossbow—at the Battle of Crécy.

The crossbow Crossbow was even more powerful than the longbow. Its power came from the sophisticated combination of materials in its much shorter bow. The bow was hardly more than 24 inches (60 centimeters) in length and was, essentially, a sandwich of horn on the belly, wood in the middle, and animal sinew on the back. Just as with the longbow, this combination provided materials strong under compression on the belly and strong under tension on the back but to a much greater degree. Most important, a crossbowman required little training. All of the crossbow’s advantages over the longbow could not, however, compensate for one essential weakness: It was much slower to operate, and volume of fire is the most important battlefield feature of any missile weapon.

Many historians have claimed that the longbow caused a military revolution, beginning at the Battle of Crécy, by rendering the mounted knight obsolete. This is an exaggeration. The feudal system was already in decline because of political, economic, and social developments before the Battle of Crécy. Even on the battlefield, the success of the longbow was a symptom more than a result. Although an individual on foot is almost helpless against an individual on horseback, formed infantrymen are practically impervious to attack by cavalry as long as they maintain their formation. Newly forming centralized governments were acquiring the administrative and financial skills to field and maintain capable infantry.

The Battle of Crécy was the first important battle in the Hundred Years’ War Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France that began in 1337. King Edward III Edward III of England was actually closer by strict inheritance to the throne of France than King Philip VI Philip VI (king of France) , and Edward was eager to assert his rights through force of arms. A more substantial and more deep-seated cause of the war was the attempt by King Philip to consolidate French territorial holdings and influence at the expense of England, which still had considerable land holdings and economic interests on the Continent. Hostile feelings and words led to open war by the late 1330’. The war proceeded in fits and starts with the French seeming to have the advantage until 1346, when Edward III mounted an invasion of Normandy. Philip came to defend his territory, and the two forces met at Crécy on August 26, 1346.

The English had about seven thousand longbowmen, some two thousand men at arms (knights), and two or three thousand auxiliaries. Philip had at least twenty thousand men at arms—the flower of French chivalry, as is often said—and many other troops. Edward deployed his men on rising ground and awaited the French attack. He could hardly do otherwise, being so badly outnumbered and so dependent on the longbowmen who were useful only in defense. Fortunately for Edward, the French obliged by attacking and in a very inept way. As the men at arms rode onto the field in piecemeal fashion, the sun was going down. Philip decided to wait until the next day to launch his attack after his men had rested and after they had all arrived, but he could not control the unwieldy mass, which continued to press forward despite his orders. He finally decided to make the best of a bad situation and ordered the attack.

Philip’s Genoese crossbowmen led the assault. A brief rain shower fell on them, and this has led many historians to speculate that their wet bowstrings caused their poor performance. Whether or not this contributed, they could not withstand the more deadly shower of arrows that fell on them after the rain shower. The duke of Alençon, stationed behind the crossbowmen, decided they were acting in a cowardly fashion when they hesitated and led the mounted men at arms in a charge over them. Neither side realized exactly what a toll the longbowmen were taking because of the dark, and the French continued to press on while the longbowmen continued to shoot into the confused mass at the foot of the rise. The horsemen charged fifteen times, and the battle lasted until the “third quarter of the night.” The next morning, the English discovered they had killed more than fifteen hundred French nobles and at least ten thousand others with a loss of less than one hundred on their side.

Significance

Although the Battle of Crécy raised England’s international reputation and led to considerable gains by Edward III, the war dragged on. In 1356, at the Battle of Poitiers, Poitiers, Battle of (1356) and again in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt, Agincourt, Battle of (1415) the English were to win important victories with the aid of the longbow. By the end of the war, the proud mounted knights were no longer the dominant force on European battlefields. The age of chivalry Chivalry;decline of was over, and the longbow had been a significant contributor to its demise.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradbury, Jim. The Medieval Archer. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 1999. Discusses the role of the archer and archery during the Middle Ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burne, Alfred H. The Crécy War: A Military History of the Hundred Years’ War from 1337 to the Peace of Brétigny, 1360. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. A classic account of the battle and its aftermath in the first part of the Hundred Years’ War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, J. F. C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence upon History. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954-1956. Contains a detailed account of the Battle of Crécy by one of the foremost military historians of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardy, Robert. The Longbow: A Social and Military History. London: Bois d’Arc Press, 1998. Analyzes the use of the longbow in the history of warfare and battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. Part of the Oxford History of England series, this large volume contextualizes the Hundred Years’ War from an English perspective. Includes maps, genealogical tables, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Myers, A. R. England in the Late Middle Ages. 8th rev. ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1978. Concisely places the war into a broader context. Includes maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seward, Desmond. A Brief History of the Hundred Years’ War: The English in France, 1337-1453. Rev. ed. London: Robinson, 2003. One of the most readable accounts of the war. Includes maps and other illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War. 2 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Volume 1, “Trial by Battle,” and Volume 2, “Trial by Fire,” cover the military history of the battles, including the Battle of Crécy, which make up the war period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Verbruggen, J. F. The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1997. Covers western European warfare during the Middle Ages.

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