The Battle of Crécy: new discoveries overturn centuries of scholarship
The Battle of Crécy: Missing
by Michael Livingston
On 26 August 1346, the invading English army at last stood face-to-face with a vastly more numerous French army on a small hill not far from Crécy. A little chapel nearby was tolling the bells for the mid-afternoon prayers when the French began to charge up at the English position. Arrows sang in a sky filled with screams. Men fell by the thousands to the blood-soddened farmland upon which they struggled.
The Battle of Crécy was a horror even by medieval standards, and word of what happened would spread across Europe with truly astonishing speed. Almost as fast, history became legend.
That the news would run far and fast is not surprising. There were five kings on the field that day. King Philip VI stood at the head of the French army. With him were King John of Bohemia, perhaps the most famous knight in Christendom, though now grown old and, stories say, blind; as well as the monarchs of Majorca and (at least nominally) the Romans. Facing this assemblage was King Edward III of England, who had landed in Normandy on 12 July and cut a swath of destruction across northern France, twice managing to get his seemingly trapped army across rivers mere hours before the pursuing French could catch him.
For weeks Edward had been cunning, but he had also been lucky. And even the best gambler's luck will eventually run out. Edward's seemingly had. His army was exhausted, having marched at least 120 miles in 10 days. And here, in this rolling countryside, they'd finally been caught. His luck fading, the English king had to rely on his cunning alone to save him now.
That Edward indeed survived the battle would be remarkable enough, but the truth of what happened is the reason Crécy is one of the most famous battles in history: the English demolished the French army in a major engagement so lopsided that it has merited study at military colleges still today.
That much is incontestable.
How Edward won, however - indeed where he won - is far less certain than has long been supposed. In The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook, Kelly DeVries and I (with a helpful team of fellow scholars and essayists) have gathered together the known fourteenth-century sources of information about the battle, which we reproduced in both their original languages and in translation. These 81 sources, in Latin, English, French, Dutch, Italian, German, Welsh, and even Czech (many of them either being published or translated for the first time), from letters and chronicles to sermons and poems, have together provided us with an unparalleled early perspective on the battle. And what we have found is overturning centuries of scholarship.
Among our most striking discoveries:
- the traditional site of the battle is wrong, being more than 5km from the most likely location;
- the traditional depiction of the Black Prince as an unbeatable warrior upon the field hides the uncomfortable truth that he was actually captured in the fighting;
- the tradition that the Genoese crossbowmen betrayed the French is not based in any reality;
- the traditional account of the battle paints the French leaders as fools and thus diminishes the accomplishment of Edward and the English, but these new findings reveal that able French commanders were making logical decisions but were in truth outwitted by Edward's brilliant tactics;
- the tradition of the longbow destroying the flower of the French knighthood tells a mere fraction of the story of how that weapon was pressed into service and the key role it played in the outcome of the battle;
- the traditional reconstructions of the battle have completely discarded what we now know to be true about the English use of a defensive fortification built of wagons -- called a wagenberg -- upon the field;
- many common assumptions about Edward III's grand strategies for his invasion of France must now be reconsidered; and
- several newly uncovered eyewitness accounts give us greater insight into the horrors of medieval warfare than we have ever had before.
So much of this stands sharply against the grain of accepted thinking about this famous battle, but we are very much aware that it is the problem of the location that most catches the eye.
Since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, the Battle of Crécy has been identified as occurring just north of the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu. The English lines were supposed to have ranged across the top of a tall hill there, while the French marched across a wide valley below them, called the Vallée des Clercs. They died there under the rain of English bowshot, few even coming close to the top of the slope.
Except nothing about this site and its corresponding reconstruction makes sense, beginning with the basic topography. The four kings on the French side (not to mention the hundreds of battle-tested knights beneath them) would have had to have been fools to attempt such a charge, especially when only a further mile of marching north would have brought them around the head of the valley and able to charge across flat ground into the weaker English flank. Worse still, a natural embankment running along the east side of the valley would have forced the French to execute two 90-degree turns - presumably within range of arrow shot - before they could reasonably charge up the steep hill at the English. If anyone had actually tried such an attack, few indeed would have followed them, much less the thousands who came at the English in 1346.
Other aspects also fail to fit. Our accounts say the French were surprised when they came upon the English position, that they were already almost on top of them, yet any force at the traditional location can be seen for miles. Our accounts say that the English had room to encircle their force in a wagenberg, but that's hardly possible at the traditional site. And not one source describes Edward III or his army crossing the river Maye or seizing the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu - though both events would have been necessary for the English to take the traditional position.
It's hardly any wonder, then, that despite several archaeological investigations, no materials associated with the battle have been found on the hill or in the valley. The Battle of Crécy almost assuredly didn't happen there.
To locate an alternative site, I reconstructed the march of the English army during this campaign, a feat made possible by our publication of the journal of the king's kitchen, which daily recorded the location of the king's encampment. Similar mapping was done with the French army, resulting in average rates of speed for the two forces on the move. Knowing the location of the last encampments of both armies and their available hours of travel on the fateful day, I thus achieved two search radii (one the approximate distance that the English could have marched and the other how far the French could have marched). Both of these radii, predictably, fall far short of the traditional battle site.
The radii meet, however, at a location much farther south of Crécy-en-Ponthieu, alongside the Forest of Crécy, which still dominates the landscape there today. The site is the high ground on the road between Crécy and Abbeville, which is precisely how many of our sources describe the chosen battleground. An English army encamped here could be unseen until the French were close enough to be in a position to form up lines. It has room for the English wagenberg. It doesn't require the French to be fools.
Is this the missing site of the Battle of Crécy? Until proper archaeological investigations are undertaken (and we hope they will be), we simply cannot know for certain. But unlike the traditional site, it matches what was said about the battle by the men who were there. It meets, in fact, every description in every fourteenth-century source.
The Battle of Crécy, despite over six centuries of near-constant fame, continues to hold onto its mysteries, but with the publication of the sources and essays in the Crécy casebook we believe we have taken a massive step toward shedding new light upon the forgotten remains of this great battle and thereby paving the way for an entirely rewritten history of a fascinating and important conflict.
Read more about The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook edited by Michael Livingston and Kelly De Vries - available from our website.
Michael Livingston is Associate Professor of English at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina and author of The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (2011) and Owain Glyndwr: A Casebook (2013).
Kelly DeVries is Professor of History, Loyola University Maryland, an Honorary Historical Consultant with the Royal Armouries, Leeds, and often appears in television documentaries as an expert commentator on warfare in the Middle Ages.