Battle of Poitiers: English Army Defeats French; The "Black Prince" Triumphs

 
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Battle of Poitiers: English Army Defeats French; The "Black Prince" Triumphs

"Battle of Poitiers" illumination from Jean Froissart's "Chronicles," Vol. I (1410)
Depicting French King Jean II fighting English footmen
(Unless otherwise specified, all illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 19, 1356

The Hundred Years' War between the kingdoms of England and France (1337-1453) was closing in on the end of its second decade in 1356. To that point, the English military had continued its dominance of the forces of France. Today's excursion into military history focuses on another English victory over the flower of French chivalry.

Background

Since the English victory at Crecy in 1346, France was continually on the defensive. However, from 1348-1349, both nations took an extended breather in the conflict, as the bubonic plague pandemic ravaged most of Europe. Modern estimates place the death toll from the "Black Death" at between 30 and 60 percent of the population of most of Europe. Very little military action took place between 1348 and 1356, except for sporadic fighting over the succession of Brittany.

Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (1330-1376) (Illustration courtesy of www.toptenz.net)
Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (1330-1376)
(Illustration courtesy of www.toptenz.net)

Finally, in 1356 the Prince of Wales Edward of Woodstock – better known to history as the "Black Prince" – decided it was time to bring the heat up against the French. The prince was 26 years old, but already an experienced battlefield commander, winning his spurs 10 years earlier at the battle of Crécy. [To read more about that close fought victory of the English, please go to 'Battle of Crécy: Outnumbered English Force Massacres French Chivalry' and 'Part II – Battle of Crécy: "Let the Boy Win His Spurs"' .] In addition to being the heir to the English throne, Edward also had the responsibility of ruling the province of Aquitaine. Under orders from his father, King Edward III, Prince Edward gathered an army of English, Welsh, and Gascon soldiers and launched a chevauchée into central France.

A chevauchée (French for "promenade" or "horse charge" depending on the circumstances) was a raiding method of medieval warfare for weakening the enemy, focusing mainly on wreaking havoc, burning and pillaging enemy territory, in order to reduce the productivity of a region; as opposed to siege warfare or wars of conquest. The chevauchée could be used as a way of forcing an enemy to fight, or as a means of discrediting the enemy's government and detaching his subjects from their loyalty. This usually caused a massive flight of refugees to fortified towns and castles, which would be untouched by the chevauchée. The use of the chevauchée declined at the end of the 14th century as the focus of warfare turned to sieges.

France in the early 14th century; [Prince Edward's chevauchée in white]; (Map courtesy of http://travelinghistorian.com)
France in the early 14th century
[Prince Edward's chevauchée in white]
(Map courtesy of http://travelinghistorian.com)

The English prince had an estimated 6000 to 7000 men under his command. The raid began on August 4, against the city of Bourges. Edward had led a similar expedition the previous year, in the south of France. This chevauchée differed from the previous one because, in addition to the raiding, burning and looting, there was also military action taken against objectives away from the main body of the force. Edward burned the suburbs of Bourges, but did not capture the city. However, he did capture the less important city of Audley.

Over the course of the raid, several small forces of French knights were defeated and Edward paused to besiege and capture the small town of Romorantin, where several French leaders were holed up. By this time the army of the French monarch, Jean II (called Le Bon, "the Good") was in pursuit.

King Jean II of France (reigned 1350-1364); Tempera and gold on canvas mounted on wood; Currently at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France
King Jean II of France (reigned 1350-1364)
Tempera and gold on canvas mounted on wood
Currently at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

King Jean, after hearing reports of the depredations of the English force, decided to make all haste to intercept Edward's raiders before they returned to their home base. The French monarch was then besieging the town of Breteuil in Normandy. He lifted the siege and headed south. At the city of Chartres, Jean received further reports about the English, including the fact that they were very near. As a result, King Jean decided to dismiss about 15,000 to 20,000 of his lower-quality and less reliable infantry, hoping to make his army lighter and faster and increase his chances of bringing Prince Edward's force to battle.

Prelude to Battle

After receiving word of the approach of the French army, Edward marched west along the Loire River to the city of Tours. However, the main castle of the city was too strongly fortified to be taken by Edward's light forces. Therefore, he ordered the burning of the suburbs before retiring south to Bordeaux. By this time the French army was only thirty miles (50 km) away and had superior numbers. Also serving in the French army was a contingent of Scottish troops, under the command of Sir William Douglas.

[The size of the French army on the Poitiers battlefield is still the target of speculation. Some historians state the French force totaled between 35,000 and 60,000 men (the latter figure comes from Jean Froissart, the French historian who was a near contemporary and likely interviewed many men who actually fought at Poitiers). Modern historians believe the French army was closer to 15,000 to 20,000 men.]

The French army dogged the retreating English-Gascon force for nearly two weeks until Sunday, September 18. Prince Edward's raiders had just passed through the city of Poitiers, and were about three or four miles south of the city. All during that Sunday, a local French prelate – probably Cardinal Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord – attempted to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The Black Prince's offered to hand over all the booty he had taken on his chevauchée and maintain a truce for 7 years. However, King Jean found this offer unacceptable, as he thought the English would have little chance against his larger army. The French counter-proposal, that Prince Edward and 100 of his best knights surrender themselves, was equally unacceptable to the English. Both sides then began their battle preparations.

Battle of Poitier, September 19, 1356
Battle of Poitier, September 19, 1356

Edward's army began to deploy in terrain dominated by woods, hedgerows and a small stream, the Moisson River, with steep banks. The English commander chose a plain with the Woods of Saint-Pierre and the Moisson River – which also included some marshy terrain – to protect his left flank, while the nearby Woods of Nouaillé would provide rear protection for the entire army. [He had been told by the monks at a nearby abbey that the woods were fairly impenetrable.]

Having "won his spurs" on the battlefield at Crecy a decade earlier, Prince Edward carefully placed his forces. Edward used a thick hedgerow which ran at right angles to the main road between Poitiers and Bordeaux as the anchor of his line. The hedgerow also sat at the top of a slight ridge, with enough of a slope to give an attacking force a problem to scale it. His right wing was commanded by William de Montecute, Earl of Salisbury, his left wing by Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (who also had the baggage train with all the loot of their raid). Two large groups of archers were placed at each wing of the army. Edward commanded the reserves, which appears to have been mostly mounted men, slightly to the rear of the other two divisions.

The French dispositions were a bit more complicated. King Jean had held a council of war on Sunday evening, wherein he was convinced to attack the English. Sir William Douglas recommended that the French knights and men-at-arms all dismount, as this would remove the possibility of the French horses falling victim to the English longbows and causing havoc among the dismounted French soldiers.

Consequently, the French deployed into three large divisions, all dismounted knights and men-at-arms. A somewhat smaller force of about 200-300 mercenary German knights were deployed in front of the main army, accompanied by about 2000 Genoese crossbowmen. This small force was given the task of dispersing the English archers to allow the main army to attack the outnumbered English footmen. The first division of 4000-5000 men was commanded by King Jean's eldest son, Charles the Dauphin (crown prince or heir to the throne). The second division of 3000-4000 soldiers was under the king's brother, Philip the Duke of Orleans. Finally, bringing up the rear was the largest division – 6000-7000 men – commanded by King Jean himself. Neither the Dauphin nor Duke Philip had much military experience.

[On the day of the battle, King Jean and 19 knights from his personal guard dressed identically. This was done to confuse the enemy, who would do everything possible to capture the sovereign on the field.]

Battle of Poitiers

Both armies were basically in their positions by early morning (about 7:00 to 8:00 am). The first move of the battle occurred when – possibly by design – Warwick's division with the plunder-filled wagons began to move south on the old Roman road leading to Bordeaux. [There is also the possibility that Prince Edward truly wished to avoid a fight, and was trying to withdraw before the French attacked.] This caught the eye of Marshals of France Audrehem, Brienne, and Clermont, who each commanded portions of the leading "forlorn hope" of the French. Marshal Audrehem, noticing Warwick's movement, ordered his men to advance on the retreating English left wing. The other two contingents launched themselves at Salisbury's wing, apparently leaving the crossbowmen unsupported.

Obviously, these impromptu attacks were met with a storm of clothyard shafts, the English longbowmen firing as fast as possible (perhaps as many as 10 shots per minute). Seeing the French horsemen bearing down of them, Warwick's men halted their movement and reordered themselves to meet the attack. As Douglas had predicted, the French horses were quickly shot down, their riders either pinned underneath or struggling onward to attack the English line. These men were quickly dispatched, almost before the rest of the French army was fully deployed.

Somewhere around 9:00 am, the Dauphin led his division forward. He inclined his men to attack the English right flank. Unfortunately, this French advance was complicated by the retreat of the surviving cavalry commanded by Clermont, which disrupted the forward movement. These French dismounted cavalry struggled up the slope into a storm of arrows, tried to break through the thick hedgerow, without much success. Finally, after battling the English right division for nearly two hours, the Dauphin ordered his men to fall back to regroup. As these men withdrew, the second French division – commanded by Philip of Orléans – panicked. At about the same time, King Jean decided to send the Dauphin and some of his other sons from the battlefield. When this occurred, the Duke of Orléans led his troops from the field, disrupting the division behind him commanded by the king.

A rather fanciful depiction of the battle of Poitiers; From a 15th century manuscript of Jean Froissart's chronicle; Illustration in the National Library of France, Paris
A rather fanciful depiction of the battle of Poitiers
From a 15th century manuscript of Jean Froissart's chronicle
Illustration in the National Library of France, Paris

By this time, it was about noontime. Prince Edward's men had fought hard and, in spite of the day of rest the day before, they were nearly exhausted. He ordered his forces to consolidate into a single body of men, and prepare to meet the advancing French, which had also formed a single phalanx of infantry, with the Genoese longbowmen mixed in. This was more by accident than by design, as King Jean commanded the largest division of the French army. This mob of French fighters advanced to meet the English, with the oriflamme, the ancient battle standard of France, moving forward with them.

As the French moved forward, a group of about 200 English and Gascon men-at-arms, commanded by Jean Grailly, Captal de Buch, mounted some horse in the rear of the English army and rode around Salisbury's flank. They used the thick forest to conceal their movement. Then, when the French force struck the English line, these impromptu horsemen attacked the left flank and rear of the enemy. This sowed further confusion in the French ranks, causing everyone to lose heart. Seeing the French distress, Prince Edward ordered an advance. Assailed seemingly on three sides, many of the French simply ran. Others formed small groups and continued fighting a seeming lost cause.

At this point, many of the English and Gascons began looting the bodies of the dead. Wounded French nobles were taken for ransom. However, there was one final scene to be played in the battlefield drama, and it involved French King Jean. The king's stratagem of dressing some of his bodyguards in armor similar to his own worked well, until he was the only one left. He fought with valor, wielding a large battle-axe with his youngest son – 14 year old Philip – at his side. At one point, his helmet was knocked off. Surrounded, he continued fighting despite numerous calls from the enemy to surrender. until Denis de Morbecque, a French exile who fought for England, approached him.

French King Jean Le Bon fighting at Poitiers; Author unknown (Illustration courtesy of http://britishbattles.com)
French King Jean Le Bon fighting at Poitiers
Author unknown
(Illustration courtesy of http://britishbattles.com)

According to Froissart, Sir Denis managed to get into the press of men around the French monarch and said, "Sire, yield to me." The king replied, "To whom should I yield? Where is my cousin the Prince of Wales?" Denis replied, "He is not here, sire, but yield to me and I shall bring you to him." The king asked, "Who are you?" Sir Denis stated, "I am Denis of Morbecque, a knight of Artois, but I serve the king of England because I am banished from the realm of France and I have forfeited all I had there." [He was accused of committing murder, for which he fled France.] Upon hearing this, King Jean removed his right glove, handed it to the exiled French knight, and said, "I yield to you." With the king's surrender, the battle of Poitiers was ended.

Aftermath

French losses were estimated at about 2500 men killed and wounded, with an additional 2000 men captured. Besides the king and his son, 17 lords, 13 counts, 5 viscounts, and more than 100 knights were taken prisoner and held for ransom. English casualties are reckoned to have been a few hundred at most.

Footnote #1: That night King John dined in the red silk tent of his enemy, with Prince Edward personally serving him. He was then taken to Bordeaux, and from there to England. Over the next four years, negotiations dragged on until the king's ransom was set at three million crowns. To allow him to begin raising this huge sum, King Jean was allowed to return to France, with his son Louis Duke of Anjou taking his place. Three years later, Louis escaped from captivity and returned to France. Appalled by his son's unknightly behavior, Jean returned to England in early 1364, dying there in 1364.

Footnote #2: The Treaty of Brétigny, agreed to by Kings Jean of France and Edward III of England, transferred large territories to England in the south and west of France. It also provided both nations with a breathing space in the war, which lasted until 1369.

France in 1360 after the Treaty of Brétigny (English-held territory in pink); Taken from 'History of the English People,' Vol. 2 (1877)
France in 1360 after the Treaty of Brétigny (English-held territory in pink)
Taken from "History of the English People," Vol. 2 (1877)

Footnote #3: During this lull in the Hundred Years' War, nearly all authority in France broke down. Still recovering from the after-effects of the Black Death, the French economy declined and agriculture suffered. In addition, bands of soldiers discharged from their respective armies formed "free companies." These brigands plundered various areas of France. Some eventually found their way to Italy, where they formed the core of many a condottiere force.

Footnote #4: Novelist Bernard Cornwell (author of the Sharpe novels) has written a fourth novel in his "Grail Quest" series. Its title is "1356" and climaxes with the battle of Poitiers. I have not read it yet, but I am sure it's a great read.

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