The two armed conflicts took place respectively in 1346 and 1356. Ten years separate them, though were similar in tactics and spirit. Both were part of King Edward III of England’s ambition to rule France through military might and expertise. Students of history might remember that Edward was the son of a weak father whose grip on the throne was made even weaker by his mother’s affaires, notably the longest (with Roger Mortimer) which ultimately led to the dethroning and murder of Edward II. His son became king in his teens, and promptly showed his determination and courage, aided by an indefatigable spirit, by arranging for the execution of Mortimer, and shutting his mother up in a friendless prison. The fourteenth century was not a good time to live unless you faced whatever life you had with fortitude.
Is a village in northern France, where Edward III and his army were trapped by vastly superior French forces on 26th August, 1346. Edward had been anxious to avoid open battles, especially with the numerical odds against him, sound tactics for any army commander. When he realised that an impending battle was inevitable, he ordered his archers to dig deep pits, into which were driven thick stakes. These pits were there to impede the attacks of cavalry.
Then he dismounted his cavalry, dividing the knights into three supporting sections. The Right would be commanded by his eldest son Edward the Black Prince (then sixteen years old) the same age as Edward III was when Mortimer and his mother murdered his father.
The French employed crossbowmen, and deployed them ready for battle, but the crossbows were wet, their strings damp and lifeless. Most of these crossbowmen were Genoese anyway, mercenaries paid by the French King. They were there for pay, not for patriotism. The use of mercenaries is not always sound tactics.
The heavily armoured French knights made several charges despite the pit traps, but the Welsh bowmen made a terrible slaughter of men and animals with their clothyard arrows, capable of piercing armour, chain mail and body. Often the arrow head emerged on the other side of the victim. An arrow striking a man without armour would pass right through his body. Horses were savagely wounded by the arrows.
Edward ordered his infantry and knights forward, and with pike, sword and axe they swiftly dispatched the fallen and wounded among the disordered French army. As was customary, French knights were captured, to be offered later for heavy ransom. Over 1500 Frenchmen died on the field at Crécy, for a total of 40 English dead.
The King then marched onwards and northwards to take Calais after a short siege. This decisive English victory was one of the opening battles in the Hundred Years War.
Ten years later Edward the Black Prince, now aged 26, was once again in France. At Poitiers (sometimes called Poictiers), a mixed force of English, Welsh and Gascon French was trapped while on a punitive raid, again as at Crécy by vastly superior French forces commanded by the French King Jean II.
Edward kept his head, and arranged his archers in three ranks. After the first rank had shot their deadly arrows, the rank to the rear rose and fired, while the front rank knelt to re-arm their six-foot bows. Again, after the second rank had fired into the melee of French cavalry and footsoldiers, the third rank rose and fired over the heads of the front and second ranks. This triple fire power more than decimated the French army, which was forced to scatter. The French King was taken prisoner.
Shortly after this decisive battle in France the Jacquerie Revolt followed. In May and June 1358 French peasants and farmers in northern France rebelled against the monarchy. The name comes from the habit French nobles had of nicknaming any peasant ‘Jacques Bonhomme’. A leader was found (Guillaume Cale) and the revolt spread to the outskirts of Paris itself.
The revolt had a number of causes: disgust at the French defeat at Poitiers, the Black Death, the total unsafety of travel due to brigands, feudal burdens and taxation – all these contributed to the Jacquerie. Several feudal castles were attacked and destroyed, but the revolt vanished when Cale was caught and executed; French forces also massacred revolutionaries at Meaux. The French masses would have to wait for the eighteenth century to see a popular revolt succeed, though they tried again and again (see La Fronde).