The Battle of Crécy

2 mins read

Medieval warfare is sometimes caricatured as a matter of crude frontal collisions lacking in tactical finesse.

This was sometimes true. Anglo-Saxon and Viking warfare seems to have consisted of little more than head-on clashes between dense blocks of spearmen ranged behind their respective shield-walls. Much later, the Wars of the Roses seems to have been similarly lacking in tactical sophistication, perhaps because the English way of war developed in the early 14th century – discussed in this special – culminated in tactical stalemate when both sides deployed the same system, especially as armoured protection reached its dizzy peak in the late 15th century.

But stalemate is a recurring feature of warfare. The wars of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) tended to be tedious wars of position on heavily fortified frontiers involving one long siege after another. The generals of the First World War were unable to break the deadlock of the trenches until the development of embryonic blitzkrieg tactics in the last year of the conflict. It was not that medieval commanders necessarily lacked subtlety; more often they simply lacked the means to do anything other than accept a crude slugging match.

King John of Bohemia during the Battle of Crécy, detail from an 1860 painting. Credit: Alamy

Periods of technical and tactical impasse are, however, invariably followed by periods of innovation. So it was in medieval times. There seems little doubt that scholars who see a ‘revolution in military affairs’ in the first half of the 14th century are right to do so – though it might be more accurate to see the innovations of this period as the first stage in a long process that would conclude only with the combined-arms operations of the pike-and-shot era, when mobility and manoeuvre were fully restored to European battlefields.

But the process certainly began with the eclipse of heavy horse – the feudal chivalry of the early medieval period – by solid lines of professional and semi-professional infantry, the bulk of them recruited from ‘the middling sort’ of burghers and yeomen, a social class of growing importance across much of European society at the time. One thinks of the Scots peasant pikemen deployed by Wallace at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bruce at Bannockburn (1314), the Flemish town militias who won the Battle of Courtrai in 1302, and the Swiss mountain pikemen who chalked up their first great victory at Mortgarten in 1315.

This was a military transformation with the capacity to change the balance of power – between both social classes and major states. This was especially true of England, which now emerged for the first time as a European power to be reckoned with. It is no exaggeration to say that Edward III (r. 1327-1377) turned his country into an armed camp of professional soldiers and developed a new combined-arms defensive tactical system based on dismounted men-at-arms and massed longbowmen.

Graham Goodlad introduces our special by charting the military careers of Edward III and his son the Black Prince, who eventually become his father’s leading military commander, heading major expeditions in France and Spain. Neil Faulkner then offers a detailed analysis of the first great English victory of the Hundred Years War at Crécy on 26 August 1346.

This is an extract from a special feature on the Battle of Crécy from the latest issue of Military History Matters.

Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

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