The battle that history forgot:Battle of Poitiers
Edward the Black Prince - Leeds City Square
The effigy and tomb of The Black Prince, Canterbury, England
Nouaille Maupertuis, Abbey
The abbey that was there at the time of the Battle of Poitiers, 1356, is the group of buildings in the foreground which was subsequently fortified with a wall and towers and a moat.
The battle that history forgot: Sharpe creator Bernard Cornwell says the little-known victory at the Battle of Poitiers more than 600 years ago was one of the greatest military triumphs in British history
The Battle of Poitiers was a major battle of the Hundred Years' War between England and France. The battle occurred on 19 September 1356 near Poitiers, France. Preceded by the Battle of Crécy in 1346, and followed by the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, it was the second of the three great English victories of the war.
Edward, Prince of Wales (now better known as the Black Prince), the eldest son of King Edward III of England, began a great chevauchée on 8 August 1356. He conducted many scorched earth raids northwards from the English base in Aquitaine, in an effort to bolster his troops in central France, as well as to raid and ravage the countryside. His forces met little resistance, burning numerous towns to the ground and living off the land, until they reached the Loire River at Tours. They were unable to take the castle or burn the town due to a heavy downpour. This delay allowed John II, King of France, to attempt to catch Edward's army. The King, who had been besieging Breteuil in Normandy arranged the bulk of his army at Chartres to the north of the besieged Tours, dismissing approximately 15,000–20,000 of his lower-quality infantry to increase the speed of his forces.Negotiations prior to the Battle of Poitiers
There were negotiations before the battle of Poitiers that are recorded in the writings of the life of Sir John Chandos. He records the final moments of a meeting of both sides in an effort to avoid the bloody conflict at Poitiers. The extraordinary narrative occurred just before that battle and reads as follows:
Nobles and men-at-arms who fought with the Black Prince
Jean Froissart states as follows:
One of the chief commanders at both Crécy and Poitiers was John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, mentioned above.
Another account states that John of Ghistelles perished at the Battle of Crécy.
Nobles and men-at-arms who fought with King Jean II at, or just prior to, the battle
Froissart describes, with less specificity in this passage, some of the nobles that were assembled at, or just prior to the Battle:
The French army also included a contingent of Scots commanded by Sir William Douglas. Douglas fought in the King's own Battle, but when the fight seemed over Douglas was dragged by his men from the melee. Froissart states that "... the Earl Douglas of Scotland, who fought a season valiantly, but when he saw the discomfiture he departed and saved himself; for in no wise would he be taken by the Englishmen, he would rather there be slain".
Others who were either killed or captured at the actual Battle were as follows: King Jean II; Prince Philip (youngest son and progenitor of the House of Valois-Burgundy), Geoffroi de Charny, carrier of theOriflamme, Peter I, Duke of Bourbon, Walter VI, Count of Brienne and Constable of France, Jean de Clermont, Marshal of France, Arnoul d'Audrehem, the Count of Eu, the Count of Marche and Ponthieu Jacques de Bourbon taken prisoner at the Battle and died 1361, the Count of Étampes, the Count of Tancarville, the Count of Dammartin, the Count of Joinville, Guillaume de Melun, Archbishop of Sens.
The Battle of Poitiers
At the beginning of the battle, the English removed their baggage train leading the French to think they were about to retreat which provoked a hasty charge by the French knights against the archers. According to Froissart, the English attacked the enemy, especially the horses, with a shower of arrows. Froissart also writes that the French armour was invulnerable to the English arrows, that the arrowheads either skidded off the armour or shattered on impact. English history of the battle disputes this, as some claim that the narrow bodkin point arrows they used have been proven capable of penetrating most plate armour of that time. While tests have been done to support this with fixed pieces of flat metal, the result is inconclusive with respect to the curved armour of the period. Given the following actions of the archers, it seems likely Froissart was correct. The armour on the horses was weaker on the sides and back, so the archers moved to the sides of the cavalry and shot the horses in the flanks. This was a popular method of stopping a cavalry charge, as a falling horse often destroyed the cohesion of the enemy's line. The results were devastating. The Dauphin attacked Salisbury and pressed his advance in spite of heavy shot by the English archers and complications of running into the retreatingvanguard of Clermont's force. Green suggests that the Dauphin had thousands of troops with him in this phase of the attack. He advanced to the English lines but ultimately fell back. The French were unable to penetrate the protective hedge the English were using. This phase of the attack lasted about two hours.
This cavalry attack was followed by infantry attack. The Dauphin's infantry engaged in heavy fighting, but withdrew to regroup. The next wave of infantry under Orléans, seeing that the Dauphin's men were not attacking, turned back and panicked. This stranded the forces led by the King himself. This was a formidable fighting force, and the English archers were running very low on arrows; the archers joined the infantry in the fight and some of both groups mounted horses to form an improvised cavalry.
At about this time, King John sent two sons from the battlefield. His youngest son, Philip, stayed with him and fought at his side in the final phase of the battle. When the Dauphin and other sons withdrew, the duke of Orléans also withdrew. Combat was hard, but the Black Prince still had a mobile reserve hidden in the woods, which was able to circle around and attack the French in the flank and rear. The French were fearful of encirclement and attempted to flee. King John was captured with his immediate entourage only after a memorable resistance.
Amongst the notable captured or killed according to Froissart were:
The capture of the French king
Froissart again gives us a vivid description of the capture of King Jean II and his youngest son in this passage:
Aftermath of the battle
Jean II, the Good, being captured.
As Edward, the Black Prince, wrote shortly afterward in a letter to the people of London:
See also Ransom of King John II of France.
Aftermath in France
There was a river close by, but it was impossible to carry enough water for 6,000 men and thousands of horses up the steep hill to the position where the English were trapped. The enemy, the army of France, was almost twice as strong. But that would not stop the English force from fighting its way to one of the greatest victories in our military history.
It has always seemed strange to me that we remember the Battle of Crecy and we celebrate the Battle of Agincourt, but most people seem to have forgotten Poitiers — the other great victory in the Hundred Years War — yet it was just as remarkable a triumph. In some ways, even more so.
Savage: A 14th century illustration shows the Battle of Poitiers, between the French and the English in 1356
At Agincourt, the English were outnumbered at least five to one, but the fighting at Poitiers was much harder. For the French nobles were desperate to drive their hated foe from the land and back across the Channel after years of bloody conquest.
Their king, Jean II, was a little more circumspect, for he could remember the crushing defeat the English had inflicted at Crecy in northern France ten years earlier. On that occasion, a 16-year-old Edward of Woodstock, the Prince of Wales — son of Edward III — had made a name for himself.
Since then, the French had tended to avoid battle because they feared the deadly accuracy of the English longbowmen. So they shut themselves behind stone walls in castles and fortified towns. The English response was to mount raids known as chevauchees.
The army advanced slowly across the countryside; killing, pillaging, raping. In 1355, the prince had led one such assault across southern France, from the English base at Bordeaux to the Mediterranean and back. They had captured castles and towns, burned villages, and taken vast amounts of plunder in a relentless expedition.
Highlighting: We ought to remember Poitiers, says Bernard Cornwell, creator of Captain Richard Sharpe
Such a chevauchee achieved three things: it enriched the invaders, it weakened the enemy’s economy and so reduced the amount he could tax his subjects, and finally, it might, just might, tempt the enemy to come out of their castles and face the English in open battle.
That is what happened in 1356 when the Prince of Wales, by then an accomplished commander in his mid-20s, struck north out of Gascony, which was English territory, and aimed his rapacious army at the heartland of France, a dagger thrust towards Paris.
The plan was to join up with another English army coming out of Normandy, but that plan failed when violent weather forced the prince to retreat back to Gascony. The French king assembled his army and followed.
The English were travel-weary, the French were fresh. The English were weighed down by wagonloads of plunder, and so King Jean II’s army slowly overtook the prince’s army until, on September 17, the two armies were so close that a battle seemed unavoidable.
The prince, knowing the French were close, had taken refuge on a high, wooded ridge close to the village of Nouaille. It was a strong position.
An enemy wanting to attack him would need to come uphill through tangling vineyards and, more importantly, the English had massed behind a thick hedge, which represented a fearsome obstacle for any attacker.
The prince — who came to be known long after his death as the Black Prince — may have taken up a strong position, but the evidence still suggests he would have preferred to avoid battle because of his inferior numbers.
But the French were also wary of those devastating English longbows that unleashed ash-shafted, steel-tipped arrows with fearsome accuracy.
The French crossbowmen were no match.
At Crecy, the French had attacked on horseback and the English arrows had ripped into the stallions, causing dreadful pain, death and horror. So at Poitiers, the French resolved to fight largely on foot, because a man’s armour would be more likely to stop the arrows.
And it was on the morning of September 19 that the French king overcame his doubts and ordered an attack.
Seeking to protect his plunder, the Prince had ordered part of his army and his baggage train to cross the river and march away southwards. But the river crossing went wrong, the planned English retreat was stalled and the French soon saw the commotion in the valley. They sent horsemen to attack the English left wing, and ordered an uphill advance on the main position.
The Battle of Poitiers had begun. The Chandos Herald, the poem written about the life of the Black Prince, describes it thus: ‘Then began the shouting, and noise and clamour raised and the armies began to draw near. Then on both sides they began to shoot; there were many a creature who that day was brought to his end.’
The first French attacks were by cavalry mounted on thundering warhorses that would have made the ground shake as they thundered across the field — a terrifying sight for the line of Englishmen waiting to receive them.
The French had collected their most heavily armoured stallions, ridden by plate-armoured men, who made their charges with the intention of shattering the archers on the English wings.
For a time, it worked. The horses were hung with leather and mail, their faces guarded by plate armour, but only the fronts of the beasts were so protected.
As soon as the archers realised the animals’ flanks and rears were unarmoured, they moved to the side and shot the attackers into bloody ruin — as scores of horses collapsed under their masters in floundering terror.
English men-at-arms moved into the chaos and slaughtered fallen riders. And it was a gruesome business. Death came through horrific injuries inflicted by lead-weighted maces and battle-axes, hammers, spikes, poles and knives.
But this was no more than a setback for the French, whose main attack did not depend on the horsemen.
It was made by armoured men advancing on foot, and we know that this attack reached the prince’s line, and that there was savage hand-to-hand fighting that lasted some hours while exhausted men slashed, stabbed and wrestled for their lives.
That French attack on foot was led by the dauphin — the king’s heir — but it failed to break the disciplined English line. Eventually the king, seeing that his eldest son’s attack had not broken the enemy, ordered the dauphin to retreat to nearby Poitiers, where he would be safe from capture.
But King Jean himself was in no mood to abandon the struggle. He marched his men up the slope and through gaps in the thick hedge, where they flung themselves on to the exhausted English line.
The close fighting began again, but the English prince was a master strategist, and chose this moment to unleash a surprise attack that would turn the tide decisively in his favour. He sent about 200 horsemen around the rear of the French army — led by a Gascon lord but including some English archers. They managed to reach the enemy’s rear without being detected, and then they charged. When they slammed into the back of the king’s force of infantry, the French panicked and fled.
Hundreds of English soldiers then mounted their horses and followed, and in a nearby field — called the Champ d’Alexandre — the flower of French chivalry was cut down. It was a slaughteryard, and at its end 2,500 were dead, and half the great lords of France were among the 3,000 prisoners taken by the English, as was King Jean himself.
He was forcibly taken to London and paraded through the streets before being thrown in the Tower, to show what Englishmen had achieved near Poitiers on that September day in 1356.
The tale of the Black Prince’s victory is a magnificent story, unfairly forgotten, but worth remembering. Because there was a battle, long ago, and great deeds were done.
Knight of the Hundred Years War
The closest interpretation of a mid-to-late fourteenth century knight.
The surcoat shortened progressively through the second quarter of the fourteenth century to the short jupon. This style of garment was just coming into vogue at the Battle of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356).
This is transition armor, showing the progression from mail to plate defense. To be completely accurate THEY should be wearing some type of rudimentary brigandine or coat of plates over the mail haubergon.
The articulating arm and leg armor evolved sometime by the end of the 1350s. From about 1320 to 1350 seperately attached plates continued to be added over the sleeve of the mail hauberk which shortened to a three-quarter length. It appears that in the decade between 1350 to 1360 these seperate vambraces, elbow cops, and rear-guards became rivetted together on closely articulating lames that flexed at the elbow. Leg armor followed a similar evolution.
Only rich knights would have such highly developed armor by the 1360s and it was usually forged in Italy. The older style of seperately attached plates probably predominated well into the 1370s to 1380s and remained the style in German kingdoms.
Combatants: An army of English and Gascons against the French and their allies.
Generals: The Black Prince against King John I of France.
Size of the armies: The Black Prince’s army numbered some 7,000 knights, men-at-arms and archers.
Numbers in the French army are uncertain but were probably around 35,000, although Froissart gives the size of the French army as 60,000. The French army comprised a contingent of Scots commanded by Sir William Douglas.
The weapon of the English and Welsh archers was a six foot yew bow discharging a feathered arrow of a cloth metre. The rate of fire was up to an arrow every 5 seconds. For close quarter fighting the archers used hammers or daggers.
Winner: The English and Gascons decisively won the battle.
Account: Edward III, King of England, began the Hundred Years War, claiming the throne of France on the death of King Philip IV in 1337. The war finally ended in the middle of the 15th Century with the eviction of the English from France, other than Calais, and the formal abandonment by the English monarchs of their claims to French territory.
The war began well for Edward III with the decisive English victories at Sluys in 1340 and Creçy in 1346 and the capture of Calais in 1347. In the late 1340s the plague epidemic, called the Black Death, decimated the populations of France and England, bringing military operations to a halt; one of the plague’s victims being the French king Philip VI.
In 1355 King Edward III again planned for an invasion of France. His son, Edward the Black Prince, now an experienced soldier 26 years of age, landed at Bordeaux in Western France and led his army on a march through Southern France to Carcassonne. Unable to take the walled city, the Black Prince returned to Bordeaux. In early 1356 the Duke of Lancaster landed with a second force in Normandy and began to advance south. Edward III was engaged in fighting in Scotland.
The new king of France, John I, led an army against Lancaster forcing him to withdraw towards the coast. King John then turned to attack the Black Prince, who was advancing north east towards the Loire pillaging the countryside as he went.
In early September 1356 King John reached the Loire with his large army, just as the Black Prince turned back towards Bordeaux. The French army marched hard and overtook the unsuspecting English force at Poitiers on Sunday 18th September 1356.
The local prelate, Cardinal Talleyrand de Périgord, attempted to broker terms of settlement between the two armies; but the Black Prince’s offer of handing over all the booty he had taken on his “chevauchée” and maintaining a truce for 7 years was unacceptable to King John who considered the English would have little chance against his overwhelming army, and the French demand that the Black Prince surrender himself and his army was unacceptable to the English. The two armies prepared for battle.
The English army was an experienced force; many of the archers veterans of Creçy, ten years before, and the Gascon men-at-arms commanded by Sir John Chandos, Sir James Audley and Captal de Buche, all old soldiers.
The Black Prince arranged his force in a defensive position among the hedges and orchards of the area, his front line of archers disposed behind a particularly prominent thick hedge through which the road ran at right angles.
King John was advised by his Scottish commander, Sir William Douglas, that the French attack should be delivered on foot, horses being particularly vulnerable to English archery, the arrows fired with a high trajectory falling on the unprotected necks and backs of the mounts. King John took this advice, his army in the main leaving its horses with the baggage and forming up on foot.
The French attack began in the early morning of Monday 19th September 1356 with a mounted charge by a forlorn hope of 300 German knights commanded by two Marshals of France; Barons Clermont and Audrehem. The force reached a gallop, closing in to charge down the road into the centre of the English position. The attack was a disaster, with those knights not shot down by the English archers dragged from their horses and killed or secured as prisoners for later ransom.
The rest of the French army now began its ponderous advance on foot, in accordance with Douglas’ advice, arrayed in three divisions; the first led by the Dauphin Charles (the son of the King), the second by the Duc D’Orleans and the third, the largest, by the King himself.
The first division reached the English line exhausted by its long march in heavy equipment, much harassed by the arrow fire of the English archers. The Black Prince’s soldiers, Gascon men-at-arms and English and Welsh archers, rushed forward to engage the French, pushing through the hedgerow and spilling round the flanks to attack the French in the rear.
After a short savage fight the Dauphin’s division broke and retreated, blundering into the division of the Duc D’Orleans marching up behind, both divisions falling back in confusion.
The final division of the French army, commanded by the king himself, was the strongest and best controlled. The three divisions coalesced and resumed the advance against the English, a formidable mass of walking knights and men-at-arms.
Thinking that the retreat of the first two divisions marked the end of the battle, the Black Prince had ordered a force of knights commanded by the Gascon, Captal de Buche, to mount and pursue the French. Chandos urged the Prince to launch this mounted force on the main body of the French army. The Black Prince seized on Chandos’ idea and ordered all the knights and men-at-arms to mount for the charge. The horses were ordered up from the rear; in the meantime Captal de Buch’s men, already mounted, were ordered to advance around the French flank to the right.
As the French army toiled up to the hedgerow the English force broke through the hedge and struck the French like a thunderbolt, the impetus of the charge taking the mounted knights and men-at-arms right into the French line. Simultaneously Captal de Buch’s Gascons charged in on the French flank. The English and Welsh archers left their bows and ran forward to join the fight, brandishing their daggers and fighting hammers.
The French army broke up, many leaving the field, while the more stalwart knights fought hard in isolated groups. A mass of fugitives made for Poitiers pursued by the mounted Gascons to be slaughtered outside the closed city gates.
King John found himself alone with his 14 years old younger son Philip fighting an overwhelming force of Gascons and English. Eventually the king agreed to surrender.
The battle won, the English army gave itself up to pillaging the vanquished French knights and the lavish French camp.
Casualties: In his dispatch to King Edward III, his father, the Black Prince stated that the French dead amounted to 3,000 while only 40 of his troops had been killed. It is likely that the English casualties were higher. Among the French prisoners were King John, his son Philip, 17 great lords, 13 counts, 5 viscounts and a hundred other knights of significance.
Follow-up: On the night of the battle the Black Prince entertained the King of France and his son to dinner and the next day the English army resumed its march to Bordeaux.
The effect of the defeat on France and the loss of the King to captivity was devastating, leaving the country in the hands of the Dauphin Charles, escaped from the ruins of his division at Poitiers. Charles faced immediate revolts across the kingdom as he attempted to raise money to continue the war and ransom his father.
The release of King John proved difficult to negotiate as Edward III sought to extract more and more onerous terms from the French. Meanwhile the war continued to the misery of the wretched inhabitants of France.
King John was released in November 1361 against other hostages. Due to the default of one of those hostages John returned to London and died there in 1364.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
Edward Plantagenet: The Black Prince
Edward, Prince of Wales (15 June 1330 – 8 June 1376) was called Edward of Woodstock in his early life, after his birthplace, and has, more recently, been popularly known as The Black Prince. He was the eldest son of King Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault, and father to King Richard II of England. Edward, an exceptional military leader and popular during his life, died one year before his father and thus never ruled as king (becoming the first English Prince of Wales to suffer that fate). The throne passed instead to his son Richard, a minor, upon the death of Edward III.
Edward was born on 15 June 1330 at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. Edward was created Earl of Chester in 1333, Duke of Cornwall in 1337 (the first creation of an English duke) and finally invested as Prince of Wales in 1343. In England Edward served as a symbolic regent for periods in 1339, 1340, and 1342 while Edward III was on campaign. He was expected to attend all council meetings, and he performed the negotiations with the papacy about the war in 1337.