Battle of Poitiers 1356 – Hundred Years’ War II

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unknown artist; The Battle of Poitiers, 19 September 1356; Kirklees Museums and Galleries;

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unknown artist; The Battle of Poitiers, 19 September 1356; Kirklees Museums and Galleries;

Animated Maps: Poitiers 1356, the Battle

Analysis of the Battle

The sources for the battle of Poitiers are difficult, often contradictory and lacking detail. They include chronicles and campaign letters which need to be used in conjunction with cartographic and landscape evidence although with the understanding that contemporary geographical features are not identical to those in 1356. In particular the extent of marshland around the Miosson and the size of the wood of Nouaillé must be conjectural. More significantly for the purposes of reconstructing the initial disposition of troops, the length and position of the hedge and ditches which protected the Anglo-Gascon position is especially problematic. There have been many attempts to describe the battle, and many of these have been consulted in the present study alongside a range of contemporary and near-contemporary sources. Any reconstruction must be conjectural because of the nature of those sources, and not all questions have been resolved satisfactorily. The key problem lies in the initial disposition of English and French forces after which the course of the battle is somewhat more straightforward. The battle plans provide an interpretation of the encounter but some evidence will be cited at length so that the reader may come to his or her own conclusions.

A number of campaign letters were written concerning the engagement but most of these, such as Burghersh’s dispatch recorded by Froissart, merely noted the names and number of casualties and prisoners taken and that the battle took place half a league from Poitiers. The prince himself wrote to the mayor, commons and aldermen of London on 22 October but provided no information concerning the disposition of troops, merely noting that ‘our very dear and beloved knight Nigel Loryng, our chamberlain, who is bringing this [letter], will tell you more in detail from his own knowledge.’8 The situation prior to the battle is best described by the Anonimalle Chronicler.

‘That night [Saturday, 17 September 1356] the prince encamped with all his army in a wood on a little river near the site of the defeat … On Monday morning … the Earl of Warwick crossed a narrow causeway over the marsh … but the press of the carriage of the English army was so great and the causeway so narrow that they could hardly pass and so they remained up through the first hour of daylight. And then they saw the vanguard of the French come towards the Prince … And so the Earl of Warwick turned back with his men’

It appears that some of inherent contradiction in the sources can be resolved if the events they describe are considered to have been contracted or expanded over time. Such a possibility should be considered when reading Geoffrey Le Baker’s account below. This provides an explanation for the suggested positioning of the prince in a northerly location along the wood. Le Baker suggests Edward first camped around the south and then moved north, perhaps making a camp on the hill to the north of the wood. From there his forces were repositioned along the western edge of the wood protected by the hedge that may have run along much of the length of the road. The gaps described may have been made by the carters mentioned. According to Geoffrey Le Baker:

…he [the prince] surveyed the scene, and saw that to one side there was a nearby hill…Between our men and the hill was a broad deep valley and marsh watered by a stream. The prince’s battalion crossed the stream at a fairly narrow ford and occupied the hill beyond the marshes and ditches where they easily concealed their positions among the thickets, lying higher than the enemy. The field in which our vanguard and centre were stationed was separated from the level ground which the French occupied by a long hedge and ditch, whose other end reached down to the marsh. The earl of Warwick in command of the vanguard, held the slope down to the marsh. In the upper part of the hedge, well away from the slope, there was a certain open space or gap, made by the carters in autumn, a stone’s throw away from which our rearguard was positioned, under the command of the earl of Salisbury.

Some further details are provided by the less-than-reliable Jean Froissart, but his evidence cannot be ignored.

‘And how are they disposed?’ asked the King. ‘Sire’, replied Sir Eustace [de Ribemont], ‘they are in a very strong position…They have chosen a length of road strongly protected by hedges and bushes and they have lined the hedge on both sides with their archers, so that one cannot enter that road or ride along it without passing between them. Yet one must go that way before one can fight them…At the end of the hedge, among vines and thorn-bushes between which it would be impossible to march or ride, are their men-at-arms … It is a very skilful piece of work.’

This reasonably detailed description is confusing. Froissart suggests the Anglo-Gascons were arranged along a road which was strongly protected by hedges – an approach I have followed. His comment that these were lined with archers so that any assault had to pass between them requires some assumptions about the positioning of a gap and therefore the disposition of the archers. This gap was only wide enough for four men to ride abreast. Presumably, if one accepts this account, the archers were drawn up behind a hedge facing the French, and this hedge was bisected with a road and/or the carters’ track. There were also archers at either end of the hedge arranged in a formation that Froissart describes as being in the form of a ‘herce’, possibly a triangle or ‘harrow’ shape. This can be explained by the archers under Salisbury to the north and those commanded by Warwick to the south.

One of the reasons for the prince’s success in 1356 and indeed for many English victories during this phase of the Hundred Years War was the composition of the armies that encountered the French. This developed from the salutary lessons the English had received at the hands of the Scots from the early years of the fourteenth century. The war that the English fought in France was a mobile one that struck at the social and economic foundations of the Valois kingdom and yet allowed for the possibility of a set-piece encounter. The evolution (if not revolution) in military thinking that had taken place since Edward I’s reign had created an increasingly professional army, one recruited to perform specific tasks. Troops were recruited after 1347 almost entirely through the indenture system by which captains signed up to lead a particular number of soldiers armed to particular specifications to implement a range of strategic and tactical plans. The prince’s forces at Poitiers and during the chevauchées of 1355 and 1356 consisted of three types of troops: men-at-arms, horsed archers, and footmen. This allowed for an extremely flexible tactical response to a variety of situations.

The Anglo-Gascon army was probably composed of 3,000–4,000 men-at-arms, 2,500–3,000 archers, and 1,000 other light troops. The French army may have included 8,000 men-at-arms, 2,000 arbalesters, and numerous poorly trained and lightly armed troops totalling some 15,000-16,000 soldiers.

Hence, Jean could raise fewer men for Poitiers than his father, Philippe VI, had ten years before at Crécy, but contemporaries did not attribute defeat to a shortage of manpower. Rather, and particularly by the author of La complainte sur la bataille de Poitiers, blame was heaped upon the nobility. The very raison d’etre of the nobility was to defend the patria – the homeland; they held their exalted social position because they had been appointed by God to that sacred task. They were, in traditional feudal parlance, the bellatores – those who fought – and if they failed in this role, they failed in their primary function and duty. It is significant that the revolt of the Jacquerie which occurred in the anarchy after Poitiers targeted the French aristocracy. It was not, like the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a reaction to economic and social impositions. Rather it was a violent response to the general failure of the nobility to fulfil its traditional role.

In addition to the failure of French chivalry (the warrior aristocracy), were other, more prosaic reasons for the defeat. One of these was the lack of missile weapons Jean had at his disposal, and that those crossbows he had were inferior to the English longbow. Crossbows could do considerable damage, but they were slow and clumsy weapons compared to the longbow. Furthermore, the English had been allowed time to prepare their defensive position. The army was well dug-in behind earthworks and used the natural protection of the hedge and wood – they had the terrain in their favour. ‘Par son recrutement, et plus encore par sa préparation immédiate, la petite armée du prince de Galles était dans les meilleures conditions pour vaincre.’

The English were drawn up in three major ‘battles’. Warwick and Oxford led the Anglo-Gascon vanguard with the captal de Buch, and Salisbury and Suffolk commanded the rearguard. The bulk of the prince’s retinue was in the centre led by Edward, with Burghersh, Audley, Chandos and Cobham. The archers, perhaps defended by earthworks, were stationed on the flanks and possibly at right angles to the enemy because of the nature of the herce formation (on the battle plans depicted as a ‘harrow’). As at Crécy, the longbowmen proved extremely effective against mounted troops, but less so against infantry advancing in close formation – that is until the French were at close range when the longbows with their heavy draw-weights could punch through French armour. However, the length of the battle meant that arrows were in short supply after the opening salvos.

The French army was in its entirety considerably larger than the Anglo-Gascon force, perhaps twice its size, but Jean did not take full advantage of his greater strength. The French divisions attacked in turn not en masse, and Orléans fled or was dismissed before engaging the enemy. Consequently, in many of the phases of the battle the prince may have not been at any sort of numerical disadvantage.

The victory at Poitiers combined the defensive tactics, witnessed by the prince at Crécy, with the chivalric traditions of an earlier age. After the failure of the French attacks against his infantry, Edward responded with a classic heavy cavalry charge. To add a more modern flavour to this tradition, the flanking force led by the captal de Buch may have included mounted archers and possibly Gascon crossbowmen. The battle was thus a fine illustration of the use of dismounted troops who, as at Crécy, in concert with archers in a defensible position, broke the French attacks, then remounted and defeated the enemy with a cavalry attack, which was now uncommon, if not anachronistic.

Although the outcome of the battle seems clear, it is uncertain whether the prince ever intended to fight a battle, certainly at least under the conditions in which Edward found himself. If a meeting with Lancaster had been achieved then the combined English force would have been formidable and the prince could have anticipated a victory. Certainly, English battle strategy had proved very effective in several encounters, Crécy not the least. Had additional forces and resources been available, and the arrival of the Black Death not precluded further military action, then the 1346–7 campaign and the victory at Crécy might well have yielded far greater spoils than Calais and the ransoms of a few and deaths of many of the French nobility. With this experience in mind it seems extremely likely that the prince actively sought a battle in the 1355–6 expeditions, but he wished to fight on his own terms and against an enemy whom he felt confident of defeating. The concessions the prince was willing to make prior to the battle and some of his remarks made afterwards suggest he lacked confidence early on the morning of Monday 19 September. However, once the victory had been achieved it influenced not only further military tactics but also broader political strategy. The English had now demonstrated in both Scotland and France that if they could bring an enemy to battle on their own terms then they could win: that confidence coloured wider aspirations in the Hundred Years War. The struggle that previously had centred on sovereignty in Gascony, became, albeit briefly, about sovereignty over the entire kingdom of France.

After the defeat at Crécy (as well as Courtrai (1302) and Morgarten (1315)), the French had made several attempts to combat those devastating infantry tactics. At the battles of Lunalonge (Poitou, 1349), Taillebourg (near Saintes, 8 April 1351), Ardres (6 June 1351) and Mauron (14 August 1352) the French used infantry and dismounted men-at-arms in greater numbers. They also endeavoured to find a weakness in the opposing infantry–archer formation. In the event these approaches proved ineffective or were not put into action at Poitiers and the defeat destroyed the French illusion that relatively minor military changes could be effective. As a consequence, for a generation, French commanders avoided battles with the English whenever possible. The contrast between the French response in 1356 with that of 1359–60 is very clear. During that campaign defensive tactics allowed them to turn the tables on the English by denying Edward the crown. Later they were able to reverse the territorial gains the English had gained through the treaty of Brétigny. This was only possible when they had an easily-assailable military objective – the principality of Aquitaine.

Archers and the Longbow

The role of the longbow in the early campaigns of the Hundred Years War is a contentious matter. A number of issues are open to argument and interpretation, ranging from the nature of the weapons themselves, their power and rate of accurate fire, to the disposition of the archers on the battlefield. In part, the trouble lays in the fact that no extant medieval longbows remain. The earliest examples are those reclaimed from the wreck of the Mary Rose. If these were finished longbows representative of those used at Poitiers then they were formidable weapons indeed with an effective range of 300 yards or more. By contrast, the wooden or composite crossbows of the time could shoot about 200 yards, and for every quarrel a bowman might fire up to ten arrows. Thus, well-trained longbowmen with a sufficient supply of arrows could, if this is an accurate interpretation, cause a great deal of damage and disruption to an enemy attack. What is not in doubt is that archers became an increasingly important component in English armies in the course of the Hundred Years War. The proportion of longbowmen to other troops was regularly three, four or five to one, and sometimes reached as high as twenty to one. However, the ‘invincibility’ of the longbow has been questioned in recent years. It is argued that, rather than causing a great number of casualties, archer fire caused the enemy either to be funnelled into a particular area where the English infantry defences were at their strongest or simply to disrupt the assault so that the enemy did not prove as great a threat.

Longbowmen alone did not win the battle of Poitiers (or those of Crécy and Agincourt) but they were a critical component of the armies that secured those victories. When working alongside infantry and with a final cavalry charge to rout the enemy they proved, whether through the number of casualties that they inflicted or through the sheer scale of the disruption they caused, to be an extremely effective military asset. The manner in which they were used and disposed on the battlefield is, however, somewhat uncertain.

The formation and disposition of the archer corps was described by Froissart, a la maniere d’une herce which according to Oman and Burne was a triangular formation with the apex facing the enemy placed between divisions of dismounted men-at-arms. This is based on the translation of herce as harrow. Alternatively, the archers may have been placed on the flanks, or in the shape of a candleabrum or a horn-shaped projection on the wings of the army, or a hedgehog possibly using stakes or pikemen for protection.

It appears likely that troop dispositions were not standard but dependent on a number of contingencies. At Crécy, the archers seem to have been used on the wings in a forward flanking position. They may have begun the battle beyond the front rank of dismounted troops to allow them to gain a little extra range, but they could have a more mobile role, and after the enemy approached they may have fallen back to the flanks curving slightly forward to provide crossfire. In this position they would not have provided the vanguard with much protection. Because of the numbers involved and the lie of the land in 1346 it may be that the front was almost a mile in length. This allowed only a very light defence of the prince’s division (the vanguard) which, at Crecy, fought in the centre. Formations at Poitiers are less certain but again archers seem to have been used on the wings and targeting, when possible, the less armoured flanks and rears of the French infantry and cavalry.

Whatever the formation and disposition of longbowmen and whatever the nature of the bows themselves, archers formed an integral part of the English tactical system from the 1330s onwards; seeking to slow or disrupt an enemy advance. At Crécy, the bowmen proved very effective against the French cavalry, and at Poitiers against dismounted men-at-arms at close range. These battles also showed the superiority of the longbow over the crossbow in terms of effective range and rate of fire. The success of the archers in Scotland and at Crécy made a profound influence on English tactical thinking and on the Black Prince and his retinue, many of whom first saw military service in 1346. Consequently, the battle of Crécy laid the foundations for the battle that was fought outside Poitiers ten years later and it influenced the structure of the Anglo-Gascon army both proportionally and tactically.

The importance of archers and their longbows was such that they became the subject of a number of governmental ordinances. In 1357 and 1369 the export of bows and arrows was forbidden, and in 1365 archers were forbidden to leave England without royal licence. In 1363, instructions were issued requiring everyone, including the nobility, to participate in regular archery practice. The use of the longbow, a popular, not aristocratic weapon, demonstrated the need of the king to draw on the support of all levels of society in his (at least theoretical) quest for the French throne.

The success at Poitiers also influenced the composition of English armies in France in other ways. The Reims campaign (1359–60) witnessed the full emergence of the mounted archer and establishment of mixed retinues (men-at-arms and archers). This in turn led to a shift in the social composition of the military community as knights and mounted men-at-arms became less significant in the degree to which they might influence the outcome of a battle. Further, heavy cavalry was not conducive to conducting wide-scale, extensive raids. Lightly armed mounted troops, by contrast, gave the necessary mobility that allowed them to participate fully in chevauchées and for such raids to become engrained as the predominant strategy, while a balanced troop composition allowed for an effective and flexible tactical response to a variety of military situations. Such forces were particularly effective when used in defensive positions, preferably prepared in advance or chosen for their advantageous terrain and natural features. The massed power of the archers could thin out the enemy at a distance and slow their advance, and disciplined infantry would deal with any opposing forces that reached the front line.

However, the longbow was not all-powerful and the tide began to turn against the English in the Hundred Years War as the French continued to experiment with various tactics to negate its influence on the battlefield. Longbows did not have quite the same impact in 1356 as they did at Crecy, partly due to the French use of dismounted troops advancing slowly under cover of their shields. Charles de Blois and Bertrand du Guesclin at Auray (1364) further demonstrated that close formations of well-armoured soldiers could provide a less easy target. However, on both occasions the French were defeated, although mainly because of the disciplined fighting of the infantry who were entrenched in a well-defended position. Once du Guesclin became constable of France he employed what were essentially guerrilla tactics and refused to be brought to battle. If it could not be employed in substantial numbers against an enemy willing to take the initiative to attack then the longbow was all-but useless.