For many historians the Battle of Crécy heralds the dominance of the English Longbow on the continental battlefield, a superiority subsequently proven at Poitiers and Agincourt. Crécy was fought on August 26th, 1346. It was one of the greatest English victories of the 100 years war.
In truth the big winner at Crécy was the weather. The English had time to choose their ground, deploying in three divisions on a steep hillside with well protected flanks.
The French arrived after the English and there was a great deal of confusion in their deployment. The French brought thousands (the exact number is disputed) of Genoese mercenary crossbowmen. There were three major issues with the Crossbowmen.
- It rained just before the battle. While the English longbow men could unstring their bows and keep the strings dry it was not possible for the Genoese to do the same. Bowstrings were made of catgut, which slackens when soaked and loses all power to launch arrows or bolts. This is exactly what happened the Genoese.
- The Genoese Pavises were stuck in the baggage train. These large metal shields were usually placed in the ground in front of crossbowmen and allowed them to reload without having to take fire. Without their shields the Genoese were naked on the battlefield, taking 10 to 12 longbow shafts for every bolt they could fire.
- The French nobility had low regard for the Genoese mercenaries. They would tolerate no excuses and attributed the complaints about bowstrings and pavises to cowardice. They insisted the Genoese go on the assault.
The result was a decimation of the Genoese by the English Longbows. The Genoese then turned and ran, and were cut down by the French cavalry on their own side. As a result the French cavalry was in total disarray when the charge was sounded.
The pride of french nobility then pounded up a steep wet slope on horseback straight into a hail of cloth yard shafts. Downed horses presented obstacles to cavalry in the second and third lines.
When they did manage to ascend the slope they were met by well formed and disciplined lines of English infantry. Time and again the French charged. Time and again they were repulsed.
The end result was a highly asymmetrical outcome. The English losses may have numbered as few as 100. French and Genoese losses may number as high as 4,000. The practice of the day was to count only noble losses, of which the French lost in the region of 2,000 men.
One of the direct outcomes of the battle was the fall of Calais to the English, an enclave held for over 200 years until its fall during the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor, Queen of England, and a small bit of France, for a while.
And now a poem about the longbow. One small detail Doyle omits though….the best Yew wood came from Italy. Reading his wording I think he may have known this and opted to omit it as being unpatriotic. He says the bow was “made” in England, but specifies that the shaft was “cut” in England.
The Song of the Bow; by Arthur Conan Doyle
What of the bow?
The bow was made in England:
Of true wood, of yew-wood,
The wood of English bows;
So men who are free
Love the old yew-tree
And the land where the yew-tree grows.
What of the cord?
The cord was made in England:
A rough cord, a tough cord,
A cord that bowmen love;
And so we will sing
Of the hempen string
And the land where the cord was wove.
What of the shaft?
The shaft was cut in England:
A long shaft, a strong shaft,
Barbed and trim and true;
So we’ll drink all together
To the grey goose-feather
And the land where the grey goose flew.
What of the mark?
Ah, seek it not in England,
A bold mark, our old mark
Is waiting over-sea.
When the strings harp in chorus,
And the lion flag is o’er us,
It is there that our mark will be.
What of the men?
The men were bred in England:
The bowmen—the yeomen,
The lads of dale and fell.
Here’s to you—and to you!
To the hearts that are true
And the land where the true hearts dwell.