The longbow run down
An unconsolidated longbow position was quickly overrun by a quick and well executed cavalry charge.Although the fortunes of France first changed with the successful lifting of the siege of Orléans by Jeanne d’Arc, the reasons for that success were less specifically to do with the longbow and more a matter of siege technicalities and the smallness of the English army.
It is with the battle of Patay that we get the first and clearest insight into the limitations of longbow as a military weapon in the 100-year war.
After lifting the siege of Orléans, the forces of Jeanne d’Arc had a short and successful campaign in the Loire, first Eastwards of Orléans to Jargeaux, then Westwards to Meung and Beaugency. The French army had placed the small English army in a position where it had to suspend the attack on the Meung bridge and in the face of overwhelming superiority of numbers started to retreat 18 miles due North towards the small town of Patay.
Once the news of this retreat became known among the French commanders a council of war was called whose outcome was left undecided on the question of pursuing the English. It is said that Jeanne d’Arc shouted at them “ You have spurs don't you?” “ Use them!” The Duke d’Alençon organised the French army of some 8000 men into three main battles. The best of the mounted men were selected for the vanguard and an immediate and vigorous pursuit was ordered. The English army slowed down by the speed of its baggage train was at a double disadvantage. At approximately 3000 strong it was heavily outnumbered and longbow men formed only a small part of that army. The pursuing French quickly narrowed the distance on their opponents. When the English army had reached the vicinity of Patay the French vanguard was only four miles away to the South-west. The Duke d’Alençon’s troop, which did not know the exact position of the English, now ordered forward patrols. One of these patrols put up a stag, which rushed across the line of English archers. These were not the hardened, disciplined and experienced men of Agincourt. They made the unpardonable mistake of letting out a raucous hunting cry. Until then the enclosed terrain dotted with trees, small copses and hedges had kept them almost invisible. Now the French patrols knew exactly where they and the main English battle were located.
The English commander Fastolf, aware that the French advance guard was not far away had called a counsel of war, as a result of which he had reluctantly decided to stand his ground. His army is estimated at some 3000 men of which only 500 were archers. Talbot with 300 archers reinforced by another 200 from Fastolf’s battle, undertook to occupy and hold a covering position south of Patay in a slight dip in terrain. Behind this on an equally slight ridge, Fastolf deployed the main body of the army.
Unaware their exact location had been spotted by the French patrols the archers prepared their position, bringing stakes to the front and hammering these into the ground in the time-honoured fashion along a hedge parallel to the road running from Patay to Orléans (North/South), at the point where it crosses an old Roman road to Janville (North-east). Progress in preparing the defenses was slow as was the deployment of the main body of the army, which was much less experienced than the previous armies that had been sent to France.
The English position was therefore not fully consolidated by the time it was attacked. Protection offered by the terrain was minor and crucially for the longbow men there were no features that protected the flanks. All the basic ingredients of a well-protected position that had been so visibly present at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, were absent at Patay.
Shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon the advance guard under La Hire and Poton de Xantrailles reached the crest of a slight rise from St Feravy to Lignarolles and spotted the English archers in the dip in front of them. Without a seconds pause the elite of the French cavalry swept down the incline straight into the English archers who were only partially prepared for the attack, the speed of which caught them completely by surprise.
In a classic and quickly executed manoeuvre the cavalry charge turned the flanks on both sides of the longbow men in the dip. It caught the archers precisely where they were most vulnerable. The French horsemen rode right into them, cutting them off from the main battle and cutting them up into small groups. The outcome of the battle is said to have been decided in a matter of minutes.
Very few longbow men were able to get away and connect up with Fastolf’s position to the rear. Those that did so added to the confusion of Fastolf’s inexperienced force. Talbot was captured. Fastolf after an initial retreat managed to rally his army and hold off the French until nightfall after which he managed to disengage and get away with a part of his army but without his baggage and guns. French losses were minor, in itself indicative of the fact that the longbow men had time for very few accurate shots before they were overcome by the speed and manoeuvrability of the heavy horse. Losses on the part of the English were disastrous and are estimated at 2000.
Vulnerability of the longbow to a swift and outflanking cavalry attack, always known to commanders, had now been clearly exposed. True, the archers were inexperienced and small in number. True indeed that the terrain was unfavourable. Nevertheless, with good protection of the flanks and a well-prepared front with ditches, potholes and caltrops; it is likely they would yet have seen off the adversary.
Although the vicissitudes of the 100-year war continued for some time, winning the battle of Patay was a major boost to the morale of French cavalry and a crowning end to the successful Loire-valley campaign of Jeanne d’Arc.