poitiers

POITIERS - 19 September 1356

The French cavalry now dismounted, could not break a consolidated and manoeuvrable longbow position.

The battle of Poitiers was a decisive military engagement during the 100-year war and was fought on 19 September 1356 near Poitiers by the Army of Edward, the Black Prince and King John II of France.

As a result of the battle of Crécy, the new French King Jean II made some important changes in the way the French armies would fight. In 1351 he did away with what had amounted in the past to an individuals right to withdraw from battle independently. Previously his army had been partly a feudal levy and partly mercenary. In an attempt to create a national army, he established a hierarchy on the battlefield so that each man reported to a captain and took an oath not to withdraw that will. The King also raised the rate of pay for his soldiers. However the latter was largely ineffective due to the inflation caused by a combination of the Black Death and poor management of the Treasury

The Black Prince was appointed in 1355 as Lieutenant by King Edward III in Bordeaux in Gascony. In that year Prince Edward set sail for Bordeaux while at the same time King Edward the third and the Duke of Lancaster set off for Calais. With this new invasion King John of France began raising his own army In 1356 the Black Prince set out from Bordeaux to cross the Loire and meet up with the Duke of Lancaster coming south from Calais. However, without much strategy the Black Prince despoiled and pillaged the villages and towns in the region thereby alerting the French King to his exact position. He soon found a large army bearing down upon him. As at Crécy the French had destroyed bridges, this time over the Loire, in an attempt to corral the English into a pitched battle. The Black Prince realised he would not be able to make contact with the Duke of Lancaster heading South and that given the size and position of the French Army facing him and its rapid progress South, he would not make it back safely to Bordeaux.

 The English Army totalled fewer than 7,000 men. The French Army was reputedly 20,000 strong. Contact was first made on Saturday, 17 September, East of Poitiers. As the next day was Sunday, a truce was arranged, which enabled the English to find better ground. They chose a position just 2 miles South of Poitiers near Nouaillé-Maupertuis.

The Black Prince arranged his troops on a plateau above a wooded slope where his army was protected on the left flank by marshes and woodland and on the right flank by rough ground and hedges to the North East. He divided his army into three units all of which fought on foot.

 The archers were drawn up against a hedgerow that commanded the only passage through. Much of the lower ground was marsh where two rivers met.

The English Army totalled fewer than 7,000 men. The French Army was reputedly 20,000 strong. Contact was first made on Saturday, 17 September, East of Poitiers. As the next day was Sunday, a truce was arranged, which enabled the English to find better ground. They chose a position just 2 miles South of Poitiers near Nouaillé-Maupertuis.

The Black Prince arranged his troops on a plateau above a wooded slope where his army was protected on the left flank by marshes and woodland and on the right flank by rough ground and hedges to the North East. He divided his army into three units all of which fought on foot.

The archers were drawn up against a hedgerow that commanded the only passage through. Much of the lower ground was marsh where two rivers met.

The French Knights had learned the lessons of the battle of Crécy where they had been bogged down in similar ground. They left their horses in the rear and prepared to attack on foot. Only one of mounted attack was made. Nevertheless, some of the advantages of superior numbers was negated by the fact that the dismounted knights maintained their full armour and were therefore heavily weighed down.

The battle opened with a mounted attack of some 300 elite Knights with German mercenaries, which was designed specifically to cut down the English longbow men and thus prepared the way for the three waves of men at arms on foot following behind. The latter were divided into three battles the first commanded by the Dauphin, the second by the Duke of Orléans and the third by the King himself.

The cavalry charge got off to a bad start as the two marshals leading it separated from one another and attacked two different points. The Earl of Warwick’s archers shot head-on into the cavalry charge but with little effect. However the Earl of Oxford deployed his archers in marshy ground on the right flank which was safe from attack by cavalry. This enabled the longbow men to shoot into the flanks and rear of the French Cavalry which was thus broken. A further advance by the Duke of Clermont suffered a similar fate from Lord Salisbury’s archers hidden behind the hedges.

The upward sloping terrain did, as at Crécy slow the charge which was thrown back by the vollys of arrows from the longbow men. However, unlike at Crécy the cavalry charge was immediately followed up by the French men at arms on foot. This attack led by the Dauphin succeeded in reaching the hedges and engaged the archers in hand to hand combat. The battle front had now widened beyond the narrow gaps in the hedges and the sheer number of attackers meant that in some places the English lines began to break.

The Black Prince realised that his men would soon be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the advancing French. He decided to manoeuvre and counter attack by sending a party of mounted knights round the left flank of the French. His longbow men remained in position defending the front. At a critical moment he charged the French Army with mounted knights in the rear and flank, while a party of Gascon longbow men hidden behind a hedge, stood up and loosed of volley after volley of arrows into the adversary.

With the Dauphin’s force broken and retreating, the king's brother the Duke of Orlean’s troops were so demoralised they simply retreated off the battlefield without striking a single blow. This enraged the French King who immediately ordered his huge battle which still greater in number than that of the English, to attack. The Black Prince strengthened his line with his reserve and took all the remaining men and form them in a single mass. He also sent one of his Gascon vassals Captal de Buch round the slope which would hide them from view with a small force of some 100 150 archers round to the French flank and rear

The English now counter-attacked, meeting the French forces at the base of the slope below the hedge. The archers short of arrows joined in hand to hand combat. The Gascon force simultaneously attacked in to the French armies flank and rear. The French King was unaware of the fact that the attack on the flank was by a very small force. The French Army believing that force to be larger than it was began to give way and retreat towards Poitiers. The King, his son and their retinue however remained on the battlefield and fought until captured.

The numbers killed on the French side are said to have amounted to some 2500 and unlike at Crécy were greatly outnumbered by the number of prisoners taken by the English. English losses are said to have been negligible.