The Battle of Crecy and The Battle of Agincourt

These two conflicts representative of the culmination and eventual end to Medieval warfare. Medieval warfare was accepted as part of life in Europe during the better part of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century. The nobility of society attained and held power by either birthright or status as warriors. Even commoners accepted this as part of life; many farmers serving Kings as archers on call as needed. And though there was more to Medieval times and warfare than The Hundred Years War; these two battles, The Battle of Crécy and The Battle of Agincourt, are representative of the culmination of this period of warfare and its eventual decline through such events as France's recognition of the need to improve the technical aspects of fighting and winning in war.

The Origins

The origins of medieval warfare are derived from the war activities of the German tribes that overran the Roman Empire during the 2nd through 6th centuries. This period actually represents a swing away from the idea of a "standing army" by reverting to earlier concepts of singular warriors in hand-to-hand or one-on-one combat. In the early stages of the period, Romans, with their professional standing army, would defeat the Germans; however, in the later part of this period, the Romans found themselves loosing. This resulted from Roman internal civil unrest; the German efforts to study the Roman way of war and how to defeat it with warrior aggressiveness, and the Germans' use of advancements in war fighting technology particularly the use of an armored cavalry. During the beginning of medieval warfare the horse riding armored knight rode triumphantly onto the battlefield with swing sword and charging lance against his opponents. The French knights continued this technique against the English in vain. The English preferred to dismount their knights to fight from the ground. The English fought with continual success against the French by the effective use of archers, combined with a return to infantry tactics, including the armored knights fighting from the ground. We also saw England's effective use of terrain, tactics, and weapons to secure victory over the French up until the end of the Hundred Years War.

The Beginning

The Hundred Years War is considered to have begun in 1337 as a result of England's King's Edward III's claim of birth-right for the French throne based on his lineage to King Edward II and Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France as well as the capture of Guyenne by Philip of Valois. Two of the great battles fought during this period of warfare, provide representative examples needed to show events that reflect the culmination and decline of medieval warfare - the battles of Crécy and Agincourt.

Battle of crecy froissartCredit: Artist unknown; Uploaded by Hohum

The Battle of Crécy (1346) was the first major battle of the Hundred Years' War fought between the armies of England and France. The English forces took position on a hill, with dismounted knights at the center and men-at-arms flanked by archers armed with longbows. The French forces included crossbowmen and mounted knights. During the battle, successive groups of the French knights became entangled with their own forces as they advanced, becoming exposed at close range to the English longbow men. The English losses were insignificant as compared to the 1500 French knights killed. The Battle of Crécy proved the superiority of longbows over crossbows and demonstrated that archers and dismounted men-at-arms could withstand the charge of armored knights on horseback.

During the assembly of French forces, Sir John Froissart's describes in his, The Chronicles of England, France, and Spain, some of the disorder and chaos created by the lack of discipline and good-order on this battlefield. Froissart describes that the many lords and knights did not assemble together in a timely fashion or in an organized fashion. This caused the French King, upon sighting the English preparing for battle, to make a hasty and poor decision to have the "Genoways go on before and begin the battle in the name of God and Saint Denis” (CAPCO 85).[1] However, these archers were neither prepared nor willing to fight. Yet, the Genoways apprehensively attacked only to be showered by English arrows. The Genoways turned to run back towards the French position. The French King, appalled by this vision perceived them cowards and ordered his men to "Slay these rascals." However, this compounded the problem, for this increased the number of French in the archer's range and eventually within reach of the English men-at-arms, who took the opportunity to increase the French death toll (against the wishes of King Edward III who preferred to take prisoners). The French clung to their feudal cavalry ways. The English archers were heroes of this day using longbows, capable from a distance to penetrate a knight's armor, and often the horses on which these knights rode.

Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415Credit: painted by Sir John Gilbert 1883; Uploaded by Jappalang

The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, is described by John Keegan in his book - The Face of Battle, “as a victory of the weak over the strong, of the common soldier over the mounted knight, of resolution over bombast, of the desperate, cornered and far from home, over the properietorial and cocksure” (Keegan 79).[4] King Henry V's army and that of the French, met near the Castle Agincourt. The French army was "composed almost exclusively of mounted and dismounted men-at-arms” (Keegan 83).[4] Both sides established themselves at opposite ends of the selected battlefield 1,000 yards apart. The battlefield was wedge-shaped with the English at the narrow end. King Henry moved his archers within 300 yards of the French front lines. There, the English set-in long stakes that acted as obstacles, defensive weapons for the archers, and protection to the English flanks. The English archers were first to attack by showering the French with arrows. The English archers "replanted their stakes and loosed off their first flight of arrows” (Keegan 83).[4] King Henry took the initiative and marched his soldiers forward onto the battlefield. The archer's shower of arrows maneuvered the French; into a narrow path making it even easier for the English to shoot. The French ranks began retreating as they saw the bodies of their armored knights piling up in the mud in front of the English line only to be shot by the archers. In a short amount of time, Henry's army had defeated the French by maneuvering them on the battlefield through the use of the longbow and the French armor was not sufficient to protect them from those arrows.

The End

The end of the Hundred Years War, and eventually Medieval warfare, saw its' ending announced through these serious of events. The infusion of French patriotism, spawned by Joan of Arc and a series of rebellions lasting fifteen years by the French against the occupying English, announced the end of England's domination over France. France's King Charles VII was more understanding of the war arts than his predecessors were. King Charles removed the feudalistic qualities of his army, "reorganized and modernized" his forces (to include adding and developing the use of firearms) in order to establish an effective and disciplined combat force led by competent leaders. The major changes to the French army's organization and employment operations gave the French their first major win over the English in 1449 at Normandy, again in 1451 at Guyenne, and in 1453 at Castillion (Feuer 61). The great improvements and modernization of the French army and these successful engagements against the English resulted in the end of the Hundred Years War (Feuer 61-2).[2]

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In Medieval warfare and in the Hundred Years War, success was very dependent on the quality of leadership. The knights, archers, and infantry were not professional soldiers (other than those special individuals such as the Centenaurs). For the most part, battlefield leaders were those who by virtue of social standing and not by skill or, as in Homeric literature, were great and successful killers of men. The methods and skills used to fight were kept simple. But, despite the simplicity of battlefield tactics, an army left to fight as individuals without a common objective and purpose as governed by competent leadership, often failed with devastating results. Those leaders that were competent would usually organize their fighters with a clear intent and strategy in mind.

The European countries began to establish professional standing armies and to develop the modern state necessary to maintain such forces. From the point of view of the 14th century, however, the most significant result is that the nobility and secular leaders were busy fighting each other at a time when the people of Western Europe desperately needed leadership. Keegan points out that in the recognition and resulting efforts to instill the idea that there is a higher purpose for war, including the idea of principles and values; a paradox was created in that this education and realization resulted in the "rise of effective kingdoms” (Keegan 296).[3] Finally, though the English enjoyed a century of success because of the French adherence to the old ways, eventually French turned the tide when they too gave up feudalism and established a disciplined professional army.