The Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts fought intermittently between 1137 and 1453. It was waged between the Plantaganets and the House of Valois over claims to the French throne. The fighting was actually conducted for a total of 116 years punctuated by several phases of peace.
15th century illustration of the Battle of Poitiers
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Battle of Poitiers was fought in western France on 19th September, 1356, between the English and the French. An army of around 7,000 English and Gascons were led by the Plantaganet Edward, Prince of Wales, The Black Prince, supported by Jean de Grailly. The French and their allies were commanded by King John II with the Duc d’Orléans. The French troops numbered about 35,000.
When the battle commenced in the early morning the left flank of the English army pretended escape which caused the French knights to charge the archers. This allowed the bowmen to attack their opponents, and particularly their horses, with a rain of arrows. Though the horses wore armour their sides and backs were less heavily protected and the archers aimed arrows at the horses’ flanks. This was a well-practised tactic to halt cavalry charges since falling horses broke up the structure of the advancing lines.
The English archers used a six foot longbow made of yew. The bowmen used arrows measuring a ‘cloth yard’ in length. (A cloth yard is the distance between the tip of the nose and the finger tips when the arm is extended horizontally at shoulder height.) Their rate of fire was around an arrow every five seconds. When fighting at close quarters the archers used hammers or daggers.
The French infantry under the Dauphin (later Charles V of France) were the next to engage but withdrew after heavy combat to reorganise. On seeing this the Duc d’Orléans’ infantry retreated in panic. Finally King John’s daunting force was involved. The English had no more arrows so the archers joined the infantry and some of them mounted horses to improvise a cavalry unit. The skirmishing was formidable but the Black Prince had a reserve force concealed in woods which was called into action. It circled round to strike the French flank and rear. The French realised they were about to be surrounded and tried to retreat. After extraordinary resistance King John agreed to surrender with his youngest son, 14-year-old Philip, and many other notable combatants. He actually surrendered to a French knight who escorted him to the Black Prince. The battle had proved that superior tactics could overcome the disadvantage of greater enemy numbers.
Following the English victory Edward’s troops began tending the wounded and pillaging the riches of the French camps. That night the Black Prince entertained King John and his son to dinner.
France was asked to pay an exorbitant ransom for the King’s release. France refused to pay, the sum being equivalent to twice the country’s yearly income. The Dauphin Charles, who had escaped capture, faced rebellion across the kingdom as he tried to raise money for his father’s release.
Eventually King John was allowed to return to France in 1361, in exchange for hostages, to try and procure funds but after some time he returned to England, unable to pay the entirety of the ransom. He died there in 1364. Ultimately only one fifth of the ransom was paid.
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