The Battle of Poitiers (1356)

The Battle of Poitiers was fought between the Kingdoms of England and France on 19 September 1356 near Poitiers, resulting in the second of the three great English victories of the Hundred Years’ War: Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.

On 8 August 1356, Edward, the Black Prince began a great chevauchée (raid) north from the English base in Aquitaine, in an effort to relieve allied garrisons in central France, as well as to raid and ravage the countryside. His sortie met little resistance, his Anglo-Gascon forces burning numerous towns to the ground and living off the land, until they reached the Loire River at Tours. His forces were unable to take the castle nor could they burn the town, due to a heavy downpour. His delay there allowed John II, King of France, to attempt to catch Edward’s army and eliminate it. The King, who had been confronting Henry of Grosmont in Normandy, arranged the bulk of his army at Chartres to the north of the besieged Tours, dismissing around 15,000–20,000 of his lower-quality infantry to increase the speed of his forces.

Upon receiving reports of the French army on the move, Edward decided a retreat was in order. He marched south pursued in earnest by John. The French caught up to the English a few miles southwest of Poitiers. A veteran of the battle of Crécy, at which he had fought when he was only sixteen years old, the Black Prince decided on the same tactical scheme employed at that earlier battle. He positioned his troops in a strongly defensive position, in a plain surrounded by natural obstacles, such as a creek on the left and a wood on the back. The luggage wagons, with a great amount of plunder, remained along the old Roman road, the main route from Poitiers to Bordeaux, to give protection to his weak right side. All his men dismounted and were organized in two, or perhaps three units, with longbowmen placed in a V-formation on both flanks[2] and a small cavalry unit, commanded by Jean de Grailly, the Captal de Buch, hidden in woods at the rear.

The attacking French forces were divided in four parts. At the front were around 300 elite knights[citation needed], commanded by general Clermont and accompanied by German mercenary pikemen. The purpose of this group was to charge the archers and eliminate the threat they posed. These were followed by three groups of infantry (dismounted cavalry) commanded by the Dauphin (later Charles V of France), the Duke of Orléans and King John

The battle

At the beginning of the battle, the English simulated flight on their left wing. This provoked a hasty charge by the French knights against the archers. However, the English were expecting this and quickly attacked the enemy, especially the horses, with a shower of arrows. Prominent chronicler Jean Froissart writes that the French armour was invulnerable to the English arrows, that the arrowheads either skidded off the armor or shattered on impact. English history of the battle disputes this, as some claim that the narrow bodkin point arrows they used have been proven capable of penetrating most plate armour of that time period. While tests have been done to support this with fixed pieces of flat metal, the result is inconclusive with respect to the curved armour of the period. Given the following actions of the archers, it seems likely Froissart was correct. The armour on the horses was weaker on the sides and back, so the archers moved to the sides of the cavalry and shot the horses in the flanks. This was a popular method of stopping a cavalry charge, as a falling horse often destroyed the cohesion of the enemy’s line. The results were devastating.

This attack was followed by the Dauphin’s infantry, who engaged in heavy fighting, but withdrew to regroup. The next wave of infantry under Orléans, seeing that the Dauphin’s men were not attacking, turned back and panicked. This stranded the forces led by the King himself. This was a formidable fighting force, and the English archers were out of arrows: the archers joined the infantry in the fight and some of both groups mounted horses to form an improvised cavalry. Combat was hard, but the Black Prince still had a mobile reserve hidden in the woods, which was able to circle around and attack the French in the flank and rear. The French were fearful of encirclement and attempted to flee. King John was captured with his immediate entourage only after a memorable resistance.

Amongst the notable casualties according to Froissart were:

•             King John II of France, captured.
•             Prince Philip, the King’s youngest son and progenitor of the House of Valois-Burgundy, captured
•             Peter I, Duke of Bourbon, killed.
•             Walter VI, Count of Brienne and Constable of France, killed.
•             Jean de Clermont, Marshal of France, killed
•             Arnoul d’Audrehem, Marshal of France, captured.
•             The Count of Eu, wounded and captured.
•             The Count of Marche and Ponthieu, captured.
•             The Count of Étampes, captured.
•             The Count of Tancarville, captured.
•             The Count of Dammartin, captured.
•             The Count of Joinville, captured.
•             Guillaume de Melun, Archbishop of Sens, captured
•             Geoffroi de Charny, carrier of the Oriflamme, killed.

The Duke of Bourbon and the Counts of Étampes, Eu and Marche were members of junior branches of the House of Capet.

The Aftermath

The result was a decisive Plantagenet victory, and a catastrophe for the Valois. France was asked to pay a ransom equivalent to twice the country’s yearly income to have the King returned. John, who was accorded royal privileges whilst being a prisoner, was permitted to return to France to try to raise the required funds. Dissatisfaction of the commons over this arrangement, and having to bear the burden of the ransom, shortly led to the Jacquerie Revolt. Following some time in France John subsequently handed himself back to the English, claiming to be unable to pay the ransom, and died a few months later. Finally, only one-fifth of the ransom was paid. In many ways, Poitiers was a repeat of the battle of Crécy showing once again that a good defensive tactic can overcome a disadvantage in numbers. As the Black Prince wrote shortly afterward in a letter to the people of London:

t was agreed that we should take our way, flanking them, in such a manner that if they wished for battle or to draw towards us, in a place not very much to our disadvantage, we should be the first … the enemy was discomfited, and the king was taken, and his son; and a great number of other great people were both taken and slain.

The new French King Charles V “the Wise” learnt the lesson from Crécy and Poitiers. When he resumed the war against the English in 1370, he named the great tactician Bertrand du Guesclin as Constable of France.

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