Authors: Gordon Corrigan
It was a great and overwhelming victory. Edward, and most contemporary chronicles, attributed it to the grace of God, but in truth the French were beaten by their decision
to throw away their advantages in numbers and seamanship by confining themselves to the estuary, by the superiority of the English archers’ firepower, and by the experience and fighting
abilities of the English infantry once they had boarded the French ships. Sources vary as to the extent of the butcher’s bill. Most of the chronicles give figures between 20,000 and 30,000
French dead, which are far too high. But while a beaten army on land can run away, the only escape at sea is into it, so there may have been as many as 10,000 French dead, wounded and prisoners, or
about half the total number engaged, and for days afterwards bodies were being washed ashore. Quiéret was killed in the fighting, but Béhuchet was recognized and held by his captor in
the hope of ransom. It was not to be: the scourge of the English coastal towns was not going to get away so lightly and Edward had him hanged on the mast of his own ship. English casualties –
remarkably light considering the intensity of the ship-to-ship fighting – were between 400 and 600 killed and wounded, including the king himself, who sustained minor wounds to his thigh and
While the French could and would still raid English coastal towns, the threat of a full-scale invasion had gone.
To the English, all the auguries for a successful campaign in northern France now seemed favourable. So Edward decided to capture the frontier city of Tournai himself, while Robert of Artois,
with Flemish troops bolstered by a small contingent of English archers, would take the city of St Omer. All came to naught. Robert was unable to take St Omer and had to retire back to join Edward,
and Edward was unable to take Tournai as he had no siege train. He also had his usual problems over money and had once more to appeal to Parliament in England for another subsidy. There, public
opinion, while supportive of the war, was fiercely opposed to yet more taxation; as one chronicle put it, ‘Wherefore you shall know the very truth: the inner love of the people was turned
into hate and the common prayers into cursing, for cause that the common people were strongly aggrieved.’
A grant was forthcoming, however,
but not enough
to keep the armies in the field, nor to conduct a lengthy siege, and in mid-September, with the weather deteriorating, supplies running low and the less
committed allies beginning to hedge their bets, the pope proposed a truce to last until the summer of 1341. Edward was glad to accept and slink back to England. It was an inglorious end to what had
been such a promising start; it would not be for another six years that Edward III would achieve such a devastating victory as that of Sluys, and then it would be on land.
The tomb of Sir Thomas Cawne in the church of St Peter at Ightham, Kent. Descended from a Chaune who came over with the Conqueror, Cawne originated in
Staffordshire and built a manor house in Ightham in 1340. He died around 1374 and while he is not shown on Wrottesley’s roll local legend has it that he fought at Crecy. Note the camail, the
chain mail protection for the neck and shoulders, fastened to studs in the helmet. Cawne’s sword and dagger have long gone, possibly a legacy of Reformation vandalism.
The story of the Hundred Years War is in many ways that of the professional versus the amateur, with the increasing professionalization of English armies followed, usually all
too late, by those of France. By the time of Edward I, the English military system, a fusion of the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon military organization with Norman feudalism, was beginning to creak. The
Anglo-Saxons had depended on semi-professional household troops employed directly by the king and supported by the
or militia, a part-time force which was embodied when danger
threatened and could be required either to operate solely within its own shire or, like those elements which accompanied King Harold to Stamford Bridge and down again to Hastings in 1066,
nationwide. The Norman feudal system depended on the notion that all land belonged to the king and was granted to his supporters, who in turn owed him military service. This service was expressed
in terms of the number of knights the landholder, or tenant-in-chief, was required to provide for a fixed time, usually forty days. Often the tenant-in-chief would sub-allocate land to his tenants,
who then took on the military service obligation. Each knight was required to provide his own equipment – armour (initially mail, giving way progressively to plate), helmet, sword, shield and
lance – and at least one horse. Each knight brought his own retinue with him: a page to look after and clean his armour, a groom to care for his horses, and probably a manservant to look
after him. Often there would be numerous armed followers, frequently described as esquires, or well-bred young men aspiring to knighthood. Bishops and monasteries also had a military obligation,
usually, but not always, commuted for a cash
payment in lieu. The number of knights required for each land holding fell steadily during the post-Conquest period, presumably
because knights and their equipment became more expensive, and by 1217 a total of 115 tenants-in-chief are recorded as producing between them 470 knights.
When Edward III came to the throne, the English peerage had not developed into the modern system of baron, viscount, earl, marquis and duke. It was Edward himself who created the first English
duke – his eldest son, the Prince of Wales. After the Conquest, the Normans took over the existing Anglo-Saxon title of earl (from the Scandinavian
), although it was given to
Normans and not to those who held the rank before the Conquest; and William I introduced the rank of baron, which came below an earl. The term ‘knight’ did not have the exactitude that
it does today, when we have two types of knight: the knight bachelor, who is dubbed by the monarch and entitled to be described as Sir Thomas Molesworth and his wife as Lady Molesworth, and who
holds the title for his lifetime only; and the hereditary knight baronet, also entitled to be described as Sir Thomas but with the abbreviation ‘Bart.’ or ‘Bt.’ after the
name. The latter honour is relatively recent, having been introduced by King James I as a money-raising scheme in 1611.
During the medieval period, the honours system was much more elastic. A military knight had not necessarily been dubbed but was able to afford the cost of knight’s equipment and was
probably a landholder. Assuming that he did reasonably well, he would almost certainly be dubbed eventually, often on the eve of battle. A knighthood banneret, a title that lapsed in the
seventeenth century, could only be awarded on the field of battle and only if the king was present;
it entitled the holder to display a rectangular
banneret, as opposed to the triangular pennon of lower-ranking knights, and his own coat of arms or heraldic device. The men who filled the knightly class were brought up and trained for battle,
but it was battle as individuals – tourneys and jousts for real, if you will – and under the feudal system there was real difficulty in getting them to act as a team or to persuade them
to adopt a common tactical doctrine. The knights – whether dubbed or not – were what we would call the officers of
the army, while the Other Ranks were provided
by commissions of array, or conscription from able-bodied men of the hundreds or shires. Again, these were only required to serve for a limited period, and there were frequent arguments over
whether or not they could be compelled to serve outside their own locality, and whether it was a local or national (that is, royal) responsibility to feed and pay them.
When the king knew personally all or most of the landholders in the kingdom, the feudal military system worked reasonably well. It sufficed for dynastic squabbles and raids from Scotland, but,
as time went on, it could not cope with expeditions abroad or with sieges that lasted more than forty days, nor could it provide permanent garrisons. Men could not reasonably be expected to be
absent from their homes during the planting season, nor for the harvest, and this greatly restricted the scope and duration of any military campaign. Even as early as the reign of Henry II, in
1171, the king faced his rebellious sons with forces that, while largely composed of men carrying out their feudal dues, included ‘knights serving for wages’. Given that English kings
would increasingly fight their wars abroad, mainly in France or in Scotland, and that soldiers would be required to be away from home for far longer than the feudal system allowed, the transition
from a feudal host, where the officers served as part of their obligation to their overlord, to an army where all served for pay was an inevitable progression. Once soldiers (of any rank) serve for
pay, rather than almost as a favour, they can be ordered to arm themselves and fight in a certain way; they can be sent to where the king wants them rather than where they want to go or not go;
and, as long as the money holds out, loyalty is assured. It was Edward I who began this professionalization of the army, and eventually he paid everybody except those whom we would term generals.
It was his efforts that laid the groundwork for the great victories of his grandson Edward III, against French armies which were usually far larger but still raised under a semi-feudal system.
One way of raising soldiers, once the feudal system had irreparably broken down, was to hire foreign mercenaries, and there were lots of these ready to sell their services to the highest bidder.
Most of the mercenary bands were from areas where nothing much grew, like Brittany; or where there was overcrowding, such as Flanders or Brabant; or where other career paths were limited, as they
were in Genoa. The difficulty was an inherent
English dislike of foreigners (some things don’t change), so, while there were contingents from Brittany and Flanders in
English armies abroad, there were very few actually employed in England. Even the Welsh, who provided large numbers of soldiers for Edward’s wars, tended to be mustered and then marched off
to the embarkation ports as speedily as possible.
It was not only the move from feudal to paid service that marked a revolution in military affairs, at least in England, but the composition of armies too. During the feudal period, the major arm
was the heavy cavalry, composed of armoured knights on armoured horses who provided shock action and could generally ride through and scatter any footmen in their way. As socially the cavalry were
regarded as several cuts above the infantry, who were often a poorly equipped and scantily trained militia, this held true for a very long time. The cavalryman wore mail or latterly plate armour,
carried a sword, lance and shield, and was mounted on either a destrier or a courser. The destrier, or great horse, was not, as is sometimes alleged, the Shire horse or the Percheron of today.
Rather, it was similar to today’s Irish Draught: short-coupled, rather cobby, with strong quarters and well up to weight, the destrier was probably between fourteen and fifteen
although some of the horse armour at the Royal Armouries at Leeds is made for a horse of fifteen to sixteen hands.
The courser was similar, but lighter and cheaper. Destriers are sometimes said to have been entires, and the Bayeux Tapestry certainly shows them as uncastrated, but this seems
unlikely. An uncastrated horse is far less tractable than a gelding or a mare, and the depiction of the complete animal in paintings and tapestries of the period may simply be symbolic – our
horses are male and rampant, and so are we.
There has been much discussion of the role of the stirrup in equestrian warfare. Some authorities state that it was only with the invention of the stirrup that the cavalryman could be anything
other than an appendage to an army: useful for reconnaissance and communications but incapable of serious fighting, because only when able to brace against the stirrups could
a man deliver a weighty blow without falling off. It is probable that those who make this assertion have little experience of riding. While the stirrup is a useful aid to balance when
the horse does something unintended and unexpected, it is by no means essential and it would have been very difficult to fall out of a stirrupless Roman saddle, with its high pommel and cantle.
Similarly, the armchair nature of the medieval saddle, with or without stirrups, made for a very safe seat except if the horse fell, when the rider, rather than being thrown clear as he would hope
to be in a modern saddle, would be trapped under the horse, risking a broken pelvis or his throat being cut by an opportunistic infantryman. All the depictions of the armoured medieval cavalryman
show him riding with a straight leg and very long leathers, so he could not brace against the stirrups in any case. It seems that the usefulness of the stirrup was in mounting the horse when there
was no mounting block available or when the weight of armour made it impossible to vault astride the withers.