The English Invasion of France in 1346: The Edge of Destruction and Beyond

By Jonathan Jones 

As a lifelong history buff who started on the path as a teenage archaeologist, I am absorbed in the drama of history and in researching the facts behind great events to work out what really happened. Also, why did it happen and who were the main players in a scenario, and what could have happened if they acted differently?


In my day job as a commercial lawyer, I was fortunate enough to travel across the world for over thirty years, and I took the chance to learn about the many cultures I visited and their histories. Steadily, my understanding grew and I have taken a particular interest in social and military history.


Recently, I have been studying the Crecy campaign of 1346, in which I have special interest. The small town of Llantrisant in South Wales that now houses the Royal Mint was granted a Royal Charter in the year 1346 and became a borough in that year. After the granting of the charter,  a number of people were made Freemen of the borough and all of their descendants were made Freemen too on achieving the age of twenty-one. Including me. 1346 was also the year in which Edward the Third launched his invasion of France in pursuit of the French crown to which he had a strong claim. He did not take the crown but he did succeed in capturing Calais, which was held for two hundred years.


Tradition has it that archers from Llantrisant fought in the campaign and especially distinguished themselves at the battle of the Blanchetaque Ford and at Crecy itself. I was intrigued to know more about these archers, paid professional soldiers and not serfs, who were amongst the Llantrisant Freemen of the 1340s, and these two battles.


In issue 7 of Medieval World, I examined the events behind the Crecy campaign and the progress of that campaign. After a long advance around northern France, eventually the Anglo-Welsh army was forced into a deadly trap against the River Somme by a much larger French force, and faced annihilation. The story of how Edward’s army launched an amphibious assault against thousands of crossbowmen and men-at-arms across a river over a mile wide using a short window of tidal opportunity is one of the great military adventures of history.


Men from Llantrisant were likely in the forefront of the battle at the Ford. Their commander Hugh Despenser with his black livery led the attack, and, in doing so, retrieved in a few hours the honour of his family with his father and grandfather both having been executed as traitors in the rule of Edward II.


In issue 8 of Medieval World, I go on to look at the equally dramatic events that took place in the days thereafter as the exhausted but elated army made its way to the area north of the Somme, known as Crecy, and took up their positions to face the huge French army. The battle was ferocious and bloody. The skillful choice of an elevated ridge on which the English army took up its positions and the devastating effect of massed archery and dismounted men-at-arms together with iron discipline led to a crushing victory for Edward.



The longbow


The English had first encountered the longbow in their struggles to subdue Wales in previous centuries. The bow was made mainly of yew, which gave it a draw flexibility and draw strength and gave it an advantage over shorter bows of the time. It had a range of up to 3oo yards in skilled hands. A practiced longbowmen could fire 8-10 arrows or more per minute over a short period with accuracy. Much faster than a crossbow. Being struck by an arrow from a longbow was akin to a powerful rifle shot if it hit a man or horse in an unprotected area.


Learning from the experience in Wales, Edward I  incorporated Welsh longbowmen into his army in his campaigns in Scotland, and English archers began to learn the use of this bow. It destroyed the Scottish schiltrons (bodies of men with long spears) of William Wallace at Falkirk but failed later at Bannockburn as the poor English leadership under Edward II failed to make good use of longbows.


Bow range and individual skill was one thing but what was also needed were new tactics to maximize the potential of the bow. During the reign of the new King Edward III, those tactics were developed.


Large formations of longbowmen now worked in close groups able to pour devasting fire of thousands of arrows per minute on approaching horsemen or infantry. Learning from the Scots at Bannockburn, pits were dug in front of the archers to cause horses to fall, and then sharpened stakes of wood were placed to the front.


At Halidon Hill in 1333, Edward placed his archers in wedge formations on top of a hill on either side of dismounted men-at-arms. The Scots attacked, and as they closed with the English, they were annihilated from front and flanks. Edward had a winning formula, and in 1346 he was to use almost exactly the same tactics at Crecy with the same result.

The Anglo-Welsh longbowman was here to stay. He became a fixed part of society and boys were trained to use the bow from the age of eight. Edward instituted regular practice by law, and during his reign and in succeeding reigns holidays and Sundays incorporated archery practice. Some kings banned the playing of football to ensure that archery practice was not neglected. Yew trees were planted (especially in churches) to provide wood for the bows. Steadily, a trained and professional body of archers that could be hired to join English armies came into being that would last for two hundred years. The Mary Rose wreck from the time of Henry the Eighth contained a large stock of longbows.


Longbowmen took a long time to train and that training needed to be a core part of society. Equipping an armoured knight could cost an annual sum equivalent to a Ferrari, but the humble archer was far less expensive and very effective in numbers.


Check out Longbow: A Social and Military History by Robert Hardy to learn more.

1 comment

Great article, but please remember you ‘shoot’ a bow and ‘fire’ a gun.


Jason Stokes

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