Battle of Poitiers

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The Battle of Poitiers (1356) is the second of the great land battles of the Hundred Years War between England and France notable for the dominance of the Anglo-Welsh longbow, and the military acumen of Edward the Black Prince. Whereas, 10 years before at Crécy, the 15-year-old prince had been under the nominal control of his father Edward III he was now a veteran of campaigning throughout much of western France.

The summer of 1356 saw Edward striking from his base in English controlled Gascony laying waste the French countryside, capturing and burning castles and towns; whilst the French king, John II, was busy besieging Breteuil, a dependency of his cousin (and enemy), Charles the Bad of Navarre.

Learning of the damage being done to his dominions John negotiated a quick end to the siege and took off after Edward. He approached the English near Poitiers in Poitou, blocking their way back to Bordeaux and making battle inevitable, despite efforts by a cardinal to negotiate a peace.

John was eager for battle; he had by far the greater number in his army. (Froissart gives figures of about 8000 English facing at least 50,000 on the French side, including 3000 knights, although he is probably exaggerating – especially the French.)

The battle began on 19 September 1356 with the French vanguard advancing to be met by the inevitable and unrelenting rain of arrows from the 1000 or so archers firing from ditches and hedges on either side. One of the French divisions reached Edward’s position and there was some hand-to-hand fighting before they were forced back. Meanwhile, the arrows kept coming.

King John with his main army advanced from the other side of the valley. Edward showed his greatness as a battle commander – he attacked along the whole line of battle. Everyone on the English side ran or rode at the enemy. The archers put their bows aside and attacked with their swords from the sides. A cavalry unit attaked from the rear. The French found themselves outflanked and in the desperate general fighting that followed were defeated. They were chased back to the walls of Poitiers. King John, one of his sons and over 2000 French barons and knights were captured. Many more died.

It is notable that, even during this last phase of the battle, Edward kept control. His men generally knew where was, and whilst he was often in the thick of the fighting, he made sure he was kept informed of what was going on. The victory can be put down to his greatness as a commander as much as to the discipline, accuracy and courage of his archers.

  • Reference: "Froissart's Chronicles".