From the time of Charlemagne, the social and political structure of Middle Ages European society rested on a set of reciprocal obligations between a warrior nobility, supporting and in turn being supported by, a hierarchy of vassals and fiefs.
The system was called Feudalism, a system in which the King granted portions of land called “fiefs” to Lords and Barons in exchange for loyalty, and to Knights (vassals) in exchange for military service.
Knights were a professional warrior class, dependent upon the nobility for lodging, food, armor, weapons, horses and money.
The whole edifice was borne up by peasants, serfs who farmed the land and provided the vassal or lord with material wealth, in the form of food and other products.
The 18th century historian and political economist Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi wrote “We must not confound chivalry with the feudal system. The feudal system may be called the real life of the period of which we are treating, possessing its advantages and inconveniences, its virtues and its vices. Chivalry, on the contrary, is the ideal world, such as it existed in the imaginations of the Romance writers. Its essential character is devotion to woman and to honour”.
The Battle of Crécy is memorable for several reasons. Crude cannon had been used in siege operations during the Muslim conquest of Spain, (al Andalus), but this was the first time they were used in open battle. Perhaps more important, though less evident at the time, was that Crécy spelled the end of feudalism.
The Battle of Crécy was the first major combat of the hundred years’ war, a series of conflicts fought over a 116-year period for control of the French throne. King Edward III invaded the Normandy region of France on July 12, 1346. Estimates vary concerning the size of his army, but not of its composition. This was not an army of mounted knights, though there were a few of those. This was a yeoman army of spearmen and foot archers, ravaging the French countryside as they went, and pursued by a far larger army of French knights and mercenary allies.
A fortunate tidal crossing of the Somme River gave the English a day’s lead, allowing Edward’s forces time to rest and prepare for battle as they stopped to wait for the far larger French army near the village of Crécy.
Edward’s forces took a strong defensive position overlooking flat agricultural land, natural obstacles to either side effectively nullifying the French numerical advantage. The French army under King Philip VI was wet and exhausted when they arrived on the 26th, nevertheless launching themselves directly at the English, almost immediately upon their arrival.
Genoese crossbowmen opened the battle on the French side, but wet strings hampered the weapon’s effectiveness. English archers had unstrung their longbows during the previous night’s rain, and now showered thousands of arrows down on the heads of their adversaries. The French first line broke and ran, only to be accused of cowardice and hacked to pieces by the knights to their rear.
French mounted knights now entered the fray, but orderly lines soon dissolved into confusion. The muddy field combined with English obstacles and that constant barrage of arrows unhorsed French knights and confused their lines.
Riderless horses and unmounted knights alike were run down by successive waves of horsemen, each impatient to win his share of the “glory”. Those who made it to the English side faced a tough, disciplined line of spearmen and foot soldiers who held their position. Heavily armored knights, once unhorsed, were easy prey to the quick and merciless knives of the English.
A messenger sought out the English King in the midst of the battle, beseeching aid for the King’s son, the 16-year-old Prince of Wales. Edward replied “Do not send to me so long as my son lives; let the boy win his spurs; let the day be his.”
Philip’s ally, the blind King John of Bohemia, heard that the battle was going badly for the French. He ordered his companions to tie his horse’s bridle to theirs, and lead him into the fight. It was the last time he was seen alive.
The Prince of Wales did earn his spurs that day. He adopted old King John’s crest and motto, the triple ostrich plume with the words “Ich Dien”. I serve. The heraldic badge is worn by his successors, to this day.
When it was over, the feudal age lay dead in the mud and the blood of Crécy, alongside the mythical age of chivalry. The English side suffered one/tenth the number of casualties. 2,200 Heraldic coats were taken as trophies.
In the words of A Short History of the English People, by John Richard Green, “The churl had struck down the noble; the bondsman proved more than a match in sheer hard fighting, for the knight”. After Crécy, the world’s land battles would be fought not by armored knights fighting toe-to-toe with battle-axe and lance, but by common foot soldiers, with the bow and with the gun.
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