The 1356 Poitiers Campaign

Posted on Friday 18th September 2015


Ten years earlier at the age of just fifteen, Edward Woodstock, the Prince of Wales had earned his spurs commanding a division in the Crecy Campaign, now in 1356 he was going to lead one of England’s most successful campaigns on the continent of Europe. He would march from his father Edward III’s south western dukedom of Gascony into the very heart of France.

Edward Woodstock and his professionally indentured Anglo-Gascon army specialised in the chevauchée (a promenade or horse charge) type of campaign. It was a form of warfare that was economic and political, as much as it was military. Economically, the army advancing on a broad front would seize anything they could of value that was portable and would destroy or burn crops, buildings, castles and indeed whole towns. The chevauchée of 1355, which is widely credited of being the origin of the Prince’s later nickname ‘The Black Prince’, was so rapacious that King Jean of France’s ability to raise taxes and therefore to wage war was greatly affected, not only in 1356 but for quite a number of years to come.

Most of the wealth accumulated in the chevauchée went not to the Crown but to the knights and men-of-arms. The more humble archers and spearmen not only received pay as a part of the indenture system but were able to profit from the loot, which made the profession of arms attractive and they relished the prospect of a new campaign!

Politically, a largely unopposed chevauchée down into the south of France in 1355 had demonstrated that the King of France was unable to protect his people from the marauding Anglos-Gascons and this greatly weakened his support across the country. Militarily a great battle, always a dangerous option to take in the Middle Ages, was not necessary for chevauchée to be a considered military success.

In 1356 Edward III prepared to campaign in France with three converging armies; the Black Prince mounting a chevauchée from Gascony, the Duke of Lancaster from Brittany and his own force crossing the Channel into northern France. In the event this latter part of the plan could not be carried our as the arrival of Aragonese galleys in French ports posed a threat of invasion to England.


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Map: The Black Prince's 1356 chevauchée

In early August the Black Prince’s march from Bergerac was at first through his own territory and once into the boarder-lands castles and property of the relatives of his knights were respected, as were that of castles, towns and villages who did not oppose the Anglo-Gascon army and delivered such goods and chattels as were requested. Only once across the River Vienne did the chevauchée proper begin, with the army’s advance to the north-east being marked by a broad swathe of smoke from burning French villages. The towns Romorantin and Veirzon were amongst those sacked by the Prince. In most cases substantial castles or well defended towns were by-passed but faced their hinterland being stripped in the process.

King Jean The Good, could not ignore this grave affront to his authority and broke of operations against rebels in the Normandy area to concentrate his army south west of Paris. The French were still locked into the old feudal system, more so than their English counterparts and consequently the army took time to assemble. In the meantime the Count of Poitiers was to observe and contain the Anglo-Gascon Army south of the River Loire to prevent the juncture of the Black Prince’s army with that of the Duke of Lancaster.

1356 was a wet year and the mighty and untamed Loire was maze of channels, marshes and sandbanks over a mile wide. The handful of crossings were guarded by castles with substantial French garrisons, which were beyond the capacity of the Anglo-Gascons to take.

The Prince moved west towards Tours all the while hoping to link up with the Duke of Lancaster’s force. On 7 September the suburbs of Tours were attacked but a crossing could not be secured and the town was saved from the flames but a heavy rain storm.

At the end of the first week in September, King Jean finally crossed the Loire and thus began a period of manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre, during which the King sought to variously trap the Prince and his army between unfordable rivers or to cut him off from Gascony and safety. The French were only too aware of the power of the longbow on the battlefield and would probably rather have dealt with the Prince in this manner rather than face battle.

On the other hand the Prince had already conducted a successful chevauchée and did not need a battle for the campaign to be considered a success. He would, however, fight a battle if and only if conditions were right for the Anglo-Gascons!

On 17 September the Prince marched his army across the rear of the French, once again escaping from a potential trap. The following day with the armies in close proximity, the Anglo-Gascons deployed for battle. It was, however, a Sunday and it was bad form to fight on the Lords Day. The two armies therefore spent in fruitless but necessary negotiations that were an intrinsic part of medieval warfare. All the while the strength of the King’s army grew to about 12,000, with a thousand men at arms joining during that Sunday alone. The French greatly outnumbered the Prince’s army of just 5,000, who occupied a position on a hill behind a series of hedges.

As the following day 19 September 1356 dawned, the armies were still facing each other. Neither side moved. It seemed that the French were once again attempting to starve the Anglo-Gascons out. With this in prospect, the Prince took the decision to leave the battlefield but the sight of the banners moving off finally broke French discipline. Marshal Audrehem with an elite squadron of two hundred heavily armoured knights and men-of-arms precipitately rode off to cut the Earl of Warwick off at the ford, while on the opposite flank Marshal Clermont attacked the Earl of Salisbury’s division who were lining the hedgerows both of these attacks failed, as did the attack of the Constable’s Division, who advancing on foot had lost all coordination with the elite squadrons.

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Map: the Battle of Poitiers.

The Prince concentrated his army and defeated the French second division and depleted Duke of Orlean’s third division. At this point the Anglos-Gascons could have reasonably expected to have won, having beaten the usual three divisions but coming up the hill was a massive fourth division; the King’s Division. Advancing his banners beyond the hedge the Prince sent a Gascon knight Capital de Busch with a mounted squadron of men at arms and archers around in a flanking move that broke French morale. The attack collapsed and the King’s army streamed from the battlefield leaving many including King Jean as prisoners.

In a battle that the French should have won, the Black Prince achieved his greatest victory.

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King Jean II was taken prisoner during the attack of the Fourth Division.


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Edward Woodstock, 'The Black Prince'.

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Arms of the Black Prince as heir to the throne.

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The storming of Romorantin.

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Knight's armour typical of the Poitiers period.

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An illustration of the Battle of Poitiers from Jean de Froissart's chronicle.

Taking it Further


100 Years War: Poitiers 1356
(DVD)
ISBN: 5060247620459

by Battlefield History TV
Only £16.99

Ten Years after the English victory in Crecy an Anglo/Gascon Army led by Edward of Woodstock, The Prince of Wales, won a great victory at Poitiers on 19 September 1356. Once again a French Army was decimated by the despised English but what made this victory different was not only the capture of the French King, John II, but the fact that was a victory won by all arms, not just the longbow.

In the 10 years since Crecy the Black Death had ravaged Europe and England…
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