Showing posts with label battles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label battles. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Mass Combat | Dungeons & Dragons

This week Unearthed Arcana switches gears, going from character options to a rules option for the DM: mass combat. We’ve touched on mass combat before in this column and have created these new rules after receiving your feedback. Please give the new rules a read, try them out in play, and let us know what you think in the survey we’ll provide in the next installment of Unearthed Arcana.

Mass Combat | Dungeons & Dragons

Sunday, December 4, 2016


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The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover » De Re Militari

The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover

Roger of Wendover (d.1236) was a monk at St.Alban’s monastery in England.  His work, Flores historic rum (Flowers of History) is a chronicle that starts at creation and goes to 1235.  From 1201 to 1235 his work is original.  In the following section, the author relates the events of the battle of Lincoln in 1217, fought between forces loyal to King Henry III, against rebellious nobles and a French force led by Louis, son of the King Philip Augustus.  Another account of this battle can be found in the History of William the Marshal.  Another section of Roger of Wendover’s chronicle, detailing his account of the Battle of Bouvines (1214), can also be accessed here.
The Battle of Lincoln (1217)
The raising of the siege of the castle of Montsorel, and of the siege of Lincoln castle.
The army of Louis and the barons of England arrived at Dunstable, and there passed the night. In the morning it took its march northward, hastening to the relief of the before-mentioned castle of Montsorel; Earl Ralph of Chester and the others who were with him attacking it, being informed of this by their scouts, raised the siege, and retreated to the castle of Nottingham, where they determined to watch the progress of their approaching enemies.  When the barons then arrived at the castle of Montsorel, after pillaging in their usual custom all the cemeteries and churches on their march, it was determined unanimously to march to Lincoln, where Gilbert de Gant and other barons above-mentioned had carried on a long siege without success.  They, therefore, marched through the valley of Belvoir, and there everything fell into the hands of these robbers, because the soldiers of the French kingdom being as it were the refuse and scum of that country, left nothing at all untouched, and their poverty and misery was so great, that they had not enough bodily clothing to cover their nakedness.  At length, they arrived at Lincoln, and the barons then made fierce assaults on the castle, whilst the attacked returned their showers of stones and missiles with stones and deadly weapons with great courage.
How the king of England assembled an army to raise the siege of the castle of Lincoln.
Whilst these events were passing at this place, William Marshall, the guardian of the king and kingdom, by the advice of Walo the legate, Peter bishop of Winchester, and others by whose counsels the business of the kingdom was arranged, assembled all the castellans belonging to the king, and the knights who were in charge of castles in different parts of the kingdom, ordering them, on the command of the king, to assemble at Newark on the second day of Whitsun week, to proceed together with them to raise the siege of Lincoln castle. They, having an ardent desire to engage with the excommunicated French, and also to fight for their country, joyfully came at the time and place pre-arranged on, and with them also there came the legate himself, and many other Prelates of the kingdom, with horses and soldiers, to assail with prayers as well as arms these disobeyers of their king, and rebels against their lord the pope; for it appeared to them they had a just cause of war, especially as he was innocent, and a stranger to sin, whom his enemies were endeavouring in their pride to disinherit. And when they were all assembled together, there were reckoned in that army four hundred knights, nearly two hundred and fifty crossbowmen, and such an innumerable host of followers and horsemen were present, who could on emergency fulfill the duties of soldiers. The chiefs of this army were William Marshall and William his son, Peter bishop of Winchester, a man well skilled in warfare, Ralph earl of Chester, William earl of Salisbury, William earl of Ferrars, and William Earl of Albemarle; there were also there the barons, William d’Albiney, John Marshall, William de Cantelo, and William his son, the renowned Falkes de Breaute, Thomas Basset, Robert de Viport, Brian de L’Isle, Geoffrey de Lucy, and Philip d’Albiney, with many castellans of experience in war.
They made a stay of three days at Newark, to refresh the horses and men, and in the meantime employed themselves in confession, and strengthened their bodies by partaking of the body and blood of our Lord; asking his protection against the attacks of their enemies and thus all of them were prepared for extremities, and were determined to conquer or die in the cause of right.
How, when the king’s army was assembled, the legate encouraged then all to battle.
At length, on the sixth day of Whitsun week, after the performance of the holy communion, the legate rose and set forth to all of them how unjust was the cause of Louis, and the barons who had joined him, for which they bad been excommunicated and alienated from the community of the church; and in order to animate the army to battle, he put on his white robes, and, in company with the whole clergy there, excommunicated Louis by name, together with all his associates and abettors, and especially all those who were carrying on the siege of Lincoln against the king of England, together with the whole provinces, inclusive and included. And to those who had undertaken to assist in this war personally, he, by the power granted to him by the almighty God and the apostolic see, granted full pardon for their sins, of which they had made a true confession and as a reward to the just he promised the reward of eternal salvation.  Then, after all had received absolution and the blessing of God, they flew to arms, mounted their horses at once and struck their camp rejoicing.
On their arrival at Stowe, eight miles from Lincoln, they there passed the night without fear. In the morning, seven dense and well appointed battalions were formed, and they marched against the enemy, only fearing that the latter would take to flight before they reached the city; the crossbowmen all the time kept in advance of the army almost a mile; the baggage wagons and sumpter-horses followed altogether in the rear with the provisions and necessaries, whilst the standards and bucklers glittered in all directions and struck terror into those who beheld them.
How the barons went out of the city of Lincoln and reconnoitered the king’s army.
The barons who were in the city and the French felt such great confidence of success in their cause, that when their messengers told them of the approach of their adversaries they only laughed at them, and continued to cast missiles from their mangonels, to destroy the walls of the castle. But Robert Fitz-Walter, and S. earl of Winchester, when they heard that the enemy was approaching the city, went out to watch their approach and to count their numbers; and when they had made a careful survey of the approaching enemy they returned to the city to their companions, telling them,The enemy is coming against us in good order, but we are much more numerous than they are; therefore, our advice is that we sally forth to the ascent of the hill to meet them, for, if we do, we shall catch them like larks.” In reply to them, the count of Perche and the Mareschal said, “You have reckoned them according to your own opinion we also will now go out and count them in the French fashion.”  They then went out to reconnoitre the coming army of the king, but in their estimation of them they were deceived; for when they saw the wagons and baggage in the rear of the army, with guards who followed the squadrons which were already disposed in order of battle, they thought that this was an army of itself, because they beheld there a great multitude of men with standards flying; for each of the nobles had two standards, one, as we have already said, following the troops at a distance in the rear, with the baggage, and another preceding the persons of each of them, that they might be known when engaged in battle.  And the count of Perche with the Mareschal, being thus deceived, returned in a state of uncertainty to their companions.  On their return into the city, they proposed this plan to their companions, whose advice they did not despise, namely, to divide the nobles that the gates might be guarded and the enemy prevented from entering by some until the others had taken the castle, the capture of which would soon be effected.  This plan was approved of by many, but several disagreed with it.  They then secured the gates, appointed guards to them, and prepared for a defense.
Of the battle fought at Lincoln, called by some the ‘Fair’
The King’s army in the meantime approached the city on the side nearest the castle, and when it was discovered by the castellans they sent a messenger to a postern door of the castle to the commanders of the army, to inform them of what was being done inside.  This messenger told them that if they wished they could enter the castle by the postern, which had been just opened on account of their arrival; the commanders of the army, however, would not enter the castle that way, but sent Falkes de Breaute, with all the division under his command, and all the crossbowmen, to force open at least one gate of the city for the army.  The whole body then marched to the northern gate and endeavored to force it open, the barons, notwithstanding this, continuing to cast heavy stones from their petrarie against the castle.  But during this time, Falkes de Breaute entered the castle with the company of troops under his command, and with the crossbowmen, and stationed them on the roofs of the buildings and on the ramparts, whence they discharged their deadly weapons against the chargers of the barons, leveling horses and riders together to the earth, so that in the twinkling of an eye they made up a large force of footsoldiers, knights, and nobles.  Falkes de Breaute then, seeing a great many of the more noble of the enemy struck to the earth, boldly burst forth with his followers from the castle into the midst of the enemy; he was, however, made prisoner by the number who rushed on him, and carried away, until he was rescued by the bravery of his crossbowmen and knights.  The great body of the king’s army having in the meantime forced the gates, entered the city and boldly rushed the enemy.  Then sparks of fire were seen to dart, and sounds of dreadful thunder were heard to burst forth from the blows of swords against helmeted heads; but at length, by means of the crossbowmen, by whose skill the horses of the barons were mown down and killed like pigs, the party of the barons was greatly weakened, for, when the horses fell to the earth slain, their riders were taken prisoners, as there was no one to rescue them.  At length, when the barons were thus weakened, and great numbers of their soldiers had been made prisoners and safely secured, the king’s knights rushed in a close body on the count of Perche, entirely surrounding him; and as he could not withstand their force as they rushed him, they called on him to surrender, that he might escape with his life.  He, however, swore that he might not surrender to the English, who were traitors to their lawful king.  On hearing this, a knight rushed on him, and striking him in the eye, pierced his brain, on which he fell to the ground without uttering another word.  Then the French battalions, seeing the fall of their commander, took to flight, both horse and foot soldiers, with great loss; for the flail of the southern gate through which they took their flight had been replaced in a traverse way across the gate, which greatly impeded their flight; for when any one came up and wished to go out at that gate, he was obliged to dismount and open it, and after he was obliged to dismount from his horse and open it, and after he had passed the gate was again closed, and the flail again fell across it as before, and thus this gate was a great trouble to the fugitives.  The king’s troops pursued the flying barons and French, but although several were made prisoners in their flight, yet the king’s men only feigned to pursue them, and if it had not been for the effect of relationship and blood, not a single one of all of them would have escaped. But not further to prolong the account to no purpose, of the commanding barons were made prisoners, Sayer earl of Winchester, Henry de Bobun earl of Hereford, count Gilbert de Gant, whom Louis had lately created earl of Lincoln; and the count of Perche lay dead there. There were also made prisoners, the barons Robert Fitz Walter, Richard de Montfitchet, William de Mowbray, William de Beauchamp, William Maudut, Oliver d’Haencurt, Roger de Creisi, William de Coleville, William de Roos, Robert de Roppele, Ralph Chainedut, and many others, to mention whom would be tedious.  Three hundred knights were taken, besides soldiers, horse and foot, not easily to be counted.  The count of Perche was buried in the orchard of the hospital outside the city.  Reginald, surnamed Crocus, a brave knight of Falkes de Breaute’s retinue, who was slain there, was honourably buried at the monastery of Croxton.  There was also slain in this battle a soldier of the barons’ party, not known to any one, who was buried outside the city at the meeting of four roads, as one excommunicated.  And only the above-mentioned three are mentioned as having been slain in this great battle.
Of the plunder and pillage of the city.
After the battle was thus ended, the king’s soldiers found in the city the wagons of the barons and the French, with the sumpter-horses, loaded with baggage, silver vessels, and various kinds of furniture and utensils, all which fell into their possession without opposition. Having then plundered the whole city to the last farthing, they next pillaged the churches throughout the city, and broke open the chests and storerooms with axes and hammers, seizing on the gold and silver in them, clothes of all colours, women’s ornaments, gold rings, goblets, and jewels. Nor did the cathedral church escape this destruction, but underwent the same punishment as the rest, for the legate had given orders to the knights to treat all the clergy as excommunicated men, inasmuch as they had been enemies to the church of Rome and to the king of England from the commencement of the war; Geoffrey de Drepinges, precentor of this church, lost eleven thousand marks of silver. When they had thus seized on every kind of property, so that nothing remained in any corner of the houses, they each returned to their lords as rich men, and peace with king Henry having been declared by all throughout the city, they ate and drank amidst mirth and festivity. This battle, which, in derision of Louis and the barons, they called “The Fair,” took place on the 19th of May, which was on the Saturday in Whitsun-week; it commenced between the first and third hour, and was finished by these good managers before the ninth.  Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river, for, to avoid insult, they took to small boats with their children, female servants, and household property, and perished on their journey; but there were afterwards found in the river by the searchers, goblets of silver, and many other articles of great: benefit to the finders; for the boats were overloaded, and the women not knowing how to manage the boats, all perished, for business done in haste is always badly done.  After thus finishing this business, William Marshall ordered all the castellans to return to their castles with the prisoners, and there to keep them in close custody till they should learn the king’s pleasure concerning them. The said William Marshall returned the same day, before he took any food, to the king, and told him in presence of the legate what had happened, and they, who had been praying to God with weeping, soon changed their tears to smiles.  In the morning messengers came to the king and told him that the knights at Montsorel had left that castle and fled; on which the king ordered the sheriff of Nottingham to go in person to the castle and to raze it to the ground.
Of the flight of the barons and the French from Lincoln.
After the count of Perche was slain, as above stated, they all took to flight, horse as well as footsoldiers, towards the city of London, and the foremost among them was the Mareschal of France, with the castellan of Arras, and all the French; many of them however, and especially almost all the foot-soldiers, were slain before they got to Louis; for the inhabitants of the towns through which they passed in their flight, went to meet them with swords and bludgeons, and, laying snares for them, killed numbers. About two hundred knights reached London and went before to Louis to tell him of their sad losses; he however sneeringly told them that it was owing to their flight that their companions had been made prisoners, because if they had remained to fight, they would perhaps have saved themselves as well as their companions from capture and death.  It must be believed that this defeat happened to Louis and the barons of England by a just dispensation of God, for as they had now continued nearly two years under sentence of excommunication, unless they were corrected by divine punishment, men would say, “There is no God,” and so there would be none who acted rightly, no, not one.

This translation is from Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History, translated by J.A. Giles (London, 1849).
The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover » De Re Militari

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Edward III and the Battle of Crécy

Richard Barber examines recently unearthed sources to construct a convincing scenario of Edward III’s inspired victory over the French in 1346.

Edward III and the Battle of Crécy | History TodayThe Battle of Crécy in an illumination from 'Les Chroniques de France', c.1350The Battle of Crécy in an illumination from 'Les Chroniques de France', c.1350The Genoese crossbowmen halted at the foot of the slope. It had been a long hot day, marching to encounter the English army, which at last was in sight. Giovanni could see a group of men on the hill and to his surprise they were all dismounted. He had expected a mounted army, small perhaps, but very like the French troops coming up behind him, with their splendid steeds and banners. Instead there were rows of men, whose armour did not show whether they were knights or not and whose shields he could not make out at a distance. On either side of the group there were carts, as so often on a battlefield, and he assumed these were simply parked as a rough barrier to prevent an attack from the flank. An easy job, he thought, and it should soon be over, with some booty to take home, particularly as the English had been in the field for weeks and were said to be short of supplies.

The order was given to move forward. The ground was wet from a recent shower and men slipped and stumbled on the chalk, but they went on confidently, knowing that their weapons were the most powerful on the battlefield. Knights feared and disliked the crossbow, but could not do without them: they could break up a defensive formation with their deadly fire, leaving the enemy at the mercy of a cavalry charge.

As the crossbowmen closed on the English, they halted to draw their weapons: with the point of the bow on the ground they put their foot in a kind of stirrup to steady it as they wound the string back to give a massive tension before loading the bolt. But the slipperiness of the ground betrayed them and it was some minutes before they could resume their march. To reload again was going to be very difficult, thought Giovanni.

They were a hundred yards or more short of the range at which they could attack the enemy. They could now see that the carts were not simply on the flanks, but formed a great horseshoe round the whole army, with two wings that came out so that the attackers would be funnelled into a narrow opening. The nearest carts were covered, which surprised Giovanni, but as he puzzled over this the covers were thrown back. Archers using bows of a kind he had never seen before, like large hunting bows, stood up on the carts and began to fire. A hail of arrows, deadly at a much longer range than that of the crossbows, began to fall. The crossbowmen fired back, only to see their bolts fall short. They reloaded, slipping on the chalk again, but the English arrows were finding their mark and the archers could keep up an almost continuous attack. Giovanni turned and fled, only to find that the French behind him, furious at the failure of the Genoese, were shouting ‘Traitors!’ and trying to force them to retreat. Somehow he escaped and when he turned to look back he saw the French cavalry mown down in the trap that the English had set, their horses terrified by strange explosions, which he had never  heard before. Later he learnt that these were from the first guns to be used on a battlefield in Europe.

Eyewitness accounts

This account may read like fiction, but it is based on an extraordinary discovery: a long description of the 1346 Battle of Crécy, written in Rome within ten years of the event, which appears to draw on the experiences of one of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy and also on a report on the battle given by a knight in the retinue of King John of Bohemia. Italian merchants maintained a network of correspondents throughout Europe and an eyewitness report of the battle would have been important political news for their business. This was probably the route by which the crossbowman’s experiences found their way back to Italy and they were used by the anonymous author of the chronicle. Even more surprisingly, this account was ignored by historians until five years ago.

Edward III’s victory over the formidable French army at Crécy in 1346 shocked Europe. The French had suffered serious defeats before, as in the Battle of the Golden Spurs against the Flemish at Courtrai in July 1302, and had in turn inflicted a similar defeat on the Flemish at Cassel in 1328. These were both battles of cavalry against infantry, with a mounted army of French knights attacking the pikemen of the Flemish towns, and the tactics were relatively orthodox. Crécy was a contest between two armies, which, on the face of it, were of similar composition: knights supported by infantry. The English had no particular reputation as formidable fighters: their victory over the Scots at Halidon Hill in 1333 was seen as a minor affair and scarcely reported outside the British Isles. The size of the armies was very uneven, with the English severely outnumbered. The English archers had never been involved in a major battle on the Continent before and the slaughter they inflicted on the French nobles was a major sensation.

Yet there is more to Crécy than the use of a new secret weapon. The tactics on the battlefield, particularly the disposition of the archers, have been the subject of endless debate. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976), the classic modern account of the difficulty of determining what happens in the course of a battle, is echoed in the chronicle of Gilles le Muisit, abbot of St Martin at Tournai, writing about the battle five years after the event:

The events of war are uncertain: the conflict is between deadly enemies, with each fighting man intent on conquering rather than being conquered. No one can take account of all those fighting around him, nor can those present form a good judgement of these matters. Only the result of their deeds can be judged. Many men say and record many things about this conflict. On the side of the French king and his men some maintain things that cannot be known for certain. Others, on the part of the English king, also maintain things about which the truth is not known. Because of these disparate opinions I will not enquire after the event about what cannot be proved. Instead I have tried to satisfy the understanding of those who come after me by setting down only those things which I have heard from certain people worthy of belief, even if I cannot be totally sure that they are what happened.

What really happened?

If we are to discover ‘what really happened’ we have to look first at who might have been able to observe the events in more general terms and also at whether there were fixed details, such as the position taken up by the English, which can be found in the comments of a number of witnesses. In terms of the action we can say no more than that the French onslaught seems to have been disordered and impetuous and, therefore, no French witness is likely to have been able to form ‘a good judgment’ of what took place. On the English side, Edward and his commanders would have known exactly how they had drawn up their troops: but the king’s report home about the battle tells us almost nothing, except that there was ‘a small area’ where most of the slaughter took place. The only other people who would have seen the English array clearly and at relatively close range were the Genoese crossbowmen, who advanced confidently, certain that their deadly weapons would rapidly dispatch the dismounted English knights and their infantry.

The anonymous Roman chronicle, where the new account is to be found, is famous for its dramatic account of the republican politics of Rome in the 1350s; the information on Crécy was not of great interest to the Italian historians, who originally edited it. It is a difficult text to analyse. Written by a well-educated author, it is in a broad Roman dialect, but has many aspects of popular oral literature, particularly the repetition of key phrases in the manner of a ballad singer. The content, however, is another matter. The striking aspect of this account is that it is in parts very detailed in a way that would be difficult to invent. To take a single instance: the attack by the crossbowmen failed and another Italian chronicler attributes this to the crossbow strings being wet. He is right about the battle being fought in showery weather, but the Roman chronicle tells us that the rain had made the ground so slippery that the crossbowmen could not draw their bows, because, when they put their foot in the stirrup that had to be planted firmly on the ground so that the string could be wound upwards and tensioned, it was impossible to hold the bow still.

The land at Crécy is chalk, with a thin covering of topsoil and, like all chalk hills, is ‘slick as silk’ after rain. Other aspects of the Roman account are wildly off the mark, but these concern matters which a member of the army would only have known by hearsay. I believe this is one of those moments when, for once, we can actually ‘see’ the reality of medieval battle: a man at arms struggling with his weapon in adverse conditions.

If this is the case, then we need to pay close attention to what the chronicle has to tell us. Until now the battle has largely been described in terms of a chivalric encounter, Edward’s advantage being his use of the archers who had proved so effective in the Scottish wars ten years earlier. The disposition of the archers has been the subject of endless debate and it is only by looking carefully at what the sources say that we can discover the surprising truth. Edward fought the battle from within a fortified laager of carts, a fact that is confirmed by many of the other chroniclers but which has been ignored until now because it did not correspond with the accepted image of chivalric warfare. Indeed, the cart was a notoriously shameful object in chivalric literature: knights were taken in carts to meet their end if they had been condemned to death; Lancelot was held to have been shamed by stepping into a cart in order to rescue Guinevere when his horse had been killed; and Philip VI of France shamed the earls of Salisbury and Suffolk by taking them in a cart to Paris when they were captured near Lille in 1340.

The anonymous Roman chronicler tells us that Edward watched them and knew for certain that he could not escape giving battle:

Considering the number of the French it is not surprising that he was a little afraid. He was doubtful and said aloud: ‘God help me!’ Then, quickly, he surrounded his host with strong iron chains and a number of iron stakes stuck in the ground. This surround was made in the shape of a horseshoe, closed all round except for a larger space behind, like a gateway for the entrance and exit. Then he had deep ditches dug where there were weak points. All the English were set to work. Then this chain was surrounded by carts which they had brought with them. They put one cart beside the next with the shafts up in the air. It looked very like a walled city, with the carts stood in a row. 
Then the king arranged his troops. On the left flank, on the side towards Crécy, there was a little hill. On this was a piece of woodland. The corn was also standing, which had not been harvested. It was September and because it had been very cold, the corn had only just ripened. In the wood and in the cornfield he arranged 10,000 English archers in hiding. Then he placed a barrel of arrows in each cart. He allocated two archers to each barrel. He selected 500 well-equipped horsemen, whose captain was Edward, Prince of Wales, his son. This was the first battalion. Behind them he placed two wings each of 500 knights, one on the right and one on the left. A further 1,000 knights were placed behind them, who were the third battalion. He placed himself at the rear with all the other knights, behind the host and behind the chains. When he had done this he comforted his men and commended himself to God and said: ‘Oh God, defend and help the righteous cause!’ Thus he set out his army, which made a fine array. It was Saturday, September 3rd.

The most reliable account of the tactics of the English battle formation is probably that of Giovanni Villani, the great Florentine chronicler, who undoubtedly used contemporary letters of bankers from Florence as his source. According to him the English defences were centred on a formation of carts and what follows is a reconstruction based on his description.

Reconstructing the battle

First, in the open chalk country of Crécy such an artificial defensive structure would be valuable. The only natural defences mentioned by the chroniclers are a wood on the left flank and hedges. The northern French countryside was different from the terrain of battles such as Halidon Hill, Morlaix (1342) and Poitiers, where formations were determined by the substantial presence of woods and hedges. The contours of the landscape do present some features which were potentially useful. It is reasonably probable that Edward’s position was above the modern village of Crécy, on the ridge which overlooks the valley of the River Maye; and he may well have placed his men so that the one obstacle on this hillside, the steep 16ft-high bank of the Vallée des Clercs, forced the French to attack from a particular direction. No attacking army could cross this obstacle at speed.

In such circumstances Villani’s declaration that ‘they enclosed the army with carts, of which they had plenty, both of their own and from the country’ and his description of the creation of an artificial fortress of carts rings true. The formation would probably have faced more or less due south, at the head of one of the valleys that run up to the ridge from the river. The carts were probably drawn up in a roughly circular formation and may have been two or more deep, chained wheel to wheel judging from the evidence from the battle of Mons-en-Pévèle in 1304 and from the Hussite Wars fought in Bohemia in the 15th century.

Use of carts to provide a fortified encampment to protect the baggage is widely attested in the 13th and 14th centuries and Philip Preston has suggested that the practice of surrounding the army with carts might also have been used when encamping for the night. Certainly there were men with the army who were practised in manoeuvring the four-wheeled carts into an array of some kind and Edward had arrived at the battlefield two days before. He had more than enough time to ride over the ground, select a suitable position and organise the arrangement of the carts. Furthermore, the evidence points to the availability of enough carts to create such a circle. The anonymous Roman chronicler’s assertion that Edward brought 3,000 carts with him on the expedition is definitely too high. As a working figure let us take a recent estimate of a ratio of carts to men of 1:20, giving 700 carts for an army of 14,000 men.

The probable length of each cart when drawn up in formation would be not less than six feet. They were positioned lengthways around the perimeter, with the shafts raised to close the gaps that would otherwise be left between the carts. If the carts were arranged in a double row, this would give a ring 700 yards in circumference, to which we have to add the gap of 100 yards at the entrance. This gives an enclosed area of about 20,000 square yards. The historian Andrew Ayton estimates the total army at around 2,800 men-at-arms, 3,000 mounted archers and 8,000 infantry – about 14,000 men in all. The archers were deployed on the carts, or outside on the wings. Also within the ring were the horses for the men at arms, giving a total of about 11,000 men and 3,000 horses. The only available calculation for the space occupied by a medieval army drawn up in battle formation is for the Swiss army at the battle of Morat in 1476, where 10,000 men are thought to have occupied an area of 3,600 square yards. If we allow an increased space of half a square yard for each man and an estimated two square yards for each horse, this gives a total of 11,500 square yards, leaving adequate room for formation and manoeuvre. These are of necessity theoretical calculations, but they indicate that there is nothing impossible about the idea of the cart fortification with the bulk of the English army inside it. The entrance of 100 yards or less, while open enough to invite the enemy to attempt an attack, would be a death trap, given the covering fire from the archers on the carts. The carts were probably not in an exact square, but in a diamond or circle to provide a better forward line of fire for the archers. The diagram below is a suggestion as to how this might have worked. 

Villani makes it clear that there was a substantial opening in the array, sufficient to allow the passage of numbers of men at arms; equally, this opening created ‘a narrow place’. This imitated artificially a feature found at Halidon Hill, and to a lesser extent at Morlaix and Poitiers, a valley which acted as a narrowing funnel, compressing the attacking force into a front which meant that they could not maintain their formation. Nor were superior numbers a striking advantage under such conditions, as only a relatively small number of men would be engaged at any one time.

Edward added the archers to this defensive formation, which restricted the area of action of his most effective long-range weapon. According to the evidence of Villani and the anonymous Roman chronicler, which is supported in general terms by other chronicles, there were two wings of archers outside the circle. These were concealed, one in an unidentified wood and the other in tall standing corn. The distance between these wings, according to the longbow expert Robert Hardy, should have been no greater than 500 yards to give proper covering fire and the suggested size of the array of carts fits well with this calculation. Furthermore, Edward placed archers on the carts. Villani’s evidence on this is detailed and controversial. It would seem that they were concealed and protected by the canvas of the carts, which would have been supported on wooden hoops (as in an illustration from the Luttrell Psalter of an admittedly luxurious royal travelling wagon). These carts were perhaps placed at an angle to the entrance to the array of carts, so that the crossfire would cover the gap to deadly effect; their supplies of arrows were in barrels on the carts, within easy reach. Furthermore – and this is a speculation – if the front row of carts were empty it would be extremely difficult to reach the archers with a lance if a knight did penetrate to the carts themselves. Men on foot would have to clamber up the wheels to get at them. Later Bohemian battle wagons carried ladders for the occupants to get up and down.

The guns were, according to Villani, positioned beneath the carts. They would have been relatively small, probably the mobile cannons called ‘ribalds’, and such a placing would be perfectly possible. They would probably have been better at causing panic among the horses than actually inflicting serious injury, except at a relatively short range. About a hundred were shipped with the expedition, but Edward did not necessarily deploy them all.

Once the archers were in position, and the men at arms drawn up in battle order within the array, the archers would conceal themselves. From the foot of the hill the approaching French would have seen a small army standing in an array of carts, which looked like the traditional method of guarding the rear of a defensive position. The carts would have served to conceal the true numbers within the ring and would have made the English army seem a tempting target.

As soon as the first French forces came within range the archers on the wings would have stood up and begun their deadly volleys. This was what the Genoese crossbowmen encountered. A commander with some control over his troops would have halted the attack to consider how to deal with the archers. Instead, the uncontrolled French cavalry rode over the crossbowmen, wasting their energy on attacking their own men, and into the second trap, the archers concealed at the entrance under the canvas of the carts.

Even so, the sheer mass of the French cavalry enabled them to force their way into the ‘narrow place’, where the Prince of Wales’ men awaited them. It was in this ‘small area’ that, according to Edward himself, the real slaughter took place. The defensive array and the ambush had done their work and the superior numbers of the French army were no longer an advantage. The battle was not won, however. In the struggle that ensued, the discipline and battle experience of the English were the decisive factors. It is possible that the manoeuvre used at Poitiers ten years later, an encircling movement from the rear of the English army to attack the enemy from an unexpected quarter, may have been employed. There would have been time to disengage a couple of dozen carts once it was clear that the main action was at the front of the array, so the existence of the circle would not have prevented such a manoeuvre.

Edward’s majesty

If we are to accept this reconstruction as a possibility, it would mean that the emphasis of Edward’s military thinking went beyond the creation of an army which was well organised and formed of men who had fought together. It extended to the deployment of the latest technology and a genuine understanding of tactics and of the need for a specific type of site in order to make the most effective use of his archers. When he could not find the terrain that he needed, Edward was prepared to create, by artificial means, the necessary obstacles and constraints that would hinder the enemy.

Recent biographies have rescued Edward III from the image of a classic chivalric monarch and from the neglect of his long rule by historians more interested in the political dramas of the reigns of his father and grandson. It seems dangerous to add yet more reasons to regard Edward III as the greatest of all English medieval monarchs, but the picture that this interpretation paints shows him as an innovator and a tactician who responded to a dangerous situation with inspired thinking.