657 Years Ago Today —- English Victory at the Battle of Poitiers,
The Battle of Poitiers was one of the three great English victories of the Hundred Years War against the French, including the Battle of Crecy (1346), and the Battle of Agincourt (1415).
By 1356 the English had ravaged much of the French countryside and controlled most of Northern France. Under the command of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, a portion of the English Army including 3,000 men at arms, 1,000 light infantry, a small force of cavalry, and 2,000 archers conducted a lighting raid into the heart of Central France. King John II of France was determined to stop them. Leaving behind 20,000 of his regular infantry, he composed a lighting swift force of 300 elite knights, 8,000 men at arms, and 3,000 infantry. He personally led the army along with his son Philip, the Dauphin (crown prince). Outnumbered and outgunned, Edward decided to hightail it back to English territory. However the French Army caught up with English raiding force Poitiers. Unable to run, Edward set up his army in the best defensive position he could, with a creek and forest protecting his flanks.
At the start of the battle Edward ordered the army’s baggage train to escape to the rear in order to avoid the combat. The French mistook this as a sign of retreat, ordering their 300 mounted knights to charge in order to mop up the fleeing English. They were dead wrong as the English men at arms and infantry formed a wedge formation, with pikes arrayed, as the small force of French knights slammed into an impenetrable English wall. Worse yet, as the French knights charged English longbowmen fired volley after volley of arrows. While the arrows could not adequately penetrate the plate armor of the French knights, they hit with such force that they could dismount and even incapacitate a fully armored knight. As the charge progressed, English longbowmen moved to the sides where a knight’s armor was weakest while also shooting horses in the flanks to stop the charge.
After the failed charge the French infantry was committed to the assault. This only made things worse as the woods and creek to the English flanks created a choke-point where the French Army funneled and crowded into a small kill zone. French soldiers and knights crowded into each other as English archers reigned volley after volley of arrows on the helpless French. To complete the battle, Edward held his cavalry and a force of infantry in reserve. This force took the French flanks, effectively surrounding the French Army. Outmaneuvered and surrounded, the French had no choice but to surrender to the much smaller English force.
The Battle of Poitiers would be a devastating defeat to the French, who lost 2,500 of their best infantry and 100 of their elite knights. Worse yet, King John II, the Dauphin, 35 high ranking nobles, and 200 elite knights were captured. The English essentially held the government of France and the elite of their army ransom.
Helpless in the hands of the English, King John II agreed to surrender large tracts of territory to the English, as well as a pay a sum of 4 million ecu (gold coins). The defeat also resulted in decades of political turmoil within France and the monarchy that would have severe economic and societal effects. The English would rule over Northern France until French revival under the command of Joan of Arc in 1429.