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The Battle of Poitiers, from a 15th-century French Manuscript

The Battle of Poitiers, 19 Sept 1356

THE BATTLE OF POITIERS (September 19, 1356).  In the early summer of 1356 the Black Prince took the field with a small army, not more than from eight to ten thousand men,1 the most part not English, and rode into the Rouergue, Auvergne, and the Limousin, meeting no resistance, sacking and taking all they found, and so upwards to the Loire.... The French King was lying before Breteuil, with a strong force, when news of the Prince's northward ride came to him. He hastily granted the garrison of the town easy terms, and they withdrew to Cherbourg; then he marched to Paris, and summoned all his nobles and fief-holders to a rendezvous on the borders of Blois and Touraine. He himself moved southwards as far as Chartres.

The Black Prince threatened Bourges and Issoudun, failing to take either city; then he marched to Vierzon, a large town of no strength, and took it; here he found, what he sorely needed, wine and food in plenty. While he lay here he heard that King John was at Chartres with all France at his back, and that the passages of the Loire were occupied. So he broke up, and turned his face towards Bordeaux, at once abandoning any plan he may have had of joining the Earl of Lancaster in Normandy. King John, hastening to overtake him, actually overshot the English army, and placed himself across the Prince's line of retreat. Thus he had the English utterly in his power: a little patience and prudence, and he might have avenged himself almost without loss on the invading army, by capturing both it and its brilliant captain. But, unfortunately for France, John 'the Good' was possessed with chivalrous ideas, which prompted him to do exactly the wrong thing.

The Black Prince, seeing his retreat cut off, stood at bay in a strong position at Maupertuis, near Poitiers. It was a rough hill-side, covered with vineyards; cut up by hedges, and also sprinkled with low scrub. Nothing could be better for defence: the chivalry of France, whose overwhelming weight would have been irresistible on the plain, were of no avail on such a hillside; and there was plenty of cover to delight sharp-shooters who knew their work. The only point of attack from the front was a narrow and hollow way, liable to a converging fire, which would grow more severe the farther the enemy penetrated; for the cheeks of the ravine commanded the whole of the roadway.

On the level ground atop lay the main English force: every available point was crowded with archers; the narrow way had high hedge-crowned banks. Underneath lay the 50,000 Frenchmen, 'the flower of their chivalry,' all feudal, no city-levies this time. The King was there, with his four sons, his brother, and a crowd of great princes and barons. Had they been content to wait, and watch vigilantly, the Black Prince would have been starved, and must have laid down his arms. This, however, was not their idea, nor the idea of that age. So they got them ready to assault the Prince's formidable position; to give themselves the utmost disadvantage arising from useless numbers; and to give him the means of taking the greatest possible advantage of his ground, where every man of his little force was available.

Before the assault took place the Papal Legate interposed, and obtained a truce for twenty-four hours. The Black Prince, knowing well his peril, was willing to treat on terms honourable to France: unconditional surrender was the only thing King John would listen to. This would have been as bad as a lost battle; what could they do but refuse? better die in arms than suffer imprisonment, starvation, and perhaps a shameful death. So they set themselves to use the remainder of the day's truce in strengthening their position; an ambuscade was quietly posted on the left flank of the one possible line of attack.

Next morning, the 19th of September, 1356, the French army was moved forwards: in the van came two marshals, Audenham and Clermont, with three hundred men-at-arms, on swift warhorses; behind them were the Germans of Saarbrück and Nassau; then the Duke of Orleans in command of the first line of battle; Charles, Duke of Normandy, the King's eldest son, was with the second; and lastly the King, surrounded by nineteen knights all wearing his dress, that he might be the safer in the fight:2 before him fluttered the Oriflamme.

The Oriflamme, in a 15th-century manuscript illumination of the Battle of Poitiers With heedless courage the vanguard dashed at the centre of the English position; for such were the King's orders. They rode full speed along the narrow roadway up the hill-side, between the thick hedges; but the hill was steep, and the archers flanking it shot fast and well. A few only struggled to the top; these were easily overthrown. The rest were rolled back in wild confusion on the Duke of Normandy's line, and broke their order; at this moment the English ambuscade fell on their left flank. Then, when the "Black Prince saw that the Duke's battle 'was shaking and beginning to open,' he bade his men mount quickly, and rode down into the midst, with loud cries of 'St. George' and 'Guienne.' Pushing on cheerily, he fell upon the Constable of France, the Duke of Athens; the English archers, keeping pace afoot with the horsemen, supported them, shooting so swiftly and well that the French and Germans were speedily put to flight.

Then Charles, the Dauphin, with his two brothers, put spurs to their horses, and fled headlong from the field; there followed them full eight hundred lances, the pride of the French army, who might well have upheld the fortune of the day. It was a pitiful beginning for the the young Prince, who would so soon be called to fill his father's place. The first and second lines of battle were thus utterly scattered, almost in a moment: some riding hither and thither off the field, in panic; others driven back under the walls of Poitiers, where the English garrison took great store of negotiable prisoners; for at that time prisoners meant ransom.

The Oriflamme, in a 15th-century manuscript illumination of the Battle of Poitiers The King, perhaps remembering the mishap of Crécy, now ordered all his line to dismount and fight afoot. And then for the first time a stand was made, and something worthy of the name of a battle began. The French were still largely superior in force: at the beginning they had been seven to one;3 and the advantage of the ground was no longer with the English. But the Prince of Wales pressed ever forwards, with Sir John Chandos at his side, who bore himself so loyally that he never thought that day of prisoners, but kept on saying to the Prince 'Sire, ride onwards; God is with you, the day is yours!' 'And the Prince, who aimed at all perfectness of honour, rode onwards, with his banner before him, succouring his people whenever he saw them scattering or unsteady, and proving himself a right good knight.4

Thus the English force fell, like an iron bar, on the soft mass of the French army, which had but little coherence, after the manner of a great feudal levy; and this swift onset, with the Prince riding manfully in the van, like the point of the bar, scattered them hither and thither, and decided the fortunes of the day. The Dukes of Bourbon and Athens perished, with many another of noble name; among them the Bishop of Chalons in Champagne: the French gave back, till they were stayed by the walls of Poitiers. King John was now in the very thick of it: and with his own hands did many feats of arms, defending himself manfully with a battle-axe.5 By his side was Philip, his youngest son, afterwards Duke of Burgundy, founder of the second line of that house, who here earned for himself the name of 'le Hardi,' the Bold: for though but a child, he stood gallantly by his father, warding off the blows that rained thickly on him.

Capture of King John the Good at Poitiers The rout was too complete to be stayed by their gallantry. The gates of Poitiers were firmly shut; there was a great slaughter under the walls. Round the King himself the fight was stubborn; many of his bodyguard were taken or slain. Geoffrey de Chargny, who bore the Oriflamme, went down: and the King was hemmed in, all men being eager to take so great a prize. Through the crowd came shouldering a man of huge stature, Denis of Mortbeque, a knight of St. Omer; when he got up to the King he prayed him in good French to surrender. The King then asked for 'his cousin, the Prince of Wales': and Denis promised that if he would yield he would see him safely to the Prince: the King agreed. Thus he was taken, and with him Philip his little son.

Then arose around him a great debate between English and Gascons, all claiming to have taken him: they tore him away from Denis, and for a moment he was in great peril. At last two barons, seeing the turmoil, rode up; and hearing that it was the French King, they spurred their horses, forcing their way into the angry croud, and rescued him from their clutches. Then he was treated with high respect, and led to the Prince of Wales, who bowed low to the ground before one who in the hierarchy of princes was his superior: he paid him all honour; sent for wine and spices, and served them to him with his own hands. And thus King John, who one day before had held the English, as he thought, securely in his grasp, now found himself, broken and wounded, a prisoner in their hands.

Battle of Poitiers with surrender of King John to the Black Prince

Thus went the great day of Maupertuis, or, as it is more commonly called by us, of Poitiers.

Great was the carnage among the French: they left eleven thousand on the field, of whom nearly two thousand five hundred6 were men of noble birth; while nearly a hundred barons, and full two thousand men-at-arms, to say nothing of lesser folk, were prisoners. They were so many that the victors scarcely knew what to do with them: they fixed their ransom as quickly as they could, and then let them go free on their word. The Prince with the huge booty gathered in his expedition, and with the richest prize of all, King John and his little son, at once fell back to Bordeaux. The French army melted away like snow in spring, such feudal nobles as had escaped wandering home crestfallen, the lawless and now lordless men-at-arms spreading over the land like a pestilence. A two-years' truce was struck between England and France; and Edward at once carried his captives over to London.

1 Froissart (Buchon), xxiime addition 3, p. 155: 'Avec deux mille hommes d'armes et six mille archers, parmi les brigands' (i.e. besides the light-armed mercenaries).

2 Froissart (Buchon), 3, c. 351, p. 186, 'armé lui vingtième de ses parements.'

3 Froissart (Buchon), 3, c. 360, p. 210, 'Les François étoient bien de gens d'armes sept contre un.'

4 Froissart (Buchon), 3, c. 361, p. 216.

5 Ibid. c. 364, p. 223.

6 In exact numbers, 2426. See the careful list given in Buchon's note to Froissart, 3, c. 364, p. 224.

      Excerpted from:

      Kitchin, G. W. A History of France, Vol 1, 3rd Ed, Rev.
      Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892. 437-444.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study: Allmand, Christopher. The Hundred Years War: England and France at War.
           Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Barker, Juliet. Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, 1417-1450.
           Harvard University Press, 2012.

Green, David. The Battle of Poitiers 1356.
           Osprey Publishing, 2004.

Hoskins, Peter. In the Steps of the Black Prince: The Road to Poitiers, 1355-1356.
           Boydell & Brewer, 2014.

Nicolle, David. Poitiers 1356: The Capture of a King.
           The History Press, 2009.

Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453.
           Penguin, 1999.

The Battle of Poitiers on the Web:

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