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Historical Note

Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King Edward III, is best known as the Black Prince, though that name was not coined until long after his death. No one is quite sure why he was to be called the Black Prince, but even in France he was remembered as le Prince Noir, and I have come across references as late as the nineteenth century to French mothers threatening their disobedient children with a ghostly visit from this long-dead enemy. Some say the name arose from the colour of his armour, but there is little evidence to support that explanation, nor does it seem to be a reference to his character, which, so far as we can tell from the little information that remains, was anything but dark. He was generous, probably headstrong, probably romantic (he made an impractical marriage to the beautiful Joan, Maid of Kent), loyal to his father, but otherwise little is known of his personality. He is most famous as a soldier, though much of his life was spent in inefficient administration of his father’s French possessions. He fought at Crécy, and shortly before his death won a victory at Najera in Spain, but Poitiers is his most significant military achievement, and, despite his fame, the battle has receded from common memory while his father’s great victory at Crécy, and Henry V’s triumph at Agincourt remain celebrated. Yet Poitiers deserves a place among England’s most significant military achievements. It was an extraordinary battle. The prince was outnumbered, his army was thirsty, hungry, and travel-worn, yet it fought, by medieval standards, a very long battle and ended 375

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it as outright victors and with the King of France as their prisoner. King Jean II was taken back to London where he joined another royal prisoner, King David II of Scotland, who had been captured after the battle of Neville’s Cross ten years before (described in Thomas of Hookton’s adventure Vagabond). The battle of Poitiers was the culmination of the prince’s second great chevauchée through France. The first, in 1355, had struck south-east from Gascony and laid waste a great swathe of country, stopping just short of Montpellier, but ravaging, among many other towns and cities, the bourg of Carcassonne. A chevauchée was a destructive raid, designed to inflict severe economic damage on the enemy who, to end the losses, would need to fight a battle. If the enemy refused battle, as the French did in 1355, the ­chevauchée resulted in a shameful loss of face for the French and huge profit for the English. If they accepted battle, as King Jean chose in 1356, they risked defeat. Or perhaps they would achieve revenge and victory. There are many riddles around the battle of Poitiers. One of the most puzzling is whether the prince really wanted to fight on that September morning. The previous day, a Sunday, had been spent in tortuous negotiations with the cardinals (Bessières is fictional, but Talleyrand was the principal negotiator). There is evidence that the prince was ready to accept the humiliating terms the church offered, but some historians believe he was merely playing for time. What does seem certain is that the battle began early on the Monday morning when the French perceived the English left wing retreating, and they feared that the prince planned to slip away across the Miosson and so escape them. That would have been an extraordinarily risky manoeuvre, to pass an army over a river while a dwindling rearguard defended against an enemy intent on stopping the retreat, but undoubtedly the Earl of Warwick’s battle was intending to cross the Miosson. My own suspicion is that the prince hoped to evade the French and continue his retreat to Gascony, but was prepared to change that plan if the French attacked. If the prince was in two minds, the same could be said of King Jean. He was no great warrior and he undoubtedly feared the 376

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power of the English archers. On the other hand he had the advantage of numbers and must have known his enemy was weakened by hunger. Some of his advisers suggested caution, others urged him to battle. He chose battle. It is possible that neither side was wholly committed to fighting that day, yet the hotheads on the French side prevailed and King Jean decided to attack. The prince, I am sure, would have preferred to retreat. Yet one of the aims of a chevauchée was to bring the enemy to battle, so why not fight at Poitiers? There were excellent reasons to avoid a fight; not only was the prince outnumbered, but his army was tired, hungry and thirsty. The river might have been nearby, but the difficulties of carrying enough water up the hill were such that many horses were given wine to slake their thirst. The outlook must have seemed bleak to the English, and their best hope was either to escape southwards and outmarch the French or else hope to recover their strength and discover a place where the terrain was more helpful to a defensive battle. Yet, in truth, the position the English and their Gascon allies occupied was strong, but now there are more puzzles. We know where the battle was fought, but the exact placement is frustratingly uncertain. The chroniclers mention the hedge, which was evidently a formidable obstacle, but the hedge has long vanished and no one can tell precisely where it was. There are two fords across the Miosson (the novel only mentions one), and it is not certain which was the scene of the opening fight. Most historians agree that it was le Gue de l’Homme, the ford closest to the village and abbey at Nouaillé. We do know that the Captal de Buch led the cavalry attack of about one hundred and sixty men, of whom one hundred were mounted archers, which provoked the French panic and disintegration, but we cannot be sure of where that attack took place. It probably curved round the north of the French, though some people suggest it went around the south (I have preferred the northern route). We know roughly where the prince’s army was drawn up. West of the village, now known as Nouaillé-Maupertuis, there is a bridge where once there was a ford, le Gue de l’Homme, and a minor road runs north from that bridge, passing the battlefield 377

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memorial as it climbs to the long ridge, and that road, once it gains the height, marks the Prince’s position. But from which direction did the French attack? There is disagreement. Some historians would have the attack coming from the north, while others prefer an attack from the west. Usually a visit to a battlefield will suggest answers, but I confess I found the topography confusing. I have preferred an attack from the west, simply because that approach looked easier to me, but there is no certainty. The French approach to the battlefield was from the north and, considering the difficulties of manoeuvring large bodies of men, an attack from the north makes sense (because that would have involved less manoeuvring), but the French were trying to stop the English crossing the Miosson so they could well have marched parallel to the prince’s position before turning to attack, a solution I have preferred. Any reader wanting a full discussion of the difficulties in placing the battle in the landscape should read Peter Hoskins’s excellent book In the Steps of the Black Prince (The Boydell Press, 2011). If the exact placement of the battle is problematic, at least we do know the course of the fight. It began with the cavalry attacks on the two wings of the English army, attacks that were repulsed by archery. The attack on the ford was made through marshland and, at the opening of that fight, the archers’ arrows were making small impression on the heavily armoured French horses, but a quick move to the flank remedied that problem. Geoffrey le Baker, one of the battle’s chroniclers, recounts that the arrows either broke when they hit the armour of the horses and riders, or else ricocheted skywards. It’s a tantalising passage. Did he mean that the arrow-heads broke from the shafts? Or that the heads themselves broke? It was probably both, for certainly the arrow-heads were not made of good steel. Some were, most were probably not. But quick thinking saved the day. By moving to the flank the archers were able to aim at the unarmoured hindquarters of the horses. William, Lord of Douglas, who had taken two hundred Scottish men-at-arms to aid the French, was badly wounded in that fight (though some believe he survived to be wounded in the dauphin’s attack, while one chronicler just contends that he fled rather than be captured 378

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when the fight was ending). Meanwhile the dauphin, the clever but ungainly Charles, led the first attack on the main English line, an attack that had to deal with the frustrating hedge. The fight was long and hard, but Anglo-Gascon discipline prevailed, the line was not broken, and after some two hours the dauphin’s men retreated. It should now have been the turn of the king’s brother, the Duke of Orléans, to lead his battle against the battered English line, but the Duke chose to leave the battlefield. Why? We do not know. It seems King Jean ordered his heir to leave. The dauphin Charles had done his duty and the king presumably did not want to put him at further risk, and it seems he instructed the dauphin to withdraw and the uke chose to withdraw with him. So now twothirds of the French army had gone, and the king was left to attack with his own battle. That was when the captal led the impudent charge, the French ranks were shattered and the real slaughter began. It took place, we are told, on le Champ d’Alexandre, but where exactly is that? Some claim it is a stretch of wetland beside the Miosson, but it seems improbable to me that the French would flee southwards and my exploration of the battlefield convinced me that le Champ d’Alexandre was the plateau of the flat-topped hill west of the English position. But wherever it was the Field of Alexander proved a death-trap to the French, and it was there that the king and his youngest son were captured. Men squabbled over who had taken Jean le Bon prisoner, but the Earl of Warwick and Sir Reginald Cobham took charge of the king and of his son and escorted them back to Prince Edward who treated the royal captives with elaborate courtesy. The main battle was fought on foot. The Lord of Douglas advised this, knowing that archers were much less effective against foot soldiers than against horses, which makes it ironical that Douglas was probably wounded while on horseback. The archers at Poitiers were decisive in the defeat of the two French cavalry charges, but made little impression on the main battles who attacked on foot. The arrows were certainly a huge nuisance to the French. The arrow storm forced them to advance with their visors down, and each arrow blow, even if it did not pierce armour, was like 379

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being hit with a hammer, but the evidence suggests that the plate armour of the French was sufficient protection. The same thing was to happen at Agincourt. The French attacks there were inundated with arrows, yet still the men-at-arms reached Henry V’s line to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. And, of course, archers were formidable opponents in such fighting. The huge bodily strength needed to draw a longbow made them lethal when they wielded a pole-axe or any other hand weapon. The English prevailed at Poitiers. There were two main reasons. First, the Anglo-Gascon command was efficient. The army had mostly been together for more than two years, their commanders were experienced, and though there was undoubtedly some rivalry, those commanders cooperated and, above all, trusted each other. The Earl of Warwick began the day expecting to lead his battle in retreat, but changed his tactics when events dictated a change, and did it quickly and effectively. The young Earl of Salisbury commanded the defence of the English right with admirable stubbornness and a personal display of bravery. The final cavalry charge, ordered by the prince, was timed to perfection and was devastating. In contrast, the French command was clumsy in the extreme. King Jean fed his troops piecemeal into a battle from which many fled without orders, and there was bitter rivalry between some of his senior commanders. But the main reason for the Anglo-Gascon success was their discipline. They did not break the line. One man, Sir Humphrey Berkeley, did choose to leave the ranks and pursue the dauphin’s retreating men, presumably in hope of securing a rich prisoner, and was captured himself. His ransom was £2,000, a fortune, but he was the only captive taken by the French, while the English had a glut of high-ranking prisoners: the king himself, his son, the Archbishop of Sens, the Duke of Bourbon, Marshal Audrehem, the Counts of Vendôme, Dammartin, Tancarville, Joigny, Longueville, Eu, Ponthieu, Ventadour, and between two and three thousand French knights. Among the French dead were the Duke of Athènes, the Duke of Bourbon, Geoffrey de Charny (who carried the oriflamme), Constable Walter de Brienne, Marshal Clermont, 380

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the Bishop of Châlons, and some sixty or seventy other notables. Statistics for medieval battles are notoriously difficult, but it seems likely that the Anglo-Gascon army was about six thousand strong, of which one-third were archers, and that the French numbered about ten thousand. After the battle, heralds counted two and a half thousand French dead and a mere forty English or Gascons. The figure for the French appears credible, but are so few Anglo-Gascon casualties believable? There may have been some exaggeration by the winners, but the disparity also suggests that the greatest killing occurred after the French panicked. So long as men were in line, protected by their armour and supported by their neighbours, their chances of survival were high, but as soon as the line broke and men fled for their lives they became easy targets. There were certainly far too many bodies to be dealt with by the victors because, apart from those great nobles who could be identified, the rest were left on the field to rot, and stayed there till February when at last their remains were collected and buried. Between two and a half and three thousand Frenchmen were captured. The less important prisoners and those who were badly wounded were paroled, meaning they were allowed to go home on a promise not to fight against the English until their ransom was settled, but any man worth a large fortune was taken back to England and kept there till the ransom was paid. Warwick Castle, in its present form, was largely constructed on the ransoms of Frenchmen. Jonathan Sumption, in his indispensable book, Trial by Fire, reckons the total ransoms collected from Poitiers amounted to around £300,000. It is almost impossible to offer an equivalent value in today’s currencies, though one measure might be the price of ale, which today costs three thousand times what it did in the 1350s, so sufficient to say that many men became enormously wealthy. King Jean II’s ransom was set at six million gold écus, much of which was paid before his death in London in 1364. The name la Malice is an invention, and her connection with Saint Junien, whose body still lies behind the altar of the abbey church at Nouaillé-Maupertuis, is entirely fictional. All four gospels tell the story of Saint Peter drawing a sword in Gethsemane on the night 381

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of Christ’s arrest, then using the blade to slice off the ear of the high priest’s servant. The English have an old tradition that Joseph of Arimathea brought the sword to Britain and gave it to Saint George, but the Archdiocese of Pozna´n, in Poland, has a much better claim to the weapon, indeed the sword is one of their most precious possessions, and is on display in the Archdiocesan Museum. Is it the real thing? A sword in first century Palestine was most likely to have been a gladius, a Roman short sword, while the weapon in Poznan is a falchion, a broad-tipped long sword. Still, there it is, and folk can believe it to be the genuine article if they wish. I could not have written the novel without the help of several books, chief among them Jonathan Sumption’s Trial by Fire, which is the second volume of his history of the Hundred Years War. Peter Hoskins gallantly walked the complete length of both the Black Prince’s chevauchées, and his story of those campaigns is told in his book In the Steps of the Black Prince. The best biography of Edward of Woodstock is Richard Barber’s The Black Prince. By far the most authoritative account of the longbow and its effect is The Great Warbow by Matthew Strickland and Robert Hardy. Robert Hardy was generous in pointing me towards J. M. Tourneur-Aumont’s massive La Bataille de Poitiers, 1356. The most intimate picture of everyday life in fourteenth-century France is provided in Ann Wroe’s enchanting book A Fool and His Money. Other notable books are David Green’s The Battle of Poitiers, 1356, The Black Prince’s Expedition by H. J. Hewitt, The Reign of Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod, and Edward III by the same author. I owe thanks to all those historians. The Prince of Wales owed thanks to his men and offered it in annuities and outright gifts of money. Many of the archers received grants of timber or rights of pasturage. In France there was shock and outrage at the battle’s outcome, which was vented on the nobility. Poitiers was a disaster, propelling France into bankruptcy, chaos, and revolution. No wonder that Edward III, receiving the news of his son’s triumph, proclaimed ‘We rejoice in God’s bounty’. The war would continue, through Agincourt in 1415 and beyond, until eventually the French prevailed. But that is another story. 382

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1356 Extended Historical Note  

Read an extended historical note from Bernard Cornwell's 1356. Order 1356 now: