Battle of Poitiers 1356 – Hundred Years’ War I

19 September 1356

On the morning of the battle (19 September), the sun rose a little before six o’clock, the day promised to be warm and clear. Cardinal Talleyrand made a final fruitless visit to the English camp in the hope of preventing a confrontation. Once more, the prince appears to have been willing to seek a compromise but his terms were again rejected by King Jean. After Talleyrand departed and made for Poitiers it was clear that a battle could not be avoided.

The assault does not appear to have been launched immediately as there was time for a discussion in the French ranks concerning the best plan of attack. One reason for this may have been the growing strength of the Anglo-Gascon defensive position. According to the author of the Chronique des règnes de Jean II et Charles V this certainly proved the main reason for the eventual failure of the French assault.

There is some disagreement about whether the English forces were retreating before battle was joined. The delay caused by Talleyrand’s attempts to broker a truce offered the prince an opportunity to escape and he may have been trying to get away right up until the moment of the French attack. It certainly appears that following the decision of a council held the previous evening, the earl of Warwick led his unit and perhaps the entire baggage-train to a position near the marshes to the south of the Champ d’Alexandre and near the ford across the River Miosson. Warwick may have been leading a staged withdrawal. Later, the prince described his intentions:

Because we were short of supplies and for other reasons, it was agreed that we should retreat in a flanking movement, so that if they wanted to attack or to approach us in a position which was not in any way greatly to our disadvantage we would give battle.

This was written after the event and despite the outcome of the battle it does not indicate the prince was looking for a battle at that time, nor did he feel the need to hide the fact that retreat remained an option. It is unclear if the prince intended to withdraw as early as possible or only if the attack proved too strong. Alternatively, Warwick’s manoeuvre may have been a feint to provoke a French attack. If so, it succeeded.

According to what was now normal English practice, the prince had laid out his army in three ‘battles’ (divisions) and had taken what advantage he could of the terrain. The precise location of the battle of Poitiers is highly conjectural and as the terrain played an important part this is an extremely significant issue and one that cannot be completely resolved, especially given that the present wood, river and marshes have, no doubt, altered in the intervening years. It is clear that Jean caught the prince south of Poitiers on the banks of the River Miosson. Edward, it appears, drew his army to some broken ground uncharacteristic of the plains of the area. The three divisions were positioned behind natural obstacles, hedges, trees and marshy areas that allowed the French only two routes of attack. It seems likely that the English army was drawn up behind a no longer extant hawthorn hedge through which there were two substantial gaps (enough for four men to ride abreast, according to Froissart). In front of them a brief slope fell away and then the ground began to rise towards the French lines. This meant that the French could charge downhill much of the way to the English forces but the last few yards were uphill and well protected by the hedge and other defensive contrivances. Furthermore, the gaps in the hedge were protected by archers so that any French troops attempting to break through would have to run the gauntlet of a hail of arrows. In the first phase of the battle, the difficult terrain and the English longbowmen proved more than a match for the cavalry charges led against by the French marshals, Jean de Clermont and Arnoul d’Audrehem.

English battlefield tactics depended on discipline and order in the ranks, and the three Anglo-Gascon divisions were each led by a seasoned commander. The earls of Warwick and Oxford, the captal de Buch, the lord of Pommiers, and several other Gascon barons commanded the first ‘battle’, the vanguard (located, somewhat confusingly in the southernmost position). The prince took charge personally at the head of the second ‘battle’, and he surrounded himself with experienced soldiers such as John Chandos, James Audley, Reginald Cobham and Bartholomew Burghersh. The earls of Salisbury and Suffolk controlled the third division, the rear-guard, composed of one of the main archery units and which included a number of German mercenaries. This defended the largest of the gaps in the hedge.

The French army was drawn up in four divisions and situated some distance from the English, out of bow-shot, perhaps as much as 500–600 yards away. Part of the French vanguard commanded by the constable, Gautier de Brienne, the exiled duke of Athens, fought on foot, while the marshals, Audrehem and Clermont, led a shock cavalry force to test and distract the English archers. The other divisions were to fight on foot. Among the ranks of the vanguard were such soldiers as the lords of Aubigny and Ribemont, and a German contingent under the leadership of the counts of Sarrebruck, Nassau and Nidau. The duke of Orléans, the king’s brother, led another of the divisions, and the dauphin Charles, duke of Normandy, was in nominal command of another unit. As he was only a teenager, the king reinforced this ‘battle’ with experienced soldiers such as the duke of Bourbon, the lords of Saint-Venant and Landas, and Thomas de Voudenay; Tristan de Maignelay was the ducal standard-bearer. The king directed the last French division which included a number of his close relations, including his youngest son, Philippe, and the counts de Ponthieu, Eu, Longueville, Sancerre, and Dammartin. Geoffroi de Charny carried the royal banner, the Oriflamme. In an attempt to prevent a reoccurrence of Crécy and following the advice of the Scottish knight, Sir William Douglas, the bulk of the French army fought dismounted. Douglas brought 200 men-at-arms to serve King Jean.

Phase One

Douglas gave wise advice. Battle such as Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314) and Crécy (1346) showed that discipline, order and close communication were vital elements in launching an assault against an infantry army supported by archers in a well-defended position. In the event the initial French charge was presumptuous, premature and poorly co-ordinated. After the departure of the papal legate to the safety of Poitiers, the command of the French vanguard became divided between Audrehem and Clermont who are reported to have argued over the best course of action; one recommended patience, to which the other made accusations of cowardice. This dispute had been prompted by Warwick’s withdrawal, which may have been either a pretence to encourage the French to attack, or a real attempt to retreat. The French cavalry unit divided in two: Audrehem led his men to engage the prince’s forces at the bottom of the hill while Clermont, perhaps after a short delay, rode against the English at the western edge of the wood. Seeing the assault by the marshals, Warwick returned to the battlefield; he re-crossed the Miosson at the Gué de l’homme and engaged Audrehem’s forces, possibly with the support of a detachment of the earl of Oxford’s archers. The longbowmen were successful, mainly because they could shoot at the unprotected flanks and rumps of the horses. Thereafter Warwick re-ordered his archers alongside the prince’s division. In the meantime, or perhaps a little later, Clermont and the constable, Brienne, charged against the battle led by Salisbury located on the opposite wing at the north-western edge of Nouaillé wood. Salisbury’s archers fired on Clermont’s men as they approached and then the infantry moved to block their approach through one of the gaps in the hedge. The earl of Suffolk supported the defence with reinforcements and the French were driven back; both Clermont and Brienne were killed. On the other flank Audrehem was captured, and Douglas badly wounded. Although by no means apparent at this point, the failure of the French vanguard to break the ranks of the English archers proved decisive. Once again the combination of archers and infantry proved successful. Close-order discipline combined effectively with the ability to disrupt and kill at a distance. Geoffrey Le Baker emphasised the power of the longbow, noting that at relatively short distance, if the angle of impact was correct, the arrows punched through French armour.

Phase Two

After the failure of the initial assault, the dauphin’s division advanced to engage the dismounted Anglo-Gascons and managed to do so despite the onslaught of the English archers. The French forces in this ‘battle’ probably numbered about 4,000 and this crucial part of the engagement may have lasted as long as two hours. Not only did the dauphin’s troops have to contend with the English arrow-storm as they tried to break through the hedge, they were also impeded by the retreating French vanguard. Nonetheless, the dauphin and the duke of Bourbon – another casualty – led their troops to the English lines and a keenly fought struggle ensued. The French were only finally thrown back after both sides sustained heavy losses and the dauphin’s standard-bearer was taken captive. At this point the battle was once more thrown into the balance and it is possible that if King Jean had attacked at once with his remaining forces the outcome might have been different. Instead he decided on a more careful approach dismissing from the battlefield his three elder sons, including the dauphin. However, in addition to lessening the numbers at his disposal, this also weakened morale among many of the remaining French troops. It may have been the sight of the retreating soldiers that caused the division under the command of the young duke of Orléans to flee, in turn, towards Chauvigny, or it may be that Orléans was also commanded to leave the field. In any case, ‘from the moment this large body of troops turned away from the fight a French victory became almost impossible.’

The partial French withdrawal gave the English a moment’s respite to gather themselves, rearm with those few arrows they could collect, and attend to their casualties. At this point, some in the prince’s division apparently thought the entire French host was in the process of retreat and launched an attack in the hope of routing the enemy and taking prisoners. The earl of Warwick may have launched such a premature sortie, and Maurice Berkeley certainly left the English lines in pursuit of booty and glory. He gained neither and instead acquired the unfortunate distinction of being one of very few Englishman taken prisoner at Poitiers – he was captured by a Picard knight, Jean d’Ellenes.

Phase Three

The remaining French troops joined with the ‘battle’ commanded by King Jean and advanced slowly, giving the Anglo-Gascons more time to recover. This substantial force included a large number of crossbowmen who may have originally been part of the constable’s division. These indulged in a long-range missile exchange with the English archers which had little effect on either side. On this occasion, the archers did not make much impact on the main body of the French infantry when it came into range. This was due to a lack of arrows so the English longbowmen could not maintain the barrage, and also because the French approached under cover of an interlinked shield-wall. While effective, this tactic delayed the French advance allowing the English infantry to secure their positions. It is important to note that the majority of this part of the French army was still fresh and had not been involved in any fighting. By contrast the English had been engaged in the conflict, albeit with brief intermissions, for up to three hours. By this point, however, because of the French withdrawals, the English forces probably outnumbered the remainder of enemy.

In response to this slow advance, the Black Prince re-ordered his forces, drawing them together in a single division. He also took the tactical initiative: first, he had some of his men-at-arms remount their horses and prepare to charge the French lines. Second, he commanded the captal de Buch to lead a cavalry detachment in an encircling manoeuvre by which they would be concealed from the French behind a small hill. The longbowmen fired their remaining arrows, although with little effect it seems and then joined the infantry, fighting with daggers and swords. Finally, the prince remounted another contingent of men from his division which charged the French lines. This group may have included James Audley. Once the captal’s men, numbering some 60 men-at-arms and 100 mounted archers, were in position, they, the combined forces of the English division and the remaining cavalry attacked in concert. This final phase of the battle was again a close run affair, but the assault on two flanks ultimately proved successful. The English victory may also have been aided by the return of a number of troops, possibly led by the earl of Warwick who had detached in the pursuit of prisoners earlier in the engagement.

It is somewhat ironic that the terrible consequences of the defeat at Poitiers might have been lessened if the battle had not been so closely fought. If the outcome had been apparent much earlier in the day the French king and many of his high-ranking nobles who were killed or taken prisoner would have had time to retreat. One of the final indications of French defeat was the death of the standard-bearer, Geoffroi de Charny, ‘the most worthy and valiant of them all’ according to Froissart; he fell with the Oriflamme in his hand.5 King Jean himself, finally overwhelmed in the crush of men, was in considerable danger after he surrendered as many men fought over this most important of prisoners. Captured with the king was his son, Philippe. First, Denis de Morbeke, a knight of Artois, claimed the king as prisoner and Jean offered him one of his gauntlets to indicate his surrender. However, a number of others, mainly Gascons led by a squire called Bernard de Troys, then grabbed hold of the king. Fortunately Reginald Cobham and the earl of Warwick then arrived on horseback, forestalling further danger and indignity. They forced back the struggling crowd and guided the king and what remained of his entourage to safety.

With the king taken the battle was finished, and the chase for the remaining prisoners began. Some remnants of the French were routed into the marshes below the original English position, and others fled towards Poitiers, eight kilometres north-west of the battlefield. Englishmen and Gascons pursued them to the walls, which forced the townspeople to close the gates for the defence of the city. A terrible massacre followed outside Poitiers, and many Frenchmen readily surrendered in order to save their own lives.

The number of those Frenchmen captured and killed was very considerable – around 2,500 men-at-arms. By comparison only 40 Anglo-Gascon men-at-arms were recorded as slain, in addition to an undisclosed (and presumably much more sizeable) number of infantrymen and archers. Many more were wounded. One William Lenche lost an eye in the battle and the prince rewarded him with the rights to the ferry in Saltash in Cornwall. Sir James Audley was also gravely wounded, and in recognition of this and his great deeds of arms in the battle he received the most generous reward of all those who served the prince in the expeditions of 1355–6, an annuity of £400.

With considerations of strategy completed and the battle won, the prince invited all the captured nobles to dine with him. The prince himself served the king’s table, and all the other tables as well with every mark of humility, and refused to sit at the king’s table saying he was not yet worthy of such an honour, and that it would not be fitting for him to sit at the same table as so great a prince, and one who had shown himself so valiant that day. Such courteous behaviour set the seal on what became the Black Prince’s almost legendary reputation, but this was a courtesy and chivalry only appropriate after a battle; it was also courtesy due to those of noble and royal blood, and, of course, it was courtesy to a relative.

The victory at Poitiers and the capture of Jean immediately changed the diplomatic and political balance of Anglo-French relations, but to what extent and how far would be the subject of hard bargaining. Geoffrey Hamelyn, the prince’s attendant, was sent to London with Jean’s tunic and helmet as proof of his capture. The army returned to Bordeaux and negotiations began regarding a truce and the exact value of a king’s ransom.