The battle of Crecy was the first major engagement of the Hundred Years War. It was fought on August 26, 1346, near the village of Crécy en Ponthieu in northern France. This was the battle that established the reputation of the son of king Edward III of England, Edward, the Black Prince of Wales.
The English army, under the Black Prince, numbered 3,900 knights, 11,000 archers (each carrying an English longbow and two sheaves of 24 arrows), and 5,000 assorted light troops. Edward arrayed his forces atop a low hill (which was slippery with mud due to an earlier rain), with the evening sun at their backs. He placed his archers in front, with his men-at-arms behind and his squadrons of knights - under the command of the earls of Northumberland and Arundel - at the ends of the line, ready to charge in if necessary. Interestingly enough, this is the same order of battle used by the Roman legions centuries before; it would serve Edward as well as it did the Romans.
The French forces, under the command of Philip VI, was composed of 12,000 knights, 6,000 Genoese mercenaries armed with crossbows, 20,000 militiamen and a number of additional footmen. These forces were augmented by a cavalry squadron under the command of John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, who was renowned for his chivalrous nature and love of battle; he was, however, quite blind by the date of the battle at Crecy. Philip was eager to engage the English, and ordered the Genoese crossbowmen to attack. They protested, saying that they were in poor order for battle after having marched some 6 leagues (18 miles) that day; nevertheless, Philip forced them to advance. They approached the hill, making a great hue and cry in an attempt to frighten the English; when Edward failed to turn tail and flee, they advanced into range and fired a volley from their crossbows. The English responded with a hail of arrows "so thick, that it seemed like snow," and the Genoese broke and retreated after taking many casualties.
The enraged Philip ordered his knights to charge and ride down the Genoese, which they did. In the meantime, the English continued raining arrows down on the press, continuing the slaughter of the Genoese and killing or wounding a great many knights. The bodies of men and horses began to pile up at the bottom of the hill. It was in this press that the Bohemian king met his end:
The valiant king of Bohemia called [John] of Luxembourg, son to the noble emperor Henry of Luxembourg, for all that he was nigh blind, when he understood the order of the battle, he said to them about him: ‘Where is the lord Charles my son?’ His men said: ‘Sir, we cannot tell; we think he be fighting.’ Then he said: ‘Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.’ They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire, and so they went on their enemies. The lord Charles of Bohemia his son, who wrote himself king of Almaine and bare the arms, he came in good order to the battle; but when he saw that the matter went awry on their party, he departed, I cannot tell you which way. The king his father was so far forward that he strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain, and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other.
- Jean Froissart (c.1337 - 1410), The Chronicles of Froissart
The earls of Alencon and Flanders subsequently charged their contingents up the hill. Each had difficulty with the muddy slope and became entangled in the bodies of the previous attackers; their troops did manage to reach the English line, but were unable to break the ranks of the English men-at-arms, and were eventually repulsed. All in all, the French made 16 distinct charges, losing somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 knights; English losses were negligible. Finally, around midnight, Philip realized that he was beaten, and withdrew to the fortress of Broye, and from there to Amiens. The English did not pursue.
An interesting legend attached to the battle relates to the use of ostrich feathers and the motto Ich Dien (I serve) on the Black Prince's coat of arms. It is said that the wounded king of Bohemia was brought to Edward III's tent, where he subsequently perished. The king is said to have proclaimed "the crown of chivalry has fallen to-day; never was any one equal to this King of Bohemia," to which the Black Prince replied "the king of chivalry has fallen, but he shall not die," and henceforth adopted John's arms as his own. It is more likely that Edward inherited the arms from his mother or simply adopted them as a battle trophy, but the king of Bohemia's reputation as the last great chivalric knight makes this an attractive legend.
In any case, the battle of Crecy demonstrated for the first time in continental warfare that the longbow was superior to the crossbow, both in terms of range and rate of fire. It also ensured that Edward would be free to march north to besiege and take Calais, which became a key base for English traders and further military enterprises in Europe.
Sources: Jean Froissart's The Chronicles of Froissart, Anthony Eade's "A Short History of the English Longbow," the Encarta entry on "The Battle of Crecy," and Bryn Mawr Classical Review newsgroup material by Paul Connors (for a thorough treatment of the Ich Dien legend.)