In the middle of the fourteenth century, England was able to look out across Europe and its military forces with a certain degree of smugness and superiority. A soldier of the yeoman class, the archer (armed with a longbow) had been put to the test in the field against Wales and Scotland under the command of Edward I and Edward II. The English had learnt many hard lessons which they were able to translate into successes, and twice the flower of French chivalry suffered grievously at their hands. The first time was the Battle of Crecy, the second the Battle of Poitiers.
Edward, the Black Prince and John of Gaunt laid ambitious plans for a renewed offensive against France in the campaigning season of 1355. But all went awry and Edward found himself with a force of only 4000 men (of whom 2000 were archers), facing the approach of 20,000 Frenchmen, led by the greatest soldiers France had to offer and King John (cousin of the Black Prince) himself. Edward sued for peace and to be allowed to withdraw, but this was denied by the French. King John saw the opportunity to inflict a crushing defeat on the English army, which for many years had terrorized his subjects. Having learnt from Crecy, the French knew it would be futile to attempt a cavalry charge of the English archers: for the days of mounted chivalry were drawing to a close. Instead, King John decided to assault on foot and with overwhelming numbers. To the Black Prince's credit, he did not rest on earlier victories either.
Knowing the power of his archers to inflict great damage on the enemy ranks, but that this damage alone would not be sufficient against 20,000 men, Edward trusted to counter-attack and mobility. Military leaders which defy contemporary convention and in doing so achieve great victory are the ones which invigorate and renew the art of war, and Edward was just such a leader. The French dismounted and plodded towards the English line through a narrow line of hedges, and predictably arrows rained down upon them. Edward then let loose a charge by the English spearmen and axemen who smashed into the disorderly enemy ranks, whilst heavy cavalry scythed into the French left flank. Disordered and broken by the heterogenous attacks, the French suffered another defeat on the scale of Crecy.
But this time the prize for the English was even higher: King John himself (who was captured by a Frenchman from Saint-Omar in the service of the English Crown, Sir Dennis Morbeke), his son Philip, and seventeen Earls. Jean Froissart, the main observer, remarked how cordially and correctly the English treated their captives. Prince Edward declared himself unfit to sit at the table as so great a Lord as the King of France, and served him with the best food he could find. Some nobles were released merely on the promise that a ransom would be delivered at a later date (and, such was the code of chivalry, it was). Despite the Black Prince's former atrocities, on this day at least he performed with genius and chivalric valour.
King John was taken to London and placed in the Tower of London, where he remained until the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360. His ransom was eventually fixed at £500,000 (eight times England's national revenue at the time) and he was returned to the French, but in his absence there was much infighting and disorder in France. Having suffered defeats on horseback and foot against English military might, they were thrown into a period of brooding. Although they despaired now and had been forced to make considerable concessions to the English in the Treaty, when hostilities resumed in 1370 there did seem to be some hope. It had certainly been proved that England could not afford to conquer France, although she would be a thorn in her side for some time to come yet.
Had it not been for the emergence of gunpowder, the ascendency of the archer could well have continued for many years, even centuries. As chivalry died the professional and well-trained archer could have taken the place of armed knights in the caste system as military technical proficiency was highly valued.