The Battle of Poitiers

18 September 1356

          Jean II                                                                          Edward the Black Prince

(Links are to coins of the key participants)

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Poitiers was a victory of English strategic defense over French military ineptitude and of the commoner armed with a longbow over the French knight. It was a resounding defeat for the forces of chivalry. It was the second great victory for the English in the Hundred Year's War, the first being Crecy.

In 1356 Edward the Black Prince, son of Edward III was leading a chevachee through the area north of Bordeaux. This was an extended raid following a scorched earth policy, aimed at depriving the French king of the ability of his population to support him. It was aimed at attacking the king through his people, rather than directly.

Jean le Bon, a generally ineffective king known more his commitment to chivalry than his ability to govern and lead, gathered a force of about 16 - 20,000 and caught up with Edward at Poitiers. Edward was not keen on a battle, being seriously outnumbered and having all the plunder of his raid, which he wanted to get back to Bordeaux. He arrived at the abbey of Nouaille, pictured below, and the monks told him that the foret de Nouaille, pictured behind the abbey, was fairly impenetrable.

Edward took a defensive position that allowed his forces their best chance. Edward aligned himself on the other side of the forest since it offered him a strong defensive position, with his back protected. His primary advantage was the presence of soldiers armed with longbows. These were not particularly familiar to the French and had a much higher rate of fire than the French crossbow. Edward also had good military advice in the person of John Chandos, and capable leadership by the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick.*

Exactly what the troop alignment was is uncertain. I have four versions of this, generally split two and two. Burne and Seward take one tack, pictured below, while a battlefiled memorial/historical marker and Green take another alignment. My sense, given the geography and discussion of the battle, is that the latter are on target.

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Burne and Seward place the English aligned at the north edge of the woods of Nouaille, facing NW (if we assume the maps are generally N-S). Burne pictures the critical hedge in front of Warwick and Salisbury and some distance from the border of the forest. The two maps below are from the outdoor museum on the battlefield.
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The left map shows, in red, the English arrival at Nouaille and their Sunday alignment on the east side of the woods while the next map shows their positions Monday on the west side of the woods. The right map has the Champ Alexandre circled - this is where Jean le Bon was captured. Also a significant landmark is the small river Moisson which runs past the abbey at Nouaille. This is more evident on the left map.
The battlefield is harder to follow than either Crecy or Agincourt because there is so much development in the area. This picture is taken at the site of the battlefield monument (shown on the right map immediately above as the small rectangle between the two vertical blue lines) Looking down towards the Moisson you can see residences. The area along the English line is also completely built up, making it harder to get a sense of the terrain in 1356. I think that there has been a lot of new tree growth in the area as it has become residential.

 These next four maps are from Green. They show the most complete picture of the battle as it unfolded.

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The first map shows an alignment similar to that at the battlefield memorial, with the English positioned with their backs to the woods. There was a hedgerow in front of them, offering additional protection. The main French assaults were channeled through narrow gaps which played to the advantage of the English longbow men. The initial English position has Salisbury on the right of the English position, generally to the north, Warwick to the south and the Black Prince in the center. The French were in three main divisions, led respectively by the Dauphin, duke of Orleans and Jon le Bon. They were preceded by three smaller troops led by the marshals Audrehem, Clermont and Brienne. (The battle image is of Jean le Bon during the battle (Journal de la Bourgogne 108))

The second map shows the initial engagement. It appears that Warwick and the baggage train were attempting to withdraw. When the French became aware of this, the vanguard attacked. Audrehem took off after Warwick and shortly thereafter Clermont and Brienne attacked Salisbury's position. Warwick was forced to defend himself, with some addition archers, and was able to break up the French attack. Audrehem was captured on the banks of the Moisson. At the other end of the battlefield the English archers were successful in breaking up that element of the French attack, killing Clermont and Brienne.

This picture is taken at the bridge where Warwick was crossing with the baggage train when he turned to engage Audrehem and is close, as near as I can tell, to the spot where Audrehem was captured. The main part of the battlefield is over my right shoulder. The Moisson is a small river that one can jump over today. This was a nice picnic spot where we toasted English success, French chivalry and all the people who fought and died here.
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Next the Dauphin attacked Salisbury and pressed his advance in spite of heavy fire by the English archers and complications of running into the retreating vanguard of Clermont's force. Green suggest that the Dauphin had about 4000 troops with him in this phase of the attack. He advanced to the English lines but ultimately fell back. The French were unable to penetrate the protective hedge the English were using. This phase of the attack lasted about two hours and the positions are shown in the map above on the left.

At this point king Jon hesitated and sent his sons from the battlefield. His youngest son, Philip, stayed with him and fought at his side in the final phase of the attack. When the Dauphin and other sons withdrew, the duke of Orleans also withdrew. This had a demoralizing effect on the French. The king slowly advanced with his remaining forces. His troops were fresh whereas the English had been fighting for hours. The English were also running low on arrows. Edward gathered his forces into a single division and had mounted troops advance to face Jon. At the same time, the captal de Buch circled the king and the French were attacked on two sides at once. While the fight was close, the two sided attack was too much and ultimately French resistance crumbled. King Jon remained on the field, fighting with his son Philip (thereafter to be known as 'the Hardi') at his side. He was ultimately captured on the Champ Alexandre.



The Champ Alexandre is marked on one of the maps from the battlefield site. It is to the west of the woods of Nouaille and north of the Moisson. On that map there are a series of roads that lead to the vicinity. We headed north from the memorial and took a series of left turns and ended up going down a farmer's dirt track to where the road ended at this field, which we believe is the Champ Alexander. Talking about this location with a French medievalist, he also described the same set of turns and views and came to a similar conclusion about that this was the field of surrender.

Survivors fled the field after the king was captured. The rout encouraged the English to pursue the French to Poitiers itself, where a number who got too enthusiastic and too far in front of their own troops and were captured themselves.

Among those captured by the French was Signe's collateral ancestor Maurice de Berkeley, 4th Earl of Berkeley. "He was born about 1330 (aged eight at time of marriage). He was a commander in Gascony in 1355 and distinguished himself ..(at Poitiers).. where he was severely wounded and taken prisoner, ransomed for  L1000. ...(He)... died at Berkeley castle at age 37 on 3 June 1368 from wounds received earlier at Poitiers." (Fares .22)

Most of the captured knights were held for ransom, and King Jean spent several years in London as the French tried to raise his ransom. France was shaken by the defeat and entered a period of internal chaos before Charles V, Jean's son, emerged as the effective ruler.

*Thomas de Beauchamp, 3rd Earl of Warwick, is Signe's direct ancestor. From Burkes' Peerages (p.30), at Poitiers "he fought so long and so stoutly that his hand was galled with the exercise of his sword and pole-axe; he personally took William de Meulan, archbishop of Sens, prisoner, for whose ransom he obtained 8,000 marks."

Sir Richard Pembridge fought on the English side. He is buried in Hereford Cathedral.

Sources:

Burne, A.H., The Crecy War, Wordswoth, UK, 1999

Burke, Sir Bernard, Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited and Extinct Pearages of the British Empire, Harrison, London 1883.

Green, D., The Battle of Poitiers 1356, Tempus Publishing, Charleston, S.C., 2002

Farris, Plantagenet Ancestry of Seventeenth Century Colonists, 2nd ed., New England Historical Genealogical Society, Boston, 1999.

Desmond Seward, The Hundred Year's War, Atheum, N.Y., 1978
 (Map - p 89.)

Barbara Tuckman, A Distant Mirror.