The Battle of Crécy and the Language of Froissart – Tactics and Etymology in Medieval Military History

Any true medieval warfare enthusiast undoubtedly knows of the battles of the Hundred Years War; Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt, and possibly the smaller or less celebrated engagements such as my personal favourite – Auberoche. The infamous exploits of the French, and the usually outnumbered English, have been well documented by historians over the years – but even today, the debates rage on.

Now, I am always rather keen for a good debate, especially when it comes to history. In addition, I am also an archery enthusiast, especially in regards to the longbow – yes, I have one, yes, I am that much of a nerd. My fondness for debating is such that, as a teacher, I make my own little peasants partake in the fun almost weekly. With this is mind, it should come as no surprise that looking into an aspect of history that involves longbows, a famous battle, and intense debate over a single word, would be like mining for gold for this historian.

So, on with the history…

In the Summer of 1346, near the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu in northern France, Edward III’s relatively small English force, comprising the now famous longbowmen, utterly decimated Philip VI’s much larger French force. The numbers of the opposing sides are almost impossible to specify, but the manner in which the Battle of Crècy was won, is for the most part agreed upon by historians. When writing about the battle, a contemporary chronicler, Jean Froissart, described the English formation as such ‘…mis leurs arciers a maniere d’une herce et les gens d’armes ou fons de leur bataille‘, which essentially tells us that the archers were in the manner of a herse with the men-at-arms behind. But what exactly is a herse? Despite the work of countless scholars and the writings of numerous chroniclers, one little word, one seemingly simple detail is met with discussion and debate to this day.

The literature concerning the Hundred Years War is extensive, however it often pertains to aspects of the history separate from specific tactical analysis, and especially the archers. The contemporary chroniclers were often focussed on a particular important individual and as a result, the more ‘common’ members of the army, such as the archers, were, individually speaking, seen as being of little significance. Notwithstanding this, the history of archery during the Hundred Years War has received ample recognition within a number of modern works, scholars of particular note include: Anne Curry, Clifford J. Rogers, Robert Neillands, Andrew Ayton, and Sir Phillip Preston – yes, there are many more. Despite all of this, there remains no fixed consensus on the structures and formations of the medieval English army.

Two particular chroniclers, Geoffrey le Baker and Jean Froissart, feature prominently in works discussing the military aspects of the Hundred Years War. Though Froissart has oft been commended for his ‘independent spirit’ and maintaining a lack of bias throughout his documenting of history, his writing features both continuity errors and highly complimentary language in regards to the English effort. Froissart produced a number of manuscripts on the Hundred Years War and across each, vital facts differ. In addition, while discussing the Battle of Crécy he professed, ‘the wonderful effect of our archery and arrows was such, that flying through the air as thick as snow…they did leave no disarmed place, of horse or man, unstricken and not wounded’. Although this quite clearly demonstrates Froissart’s bias, it was not apparent to the author himself; in his writing he notes, ‘let it not be said that I have corrupted this noble history…for I will say nothing but the truth…without favouring one side or the other’. Froissart is not alone in adding intense flamboyance to his writing. Geoffrey le Baker is also guilty of attaching emotion to his writing of history. In reference to le Baker documenting the concluding scenes of the Battle of Poitiers, Alfred H. Burne notes that ‘evidently feeling that something extra special is expected of him, [le Baker] bursts into a sort of poetic rhapsody’. Furthermore, when discussing the writing of Chandos Herald in his work Le Prince Noir, Burne again notes that poetic notions – in this case, rhyme – ‘should discountenance too literal meaning being attached to individual words’.

Here we find the fun…

Now, there are a multitude of interpretations for the herse of archers at Crécy, so, without going too crazy, I will briefly discuss a few of the more common theories.

The Harrow Theory

The first of the theories is entirely concerned with the translation of the French word herce. In this theory, the suggestion is that we take the translation to mean ‘harrow’, specifically the meaning concerning wedge-shaped farming tool. Essentially this puts the archers in triangular or wedge-shaped formations. These wedges, it is then reasoned, are placed at regular intervals throughout the line of men-at-arms. There are different versions of this, some featuring small numbers of wedges with large numbers of archers in each, or some conversely with large numbers of wedges featuring small numbers of archers in each. For the sake of this argument, they both come under the same theory, derived from the harrow translation, and equally, they are both wrong. Harrowing theories if you will…

If we look carefully at the quote from Froissart, when discussing the men-at-arms he specifically refers to them as at the back, or rear, of the battle – ou fons de leur bataille. Although the Harrow Theory provides a reasonable argument for one aspect of the translated passage, by totally ignoring this secondary factor, it simply cannot be accurate.

The Wing or Flank Theory

Arguably the most commonly accepted theory, for more than just the Battle of Crécy I should add, is the idea that the archers formed the ‘wings’ of the army (totally ignoring the pun with respect to flight here) and stood at each end of the line of dismounted men-at-arms. This is the view that is widely accepted not just among many historians, but is often seen in popular culture. Unless it’s really terrible movie and the archers at the puny little guys all the way at the back, but that is entirely separate debate – and very likely another blog post.

Without going into too much detail, although I would love it, this theory is generated partially from accounts of the French army at the time, partially from accounts of Henry V’s formations nearly 70 years later, and furthermore, partially from accounts of early modern formations concerning gunpowder weapons. Now yes, I know, what the hell do these have to do with the archers at Crécy? The simple answer, nothing. This is a theory that is really easy to accept if you don’t look too closely, or are entirely blind, but one that essentially ignores the contemporary literature. Yes, Froissart was prone to hyperbole, but he was renowned for his writing for some reason and is likely to have at least some idea what took part on the fateful Summer’s day. Not to mention, his version of events is somewhat backed up by other chroniclers.

The Fence or Hedgehog Theory

The final theory not only combines a large number of relevant factors, but it takes into consideration a wide variety of important details; you will likely work out, if you haven’t already, that this is the theory that I hold to be correct.

A common misconception about medieval archers is that the bow was their one and only weapon. This is very much not the case. They did not discharge all of their arrows and then simply sit down to enjoy the combat with a cup of tea. They were armed, understandably, with a number of weapons and as such, when they had emptied their arrow bags, or when the opposing army was within their ranks, they were still of great use in the fight. The secondary weapon of the archer was often a personal choice, and reflective of both their social standing and more importantly their coin purse. This personal weapon, if owned, was supplemented with a stake that was supplied to the archers. The addition of this vital piece of information allows us to reconsider the translation.

The interpretation and translation of the word herce as Froissart gave it, can possibly be understood as the Harrow Theory suggests. However, by tracing different origins of the word, through not hirpex but hèrisson, and hercia it can be understood as related to a hedgehog, or indeed a ‘bristly fence’. For a much more impressive analysis of this, read E. M. Llyod’s ‘The ‘Herse’ of Archers at Crecy’. From this hedgehog like, bristly fence, we get back to a line like formation which matches the contemporary literature. We can now place the archer’s at the front of the battle, forming a fence, and the men-at-arms behind or ou fons de leur bataille. Two separate lines of battle, but each mobile in their own right. This theory is also backed up by additional chroniclers and the slight differing versions are argued as simply being views of different stages of the battle. With the archers likely assuming the front line, or herse, shortly before the actual commencement of battle. The success of a hedgehog type formation will be familiar to fans of the scots, and particular the Battle of Bannockburn. Further suggestion that the Fence or Hedgehog theory has particular merit.

As Thomas Hastings aptly states, Archery ‘occupies a place of great interest in the minds of Englishmen, and for the services which the Bow has rendered…it must ever be held in grateful remembrance’. The exploits of those fighting for the English crown in the Hundred Years War provided England with more than just victories noted in a history book; they provided a sense of belief, pride, and indeed a reason to remind the French for years to come. My research into these matters are only just beginning, but for now the almighty hedgehog is my bet for the translation of a herse!

-Jamie Gatehouse

References

  1. Haldeen Braddy, ‘Froissart’s Account of Chaucer’s Embassy in 1337’, The Review of English Studies, vol. 14, no. 53, 1938.
  2. Hereford B. George. ‘The Archers at Crecy’, English Historical Review, vol. 10, 1895.
  3. Thomas Hastings The British Archer, or Tracts on Archery, London, 1831.
  4. Alfred H. Burne, ‘The Battle of Poitiers’, The English Historical Review, vol. 53, no. 209, 1938, pp. 21-52.
  5. E. M. Lloyd, ‘The ‘Herse’ of Archers at Crecy’, The English Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 39, 1895, pp. 538-541.

See our bibliography on the Hundred Years War.

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11 thoughts on “The Battle of Crécy and the Language of Froissart – Tactics and Etymology in Medieval Military History”

  1. This is an interesting analysis of a question I didn’t even know existed (though to be fair my knowledge of archers in the Hundred Years’ War is limited mainly to Bernard Cornwell novels and Wikipedia). Do you think this “hedgehog” could refer instead to archers holding their arrows nocked and ready to draw? Or maybe that the archers stood behind a fence of sharpened stakes? My limited understanding leads me to believe that the English archers only brandished their secondary weapons in the case that the French charge broke through the line of men-at-arms.

    Good post, I’d be interested in reading more about the history of archers!

    Like

    1. Thank you so much for the comment. I have read the Bernard Cornwell books myself and very much enjoyed them, especially Agincourt. One of my favourite aspects is how he understands and represents the physicality of the medieval archer.

      As for the hedgehogs, from the chronicles it would appear that the hedgehog idea is mostly in relation to the stakes – as with schiltrons – but with that being said, I imagine the nocked arrows would only accentuate the effect and thus improve the comparison.

      As for the archers and their secondary weapons, this is the commonly held view, predominantly as this is what is depicted in popular culture. As a large portion of these armies were archers, if they were to wait for the men-at-arms to fall, they are reducing the effectiveness of the entire army.

      Thanks again for the comment. There will definitely be plenty more on the history of archers. I am more than slightly obsessed!
      -Jamie

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s interesting about how waiting for the men-at-arms reduces the effectiveness of the army. That’s something I haven’t considered but seems obvious now that you mention it. I also liked Cornwell’s historical depiction of archers as gritty soldiers instead of the common “stealthy sneaky small” trope.

        If you like the history of archers be sure to check out https://www.archerylibrary.com/! One of my favorite websites.

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      2. Must agree, that is a fantastic website! So many fantastic little gems on there.

        There will definitely be a blog post to come talking about the physicality of the medieval longbowmen, especially the demands of shooting a 150lb plus war bow. I’m keen to crush the, as you so aptly put it, ‘stealthy sneaky small’ theory!

        -Jamie

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      3. I think he meant herse in the meaning portcullis.
        I have posted my more detailed reply on Facebook under the article.
        I think he meant it as a literary picture and not so much as a formation.
        As I understand him the archers and men at arms stand in a narrow spot between hedges – as the herse or portcullis of a castle.
        The portcullis and the Harrow look very much the same if you look at it from the top
        Great article btw.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hi Peter,
        I actually think we are both right with the meaning of herse. If you take the origin of the word that leads to a brush fence or a hedgehog you could argue this meaning also leads to the name given to a portcullis.
        I also agree that he was painting a literary pictures rather than being specific.
        Thanks for the reply. Glad you enjoyed the read!

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      5. Herse also had a military field function
        You used the herse/portcullis in the field as an obstacle
        So it makes sense that he says that they were positioned like that
        If they used pikes or stakes in front of them to repel a cavellry charge – it would have looked like a herse

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this read. As an archer, very interesting indeed.

    I read your article quickly and I don’t know if I understood everything correctly, but I got the impression that if in the third scenario, the archers would have been positioned in the front line, as you say, with the men at arms in their rear, they would then be the first line of defence in the battle.

    To speculate what might have happened, I would throw in my 5 cents as follows:

    If this were to be the deployment formation, I would then ask the following questions:

    1. How would the commander make sure that the archers will be able to continue to use their primary and most effective weapon, the longbow, despite the proximity of the enemy?
    2. How to keep the enemy at a proper distance from the archers and protect them while they are still shooting?

    Now, one can speculate how to deal in this kind of a situation:

    I don’t know what were the arms of the French, but it is likely that they were swords and pole arms. Now the trick for the English would have been to stop them at the length of a pole arm (pike, lance), stopping the enemy, and keeping the archers shooting the enemy formations at a very close distance. That would be devastating to the enemy.

    One could envisage creating such a formation by mixing lines of pikemen and archers…or archers wielding their longbows with archers using their secondary weapon, a pike. The pikemen, standing next to an archer, standing next to a pikeman. The archers could pick their targets and shoot through the openings left between the lines.

    This formation could have been an hedgehog…a pêle-mêle of pole arms and flying arrows. One one that would surely bite you if you would try to attack it.

    I have absolutely no idea if this is realistic or not, but something that came to my mind after reading your article.

    Have a nice day and greetings from Finland!

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for the reply. I’m really glad to hear that the article got you thinking!

      For me, with the depth of reading I have done on the matter, the third scenario -hedgehog theory – has the most merit with the archers line initially protected by their own secondary weapon. Also important to note that the first wave of French attack was most commonly the cavalry, which is a nice large target for a trained longbowman, and they don’t like riding through a line of grounded pikes. Also, a downed horse and rider is a perfect obstacle to slow the following lines of French soldiers on foot.

      As you noted, an archer continuing to loose arrows with the enemy at short range is devastating. Yet another reason you don’t want your own men lined up in front of, or even in the way of, the archers. Shooting flat with a 180 lb bow over a short distance is going to cause massive damage.

      Another thing to consider is that breaking up the pikemen between the archers weakens the potential strength of the pikemen. Like most groups of ancient and medieval soldiers fighting on foot, a tight formation and good defence was the key to their success.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. I hope you stick around to read more.
      -Jamie

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My favourite topic. While there were triangular harrows, there were also rectangular ones. These get my vote for:”herse” .Archers in formation were positioned one behind the other rather than in the serried ranks
    one would expect. A rectangular harrow was made with vertical and horizontal wooden strips with a protruding prong at each intersection like the archers in formation. Secondary weapons were sword and buckler, sometimes an axe, or the lead maul for affixing the stakes. Pole arms were carried only by archers of the guard. Archers were especially vulnerable to cavalry. They might be protected by a line of pikemen,[Arsuf], by a hedge of sharpened stakes, [Agincourt], or ditches and pits to damage horses.[Crecy]

    Like

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