Any true medieval warfare enthusiast undoubtedly knows of the battles of the Hundred Years War; Crècy, 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 Crècy-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 Crecy 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 Crècy, 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 Crècy 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 Crècy? 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!
- Haldeen Braddy, ‘Froissart’s Account of Chaucer’s Embassy in 1337’, The Review of English Studies, vol. 14, no. 53, 1938.
- Hereford B. George. ‘The Archers at Crecy’, English Historical Review, vol. 10, 1895.
- Thomas Hastings The British Archer, or Tracts on Archery, London, 1831.
- Alfred H. Burne, ‘The Battle of Poitiers’, The English Historical Review, vol. 53, no. 209, 1938, pp. 21-52.
- E. M. Lloyd, ‘The ‘Herse’ of Archers at Crecy’, The English Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 39, 1895, pp. 538-541.