670 years ago today, on 26 August 1346, one of the most significant victories in English military history took place – the Battle of Crécy – where, against the odds, Edward III’s army defeated the forces of Philip VI of France. The battle formed part of the long running dispute between England and France, later known as the Hundred Years War, which had been instigated by the founder of St George’s College, Edward III, to assert his claim to the French throne. Following the victory, the English forces were able to capture the strategically advantageous city of Calais from their weakened opponents within a year.
Despite its importance to Edward III’s campaign, not many reports have survived from Crécy. The fullest and most contemporary account now known was produced by an Italian, Giovanni Villani, sometime before 1348.(1) Edward III is reported to have chosen a stand at Crécy to confront the French army who were pursuing him. Villani states that while the French had 12,000 knights and almost numberless men at arms, the English had just 4,000 knights and 30,000 English and Welsh bowmen. These numbers are almost certainly greatly exaggerated, but they do give an idea of the relative sizes of the two armies. The English king used his position and small numbers to the best possible advantage, ordering that the carts carrying their provisions should be arranged to protect the English forces and leave only a small area in which the troops could engage. Combined with the (in)famous longbows, this strategy rendered large parts of the French army useless: their hired Genoese crossbowmen did not have enough range to out-shoot the English while armoured and horsed French knights could be brought down from a distance, thereafter becoming obstacles for their own men. Such tactics were considered ‘un-knightly’ by the French and much scorned by their chroniclers.
One of several theories about Edward III’s reasons for founding the chivalric company, later known as the Order of the Garter, in 1348, was to reward those who had served him well in France and to secure their future loyalty. Of the twenty five men usually considered ‘Founder Knights’ of the Garter, well over half had been present that day at Crécy and many of them also at the successful siege of Calais which followed.
Notable among these was Edward III’s eldest son, ‘the Black Prince’, who at just sixteen years old commanded one of the three divisions of the English troops. He was supported in this by Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Sir John Chandos, who would all become Founder Knights. Meanwhile, Sir James Audley, Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Lisle, Sir John Grey and Sir John Beauchamp fought in the king’s retinue, Beauchamp carrying the Royal Standard.
However, not all those gave distinguished service at Crécy, and other battles in the Hundred Years War, were chosen as ‘Founder Knights’. Some were appointed later in the 1340s and 1350s, notably Sir William FitzWaryn, Earl of Northampton, William de Bohun and Sir Thomas Ughtred. Meanwhile, Richard FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, who had been given command of one of the three divisions of the English army at Crécy, never rose to the distinction of Garter Knight, although he lived for nearly thirty years after the company had come into being. The early development of the Order of the Garter is lost in obscurity and this apparent omission, along with many other details, may never be fully understood.
Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist
(1) A detailed analysis of this and other accounts can be found in Barber, R., Edward III and the Triumph of England (London, 2013).