The most widespread version of the battle of Crécy in the English speaking world describes the battle as a victory of steadfast English longbowmen over hopelessly outclassed Genoese crossbowmen, after which the dismounted English defeated wave after wave of overconfident French mounted knights. There is truth in this bald and oversimplified account, but what is rarely recognized is the fact that, until the battle of Crécy, Genoese crossbowmen were an internationally recognized infantry élite. How, then, did they come to fail against English infantry archers who, until Crécy, had little reputation beyond their own frontiers?
The most well-known infantry in Philip VI's army in 1346 were, of course, those Genoese. Like so many troops recruited from regions just beyond the frontiers of medieval France, they have usually been described as mercenaries. In fact this is very misleading. Most non-French troops in King Philip's army came from regions or countries which had close political or dynastic connections with the French monarchy. Genoa was an ally of France, while most of the men responsible for recruiting the famous Genoese crossbowmen, their pavesarii shield-bearers and the naval fleet in which they initially served, had long experience of serving the French crown. Nor were the Genoese ever referred to as forming companies; in other words ready-formed mercenary units. Even those mid-14th century French units which were called companies largely stemmed from, or were recruited by, the lords of regions closely associated with the French crown.
France's weakness in archery had been recognised well before the battle of Crécy. In 1336 King Philip recruited crossbowmen in Brabant in what is now Belgium. In 1345 he tried to do the same in Aragon but from then on French recruiting agents largely concentrated on Italy, which had long been recognized as the main source of qualified crossbowmen in Europe, for service both on land and at sea. At this time neighbouring Provençe, in what is now south-eastern France, lay within The Empire, as did Italy. To some extent it was regarded as just another part of the politically fragmented southern part of The Empire, as was most of Italy itself. Provençe was also just as significant a source of crossbowmen as was neighbouring Genoa.
Italian and Provençal crossbowmen had served in French armies since at least the early-14th century, and the so-called Genoese in French service at the time of Crécy came from many places, apart from Genoa itself. Italy and England were in fact the two parts of medieval Europe where archery played the most significant military role. But the reasons for this were different, as were the weapons involved – crossbows and longbows respectively. Practice with the crossbow was an obligation for men throughout much of Italy, both urban and rural. Consequently there were many qualified crossbowmen around. Italy was also the most densely populated part of medieval Europe, having a notably large urban population.
The crossbow had already been responsible for a revolution in naval warfare in the 13th century, and partly as a result of this the Italians had dominated trade and warfare in the Mediterranean. They were also a force to be reckoned with in the Atlantic and northern seas. Their galleys carried large fighting crews and these 'marines' were used as a reserve of infantry for warfare on land. In such cases the men would probably only have used their lighter crossbows, though many galleys carried both light and heavy versions of this weapon. In 1340, for example, a large Genoese galley in French service carried 40 ballistae and it was normal for there to be around 100 quarrels or arrows for each crossbow.
Though the men came from many different places, their leaders were mostly northern Italian and included individuals who had considerable military experience. The same was true of the galley captains, who were very highly paid and had been promised half the booty taken. According to the 1346-7 archives of the relatively newly-built Clos des Galées naval arsenal in Rouen, Normandy, a galley called the Sainte Marie had as its master a certain Crestien di Grimault, a member of the famous Grimaldi family. The galley had a crew of 210 men, consisting of 1 comite, 1 souz comite, 1 clerk, 1 under clerk and 205 crossbowmen and sailors, plus the master, owner or captain. This ship left Nice in Provençe on 24 May 1346 and was contracted to serve until October (161 days) for 900 gold florins per month plus 30 florins per extra day, totalling 4,830 florins in all.
It is not clear how these men were organized when serving on land, as they clearly did, but presumably those from a single ship would remain together. Perhaps they formed the equivalent of an Italian gonfaloni urban militia unit, with their naval officer standing in for a militia officer. The ordinary gonfaloni militia unit seems, however, only to have been around 50 men, whereas a war-galley had a much larger crew. Another model could be the mercenary bandi units which were operating around places like Lucca in the 1340s. These, like a militia gonfaloni or a galley's marines, included both crossbowmen and their shield-carrying pavesarii. The latter were also sometimes referred to as spearmen, since this was their main weapon. It was used in a defensive manner, rather like a pike. Records from late-13th century Venice refer to such weapons as being five metres long with shafts of ash or beech, and with hooks added for use at sea.
Since there were usually more than three crossbowmen for each pavesari it would seem that the crossbowmen took turns to shoot from behind the cover provided by the pavise shields or mantlets held by the pavesarii. Each man would then step back to span and load his weapon before returning to shoot. This would also have solved the problem of elbow room caused by the fact that a crossbow was held laterally while being shot. If this was in fact the Genoese crossbowmen's proper battlefield tactic, then their failure at Crécy becomes much easier to understand. Here they were clearly operating without their pavise mantlet-shields. It was traditional for Italian crossbow 'teams' to place their bows and pavises in baggage carts or on mules while on the march. At Crécy the crossbowmen had their crossbows but the pavises were indeed in the baggage waggons. Quite what the pavesarii were expected to do when the Genoese infantry were ordered forward at Crécy is unknown, though the written sources do mention spearmen advancing together with the crossbowmen.
Here it is perhaps worth mentioning that, during this period, true light infantry were not a feature of Italian armies. The famous Saracens of Lucera had been forced to convert to Christianity and had virtually disappeared from the military scene half a century earlier. The only light infantry around were a handful of Aragonese mercenaries, though there were also numerous low status ribaldi or 'ruffians.' Their role was primarily to devastate enemy agriculture rather than to fight in a battle.
Crossbowmen, whether Genoese or otherwise, were essentially a static, or at least a defensive, form of infantry. King Philip's decision to send them forward against the English at Crécy, particularly as they were sent without their pavises, strongly suggests that the men in command of the French army during this battle had no real idea of how to use what were at that time regarded as the finest infantry in Christian Europe. The failure of the Genoese crossbowmen and their other infantry at Crécy was relatively brief and easily explained. They were used to forming part of disciplined and structured armies in which they would be closely supported by equally professional cavalry. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Genoese were not keen on advancing without proper preparation, without their pavises and without adequate reserves of ammunition from the supply waggons. Furthermore, they would be attacking at the end of a long day's march with the setting sun directly in their eyes. Their officers complained to the Count of Alençon, to whose battle or division they appear to have been attached, but were ignored.
So the Genoese formed up under the immediate command of Ottone Doria, probably slightly to the left of the centre of the French position, with the Prince of Wales' battle or division as their nearest target. The 2,000 to 6,000 Genoese were, of course, greatly outnumbered by the opposing English longbowmen; perhaps even being outnumbered by the closest archers in the Prince of Wales' division alone. With a sound of trumpets and drums the Genoese crossbowmen and their accompanying spearmen moved forward in three stages, each pause being signalled by a shout which would have rippled along the Genoese front as the order was passed from unit to unit. This enabled the foot soldiers to remain in formation and to adjust their dressing at each pause. Their role was to get close enough to break up the enemy line with crossbow fire, whereupon the French cavalry would charge and take advantage of any weakness in the English front. In fact, the Genoese only seem to have shot their crossbows the third time they halted, when they were about 150 metres from the Prince of Wales' battle.
Later legend recalled two great black crows which flew over the battlefield as the infantry advanced. More significant was a sudden and apparently intense shower of rain - the first in six weeks – which made the ground slippery. The bottom of the Vallée des Clercs remains very muddy, even a day after rain, for at least 250 metres from its junction with the river Maye. More importantly, the shower soaked the strings of the Genoese crossbows, making them stretch and thus lose power. The near contemporary chronicler, Jean de Venette, clearly stated that the English longbowmen took the strings from their bows and kept them dry beneath their helmets. This, however, could not be done with a crossbow which required a powerful piece of machinery to be unstrung and restrung. The rain accounts for the ease with which the crude but effective longbows of the English archers outranged their opponents.
In ordinary circumstances the only advantages that a longbow had over its more sophisticated opponent was the rapidity with which it could be shot, and its ability to rain heavy arrows from high trajectory. In terms of accuracy, range and penetrating power, the advantage should have lain with the Genoese crossbows. When the Genoese did shoot they had to do so uphill with a low sun either in their eyes or slightly to their left. This was a particular disadvantage for men who aimed directly at their targets rather than dropping arrows on them in showers. As they loosed their weapons the Genoese were almost simultaneously hit by an arrow storm shot by archers in the Prince of Wales' division. A few English cannon apparently added to the noise, terror and casualties. Froissart stated that the cannon made 'two or three discharges on the Genoese' but this must mean individual shots by two or three guns since it was not possible to reload such primitive weapons any faster. Villani, another contemporary chronicler, agreed that their impact was considerable, though he also indicated that the guns continued to fire upon French cavalry later in the battle: 'The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire ... They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses ... The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners ... [by the end of the battle] the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls.'
Without their pavises and outranged by their opponents the Genoese infantry suffered severe losses, wavered and then streamed back. At this point they are said to have been attacked by the French cavalry who were supposedly supervising them. It is unlikely that the Genoese officers did not understand why the crossbowmen broke, but it does seem that the Count of Alençon or some of his advisors concluded that the Italians had been bribed into betraying King Philip. Again according to Jean de Venette, some French knights attacked their own infantry; 'though all the while the crossbowmen were excusing themselves with great cries.' The fact that the English shot further volleys into this confusion suggests that the cavalry in question had been riding close behind the Genoese during their initial advance.
The idea that Philip VI would have intentionally ordered his horsemen to ride down the broken Genoese is inconceivable, as it would have ruined the momentum of the French cavalry charge – their primary battle winning tactic. Clearly, however, the men-at-arms took no care to avoid their scattered infantry and caused additional casualties as they rode over them, while some of the Genoese may have shot back with their crossbows. English archers loosed further volleys of plunging arrows into the confusion when the French came into range and many Genoese are said to have been wounded by falling horses.
Why then did the Genoese crossbowmen's own leaders agree to such a disastrous tactic, or did they have no say in the matter? One reason might lie in the relatively low status of their commanders. These were not members of the senior French nobility. Nor, in fact, were they even members of the highest echelons of the nobility of the neighbouring Empire. They may have been highly experienced and professional soldiers, but to those who commanded the French army at Crécy they were probably 'mere soldiers' and, because of their characteristic involvement in naval piracy, barely gentlemen.
by David Nicolle
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