Battle of Poitiers, 19 September 1356

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Crushing English victory during the Hundred Years War. Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), was at this point based in Bordeaux. In 1355, he had led a raid deep into central France, which had returned to Bordeaux loaded down with booty, but having fought no battles. Edward decided to repeat the exercise in 1356, and in August 1356 marched north from Bordeaux with a force of perhaps 7,000 men. Moving slowly, he reached the Loire valley, and began to devastate the southern bank of the river. Meanwhile, King John of France was gathering his army in expectation of an English invasion of Normandy, which in the event failed to occur, and he was able to move south to deal with Prince Edward. The English were engaged in an attack on Tours when they learnt that the French had reached the Loire thirty miles to their east, and were moving toward the town of Poitiers with the intention of blocking Edward's route back to Bordeaux. Accordingly, the English also began to march towards Poitiers, probably in an attempt to slip past the French. The two armies made first contact on 17 September, when the vanguard of the English army caught up with the rear of the French army, which had effectively been marching in front of them for some time, and was now close to Poitiers. Armed with this inteligence, Edward was able to slip by the French army using side roads, and camp that night near the village of Maupertuis, to the south of Poitiers. Prince Edward was left with two choices - either abandon their plunder and run for Bordeaux, or risk battle against the much larger French force, and chose the second. Both armies were drawn up on a relatively level plateau, bounded to the south west by the 100 foot deep valley of the Miausson. The English position was fronted by a thorn hedge with a ditch in front, split by a narrow road, with a small rise to the rear, behind which Edward hid his horses. The following day was wasted in futile negotiations insisted on by the Cardinal of Perigord, who had been following the two armies hoping to negotiate a peace, but the net result of his efforts were to allow Edward's army a day to rest. There is some uncertainty as to what Edward intended to do on the 19th. It is likely that he had decided to move towards Bordeaux, and had begun to move off his army, leaving the earl of Salisbury, in charge of the rearguard, to hold the line.

Whatever his intention, battle was started by King John, who decided to assault the gap in the hedge, sending forward a small body of cavalry who were meant to break though the English archers, followed by the bulk of his forces on foot. This first 'battle; was also supported by 2,000 Genoese crossbowmen. Behind this first 'battle' followed three more, the second led by John's oldest son Charles, duke of Normandy, probably 4,000 strong, the third under Philip, duke of Orleans, king John's brother, with 3,000 men at arms, and finally, the largest battle, of 6,000 men, led by King John himself. Seeing Edward start his probable retreat, King John ordered the advance, and the first battle, began it's attack. Mostly mounted, this first battle pulled well ahead of the rest of the army, and the three hundred knights ahead of the rest were almost wiped out by the English archers, leaving the rest of the first battle to struggle up to the English line, and although a melee developed, this first attack was beaten off by the earl of Salisbury before the rest of the English army under the duke of Warwick and Prince Edward returned to the line. The French first battle was defeated, and the Marshal Clermont killed, before the bulk of the French army had even reached the battlefield. Now the first division of dismounted French men at arms, under the Dauphin, reached the English lines, and a fierce fight developed, only won by the English when Edward put all of his troops bar a 400 man reserve into the battle. Finally, the second French battle was driven off, and heavily mauled fell back.

At this point, the French suffered a huge self inflicted blow, when the third battle, under Philip of Orleans, seeing the rout of the Dauphin's battle, fled the field with the bulk of his troops, leaving only King John with the last, but largest, French battle, against Edward's battleweary troops. The two forces were now roughly equal in number, but King John's troops were fresh, while Edward's had been engaged in heavy fighting. Seeing that he now faced the final French reserves, Prince Edward decided to take the offensive, and sending the Captal de Buch, one of his most loyal Gascon vassals, with force of less than two hundred men, to outflank the French and attack them from the side, led his troops in a charge. The two main battles met with a monument clash, and the fiercest fighting of the day commenced. This melee was still very much in the balance, when the Captal de Buch with his small band, having reached King John's original position, charged the French in the rear, causing a panic quite unjustified by the size of his force. Many of the remaining French troops fled the field, leaving King John and a core of his allies alone on the field. After seven hours of fighting, the English finally had the victory. French losses were apparently 2,500, while English losses were much smaller, but are not known. However, the true significance of the battle was in the capture of King John, along with his young son Philip, along with many of the greatest lords of France. Prince Edward withdrew to Bordeaux with his booty and his prisoner. The capture of King John altered the balance of power in the war, and gave the English a vastly improved negotiating position.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (28 January 2001), Battle of Poitiers, 19 September 1356, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_poitiers.html


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