This is an exciting and griping book to read, even if the topic – the campaign leading up to the battle of Crecy, and the battle itself – is hardly original. The focus on the “English” archer is not original either. Both have already been “done” by Bernard Cornwell (with his Harlequin series), among others.
The story of the English invasion and of its very destructive “chevauchée” across Normandy is well-told and generally well-researched, with the various clashes, and the storming of Caen in particular, being quite griping. The murdering, raping and pillaging is unfortunately quite accurate. This king of ravaging was quite deliberate. It was encouraged by the magnates and the King and was a typical and fairly standard tactic during the most of the Middle Ages. As shown in the book, and in addition to allowing the troops to loot, the purpose was to provoke the enemy and force them to give battle or, should they fail to oblige, to destroy part of their economic resources and show their subjects that their lords were unable to protect them and unwilling to fight for them. For the English King and claimant to the French throne, of course, this would also help portray his rival “Philippe of Valois” as unworthy and unfit to rule.
Another interesting point is the description of the archers’ various origins, starting with the hero’s (the vintenier or commander of twenty) own background. Most of them, if not all, are presented as running away from their past, with a least some of them having a rather unsavoury one, including murder. Volunteering for the King’s army to serve abroad in the war in France is clearly shown as a way of escaping, a refuge of sorts for those who no longer fitting in for various reasons, but also as a way to make a living through both pay and plunder. Needless to say, it is rather difficult to believe that they did not take part in the ravaging, raping and murdering entailed by the “chevauchée”. This is particularly the case of the hero, a twenty-year veteran, who comes across as a somewhat unlikely (for the 14th century) “compassionate killer”.
There are two additional points which I found somewhat questionable and/incredible. One was the speed with which wounds tend to heal in the story. This is particularly the case of Beranger (the hero) who, at one point, receives a crossbow bolt in the shoulder and is back fighting in the field a mere dozen of days later.
Another inconsistency is the idea that the whole campaign went according to Edward III’s plan. The author even tries to reinforce this idea by having Sir John de Sully and Berenger remember the field of Crecy and remember how this would make an ideal battlefield to defeat the French army. In addition to being pure fiction, it is also hard to believe that they would remember a field they had passed some sixteen years before on their way towards the south and in completely different circumstances.
In fact, and although Edward III’s campaign did end with the victory of Crecy, the campaign did not at all go according to plan. The initial ravaging of Normandy was intended to force the French King to give battle before he could gather all his (vastly superior) forces. This failed because the French army was not drawn in and, anyway, it took longer than expected to gather. The fact was that when the somewhat depleted and tired English army got to Rouen, it found the city well-defended with the much larger French army on the other side of the Seine. From then one, the English army was in trouble. It could not turn back because it had comprehensively ravaged the rest of Normandy which could therefore not supply it and its way towards the north and friendly Flanders was blocked by the Seine, and then by the Somme.
The author does show rather well how the English army managed to outwit the French to cross the Seine. He also shows how lucky it was to be able to finish crossing the Somme very shortly before the French forces came up behind it. After that, and with the much larger French forces closing in, the tired and hungry English army had no alternative than to make a stand on the first favourable battlefield that they could find or get caught - and probably slaughtered - by the French heavy cavalry while on the march.
Finally, the description of the battle itself does show and make all of the essential points, even if the numbers may be a bit questionable.
The numbers have been disputed by historians for decades, along with just about everything else. While it is very likely that the English army initially had some fifteen thousand combatants altogether with about two-thirds of archers, the numbers present at Crecy would likely have been much reduced (by perhaps as much as third) through losses, desertions and garrisons left behind. Also, it is unlikely that the French forces exceeded thirty to forty thousand. This number, however, is quite misleading because at least half was feudal levy infantry of doubtful quality which did not take part in the battle.
The English army fought a defensive battle. There is little else it could have done anyway and neither the soldiers nor the King are likely to have been as optimistic as the author makes them out to be, although the later had done just about everything he could to even the odds. The overconfident and ill-disciplined French, however, threw away just about all of the advantages they had. The French nobles forced their (somewhat weak) King to give battle straight away after having marched most of the day (the battle started around 4 pm) rather than listening to the sounder advice of his marshals. Then came the episode of the six thousand Genoese crossbowmen which is also well shown by the author and, finally, they threw away their main advantage – mobility and their ability to attack from several sides – through repeated frontal charges up the sloop against the English archers and men-at-arms who were waiting for them at the top. They could also have waited until the next day, or even blockaded the hungry English forces. Instead, they played right into their hands and gave them the first of their stunning victories against the odds.
Four stars for an exciting and well documented read, despite the glitches. There are a number of accessible books for those wanting to read more on the historical events. My recommendation is Sumption’s first volume (Trial by Battle) which deals with the first years of the Hundred Years’ War and covers both the Crecy campaign and the siege of Calais which is the topic of the second volume of Berenger’s adventures in France.
on 26 June 2014
A tale of the movement of forces by the English King from England across the English Channel to Normandy and beyond to Paris and back seeking the Crown of France. Again, this is medieval war, war period, at its harshest culminating in the 1346 Battle of Crécy. The historical research done by the author is excellent and a plausible story line written into this campaign about some of those, young and old, who served their king in this affair. It does include the horrors of war so I remind you that it is not for the faint of heart. That said, I look forward to subsequent volumes.
on 21 November 2014
Michael Jecks has written some very good stories. This one was different than his past books in that it represents a later era in English history. He writes of a small unit in an English army and the interaction between them within the unit and with other units and the army command. It covers a period of the beginning of the use of cannon in battle as well as the use of the longbow as a decisive weapon. There is much about leadership issues and the training and integration of new men into the units. Mr. Jecks also discusses the problems of supplying and army and forcing the troops to live off the land by looting food and goods from the local population. He comes close to putting us in the era as possible, the discomfort, blood, hunger, cold, and slaughter of soldier and civilian. The mid - 14th century and the beginning of the 100 years War profoundly changed Europe. The Middle Ages were at the beginning of the end.
on 25 March 2015
Once again Michael Jecks has brought history alive with the story of Edward IIIs rampage through France as experienced by the ordinary soldier, in this case a company of archers. The fear, hatred, ignorance, injustices and dangers as well as the joys and the comradeship of the men are made real by Michael. I loved how I had to keep on reading just to see if they got through the next problem it was hard to put down.
As a big fan of Michaels Templar series I was not disappointed with this first book in his 100 years war trilogy. I recommend this book heartily as a brilliant read whatever your normal genre.