delanceyplace.com 09/27/06 - knight and peasant

In today's excerpt - the beginning of the end for the medieval knight and the age of chivalry. Their demise was due to the military innovations of King Edward III when he was twenty, and it happened at the Battle of Crecy during the famed Hundred Years' War between England and France. It stemmed from the King's tactical developments in archery, and it brought new power to the peasant class:

"On August 26, 1346, Edward probably had about 6,000 archers remaining and 3,000 knights, men-at-arms and other men. The numbers they faced were ... four times as many in the French army. The French were confident, and had even settled in advance who was to take whom prisoner. Edward's methodical tactics changed everything. Even if each of his English bowman loosed one arrow every twelve seconds and there is good reason to believe they could shoot twice as fast—then 30,000 deadly arrows per minute would have rained down on the French and their Genoese allies. The question thus became one of how long the English could sustain such an onslaught. If Edward's orders for arrows for his previous campaigns are anything to go by—on one occasion he placed a single order for three million—then the answer to this question has to be reckoned in terms of hours. To this, one has to add the fact that Edward had a number of cannon—perhaps as many as a hundred—performing a similar function to the archers.

"... As the predictable charge came forward, the [French] front ranks were caught in the arrow-storm, and fell, their corpses piling up and inhibiting the charge of those behind. ...

"The battle of Crecy was not the end of the age of chivalry, but it signaled the beginning of the end. It was the first major international battle to be won predominantly by projectile fighting, rather than by hand-to-hand combat. Most importantly, it was obvious that it was not an accidental victory. By learning to fight with projectile weapons, one could defeat a much larger army. ...

"Until the 1340s, the most valuable unit of military power in medieval society had been the knight, or rather the massed charge of knights. Thus military power was vested in the richest element of society, those who could afford the equipment and who were given the training to become knights. It followed that this group, a fighting aristocracy, also wielded political power. At Crecy, that began to fall apart. From then on, a thousand peasants armed with longbows were more than a match for a thousand knights, as long as they were well-trained and well-fed. Coupled with the economic independence of the wealthier peasant classes, which followed the Black Death of 1348-49, the awareness that the social and political control had shifted to commoners spread rapidly. The most obvious manifestation of this is to be seen in 1381, when the yeomen of Kent and Essex took arms. Their uprising is known as 'the Peasants' Revolt', but they were no rabble ... [and] the 'peasants' had learnt that the military authority they had wielded on behalf of the King in France could be used with equally devastating effect in their homeland, with the most profound political consequences."


author:

Ian Mortimer

title:

'Poiters'

publisher:

History Today

date:

September 2006

pages:

45-47
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