Battle of Poitiers 19th September 1356

A simple stone commemorates "the knights, barons and men-at-arms of France, Gascony and England who fell in these places 19th September 1356"

In 1349 the truce was broken by French attacks on England which provoked English counter-measures. King Philip VI died in 1350 and was succeeded by King John II who reformed the French army. English military successes were enough to start peace talks for Edward to have full sovereignty over a wide area of territory in the southwest including Poitou, Limousin and Aquitaine. When the French withdrew from these talks English campaigns were attempted in the north but they were unsuccessful.

 

It was not until October 1355 when the Black Prince led an English campaign from Bordeaux that they were extremely successful. He took 2,200 men on a three-month mounted raid, known as a chevauchée, into Languedoc. They almost reached the Mediterranean before returning home with massive amounts of booty.

 

Further raids took place in the winter of 1355-56 along the River Dordogne and strong points were taken over the winter. In July the Black Prince launched another chevauchée from Bordeaux, with Sir John Chandos as his Chief-of-Staff and 7,000 men, whilst another similar English expedition advanced through Brittany and Lower Normandy. The intention was that they should link up but this proved impossible and a large French army of between 35,000 and 60,000 men under King John II was in pursuit. When Prince Edward reached the River Loire at Tours the French were getting close so he turned and withdrew. On the way south they were overtaken by the French who then turned and blocked the English army’s route back to Bordeaux just south-east of Poitiers near Nouaillé-Maupertuis.

The memorial at Nouaillé-Maupertuis illustrates the chevauchée and the confrontation

On Saturday 17th September the English army arrived at a wood north-west of Nouaillé. The Prince knew he was heavily out-numbered, his men were tired and their baggage train was heavy with loot. However, his route meant they had to cross the River Maisson, which was a greater obstacle then than it appears today, so he turned and prepared to fight.

 

Details are thin but he took up a defensive position on the northwest side of the Nouaillé wood. It gave him some advantage of higher rolling ground with vines, scrub and marsh patches and an important hedge and ditch to the front. The approach to his position was channelled by woods further west, with the river, and the Nouaillé woods to the east. The river curves around to the south of these woods and provided an obstacle to any French attempt to outflank the position.

Panels explain the battle, its consequences and the uncertainty of its exact location

Map by Semhur/Wikipedia Commons

River Maisson today with the Nouaillé woods to the left

The Prince deployed his dismounted divisions left and right under the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury respectively with archers extending their flanks. His division was behind them in the centre, also dismounted and with all the horses out of sight. He kept a small reserve force available under the Gascon leader Captal de Buch. His army was mainly under cover and concealed with a useful hillock providing an observation post.

 

On the Sunday the Papal Envoy to King John, the Cardinal de Périgord, at his own request, was allowed to attempt a negotiated truce. Despite generous offers by Prince Edward the king’s demands were too great and the cardinal was unsuccessful. In the meantime the defenders strengthened their position.

Forward of the Nouaillé woods looking North towards the likely French approach

Looking towards the probable English positions in front of the Nouaillé woods

The possible centre of the battlefield

The battle started about 1000 hours on Monday morning when movement in the English lines led King John to believe they were withdrawing. His plan was for 300 mounted men-at-arms to advance and force a gap in the defender’s great hedge and destroy the archers before the main attack with three divisions, or ‘battles’ went in. The first division comprised foot soldiers and some mounted German mercenaries, the second had 4,000 men under the Dauphin Charles, the third 3,000 men under the Duc d’Orleans and a fourth in reserve with 6,000 men under himself. They were all to advance on foot, probably to avoid the chaos of Crécy when the horses suffered and became uncontrollable under the arrow storms. The divisions were still forming up when King John despatched the 300 mounted men under Marshals de Clermont and d’Audrehem to attack the English at the hedge. They failed under the archers’ withering fire; Clermont, among many, was killed and d' Audrehem was captured. The following division of foot soldiers and Germans came on in disorder and were held at the hedge and then driven off by archers moving round the hedge and shooting into their flank.

 

The French main body of 13,000 men now began their attack with the Dauphin’s division advancing up the difficult slope to the hedge. They reached the English line and after crossing the ditch tried to breach the hedge. The close quarter fighting was hard, bitter and desperate as Prince Edward concentrated his forces at the hedge until the French were eventually driven back. Their withdrawal disrupted the advancing division under the Duc d’Orleans until he marched them all off the field. This left the remaining division under King John to attack the exhausted English troops.

 

Prince Edward now sent Captal de Buch with 60 men-at-arms and 100 archers to attack from the flank via a sunken or concealed track which came out behind the French. Then, with his remaining troops, and leading from the front, he plunged into the battle straight for King John. Archers who had used up all their arrows moved in with swords and axes alongside the men-at-arms. In the fiercest fighting of the day the French suddenly faltered when a banner of St. George appeared behind them. Not knowing how small Captal de Buch’s force was they were dismayed enough to start leaving the field.

 

By 1500 hours King John and his youngest son Philip, aged 14, were left fighting alone and surrounded by a large crowd of soldiers all anxious to seize him for a king’s ransom. They were rescued by the Earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham and taken to the Prince Edward. By now the battle was over.

Nouaillé-Maupertuis abbey

The portcullis gate has been partly demolished

During the 100 Years' War this abbey was a prosperous Benedictine monastery which was reinforced with defences. It has an interesting medieval garden within the defences and provides a starting point for walks around the woods and battlefield area. It is quite likely that the Black Prince visited or used it before or after the battle.

After the battle the French were pursued to Poitiers where many were killed outside the city gates. 2,500 Frenchmen were reported to have died in the battle and the same number were captured. With too many to control some were released on promising to return to Bordeaux to pay their ransoms before Christmas. English losses are not recorded but were much lighter although several knights were captured in the pursuit. A lot of money was made by everybody through the ransoms and rich loot from the French camp.

 

King John II was taken to England in Spring 1357 and while he was in captivity France suffered unrest and civil war between the Dauphin and Charles of Navarre. The English mounted private raids into France and in 1359 Edward III launched a major expedition to capture Reims. He besieged the city in December but the operation proved unsustainable and he withdrew.

 

The 1360 Treaty of Brétigny ended this phase of the 100 Years War when it was ratified in October. King John had been released, England gained Aquitaine, half of Brittany, Calais and Ponthieu and Edward was obliged not to claim to be King of France although he was king over half the country.