THE BOY-HEROES OF CRECY AND POITIERS
By Treadwell Walden
Almost every one has heard of the famous battles of Crecy and
Poitiers, which were so much alike in all that made them remarkable
that they are generally coupled together,—one always reminding us
of the other. Yet there is one point they had in common which has
not been especially remarked, but which ought to link them memorably
together in the imagination of young people.
These two great battles really took place ten years apart; for one
was fought in 1346 and the other in 1356. The battle-fields also
were wide apart; for Crecy was far in the north of France, near
the coast of the English Channel, and Poitiers away in the south,
deep in the interior, nearly three hundred miles from Crecy. But they
have drawn near to each other in the mind of students of history,
because in both cases the French largely outnumbered the English;
in both cases the English had gone so far into the country that
their retreat seemed to be cut off; in both cases there was a most
surprising and unexpected result, for the French were terribly
defeated; and in both cases this happened because they made the
same mistake: they trusted so much to their overwhelming numbers,
to their courage and their valor, that they forgot to be careful
about anything else, while the English made up for their small
numbers by prudence, discipline, and skill, without which courage
and valor are often of no avail.
It is quite exciting to read the description of these battles, with
their archery fights, the clashing together of furious knights,
the first brave advance and the final running away; but, after a
while, the battles at large seem to fade out in the greater interest
which surrounds the figures of two youngsters,—one hardly more
than fifteen, the other scarcely fourteen,—for one carried off
all the honors of the victory of Crecy, and the other redeemed
from total dishonor the defeat of Poitiers. Let us now take up
the romantic story of the English lad in the former battle, and of
the French lad in the latter.
When, in 1346, Edward III of England had determined upon an invasion
of France, he brought over his army in a fleet of nearly a thousand
sail. He had with him not only the larger portion of his great
nobles, but also his eldest son, Edward Plantagenet, the Prince
of Wales. He had good reasons for taking the boy. The prince was
expected to become the next King of England. His father evidently
thought him able to take a very important part in becoming also
the King of France. If all the accounts of him are true, he was a
remarkable youth; wonderfully strong and courageous, and wonderfully
discreet for his years.
There was only one road to success or fame in those days, and that
was the profession of arms. The ambition of every high-born young
fellow was to become a knight. Knighthood was something that both
king and nobles regarded as higher in some respects than even the
royalty or nobility to which they were born. No one could be admitted
into an order of the great brotherhood of knights, which extended
all over Europe and formed an independent society, unless he had
gone through severe discipline, and had performed some distinguished
deed of valor. Then he could wear the golden spurs; for knighthood
had its earliest origin in the distinction of fighting on horseback,
while ordinary soldiers fought on foot. Although knighthood changed
afterward, the word "chivalry" always expressed it, from cheval,
a horse. And in addition to valor, which was the result of physical
strength and courage, the knight was expected to be generous,
courteous, faithful, devout, truthful, high-souled, high-principled.
Hence the epithet, "chivalrous," which, even to-day, is so often
heard applied to men of especially fine spirit. "Honor" was the
great word which included all these qualities then, as it does in
some measure now.
I have only time to give you the standard, and cannot pause to tell
you how well or ill it was lived up to generally. But I would not
have taken this story in hand if chivalry had to be left out of
the account, for it was chivalry that made my two boys the heroes
As soon as King Edward landed at La Hague, he gave very clear
evidence of the serious work he had cut out for his son, and of
his confidence that the youngster would be equal to it. He publicly
pledged his boy, beforehand, to some great deed, and to a life of
valor and honor. In sight of the whole army, he went through the
form of making him a knight. Young Edward, clad in armor, kneeled
down before him on the wet sand, when the king touched his shoulder
with his sword, saying: "I dub thee knight. Be brave, bold, and
loyal!" You may imagine how proudly then the young fellow seized
lance and sword and shield, and sprang into his saddle at a leap,
and with what high resolve he rode on beside his mailed and gallant
father to deserve the name which that impressive ceremony had given
The army moved rapidly forward and northward toward Calais, conquering
everything on its way, till when in the neighborhood of Crecy, the
intelligence came that the French king, Philip, with an army of
one hundred and twenty thousand men and all the chivalry of France,
had come in between it and the sea. There was no retreat possible.
Edward had but thirty thousand to oppose this great host. They were
four to one. He was in a dangerous spot also; but after a time he
succeeded in getting away to a good position, and there he awaited
the onset. No one will doubt that he was anxious enough, and yet
what did he do? After arranging his troops in battle order, three
battalions deep, he sent young Edward to the very front of the
brilliant group of his finest barons to take the brunt of the terrible
charge that was now to come! It shows of what stern material the
king and the men of that time were made, for all his present love,
all his future hope, lay around that gallant boy. But he knew that
the value of the glory which might be earned was worth all the
risk. Besides, he was as much under chivalrous necessity to send
him, as the lad was under to go. That pledge to knighthood, on the
sea-shore, had not been either lightly taken or lightly given. If
chivalry was not equal to sacrifice, it was equal to nothing. There
was keen wisdom, too, in the act. The king could count all the
more on the enthusiasm, self-devotion and valor of the knights and
men-at-arms, in whose keeping he had placed so precious a charge.
That whole first battalion would be nerved to tenfold effort
because the prince was among them, for every one would be as deeply
concerned as the father in the boy's success.
Edward carried his feeling of devotion to his son's best interests
to such a chivalrous extent that he made it a point of duty to keep
out of the battle altogether.
He was nowhere to be seen. He went into a windmill on a height
nearby, and watched the fight through one of the narrow windows
in its upper story. He would not even put on his helmet. That was
the way the father stood by his son—by showing absolute confidence
in him, and denying himself all the glory that might come from a
great and important battle. And the young fellow was a thousandfold
nerved and strengthened by knowing that his father fully trusted
I need not give the details of the battle. It is sufficient to know
that the first line of the French chivalry charged with the utmost
fury. Among these was an ally of note, John, King of Bohemia, who
with his barons and knights was not behindhand in the deadly onset;
and yet this king was old and blind! His was chivalry in another
form! He would have his stroke in the battle, and he plunged into
it with his horse tied by its reins to one of his knights on either
side. A plume of three ostrich feathers waved from his helmet,
and the chroniclers say he laid about him well. After the battle,
he and his two companions were found dead, with their horses tied
But although the French were brave they were not wise. For not only
had they brought on the fight with headlong energy before they were
prepared, but they had allowed Edward to place himself so that the
afternoon sun, then near its setting, blazed full in their eyes
and faces. Edward's army fought in the shadow. The terrible English
bowmen sent their deadly cloth-yard arrows so thick and fast into
the dazzled and crowded ranks of fifteen thousand Genoese archers
and the intermingled men-at-arms, that the missiles filled the air
like snow. The Genoese were thrown into confusion, and this spread
throughout the whole French army. The French king, with some of
his dukes, flew foaming over the field in the rear, trying in vain
to get up in time to swell the onset upon the English front.
But the onset had proved bad enough as it was. The knights around
the young prince were frightened for his safety. One of them, Sir
Thomas of Norwich, was sent hack to Edward to ask him to come to
the assistance of the prince.
"Sir Thomas," said the king, "is my son dead or unhorsed, or so
wounded that he cannot help himself?"
"Not so, my lord, thank God; but he is fighting against great odds,
and is like to have need of your help."
"Sir Thomas," replied the king, "return to them who sent you, and
tell them from me not to send for me, whatever chance befall them,
so long as my son is alive, and tell them that I bid them let the
lad win his spurs; for I wish, if God so desire, that the day should
be his, and the honor thereof remain to him and to those to whom
I have given him in charge."
And there he stayed in the windmill till the battle was over. Soon
the cry of victory reached him as the French fled in the darkness,
leaving their dead strewn upon the field. Now the young prince
appeared covered with all the glory that his father had coveted
for him, bearing the ostrich plume which he had taken from the dead
King of Bohemia. The boy rode up with his visor raised,—his face
was as fair as a girl's, and glowed under a crown of golden hair.
He bore his trophy aloft, and when it was placed as a knightly
decoration above the crest of his helmet, he little thought that
the triple tuft was to wave for more than five hundred years, even
to this day, on England's front, for such it does, and that, next
to the crown, there shall be no badge so proudly known as the
three feathers which nod above the coronet of the Prince of Wales.
Edward Albert, son of King George V, now wears it because Edward,
the Prince of Wales, when still in his teens, won it at Crecy. We
will leave him there, and go on ten years.
Philip, the French king, had passed away about six years before,
and John, a wild character for such a trying time, had ascended
the throne. He was always plunging himself into difficulties, and
was often guilty of cruelty; and yet was of such a free, generous
nature, and had so many of the virtues of chivalry in that day,
that he was known as "John the Good." He was the extreme opposite
to the grave, prudent, sagacious Edward III, who was still alive
and well, and King of England.
Some time after the victory of Crecy, Calais had been taken, and then
both nations were glad to arrange a truce. Nine years of this had
gone by, when Edward thought it necessary to make another attempt
on France. As soon as might be, therefore, young Edward, his son,
now twenty-five, came over alone, landing at Bordeaux. He had,
meantime, gained great fame. He was now known as "the Black Prince,"
because he had a fancy for having his armor painted as black as
midnight, in order, they say, to give a greater brightness to his
fresh blond complexion and golden hair. Marshaling his little army
of 12,000 men, he set out into the interior of France. When he had
reached the neighborhood of Poitiers, he was astounded by the news
that King John was both after him and behind him, with a force of
60,000 men—five to one! Here was Crecy over again as to numbers,
but there was one thing made it worse; for, as Edward III not long
before had instituted the famous "Order of the Garter" which is
even now one of the foremost orders of knighthood in Europe, so
John, not to be behindhand, and in order to give a new chivalrous
impulse to his nobles, had just instituted the "Order of the Star."
He made five hundred knights of this new order, every one of whom
had vowed that he would never retreat, and would sooner be slain
than yield to an enemy.
The Black Prince thought it almost impossible to fight his way
through such a desperately determined host. So he offered to restore
all he had just conquered and to make another truce, if he might
pass by unmolested. But John would not consent. He must have Calais
back again, and the prince, with one hundred of his best knights,
into the bargain. "This will never do," thought the prince. "Better
try for another Crecy."
On the morning of September 19,1356, the battle began. John had
with him all four of his sons, Charles, Louis, John and Philip; the
eldest only nineteen, and the youngest fourteen. The three former
were put under good guardianship in different portions of the field;
but why the hair-brained monarch took the youngest boy with him
into the very front and thickest of the fight, it is hard to guess,
unless it was another imitation of Edward, and he had also good
reason to think that the lad was unusually well able to take care
of himself, having been trained at arms and pledged to knighthood.
But young "Sir Philip," as he was called, proved quite equal to
King John himself led the van, moving down through a defile, into
which, after a time, his whole army found themselves crowded.
Meantime, the Prince of Wales had planted his army just where he
would tempt John into that trap and had set his archers in good
position. These men were clad in green, like Robin Hood's men, and
carried bows seven feet long and so thick that few men of modern
days could bend them. A cloth-yard shaft from one of these would fly
with tremendous force. Edward had placed these archers in ambush,
behind green hedges, and crouching in the green of the vineyards.
Just as the French king, with all his new chivalry around him, dashed
down the narrow valley—the white standard of France on one side
of him, his keen-eyed little son on the other—and began to deploy
the whole advance battalion, preliminary to a grand charge—whiz!
whiz! whir! whir! from both sides came the arrows, as thick as hail
and as terrible as javelins, from the hidden archers. The astonished
Frenchmen fell back. That crowded still more those who were yet
wedged in the narrow space behind. Now came the English onset.
Then a panic. Then a rout. Then a general flight. Dukes, barons,
knights of all sorts fled with the rest; also Charles, Louis, John,
the three elder sons of the king. The king was in great danger of
being slain; but he did not move, and Philip stood fighting by his
side. The standard-bearer fell, and the white ensign lay in the
dust. Many a faithful knight was cut down, or swept away a prisoner.
But Philip flinched not.
The assailants—some of whom knew the king, while others were
wondering who he might be—pressed them fiercely on every side,
striking at them, but more anxious to take them captives than
to kill them, for they were worth a heavy ransom. The Englishmen
shouted all together, "Yield you! Yield you, else you die!" Little
Sir Philip had no yield in him, as long as his father held out. He
kept close to him, trying to ward off the blows which were aimed
at him, and warning him in time, as his quick eye caught a near
danger on either hand. Every instant he was heard calling out,
"Father, ware right! Father, ware left!" Suddenly a mounted knight
appeared, who hailed the king in French. It was a French knight,
who was fighting on the English side.
"Sir, sir!" he shouted, "I pray you yield!"
"To whom shall I yield me?" said John, "Where is my cousin, the
Prince of Wales?"
"Sir, yield you to me; I will bring you to him."
"Who are you?" said the king.
"Denis de Morbecque, a knight of Artois; I serve the King of England,
not being able to live in France, for I have lost all I possessed
"I yield me to you," said John, handing him his steel glove.
Then the whole crowd began to drag at him, each exclaiming: "I
took him!" Both the king and the prince were sadly hustled, until
two barons broke through the throng by dint of their horses, and
led the two to the tent of the Prince of Wales, "and made him a
present of the King of France!" says an old chronicler. "The prince
also bowed full low before the king, and received him as a king,
properly and discreetly, as he well knew how to do."
In the evening he entertained him and Philip at supper, "and would
not sit at the king's table for all the king's entreaty, but waited
as a serving man, bending the knee before him, and saying: 'Dear
sir, be pleased not to put on so bad a countenance, because it hath
not pleased God to consent this day to your wishes; for, assuredly,
my lord and father will show you all the honor and friendship he
shall be able, and he will come to terms with you so reasonably
that you shall remain good friends forever.'"
Nor did all this end in words, but it went on for years during all
the captivity of King John and Prince Philip,—first at Bordeaux and
afterward at the then new Windsor Castle, in England, where galas,
tournaments, hawking and hunting, and all sorts of entertainments
were devised for them. When King John was brought from Bordeaux
to England, where King Edward had prepared to meet him in great
state, the French king was mounted on a tall, cream-colored charger,
and young Philip rode by his side in great honor also, while the
Prince of Wales sat on a small black horse, like an humble attendant
on them both. The two royal fathers met midway in that London street,
the houses which lined the way were hung with rich tapestries, the
trades were out in companies of many colors, the people thronged
round the steelclad cavalcades as they came together, and they
filled the air with shouts—but what two figures now most fill
the eye when all that pageant has passed away? Not the father who
stood by his son with such chivalrous faith, nor the father whose
son stood by him with such chivalrous devotion, but the fair youth
who carries that tuft of feathers upon his helmet, with its motto,
"I serve," and the lad whom all have heard of as "Philip the Bold";
the boy-hero of Crecy doing chivalrous honor to the boy-hero of