Hesdin, France (1346 & 1415 AD)
The Hundred Years War, a dynastic feud between England and France which actually lasted well over a century, was the definitive war in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages. Fought in four stages, ultimately with a French triumph, the Hundred Years War is actually most famous for three overwhelmingly lobsided English victories. Two of these, the Battle of Crecy in 1346 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, were fought seven decades but barely twenty miles apart from each other. In both cases, badly outnumbered English forces inflicted crushing defeats and massive casualties on the French, largely due to effective use of massed bowmen. These victories allowed the English to maintain the war on French soil for far longer than would otherwise have been possible.
The Hundred Years War began as a feud for control of the French monarchy. Thanks to convoluted laws of succession, Edward III of England inherited a semi-legitimate claim to the French crown in 1328. In 1337 he decided to press his claim, and hostilities broke out between England and France. The early years of the war were dominated by minor engagements, notably in Brittany. In 1340 the English fleet utterly destroyed the French fleet at Sluys, thereby securing the Channel, and the initiative, for the English for the next century.
In 1346 the English invaded France outright. Taking the French by surprise, the English seized Caen, the old capital of Normandy under William the Conqueror. They then began moving along the coast towards Calais. The French amassed a huge army to stop them. The two sides met at Crecy. The English arrived first, setting up a strong defensive position that maximized the use of their superior force of archers. The French arrived well after the English had time to rest and prepare. They basically charged right between the English lined, unprepared, and were cut to ribbons by wave after wave of arrows. By the time the slaughter was over, well over two thousand of their twenty thousand soldiers were casualties, while the English lost only a few hundred out of their ten thousand.
The English victory at Crecy opened the door to the English conquest of Calais, which became and remained an English possession until 1556. In addition to losing this key port, Crecy was a military and strategic disaster for France. It set the stage for the Battle of Poitiers two years later, which solidified English control of northern France until the 15th century. From 1346 to 1415, there were two long periods of warfare and two long periods of peace. In 1415 hostilities resumed for the third time.
Under Henry V of England, the English almost perfectly recreated their campaign of a century earlier. Landing with a large force in Normandy, he re-captured territories that had been liberated by the French. In response the French amassed another army and chased the English to Agincourt. This time the English were outnumbered three-to-one, but the outcome was still the same, with even higher casualties. Massed English bowmen inflicted perhaps as many as ten thousand casualties, with a loss of about one hundred English soldiers. This victory allowed the English to stay in France for a further forty years, before the French drove them out of Normandy utterly.
Of the two battlefields, which can both easily be visited on one day, Agincourt is the more interesting from a visitor standpoint. Markers note the sites where the engagements took place, and there is large gravesite where the dead from the battle are buried. A small museum in the village of Azincourt features artifacts from the battle. The Crecy battlefield boasts a tower built on the site of the windmill from which Edward III commanded the battle.
Both battlefields are located close to the town of Hesdin, about thirty miles south of Calais and about 130 miles north of Paris. Both battlefields are open sites. The Battle of Agincourt Museum in Azincourt is open daily from 9:00am-5:00pm (longer hours in summer). The cost of admission is E1.50. Web: www.azincourt-medieval.fr (official website).