Gordon Corrigan on Poitiers

Gordon talks the great battle won by the Black Prince.
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Gordon, can you tell us a little bit more about the Finest Hours series? What attracted you to writing about the Hundred Years Wars and Battle of Poitiers?

I’ve always been interested in the Hundred Years War period because it saw a revolution in military affairs where armies, or at least the English army, developed from a medieval feudal host into what was while perhaps not a modern army, at least an army that is recognisable to us today: professional, uniformed, with a clear chain of command and with a legal code.  It was also a time of remarkable social mobility, much more so than is possible today, where ability counted and advancement depended on it.  There are numerous examples of men of very humble beginnings – in some cases private soldiers – showing merit in battle and eventually ending up as army commanders and knighted or even elevated to the peerage.

Can you tell us a little about how you researched Poitiers? Has your research process changed over the years?

I have always believed that one must rely on original primary sources, and fortunately lots of contemporary accounts survive.  That said one has to try to see through after-the-event propaganda, exercises in post hoc ergo propter hoc logic (or lack of it) and fanciful flights of the imagination.  Tapestries and paintings are generally created to please whoever commissioned them and are rarely accurate.  An example is the depiction of horses as always being entires.  In fact they were geldings and mares – an entire on a battlefield would be more likely to dump its rider and take off into the next county rather than charge the enemy. I relied very largely on the contemporary chronicles of Jean Froissart, Le Bel, Lanercost, Le Baker, Brut, Meaux, Knighton, Walsingham and Chandos although some are very broad brush indeed. All are available either in the National Archives in Kew or in the British Library at St Pancras.  These sources are written in Norman French, Middle English or Latin.  My modern French is reasonably good and Norman French is not that different.  Middle English is the English of Chaucer and with a reasonable knowledge of German is easily understood.  As I have an O level in Latin (albeit many years ago) I thought that the Latin sources would be easy but medieval Latin contained conventions and abbreviations that were not taught to twentieth century public schoolboys, so I had to search for translations or rely on my wife (a medievalist).  Concomitant with perusing the primary sources, and such secondary sources that I thought were reliable, I walked the ground of all the actions that I was mention in the book and spent many hours on the site of what am I convinced (although not all are) was the site of the Battle of Poitiers.

You talk about the impact of individuals such as The Black Prince and Jean II. To what extent was the outcome of the Battle of Poitiers determined by strong leadership (or lack of it)?

There is no question that the outcome of the battle depended very much on the leadership qualities of Edward, the Black Prince, and also on the composition of the English armies and the tactics it employed. By now English armies were professional, that is they offered a paid career for both soldiers and officers.  It was mobile in that it was entirely horse mounted, but it fought on foot, having discovered that trained disciplined infantry, properly equipped, could see off any number of mounted cavalrymen, however well-bred the latter might be.  Those infantry were supported by the missile weapon of the archers on either flank.  At Poitiers Edward positioned his army on a ridge with both flanks anchored and invited the French to attack him.

The French army, on the other hand, was still feudal, largely mounted and made up of noblemen who equipped themselves and fought very much as they liked, under the direction of far too many commanders, whether members of the Royal Family or appointed.  There was no clearly distinguishable chain of command, and in any case unlike England which was a united country under a respected king, what we call France was a collection of semi independent duchies all owing feudal loyalty to the king of France but quite prepared to ignore him if it suited them.  The French did fight dismounted at Poitiers, they had learned that much from Crecy, but they were not trained or equipped to do so efficiently, and they lacked the missile support that the English had in the latter’s archers.

What distinguishes the Battle of Poitiers from other major engagements during the Hundred Years’ War?

Apart from the scale, not much.  To quote the Duke of Wellington 460 years later ‘they came on in the same old way, and we beat them in the same old way’.  While the French did employ some mercenary professionals they were not held in high regard.  Many French soldiers realised that the English archers were a major factor in French defeats, but French society was such that they dare not emulate them.  To arm the lower orders would be to risk them turning on their betters – as indeed happened (without being armed) during the Jaquerie uprising shortly after the battle.

Were there any particularly surprising or lesser-known aspects of the Battle of Poitiers that you uncovered during your research?

I was surprised at the site of the battle claimed by the French tourist authorities, where there are explanatory boards,  and grave markers.  Anyone who has military experience and can appreciate ground would see that this could not be where it happened! Add that to what the chronicles tell us and I am convinced that the battle happened on the plaine de plumie in a loop of the River Moisson, north west of Nouaille Maupertuis.

How did the Battle of Poitiers shape the subsequent events of the Hundred Years’ War and the relations between England and France?

For a while, with the elimination of most of the French governing class and the capture of the French king, it looked as if that would be the end of the war.  It was not to be.  France descended into anarchy where no one could take a decision and make it stick, and disagreements between the king in the Tower of London and his son the dauphin in France, allied with the death of the Black Prince followed by his father Edward III and the accession of a child king (Richard II) in England meant that the war went on for almost another century.

Poitiers (Finest Hours Book 3) by [Gordon Corrigan]

Gordon Corrigan is the author of Finest Hours: Poitiers.