Michael Livingston on The Battle of Crécy

Michael Livingston

The author of a new history of the battle discusses Crécy, Bernard Cornwell and mudfests.
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Michael Livingston, congratulations on the new book, Crécy. We have a few questions. Jonathan Sumption called Crécy a political catastrophe for the French. Just how big a defeat was it, after all the 100 Yrs War had only begun in 1337, and would continue to be fought for another century ending in French victory?

Crécy was a bloody, awful event. And, yes, it was a catastrophe for the French — though at first no one who survived the carnage could have seen beyond the thousands of bodies to recognize what those deaths would truly mean moving forward. Because while the English won the battle — a victory that was as shocking as it was magnificent — they didn’t win much of anything else. Edward III didn’t become king of France at Crécy. He simply survived. But so, too, did English ambition. And that ambition, combined with the paralysis of a French king reeling from the massive loss, gave Edward III the opportunity to besiege Calais. The English ultimately wresting that jewel from the French crown did more than anything else to ensure the decades upon decades of bloodshed that were the Hundred Years War.

Much like your previous book which dealt with the Battle of Brunanburh (Never Greater Slaughter), Crécy looks at the location of the battle. Have we been wrong up until now in understanding where it took place?

Medieval depiction of the battle.

I believe so, yes … though the way the cases are made is very different. With Brunanburh, the search has, for many people, been bound only by their imaginations. In Never Greater Slaughter I tried to take readers on the journey of dealing with so much darkness, if you will. In contrast, what’s striking about Crécy is just how much light there is. I walk the reader through dozens and dozens of sources in this book, and they’re all telling us the same details about where it was fought — details that simply don’t mesh with the traditional site. They point instead to another location, miles away on the other side of a river. As I argue in the book, this change matters. Tactics are terrain dependent. If we have the battle in the wrong place, what chance do we have of understanding how and why those thousands of men died?

Brunanburh was a significant event in the development of England as a nation state. What role did Crécy play in defining the English in relation to their traditional foe, France?

Crécy certainly had an enormous impact on the future relationship between England and France, but I would actually look at it in even wider terms. I’ve subtitled this book Battle of Five Kings as a way of highlighting how truly international this battle was. The king of England faced off against an army led by the king of France, but with him were the kings of Bohemia, Majorca, and the Romans. And that broad reach is reflected in our sources. We all know the importance of Hastings today, and I’ve certainly tried to argue for the importance of Brunanburh, but Crécy is the first English battle to have reached the headlines. We have sources from Wales to Italy to Bohemia. There’s a clear sense from them that Crécy is the battle that put England on the map as a political and military power in Europe.

Crécy seems to have had many similarities with Agincourt which was fought in 1415 – many French noblemen killed, longbowmen being decisive, and a mudfest. Is it just an earlier version of Henry V’s great victory?

I might say Agincourt is just a later version of Crécy! ::laughs:: In all seriousness, the ties that bind these two battles are extraordinary. Henry V was in many respects actively trying to walk in Edward III’s footsteps, to re-enact the great glory of Crécy. Among the interesting questions when we compare them, I think, is what drove Henry to feel this way, and what lesson the French had learned once they recognized the actions of their enemy. There’s a reason that my next book is on Agincourt!

What role did the Black Prince play in the battle?

The Black Prince at Crécy by Julian Russell Story, standing over the King of Bohemia.

Not the one everyone thinks! There was an early effort to present the crown prince as a hero who “earned his spurs” as a knight — as Froissart famously puts it — fighting in the front line that day. This is the story Edward III wanted to be told, and it’s certainly the one I was taught and believed! But when we open ourselves to the dozens of other accounts of the battle we get a very clear picture of something far different. Yes, that sixteen-year-old boy fought in the vanguard, and I’d be willing to bet he carried himself better than I would have managed at that age. But our sources report that he over-extended his position and was captured by the enemy. Were it not for a heroic rescue in the middle of the melee — after panic had seized the English lines and sent his father charging out after him — the Black Prince might have been led from Crécy a prisoner of war. His ransom, we can imagine, could have left us with no Hundred Years War at all.

During the Hundred Years War, the English recall three great victories: Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, but don’t seem to remember the defeats. Which of these should be more prominent for an Englishman to be aware of?

Given the number of people I’ve met who think the English won the Hundred Years War, I’d say Castillon in 1453. The war didn’t actually end until a couple decades after that battle, but after Castillon I’d say the English cause in France was mortally wounded and on life support. Even setting that aside, it’s a fascinating engagement that points to lessons learned in war. It’s safe to say I plan to look at it before too long.

We are huge fans of Bernard Cornwell here at Aspects of History, and he’s written the foreword, as he did with Brunanburh. Do you have a favourite series of his?

Bernard is great. My favorite, without doubt, is his Saxon series — and I’d say that even if its final book didn’t end on the field of Brunanburh!

You’re certainly a master of accounts of medieval battles. Do you have your eye on your next project?

Agincourt. As I said earlier, it has so many ties to Crécy that it seemed natural to investigate it next. I’m deep into that work now, and I can’t wait to share what I’m finding with all of my readers.

Michael Livingston is an academic and writer and author of Crécy: Battle of Five Kings is out now and is published by Osprey.

Aspects of History Issue 10 is out now.

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