The Battle of Crécy is one of the most famous battles of both the Hundred Years War and the late Middle Ages. It made legends of many of its participants including Edward the Black Prince. It was a testament to the skill, daring and cunning of the English; to the wisdom and strategic brilliance of Edward III. It was a deciding victory.
And almost everything we know about it may in fact be wrong. Or at least, slightly askew.
Livingston performs some astounding historical detective work – walking the site of the battle (which was probably not where it had commonly been supposed to be), combing through previously untranslated or disregarded sources and applying rigorous critical thought to piecing events together. It’s almost impossible to approach historical events without some bias of opinion, of course, but Livingston is good at leaving his at the door whilst simultaneously acknowledging its existence. The result is a highly readable, gripping and informative narrative of events which finally makes sense of previous inconsistencies and contradictory accounts. I especially appreciated the author’s stance that ‘no one is a fool’ and that if you work from that assumption rather than that the losing side were idiots, you’re far more likely to get as close to the truth of what happened as possible.
In adhering to this principle, Livingston takes the reader on a whistle stop tour of events leading up to the Battle of Crécy, inviting us to appreciate the changing mindsets of the time rather than viewing events through an entirely modern gaze. It serves as a useful primer for those not familiar with Medieval history and a refresher for those who are. Along the way, Livingston challenges, and occasionally explodes, a number of myths. Edward III is perhaps given too much credit as a relatively young and untried war leader; the Battle itself was not the culmination of Edward’s careful plans, but rather a reflection of his cleverness as a field commander and his choice of field of engagement – and the English came very close to disaster. The Black Prince was not the hero depicted in later retellings but instead came close to losing the entire campaign through foolish actions.
Most interestingly, viewing the events as part of a larger whole – in other words understanding that all decisions were made by leaders playing the long game because their intent was to win the war, not merely a battle here and there, puts into perspective just what it means to have a ‘deciding victory’ in battle.
If you are looking for a deep dive into the minutiae of armaments, troop movements and Medieval war equipment, this book may not be for you. (Although all such things are thoroughly canvassed by other sources.) Similarly, if you don’t find the process of historical detective work itself interesting or the ‘why’ or ‘how-dunnit’ of history engaging, there are books which might suit your needs better. However, if certain aspects of the Battle of Crécy have always struck you as inconsistent narratively; if you enjoy the process of tracking down new sources and considering them alongside established bodies of evidence; if you’re willing to consider that the favoured version of events may not be the true version, then this is absolutely the book for you. Fascinating and engaging, and told with clear passion for the subject, Crécy: Battle of Five Kings is not to be missed.