Crécy, by Gordon Corrigan

Rebecca Yates

The acclaimed historian's latest book is on one of the great battles of the Middle Ages.
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Crécy: Finest Hours is a highly engaging exploration of the background of the Hundred Years’ War, the Battle of Crécy, and its aftermath. Gordon Corrigan presents Crécy as a key turning point in English military history, representative of the shifts in English society and military systems which prefaced their later, perhaps more famous, victories at Poitiers and Agincourt.

The narrative begins nearly three centuries before the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War in 1066 with the Norman conquest, then tracks the key events of the subsequent three centuries, with particular emphasis on the reigns of Edward I and Edward II. England is not the exclusive focus: political developments in states such as Scotland and France, the details of the English claim to the French throne through Isabella of France and Edward III, and conflict between England and Scotland are given particular attention, due to their relevance to the origins of the Hundred Years’ War and the development of English military strategy. Corrigan then turns to the war itself, outlining the origins of the conflict and its key points of engagement, including the Battle of Sluys. The book concludes with a detailed analysis of Edward III’s campaign in France leading up to Crécy, the battle itself, and its consequences.

The broader span of the narrative provides critical context for Corrigan’s arguments that the Norman conquest’s impact on existing Anglo-Saxon structures and systems created significant changes within England’s social and political systems, and consequently within the military, by the mid-14th century. Deviations from the chronological overview of events map out wider socio-political trends including changes in the English peerage and their impact, for example on the systems of retinue and array, convincingly demonstrating how these contributed to the increasing professionalization of the English army in the 14th century. Similar sideline discussions of Anglo-Scottish conflict introduce a background for the shift in the composition of English armies away from heavy cavalry in favour of the archer, and the development of strategies to make full use of archers and infantry, which were so integral to their success at Crécy, and later battles such as Agincourt.

However, the broad temporal and thematic scope also renders the book extremely accessible as an introductory text for those who might be unfamiliar with medieval warfare or the Hundred Years’ War specifically. As it overviews the key political context and players, as well as introducing the origins of the weaponry, army composition, and military strategy present at Crécy, the arguments are comprehensible without any prior knowledge on the topic. However, there is also a high level of detail and analysis throughout: Corrigan discusses naval and military tactics, the socio-political structures which underpinned the army, and the development of weaponry in both the French and English contexts in great depth. He also underlines issues which are debated by modern historians, such as the deployment of archers at Crécy, and runs through the scenarios based on multiple sources and established military practices to draw well-reasoned conclusions which contribute greatly to the scholarship.

Crécy maintains a careful balance between contextualizing the Battle of Crécy and the Hundred Years’ War, and providing insightful commentary on the specific tactics and weaponry used, and their contributions to the English victory over France. This is an immensely satisfying read for anyone with an interest in medieval military history, no matter their background in the subject, which provides an unprecedented window into the causes of English military success in the early years of the Hundred Years’ War.

Gordon Corrigan is the author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock and Wellington: A Military Life.