At the age of 50, John of Bohemia was already old for a warrior and completely blind. He not only was the Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia, but also claimant to the thrones of Poland and Hungary. On August 26, 1346, he found himself just south of Calais in northern France, fighting for the French against the English near the village of Crécy. Although unable to see what was occurring, he was able to hear the rout of the front line of Genoese crossbowman and the charge and repulse of the first wave of French cavalry.
He asked two of his barons how bad the situation was, and they told him that the French forces were being cut to pieces. “You are my men, my companions and friends in this journey,” he said. “I ask that you bring me forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.” At the doubts of a few of them, John insisted that they join the fight. “Let us go forward and die with honor,” he said. Seeing no way to object further, the men are said to have “lowered their voices like lambs” and assented, according to an anonymous Roman chronicler. They then tied the bridles of their horses together to guide him.
He would never see the last field he fought upon or wash his hands in the nearby stream or even know from the evidence of his senses that the day was ending just as his life was ending, too. “Lead me into the thick of the fray and God be with us,” he said. Once there, the wings of the English army closed around him and his men, and the blind man was quickly driven from his horse. Soon after the French knight who carried John’s banner also fell, and John himself was trampled to death by the two horses to which his own was attached. John’s death was mourned on both sides. Prince Edward of Wales, whose division had slain John of Bohemia, later adopted his crest and motto.
The Battle of Crécy was the first large-scale land battle in the Hundred Years War. The conflict began as a typical drama of royal succession. Philip IV, king of France, died in 1314 with what he might have imagined was a continued lock on the French throne for the Capetian dynasty because he had three sons. And indeed all of them did succeed him, but by 1328 they were all dead, too. Louis X had died at 26, Philip V at 29, and Charles IV at 33. None of them left a male heir.
Philip IV’s daughter, Isabella, had married the king of England in 1308, making her son, later king Edward III, closest in line to the French throne. In swooped Philip of Valois, and with the French barons and prelates on his side, they invoked a clause in the Salic law that stated that women could not inherit landed property. It was the first time the French crown had invoked the law that had been instituted eight centuries earlier by Frankish King Clovis.
Not surprisingly, this clause was extrapolated to cover kingship; after all, if a woman could not inherit property, how could she inherit a kingship that could never be hers, let alone pass that claim to her children? No doubt this interpretation had something to do with an English king being so close to the French throne, and it easily won support. The French crown declared that the transmission of kingship could only pass through the patrilineal line, making Philip of Valois (Philip VI) the new French king. The English contested the claim, insisting that Edward III should be made king over the French by right of his mother Isabella.
History is never quite as easy as arcane or convenient interpretations of law, though. At the time of Philip’s accession, Edward III had been on the English throne only for a year. Edward was crowned king in 1327 when he was 15. Even more dramatically, he had only come to the throne after his mother and her lover, with the support of French King Charles IV, had deposed, imprisoned, and likely murdered his father, Edward II. Following a decade in which his half-brother and first cousin had also been executed, no one would have expected that Edward would reign for the next half century. Yet he showed his willfulness almost immediately. His mother and her lover were made the fools if they assumed the young king would be easy to control. In 1330 he forced his mother into retirement, while her lover was tried and executed for various crimes. In the middle of this, Edward’s rightful claim to the throne of France was taken from him by a technicality, and yet he had the temerity in 1329 to travel to the Cathedral of Amiens and, expected to accept Philip’s claim, did so in such a vague way as to ensure future disputes.
Edward also immediately renewed England’s continual wars with Scotland, and in 1333 won a victory at Halidon Hill, installing an English-backed king. This prompted the expected response from France, which supported a different monarch for Scotland. Through the Auld Alliance, France frequently sent aid to Scotland in its wars against England and vice-versa. Although the French requested Scottish assistance at Crécy, the Scots were unable to provide it.
Two more matters exacerbated the dispute. The first involved an exile from the French court, Robert of Artois, who escaped to England and whom Edward III refused to extradite. The second concerned the area of Gascony in southwest France, which had long belonged to the English but only on the condition of their recognition of the the French crown. As a show of disapproval over England’s treatment of Scotland and its refusal to extradite Robert of Artois, Philip annexed Gascony in 1337 and invaded it the following year, prompting Edward to declare himself the rightful king of France. Artois, by then a trusted adviser of Edward’s, seems to have egged the king on in his own way, reputedly placing a heron, the symbol of cowardice, before him at a banquet.
But Edward must have soon realized that Philip felt hemmed in by his moves. While France was clearly more powerful and boasted a larger population, England was more united than France. For Philip, it was unlikely that the population of Gascony would quietly become French subjects, no matter how the French tried to either force them or foment rebellion there. Like their neighbors the Basques of northern Spain, the Gascons had their own culture and customs and even their own language. They preferred the English to the French in part because they were allowed more autonomy under the English. Flanders also was largely autonomous. When Edward, in response to Philip’s actions, halted the export of English wool and invited manufacturers from the Low Countries to set up shop in England, the threat to the remaining Flemish merchants was a real one. As such, Edward’s claim was said to have the support of everyone from the sheep farmers on up. This included the authorities of Ghent, Ypres, and Bruges, all of whom declared Edward the rightful French king.
As English rulers or enemies all quickly realize, though, any expedition going either way across the English Channel becomes an immensely expensive logistical endeavor. While Edward’s forces did defeat the French fleet off the Flemish port city of Sluys in 1340, in 1337 and 1339 full-scale invasions of the Continent had faltered over lack of money, and another would not be attempted until 1346. There was, as yet, nothing like a dependable military industrial complex for either country to rely upon, and the finances of such an invasion were so precarious that Edward’s later inability to pay back a loan received from the famous Bardi bank of Florence led to its collapse. Even the money earned from England’s wool trade, which at one point was being diverted for the war effort, was not enough. Meanwhile, Philip’s subjects refused to pay any more taxes during the brief truces of 1340, 1343, and 1345, stubbornly declaring they would pay no more taxes unless there was an actual invasion.
By early 1346, though, Edward had his money and began gathering his supplies and forces. With no permanent navy, the 700 ships used in the invasion belonged to fishers and traders knowing they would be paid well by the king. They began gathering at Portsmouth near the end of April and for the next two months supplies were assembled for the invasion.