The power and efficacy of the longbow as a significant weapon of medieval warfare is evidenced most aptly in the infamous battles of the Hundred Years’ War; Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt being the most notable examples. However, its successful use in warfare, particularly by the English (and their Welsh subjects, whose involvement we shouldn’t forget), predates both the Hundred Years’ War itself, and significantly the Battle of Crécy within the war. The combination of archery and dismounted men-at-arms was not a revolutionary tactic in 1346. In fact, the function of infantry in defensive formations had been a proven tactic for decades. The English themselves had lost favour with the cavalry charge as a primary offensive tactic following their decimation at the hands of the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. By deploying his now famous pikemen in defensive formations known as schiltrons, Robert the Bruce helped to forge a tactical blueprint that arguably paved the way for the successes of the English in the centuries that followed.
With these things in mind, it seems preposterous that the nature of the English tactics in the Battle of Crécy could have taken the French completely by surprise. This oddity becomes even more peculiar when we consider the fact that the French themselves had not only been witness to the influence of the longbow on a battle, but they were given front row seats by Henry of Grosmont and his men almost a year prior to Crécy; on October 21 1345. The Battle of Auberoche is justifiably not considered among the true triumphs of the longbow. In fact, the conflict not only features highly aggressive tactics in complete contrast to those of the aforementioned battles, but it also includes a true cavalry charge. Despite this, the Battle of Auberoche was a direct lesson in the nature of warfare the French would soon face, a lesson of which they did not take heed.
In addition to the efficacy of massed and highly disciplined longbowmen, the potency of the English forces in France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was largely due to their mobility. The Anglo-Scottish border wars that preceded the fighting in France demonstrated not only the need for a mobile force, but the military dominance that could be gained by a powerful force that could move rapidly. The fleetness of the English forces was most notably demonstrated by the chevauchées that wreaked havoc on the French countryside. On occasion however, such proficient mobility was made evident in direct military encounters; and this is the case with the Battle of Auberoche.
Setting the scene…
The castle of Auberoche, situated atop a rocky prominence overlooking a small river in a relatively unknown and secluded valley of Gascony, was in English hands in the summer of 1345. Shortly after arriving in Bordeaux, Henry of Grosmont, the earl of Derby, set about conquering upper Gascony. He had been given almost free rein in military terms, acting directly on behalf of the king, and was extremely successful in his first months in France. The previous French occupants of Auberoche had surrendered to Henry as he was setting to besiege the castle – a situation Henry was becoming accustomed to in his movements about the region. After capturing the castle, Henry left a sufficient garrison and continued on his travels – a tactic he matched in all castles deemed important to the control of Gascony. Fast forward to October 1345 and while the dominant English army, with Henry at the head, returned to their base at Bordeaux, the French began re-forming at La Réole under their commander, Count Bertrand de l’Isle-Jourdain (known as Count de l’Isle from this point onward). Upon hearing word of the English earl taking up residence in Bordeaux, Count de l’Isle considered it unlikely that Henry would undertake any more military excursions at such a late stage in the season. The Count called upon his men and requested that they meet him at Auberoche, for he sought to besiege the castle.
In his Chronicles, Jean Froissart recounts an almost fantastical tale of the siege, where not only are there verbal encounters between the besiegers and the besieged along the walls of the castle, particularly theatrical in their nature, but there is even the claim of an English messenger being captured by the French and launched back into the castle from one of the French siege engines (as shown in the feature image above). The reality is likely much less dramatic, but for the purposes of this article, all we need know is that the English garrison was suffering under a particularly tight and relentless siege, and that Henry was informed and, contrary to the beliefs of Count de l’Isle, he would ride to the aid of his men.
The English response…
Upon hearing word of the French siege of Auberoche, Henry hurriedly assembled a force somewhere in the range of 1000 men – believed to be well under 1000 by Froissart, but modern numbers estimate a force more likely around 1200 strong, with approximately 400 men-at-arms and 800 archers. In addition, the earl of Derby sent word to the earl of Pembroke, who was still on the march in the region, to meet him en route to Auberoche in order to bolster the numbers of the English and improve their chances of relieving the garrison. Henry and his men arrived at the suggested meeting point, but eager to relieve their countrymen, they opted not to wait longer than 24 hours for the earl of Pembroke and his men. After the time had passed, and the additional forces had failed to arrive, Henry continued onward. The English force paused again en route to Auberoche but once more their countrymen failed to join forces with them. Pushing on, they arrived near the castle on October 20. Such was the size and nature of the English relief force, they were able to approach within 2 miles of the French camp, and using the dense wood of the region as cover, had managed to entirely avoid alerting the enemy of their presence. After concealing themselves in the trees and alighting from their mounts, the English set themselves to now wait for the additional forces required to attack the besiegers. Secrecy was of the utmost importance in the English camp, especially as it became known that they were currently outnumbered, somewhere in the region or six or seven to one.
On the morning of October 21, the English awoke to find that the earl of Pembroke was still yet to join them, and as the day pressed on they would exhaust the food supplies they had carried with them. Foraging for food was not an option for Henry’s men as it would almost definitely lead to the loss of surprise which stood as their only hope of victory. As the day grew longer, Henry summoned a council of war and the decision to attack with the current force was made. As the leader of his men, and the person electing to attack, Henry took it upon himself to undertake a scouting expedition through the woods and was able to move unseen to a position only a few hundred yards from the French camp. From his position, Henry was able to ascertain the positioning of the vast majority of the French force, and more importantly, was able to notice that they were heavily distracted in preparing their evening meal. Henry returned to his camp and set about planning the attack.
The Battle of Auberoche…
The English would advance in secret, as close to the French as possible. They would do so in three distinct groupings. The archers, the infantry, and the cavalry, all approaching from different positions. The plan saw the archers hidden in the woods on the flanks of the French, and in range; the cavalry positioned approximately 200-300 yards from the French camp; and the infantry had made their way to the rear of the French forces, intent on crushing them as they fled from the cavalry charge.
Cries of Derby! rang out from the archers and they unleashed a wave of arrows onto the unsuspecting French – who were anticipating nothing but their dinner. Upon hearing the cries of their countrymen, the English cavalry charged from the cover of the trees. As the cavalry were joined by the infantry storming into the French camp, the archers were forced to halt their loosing. A scene of complete dismay and confusion fell upon the French camp. Small forces of French soldiers were able to band together around French officers who had managed to unfurl banners of their own, but this merely provided the English archers with ideal targets to continue their volleys. The battle was short and brutal, at one stage the French managed to group a reasonable force, but before they could make a stand, the English garrison within Auberoche seized their moment, charging out of the castle to completely overwhelm what was left of the besieging force.
The Battle of Auberoche was not only a catastrophe for the French in terms of the loss of men, it would also go down as one of the most profitable battles of the Hundred Years’ War for either side. The number of nobles captured by the English forced an incredible amount of total ransom to be paid by the losers. The English utilised shrewd tactics, leading to a small force obliterating the much larger French force. The battle may be different in general tactical nature to Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, but hindsight allows us to see the similarities, and in doing so, highlight the lessons that the French failed to learn. The changing nature of warfare seen in the first decades of the fourteenth century, and evidenced in the Hundred Years’ War battles prior to Crécy, was lost on the French. The reality is, for decades after Auberoche the French simply had no answer to the flexibility, mobility, and speed of the English forces expertly deploying the combination of disciplined longbowmen, and predominantly dismounted men-at-arms.
- Feature image: The Battle of Auberoche, Anciennes chroniques d’Angleterre , Jean de Wavrin. BNF Français 76 f. 101 v
- Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Archer (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985)
- Alfred H. Burne, The Crecy War: A Military History of the Hundred Years War from 1337 to the Peace of Bretigny in 1360 (Yorkshire: Frontline Books, 2016)
- Clifford J. Rogers, The Wars of Edward III: Sources and Interpretations (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1999)
- Andrew Ayton and Sir Phillip Preston, ‘Topography and Archery: Further Reflections’, in The Battle of Crécy, 1346 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005)
- Richard Barber, Edward III and the Triumph of England (London: Penguin Books, 2013)
- Michael Prestwich, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996)
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