Battle of Caen (1346)


Battle of Caen (1346)

"This article is about the battle in 1346 during the Hundred Years War. For the Second World War battle for the same city see Battle for Caen."Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Caen
partof=Crécy Campaign, Hundred Years War
date=26 July, 1346
place=Caen, Normandy
result=English army captured the city
combatant1=
combatant2=
commander1=Edward III of England
commander2=Raoul II of Brienne, Count of Eu
strength1=12,000 (not all engaged)
strength2=1,500 soldiers
casualties1=Unknown, light
casualties2=~5,000 soldiers and civilians
The Battle of Caen in 1346 was a running battle through the streets of the Norman city during the English invasion of Normandy under King Edward III in July of that year. It was the first significant action of the campaign which would ultimately lead to the crushing English victory at the battle of Crecy and the subsequent siege of Calais, which had a significant effect on the remainder of the Hundred Years War.

Landing in France

The campaign began on the 11 July when Edward's fleet departed the South of England and landed the day afterwards at St. Vaast la Hogue, twenty miles from Cherbourg. The force was estimated to be between 12,000 and 15,000 strong and consisted of both English and Welsh soldiers combined with a number of German and Breton mercenaries and allies, including several local barons who were unhappy with the rule of King Philip VI of France. The English army marched southwards, Edward's aim being to conduct a chevauchée, or large scale raid across French territory to reduce his opponent’s morale and wealth. His soldiers responded by burning towns in their path and looting whatever they wished from the populace. The towns of Carentan, St Lo and Torteval were razed as the army passed, along with many others. Caen, the cultural, political, religious and financial centre of North-West Normandy was Edward's initial target, he hoped to recoup his expenditure on the expedition and terrorise the French government by taking this important position and destroying it.

Caen itself was an old city broken into two parts. It sat on the north bank of the River Orne and was further divided by a branch of the River Odon which split the town into old and new parts. The old part was a walled city with a very strong castle, but was vulnerable to an English attack at positions where the walls had crumbled. The new part of the city was a wealthy district of merchants and landowners, who lived on the island formed between the Orne and its branch which divided the city. This district was more easily defended, as its perimeter was formed by the river and was connected by three fortified bridges to the neighbouring banks. It was however possible, especially in summer, for a man to ford the branch of the river although such a crossing was inevitably risky. The town also possessed two large fortified abbeys, one on each side of the city, which could be used to form bastions against an attacking force.

The battle

The English army arrived outside the walls on the 26 July, and immediately seized the undefended abbeys, before forming up for a planned attack on the old town, Edward wasting no time with siege preparations as his army possessed no siege weaponry. The French defenders led by Raoul II of Brienne, Count of Eu had originally planned to defend the old town and castle, but pressure from wealthy citizens persuaded him to shift the defence to the island once the English had arrived. This hasty withdrawal proved disastrous, as important precautions, vital for the city's defence were overlooked in the hurried relocation.

With their initial plan now unnecessary, the English changed the axis of their advance and prepared to assault the defended bridges onto northern bank, whilst a small force was dispatched to blockade the 300 soldiers remaining in the castle in the north of the town led by the Bishop of Bayeux. As Edward pushed his troops into position it seems that the English foot soldiers, eager for plunder preempted his orders and rushed the bridges before the assault team was fully in place. The attack was nominally led by the Earl of Warwick, Earl of Northampton and Richard Talbot, although these men had very little control over the men supposedly under their command. When Edward saw the assault go ahead before he was ready he ordered the retreat but was ignored by his men.

As hundreds of English soldiers flung themselves across the bridges and into a furious melee on the far side which had drawn in the entire French garrison, teams of English Longbow men and Welsh lancers waded across the shrunken river and others found boats which had not been removed from the northern bank during the hasty relocation at the start of the action. The French force was stretched too thin defending the whole river bank and broke at several points and allowed the English to enter the city and attack the bridge defenders from the rear, prompting a collapse in the city's defence. The most senior French officers took to their horses and rode through the English to the castle's safety whilst a few others barricaded themselves in the tower overlooking the bridge, but the rest of their forces were cut down as they ran, only a handful of prisoners being taken.

Aftermath

The victorious English then began a furious sack of the town, burning most of it to the ground, seizing hundreds of pounds worth of valuables and gold as well as killing approximately a half of the town's population, with the remainder fleeing into the countryside, pursued by cavalry. At least 2,500 French bodies were later buried in mass graves outside the town, and total fatalities are said to have topped 5,000. English casualties were not recorded except that one man-at-arms was killed, although losses amongst the enlisted archers and lancers must have been heavy. The sack of the city continued for five days, during which Edward attempted and failed to capture the castle, and paid homage over the grave of his ancestor William the Conqueror who was buried in the town.

Amongst the spoil from the city were several senior French noblemen who had not escaped and were later ransomed by their English captors including the Count of Eu who would remain a prisoner in England until 1350 when he returned voluntarily to France and was summarily executed by the king. Also discovered was a proclamation from the French king for Norman raiding parties to despoil the south coast of England, which was used by recruiting parties in England for some years to come to stir up anti-French feeling. The English army moved off on the 1 August, leaving behind the castle and devastated city and pushing southwards towards the River Seine and potentially Paris beyond. That goal would be denied to Edward, but in the subsequent victories at Blanchetaque, Crecy and Calais, he would establish an English presence in northern France for two hundred years to come.

Trivia

*Bernard Cornwell's novel "The Archer's Tale" provides a dramatised yet substantially accurate portrayal of this action.
*Ken Follett's novel "World without end" has a scene in Caen in the aftermath of the battle.

References

*Jonathan Sumption, "The Hundred Years War, Vol 1, Trial by Battle", 1990, ISBN 0-571-13895-0
*A.H. Burne, "The Crecy War", 1955, ISBN 1-85367-081-2


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