The Battle of Poitiers, 1356
By Clifford Rogers
Desperta Ferro. Revista de historia militar y política. Antigua y medieval, No.38 (2016)
There are days when the course of the history of the world—or a large part of it, anyway—depends on the character, emotions, decisions, and actions of a few men in a single place.
September 19, 1356, was one of those days. That morning, King Jean II of France looked southwards over the fields of Maupertuis, near the abbey of Nouaillé, not far from the city of Poitiers. Edward Plantagenet, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine, known in later days as the Black Prince, stood opposite him. Both men were ready for battle, and each hoped that the impending clash of armies would result not just in a tactical victory, but in a strategic one that would lead directly to a favorable peace.
Some modern historians are skeptical of the very idea of “decisive battle,” and even more doubtful that the concept can be applied to late-medieval warfare. Jonathan Sumption, for example, has written of the “essential unimportance of battles as a means of achieving anything of long-term significance” during the Hundred Years War. After all, the English won nearly all the open battles of the Hundred Years War, yet ultimately the war was “decided” in favor of the French.
But the peace negotiations at Guînes in 1353-4 had demonstrated that the English martial successes in the first two decades of the war had nearly brought the French to the point of accepting a treaty that was satisfactory to the English. A second Crécy could be expected to break the diplomatic logjam and tip the balance to a victorious peace for Edward III. On the other hand, if the French could recover their military prestige and confidence by destroying the Anglo-Gascon army, and ideally end the day with Prince Edward himself a prisoner, the English would be hard-pressed to continue the struggle, and would likely accept a compromise peace that did not require the partition of France envisioned by the draft agreement of 1354.