Battle, or Skirmish, of Blanchetaque, 24th August 1346

On 24th August 1346 the English army crossed the river Somme. The crossing was opposed, or at least faced, by a French force under the command of Sir Godemar de Fey. The crossing set the scene for the Battle of Crécy, which took place two days later.

As a result of the consequences of this river crossing, and the presence of a great number of the king’s household who recorded events in chronicles and letters, we have a wealth of information about this clash.

Despite the abundance of sources, it is far from clear what actually happened, or the exact location of the crossing and fighting.

“the exact emplacement of Blanchetaque [is] so difficult to ascertain, and has led to the controversies upon its site.” Crecy, Hilaire Belloc. 1912.

Map of Banchetaque
Map from Hilare Belloc’s ‘Crecy’ [1912]
In the build up to the crossing, the English had marched through Normandy. It was a chevauchee style campaign of destruction. Edward landing on the Cotentin peninsula had taken the French by surprise but given King Philip much time to consider his response given the distances between the opposing forces.

Upon reaching the Somme Valley the objective for Edward was to secure a crossing. For the French, it was to deny it. What is clear is that the crossing took place at Blanchetaque. What is unclear is the nature of the crossing.

Jean Venette, a French Chronicler, suggests that the English crossed ‘unhindered’ with the defenders fleeing:

“Coming to the river Somme near the town of Abbeville, they headed for a ford where the water was very low, in the place which is called Albataque, Blanchetaque in French, and there they crossed with their horses and baggage, unhindered and without danger, though Sir Godemar with many armed men was waiting on the other side to oppose them. For Godemar, a Burgundian knight, saw them cross bravely in huge numbers, he did not wait on the bank but turned and fled with his men.” The Chronicle of Jean de Venette.

Venette is supported by the king of England’s confessor, who wrote that ‘the whole army crossed unharmed’ and that it was ‘as if it were a safe ford’:

“our lord the king was unable to find a way across except in the tidal reach between Crotoy and Abbeville; here the whole army crossed unharmed at a place which none of the local people knew to be a safe place except for six or ten people at a time. Our men crossed almost everywhere, as if it were a safe ford, much to the amazement of those who knew the place.” Richard Wynkeley, King Edward’s confessor. Cited in Barber.

An official newsletter of Edward III also suggests that the crossing at Blanchetaque was a formality, the army having ‘crossed safely’ over a ford that miraculously could take many more English soldiers crossing it at once than was previously known to be possible:

“When we came to the river Somme, we found the bridges broke, so we went towards St Valery to cross a ford where the sea ebbs and flows… By God’s grace a thousand men crossed abreast where before this barely three of four used to cross, and so we and all our army crossed safely in an hour and a half.” King Edward III, cited in Barber.

The fact that a crossing was possible does seem to have been something of a surprise to the French. Knighton notes that:

“no regular passage there was known to the men of those lands, and so they crossed a wash of the sea about a league wide.” Henry Knighton’s Chronicle

Several versions of how the crossing point was discovered by the English exist. One version suggests that a prisoner passed on information of the way in which the changes in the tide made the Somme fordable at certain times. Another version has a Yorkshireman who had moved to the Somme Valley passing on information. A third suggests that a squire was tasked with testing the river for fordable areas.

The Valenciennes Chronicle supports the theory that a squire checked the river for potential crossing points:

“[the squire] spurred his horse and went into the water, and he rode down river and up the river in the presence of the king and his men. And when he had tested the bottom down river and up river, he came out and said to the king, ‘Did I tell you the truth?’ And the king agreed, and at once gave him a hundred écus.” Valenciennes Chronicle

However the Chronicle of Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire records the tale that a Yorkshireman, born in Ruston, showed the English the ford. It was, as suggested by Knighton, a crossing place that hitherto had been passable by small numbers but on this occasion could cater for all the English army:

“King Edward, instructed by a certain Englishman born at Ruston near Nafferton, who had lived in those parts for sixteen years, went to a ford on the aforesaid river at the towns of St Valery and Le Crotoy, where the sea flows and ebbs. He crossed there with his men, where previously the local inhabitants had never crossed more than six or four at once.” Chronicle of Meaux Abbey (Yorkshire)

Edward III crossing the Somme
Edward III crossing the Somme. Benjamin West, Royal Collection. via Wikimedia

Whatever the means of discovering a crossing point, the English now made use of it. The sources are again confused as to events. Chandos’ Herald notes some hundred of the best knights being selected to find a suitable crossing point, and these men then took the lead in fording the Somme. The herald notes that ‘they fought a great skirmish’ with a brief mention of bows, before the enemy fled:

“Philip was at Paris, preparing his great army which was assembling there. He declared that he would think badly of himself if he did not have his revenge, because he reckoned on trapping the English between the Seine and the Somme and fighting them there. But the English amused themselves by burning everything. They made many women widows and many poor children orphans. They rode day and night until they came to the river Somme. On the other side there were many men, because the communes of Picardy were there, and Sir Godemar de Fay. The river was very wide, swollen by the tide, and the English wondered how they would cross. But the noble prince chose a hundred knights, the best of his vanguard, and sent them to see how they cross. And these praiseworthy men rode all around until they found someone who showed them a ford across the Somme. And all hundred of them went into the water at once on their war horses – for they were valiant knights – their lances in rest, and the prince, who was following them closely, came afterwards. They had a great skirmish at the ford across the Somme, and the knights fought hard; both sides plied their bows and lances, but soon the Picards were put to flight, as well as Sir Godemar; and with God’s help, all the English crossed there in due course.” Chandos Herald: Life of the Black Prince.

Froissart also includes an account of the crossing in his chronicles. Unlike Chandos Herald, he places more emphasis upon the longbow, saying that ‘the English archers shot so well together that they forced the men at arms to give way’:

“The French were drawn up in battle array, near the narrow pass leading to the ford: and the English were much annoyed by them as they came out of the water to gain the land; for there were many among them Genoese cross-bowmen who did them much mischief. On the other hand, the English archers shot so well together that they forced the men at arms to give way. At this ford of Blanchetaque many gallant feats of arms were performed on each side: but, in the end, the English crossed over, and as soon as they came on shore, hastened to the fields. After the king, the prince, and the other lords had crossed, the French did not long keep in the order they were in, but ran off for the fastest.” Froissart

Writing in 1926, Hilaire Belloc combines the accounts of the men-at-arms clashing with the English squires with the references to an exchange between the Genoese crossbowmen on the French side and Welsh longbows on the side of Edward IIIs army:

“The signal sounded, and that trumpet was heard by Godemar de Fay, the commander of the Valois on the far bank. He saw Edward’s knights mount, and the three columns, each four abreast, coming across the covered causeway, formed. Against Edward’s mounted squires he sent knights, equally mounted and armed, down into the water to take the shock. These two small bodies of cavalry met, struggling and thrusting and hacking at each other, with salt ebb swirling round the horses knees as the beasts slipped and struggled on the slime of the causeway floor. But not the wrestling between those handfuls of heavily escorted accoutred nobles was to decide the passage. That was determined by the longbow.

Behind the French knights, on the hard above the falling water level, a detachment of the Genoese with their crossbows supported the horse and sent their shafts into the mass of Edward’s knights, perhaps just reaching the infantry behind. But that infantry was here in the van, wholly made up of the archers, the superb arm of all that command, and it was they who forced the advance. For the Welsh longbow, with its greater precision and the discipline of the force that used it, firing with exactitude and command, not only threw Godemar’s horse into a confusion, stampeding from the causeway into the mud and breaking back towards the shore, but threw into an equal the Genoese archers and the French infantry behind. Edward’s knights, acting as a sort of spearhead, could go forward, but only through the perpetual support of the longbow men as they advanced steadily through the narrowing water and up towards the shore.” Minatures in French History, Hilaire Belloc 1926.

More recently, Johnathan Sumption, in Trial by Battle, noted that the English crept through a tidal marsh before being forced to wait, in full view of the French, for the tide to change. Sumption describes the skirmish itself as follows:

“At about 8 a.m., 100 men-at-arms and about the same number of archers began to wade into the river, led by the Earl of Northampton and Reginald Cobham, a veteran whose fifty years had done nothing to dull his energy. When the archers arrived within range of the French troops on the opposite bank, they loosed a rain of arrows down upon them. Under cover of the archers’ fire the men-at-arms pressed on to the north bank of the river and held a beach-head there while others crossed behind them. As the beach-head expanded Godemar’s men, who had fought ferociously at the water’s edge, were slowly pushed back before breaking and fleeing towards Abbeville, pursued by the exultant English up to the gates.56 Within an hour and a half the whole English army together with its carts and equipment had crossed to the north bank. It was a remarkable feat of arms.” Sumption, Trial by Battle [https://erenow.net/postclassical/trialbybattle/15.php]

With contemporary accounts varying on the precise nature of movements on the day, it is hard to provide an accurate account of how the English crossed the river. That longbows were devastating on the day seems to be widely accepted, though is not stated as such in all sources. Sir Godemar and his men were clearly defeated, either in a simple rout, which seems unlikely given the defensibility of a riverbank, or through the success of the English infantry and archers.

Edward IIIs newsletter records that the crossing was quite fortunately timed. Shortly after having reached the far bank, a larger French army, led by the King, arrived in the area. Had it arrived sooner, it may have spelled disaster in the attempt to cross the Somme. Arriving late, it set up camp at Crécy, as noted by the newsletter:

“That same day, soon after we had crossed the river, our adversary appeared on the other bank with a very large force. He arrived so suddenly that we were not the least ready; so we waited there and took up battle positions, and stayed like this the whole day, until the afternoon. Finally, when we saw that he did not want to cross but turned back towards Abbeville, we marched towards Crécy to meet him on the other side of the forest.” Newsletter of Edward III, cited in Barber.