Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crécy
One way or another, Edward III Plantagenet and I have been hanging around together for quite a long time. My first novel featured him as a character, and although it remains – and probably will forever remain – unpublished, I turned the research I did for the novel into several undergraduate history papers that got me surprisingly good marks. Since then I have talked about Edward (king of England from 1327–1377) to adult education classes and historical societies on both sides of the Atlantic; indeed, if you happened to be in Warrington on a cold night last December, you might have heard the latest iteration.
I don’t really know how Eddie (we’re on first-name terms now) and I have become so close. We are nothing alike. He was an arrogant womaniser who enjoyed high-stakes gambling and saw war as a means of self-aggrandisement; I am monogamous, detest violence and regard a £2 each way bet on a horse as the height of giddy adventurism. Nonetheless, there is something compelling about the man and his career, and when my historian wife Marilyn and I got a contract to write a book about his military adventures in France in 1346 (the Battle of Crécy, for those of you who were paying attention in class), we jumped at it.
The history we were taught at school and university was often an arid, administrative affair, based on records rather than experiences, facts rather than personalities. It was as dry as the parchment on which it is written. Our resolution was to try and make this particular bit of history come to life. We wanted readers to see the country, towns and cities where the army marched and fought, and imagine what life was like for the men who followed Edward to war.
We were fortunate to have two unique documents that have survived from 1346. The Acta Bellicosa, the Acts of War of King Edward III, is a sort of campaign diary kept by one of Edward’s staff, possibly his secretary, Michael Northburgh. It gives a day-to-day account of the army’s progress, listing each place where it stopped for the night.
The second is generally known as the Kitchen Account, an administrative record from the royal kitchens which tracked the army’s progress and also gave an exhaustive list of what the king and his household ate, a rich and varied diet including beef, venison, mutton, goose, bittern, eels, cod and – yes, you guessed it – swan. Using these and applying some basic arithmetic, we could work out where the army was at almost every hour of every day.
Armed with a selection of IGN maps, France’s answer to the Ordinance Survey, we set out to follow in the army’s footsteps from the moment it landed on 12th of July until the climactic battle of Crécy on the 26th of August. We stood on the beach at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue in Normandy and imagined the bay full of boats ferrying men and horses ashore, and remembered a friend telling us of the time that he had taken a shipload of horses out to Palestine during the Second World War. After several days confinement on board ship, the horses went wild as soon as they were landed, galloping up and down the beach and refusing to let their grooms near them. To us, it seemed quite probable that this had happened at Saint-Vaast as well.
We drove the long road down the Cotentin peninsula and stood looking out over the marais towards Carentan, which the English had burned and pillaged, then crossed the high ground to Saint-Lô (ditto) and turned east to Caen, the second city of Normandy. There we spent a day unpicking the maze of streets, trying to identify exactly where the old walls had been and identifying the site of the bridge of Saint-Pierre where the Constable of France made his last stand. The bridge is long gone and the river it crossed has been drained and built over, but the outlines still remain.
From there we drove east through the bocage country towards Rouen, where the English tried and failed to cross the river Seine, and followed their passage upriver towards Paris. We saw some places of fascination and beauty, like the troglodyte houses carved into the river banks and the massive ruined castle of La Roche Guyon, site of a spectacular English night raid. We visited Monet’s garden at Giverny (nothing to do with Edward, we just needed a break from research), and we got lost in the midst of the grim tower blocks of Mantes-la-Jolie, where the poverty was worse than anything I had seen since childhood.
At Poissy, very close to Paris, Edward and his men discovered a damaged bridge that could be repaired. They laid down a narrow wooden beam to span the gap in the bridge and crossed it running in single file while under enemy fire. Part of the bridge still stands and again we could imagine the scene being played out before our eyes. We followed the army’s path north over the rolling plains of Picardy, recording how it was harried by local French troops and Bohemian light cavalry, until we came to the Somme.
Here we had some more reconstruction to do, because the valley of the Somme has been largely drained and the river runs down a narrow canal. In 1346 it was a broad tidal estuary. The English were able to cross by means of a ford called the Blanchetaque, waiting until low tide and then wading across under fire from enemy crossbows. We walked a modern road that follows the line of the ford, and I felt the hair raising on my neck as we did so. It felt like the bones of history were rising out of the ground around us.
The battlefield at Crécy has largely been preserved, and the local council has even built a viewing platform on the site of the old windmill where Edward watched his archers destroy a French army that outnumbered his own by at least four to one. One of the most moving moments came a day later when we discovered the old abbey at Valloire, where the English troops brought the bodies of their opponents and laid them out reverently in the abbey church before burial. The roses were still blooming in the gardens and a heron was fishing in the river. The beauty and peace were a strange contrast to the violence that had occurred just a few miles away.
But the skeletons of more than one history accompanied us on that journey. At almost every step we were confronted by evidence of other, more recent conflicts. One of the D-Day landing beaches in 1944, Utah Beach, is only a few miles from Saint-Vaast, and the remnants of German gun emplacements still dot the hills and sand dunes. Many of the towns and cities we passed through in Normandy, Saint-Lô and Caen and Lisieux, had been bombed to ruins by British and American aircraft in 1944, at a huge cost in French lives.
Passing through one small village, Tilly-sur-Seulles, we wondered why all the buildings looked new. We discovered that Tilly had been the site of a violent battle in July 1944 between British and SS troops. Later we found a quiet military cemetery where more than a thousand men are buried. Further north along the Somme the bones of another conflict protruded from the soil. This time it was the First World War, not the Second. The cities of Abbeville and Amiens still bear the scars of that war, and then there are the cemeteries, their rows of white headstones marching in rows and extending for acres across the manicured lawns.
Cimetière chinois, said a label on the map at Nolette, northwest of Abbeville. Intrigued, we went there and discovered evidence of another tragedy; the graves of more than 800 Chinese men who had been recruited by the British government as part of the Chinese Labour Corps. During the war the Chinese built roads and dug trenches and then, after the war, removed unexploded ordinance. Some had been killed by enemy action but the vast majority had died after the war’s end, struck down by the influenza pandemic before they could be repatriated. I am writing this now in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I can feel once again the hair rising on my neck. History may not repeat itself, as Mark Twain may have said, but it sure does rhyme.
Some people cannot bear to read history because they find it too depressing. Certainly history is full of horrors, but we cannot avoid that and nor should we. It could be argued that one of the reasons we are in this mess since the spring of 2020 is that we forgot about history, or tried to pretend it is no longer relevant. That is a delusion. The bones of history are always there, just underneath the surface, and on the road that summer with Edward III, I realised just how thin the divide that separates us from the past can be.