Crécy-en-Ponthieu, a small town in Picardy about mid-way between Paris and Calais , was the scene of a battle in on 26 August, 1346 that changed the way that battles were fought.
Knights on horseback - heavy cavalry - had dominated the battlefield since the later years of the Roman Empire , lost their dominance. Infantry had been unable to withstand the terrifying and irresistible charge of a massed formation of armoured knights on heavy horses with long lances that could reach over shields and outreach pikes.
The new weapon, introduced by Henry III of England 100 years before, used by Welsh archers serving Edward I at the battle of Falkirk in 1298 and Edward III against Scottish knights at Halidon Hill in Berwickshire in 1333, had never before been used to its full potential.
It had taken decades to work out how to maximise its range and power, perfect its accuracy and develop tactics and training to exploit it to the full. At Crécy, it was decisive.
It was the longbow. A piece of yew the height of a tall man, its effective range was much greater than the short bows that had preceded it. Bows used by Franks and Angles and at Hastings could kill at 20 yards or so, but shields and armour could stop or deflect their arrows.
Crossbows used by Genoese mercenary companies had good accuracy, an effective range of about 100 yards, armour piercing capability at short range but (because the bow had to be wound up between shots) a sustained rate of shooting only three arrows per minute.
But the longbow could reach out more than 300 yards if shot upwards in a high trajectory and still kill if it hit. At 200 yards a yard-long goose-feather flighted arrow was lethal to an un-armoured man or horse. At 100 yards, a bodkin tipped arrow could pierce, not only chain mail, but plate armour struck perpendicularly.
At that range, a marksman had a good chance of hitting the man he aimed at. A rate of 10 arrows per minute could be sustained; and up to 20 could be shot for short periods.
Specialised arrows had been developed: sharp and barbed "broadheads" to piece flesh; and heavy, armour-piercing "bodkin" points. Archers trained as marksmen could also deliver controlled, disciplined volleys. Units used trenches and caltrops to protect their positions against cavalry. Companies of archers were efficiently re-supplied with sufficient arrows to fight a battle - many more than the two bundles of 24 carried by each archer.
Hugh le Despenser, Lord of Glamorgan, recruited from the valleys to the north of his domain. He trained, organised and equipped a force of special troops - The Black Army - to deliver the whole package of weapon, ammunition, resupply, marksmanship and discipline.
Welsh freemen were mercenaries, soldiers of fortune and no one's vassals, in sharp contrast to the feudal English (and French) cavalry, where knights did most of the fighting, each "lance" supported by a team of grooms, armourers and men at arms under its lance-corporal, vassals serving at the command of their lord, giving unpaid the military service that their land holding demanded. Welsh freemen, like their Genoese counterparts - and like the Gurkhas today - were there for pay (six pence per day) and booty.
The change Crécy made to warfare, the European balance of power and the social order cannot be exaggerated and was permanent.
It took fifty years before cavalry - with new, expensive horse-armour - regained anything like its former pre-eminence. The value of the longbow as a long-range killing weapon re-established the importance of skilled, professional foot-soldiers, leading to mercenary armies and a balance between infantry and cavalry. English and later British power became of Continental importance.
The fame of the Welsh freemen and their English counterparts produced a new respect for yeomanry, who have put two fingers up at the gentry and the French - the two used to pull the bow string - ever since.
Edward III of England claimed the throne of France. He landed near Cherbourg in July with about 4,000 cavalry and men-at-arms and with 10,000 archers. He marched to Pouissy, close to Paris , to assert his right to his French fiefs and challenge his rival. Where people had refused his claims, he wasted the land. Then he turned north towards Calais , where he could be supported by sea across the Channel.
The Prince of Wales, or "The Black Prince"
Phillip VI of France , disputing Edward's claims, pursued him with an army more than twice the size, with at least 10,000 cavalry, all of them fresh. At the lowest bridging point on the Seine , Blanchetaque, a detachment of Phillip's troops seized the bridge, standing shoulder to shoulder and 11 men abreast, trapping the English army.
Welsh archers, in close conjunction the Earl of Warwick's advance guard, cleared the bridge with terrible slaughter. The English marched on, the French close behind.
It was late August. The English had marched 350 miles since landing in mid-July. Provisions were short. The French had come only from Paris .
Edward had to make a stand and offer battle and did so at Crécy-en-Ponthieu.
He displayed his centre on a low hill, a line of dismounted men-at-arms. On either side, so that the position resembled a V with a flattened bottom, he placed cavalry, the Prince of Wales (the "Black Prince", sixteen years old) commanding the right and the Earls of Arundel and Northampton the left.
Edward placed companies of archers on both wings and they immediately began to protect their positions with ditches and caltrops . Thick forest protected one flank and marsh the other.
Edward observed the whole battlefield from a windmill, intending the French should attack his centre and be forced towards the middle of the field by archery.
At about 4 pm, King Philip advanced companies of 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen to soften up the English. Outranged by the longbowmen and lightly armoured, they suffered severe casualties. Unable to be effective, they withdrew, forced by arrow shot into the centre of the battlefield, right into the path of the first charge of the French cavalry, who rode over them.
The longbowmen loosed volleys of grey goose feathered arrows to extreme range, ten or more every minute. It was said, "Arrows fell like snow". Men and horses fell. Those reaching the bottom of the V were engaged at shorter range, where the longbow pierced armour.
To prevent the break-out of the French, mostly unhorsed, English knights fought on foot, shoulder to shoulder with men-at-arms. Urged to reinforce the Prince of Wales, the King refused: "My son must earn his spurs". Fighting on foot, in the black armour that gave him his nickname, the Prince rallied his men, held his position and the French. After the battle he was made knight.
The French sent in wave after wave of cavalry, hoping to overwhelm the English line. It held. Each time the longbowmen made terrible slaughter from the protection of their ditches and caltrops. As supplies of arrows ran shot, they sallied out in groups to drag arrows out of dead and living, horses and men; and took prisoners for later ransom.
By midnight, Philip's brother, Charles II of Alençon and his allies, King John of Bohemia and the Count of Flanders, Louis II of Nevers, as well as 1,500 other knights and esquires were dead. The men-at-arms and Genovese archers were not counted but estimates of the total slaughter varied between five and fifteen thousand. King Philip himself escaped with a wound. Edward resumed his march, now with prisoners for ransom, towards Calais , which he besieged without interruption and eventually took.
After the battle, the blind King of Bohemia, was found as he had ridden into battle, chained between his knights less they loose him. All were present; all were dead, all clustered around their King. The Prince of Wales took his arms and wore his crest, three ostrich feathers girdled in a crown; he and all Welsh Regiments and military units have done so ever since.
The Black Army returned to Glamorgan. Their little town at Llantrisant became a Borough. Their sons are Freemen still.