The Black Prince led two chevauchées (raids) from Aquitaine against the French, one in the autumn of 1355 and the other in the late summer of 1356. In contrast to previous campaigns led by his father, Edward III, the object of the first chevauchée was to do as much damage to France as possible. This was for two reasons. The first was to deprive Jean II of much of his income and thus render him incapable of continuing the war. The second was to demonstrate that he was not capable of protecting his subjects.
The second chevauchée into central France was part of a three-pronged invasion of France. The Prince was to meet armies led by his father (landing in Calais) and the duke of Lancaster (landing on the Cotentin Peninsula). This plan failed. The duke of Lancaster marched south, but was unable to cross the Loire, as the bridges had either been destroyed or were well defended. Edward III was kept in England by an Aragonese fleet effectively blockading the south coast.
The Prince and his army left Aquitaine at the beginning of August. They burnt some towns to the ground and captured others. They lived off the land, causing great damage as they moved north. Jean II was besieging Breteuil in Normandy when word reached him, but he moved south quickly.
The Prince was returning to Aquitaine when the French army cut him off. The French had made ready for battle just outside Poitiers and the roads to Bordeaux and Angoulême were blocked. Whatever his preferred course of action, and many believe that he wanted to avoid battle, the Prince had to fight.
The two sides came face to face on 18th September 1356, a Sunday. Cardinal Talleyrand de Périgord brokered a truce for negotiation. Reluctantly the English took part in the negotiations, but the real purpose of the truce for the French was to allow more soldiers to arrive. The English used it to prepare for the battle, choosing positions and making screens for the archers.
The armies were not as uniform as they sound. In the English army the archers were English and Welsh and the men-at-arms (fully armoured cavalrymen) were Gascon and English. There were some Scots in the French army. These were commanded by Sir William Douglas. The Scots and the French were united against a common enemy and had formed the Auld Alliance in 1295.
The English army was split into three. The earls of Warwick and Oxford commanded the vanguard (the division at the front of the army). The Prince commanded the centre with his friends, Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley. The earls of Salisbury and Suffolk led the rearguard.
Most battles begin with one side advancing on the other, but this one began with a retreat. At 8.00 on Monday morning the English centre and the baggage train retreated, making the French believe that the whole army was retreating. The French attacked the vanguard and the rearguard and were in turn attacked by the archers.
The vanguard eventually regrouped with the Prince and his men and they were protected from the second French attack by hedges, ditches and other obstacles. The French were unable to break through and withdrew.
Jean II moved the Dauphin away from the fighting, which didn’t improve the morale of his soldiers.
The withdrawal had given the English the time to regroup and retrieve arrows. Reserve horses were brought up and the Prince decided to respond to the next French advance with a cavalry charge. The Captal de Buch had been sent with some men behind the French lines. On his arrival he unfurled a flag displaying the Cross of St George. That was the signal for the Prince to attack. This phase of the fighting went on for a long time and turned the tide against the French.
In the afternoon Jean II surrendered. His fourteen year old son, Philippe, who had remained on the battlefield, was also captured, but the Dauphin escaped. The remnants of the French army fled, pursued by the English army as far as the gates of Poitiers.
The Prince’s friend, Sir James Audley, was seriously wounded. He was found and brought to the tent where the Prince was dining with Jean II that evening. The Prince left the king so that he could reassure himself about his friend. Audley recovered.
For the French the battle was a disaster. Large numbers of the French nobility were dead or captured by the end of it. The Prince had proved conclusively that the French king and his nobles were unable to protect his subjects.
One of those who died on the French side was Geoffroi de Charny, the great French model of chivalry. He was the bearer of the Oriflamme, the battle standard of the king of France, which was captured by the English. Geoffroi de Charny was the first recorded owner of the Shroud of Turin.
Despite being the larger army, the French approach to fighting had weaknesses which cost them the battle. Most of the soldiers in the English army had spent the autumn of 1355 and the summer of 1356 on the chevauchées with the Prince. They had fought together and learned to trust one another. On the whole, the men who commanded below the prince were his friends and they, too, trusted one another. The lines of communication in the English army were good and the army could respond to each situation as it arose. The French army, on the other hand, had only recently been recruited to fight the duke of Lancaster in Normandy and had seen no real action. They lacked discipline and communication was poor. They had to stick to the plan that they had been given before the battle started, regardless of what was going on on the battlefield.
Poitiers confirmed the Prince’s reputation as a great soldier, which he had gained at Crécy ten years before. He was still only twenty-six.