1346 – Hundred Years’ War: The military supremacy of the English longbow over the French combination of crossbow and armoured knights is established at the Battle of Crécy.
The Battle of Crécy (1346), also called Battle of Cressy, was an English victory during the Edwardian phase of the Hundred Years’ War. Married with the later battles of Poitiers in 1356, and Agincourt in 1415, it was the first of the trifecta of famous English successes during the conflict.
The battle was fought on 26 August 1346 near Crécy, in northern France. An army of English, Welsh, and allied mercenary troops led by Edward III of England, engaged and defeated a much larger army of French, Genoese and Majorcan troops led by Philip VI of France. Emboldened by the lessons of tactical flexibility and utilisation of terrain learned from the earlier Saxons, Vikings, Muslims and the recent battles with the Scots, the English army won an important victory.
The battle heralded the rise of the longbow as the dominant weapon on the Western European battlefield, and helped to continue the rise of the infantryman in medieval warfare. Crécy also saw the use of the ribauldequin, an early cannon, by the English army. The heavy casualties incurred by the French knightly class at the hands of peasants wielding ranged weapons was indicative of the decline of chivalry, and the emergence of a more practical, pragmatic approach to conducting warfare.
The battle crippled the French army’s ability to come to the aid of Calais, which fell to the English the following year. Calais would remain under English rule for over two centuries, falling in 1558.
On the death of the French monarch Charles IV in 1328, Edward III of England was his closest male relative and legal successor. But a French court decreed that Charles’ closest relative was his first cousin, Philip, Count of Valois. Philip was crowned as Philip VI of France. Reluctantly, Edward paid homage to Philip in his role as the Duke of Aquitaine, which he had inherited, in 1329. Populated by Gascons with a culture and language separate from the French, the inhabitants of Aquitaine preferred their relationship with the English crown. However, France continued to interfere in the affairs of the Gascons in matters both of law and war. Philip confiscated the lands of Aquitaine in 1337, precipitating war between England and France. Edward declared himself King of France in 1340, and set about unseating his rival from the French throne.
An early naval victory at Sluys in 1340 annihilated the French naval forces, giving the English domination at sea. Edward then invaded France with 12,000 men through the Low Countries, plundering the countryside. After an aborted siege of Cambrai, Edward led his army on a destructive chevauchée through Picardy, destroying hundreds of villages all the while shadowed by the French. Battle was given by neither side and Edward withdrew, bringing the campaign to an abrupt end. Edward returned to England to raise more funds for another campaign and to deal with political difficulties with the Scots, who were fighting for their independence.
On 11 July 1346, Edward set sail from Portsmouth with a fleet of 750 ships and an army of 15,000 men. With the army were Edward’s sixteen-year-old son, Edward, the Black Prince, a large contingent of Welsh soldiers, and allied knights and mercenaries from the Holy Roman Empire. The army landed at St. Vaast la Hogue, 20 miles from Cherbourg. The intention was to undertake a massive chevauchée across Normandy, plundering its wealth and severely weakening the prestige of the French crown. Carentan, Saint-Lô and Torteval were all razed, after which Edward turned his army against Caen, the ancestral capital of Normandy. The English army sacked Caen on 26 July, plundering the city’s huge wealth. Moving off on 1 August, the army marched north to the River Seine, possibly intending to attack Paris. The English army crossed the Seine at Poissy; however it was now between the Seine and the Somme rivers. Philip moved off with his army, attempting to entrap and destroy the English force.
Fording the Somme proved difficult: all bridges were either heavily guarded or burned. Edward vainly attempted to probe the crossings at Hangest-sur-Somme and Pont-Remy before moving north. Despite some close encounters, the pursuing French army was unable to bring to bear against the English. Edward was informed of a tiny ford on the Somme, likely well defended, near the village of Saigneville, called Blanchetaque. On 24 August, Edward and his army successfully forced a crossing at Blanchetaque with few casualties. Such was the French confidence that Edward would not ford the Somme that the area beyond had not been denuded, allowing Edward’s army to resupply and plunder: Noyelles-sur-Mer and Le Crotoy were burned. Edward used the respite to prepare a defensive position at Crécy-en-Ponthieu while waiting for Philip to bring up his army. The position was protected on the flanks by the River Maye to the west, and the town of Wadicourt to the east, as well as a natural slope, putting cavalry at a disadvantage.
Edward deployed his army facing south on a sloping hillside at Crécy-en-Ponthieu; the slope put the French mounted knights at an immediate disadvantage. The left flank was anchored against Wadicourt, while the right was protected by Crécy itself and the River Maye beyond. This made it impossible for the French army to outflank them. The army was also well-fed and rested, giving them an advantage over the French, who did not rest before the battle.
The English army
The English army was led by Edward III; it mainly comprised English and Welsh troops along with allied Breton, Flemish and German mercenaries. The exact size and composition of the English force is not known. Andrew Ayton suggests a figure of around 2,500 men-at-arms: nobles and knights, heavily armoured and armed men, accompanied by their retinues. The army contained around 5,000 longbowmen, 3,000 hobelars (light cavalry and mounted archers) and 3,500 spearmen. Clifford Rodgers suggests 2,500 men-at-arms, 7,000 longbowmen, 3,250 hobelars and 2,300 spearmen. Jonathon Sumption believes the force was somewhat smaller, based on calculations of the carrying capacity of the transport fleet that was assembled to ferry the army to the continent. Based on this, he has put his estimate at around 7,000–10,000.
The power of Edward’s army at Crécy lay in the massed use of the longbow: a powerful tall bow made primarily of yew. Upon Edward’s accession in 1327, he had inherited a kingdom beset with two zones of conflict: Aquitaine and Scotland. England had not been a dominant military force in Europe: the French dominated in Aquitaine, and Scotland had all but achieved its independence since the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Previously, pitched battles in the medieval era had largely been decided by the massed charge of heavily armoured mounted knights, a widely feared force in their heyday. However, battles such as Manzikert had demonstrated their vulnerability to nimble mounted archers on fast horses, while engagements such as the Golden Spurs, Stirling, and Bannockburn, heralded the rise of the infantryman in effectively countering the armoured charge. Infantry did have significant advantages over heavily armoured cavalry; they were far cheaper to train and equip by comparison, and offered greater tactical flexibility, in that they could be deployed on almost any terrain.
Longbows had been effectively used before by English armies. Edward I successfully used longbowmen to break up static Scottish schiltron formations at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298; however it was not until Edward III’s reign that they were accorded greater significance in English military doctrine. Edward realised the importance of inflicting severe damage upon an enemy force before melée combat began; at Halidon Hill in 1333, he used massed longbowmen and favourable terrain to inflict a significant defeat on the Scots forces to very few casualties of his own—in some ways a harbinger of his similar tactics at Crécy. To ensure he had a force of experienced and equipped archers to call upon, Edward ingrained archery into English culture. He encouraged archery practice, and the production of stocks of arrows and bows in peacetime, as well as war. In 1341, when Edward led an expedition to Brittany, he ordered the gathering of 130,000 sheaves, a total of 2.6 million arrows; an impressive feat on such short notice.
A common claim for the longbow was its ability to penetrate plate armour due to its draw weight, a claim contested by contemporary accounts and modern tests. A controlled test conducted by Mike Loades at the Royal Military College of Science’s ballistics test site for the programme Weapons That Made Britain – The Longbow found that arrows shot at a speed of around 52 metres per second against a plate of munition-quality steel (not specially hardened) were ineffective at a range of around 80 metres, enough to mildly bruise/wound the target at 30 metres, and lethal at a range of 20 metres. Archery was described as ineffective against plate armour by contemporaries at battles such as Bergerac in 1345, Neville’s Cross in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356. Later studies also found that late period plate armour such as that employed by Italian city-state mercenary companies was effective at stopping contemporary arrows. Horses, however, were almost wholly unprotected against arrows, and arrows could penetrate the lighter armour on limbs. Clifford Rodgers, commenting on the later, similar Battle of Agincourt, argues that the psychological effect of a massive storm of arrows would have broken the fighting spirit of the target forces.
Archers were issued with around 60-72 arrows before a battle began. Most archers would not shoot at the maximum rate, around six per minute for the heaviest bows, as the psychological and physical exertion of battle strained the men. As the battle wore on, the arm and shoulder muscles would tire from exertion, the fingers holding the bowstring would strain and the stress of combat would slacken the rate of fire.
The English army was also equipped with five ribauldequin, an early form of cannon.
The French army
The French army was led by Philip VI and the blind John of Bohemia. The exact size of the French army is less certain as the financial records from the Crécy campaign are lost, however there is a prevailing consensus that it was substantially larger than the English. The French army likely numbered around 30,000 men. Contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart places the French numbers at 100,000, Wynkeley suggests 80,000 and Henry Knighton claimed the king of France brought 72,000. These numbers have been described as unrealistic and exaggerated by historians, going by the extant war treasury records for 1340, six years before the battle. Ayton suggests around 12,000 mounted men-at-arms as the core soldiery of the French army, several thousand Genoese crossbowmen and a “large, though indeterminate number of common infantry”. Most historians have accepted the figure of 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen. However, Schnerb questions this figure, based on the estimates of 2,000 available crossbowmen in all of France in 1340. That Genoa on its own could have put several thousand mercenary crossbowmen at the disposal of the French monarch is described by Schnerb as “doubtful”. The contingent of common infantrymen is not known with any certainty, except that it outnumbered the English and was in the thousands.
Longbow versus crossbow
The Battle of Crécy is often exemplified as a battle in which the longbow defeated the rival crossbow. The crossbow had become the dominant ranged infantry weapon on the continental European battlefield: the choice weapon for expert mercenary companies. The crossbow was favoured as it required less physical strength to load and shoot than a longbow, and could release more kinetic energy than its rival, making it deadlier at close range. It was, however, hampered by slower, more difficult loading, its cumbersome shape and its range, in which the longbow had the advantage. Later developments in more powerful crossbows in the 15th century, such as the windlass-span crossbow, negated these advantages, while advances in bow technology brought to Europe from armies on crusade introduced composite technology; decreasing the size of the crossbow while increasing its power. A common claim about the crossbow is a reload time of one bolt every 1–2 minutes. A test conducted by Mike Loades for Weapons That Changed Britain – The Longbow found that a belt-and-claw span crossbow could discharge 4 bolts in 30 seconds, while a longbow could shoot 9. A second speed test conducted using a hand-span crossbow found that the weapon could shoot 6 bolts in the same time it took for a longbow to shoot 10.
1743 – Antoine Lavoisier, French chemist and biologist (d. 1794)
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (also Antoine Lavoisier after the French Revolution; French: [ɑ̃twan lɔʁɑ̃ də lavwazje]; 26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794;) was a French nobleman and chemist central to the 18th-century chemical revolution and had a large influence on both the history of chemistry and the history of biology. He is widely considered in popular literature as the “father of modern chemistry”.
It is generally accepted that Lavoisier’s great accomplishments in chemistry largely stem from his changing the science from a qualitative to a quantitative one. Lavoisier is most noted for his discovery of the role oxygen plays in combustion. He recognized and named oxygen (1778) and hydrogen (1783) and opposed the phlogiston theory. Lavoisier helped construct the metric system, wrote the first extensive list of elements, and helped to reform chemical nomenclature. He predicted the existence of silicon (1787) and was also the first to establish that sulfur was an element (1777) rather than a compound. He discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same.
Lavoisier was a powerful member of a number of aristocratic councils, and an administrator of the Ferme générale. The Ferme générale was one of the most hated components of the Ancien Régime because of the profits it took at the expense of the state, the secrecy of the terms of its contracts, and the violence of its armed agents. All of these political and economic activities enabled him to fund his scientific research. At the height of the French Revolution, he was accused by Jean-Paul Marat of selling adulterated tobacco and of other crimes, and was eventually guillotined a year after Marat’s death.
Early life and education
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was born to a wealthy family of the nobility in Paris on 26 August 1743. The son of an attorney at the Parliament of Paris, he inherited a large fortune at the age of five with the passing of his mother. Lavoisier began his schooling at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, University of Paris (also known as the Collège Mazarin) in Paris in 1754 at the age of 11. In his last two years (1760–1761) at the school, his scientific interests were aroused, and he studied chemistry, botany, astronomy, and mathematics. In the philosophy class he came under the tutelage of Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, a distinguished mathematician and observational astronomer who imbued the young Lavoisier with an interest in meteorological observation, an enthusiasm which never left him. Lavoisier entered the school of law, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1763 and a licentiate in 1764. Lavoisier received a law degree and was admitted to the bar, but never practiced as a lawyer. However, he continued his scientific education in his spare time.
Early scientific work
Lavoisier’s education was filled with the ideals of the French Enlightenment of the time, and he was fascinated by Pierre Macquer’s dictionary of chemistry. He attended lectures in the natural sciences. Lavoisier’s devotion and passion for chemistry were largely influenced by Étienne Condillac, a prominent French scholar of the 18th century. His first chemical publication appeared in 1764. From 1763 to 1767, he studied geology under Jean-Étienne Guettard. In collaboration with Guettard, Lavoisier worked on a geological survey of Alsace-Lorraine in June 1767. In 1764 he read his first paper to the French Academy of Sciences, France’s most elite scientific society, on the chemical and physical properties of gypsum (hydrated calcium sulfate), and in 1766 he was awarded a gold medal by the King for an essay on the problems of urban street lighting. In 1768 Lavoisier received a provisional appointment to the Academy of Sciences. In 1769, he worked on the first geological map of France.
Lavoisier as a Social Reformer
Research benefitting the public good
While Lavoisier is commonly known for his contributions to the sciences, he also dedicated a significant portion of his fortune and work toward benefitting the public. Lavoisier was a humanitarian – he cared deeply about the people in his country and often concerned himself with improving the livelihood of the population by agriculture, industry, and the sciences. The first instance of this occurred in 1765, when he submitted an essay on improving urban street lighting to the French Academy of Sciences.
Three years later in 1768, he focused on a new project to design an aqueduct. The goal was to bring in water from the river Yvette into Paris so that the citizens could have clean drinking water. But, since the construction never commenced, he instead turned his focus to purifying the water from the Seine. This was the project that interested Lavoisier in the chemistry of water and public sanitation duties.
He additionally was interested in air quality, and spent some time studying the health risks associated with gunpowder’s effect on the air. In 1772, he performed a study on how to reconstruct the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, after it had been damaged by fire, in a way that would allow proper ventilation and clean air throughout.
At the time, the prisons in Paris were known to be largely unlivable and the prisoners’ treatment inhumane. Lavoisier took part in investigations in 1780 (and again in 1791) on the hygiene in prisons and had made suggestions to improve living conditions, which were largely ignored.
Once a part of the Academy, Lavoisier also held his own competitions to push the direction of research towards bettering the public and his own work. One such project he proposed in 1793 was to better public health on the “insalubrious arts.”
Sponsorship of the sciences
Lavoisier had a vision of public education having roots in “scientific sociability” and philanthropy.
Lavoisier gained a vast majority of his income through buying stock in the General Farm, which allowed him to work on science full-time, live comfortably, and allowed him to contribute financially to better the community. (It would also contribute to his demise during the Reign of Terror many years later.)
It was very difficult to secure public funding for the sciences at the time, and additionally not very financially profitable for the average scientist, so Lavoisier used his wealth to open a very expensive and sophisticated laboratory in France so that aspiring scientists could study without the barriers of securing funding for their research.
He also pushed for public education in the sciences. He founded two organizations, Lycée and Musée des Arts et Métiers which were created to serve as educational tools for the public. Funded by the wealthy and noble, Lycée regularly taught courses to the public beginning in 1793.
Ferme générale and marriage
At the age of 26, around the time he was elected to the Academy of Sciences, Lavoisier bought a share in the Ferme générale, a tax farming financial company which advanced the estimated tax revenue to the royal government in return for the right to collect the taxes. On behalf of the Ferme générale Lavoisier commissioned the building of a wall around Paris so that customs duties could be collected from those transporting goods into and out of the city.
His participation in the French Government and the collection of its taxes did not help his reputation when the Reign of Terror began in France, as taxes and poor government reform were the primary motivators during the French Revolution. Lavoisier attempted to introduce reforms in the French monetary and taxation system to help the peasants. Lavoisier consolidated his social and economic position when, in 1771 at age 28, he married Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the 13-year-old daughter of a senior member of the Ferme générale. She was to play an important part in Lavoisier’s scientific career—notably, she translated English documents for him, including Richard Kirwan’s Essay on Phlogiston and Joseph Priestley’s research. In addition, she assisted him in the laboratory and created many sketches and carved engravings of the laboratory instruments used by Lavoisier and his colleagues for their scientific works.
Madame Lavoisier edited and published Antoine’s memoirs (whether any English translations of those memoirs have survived is unknown as of today) and hosted parties at which eminent scientists discussed ideas and problems related to chemistry. For 3 years following his entry into the Ferme générale, Lavoisier’s scientific activity diminished somewhat, for much of his time was taken up with official Ferme générale business. He did, however, present one important memoir to the Academy of Sciences during this period, on the supposed conversion of water into earth by evaporation. By a very precise quantitative experiment Lavoisier showed that the “earthy” sediment produced after long-continued reflux heating of water in a glass vessel was not due to a conversion of the water into earth but rather to the gradual disintegration of the inside of the glass vessel produced by the boiling water.
Royal Commission on Agriculture
Lavoisier urged the establishment of a Royal Commission on Agriculture. He then served as its Secretary and spent considerable sums of his own money in order to improve the agricultural yields in the Sologne, an area where farmland was of poor quality. The humidity of the region often led to a blight of the rye harvest, causing outbreaks of ergotism among the population. In 1788 Lavoisier presented a report to the Commission detailing ten years of efforts on his experimental farm to introduce new crops and types of livestock. His conclusion was that despite the possibilities of agricultural reforms, the tax system left tenant farmers with so little that it was unrealistic to expect them to change their traditional practices.
Lavoisier’s researches on combustion were carried out in the midst of a very busy schedule of public and private duties, especially in connection with the Ferme Générale. There were also innumerable reports for and committees of the Academy of Sciences to investigate specific problems on order of the royal government. Lavoisier, whose organizing skills were outstanding, frequently landed the task of writing up such official reports. In 1775 he was made one of four commissioners of gunpowder appointed to replace a private company, similar to the Ferme générale, which had proved unsatisfactory in supplying France with its munitions requirements. As a result of his efforts, both the quantity and quality of French gunpowder greatly improved, and it became a source of revenue for the government. His appointment to the Gunpowder Commission brought one great benefit to Lavoisier’s scientific career as well. As a commissioner, he enjoyed both a house and a laboratory in the Royal Arsenal. Here he lived and worked between 1775 and 1792.
During the Revolution
In June 1791 Lavoisier made a loan of 71,000 livres to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours to buy a printing works so that du Pont could publish his newspaper, La Correspondance Patriotique. The plan was for this to include both reports of debates in the National Constituent Assembly as well as papers from the Academy of Sciences. He also chaired the commission set up to establish a uniform system of weights and measures which in March 1791 recommended the adoption of the metric system.The new system of weights and measures was adopted by the Convention on 1 August 1793. Lavoisier himself was removed from the commission on weights and measures on 23 December 1793, together with Laplace and several other members, for political reasons.
Final days and execution
As the French Revolution gained momentum, attacks mounted on the deeply unpopular Ferme Générale, and it was eventually abolished in March 1791. In 1792 Lavoisier was forced to resign from his post on the Gunpowder Commission and to move from his house and laboratory at the Royal Arsenal. On 8 August 1793, all the learned societies, including the Academy of Sciences, were suppressed at the request of Abbé Grégoire.
It is difficult to assess Lavoisier’s own attitude to the political turmoil. Like so many intellectual liberals, he felt that the Ancien Régime could be reformed from the inside if only reason and moderation prevailed. Characteristically, one of his last major works was a proposal to the National Convention for the reform of French education. He tried to remain aloof from the political cockpit, no doubt fearful and uncomprehending of the violence he saw therein. However, on 24 November 1793, the arrest of all the former tax gatherers was ordered. He was branded a traitor by the Convention under Maximilien de Robespierre during the Reign of Terror in 1794. Actions such as attacking distinguished academics like Lavoisier helped to establish Robespierre as a tyrant; eventually this would be one of the keys to his downfall. Lavoisier had also intervened on behalf of a number of foreign-born scientists including mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, which helped to exempt them from a mandate stripping all foreigners of possessions and freedom. Lavoisier was tried, convicted, and guillotined on 8 May 1794 in Paris, at the age of 50, along with his 27 co-defendants.
According to a (probably apocryphal) story, the appeal to spare his life so that he could continue his experiments was cut short by the judge, Coffinhal: “La République n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu.” (“The Republic has no need of scientists or chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.”) Lavoisier was convicted with summary justice of having plundered the people and the treasury of France, of having adulterated the nation’s tobacco with water, and of having supplied the enemies of France with huge sums of money from the national treasury.
Lavoisier’s importance to science was expressed by Lagrange who lamented the beheading by saying: “Il ne leur a fallu qu’un moment pour faire tomber cette tête, et cent années peut-être ne suffiront pas pour en reproduire une semblable.” (“It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.”)
A year and a half after his death, Lavoisier was exonerated by the French government. During the White Terror, his private belongings were delivered to his widow, a brief note was included, reading “To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted”.
About a century after his death, a statue of Lavoisier was erected in Paris. It was later discovered that the sculptor had not actually copied Lavoisier’s head for the statue, but used a spare head of the Marquis de Condorcet, the Secretary of the Academy of Sciences during Lavoisier’s last years. Lack of money prevented alterations from being made. The statue was melted down during the Second World War and has not since been replaced. However, one of the main “lycées” (high schools) in Paris and a street in the 8th arrondissement are named after Lavoisier, and statues of him are found on the Hôtel de Ville and on the façade of the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre. His name is one of the 72 names of eminent French scientists, engineers and mathematicians inscribed on the Eiffel Tower as well as on buildings around Killian Court at MIT in Cambridge, MA US.
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