Battle of Morlaix

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Battle of Morlaix
Part of the Breton War of Succession
Battle of Morlaix 1342.jpg
Map showing disposition of English forces during the battle.
Date30 September 1342
Location
Morlaix, France
Result French tactical victory
Belligerents
Royal Arms of England (1340-1367).svg Kingdom of England Arms of the Kings of France (France Ancien).svg Kingdom of France
Commanders and leaders
Arms of the House of de Bohun.svg Earl of Northampton

The Battle of Morlaix was a battle fought in Morlaix on 30 September 1342 between England and France. The English besieged the town, but a French relief force arrived. The English constructed a strong defensive position. After repeated attacks, the French forced the English to retreat into the woods, and the French force then withdrew. Notably it was the first use of a tactical withdrawal by the English in medieval warfare.

Contents

1341

In 1341 John III, Duke of Brittany died without leaving an heir. The question of the succession ignited a civil war in Brittany which lasted about 25 years initially between John’s half brother, John of Montfort and his niece Joan, Duchess of Brittany, wife of Charles of Blois. Charles and Joan had the support of the Breton nobility and clergy while John was an outsider whose main concentration of power was in the Île de France. However, Charles was the nephew of Philip VI of France who backed Joan’s claim while England supported John de Montfort's claim.

1342

Initially, Edward III of England could do little to help the de Montforts, he had his own problems at home, but eventually he felt able to send a small force under Sir Walter Mauny to aid them. As a result of Mauny’s initial successes Edward decided to send a larger force of knights and archers under the command of William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton. For a long time its departure was delayed and by the time they arrived in Brittany John de Montfort was a prisoner of the French and the struggle was being carried on by his wife Jeanne de Montfort. When Northampton landed on 18 August 1342, the Countess, her men and the remnants of Mauny’s force were besieged at Brest by a large French army under the command of Charles of Blois and a force of Genoese ships. On Northampton’s arrival the French appear to have fled without bothering to engage the smaller English force and the siege of Brest was relieved.

Moving inland

From Brest, Northampton moved inland and there are few details of what happened during this journey but eventually he reached Morlaix, one of Charles de Blois’ strongholds. His initial attack on the town was unsuccessful and having been repulsed with slight losses he settled into a siege.

Since Charles de Blois' forces had run from the siege in Brest they had been growing in numbers possibly reaching as many as 15,000. Informed that Northampton’s force was considerably smaller than his own Charles began to advance on Morlaix intending to lift Northampton’s siege. On receiving intelligence of de Blois’ advance Northampton, not wishing to be trapped between de Blois’ force and sorties from the garrison of Morlaix, made a night march to intercept him.

Only three chroniclers give any account of the battle and they are all English: Geoffrey le Baker, Adam Murimuth and Henry Knighton. This absence of contemporary interest is possibly because the battle was indecisive and also because Brittany was somewhat of a backwater removed from the main action of the courts and armies of Edward III and Philip VI. None of the chroniclers give much detail of the battle and little of the battle orders of the two sides beyond stating that the French were deployed into 3 lines. At least one of the French divisions was solely of mounted knights led by Geoffroi de Charny. Adam de Murimuth puts the total French numbers at 3000 cavalry, 1500 Janissaries by which he may mean Genoese and a mixed force of Breton infantry. The bulk of the Bretons were probably quite an ineffective force, just local levies. The English numbers are also unclear. Northampton had less than 1,500 on his arrival at Brest. He had been reinforced by Robert of Artois with another 800 and an unknown number of Bretons of unknown quality. He would have had to leave some behind to contain the Morlaix garrison so almost certainly his numbers would have been less than the French but all the figures are all from English sources and thus, for the French, probably an overestimation.

Modern interpretations of the battle

Burne

A.H. Burne, [1] attributes huge numbers to the French, in fact, he maintains that each of the French divisions outnumbered the whole English army. It must be assumed that Burne follows Geoffrey le Baker’s idea that the English deployed as at Crécy and Dupplin Moor with archers on the flanks firing into the approaching enemy so as to constrict their formation and thus disorder them before they contacted the dismounted men-at-arms in the centre. According to Burne's reconstruction, the infantry column attacked first and was sent reeling back by volleys of arrows before it even contacted the English line of dismounted knights. After a consultation between the commanders the second column of cavalry attacked and many were brought down by falling into the pits that had been dug by the English. Some did manage to penetrate the English line but these, including Geoffrey de Charny, were captured by the Breton infantry held in reserve. The last French cavalry column after seeing the defeat of the first two divisions hesitated to attack but because the English archers were now short of arrows Northampton withdrew into the woods at his back and formed a ‘hedgehog’. Here he was safe from a cavalry charge and though the last French column did attack everywhere it was driven back.

Quite a lot of Burne’s account is speculative, driven by his need to give a coherent and readable narrative. One can only assume that he worked it out according to what he called ‘inherent military probability’ drawing on his knowledge of what happened at other battles of the period. However assuming that one commander behaved in the same way as others of that era is a dangerous procedure for writing history because it does not even happen in our own day despite military training schools and standardised books of tactics.

Sumption

Jonathan Sumption [2] gives an alternative description of the battle which, while not contradicting Burne’s battle order for the English, depicts the actions of the French nobility in a way that is far more in line with other battles of the 100 Years War but not necessarily any more accurate than that of Burne.

According to Sumption, the first attack was mounted not by the infantry but by Franco-Breton cavalry under the command of Geoffrey de Charny. These reached the English positions but were thrown back in disarray and de Charny himself captured. It has to be assumed that the archers managed to disable the horses and with the force of the mounted charge blunted the men-at-arms were able to finish off the dismounted knights.

After this setback the second line of cavalry attacked but now fell into the pit traps. Presumably they, seeing the damage done by the archers were attempting to drive them off. This of course assumes that the archers were deployed on the wings and the pits dug only in front of them (much like the stakes at Agincourt) otherwise how else could the first line have avoided them while the second line fell into them.[ citation needed ]

Finally Sumption then goes on to say that almost no use was made of the French infantry who never left their starting positions. Evidently the English were very worried about the dismounted French because they then left their own prepared positions and retreated into the forest with their prisoners. Burne says that it was because they had not been able to retrieve their arrows.

DeVries

Kelly DeVries 'Infantry Warfare in the Early 14th. Century' seems to follow the existing chronicle sources more closely than the Burne and Sumption and he gives a different account of the deployment of the English army. He maintains that the archers were intermingled with the men-at-arms because the knights were so few and also that the archers were given other weapons than their longbows which seems to imply that the English used no archery at all.[ citation needed ]

Like Sumption he maintains that the first line of cavalry attacked under the command of Geoffrey de Charny but were immediately put to flight. There is some confusion in DeVries account because the map he has drawn of the battlefield shows pits and ditches dug all around the English but nowhere does it say the first French attack fell into the pits but if the pits were all around how could they not fall into them? Like Burne, after the first failure he has the French leaders holding a conference amongst themselves in order to decide what to do next but eventually, as the French still outnumbered the English, another attack was mounted. From the sources he says it was unclear whether it was just a cavalry attack or a joint cavalry/infantry attack. Now his account becomes even more confusing because he says that the second line actually hit the English but were pushed back into the pits and ditches but does not explain how this was possible. He quotes Henry Knighton as saying that the French were drawn into a narrow cave and they fell on top of each other into the pits the English had dug. This may mean that there were no traps to the immediate front of the English position and the French cavalry came through the gap but when thrown back fell into the traps. Or does it mean that some French had already fallen into the pits and in order to avoid any further traps the next attack had to be mounted on a narrower front?

Ayton & Preston

According to Ayton & Preston, [3] there is no detailed exposition of how the English were deployed except that they had taken position in front of a wood and that all were dismounted even the knights and that before the French arrived on the scene they had prepared the ground in front of them by digging pits and ditches and covering them with hay and grass.

Outcome of the battle

Whatever the details of the fighting, the final result was that 50 French knights were killed and 150 French captured including Geoffrey de Charny and a number of ‘populari’ which seems to indicate that at least some of the infantry were involved in the melee. The English force now made apprehensive by the remaining French forces withdrew into the wood at their back where they were safe from a full blooded cavalry charge. What was left of de Blois’ force then evidently relieved Morlaix and the besieging English, now trapped in the wood, themselves became the object of a siege for several days.

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References

  1. The Crécy War
  2. in “The Hundred Years War. Vol 1 Trial by Battle”
  3. The Battle of Crécy

Sources

Coordinates: 48°34′42″N3°49′36″W / 48.5783°N 3.8267°W / 48.5783; -3.8267