Winners of the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Prize, Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries discuss the revolutionary findings presented in their book The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook.
The Battle of Crécy is a deeply explored area of history. What prompted you to write this book?
Kelly: I’d long had misgivings about the traditional understandings of the Battle of Crécy — feelings that were underscored when we walked the traditional battlefield together a few years ago. The story of the battle as it was told just didn’t make sense.
Michael: My casebook on the Welsh rebel hero Owain Glyndwr had just come out (co-edited with John Bollard), and I was still fishing for a follow-up project. As Kelly showed me and our mutual friend Bob Woosnam-Savage of the Royal Armories around the traditional site, we were all agreed it didn’t make a lot of sense. Kelly had this great theory about rotating the battle on the site in order to make it work a bit better, but it just still didn’t feel right. I suggested we do a casebook to try to resolve what happened, and Kelly quickly agreed.
Kelly: (laughs) People have been studying this battle for centuries, so I thought we already had all the sources in hand and it would be a pretty quick process. Turned out there were a lot more sources than anyone ever thought!
You edited over eighty 14th century sources when researching for this book, did you come across any surprises?
Michael: The number of surprises was … well, surprising. At a really basic level, like Kelly said, we were surprised by how many Crécy sources were sitting out there, virtually untouched.
Kelly: There were great sources in medieval Italian and Czech that scholars had ignored, but the most impactful in terms of new information were probably the eyewitness poems and the journal of King Edward III’s kitchen. Michael was able to use the Kitchen Journal, for example, to very effectively plot the course of the entire Crécy campaign from start to finish: locations and rates of travel between them. It was really the final piece needed for him to prove that the battle was miles away from where everyone thought it was.
Michael: It’s a remarkable document. I’d seen references that it existed, but the fact that no one had utilized such a useful source made us doubt it was real until we saw it in the National Archives. And the poems were incredible finds, too: we found at least two poems that were written by men who were in the thick of the fighting. They not only give us an enormous amount of raw data about who did what, but they also provide a powerful record of the raw trauma of the battle experience. These kinds of records really do serve as a window, even if a frightening one, into the past.
How much has changed in light of the original material discovered from the sources?
Kelly: Not everything. The English did still win.
Michael: (laughs) That’s true.
Kelly: It’s pretty significant, though. When Michael established a different location for the battle, it didn’t rewrite the books on Crécy, it just about erased them: battles are dependent on the grounds on which they are fought, and no one had the battle in the right place. As a result, centuries of scholars were forced to throw away or ignore source after source because they didn’t fit the traditional battlesite. Move it as Michael did, though, and all these different sources suddenly fell into place. It cast everything in a new light.
Michael: And Kelly really saw that in the tactics. With the old site, the old theories, you could never figure out what the French were thinking. Their actions were illogical from top to bottom. But when we walked the new location together Kelly was able to unfold it all quite easily. As he said, the tactics just fell into place. There were other surprises, too, like figuring out that the Black Prince, who’s popularly regarded as something of a great hero in the Crécy myth, was captured on the field and only barely rescued. Or the fact it was a two-day battle.
Kelly: And figuring out how King John of Bohemia died from the excavation report, which has only appeared in Czech. That was fascinating.
How do you think your book may influence the direction of future research into the Battle of Crécy?
Kelly: I think it really resets the field in terms of what the base narrative of Crécy is. It’ll take some time for people to read and adjust to these new understandings of the battle, but the evidence is all there. That’s useful not just for anyone wanting to counter our theories, but it’s also great for anyone wanting to jump off into the next stages of studying the event and its impact.
Michael: I think more than anything what this volume does is it proves the utility of the casebook format that I started with the Battle of Brunanburh and then had continued with the Owain Glyndwr volume I mentioned earlier. There’s just tremendous utility in gathering all these sources and presenting them for readers in the original languages with facing-page translations. When you do that, all the evidence is right there. We show you what we made of it in our essays, of course, but we also give any future scholars all the materials they would need to cut an alternative path through the sources. That gives these casebooks lasting utility and lasting impact.