The Chevauchée

Battle of Crécy from a Manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles
Battle of Crécy from a Manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles. Wikimedia Commons

A chevauchée was a particularly destructive kind of military raid prominent during The Hundred Years War (and especially used by Edward III of England). Rather than besieging a castle or conquering land, soldiers on a chevauchée aimed to create as much destruction, carnage and chaos as possible to both break the morale of enemy peasants and deny their rulers income and resources. Consequently, they would burn crops and buildings, kill the population and steal anything valuable before enemy forces could challenge them, often systematically laying regions to waste and causing great starvation.

Comparison to the modern concept of Total War is more than justified and the chevauchée makes an interesting counterpoint to the modern view of chivalrous medieval warfare and the idea medieval people avoided civilian casualties.

The Chevauchée in the Hundred Years War

The chevauchée used during the Hundred Years War emerged during the wars of the English and Scots, along with the defensive longbow tactics of the former. Edward III then took the chevauchée to the continent when he warred with the French crown in 1399, shocking his rivals for his brutality. However, Edward was being careful: chevauchées were cheaper to organise than sieges, needing far fewer resources and not tying you down, and far less risky than open battle, as the people you were fighting / killing were poorly armed, not armoured and proved little threat. You needed a smaller force if you weren’t trying to win an open battle, or blockade a town.

In addition, while you saved money it was costing your enemy, as their resources were being eaten away. Edward and fellow kings needed to conserve money as raising funds was very difficult – even if Edward did break new ground in marshalling England’s funds – making the chevauchée even more attractive.

Edward made the chevauchée key to his campaign for his entire life. While he did take Calais, and lower ranking English and allies kept taking and losing smaller scale locations, Edward and his sons favoured these bloody expeditions. There is debate about whether Edward was using the chevauchée to draw the French king or crown prince into battle, the theory being you caused so much chaos and destruction that moral pressure mounted on the enemy monarch to attack you. Edward certainly wanted a quick show of god given right at times, and the victory at Crecy occurred at just such a moment, but many of the English chevauchée’s were smaller forces moving swiftly precisely to avoid being forced to give battle and take that larger risk.

After the losses of Crecy and Poitiers the French refused battle for a generation, and chevauchées became less effective as they had to move through areas they’d already damaged. However, while the chevauchée certainly harmed the French, unless a battle was won or a major target taken the English populace questioned whether the expense of these expeditions was worth it, and the chevauchées in the later years of Edward III’s life are considered failures.

When Henry V later reignited the war he aimed to take and hold rather than copy the chevauchée.

Aftermath of the Hundred Years War.