Hailstones the size of golf balls battered an English army into submission on April 12th, 1360, killing nearly a thousand men and up to 6,000 horses.
It was Easter Monday, but for centuries afterwards it would be remembered as “Black Monday”, when God turned his fury on an English king for waging war during Lent.
That King was Edward III, who took his armies across the Channel to assert his claim to be the rightful King of France, beginning what would be known as the Hundred Years’ War. From 1337, Edward and his son, the Black Prince, led a series of largely successful forays into France, with notable victories at Auberoche, Crecy, Calais and Poitiers.
Despite several failed treaties, hostilities were still ongoing in 1360 when, in early April, Edward led his army of 10,000 men to the gates of Paris. Much to their frustration, the city’s defenders refused battle, instead remaining behind their stout walls. To provoke them to fight, the English army laid waste to the countryside and suburbs around Paris, but without success.
Desperate for a decisive victory, Edward instead turned his forces towards the cathedral city of Chartres, 60 miles southwest of Paris and more poorly defended. On Easter Monday, April 13th, his army arrived on the outskirts and Chartres and set up camp in preparation for battle. During the March his army had looted towns and villages throughout the French countryside, despite it being the observant week of Lent.
The army was still establishing its encampment on an open plain outside Chartres when the skies turned suddenly dark and a huge storm materialised. Bolts of lightning struck, killing several people, and the temperature plummeted as freezing rain began to fall, soon followed by huge hailstones pelting down as deadly missiles.
With no shelter from the storm, men and horses fled in panic, the horses stampeding through the camp and killing many in their path. Other men died simply from being struck by the huge hailstones, falling at around 100mph. Tents were torn apart by the fierce winds and the army’s baggage trains scattered. After an apocalyptic half-hour of savage weather and intense cold, around a thousand men lay dead, including some of the army’s key leaders, with scores more injured.
Up to 6,000 horses – the backbone of the army’s strength in battle - were also killed, with many more having fled in blind panic. Strangest of all, the storm seemed to have hardly touched the nearby city of Chartres, whose priests had gathered in the cathedral to pray for deliverance from the English army.
Not surprisingly, it seemed their prayers had been answered, not just to the besieged French, but to the invading English too. Convinced the storm was a punishment from God for his endeavours, King Edward knelt in the direction of the cathedral and recited prayers and vows of peace. The very next day, French emissaries arrived with peace proposals, which Edward agreed to.
Even if his will to fight had not been shattered by the storm, his army had. It was literally ‘decimated’ – reduced by at least a tenth – a punishment which itself had biblical overtones. Later that day, Edward began withdrawing his army from the gates of Chartres and making plans to return to England. Less than a month later, a new treaty was signed under which Edward renounced all claims to the French throne in return for control of lands in northern France.
It marked the end of the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War, which, rather than a continuous war, was a series of separate conflicts between England and France between 1337 and 1453. The treaty signed in 1360 lasted for nine years and when it was broken it was not by the apparently chastened Edward, but by the new King of France, Charles V, who, still believing God was on his side, declared war on England.