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Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Battle of Bouvines, 27 July 1214

The Battle of Bouvines, in BL Royal  MS. 16 G VI f.379
The Battle of Bouvines, fought on 27 July 1214, was one of the most influential battles in European history, directing the fate of the kingdom of France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Angevin dominions. In England, it was to lead to Magna Carta. Since 1204, when Philip Augustus had won Normandy from King John, the English king had worked relentlessly to raise the funds needed to reverse his losses. His demands pushed his subjects to the brink of rebellion. Defeat at Bouvines sealed King Philip’s hold on Normandy and fuelled opposition to John’s rule in England. In Sir James Holt’s words, ‘the road from Bouvines to Runnymede was direct, short, and unavoidable.’

Defeat at French hands in 1214 was far from inevitable. John sailed for Poitou in February, dispatching a force commanded by his half-brother, William Longespée earl of Salisbury, to Flanders. Within weeks of his arrival, John could write to William Marshal that ‘Hardly had I appeared when twenty-six castles and fortified places opened their gates to me.’ He took Nantes and then Angers, which submitted without a fight on 17 June.

Battle of Roche-aux-Moins, and Louis on the march,
BL Royal MS. 16 G VI f.385
Understandably confident, John prepared to face French forces. King Philip had headed north to Flanders to deal with John’s allies but had left his son, Louis, in the south. Louis advanced toward Roche-aux-Moins, where John was besieging the castle.  It was then that the rug was pulled from beneath John’s feet. On seeing Louis’ forces, the Poitevin barons refused to follow John into battle. Abandoning his baggage and siege engines, John retreated hastily to La Rochelle. From there, on 9 July, he composed a letter to his barons in England pleading for reinforcements. His appeal was in vain.

Yet the alliance formed by John remained formidable. Outside the village of Bouvines, the combined forces of William Longespée, Otto of Brunswick (Holy Roman Emperor and John’s nephew), and the counts of Flanders and Boulogne prepared to meet King Philip. The allied commanders, after some debate, chose a Sunday to attack. As this was a day when knights would not normally bear arms, they hoped to take Philip by surprise. The French king was sheltering from the heat of the sun in the shade of an ash tree when he was brought the news that his enemies were arrayed for battle. Quickly raising himself, he entered the nearby church of St Peter to offer a prayer (‘Lord, I am but a man, but I am king’) before arming himself.

The two sides drew up an arrow’s shot apart. Both were formed of three divisions. The French right was commanded by the duke of Burgundy, its left by the bishop of Beauvais, and its centre by King Philip himself. The count of Flanders led the allied left, the Emperor Otto its centre, the earl of Salisbury its right. The fighting began, with each contingent shouting its own battle-cry (‘Montjoie!’, ‘Boulogne!’, ‘Rome!’, ‘Regales!’).

A cavalry encounter at Bouvines,
BL Royal MS. 16 G VI f.380v
Combatants did not set out to kill but rather capture noble enemies, in accordance with chivalric principles (indeed, the account of the Anonymous of Béthune describes the battle as if it were a tournament, enacted through a series of mêlées). Thus knights targeted the horses of opponents. King Philip was unhorsed by Renaud, count of Boulogne, his erstwhile friend and now vehement enemy. Set upon by Renaud’s men, Philip was saved by his household knight, Peter Tristan, who shielded the king and offered him his horse. Meanwhile, three of Otto’s mounts were killed beneath him, the last after it was stabbed in the eye by Gerard La Truie, in a fearsome attack sanctioned by King Philip. Many horses were to fall at Bouvines, as the eye-witness account of William the Breton reveals:
‘You could see horses here and there lying in the meadow and letting out their last breath; others, wounded in the stomach, were vomiting their entrails while others were lying down with their hocks severed; still others wandered here and there without their masters and freely offered themselves to whomever wanted to be transported by them: there was scarce a spot where one did not find corpses or dying horses stretched out.’
(It is, perhaps, telling that accounts of the battle make much of the killing and wounding of horses under knights, but little of the death of foot soldiers, who must have died in great numbers).

Flight of the imperial army at Bouvines,
BL Royal MS. 16 G VI f.381v
The decisive moment in the battle came when the allies’ right division, under the earl of Salisbury, advanced at an angle toward King Philip’s central force. The French left, headed by Philip of Dreux, the bishop of Beauvais, confronted the attack. The bishop was an old enemy of the Angevins. He had been captured by John in 1197, leading a sortie from his city to meet John’s forces, and brought bound before Richard the Lionheart. According to the History of William Marshal, the sight had gladdened the English king, who hated Philip of Dreux almost more than any other. Richard declared him: ‘a robber, a tyrant and an arsonist, who so loved waging war that he devastated the whole of my land and pillaged it night and day.’ It was forbidden for clerics to shed blood, a ban the bishop of Beauvais defied; as Richard complained, ‘it was not as a bishop that he was taken captive but as a knight of great reputation, fully armed and with his helmet laced.’ Now, at Bouvines, he faced the English contingent wielding his mace. Launching himself at William Longespée, he dealt such a blow that he shattered the earl’s helmet. Thrown to the ground, the earl was captured. So too were the counts of Flanders and Boulogne and a host of allied knights. Otto fled the field, having been provided with a horse by Guy d’Avesne to replace his dying mount.

After three hours of brutal fighting in the blazing July sun, Philip’s forces had triumphed. For the allies it was, in the words of the History of William Marshal, an ‘ignominious rout’. 400 miles away in Bouteville, south-east of La Rochelle, John was yet to know that his dreams of recovering Normandy had been crushed.  

Note on sources: the Battle of Bouvines is described in several sources, including the eye-witness (though partisan) account of William the Breton. Many of these were translated into French by George Duby for the appendices of his Le Dimanche de Bouvines (Paris, 1973), and translated into English from the French in the English edition of Duby’s work, The Legend of Bouvines (Cambridge, 1990). The battle is also outlined in History of William Marshal, ed. A. J. Holden and trans. S. Gregory (London, 2004), II, lines 14787-14839. The various accounts are synthesised in the narrative of the battle provided by Jim Bradbury in his Philip Augustus: King of France 1180-1223 (London, 1998). John’s capture of the bishop of Beauvais in 1197 is described by Roger of Howden (The Annals of Roger de Hoveden, trans. H. T. Riley (London, 1852), II,396 – a reference I owe to Marc Morris), and Richard I’s enmity for the bishop is stressed in the History of William Marshal, lines 11267-11286, and 11579-11626 (drawn to my attention by Elizabeth Chadwick).  


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