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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).  

Thursday 24 July 2014

Tournaments and Chivalry: Hugh Doherty on 'Making History'

Tournament scene from BL Add. MS. 12228 ff.214v-215
Hugh Doherty, of the Magna Carta Project, made an appearance this week on BBC Radio 4's Making History (22/07/14). The programme, presented by Helen Castor, featured a discussion of medieval tournaments and their modern recreation. Hugh explained how tournaments evolved through the Middle Ages and how they were connected with the ideals of chivalry. 

Monday 21 July 2014

Magna Carta mansion on sale for £3.95 million

The 17th century mansion that might mark the spot
where Magna Carta was sealed, in 1215
Magna Carta Project Principal Investigator Nicholas Vincent was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last week (17 July), about a private island on the Thames that has recently come up for sale. The island, Nick verifies, is one candidate for the spot where the first issue of Magna Carta was sealed by King John, in 1215. The island is now the site of a seventeenth-century mansion, which features a ‘Magna Carta Memorial Room’. At the heart of the room is a stone upon which, a former owner claimed, King John sealed the Charter. The mansion will be listed at £3.95 million.
Read  the full Wall Street Journal article here.
The property details can be viewed via Sotheby's International Realty UK here.

Project Co-investigator Louise Wilkinson has since been quoted, on the claim that it was this island that hosted the sealing of Magna Carta, in an article in The Independent (22 July), here

Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Penitent King: John submits to archbishop Langton, July 1213

King David submits to the reprimand of the prophet Nathan
(BL Royal MS. 2 B VII f.58)
On 16 July 1213, Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, returned to England. This was a momentous occasion. King John had refused to accept Langton’s appointment as archbishop of Canterbury, precipitating an angry dispute between pope and king and provoking Innocent III to impose an interdict on England. For the past five years, most of the senior clergy had been in exile, while in England the sacraments were forbidden. Langton’s arrival in England didn't signal the beginning of a new era but, rather, the hope that one might be on the horizon. The archbishop had come to make peace.

Langton, together with the bishops of London, Ely, Lincoln and Hereford, met King John at Winchester on 20 July. The choice of time and place was significant. Langton had chosen to cross the Channel on a Tuesday – a special day for anyone who, like Langton, was devoted to St Thomas Becket, because it was that day that famously hosted so many of the important events of Becket’s life. To those watching in 1213, Langton’s return might have looked like an ultimatum to King John: choose the path of your father, Henry II, and let this conflict degenerate or choose the path of peace. It was also important that the meeting took place at Winchester. The feast-day of the city’s patron, St Swithun, fell on 15 July, meaning that the city would still be celebrating. Winchester Cathedral was also the coronation church of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and it was St Edward the Confessor who was held up as the model of good kingship for his Angevin successors.   

The scene, as the bishops met the king, was a dramatic one. King John fell down at the feet of the bishops, weeping profusely, and implored them to have mercy on him and the kingdom of England. The bishops lifted him from the ground and led him into the cathedral. In the chapter house, they sung the fiftieth psalm:
‘Have mercy on me, O God, [and] blot out my iniquity... For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me... Deliver me from blood, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall extol thy justice.’
John swore, with his hand on the Holy Gospels, to defend the Church and her clergy, to destroy iniquitous laws and revive the good laws of his ancestors, especially those of King Edward, and to provide justice for all his people. He also promised to restore Church property that he had seized during the interdict, and offered fealty to Pope Innocent and his successors. The bishops absolved him and then, after Mass had been celebrated, they all sat down with the assembled magnates to enjoy a feast.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that John hadn't been reformed in spirit as the bishops had hoped, and that his relationship with his subjects was to deteriorate to the point of civil war.  So it's easy to question John’s sincerity in 1213: was he really sorry for his actions? were his tears genuine? But his meeting with the bishops has to be seen in the context of two, related, traditions. The first was an ancient and widely-used practice that allowed warring groups to make peace through ritual submission, by which one party would publicly humble himself and beg for forgiveness.  The second was a long-held custom that allowed archbishops of Canterbury and their colleagues to reprimand the king when he behaved immorally or illegally. This special power was drawn from the Old Testament prophets, like Samuel and Nathan, who had chastised kings for their wayward behaviour. By such an act, it was hoped, just and equitable rule could be restored to the kingdom and civil war could be prevented.

In this respect, the bishops’ actions in 1213 ultimately failed. But reconciliation with the Church was a vital step towards any future settlement. It allowed Langton and his colleagues to act as peacemakers in 1215, and to help negotiate the terms of peace between the king and his subjects that were embodied in the Charter of Runnymede. Thus the penitence of a king not otherwise known for his humility has a pivotal place in the story of Magna Carta