Post-classical history

4

THE BATTLE OF BOUVINES, 1214

John landed at La Rochelle on 16 February 1214. There had already been two failed attempts at a full-scale Poitevin expedition, but this time it had at last come to fruition. Now was John’s opportunity to make good the crushing losses of 1204 and to re-establish the Angevin Empire. Behind him and in his absence he had left the kingdom in the capable hands of Peter des Roches, whom he had appointed justiciar on the eve of his departure, leaving his barons grumbling at having a foreigner set over them; before him lay the alliance he had so carefully nurtured, designed to win back his lands by delivering a crushing blow to King Philip of France and the whole Capetian dynasty. The strategy was simple and sound. John’s army would apply pressure in the Poitou region, creating a diversion for the French forces in the west. Meanwhile, the main body of the coalition’s forces would move in to France from the north-east. Philip would therefore be threatened by great danger on two fronts. The scene was set for one of the most decisive battles of not only the entire Middle Ages, but of Western European history as a whole.274

La Roche-au-Moine

John’s campaign had an auspicious beginning. Using La Rochelle as his one secure base (kept loyal to England by its trading interests), John sought to strengthen his position by control of the surrounding regions before attempting to engage with Philip. He met with immediate success. By 8 March, 26 castles and strongholds were restored to him. One siege gives a measure of his rapid advance: the Castle of Milécu, just a few miles south-east of La Rochelle, had been fortified against the Angevin King by Porteclin de Mausé; John besieged it on Sunday 2 March and had taken it by Tuesday. At Limoges, Viscount Gui, like so many of the barons of Aquitaine, offered homage to John: ‘I could not resist him or await your help,’ he later wrote to Philip Augustus; ‘for the future you may not rely on me.’275 John marched deep into Gascony and then swung north. His progress was unhindered by the Lusignans with whom he had now come to an accommodation (some fifteen years too late, it could be argued). However, one of the Lusignan brothers, Geoffrey, remained alienated, and John, maintaining his momentum, launched a short, sharp military strike against him, lasting five days in mid-May. John was buoyed by his victories and, keen to convey his potency abroad to domestic malcontents in England, he was quick to write home with his good news, which Wendover records:

We … crossed with our army to Mervant, a castle belonging to Geoffrey de Lusignan; and although we might not believe that it could be taken by assault, we, on the day after, which was the eve of Whitsun [17 May], took it by force after one attack, which lasted from early in the morning until one o’clock. On Whitsunday, we laid siege to another of Geoffrey’s castles, called Vouvant, in which was Geoffrey himself and his two sons; and when our petraries had assailed it continuously for three days so that a chance for taking it was imminent, the Count of La Marche came to us and caused Geoffrey to throw himself at our mercy with his two sons, his castle and all that was in it.

There was still more success for John. At the same time as this operation, the unfortunate Geoffrey had another of his castles besieged by Prince Louis of France at Moncontour further to the east. John led his forces there and Louis withdrew. John consolidated his agreement with La Marche and trumpeted his victories in his letter home: ‘Now, by the grace of God, we have been given an opportunity to carry our attack against our chief enemy, the King of France, beyond the Poitou. And we inform you of this so that you may rejoice in our success.’276

With his position south of the Loire now firmly reinforced, John turned his attention northwards. He made a feint towards the French army in the east and then headed northwest towards Angers, the capital of his ancestors. Just as he appeared set to encircle it after yet more gains, he made a forced march west and took Nantes in mid-June. An important seaport, Nantes could prove most useful to John in his future plans to retake Normandy from the south. Its value was emphasised by its garrison under the command of Robert of Dreux, cousin of King Philip and brother of Peter, Count of Brittany. In what both William the Breton and the Anonymous of Béthune consider a reckless move, Robert led his soldiers and some armed citizens to a bridge that lay just outside and which John’s army needed to cross. From here, he began taunting the enemy. He was soon to regret his rashness as in the ensuing combat he and between fourteen and twenty knights were taken prisoner.277 The effects of this Angevin success were soon felt downriver at Angers, the city capitulating swiftly to John on 17 June. No doubt John’s victorious progress – and that vital force of momentum – had influenced the city’s prompt surrender, but William des Roches, King Philip’s Seneschal of Anjou, had already made the decision not to defend the city. The ruined walls of Angers had not been repaired following John’s previous campaign. Instead, des Roches focused his efforts on the city’s satellite castles, which had been reinforced. This was to prove a wise move. Taking Angers had been a great symbolic and propaganda victory for John, but, like before, a hollow one: it was in his hands for just a few weeks, it could not be held by him in hindsight, as William des Roches had known with foresight.

One of Angers’s satellite castles was La Roche-au-Moine (also written as La Roche-aux-Moines). This had been constructed and recently munitioned by des Roches to guard the Nantes-Angers road from attack by the Angevin garrison of nearby Rochefort. John now directed his whole force against the new castle, a further indication of his plans to use Nantes as a naval base for the reconquest of Normandy. He also needed La Roche-au-Moine for his advance on Le Mans and then, perhaps, Paris. And if things went badly for him, the castle would cover his retreat back to the coast. A concentrated barrage began on 19 June as John’s artillery attempted to batter down the castle’s tower and walls.

The garrison’s vigorous defence was to prove fateful. The siege has received scant attention, even from French historians, despite its consequences. The silence of English historians is perhaps explained by the paucity of contemporary sources: Roger of Wendover provides the only English perspective. The Capetian version is once again related by the quill of William the Breton, never slow in seizing upon and trumpeting a Capetian victory.278 For all our knowledge of political and diplomatic history, La Roche-au-Moine shows us the importance of military outcomes in explaining so much of history; for if La Roche-au-Moine had fallen to John as quickly as had the other strongholds in the campaign thus far, subsequent events may well have turned out drastically different: the whole allied expedition of 1214 may have turned on this minor siege.

John’s substantial army was augmented by the Rochefort garrison, under the command of Paies de Rochefort, a brigand knight in the best tradition of the robber baron. The French defenders of La Roche-au-Moine were soon under attack, but fought valiantly against John’s onslaught. As was common with those hard-pressed by investiture, the defenders cannibalised their surroundings, dismantling whatever they could find, including beams and wooden supports from houses, to hurl on their attackers. William the Breton then offers another of his revealing, intimate observations of warfare. A crossbowman by the name of Enguerrand, a huge brute of a man well-deserving of his appellation ‘Monastery-breaker’ (perhaps suggesting he was one of Rochefort’s men), advanced up to the castle ditch under the protection of a large mantlet shield carried by a youngster. Each day from behind this shield Enguerrand shot bolts at the garrison with impunity, causing great consternation. A French crossbowmen by the name of Pons came up with an idea to meet this threat. He attached one end of a long, thin piece of rope to a bolt and the other to a fixed point next to him. He shot the crossbow bolt directly into the mantlet where it embedded itself. He pulled the rope towards him and dragged both it and the boy into the moat. Enguerrand, left defenceless and exposed, was immediately struck down by a fatal hail of arrows as he attempted to withdraw. John was enraged by this setback and by Pons’s demonstration of delight at the success of his ruse. According to William the Breton, Pons called out: ‘Get away from here, King, and leave us in peace, for fear that you will meet a similar death.’279 Apparently John did withdraw a little to direct the assault from a safer distance; he (and no doubt Pons, too) would have remembered the manner of his brother’s death from a crossbow bolt at Châlus Chabrol in 1199. John then erected gallows (a typical siege practice of his) to intimidate the garrison: if they did not yield immediately he would grant them no quarter. But the garrison fought on. However, after a fortnight’s intense combat had taken its toll, with the garrison exhausted and deprived of sleep, the defenders were brought to the point of surrender. But help was on its way.

At the end of April, Philip Augustus and his host had been at Châteroux on the borders of Berry and Poitou. Faced by enemy advances on two fronts – John from the south-west, the coalition allies under Otto from the north-east – he split his forces: he led his army to meet the allies, while his son, Prince Louis, went to Chinon to meet the threat of John. With Louis went the experienced general Henri Clément, the marshal of France. Philip knew this division of forces was risky but he had little choice other than to react exactly as the coalition wanted him to. If he concentrated entirely on the danger emanating from the Low Countries, John would have a relatively free rein in regaining his lost southern territories; but if Philip focused on John, he left the way open from Flanders to Normandy and Paris.

The French king, intending to reinforce his army by feudal and municipal levies on his way northwards, left Louis with a substantial force: William the Breton’s figures put this at 800 knights, 2000 men-at-arms and 7000 infantry, to which were later added the 4000 men under William des Roches and Aimery de Craon, the veteran warrior and respected commander. This may be an inflated figure, but essentially Philip was mobilising his kingdom in a war of dynastic – even national – survival.

Louis was at Chinon when he heard of the dangerous predicament of the garrison at La Roche-au-Moine. Hesitant to act precipitously as he was outnumbered and acutely aware of the combined peril to the Capetian monarchy, he sent to his father for instructions. The French crown was extremely fortunate that the garrison at La Roche-au-Moine held out long enough for a reply to reach Louis. When it came it was decisive: raise the siege. (The Anonymous of Béthune attributes the decision to Louis on heeding the advice of Clément.) The order was informed by political and military awareness. If the English advance was not checked increasing numbers of barons from the Loire would defect to the Angevin cause in a reverse of the tide that flowed to the Capetians during the conquest of Normandy; Philip was acutely aware of the power of momentum. And for once during the campaign John was pinned down. Since landing at La Rochelle his movements had been intentionally erratic to keep Philip guessing while simultaneously assessing the extent of Capetian strength since his return to Poitou. After Philip’s move towards the north-east, John had continued to confuse Louis with his movements by never staying at one place for any length of time. Now that had changed. John had set himself squarely before La Roche-au-Moine, so much so that from here he summoned not only fresh horses, but also his wife, children and treasure. Louis had a firm target and clear instructions for his military objective. He prepared his troops and advanced on John.

At this time Louis was 26; he had acquitted himself well in the Flanders campaign of the previous year but was now facing the greatest threat that he and his father had ever known. He was aware of the importance of avoiding any rash mistakes at this crucial juncture. Louis was quite unlike his father in most respects. Small and pale, in contrast to his father’s burly countenance, he was nevertheless imbued with the chivalric spirit of a true knight that was so lacking in his father. Coupled with his energy in time of war he earned for himself the soubriquet of ‘The Lion’ from his later biographer, Nicholas de Bray. He was a true warrior who loved fighting and who risked his life in its pursuit. But he was not recklessly impulsive; rather, he was a highly effective and competent commander who took time for the necessary logistical preparations before starting military operations. Between 1211 and 1226 he spent over four complete years in the field; by his death he had participated in seven major campaigns, including crusades in southern France.

All this was befitting an alleged descendant of Charlemagne, as eagerly presented by Capetian propagandists. To the fore of these was Gilles de Paris, who wrote his epic poem Karolinus for Louis to assist him in emulating his great ancestor. Such a gift would not have been lost on the learned and cultured Prince who had also received Rigord’s Deeds of Philip Augustus and William the Breton’s own epic poem, the Philippidos. Louis is an altogether more attractive, vibrant figure than his clever, scheming, calculating father, gaining an almost saintly reputation for himself by fathering a saint, the great monarch St Louis IX (born just two months before these events at La Roche-au-Moine). Louis’s religious influence on his more famous son should not be underestimated. Louis has sadly been much neglected by historians despite his significant impact on the medieval world. This is largely due to the brevity of his own reign (1223–6) and, to a greater degree, his being overshadowed by his remarkable family: his father, Philip; his son, St Louis; and his formidable wife, Blanche of Castile.280

Louis’s army was poised to descend upon John’s siege camp on 2 July. Through his scouts John learned of Louis’s approach and of the French inferiority of numbers. John did no seem to need much bidding by his spies: he arranged his army in battle order ready to meet the oncoming French. At the vanguard of the French forces was the marshal, Henri Clément, a man ‘small in stature but great in heart’.281 With the French were William des Roches and Aimery de Craon, the only two major barons present (there were eleven with Philip). A large French force under the heir to the throne was about to engage with a larger English force under the King of England. The scene was set for an epic and potentially decisive encounter between the Angevin and Capetian dynasties.

But it never happened. John’s Poitevin’s barons, under Aimery de Thouars and including the Counts of la Marche and Eu, refused to fight. They declared themselves unprepared for pitched battle. This refusal may have been on military grounds – battle avoidance was a common stratagem in medieval warfare – but given the superiority of English numbers (a fact agreed by both English and French sources) this is unlikely. More probably the real reason – or excuse – was, as William the Breton suggests, the Poitevins’s reluctance to fight against the immediate forces of their suzerain. Such action was not without precedent: the Poitevins had also baulked at fighting Philip in 1206; and in 1159, John’s father, Henry II, declined to come to blows with Philip’s father, Louis VII, at Toulouse for the same reason. Wendover’s accusation of treachery may be too judgemental, although Aimery de Thouars had a reputation as an habitual turncoat and certainly had a chequered career: this Seneschal of Anjou and custodian of Chinon had fought with John before 1202; with Arthur of Brittany after 1202; Philip Augustus made him Seneschal of Poitou after taking it in August 1204; in 1205 the Thouars family returned to John’s side and in 1208 his son was captured by Philip. In 1214, concerns for the best interests of his family and castle are likely to have dominated his reasoning; the doubt over events in the north-eastern sector may also have played a part.

The barons withdrew leaving John exposed to uncertainty in his ranks; where some led, others could follow. He was never an assured and confident commander who could rely wholeheartedly on his soldiers’ loyalty, and he suffered for it. His string of military victories came to an end at La Roche-au-Moine. Before the advancing French, he fled back to La Rochelle where his campaign had started with such promise four months earlier. This retreat was nothing if not determined and swift, covering 115 km in two anxious days. It is possible that John thought Philip’s whole army had returned to the region. La Roche-au-Moine was a rout without a battle, its pathetic anti-climax summing up John’s sudden and complete reversal of fortune. Wendover claims that when Louis heard of John raising camp he actually feared that John ‘would attack him, and fled in the opposite direction from King John’s; and thus each army ignominiously taking to flight, turned their backs on one another’.282 If this did happen, the French withdrawal was only momentary as their scouts would have passed on news of John’s own retreat. Before long the valiant garrison of La Roche-au-Moine were pillaging the deserted English siege camp, for in its haste the Angevin army had left all behind it: siege engines, tents, clothes, money and valuables. As the French came onwards many of the English who had not been so quick to flee were harried, many drowning as they attempted to cross the Loire in overladen barges; stragglers were cut down by the French vanguard. The skirmish was a bloody one. Among those slain in the pursuit were John’s chaplain (William the Breton’s opposite number) and Paies de Rochefort, mortally wounded in two places. Henri Clément died a few days later, probably from wounds sustained in the encounter, possibly exacerbated by fever. The pendulum had swung in Louis’s direction and he quickly capitalised on his victory by undoing much of John’s work during his Poitevin campaign. He rapidly retook many of the castles recently lost to John, razing to the ground those of Montcontour and Beaufort; garrisons were placed in all the strategic strongpoints; he ravaged the lands of Aimery de Thouars and many of the region’s towns; and, significantly and symbolically, he regained control of Angers, throwing down the defensive wall hastily erected there by John. Any person found from John’s side was clapped in irons. Anjou was back under Capetian dominance once again. The only clouds over the spectacular success were the marshal’s death and the uncertainty over his father’s fate in Flanders where the German-Flemish coalition forces were advancing.

Philip Augustus’s cause had been greatly served by his son’s achievement. The bold but necessary decision the King had taken at Châteroux to split his army into two had been vindicated by events in Anjou. The defence of La Roche-au-Moine had brought the French the time needed to launch a direct attack against a previously mobile English army and its Poitevin allies. The result was, at one blow, the end of John’s advances in Poitou and the firm securing of one of the two fronts against France. However, back at La Rochelle, John had not given up Poitou yet. His army had been put to flight, with him leading the way, but it had not been destroyed. He still intended to co-ordinate his strategy with his allies in the north-east, where they held the initiative, and in the second week of July he wrote back to England calling for reinforcements to pursue his military operations. His dissembling letter unwittingly reveals the anxiety that had crept into his thoughts: ‘Everything is, by God’s grace, happy and prosperous with us … We earnestly entreat those who have not crossed with us to come to us immediately … Know that if any of you have incurred our displeasure, the best way to make amends is by answering this summons.’283

Any defeat was serious and potentially disastrous for a military commander, but only subsequent events could determine whether this would be the case. Poole calls the encounter at La Roche-au-Moine a ‘disaster’ for John, as indeed it proved to be; Sivèry rightly believes that John’s defeat here was a major factor leading to the French invasion two years later.284 Yet had the outcome at Bouvines been reversed by a coalition victory, John’s defeat would have been of relatively little consequence; for the French this scenario would have been their equivalent of Harold’s great victory at Stamford Bridge in 1066 and the swift negation and irrelevance of this a few weeks later at Hastings.

What would an Angevin victory at La Roche have meant, if anything? The pressure on Philip Augustus in north-east France would have intensified even more, and his defensive inversion of a Schlieffen-like plan would have been widely perceived as a failure. But it is doubtful that John would have pressed for Paris, still some distance off with the inevitable dangers of over-extended supply routes and exposed vulnerability deep in enemy territory, and with the bulk of Louis’s army still in the field. Only an overwhelming Agincourt-style victory would have made this a feasible option. Ralph Turner goes further, opining convincingly that John did not even have plans for an assault on Normandy, seeking instead ‘a decisive victory elsewhere in France that would convince the Norman nobility of Capetian weakness, and persuade them to return to Angevin allegiance’.285 This accords with my emphasis on the importance of political momentum in medieval warfare. However, Daniel Power’s analysis of John’s strained relations with the Norman aristocracy would seem to make this hope optimistic;286 but John was probably hopeful that pragmatic self-interest and the new political reality would win them over.

And what of John’s fickle Poitevin allies? Their policy of a weak Capetian neighbour and a distant Angevin overlord could now be improved upon: a serious blow by the coalition against Philip would offer the enticing prospect of an impotent Capetian overlord on the one hand, and a weakened John on the other. Aware of the coalition’s intentions, did the Poitevins see practical political autonomy beckon?

Why, then, did John choose to fight (assuming he did)? Battle avoidance was common operational practice in the Middle Ages. It is likely that John did not wish to lose the momentum he had built up with all its impressive results. A victory would have added tremendous impetus to the powerful – and potentially almost irresistible – momentum he already had in progress. His earlier victories and superior numbers would have boosted his confidence, and John had a tendency to oscillate sharply between over-confidence and pessimism about the situation. And with the powerful Poitevins momentarily gathered on his side, it is understandable that he should wish to make use of them. We have seen how his early military victories affected the political environment, persuading leading figures such as the Count of Nevers to line up with him. This tide of allegiance could prove even more effective than military victory in the field and could certainly be shaped by it. John would surely have learned this the hard way from the loss of Normandy, especially after the fall of Château Gaillard (and he would be reminded of it again in 1216). Perhaps he hoped that taking La Roche would have a similar effect, albeit on a smaller scale. For the same reason, Philip wanted Louis to take decisive action at La Roche: as important as raising the siege was the opportunity to break John’s momentum of success. Philip simply could not afford to allow John’s continued progress across the region to become a victorious promenade; the political consequences may have been too damaging, not least in how it could affect his efforts to raise armed support to counter the imperial threat in the north-east.

Such factors would have determined strategy. The French victory did not release a great deal of men from this sector to the north-eastern one. Louis’s army of 800 knights and thousands of footsoldiers was not strong enough to finish off John, and did little more than ravage the lands of the Viscount of Thouars, having crucially retaken lost castles; John had to be contained in La Rochelle and Capetian garrisons were placed in all the newly taken strongholds of the territory regained. But Louis had secured this front and neutralised the King of England. The Angevin momentum had been broken. This was the important significance of La Roche. But for Bouvines, the overlooked encounter at La Roche-au-Moine would be recognised as a major French victory. Some chroniclers certainly deemed it such, with Matthew Paris going so far as to claim, rather dubiously, that La Roche was celebrated as the major Capetian success of 1214.287 A sober verdict on Louis’s victory at La Roche is provided by the Anonymous of Béthune, who wrote: ‘Know that it was a good thing of which his father was very well aware.’288

Despite his letters home and over-optimistic plans, John’s active role in the coalition had been reduced to a relatively passive one of tying down much of Louis’s army in this region of France when it was sorely needed elsewhere. The fate of John’s designs in France and that of the Capetian monarchy was about to be decided in the north-east and without his direct involvement.

The Battle of Bouvines

From Châteroux, Philip had hurried north to meet the even greater threat facing Normandy and Paris. The long years of careful coalition building by John (structured on the relations formed by his brother Richard) now culminated in an impressively powerful league united against France.289 This league had manifested itself as a formidable host in the Lowlands, poised to press down into France. John’s brother, William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, was, tenuously, the commander-in-chief of this grand army, but his command was neither readily accepted nor undisputed among the other elite generals. Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, was the prominent figure, but his force was a relatively small one and Salisbury’s prominence reflected the input of the coaltions’ chief paymaster: John. Joining them were the contingents of Count Ferrand of Flanders, Count Renaud de Dammartin of Boulogne, Count William of Holland and the Flemish troops under Hugh de Boves, the last having been recalled from John’s service in England for this great campaign. The allies also added to their ranks the Dukes of Limburg and Brabant, Count Conrad of Dortmund and many other important barons and the troops they brought with them. They awaited the late arrival of John’s nephew, Otto of Brunswick, who was eager to crush Philip, not least because the Capetian supported Frederick Hohenstaufen, Otto’s rival claimant to the imperial throne. The delay of Otto and his German princes left the coalition host ravaging and pillaging Ponthieu, and organising attacks on the far north-eastern border. Philip, meanwhile, was granted precious time to muster the feudal host against the impending danger: barons, knights, men-at-arms and communal troops were quickly gathered and reinforced by some of Louis’s knights now spared from Anjou. This great mobilisation was reminiscent of the call to arms in 1124 sent out by Philip’s grandfather, King Louis VI the Fat, when the French kingdom was imperilled by another threatened invasion from the empire, at that time under Henry V. The lack of uncoordinated troop movements amongst the present coalition meant Philip could organise his defensive force, albeit hastily.

By 23 July both sides had mustered their hosts: the coalition at Valenciennes, the French at Péronne. Philip led his army, totalling perhaps 1400 knights and 6000 infantry, through Cambrai and Douai to Flanders. Pillaging supplies for his army and burning what he could not use from his enemies’ lands, his intention was also to cut the allies’ lines of communication to the coast and also to prevent Otto’s force from joining with Salisbury’s. This move may have offered the possibility of the French launching a surprise attack on Otto’s rear, from the side he least expected, enabling the French to deal first with a much smaller force before engaging the main body of enemy troops: with John contained in Anjou and Otto’s army repulsed, Philip could hope either for victory against Salisbury or, more probably, Salisbury abandoning his campaign altogether, having already lost two of its three main elements. Imperial scouts were active, however, and informed Otto of French movements when he was at Valenciennes (from where he was pondering his advance on Paris), with Philip now behind him at Tournai by 26 July. Tournai was one of the two normal operational headquarters for French campaigns in Flanders (the other being Lille). It had been taken by the Flemish a year earlier, but was now recaptured by a French force working in advance of the main column. Otto countered by a move to a strong position at Mortagne, just seven miles to the south of the French position, which left Philip feeling that he had overreached himself as was now exposed to both Salisbury’s and Otto’s armies, the exact situation he had hoped to avoid. Despite both sides having good local geographical knowledge, many of the protagonists having estates in the region and local urban militias predominating in the armies, the two forces managed to pass each other unknowingly.

It is likely, as John France has suggested, that Philip was playing for time in the hope that the disagreements among the coalition leadership would lead to its collapse. Philip would also have anticipated the negative impact on the coalition from the defeat of John’s forces. William the Breton, characteristically but unconvincingly, depicts Philip as impatient to attack his enemy, only to be restrained by his military advisers (whom Philip almost invariably heeded).290 Instead the French made a rapid retreat along the Roman road to Lille early on 27 July. This suggests that it was never Philip’s plan to directly engage the enemy, but only to prevent them from joining forces; once he had failed in this, he withdrew his army. Many historians believe that Philip was actively seeking a decisive battle with the allies, but the Anonymous of Béthune, the author of the History of William the Marshal, and the Marchiennes accounts concur in that Philip was endeavouring to avoid contact with the enemy; Roger of Wendover’s narrative clearly indicates that the French had taken up a defensive rather than an aggressive position on the battlefield. Even more than most military commanders, the unheroic Philip appreciated the tactic of battle avoidance. However, despite William the Breton’s constant lapses into unobjective panegyrism, his account remains the best and fullest description of the battle, as he was eyewitness to the events that were to take place that fateful day.291

Sunday 27 July was a scorching summer’s day. Philip had sensibly stopped at the bridge of Bouvines, on the Tournai-Lille road. Here he had shade and, more importantly, his men and horses had a plentiful supply of water from the Marque flowing beneath the bridge. The refreshment was all the more welcome after the dusty rigours of almost constant marching in the summer heat. Philip carefully arranged a fortified camp. Meanwhile the coalition forces were also on the move to keep within striking distance of the French while still determining what course of action they should take and when. Philip’s scouts had informed him that the allied forces had struck camp, but he believed they were making for Tournai and not for him. The leadership of both sides was anxious about the gravity of what was at stake on such a momentous occasion. The tension was possibly less strained on the allies’ side. They were confident as they held their council of war, dividing up the regions of France between them as their spoils of imminent victory. Otto – who had by now joined up with the main force ahead of most of his troops – and Count Renaud of Boulogne were reluctant to initiate battle on a Sunday, especially as all their troops were not yet drawn up. A plan was discussed to allow the French to retreat in the hope that their morale would be sapped and the army would be further weakened by desertions, but this was rejected despite its merits. They were persuaded against hesitation by John’s leading mercenary, Hugh de Boves, who disparaged them for wavering and cast aspersions on their courage if they failed to attack Philip immediately. In a phrase employed by the energetic royal generals Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, Hugh warned them, ‘Delays are always dangerous when things are ready’; and added, for good measure, a sting in the tail with, ‘It is easier to talk than act.’292 They prepared for battle.

Hugh probably had three motivations for so forcefully exhorting the allies to adopt his strategy. First, in one sense, things were ready: Hugh wished to catch the French army, stretched out along three miles of the road, divided as it crossed the bridge (the potential efficacy of such a move can be evaluated by the crushing defeat suffered by the English against the Scots at Stirling Bridge in 1297). Secondly, and as he reminded his allies, they were beholden to King John for his generous payments in subsidising the campaign and therefore were honour-bound to deliver battle for John’s sake. The English King’s reverses in Anjou made a victory in the north even more imperative; if the cat-and-mouse movements of shadowing enemy troops continued there was a danger that the coalition might dissolve before it had played its full part. Finally, Hugh de Boves was a mercenary captain who had prospered under his paymaster John; of all the allies he had the least to lose and the most to gain. Wendover calls him ‘a brave soldier but a cruel man … he spared neither women nor young children’.293 The thought of fighting on a Sunday did not weigh heavily on his shoulders. The chroniclers make much of the blasphemy of fighting on the Lord’s day, especially William the Breton who never missed an opportunity to blacken the foe’s evil reputation, but too much of this has been made by both contemporaries and modern historians. Fighting on Sundays or holy days was far from uncommon: in 1264, Simon de Montfort spent Easter, the holiest event of the Christian calendar, storming the defences of Rochester and attacking its tower, and incurred very little censure for doing so.294 The decision to attack was perhaps swung by the perception that the French were in full retreat and thus were vulnerable.

While Philip was taking shelter from the sun under an ash tree, the allies arrived at Cysoing, a mile south-east of Bouvines, and, catching up with the French rearguard, lanched into them. In charge of the rearguard were Viscount Adam of Melun, Duke Eudes of Burgundy and Brother Guérin, Bishop-elect of Senlis. Guérin was a veteran Knight Hospitaller who now, at 58 years of age, was ready to take his place amongst the French episcopate. His experience of warfare made him an invaluable adviser to Philip, and he was instrumental in the battle that was about to take place. From his hill-top vantage point he saw the allies fast approaching. He instructed the Viscount to hold the enemy off with his light cavalry and crossbowmen. The Anonymous of Béthune offers a slightly different, and possibly more accurate, account. According to him the rearguard took up position in a small wood and delayed the enemy’s advance with crossbow fire. The rearguard struggled to catch up with the main army but had to stop and turn to face the enemy five times. It was soon hard-pressed; the allies were not intending to harass the retreating French column, but to destroy it. Guérin, assessing the seriousness of the situation, had ridden up the three-mile column to warn the king. Philip took counsel with his commanders, most of whom thought the march should continue, believing that Ferrand, who was leading the enemy attack, was not about to give battle; a minor deviation of Otto’s course (to find fording points across a stream) was misconstrued as an intention to avoid an engagement. Then Gérard la Truie came up the column to warn the King of the escalating combat. The French were in imminent risk of succumbing to the coalition’s intention of being caught stretched out, but now at the worst possible juncture with the army on either side of the River Marque. By this stage, most of Philip’s army had crossed, leaving a relatively small number of footsoldiers and the greater part of his cavalry dangerously exposed on the east side. It was made clear to the king, by Guérin above all, that battle avoidance was no longer an option: the French had to stand and fight.

Philip entered a nearby chapel to pray for victory. When he emerged the cry of ‘To arms!’ went up; armour was donned, bridles were tightened and echelons put into order. The majority of soldiers that had already crossed the bridge were recalled and the bridge itself, having just been reinforced to take the strain of the baggage train and the large numbers of men crossing, was now destroyed to harden the resolve of the French and to stem any thoughts of flight from the battlefield.

Roger of Wendover’s narrative diverges markedly from the other sources. He places Philip’s army within the fortified camp, behind the French wagons and carts. Although at odds with the other contemporary sources which tell of battle orders confronting each other on classical lines, Wendover’s slant does not lack plausibility. Such fortified camps were not new and were a common response to dangers faced by an army on the move, attaining their fullest development in the Hussite wars of the fifteenth century. In 1124, when also faced by an imperial invasion, Louis VI drew up wagons in circles, ‘like small castles’ according to the chronicler Suger, to allow tired and wounded soldiers to retire from battle to seek attention and to be refreshed by water. It may be that Wendover was confusing similar arrangements at Bouvines with the actual battlefield. At the Battle of Alençon in 1118, in which Henry I of England suffered a major defeat, Count Fulk of Anjou positioned his army within a fortified enclosure from which he made sorties against the enemy (a point to recall when considering Count Renaud’s tactics at Bouvines). And in 1197 when Philip was campaigning in Flanders, his opponents under William Marshal and Count Baldwin of Flanders explored the possibility of organising carts in a defensive barrier against him, from behind which battle could be offered. It is also worth reiterating Philip’s cautious and defensive nature and his hopes for battle avoidance. Intriguing though this possibility is for one of the most epic and best documented battles of the Middle Ages, the general conformity of the other major sources demands that they be taken as forming the basis for any consideration of Bouvines, with William the Breton’s eye-witness account providing the core (but not all) of what follows.295 It is prudent to assume, therefore, that the baggage camp took up its customary place behind the army and guarded it from surprise attack (aided at Bouvines by a clear view of the surrounding area and with greater protection afforded by adjoining marshes).

With the cavalry back across the river, Philip dispatched 700 of them towards Cysoing to counter the allies’ vanguard. This was effective: it forced the allies to halt and to organise an equal and opposing cavalry force under Count Ferrand. A classic cavalry engagement was to ensue, allowing the French to quickly move their troops to face the enemy where they arranged themselves smoothly into battle order less than a mile north-east of Bouvines. Philip took up his position at the centre of his arrayed forces, with the French national war banner, the Oriflamme of St Denis, set by him. There was consternation amongst the allies now they had lost the initiative. Otto’s men, engaged with the French rearguard and hoping to catch their foe unprepared at Bouvines bridge, were not themselves ready for pitched battle at this stage. Their own column, about four miles long, would take hours to be fully arranged into battle order as Count Renaud had earlier warned. Indeed, the Flemish sergeants from Bruges and Ghent were too far to the rear to play any part in the engagement, and the allies’ ability to fully utilise their tactical units was hampered by this incapacity to deploy all their forces. Nevertheless, Otto had the bulk of his forces with him and, having led them northwards, he likewise arranged his battalions which, like the French, were heavily dominated by infantry.

The two armies spread out and faced each other on a broad plain. In the best tradition of medieval bias, each side proclaimed itself to be heavily outnumbered by the enemy: this allowed victory to be magnified and defeat to be mitigated. Estimates give the allies superiority in numbers, further evidence for Philip’s attempt to avoid an engagement. The coalition comprised some 1300–1500 knights and 7500 infantry, opposing 1300 cavalry and 4000–6000 infantry for the French.296 However, a rough balance was probably created by the delay in bringing all the allied troops up to the battle. On this brilliant summer’s day the French had the advantage of facing south-east with the sun at their backs; the allies, facing north-west, had the sun shining directly into their eyes. Among the many banners and flags by which the various army units identified themselves, three stood out before all the others. On the allies’ side, looking positively demoniacal to William the Breton, was the imperial banner, a golden dragon and an eagle mounted on acaroccio, a war chariot. The French King displayed his two sacred banners: the golden fleur-de-lis on an azure background and the oriflamme, carried into battle by French monarchs, especially at times of national peril.

The banners were placed in the middle of each line with the commander-in-chief. These lines were arranged in the standard battle formation of three divisions which collectively stretched to perhaps 2000 paces across. With Otto at the centre of the imperial line was his personal bodyguard and imperial troops, positioned behind a phalanx of infantry. To his left was Ferrand of Flanders, whose battalion was dominated by light cavalry.297 It is hard to be certain about the precise course of action in the most confused, initial stages of the combat, but I believe that the Ferrand-Guérin cavalry encounter would have taken place in phases, from early contact through to the full onset of battle. Their initial contact, as mentioned above, allowed time for the armies to be drawn up on the battlefield, but I do not see this encounter as being constantly contested; the first lull, as the forces measured up to each other, and any subsequent ones, would likely have allowed the cavalry forces to draw up very roughly in the lines of battle. After cavalry waves attacked they would withdraw to reform, reorganise and rest, their mobility permitting them to shuffle into an overall position in the line of battle described here, even if not in perfect order. On the Emperor’s right wing were the knights and mercenaries of the Earl of Salisbury, Hugh de Boves and Renaud de Dammartin; their infantry was also to the fore. Directly opposite Otto was Philip, surrounded by his household troops with his loyal and veteran friend, William des Barres; when the communal infantry arrived on the scene they positioned themselves in front of Philip. To Philip’s left, facing de Boves, Salisbury and Boulogne, were Bishop Philip of Beauvais with his brother Count Robert de Dreux and their men, Thomas de St Valéry with his knights and infantry, and the forces of Ponthieu under their Count, William. On the right wing, under the command of Guérin and facing Ferrand, were Duke Eudes of Burgundy, Count Gaucher of St Pol, Viscount Adam de Melun, their troops and those of Champagne. Each of these warriors led their own cohorts of troops which facilitated coherency in command and combat.

In the clarity afforded by a bright sun, the soldiers could distinctly make out the opposing lines: the men, the horses, the gleaming weapons and armour and the rich colours of numerous banners. Philip of France, in a pre-battle oration that combined nationalism and religion, exhorted his troops to fight together and at the same time. Behind him could be faintly heard the chant of his chaplain, William the Breton, leading another household clerk in prayers for France’s triumph: ‘Blessed be my Lord who leads my hand into battle’ (Psalm 143) and ‘Lord, the king will rejoice in your strength’ (Psalm 20). Late in the afternoon, the full battle commenced.298

It was Guérin who had opened hostilities on his flank. His early correct assessment of the enemy’s intentions had been crucial in granting the French the time they needed to draw up their forces. Now his judgement was once again critical. He realised that the more time passed the more allied soldiers would be drawn up on the battlefield, thereby outnumbering the French. He needed to take advantage of the allies’ lack of organisation as they attempted to deploy troops arriving on the battlefield from their column of march. He had already efficiently arranged the French in battle order, ensuring that their line had spread out wide enough to avoid being outflanked and so that all the troops could fight simultaneously. Taking advice from St Pol, Guérin launched a cavalry charge of 150 mounted sergeants from Soissons. The purpose of this light cavalry change was to disrupt the opposing Flemish formation, softening and loosening it up for a charge by heavy cavalry. The Flemish absorbed the attack comfortably, inflicting severe damage on the French: the brunt of the casualties was felt amongst the unarmoured horses; only two sergeants were killed in the charge. The Flemish knights waited for their moment to counter-attack: William the Breton claims that they considered it beneath their dignity to engage with mounted men-at-arms; it was probably also equally true that they were disciplined enough to refrain from breaking ranks too early, something that Guérin had hoped for. With so many horses lost the men of Soissons had to fight on foot or retreat. Two Flemish knights, Walter of Ghistelle and Baldwin Buridan, then led a charge against the Champanois heavy cavalry, escalating the conflict. After the clash of the first shock had broken the lances of the knights, swords were drawn and wielded. Amongst the division from Champagne, Pierre de Rémy and his men distinguished themselves by capturing the two Flems who had led the charge. Another Flem, Eustace of Machalen, cried out, ‘Death to the French!’, foolishly drawing attention to himself: some French soldiers grabbed hold of him, ripped off his helmet and struck him dead with a knife thrust beneath the ventrail.

The next divisions to commit themselves to the battle were those of Gaucher de St Pol and Count Ferrand of Flanders. Ferrand’s move into the fray forced back the knights of Pierre de Rémy in its diagonal drive to King Philip’s position, but a charge by St Pol, a follow-up to the Soissons’ first attempt, cut deep into the enemy’s ranks. In fact the sheer impetus of this charge by St Pol’s elite knights took them straight through Ferrand’s ranks and they could then, having brought their mounts about, attack from the rear. Much of Ferrand’s force became surrounded when confronted by a further onslaught from the Viscount of Melun and his men. These charges inflicted heavy losses among the Flemish infantry, many of whom were hemmed in by warhorses and their riders, with blows raining down on them. The knights on both sides were not so easily dispatched: their armour afforded great protection even when unhorsed from their high, mounted battle platforms (horses were a primary target) they were not easily killed. The French then launched a third wave of cavalry, led by Count Jean de Beaumont, Mathieu de Montmorency, Duke Eudes of Burgandy, Viscount Adam de Melun and the Count of Sancerre. The Duke, a corpulent 50-year-old (like Philip) fell to the ground when his horse was killed beneath him. This was a moment of danger for the French: if the Duke were taken prisoner there might be a collapse in morale at a critical stage. In the Anonymous of Béthune’s slightly different version, Arnulf of Oudernaarde came to blows with the Duke and attempted to kill him by forcing his dagger through the helmet’s eye-hole. Immediately the Duke was surrounded by his men, probably his household bodyguard; these protected him while another horse was brought up for him to remount. When back in the saddle, he was urged to leave the fray for some rest, but he refused: he plunged back into the fight to avenge himself for the dishonour of being unhorsed.

The Duke was not the only knight on the French side to find himself in trouble. Michael de Harnes was pierced by a lance between his hauberk and his thigh which pinned him to his saddle and his horse as both lay on the ground; he was rescued by his comrades who placed him on another horse. Michael’s commander, Hugh de Malevine, also had his horse slain (by Walter of Ghistelle before his capture), and like many other knights that day he had to fight on foot, but ‘with no less skill’. Meanwhile the Count of St Pol and some of his men had withdrawn from the press: exhaustion in battle, especially when covered in armour in blazing heat, sapped the strength and endurance of even the fittest warriors. While regaining his breath, he caught sight of one of his knights surrounded by Flemish troops. He replaced his helmet and rode to the beleaguered knight’s assistance. Charging with his head bent low over his horse’s neck he broke into the throng of enemy troops (and, given the nature of a full blown mêlée, no doubt forced aside some of his own infantry in the process). He then stood up in his stirrups and struck down with his sword from the mobile platform of his destrier, carving a way out for his companion. St Pol was repeatedly struck by the lances and pikes of the Flems, but neither he nor his horse was brought down. He returned to his knights, regrouped them and led them back into the thick of the action. St Pol’s bellicosity proved too much for the Duke of Brabant: never fully committed to the imperial cause, he fled the field.

The encounter between the French right wing and the allied left wing raged to and fro for up to three hours before the balance tilted fully against the Flemish. Count Ferrand had lost his horse and was fighting on foot, but he was slowed down by serious wounds and exhaustion: he had been in the action continuously and was by now ‘half-dead’. Hugh and Jean de Mareuil fought their way to the Count, but Ferrand was forced to surrender to save his life as he was no longer able to physically defend himself. His capture was a turning point: with their leader taken prisoner and their ranks severely depleted, the Flemish surrendered, fled or were killed.

The confusion and reality of the battle are not easy to convey, but William the Breton gives an excellent contemporary eyewitness and informed depiction of its true nature in this scene from Bouvines:

… From both sides the combatants engage with each other over the whole plain in a mêlée so thick that those who are striking and those who are being struck are so close together that they can hardly find the space or opportunity to stretch out their arms in order to deliver more vigorous blows. The vestments of silk attached over the armour so that every knight can be recognised by his signs have been slashed and ripped into a thousand shreds by the maces, swords and lances that beat upon his armour to break it, so that hardly anyone could distinguish his friend from his enemy. Someone is lying on his back on the ground, his legs in the air; another falls suddenly on his side; a third is thrown head first, his eyes and mouth filling with sand. Here a cavalryman, there a footsoldier voluntarily surrender themselves to irons, fearing to be struck dead more than to live vanquished. You could see horses lying here and there across the field, breathing their last, others with entrails bursting from their stomachs; others felled from having been hamstrung; and still others wandered here and there without their masters, freely offering themselves to whomsoever wished to ride them. There was hardly anywhere that one did not find a body stretched out or a horse dying.

With perhaps as many as 169 knights killed (some ten per cent), Bouvines was indeed a bloody battle by the standards of the day.299

The central divisions had by this time experienced the same vicious realities of battle. The infantry of the French communes – from Beauvais, Compiègne, Corbie and Arras – arrived on the battlefield only just before Otto’s battalions advanced on Philip. These French footsoldiers had not been able to answer the recall at Bouvines with the same swiftness of the cavalry, and they had been in the van of the column on its march to Lille. When they saw Philip’s fleur-de-lis standard, carried by Galon de Montigny, they drew themselves up in front of the King’s household knights. Hardly had they done so when Otto’s troops were upon them. These communal levies were unable to withstand the allies’ charge and the Emperor’s knights crashed through the King’s battalion. Seeing the imminent danger to the King, William des Barres led the household knights in a counter-thrust as Gui Mauvoisin, Stephen Longchamp, Henry Count of Bar and others rushed to protect the king. Unbeknown to the French at this time, the allied commanders had sworn an oath to target Philip in the battle. While the knights of either side were engaged, German footsoldiers penetrated further through the lines of the communal infantry and household knights to reach King Philip himself. Armed with their pikes and billhooks they reached out for Philip on his horse. One hook from a pole-arm secured itself in Philip’s chainmail between his head and chest, and the King of France was brought head first to the ground.

If any episode from the pages of medieval history should dispel the myth of the insignificance of infantry in warfare, this is it: common footsoldiers had unhorsed a French king and were now poised to kill him. The killing of the enemy’s commander, especially when he was the greatest power in the land, usually presaged the end of the battle: Harold’s death at Hastings in 1066, Richard III’s at Bosworth in 1485 and Pedro II of Aragon’s at Muret in 1213 (still fresh in the minds of the combatants at Bouvines) were all decisive moments in those battles. Now the Capetian monarch was faced with the same fate. Philip managed to drag himself to his feet with the billhook, wrenched from its owner’s grasp, still hanging from his neck. But the German soldiers continued to set about him. French trumpets sounded the alarm warning of the King’s peril; Galon de Montigny frantically waved the national banner as an urgent message of the danger facing the monarch, and hence the whole French army. In one of the battle’s many acts of bravery, the distress signal was immediately acted upon by the household knight Pierre Tristan who dismounted and put himself between his King and his assailants, holding them off while Philip mounted Pierre’s horse ‘with surprising agility’ and escaped to relative safety while Pierre was killed by the infantry. The Capetian King had been saved by the sacrifice of a gallant knight who had reached him in time and by the efficacy of medieval (and particularly royal) armour.300

The battle now raged more fiercely than ever. Stephen Longchamp, another household knight, was killed immediately in front of the King, the victim of a new type of weapon: a slim dagger with three sharp edges which could slide through weak points in a suit of armour. This is how Longchamp died, pierced through his eye to the brain by a thrust through his helmet’s eye-hole – the most common method of dispatching a well-protected knight.301 With Philip remounted, and all his German attackers slain, the French centre-division began a concerted counter-attack against the imperial battalions, gradually pushing them back. The intensity of the fighting took on an almost poetic character to spectators. This was a battle of epic proportions, the contest of a generation, which saw both armies unleash all their mighty force in the ultimate drama of violence. As William the Breton wrote of this stage of the battle: ‘Thus began the marvellous fray, the slaying and slaughtering of men and horses by both sides, as all were fighting with wondrous virtue.’ Broadswords, clubs, lances, maces, spears, bows, crossbows, daggers, pikes, axes, falchions, billhooks, slings and bare hands were all utilised in the combat, each taking its toll.

The pendulum had swung the other way and the fight was now taken to Otto. The Emperor in turn found himself threatened with mortal danger. French knights began cutting their way through to him; by this stage many knights would not regroup for any further charges and had dispensed with their lances in favour of swords and close-quarter weapons. Roger of Wendover depicts the Emperor bravely wielding his single-edged sword (probably a falchion) like a billhook and in this manner he kept the French at bay. But Pierre Mauvoison, ‘more powerful in arms than he was wise in the ways of the world’, managed to grab Otto’s bridle in an attempt to lead his horse out of the mêlée and the Emperor into captivity – a prize that would have earned him great renown and fortune. But Otto’s bodyguard had formed a tight formation around their lord and Pierre was thwarted. Gérard La Truie also managed to reach the Emperor; he unsheathed his knife and stabbed him full in the chest, but the weapon was unable to pierce the chainmail. Gerard swung his knife again and missed, instead plunging his weapon deep into the eye of Otto’s warhorse which had reared its head just at the critical moment. The horse convulsed with death-throes but managed to lurch away, carrying its rider out of immediate danger before falling down dead, throwing Otto into the dust and leaving him vulnerable and exposed, the moment of maximum danger for a knight. Bernard von Ostemale rode up to his master, promptly dismounted, and bravely offered him his own horse, knowing that in doing so he faced almost certain capture or death. Otto, equally promptly, jumped on Bernard’s horse. But he was not out of harm’s way yet. Guillame des Barres, the Barrois, renowned Seneschal of France, was doggedly pursuing the Emperor as he attempted to make his escape to a safer position during the battle’s most heated phase. Des Barres managed to grab Otto by the neck, but could neither pull him from the saddle nor wrench off his helmet to cut his throat before the imperial bodyguard fell on him. Count William of Frise, Gerard von Randeradt, Otto von Tecklenburg and some Saxons had broken away from Otto’s now retreating contingent to deal with des Barres and save the Emperor. They killed his horse, bringing des Barres down and compelling him to fight on foot. He was not to be taken easily.302 He fought ‘like a raging lion’, his dagger in one hand and his sword in the other, his shield presumably lost. He had to stand fighting alone for some time as he had pushed far ahead of his companions. Some, such as Gautier de Nemours (‘The Young’), Guillame de Garlande and Barthélemy de Roye, had stressed the need to guard the King some distance back, lest he be exposed to the enemy once more. (In the Philippidos, William the Breton contradicts his prose account: in verse he unconvincingly portrays Philip as leading the surge to reach Otto.) Des Barres was at the point of succumbing when Thomas de St Valéry led a successful charge of cavalry and infantry through to him, forcing off the German knights and providing him with a horse and rescue.

By now the Germans were fighting a rearguard action, buying time for the Emperor’s escape with their freedom and their lives. Many of those taken by the French were the elite of the Teutonic chivalry chosen for the imperial body guard for their bravery, loyalty and prowess. As Otto was escorted to safety off the field, Counts Conrad von Dortmund, Otto von Tecklenburg, Bernard von Ostemale (who had obviously found a horse to replace the one he had offered up to the Emperor) and Gerard von Randeradt, were amongst the many who courageously hindered the French advance, thereby sacrificing their own chance to evade capture. Only when further resistance was futile did they surrender. The imperial caroccio was destroyed in the combat and the battered standard was seized by the French. The golden eagle had lost its wings and the dragon was broken. This shattered symbol of imperial authority was brought to Philip.

But the battle was not over; indeed, it was about to enter a particularly bloody phase. On the French left flank the struggle continued as furiously as ever, with no sign of either side gaining the upper hand as they fought over the dead and dying bodies of their fallen comrades and enemies. Renaud de Dammartin, Count of Boulogne, was proving himself the most effective allied commander on the field of battle, and his mercenaries the toughest soldiers. Easily picked out by his large helmet and distinctive physique, the Count supported a weighty lance made of ash that few but he had the strength and skill to carry. Renaud had formed his routier infantry into a large circle or horse-shoe shape of two ranks of closely-knit pikemen. From within this defensive position the Count led his heavy cavalry in charges against the French, possibly in the form of tactical thrusts when and where they were needed. When his cavalry needed rest or regrouping it withdrew into the relative safety of this bristling enclosure. From here the Count and his men made several sallies.

Historians of the battle have made much of the Count’s tactics, usually to praise them as an innovative and effective deployment of infantry. Misguided modern authorities express pleasant surprise that foot soldiers could play an important role at all. The attention these tactics have attracted may in large part be due to William the Breton’s assertion that they represented ‘a new form of warfare’. William is extremely well-informed on military matters and remains one of the best but least utilised sources for medieval warfare, but it is unlikely that Renaud’s manoeuvres were, as William believes, entirely novel. For all William’s first hand experiences, he actually witnessed very little in the way of pitched battles, rather he was present at a number of skirmishes and encounters, some of them substantial in themselves, but nothing on the scale of Bouvines. We have already mentioned Alençon in 1118 and Louis VI’s tactics in 1124, both occasions offering examples of ad hoc defensive enclosures on the battlefield. On the latter occasion Suger, who gives the fullest account of events, spoke of a circle defended like a ‘castle’; William the Breton gives almost exactly the same term in the Philippidos to describe Renaud’s formation, which he likens to a ‘castle under siege’. Variations of such tactics were employed in the crusades, including the Third Crusade of 1191–2, in which Philip had participated; they were used with great effect by Richard the Lionheart at the Battle of Jaffa, which occurred just a few days after Philip embarked on his return journey home to France, which may explain their novelty to William.303

With the Count of Boulogne was Earl William of Salisbury, known as ‘Longsword’ on account of his martial ability, and his force of mercenaries. These two formidable warriors were engaged in a bitter mêlée with the French left wing, where they faced Count Robert de Dreux, Thomas de St Valéry, Bishop Philip de Beauvais and the Count of Ponthieu, all with their formations. According only to the Philippidos, the Bishop of Beauvais saw the battalion of his brother, the Count of Dreux, under extreme pressure from Salisbury’s contingent, and so the Bishop rode up the Earl and bludgeoned him on the head with his mace (clava). As an ecclesiastic he was not permitted to shed blood and so did not wield a cutting weapon such as a sword or an axe (the Bayeux Tapestry famously depicts Bishop Odo of Bayeux in the thick of the fighting at the Battle of Hastings swinging a dangerous looking club). Such was the blow delivered by the Bishop it shattered the Earl’s helmet and knocked Salisbury to the ground on which he landed with so much force that the imprint of his body was left upon it. Remembering his modesty as a cleric, the Bishop then judiciously permitted a knight called Jean to take Salisbury as an immensely prestigious prisoner and to receive the reward for him. Given William’s propensity in his poem to inflate his heroes, it would not be too difficult to argue that it was in fact Jean who had taken the Earl prisoner in the first instance and had captured him after a struggle, perhaps having been instructed to do so by the Bishop in an endeavour to lift the acute pressure that his brother was under.

The loss of Longsword came amidst a flurry of losses that sapped the allies’ power. Hugh de Boves, the keenest advocate of delivering battle to the French, is nowhere mentioned in the fighting and we only hear of him (from Wendover and William the Breton) when he flees from the battlefield. De Boves’ hasty departure was precipitated when he became aware of Count Ferrand’s capture and recognised that the collapse of the Emperor’s central division was imminent. Ironically, and in contrast, it was the Count of Boulogne, who had vehemently opposed the engagement, that fought on the longest and hardest. But by now he had little support: Longsword and Ferrand had been captured; de Boves and the Emperor had fled the field. The contingent from Bruges, witnessing de Boves’ withdrawal, at once sounded a general retreat, further depleting both the centre and the left wing. The Flemish infantry that had at this stage only just arrived on the scene and who might have made a significant difference to the day’s outcome had the battle been delayed, realised that there was little point in committing themselves to the fray at this late stage. With the centre and left gone, and with the series of battlefield desertions and captures, Boulogne was left to fight alone.

Count Renaud’s tenacious resistance and the stand of his mercenaries marks the conclusion of this epic battle in a suitably dramatic fashion. He fought so valiantly that even William the Breton had to admit admiringly that ‘his unbridled valour did not permit anyone to vanquish him’, and his great accomplishment with weapons and in fighting ‘loudly proclaimed that he was the true issue of French parents’. Praise indeed from William. Temporarily safe within his enclosure of pikemen the Count was nevertheless exposed to the dangers of arrows and missiles and from combat during his sorties, the more so now that he had only five or six knights left in his command. Hopelessly outnumbered, he perhaps continued the struggle in the hope that the allied army could regroup and return to the field. He was taking a huge risk but had much to gain from Philip’s defeat: in 1211 the King of France had deprived him of his lands, and Renaud was making a determined effort to capture or kill the King. During one of his sallies the Count confronted a sergeant called Pierre de la Tournelle, who was fighting on foot as his horse had been slain. Pierre quickly approached the Count in best infantry tradition, attempting to bring down the rider by disabling his horse. Renaud’s horse may well have been stationary, hemmed in by the press of battle. Pierre was able with his left hand to lift up the horse’s armour, which was held in place by broad straps, and expose its belly. He drew his sword and plunged it deep into the destrier’s groin and into its guts, right up to the sword’s guard. One of Renaud’s knights, seeing his lord’s mount fatally struck, grabbed the bridle of the dying horse and, against the Count’s will, began leading it out of the fray. But this knight was set upon by the brothers Quesnes and Jean de Coudon and knocked to the ground. Renaud soon followed him, landing on his back with his horse collapsed on top of his right leg, pinning him to the earth.

There followed an unsavoury scramble to take the Count prisoner and thereby claim an invaluable prize. A swarm of knights closed in on Renaud with this aim in mind. The Coudon brothers were about to bind him while Jean de Rouvrai and Hugh and Gautier de Fontaine appeared on the scene where they proceeded to argue over who should take the Count of Boulogne captive. Jean de Nestle then bustled among them to stake his claim, even though, says William mockingly, ‘he had fought no one in the course of the whole day.’ While this unseemly squabble ensued to determine a lucrative outcome to the day’s events (thus portraying clearly the profiteering nature of chivalry), Count Renaud’s life remained in peril as fighting continued around him. Comotus, a young commoner (garcio), who by dint of his lowly birth could lay no claim to such a noble prize, was doing his best to slay the Count. This servant of Guérin tried raising the side of Renaud’s hauberk to stab him in the stomach (or to emasculate him), but the knife was denied entrance by the quality of armour, the chausses being securely attached to the mail shirt. He then managed to rip off the Count’s helmet and inflicted a nasty head wound. Comotus was preparing to slit the Count’s throat while Renaud desperately tried to fend him off with his hands as he lay trapped underneath his horse. Just as Comotus was about to deliver his coup de grace, his master Guérin arrived on the scene to stay his arm. Renaud willingly surrendered himself to the bishop-elect, securing his safety by becoming the prisoner of the most powerful figure present. Hardly able to stand and covered in his own blood, Renaud was dragged to his feet. While this was occurring, the Count of Boulogne’s loyal knight, Arnulf of Oudenaarde, led a desperate rescue attempt. The Count was forced by a series of blows to clamber onto the back of a pack-horse and, under the guard of Jean de Nesle and his men, he was led off to King Philip. Arnulf and his comrades were all captured.

There was still one last drama to be played out on the field of battle. Some 400–700 of Renaud’s Brabançons remained in their tight-knit formation, bristling with their pikes. The French cavalry, who had for the most part discarded their lances earlier in the battle, were extremely wary of these mercenaries: ‘They, with their pikes longer than knives and swords, and moreover lined up in an invincible formation of triple ranks of walls, were so cleverly disposed there was no way that they could be breached.’ The healthy respect that knights had for footsoldiers is highlighted by this episode. Philip was taking no chances with his valuable cavalry: he would not have forgotten the defeat inflicted on his knights by Henry II’s infantry at Gisors in 1188. But for this last display of defiance the French commanded the battlefield; they were thus free to re-equip the cavalry with lances to take on the mercenaries. Philip ordered overwhelming force to be used in crushing the mercenaries. Up to 2000 infantry and 50 cavalry under the leadership of Thomas de St Valéry were sent against them. The cavalry shock charge that followed succeeded in its task of breaking up the defensive wall of pikes; such was the clamour of battle it was impossible to hear the blare of trumpets. Although not mentioned anywhere by William the Breton, archery probably played its part in loosening up the mercenary ranks. We know from the Anonymous of Béthune – and we would expect anyway – that bowmen were present. Despite their lowly status, it is nevertheless surprising not to hear of their actions in the battle; as William the Breton attests on other occasions, they were an effective component of medieval armies. As we shall see later, field armies, especially those made up quickly as the French one was in 1214, included a large element of garrison troops – predominantly archers and crossbowmen. When St Valéry’s cavalry had achieved their initial task against the mercenaries, it combined with the infantry to move in for the kill. The pikes and fearsome double-headed axes of the mercenaries could not counter the sheer weight of numbers pressing against them. They were slaughtered. According to William the Breton, St Valéry’s force suffered only one minor casualty, a remarkable result given his earlier alarming description of the mercenaries. But it is likely that here William is only referring to the cavalry: infantry losses, invariably much higher due to lighter armour and the limits of chivalry, were not a noteworthy statistic for most chroniclers. With the mercenaries’ last stand ending in their massacre, the killing had finished. The battle was over.

Aftermath

Most battles, especially major ones, do not end cleanly on the field of conflict: there is usually a substantial mopping-up operation afterwards which involves further casualties. At La Roche-au-Moine the Marshal of France probably received a mortal wound when pursuing the fleeing enemy. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066 it is thought that some victorious Norman cavalry fell into trouble in a steep ravine when, in the ‘Malfosse incident’, in pursuit of the defeated forces, they encountered a last stand of Anglo-Saxons. Nor is this solely a feature of medieval warfare: at Waterloo in 1815 the French put up a number of rearguard actions to hinder pursuit. This may have been the role of Renaud’s mercenaries at Bouvines. Bouvines, however, did end on the battlefield. Philip, ever cautious, knew that he had won a seminal victory, and wished immediately to consolidate his huge gains rather than seek further, indefinite ones. He did not want his army dispersed in running down the enemy; as William the Breton explains, ‘The King did not want our people to hunt further than a mile for the men in flight because of the danger of little known paths and the oncoming night and, also, so that the captured princes and wealthy men would not escape.’ This last point is what Philip feared most: an enemy that regrouped and counter-attacked when his own army was scattered. Although a concerted regrouping of the allied army was improbable given the scale of the defeat, the loyalty and ties of self-interest many had for their captured lord may have prompted an attempt to snatch certain prisoners from the French. It was this haul of captives that Philip had netted for himself which made Bouvines such an eminently satisfying victory for him. Of over 130 knights that had fallen into his hands, 25 were knights banneret and five were counts; held at his will were his great enemies Count Ferrand of Flanders, Count Renaud of Boulogne and King John’s brother, Earl William of Salisbury. The Anonymous of Béthune wrote: ‘It was a marvel that the number of barons, knights and sergeants taken was so great.’304 While many of his great confederates were locked in chains, Emperor Otto made good his escape, heading for Valenciennes and spending the night at the Abbey of St Sage. The allied coalition that a few hours earlier had threatened the very existence of Capetian France had been smashed.

The ordinary French soldier also had his gains. When the trumpets sounded the return from the pursuit, the troops could revisit the battlefield to scour for booty. The enemy had been scattered, the prisoners had been secured and the wounded were being attended to – now the profits of war had could be harvested by the survivors.305 William the Breton’s eye for detail is revealed in the following scene depicting the aftermath of the battle, when soldiers scavenged amongst the corpses of men and horses:

Here someone takes a destrier; there a sturdy rouncey offers its head to a stranger and is tied with a rope. Others take abandoned weapons from the field; one grabs a shield, another a sword or a helmet. Someone else leaves happy with some leggings while yet another is pleased with a breastplate and a third gathers clothes and armour. Happier still and in a better position to withstand the caprices of fortune is the one who can seize the horses laden with baggage or swords hidden under their bulging covers …

This business-like picture captures the reality of a battle’s anti-climactic conclusion. The spoils of war would certainly be impressive as seen here: golden vessels, precious implements, silken vestments and various other forms of booty meant that some wagons were so laden they required sixteen horses to pull them. Nor should it be overlooked that the wagons were often of considerable value themselves. One wagon, however, was not taken as war booty: Emperor Otto’s caroccio. This was axed ‘into a thousand pieces’ and burned so that no trace of it remained. The wings of the eagle were repaired and Philip sent this imperial symbol to King Frederick of Sicily, Otto’s rival claimant to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, a tacit semiotic message to Frederick as to whom he owed his new-found security and his gratitude.

Just as Philip had prayed for victory before battle, so now he would have given thanks to God for his stunning success. With the company commanders having been recalled from the hunt (they no doubt had hoped to come upon Otto) and rested in their tents, the question of prisoners was dealt with. Philip had the captured allied leaders summoned to him. Those from his own kingdom were his own liege men and, as they had conspired against the King, were guilty of high treason; the custom of the land permitted beheading for these. However, in the event, all the prisoners were spared their lives; prison or ransom was to be their fate. In chains and ropes the captives were bundled onto carts and transported to scattered prisons. In total, over 300 prisoners were taken: a catalogue of prisoners drawn up in August records that 110 knights were taken to Paris, sixteen were placed in the safekeeping of great lords and the most important three came under the charge of officials of the royal household: Count Ferrand of Flanders was assigned to Barthélemy de Roye; Count Renaud of Boulogne to Jean de Nesle; and Earl William of Salisbury to Count Robert de Dreux.306 The prisoners carted to Paris were incarcerated in two châtelets that guarded the bridges linking the Île-de-la-Cité with the banks of the Seine. Others were imprisoned in the Grand Châtelet, from where three later escaped. Ferrand remained in the donjon of the recently completed Louvre until he was set free in 1226. Salisbury was soon released by negotiations; it had always been Count Robert’s intention to exchange him for his son who was held by King John, a transaction that John did not initially accede to (Philip of France had rewarded Count Robert with his important prisoner with this transaction in mind). The harshest treatment was handed out to Renaud de Dammartin, Count of Boulogne. He was no longer to be a constant source of trouble for the French King: he was taken to the castle at Péronne and shackled in chains. Thirteen years later, still in chains, he died.

The day after Bouvines Philip headed back to Paris. Public rejoicing had already begun throughout France. The common people lined the route of the king’s return to the capital, cheering their monarch and heaping insults on the Count Ferrand and the other prisoners. Official celebrations were organised everywhere in the kingdom, but especially in the capital, where unrestrained revelries lasted day and night for a week. Unsurprisingly, the mood in the Angevin royal camp in Poitou was one of shock. When John heard of the news ‘he was thrown into despair’, records Wendover. ‘Since I have become reconciled to God, and submitted myself and my kingdom to St Peter and the Roman Church’, bewailed John, ‘nothing has gone right for me, and every misfortune has befallen me.’307

John, however, remained prepared to continue the fight from his position south of the Loire. John had ordered his justiciar in England, Peter des Roches, to arrange 300 Welsh reinforcements to be sent to him by the end of August. He was right to feel the need for them. Philip, with characteristic alacrity, marched his army of up to 2000 knights and accompanying infantry south into Poitou in a major show of confidence and strength, halting at the Castle of Loudon with John only fifteen miles away. Although the size of the French victory at Bouvines is hard to overestimate politically, John’s position in Poitou was not entirely hopeless. The barons of the region were wary of the possible consequences of an overly strong Capetian monarchy; as Baldwin points out, Philip’s arrival south to join his son Louis did not intimidate John’s Poitevin allies as much as he may have hoped.308 Certainly, Philip did not carry through the threat implicit in his action, despite the assertions of some French historians that Philip was poised to conquer Poitou.309 The French King was not prepared to put his spectacular gains at risk in another battle: in addition to the very real advantages won at Bouvines was the enormously enhanced prestige of Philip’s reputation as soldier, victor and King, which had practical power applications of its own. An unnecessary encounter and possible minor defeat would have blemished his aura of conquering hero. Worse, the wheel of fortune could turn dramatically against him: on 1066 Harold of England marched from decisive victory at Stamford Bridge to utter defeat three weeks later at Hastings, the great earlier triumph becoming a footnote in history. Prompted by Pope Innocent III, eager for peace in Christendom so that he could launch another crusade, the two sides came to terms at Chinon on 18 September in a truce that was to last five years from the following Easter. This truce merely extended the one of Thouars in 1206. Baldwin believes that it reveals an actual weakening of King Philip’s position south of the Loire. With the exception of the loyal Angevins Aimery de Craon and Juhel de Mayenne, Philip’s document was not underwritten by any notable baron of the Loire region. Unlike in 1206, John’s co-signatories now included the leading Poitevins, with the Counts of La Marche and Eu and the families of Thouars, Lusignan and Larchevêque: ‘Faithful to their reputation, the Poitevins preferred to stand with a distant and weaker suzerain.’310

Against this must be set the submission of Viscount Aimery of Thouars and other Poitevin barons to Philip and, argues Gillingham, ‘Philip’s relative lack of interest in this part of the world.’311 Put into context, Poitou simply was not as important as the north: ‘Philip was always more interested in invading England than in completing his takeover of the continental lands of the Angevins. This was because the threat to Normandy came from England not from southwest France.’312 This threat, it may be added, could be turned on its head regarding England: as we have seen, Philip’s conquest of Normandy gave him a vital stretch of northern seaboard from which he could menace John’s kingdom. Thus the stalemate in Poitou was deliberately anti-climatic and not worth Philip’s wholehearted attention. Both he and John had experienced enough antagonistic relationships with the Papacy and neither had much to gain from reviving such troubles at this immediate juncture by rekindling the conflict. Philip, with an eye to events in England and his hoped for enterprise, was, according to Ralph of Coggeshall, more interested in the 60,000 marks offered to him by John, an indication of how weak contemporaries judged John’s position in Poitou.313 The truce allowed John to hold the line south of the Loire for the time being.

Much has been written about the consequences of Bouvines, one of the most significant battles in European history, but it was how it was fought – and won – that altered the course of subsequent events. If the French forces had not been so well ordered and so well led; if the coalition army had not been so precipitate; and, above all, if Philip of France had been killed or captured, as was so nearly the case: the whole future of Europe might have been radically different. As Painter noted, ‘If Bouvines had been won, John would have been the dominant power in western Europe.’314 John’s continental policies and alliances, so expensively fostered, would have come to fruition; Otto IV would have remained Emperor; the barons in England would have recovered their lands in France; Philip Augustus would not have been the instigator of France as the leading power in Europe; Magna Carta may never have happened; and there would have been no invasion of England. Thus ‘Bouvines deservedly ranks among the world’s decisive battles.’315

As it was, John’s position had in reality collapsed and his great financial outlays had been for nought. It was the King of France who was now Western Europe’s pre-eminent monarch. Capetian France was secure in itself and more threatening than ever to England. England prepared for the worst. In late August John sent his word to his formidable justiciar and serving regent, Peter des Roches, to munition Dover Castle and make ready for his return. Des Roches had already organised defence measures for the Marches, where a sudden spate of Welsh incursions indicate that the news of John’s crushing defeat had reached home, and the Welsh were the first hostile element to capitalise on it. With John far away with his army in Poitou, there was a real alarm that Philip might undertake a rapid invasion. By early September des Roches was prudently engaging men to keep a discreet vigil on the coasts; he also seized foreign merchant vessels that may have been carrying French men and horses.316 Des Roches and the country waited tensely for John’s return.

France, in contrast, settled down to enjoy the new political dawn. Flanders was now effectively under French control317 and Aquitaine could be safely dealt with later; John’s own troublesome subjects in England held promise for help in a favourable outcome here. Just as John’s problems were mounting precariously, so Philip’s were subsiding; as the Anonymous of Béthune wrote: ‘After this, no one dared to wage war against him, and he and the whole of his land lived in great peace for a long time.’318 Bouvines was Philip’s last – and greatest – direct combat involvement, a fitting end to his successful military career. He had no need to continue his role as general in the field: his son Louis, a more martially inclined man than his father, had proven his worth and now took the lead in active military matters.319 Bouvines granted Philip the luxury of becoming an administrative king; he could safely retire from the rigours of campaigning.

The year 1214 therefore witnessed a remarkable change in European politics, and deserves to be regarded as one of the watersheds in history. Bouvines had changed everything. Contemporaries, such as the Anonymous of Béthune, realised this. But in 1214 the now largely forgotten engagement at La Roche-au-Moine was considered by many, such as the Minstrel of Reims, to be nearly as significant as Bouvines. We must remember that without Bouvines, La Roche would be hailed as a major Capetian victory, as it was at the time. A century after these dramatic events, which saw John’s plans totally crushed on his two fronts, one French chronicler wrote of these two great Capetian victories as having occurred simultaneously, as if divinely synchronised. He says that Philip and Louis sent out messengers at the same time to pass on news of their success. These messengers, one from the south and the other from the north, met at Senlis. Having shared their joyous news, ‘they raised their hands to Heaven, giving thanks to the Lord whom by wondrous coincidence, had granted the father and son to triumph over their enemies at the very same moment.’320

John, however, was on the eve of the most intensive warfaring period of his life. He and his allies had failed decisively on the continent. His two great armies, one in the north-east and the other in the south-west, had been seen off one at a time by the French: better coordination of troop concentrations, more prudence at Bouvines and better luck on that historic battlefield (Philip, remember, was fortunate to have survived) might have changed everything. But it had all gone so completely wrong; the fortunes of war had turned comprehensively against him. John left La Rochelle in early October, never to return to France. On his journey back to England he must have been filled with foreboding. He had left his kingdom in a state of political unrest; his shattered foreign policy would only add fuel to the fire. On his return in mid October he prepared for civil war.

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