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800 years ago : the battle of Bouvines

Throughout its history, France has participated in many wars. In Europe, France is one of the countries that has had the most successful military history. Great victories and shameful defeats have shaped the country and contributed to its evolution to form the nation that France is today. In the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, a victory would forever mark the name of a small village in history books and change the face of the Kingdom of France during the Middle-Ages.

The 27th of July 1214, near the village of Bouvines in the County of Flanders ( today in the Nord département ) the royal armies of King Philippe II Auguste of France met the forces of a coalition lead by Emperor Otto IV of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1214, France was once again engaged in military conflicts against England since 1202. King John of England, later known as “ John Lackland “ formed a huge coalition against the French monarch with the purpose of deposing him and claim the throne of France. This coalition was composed of various powerful feudal lords such as Count William I of Holland, Count Renaud of Dammartin, Prince Fernando of Flanders, Duke Hendrik I of Brabant, Duke Thiébaud I of Lorraine, Duke Henrich III of Limburg and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV.

The war had been raging in Flanders and was not in favour of King Philippe II. His entire fleet had been sunk and destroyed the previous year and English troops were threatening to invade the royal demesne from the West. Assisted by skilled tactitians, Philippe II had send his son the Prince Louis ( future King Louis VIIIthe Lion ” ) with the vast majority of the army to protect the Loire region. The Prince proved worthy of the task and won a decisive victory allowing the King to move his troops North and catch the Emperor.

Otto IV‘s army has the important advantage of being superior in number than the French side. The coalition sent around 9,000 men ( the numbers are still subject to discussions between historians ) but disposed of more than 16,000 saxons footmen in reserve. In front of such number, the French monarch asked the Northern cities to send their militias. Some cities, such as Paris or Arras responded and sent their help to the King in order to prevent a probable invasion by foreign powers. Philippe II managed to gather some 5,000 to 6,000 footmen but was accompanied by around 1,500 knights.

Philippe Auguste planned to attack the Emperor near the town of Mortage but his lords warned him about the dangerous situation of launching an assault against a superior enemy. The King agreed and retreated his army near Lille. Otto IV was persuaded to have the advantage over the French King, in terms of number but in moral as well. The Emperor divided his troops in three columns and marched quickly in order to catch his foe. The terrain on which both armies were spread was terrible and not fit to wage battle. The surroundings of Bouvines were small woods and marshes. Otto is surprised to have caught so quickly the enemy however, he has not realized that he fell into a trap.

Philippe Auguste‘s strategy was to take advantage of his inferiority in number. Like the Emperor, he disposed his troops in three groups that he positioned in a single line, between a wood and a pond. The only way to escape is the “ small bridge of Bouvines “ and it is guarded by 150 sergeants of arms belonging to Philippe Auguste. The deployment of his troops in a reduced space took away Otto’s advantage. He cannot deploy all of his troops and those who are deployed are overcrowded.

The royal army’s right flank is lead by Duke Eudes III of Burgundy and his knights from Burgundy and Champagne as well as militia. The center is directly lead by King Philippe Auguste and his most trusted knights. The left flank, composed of many footmen and some knights is commanded by the Counts Robert of Dreux and Guillaume of Ponthieu.

The Emperor‘s army is divided the same way. The left flank is composed of infantry under Renaud de Dammartin and of English knights under the command of the Earl of Salisbury, William Longespée. Like in the French army, the center is under the control of the Emperor Otto IV and the left belongs to Fernando of Flanders and his Flemish forces.

In a time when religion was very present in the daily life of the people, Philippe Auguste decided to play another card against the Emperor. Indeed, Otto IV was excommunicated at the time of the battle of Bouvines. On the other hand, the French King, who had made of the Pope an important friend and ally played the role of defender of the faith. The plan was to make the Emperor be the aaggressorin the battle and to let him attack first. That way, Philippe Auguste would not be the attacker on a Sunday, day of the Lord.

The 27th of July of the battle of Bouvines was a hot summer day and it is said that the two opposing armies were so close to each other that the warriors could smell the breath of the other side. The coalition troops were unfortunate to have the sun in their way but remained confident when the first offensive was launched. French cavalry was send towars the enemy center composed of huge lines of pikes. This was light cavalry, generally men recruited on the way to the battle and thus badly trained and equipped. However their strong points was their hability to continue the fight once unhorsed which heavy armoured knight were generally unable to do. At the same time, the flanks were also targeted but the coalition center started to move towards the French lines. Among the objectives given by the Emperor was the capture of the French monarch.

In the first hours of the battle, the Duke of Burgundy, Eudes, succeeded in crushing the Count of Flanders, capturing him and routing his men. But the center of the fighting was dominated by the coalition and its gigantic force. Indeed, Otto was able to bring his reserves, around 20,000 men. Such numbers were rare at this time and it seemed hopeless for the French army to win at Bouvines. Yet this superiority in number created another disadvantage for the coalition, ego and the certainty that this battle was already win. Many among the great knights and barons of the Emperor made the capture of the King their priority at the depend of the strategy adopted by their side.They almost succeeded, at some point in the midst of the battle Philippe Auguste had been surrounded by German soldiers and his unhorsed, owing his life to his armour. The monarch was likely condemned to be trampled by horses but his knights came to his rescue and protected. Philippe Auguste resumed the battle, with his army reassured about his safety. At the same moment Lord Enguerrand III de Coucy, one of the most powerful lord fighting for the French monarch, unhorsed the Emperor Otto IV in a furious charge. The French advance is unavoidable and the morale of the coalition is dangerously dropping. After a brave resistance on the bridge of Bouvines, de Dammartin and Longespée surrendered. The unhorsed Emperor did not have the same courage as Philippe Auguste and instead of getting back on his mount, fled the field of battle. The cowardice of the Otto IV annihilated what was left of his troops’ will to fight, they started to ran.

After several hours of an extremely violent fighting, the French monarch obtained his victory. The battle of Bouvines is a complete success, the casualties in the royal army are few and many great lords of the coalition are made prisoners Otto IV’s prestige dropped as he ran away from battle, lands are confiscated and John Lackland was forced to restore Normandy and other vast regions to the French crown, forsaking his “ French dream “.

Furthermore, the victory at Bouvines elevated the person of the King even higher. The barons and other feudal lords had to recognize the sovereign as the supreme leader. It was a blow to the feudal system which would eventually collapse some 300 years later. The festivities that took place in Paris after the battle were gigantic and according to some, Bouvines marks the beginning of the nationalist sentiment. True or not, King Philippe II Auguste was the hero in the eyes of the population and the conceited barons had to remain behind the kingly person.

By Alister

Studying at the University of Besaçon, Burgundy Franche-Comté, France