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This French knight bears the Oriflamme, the sacred silk standard of France. The Oriflamme was traditionally dated to Charlemagne and only taken from St Denis Cathedral when facing heretics or rebels, the latter being the case in 1214. It was thought that when it was taken out in battle, God was with the French. The Oriflamme’s divine inspiration prompted more ferocious and heroic actions from the French soldiery, especially at Bouvines.

On 27 July 1214, at the bridge of Bouvines, west of Tournai, in the county of Flanders, a battle was fought that involved most of the major principalities of western Europe, Philip II Augustus (1165-1223), king of France, defeated an allied army led by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV of Brunswick (c. 1180-1218).

To the participants, the Battle of Bouvines was a worldwide conflict, for nearly every ruling magnate in northwestern Europe took part there, with Pope Innocent III, Prince-bishop Elugh de Pierrepoint of Liege, and King John of England anxiously awaiting the results. Except for the battles of the Crusades, no medieval battle can compare with Bouvines for its European scope and participation.

On one side fought Otto IV of Brunswick, the Holy Roman Emperor, with his barons – the Counts of Tecklemburg, Katzenellenbogen, and Dortmund – and their armies. Joining Otto was William, Earl of Salisbury, half-brother of King John of England. William Long Sword, as he was known, was there to command the troops sent from England, and to be in charge of the large amount of money donated by King John to the allies. Ferrand of Portugal, Count of Elanders and Elainault, also fought with his large force of knights and footsoldiers, and he was joined by several other rebellious nobles of Prance, including Reginald of Dammartin, Count of Boulogne, and Hugo, Baron of Boves. Also present at Bouvines was Willem, Count of Holland, Hendrik I, Duke of Brabant, and the Counts of Limburg and Lorraine, with many lesser counts, dukes and nobles, `bellicose men, expert in military matters’, in the eyes of the contemporary English chronicler Roger of Wendover.

King Philip II of Prance, known to history as Philip Augustus, a cognomen given him by his biographer, Guillaume le Breton, opposed them. The historian Clarius would later eulogize Philip as `the most victorious king, who as a son of the Holy Mother Church stands as a defender and protector of Catholicism’. Philip and his army were supported by the pope and the Prince-bishop of Liege, who also sent troops to fight with the French. The Battle of Bouvines was a large battle, fought with sizeable armies on an extensive battlefield. Modern historians do not agree with the numbers recorded in early narrative sources – some of which place each side at 80,000 – but they do agree that it was fought by armies of between 10,000 and 20,000.

Both armies also fielded large cavalry forces, with perhaps as many as 1200 dubbed knights fighting with the French force and 1500 with the allies. However, the numbers of infantry greatly exceeded those of the cavalry; in the Flemish army, they may have totalled more than four times those of the cavalry. The allies’ forces also seem to have outnumbered the French, although not by a large amount. Nor did the allied generals use these larger numbers to any advantage.


Each of the allies seems to have had his own reason for opposing Philip Augustus in the war that ended with the Battle of Bouvines. King John’s reason was probably the most simple: Philip had been capturing English lands in France since he returned home from the Third Crusade in 1191. Trying to regain these lands had cost John’s elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, his life in 1199 at the siege of Chalus. A defeat of Philip would return these lands to the English crown.

Otto IV’s conflict was more with the pope than it was with Philip. Crowned by Innocent III as Holy Roman Emperor in 1209, confirming his election as King of Germany the year previously, Otto quickly earned Innocent’s anger by claiming and then attacking the Kingdom of Sicily. The pope promptly excommunicated the emperor, freeing the Germans from allegiance to him and inciting his enemies to rebellion. Innocent’s suggested replacement was his ward, Frederick of Hohenstaufen. The rebellion had gone increasingly against Otto for four years. Opposing Philip, who was supported fully by the pope, was a means for Otto to regain his credibility as ruler of Germany.

As for those French princes who opposed their king, it is difficult to locate a principal cause for their rebellion. Certainly Philip Augustus’ strength as a ruler limited the sovereignty of all his barons. Some of the more powerful ones felt independent enough to oppose their king. Ferrand of Portugal, despite being Count of Flanders and Hainault only since his marriage to the Countess, Joan of Constantinople, in 1212, was the strongest of these, and thus served as the rebels’ leader. His special disrespect for the king was shown in his refusal to accompany him on an invasion of England in 1213, since such a course would have been economically damaging to his counties’ cloth industries. Thus an alliance with King John of England, Otto IV of Brunswick, and other rebellious French lords was logical.


The day before the battle, Philip Augustus’ army was in Tournai, 20km (12.4 miles) east of Bouvines. Although Tournai was in the County of Flanders, the townspeople had chosen not to rebel against the king with their count, Ferrand of Portugal. (Throughout the Middle Ages, even during the Hundred Years War when enemies surrounded the town for several decades, Tournai would always remain faithful to the French king.) At Tournai, Philip Augusts and his military leadership held a council of war. They determined to march towards the allied army and to try to bring them to battle as soon as possible. But they also determined to find favourable terrain on which to fight.

The allies started the day of battle only about 12km (7.4 miles) to the southeast of the French, at Mortagne. According to the French chronicler known as the Minstrel of Reims, it was only at Mortagne that the allied leaders were informed of the proximity of the French army, and in hearing this news they rejoiced, as `they believed they had them in their net’. Confident that they could easily defeat the French, the allies were concerned only with fighting them and not with where the battle was to take place or if the terrain would favour them. “They marched in pursuit of the French army.

At Bouvines Philip found the favourable terrain he had been searching for. He stopped on the other side of the bridge over the Marcq River at Bouvines, next to the Roman road on which his army had been marching. At the small church in Bouvines, the king celebrated mass with his barons, `fully armed’ and prepared for war. Fie then addressed them, in words recorded by the Minstrel of Reims:

`Lords, you are all my men and I am your Sire … I have much loved you and brought you great honour and given you largely of what was mine. I have never wronged or failed you but I have always led you rightfully. For God’s sake, I beg you all today to protect my body and my honour, and yours as well. And if you think that the crown would be better served by one of you, I agree to it and want it with good heart and good will.’

The French barons answered: `Sire, for God’s sake, we do not want any King but you. Ride bravely against your enemies, we are ready to die with you.’ They then left the church, unfurled their banners, including the Oriflamme, only to be unfurled against enemies whom the king regarded as heretics or rebels. To the French, the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne and the Baron of Boves were rebels. They were also heretics, as Otto IV of Brunswick had been excommunicated by Innocent III, and it was forbidden to side with an excommunicant.


The Relatio Marchianesis de pugna Bouvinis, likely the earliest account of the battle and written by either an eyewitness, or from eyewitness accounts, reports that Philip demonstrated an important characteristic of good generalship, humility, a trait that was not duplicated in the leaders of the enemy forces: `Seeing that his adversaries were pursuing him terribly, like enraged dogs, and also bearing in mind that he could not retreat without too much dishonour, [Philip] put his hope in the Lord and arranged his army into military echelons as is customary for those who are about to fight.’

His was a calculated strategy. The king realized that the terrain at Bouvines – a large, flat area surrounded by river and marshes – offered him several advantages, and he ordered his army in three large divisions, cavalry and infantry in each division. They were impressive warriors. Again, the author of the Relatio Machianensis writes:

`The knights and the auxiliaries, armed and arranged into ordered echelons, prepared in all haste for the battle. The horses’ bridles were tightened by the auxiliaries. The armour shone in the splendour of the sun and it seemed that the light of day was doubled. The banners unfolded in the winds and offered themselves to the currents; they presented a delightful spectacle to the eyes.’

The allied army was pursuing the French at a very fast pace. Of course, the cavalry rode in front. When their leaders heard that the French had stopped at Bouvines, their pace picked up even more. This stretched the allied army out for quite a distance. One modern historian, J. F. Verbruggen, estimates that the length of the allied column might have reached as much as 10km (6.2 miles).

Military wisdom would have suggested that the Flemish vanguard halt their march and wait for the rest of the allied forces to catch up. This would have united the whole allied army, thereby allowing them to exploit their numerical superiority. But those in the van did not follow this more cautious path. Instead, they formed their own units and marched onto the field. A second part of the army joined them at Bouvines before the battle began, but throughout its course further allied soldiers continued to arrive, some not reaching the field until the fight was over.

The left wing of the allies, filled mostly with Flemish and Hainaulter cavalry, under the leadership of Ferrand of Portugal, faced a French right wing composed of heavy cavalry supported by lighter horsemen, led by the Duke of Burgundy and the Count of Champagne. In the centre of the allied forces was Emperor Otto, his German barons, and their cavalry and infantry – in almost equal numbers. They faced Philip Augustus’ main body, also both cavalry and infantry, commanded by the king himself. Finally, on the allies’ right wing, Reginald of Dammartin and William Long Sword commanded a division of their own soldiers and also several hands of mercenaries whose services had been purchased with English money. Although it is known that there was cavalry in this division, it seems to have been primarily composed of infantry, the numbers of which increased throughout the battle as allied infantry soldiers arrived, this wing being closest to the road. These soldiers faced a French left wing composed of both cavalry and infantry and led by the Counts of Ponthieu and Dreux and the Bishop of Beauvais, among others.


The Battle of Bouvines began with a clash between the allied left and French right wings. This was in the form of a simultaneous cavalry charge – horse against horse, lances couched – as if a tournament melee was being fought. Again, the Relatio Marchianensis provides the best account: `The first French echelon attacked the Flemings with virility, breaking their echelons by nobly cutting across them, and penetrated their army through all impetuous and tenacious movement.’

As was the case often with such horse-on-horse combats, the fighting was over quite quickly; the Relatio Marchianensis continues: `The Flemings, seeing this and defeated in the space of an hour, turned their backs and quickly took to flight.’ In this phase of battle, the experienced French cavalry appears to have faced little competition from their counterparts. No infantry are recorded as having been involved in this combat.

While the cavalry battle was being fought on his right, Philip Augustus delayed his own attack. Once more one can see in this only his military experience and leadership expertise. He had ordered his infantry in front of his cavalry and, as such, he knew that a defensive posture was preferable to an offensive charge. Flowever, the emperor who faced him was not willing to await the outcome of the fighting next to him. He charged recklessly into the centre of the French line. Initially, the Germans pushed the French troops back, the energy of the charge even knocking the king from his saddle. But, the French lines held; they did not break or flee. Guillaume le Breton, who was probably also an eyewitness to the battle, recounts what happened:

`While the French were fighting Otto and the Germans, German foot soldiers that had gone on ahead suddenly reached the King and, with lances and iron hooks, brought him to the ground. If the outstanding virtue of the special armour with which his body was enclosed had not protected him, they would have killed him on the spot. But a few of the knights who had remained with him, along with Galon of Montigny who repeatedly waved the standard to call for help and Peter Tristan who of his own accord got off his steed and put himself in front of the blows so as to protect the King, destroyed and killed all those sergeants on foot. The King jumped up and mounted his horse more nimbly than anyone would have thought possible. After the King had remounted and the rabble that had brought him down had all been destroyed and killed, the King’s battalion engaged Otto’s echelon. Then began the marvellous fray, the slaying and slaughtering by both sides of men and horses as they all were fighting with wondrous virtue.’ Eventually, the German attack petered out, with the French infantry, supported by the cavalry who were lined up as their reserve, regaining their lost ground and then pushing their opponents hack. In the midst of the engagement, Otto’s own horse was wounded and, turning away from the fighting, it fled, taking the emperor with it. The second phase of the battle had also gone to the French.

About the time the first phase of the battle was ending, and shortly after the second phase had begun, the third phase began. Once more, the allies took the initiative, charging their right wing into the French left. And, reinforced by their constantly arriving infantry, they continued to fight long after the other two allied divisions had broken and run. The fighting here was much more evenly balanced, causing Guillaume le Breton to admire the allied leaders there:

`Count Reginald of Boulogne who had been in the fray continually was still fighting so strongly that no one could vanquish or overcome him. He was using a new art of battle: he had set up a double row of well-armed foot soldiers pressed closely together in a circle in the manner of a wheel. There was only one entrance to the inside of this circle through which he went in when he wanted to catch his breath or was pushed too hard by his enemies. He did this several times.’ However, eventually, as these French soldiers began to gain reinforcements from the other two victorious divisions, the remaining allies left on the field – some cavalry with a lot more infantry – began to tire and weaken. Yet, only after the Count of Boulogne’s horse was killed under him, trapping him in the fall, did they finally cease fighting. According to Guillaume le Breton, at this time only six knights remained hy his side. The other allies had fled or surrendered.


Surprisingly, despite the length of the encounter and the numbers who fought at the Battle of Bouvines, only 169 allied and two French knights are reported to have been killed, suggesting the strength of the armour of their time. Contemporary sources record no figures for infantry deaths, but it is suggested that they, equally well armoured, also lost only a few. Many more were captured and would see the inside of Philip’s dungeons, including five barons – Ferrand of Flanders, William, Earl of Salisbury, Reginald of Boulogne, Willem of Holland, and the unnamed Count of Tecklemburg – 25 other nobles, and 139 knights. Ferrand was not freed until 1227. Emperor Otto IV of Brunswick, Hendrik of Brabant, and Hugo of Boves managed to escape, but for Otto IV and Hugo of Boves it was but a short respite. With his defeat at Bouvines, Otto IV had lost all credibility as emperor. Innocent III and the German princes who opposed the Otto had been proven right in an `ordeal by battle’.

Although he attempted to regain his former position, Otto quickly found that his erstwhile German allies had turned against him. Frederick II now found no opposition in ascending the German throne. Knowing that he would be summarily executed if caught, Otto IV lived on the run for four years, harboured by friends, until he died of natural causes in 1218. Hugo of Boves did not live even that long. Trying to reach the safety of London after the battle, he is reported to have fallen overboard during a storm in the Channel and drowned. English losses were more geographical. Of the once large Angevin Empire in France, John was only able to hold onto Gascony, and then just barely, thus setting the stage for the Hundred Years War, which began more than a century later.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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