Battle of Bouvines Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Bouvines signaled the advent of a new patriotism in France when a relatively minor skirmish quickly took on mythic proportions. The battle defined France as a champion of the Catholic Church, helped make the French monarchy powerful, and heralded chivalry and knighthood.

Summary of Event

Drawing on four or five contemporary narratives of the brief encounter at Bouvines, poets and historians have formed the event into a legend. The essential facts reveal a much simpler story. On a hot Sunday in July of 1214, King Philip II Philip II (king of France) of France was returning from Tournai, which he had devastated on the previous day to chastise Count Ferrand Ferrand of Flanders, a rebellious vassal. Around midday, as the king and his knights were about to cross the bridge of Bouvines, they were unexpectedly set on by a coalition of troops led by Ferrand, Renaud Renaud of Boulogne, and Otto IV Otto IV of Bavaria. A three-hour battle ensued, involving perhaps four thousand mounted knights and twelve thousand infantry. Both of the rebellious counts were taken prisoner. King Philip himself, pulled to the ground by Otto’s German foot soldiers, miraculously escaped death and remounted to pursue the “false” (the excommunicated) emperor, who managed to get away. Ferrand and Renaud were led in chains to Paris, and the king’s triumph was made complete by news from Poitou that his son Louis (known as “the Lion”) had defeated King John John (king of England) of England, the remaining party to the coalition against France. [kw]Battle of Bouvines (July 27, 1214) [kw]Bouvines, Battle of (July 27, 1214) Bouvines, Battle of (1214) Flanders;July 27, 1214: Battle of Bouvines[2250] France;July 27, 1214: Battle of Bouvines[2250] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 27, 1214: Battle of Bouvines[2250] Philip II (1165-1223) Ferrand Renaud Otto IV John, King

The enemy coalition was financed by King John, who simultaneously attacked Poitou in an attempt to recover the inheritance of his Angevin predecessors. Angevin Empire John had lost these lands ten years before, when Philip had taken Normandy and Anjou from him as a disloyal vassal. The year before Bouvines, Philip had been prepared to invade England when John forestalled him by securing an intercession from the pope. (In 1216, Philip’s son Louis did invade England but was defeated by the barons under the command of William Marshal.) John had been joined by two other disloyal vassals, Ferrand and Renaud; by defeating all three, Philip and his host of knights proved that vassals to the French crown were more formidable than an illegitimate coalition of mercenaries. The French monarchy was a more cohesive force than feudalism. “After Bouvines,” according to French historian Georges Duby, nothing could “stand in the way of the expansion of the royal domain.”

The Catholic Church had managed to harness the forces of chivalry and feudal strife by launching the First Crusade, which had freed Jerusalem in 1099. The Third and Fourth Crusades (1189-1192 and 1202-1204), however, had been failures. Philip had taken part in the Third Crusade Crusades but had fallen out with Pope Innocent III over his desire to be divorced from his second wife, Ingeborg of Denmark. Meanwhile, the pope had excommunicated and deposed Emperor Otto IV, and Philip had allied himself with the new emperor, Frederick II, in 1213. As a result, when Otto joined Philip’s enemies in the surprise attack at Bouvines, Philip found himself in the heroic role of Christian champion pitted against the false emperor, or Antichrist. Coincidentally, Otto’s emblem was a dragon (reminiscent of the evil dragon in the biblical Book of Revelation), which was displayed on the banner he dropped on fleeing from Bouvines. Opposing this symbol of the Antichrist, the French banner carried the Oriflamme, representing their patron, Saint Denis. Christianity;France France;Christianity

An artist’s rendition of Philip II thanking the burghers after the Battle of Bouvines.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

By forcing Philip to do battle on a Sunday, the enemy was violating the Lord’s day. This situation invited historians to claim that God had made the king his instrument for punishing such sacrilege. The notion that the king was God’s avenger powerfully supports the teaching that the Crown is the sovereign font of justice. This idea was far more potent than feudal conceptions, which held the king to be merely the strongest of mortal overlords. As the legend of Bouvines developed, Philip was given prayers like those spoken by Moses and David, as if he had foreseen the battle and directly implored God’s aid. Sacred meanings could be found in all of his gestures. For example, while watching his troops cross the bridge, Philip had rested under a tree and eaten pieces of bread that he dipped in his wine. The legends also endowed Philip with a golden goblet, so that the lunchtime snack of a practical and cautious monarch resembled the taking of Communion.

If the legend made Philip to be God’s champion against unruly heretics and rebels who flouted the divinely ordained social order, the miraculous victory at Bouvines also confirmed France’s national role in human destiny. The underlying idea here is not truly religious, but chivalric and superstitious. Bouvines was a trial by arms—a judicial combat in which God is seen as arbitrating between the two parties by awarding victory to the just cause. In this historical event, the French entered the lists—the champel, or closed field, in which duels took place—as combatants on the side of honor and “romance” civilization. Their opponents were seen as evil “Teutonic” barbarians. God was believed to have rendered judgment at Bouvines by sending a definitive outcome. This divine judgment explains why Philip made no real effort to pursue and kill Otto. The flight of the Germans was the sign that judgment had been given; pressing the fight was to risk tempting God.

Ferrand is shown captured during the Battle of Bouvines in this miniature from Chroniques de Hainaut.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

In what was probably the most important embellishment of the story, Bouvines was invoked, from the late thirteenth century onward, to reaffirm the belief that the king of France was “elected” by the voice of God speaking through the people. In the fullest contemporary account of the battle, Philip had completed his tour through Hainaut and Flanders and had chastised his two rebel vassals by calculated destruction of their lands. He certainly did not plan on a pitched battle; indeed, when told of the coalition’s approach, he tried to escape but could not get his army over the narrow bridge in time. Forced to make a stand, he took counsel with his knights, as was customary. He made a short speech, reminding them that although they were all sinners, they were not mercenaries like their foes and had not been excommunicated. He bade them to trust God, and, acting in his semisacred capacity, he raised his hand to bless them.

In the later legends, the king loses all trace of surprise or fear. On the contrary, Philip’s self-possessed, almost theatrical speech has the effect of removing whatever perplexity and doubt the surprise attack must have raised among his followers. These legends claim that the king, obviously expecting the occasion, brought his crown with him (even though the crown was always kept in Paris). Laying that national symbol before his men—in still later legends, his forces included commoners as well as knights—Philip told them, “Without you, I cannot rule the kingdom anymore.” In addition, he invited anyone who thought himself more worthy to put on the crown and lead them. Naturally, the barons cried out that they would have no king but Philip. In this way, God speaks through the “people’s voice” and renews His divine choice of the king of the Franks. It is a very old ceremony that still retains its effective power, despite the advent of modern democracy.

Significance

Why, for historians, has this short and unprepared battle in the meadows of Bouvines seemed more decisive than most previous military encounters? The answer clearly lies in the importance of Philip’s victory for the later development of the French monarchy. At the same time, it established the primacy of France as champion of the Catholic Church and as the model of chivalry and knighthood.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradbury, Jim. Philip Augustus: King of France, 1180-1223. New York: Longman, 1998. This biographical study explores Philip’s life in the context of the Battle of Bouvines, Church history, and French history in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denholm-Young, N. “The Tournament in the Thirteenth Century.” In Studies in Medieval History Presented to Frederick Maurice Powicke, edited by R. W. Hunt, W. A. Pantin, and R. W. Southern. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Provides insight into the court’s notion of warfare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duby, Georges. The Legend of Bouvines: War, Religion, and Culture in the Middle Ages. Translated by Catherine Tihanyi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A thorough account, written by a famous medievalist. Prints a translation of the chief chronicle of Bouvines by William the Breton, together with an appendix of other thirteenth century narratives and poems on Bouvines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duby, Georges. The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. An authoritative study of the three estates that, under the crown, constituted the mature feudal system of France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">France, John. Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. Historical survey of military engagements during the time of the Crusades. Includes an appendix on the Battle of Bouvines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hay, Denys. The Medieval Centuries. Rev. ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1964. Excellent source for understanding the development of the rivalry between the French and the Germans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Painter, Sidney. French Chivalry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969. A classic account of the period.

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