BATTLE OF BOUVINES
by John Sloan
As for all medieval battles, the available sources vary widely in their
description and assessment of this engagement. While all modern authors
perforce must rely on the same few eye witnesses and court chroniclers, they
are free to make their own evaluations and sometimes what one commentator takes
as gospel another rejects out of hand. For this battle there is serious
contention over the size of the two armies and their mix of cavalry and
infantry. There is even more variation in the strategic and tactical planning
or lack of it that is ascribed to the two commanders. Our most readily
available secondary authors are the following:
"Bouvines", article in Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th
edition, vol. 4, pages 336-7.
Delbruck, Hans, trans by Walter Renfroe, Medieval Warfare, (Vol 3 of
History of the Art of War), Univ of Nebraska Press. 1990.
Hooper, Nicholas and Matthew Bennett, Cambridge Illustrated Atlas: Warfare:
The Middle Ages 768-1478, Cambridge Univ Press, 1996. Has a map showing the
Oman, Sir Charles, The History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages,
Vol 1, Burt Franklin, New York, 1924.
Spaulding, Oliver L. Hoffman Nickerson, and John Wright, Warfare: A
Study of Military Methods from the Earliest Times, The Infantry Journal,
Washington DC. 1937.
And for a general understanding of medieval warfare:
Contamine, Philippe, trans by Michael Jones, War in the Middle
Ages, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1984.
Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare,
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995.
Wise, Terence, Medieval Warfare, Osprey, London, 1976.
The battle took place in Flanders (north-western France) and was part of
the complex wars between France and England and between two rival Holy Roman
Between 1197 and 1208 Otto IV of the Brunswick House (Welf party) and Philip II
of Swabia (Waiblinger party) fought for control of the German empire. Philip
was assassinated in 1208. Then Frederick II, the great Hohenstaufen (Stupor
Mundi) became Otto's rival. Frederick allied himself with King Philip II of
France. Otto's ally was King John of England.
During 1213-1214 Philip was blocked from his effort to conquer Flanders by the
English naval victory at Damme in 1213. But Philip showed his military skill by
repulsing King John's campaign in western France. Philip then shifted his
forces to meet the more dangerous allied army invading France from Flanders
under Emperor Otto IV.
Philip took 2,000 heavy cavalry knights, 5,000 other horse and 15,000 infantry
and slightly outmaneuvered Otto, who had perhaps 1,500 knights, 4,000 other
cavalry and 20,000 infantry. Otto was expecting more German and Flemish
reinforcements and tried to cut Philip's communications line between Tournai
and Paris. Philip pretended to panic and enticed the Germans into a rash attack
on excellent terrain for cavalry east of Bouvines. There the superior French
cavalry had an advantage. Otto, thinking he was pursuing, was surprised to
encounter the French army drawn up in order of battle. He had to form his own
army hastily and attack, because if he turned around or tried to retreat he
would surely have been destroyed.
On 26 July, 1214 the French opened the battle with an infantry attack, which
was repulsed by Flemish and German pikemen. Then, while part of his cavalry
engaged the main body of imperial Calvary on the flanks, Philip led the
remainder of his knights in an all out assault with converging attacks that
finally smashed the center of Otto's army. At this point the French right flank
cavalry under the Knight Hospitaler, Garin, drove off the superior imperial
forces facing them. Otto fled the field while the battle was still in progress.
The small English contingent was wiped out later.
Bouvines was the most important battle from a political point of view for a
century. Oman says that France owes its very existence to the victory of Philip
II Augustus. It was also a great pitched battle, the greatest of its age, in
contrast to the many smaller and briefer engagements of the period. If the
French monarch had lost, the Plantagenets might have won back their lost Norman
and Angevin territories, and the counts of Flanders might have got free from
the French king and the emperor might have retained Lotharingian territories.
Not until the time of Charles V did France have so many enemies allied against
John of England began diplomatic maneuvers against Philip in May 1213 after
being freed from his long quarrel with the Pope. He was trying to win back his
ancestral lands in Normandy but could not generate enough troops from England
alone because the people hated him. All he could do was use money to buy
John's ally was his nephew, Emperor Otto IV, who had his own quarrel with
Philip because Philip was supporting Frederick of Swabia. The third ally was
Ferdinand Count of Flanders, who was trying to retaliate against his suzerain -
Philip - because the latter had taken towns from him. Another ally was Reginald
Count of Boulogne who had the same reasons as Ferdinand.
Most of the nobility of the Netherlands likewise were among the allies,
including Henry Duke of Brabant, Theobald Duke of Lorraine, and Philip Count of
Namur, and others. They were not only supporters of Otto but also enemies of
Philip Augustus. But Otto was not able to bring much of the feudal nobility of
central Germany because they supported Frederick.
King John, instead of going to Flanders to join the allied forces, had a more
elaborate genuinely strategic campaign plan. He decided to launch a strategic
diversion in the Loire valley to draw the French King south and distract him
from Flanders. Then the Emperor and princes would gather their troops on the
Flemish frontier and march on Paris.
Therefore John crossed the Channel to Aquitaine in an unusual season. Sailing
from Portsmouth, he landed at La Rochelle on 15 February in 1214 with his
mercenary army. He could not count on loyalty from the English barons, but
called up his feudal levies from Guienne and then marched into Poitou.
Gathering more forces along the way, he crossed the Loire and entered his
family lands in Anjou. This had the desired result of stirring up the French
King. Philip came out to meet him with the best of his troops. Philip marched
via Samur and Chinon to cut John's line of retreat. John abandoned Anjou and
moved quickly south to Limoges in April. John had succeeded in drawing Philip
far south. Unfortunately for the allies, the Emperor and his forces were not
ready to move. Philip realized the danger of following John further south and
started back to Paris. Leaving his son with 800 knights, 2,000 sergeants and
7,000 infantry, he moved north.
John immediately turned around and moved back into Poitou in May, crossed the
Loire and again invaded Anjou. John laid siege to La-Roche-au- main in June but
was forced to retire again in July, when Prince Louis brought up his French
troops and Angevin levies.
Meanwhile Otto moved toward the Netherlands in March. Instead of pressing
forward, he lost much time rounding up German forces. He remained in Aachen in
order to have his marriage ceremony on May 10th. His bride was the daughter of
Henry of Brabant, an important war lord. Finally he began to campaign in June.
However, he only had three of the principal German vassals with him plus his
own Saxon troops. By 12 July he reached Nivelles where he met with the Dukes
and other allies. These finally increased his forces to a reasonable size. But
by then it was too late to conduct a coordinated campaign according to his
uncle's plan. By the end of July Philip had mobilized all France and was well
aware of Otto's plans.
Otto still had a very powerful army. The Count of Flanders brought a sizable
cavalry unit. William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, and John's half brother had
a large contingent of mercenaries paid for with English money. These formed one
wing of the allied army and consisted not only of infantry but of many hired
When he saw that the German invasion was near at hand, Philip called up all his
vassals and allies, proclaiming the ban in eastern, central, and
northern parts of France. He only could not draw on the western territories
that were either occupied by or threatened by John. Of top quality knights he
had great numbers but most of the infantry would have been rather worthless
Philip assembled his army at Peronne toward the end of July and took the
offensive into Flanders, thinking the Emperor was in front of him. Suddenly
Philip discovered that the German-allied army lay to the south, at
Valenciennes. From that location Otto could cut in behind Philip and sever his
line of communications to Paris. Philip was forced to withdraw from Tournai,
marching west to try to cross the Marque River at Bouvines.
Hearing of the location of the French army from his spies, but not of its true
size, Otto decided to attack rather than use the opportunity to capture Paris.
Otto then turned and marched northwestward, reaching a point only nine miles
south of Tournai as the French were about to abandon the town. Otto set about
pursuing the King, hoping to catch him with part of the French army on each
side of the bridge at Bouvines. Unfortunately there was a traitor in the Allied
camp, none other than Otto's new father in law, the Duke of Brabant. The Duke
sent a secret messenger to Philip warning him of the Emperor's plans.
On 27 July Philip left Tournai, having sent engineers ahead to widen the bridge
at Bouvines, nine miles away, so his army could cross it more rapidly. Even so,
an army on the march will stretch out over a long distance. After a few hours
the French infantry and baggage made it across the river. As Philip was
watching his cavalry starting to cross, the head of the Imperial army column
appeared to the south-east heading at full speed for the bridge.
Philip had formed a rear guard of mounted sergeants under command of Adam
Viscount Melun. His military advisor, the experienced Hospitaller, Garin,
Bishop-elect of Senlis was observing the rear. When Garin saw the Imperial army
rapidly approaching in full battle array, he hurried to the King to warn him.
Philip recognized the potential for disaster, since there would be no way to
get the rear third of his army across the bridge before it was destroyed. He
immediately ordered the entire army to turn around and urged the infantry to
come back across the bridge at full speed.
Meanwhile Otto's troops smashed into Viscount Melun's detachment, forcing the
French horse arbalesters and the Champenois sergeants to return to their aid.
Then the Duke of Burgundy turned and threw his knights into the growing battle.
The enlarged French rear guard managed to hold of the vanguard of the Imperial
army for a space.
Philip determined to draw up his army at an angle across the road on a bit of
rolling terrain above the marshy river bank. He left his right flank area open
so the retreating rear guard could form there and placed each of the returning
detachments one after the other successively to the left to extend the line.
Thus it was that by the time the Duke of Burgundy approached the bridge in a
fighting retreat he could see his suzerain's army completing its deployment
into line of battle.
For his part, Otto, when he arrived at the battlefield, seeing the French
nobility fully arrayed under its banners, ordered each of his arriving units
off to the right to extend his lines to match the French. The eye witnesses
attest to his astonishment at finding a powerful fighting force rather than a
column of stragglers before him. The deployment procedure took at least an
hour, during which the French infantry managed to get across the bridge and
hurriedly into line supporting the nobility. The good Duke of Burgundy used the
time to rest and refresh his sorely taxed knights who now took up their honored
place on the right of the French line.
Thus it was that two of the largest military forces to face each other in early
13th century France came face to face, each in two lines about 2,000 yards
wide. To get a picture of the scene one must recall that a medieval host was
composed of a motley heterogeneous crowd of separate detachments raised by a
wide variety of vassals and communities. Some minor barons might be liable to
bring 10 or 20 mounted knights and twice the number in sergeants. Others would
have private armies of 100 knights and their retainers. Various abbeys and
bishops would have their mounted knights and foot troops under their own
banners. Towns of all sizes would send their communal militia variously armed
and experienced in combat.
The French army was arrayed as the necessity of rushing from line of march back
into line of battle dictated. The fully armored knights were in two ranks
across the entire field. The mounted sergeants (more lightly armored) were in
seven or eight ranks. The communal militia bands of crossbowmen arrived just in
time to pass through the cavalry and take up position in front of the center.
The levied pikemen formed up behind the cavalry on each wing. This flower of
the French nobility was arrayed from right to left as follows: first the
knights from Champagne, the host of Eudes of Burgundy, the knights from
Champagne, the followings of the Counts of St. Pol, Beaumont, Montmorency, and
Sancerre and smaller feudal contingents; in the center the seventy available
Norman knights, the rest still fighting King John, and the vassals from the
Isle de France; on the left the retainers of Robert Count of Dreux, William
Count of Ponthieu, Peter Count of Auxerre, the Bishop of Beauvais, and Thomas
of St. Valery, plus many units from northwest France. The King himself stood in
the front, center under the oriflamme and his personal blue ensign with the
The Imperial army drew up in a formation unusual for the period, with its main
infantry body in the front line of the center and the Emperor's personal
cavalry in the second, rather than the typical reverse. The Imperial infantry
in the center was composed of German and Netherlandish pikemen, considered the
best in Europe. Beside his Saxon warriors the Emperor placed the chivalry of
Brabant, Limburg, Holland, and Namur. Behind his second line of infantry Otto
placed the great Imperial silken dragon flying from the pole atop its war
chariot. This he guarded with his personal retinue.
On the left Otto deployed the knights of Flanders and Hainault, commanded by
Count Ferdinand, in the first line with their regional infantry in support. As
his right wing, Otto relied on the army of the Count of Boulogne, a small body
of Flemish knights, and the mercenaries William Longsword had brought, paid for
by King John. They also had infantry in support including crossbowmen as well
The French opened the contest on their right wing when Garin launched a body of
sergeants at the Flemish knights opposite. Gradually the entire French right
and Imperial left wings became enmeshed in a general melee of mounted knights
slashing at each other with sword and axe.
In the center, just as the French crossbow men deployed in front, Otto sent his
large body of pikemen forward. The pikemen soon disposed of the French militia
and reached the line of knights. Even though they greatly outnumbered the
knights such unarmored city folk were no match for the veteran knights in full
armor. In the general struggle Philip was pulled from his saddle and briefly in
danger, but the armored horsemen soon slaughtered the hostile foot swarming
about them. As the Fleming foot melted away the French nobility reached the
position held by Otto and the chivalry of Saxony, Brabant and Limburg.
Meanwhile on the French left the combat spread as each individual feudal unit
clashed with its opposite number. There the Imperial contingent of Reginald
Count of Boulogne distinguished itself but the mass of mercenaries fled on
seeing William Longsword (Earl of Salisbury) unhorsed and captured by the
French. This freed a considerable number of French units to shift to the
When the line of French chivalry reached the outnumbered but fresh Saxon and
Brabantine knights the same wild melee as was already raging on each flank
ensued. Otto fought courageously among his retainers, wielding his war axe to
great effect, while receiving multiple blows in return from a crowd of
Frenchmen. Suddenly his horse was killed, throwing him to the ground. A few
French knights nearly captured him before the Saxon guard surrounded their
sovereign. A noble gave the Emperor his horse, on which Otto fled the scene.
Apparently he was so shook up by the beating and near capture that he did not
stop riding until he was back in Valenciennes.
The departure of their Emperor had the effect such events nearly always had on
a medieval army (or any army for that matter). The Saxons and Westphalians
manfully covered the retreat, until most of the remaining nobles were captured.
Count Reginald formed his pikemen into a tight circle on the Imperial right and
sheltered his remaining knights inside until the whole Brabancon force was
gradually worn down and Reginald captured. But the Netherlanders soon rode off,
along with the already flying mercenaries.
Thanks to their heavy armor very few knights on either side were actually
killed, perhaps 170 on the loosing, Imperial side. But well over a hundred of
the allied nobles were captured including many great lords.
The numbers of troops engaged varies greatly from author to author. In
contrast to the numbers given above, the unsigned article in Encyclopedia
Britannica gives the following strength figures: Imperial, 6500 horse and
40,000 foot; French, 7,000 horse and 30,000 foot. But Bernard Bachrach, in his
chapter in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare, indicates a combined
total for both armies of 40,000. Suffice it to say that the French considerably
outnumbered the Imperialists in quantity and quality of first rate knights. The
Imperial army contained a larger number of infantry, particularly of better
quality pikemen, but most of the foot troops on both sides were nearly
worthless in the open field against fully armored professionals.
The most interesting disagreements are over the intentions of King Philip and
Emperor Otto. Some authorities think Philip was truly caught at Tournai by the
Emperor's advance and was brought to bay at Bouvines while his army was astride
the river. Others see Philip purposefully feigning the retreat in order to draw
Otto into an over-hasty advance onto terrain more favorable for cavalry action.
Both commanders are given good credit for excellent use of intelligence sources
and methods. The Encyclopedia Britannica article indicates the French drew up
into battle line first and the Imperial army then 'accepted' battle on the spot
chosen by Philip.
In any case at the tactical level the battle was typical. Both generals (if
they can be called such) did not deploy their forces in any thoughtful way, but
as they came on the field. They did not organize a reserve or issue any orders
for tactical maneuvers. Both armies just went at it head to head. Once the
battle was joined, the monarchs did not stay out of the line in order to try to
exercise any control but went at it with sword or axe in hand like common
knights. Of course one must note that in 1200 there was not much control
mechanism with which a general could influence a battle in progress. Given the
nature of the feudal relationship and the importance of morale, it is likely
that the strongest influence a great warrior general could provide was
"leadership from the front" by inspiring his supporters with his own
feats of valor.
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