Battle of Othee 1408


By Kor

The Background

The bloody battle of Othée, the great military victory of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, was the direct consequence of the row between the bishop of Liège, John of Bavaria, and the rebellious citizens of Liège. The conflict, and the siege of Maastricht, are described in some detail in a separate article also available on this site.

Suffice to say, John of Bavaria tried every means possible to gain allies in his struggle against the Liégois. His brother, William of Bavaria, count of Hainault, Holland & Zeeland, was one of his principal means of support, but he alone could not stage a successful rescue effort to relieve Maastricht. The bishop's survival rested squarely on the shoulders of that other great ally of the Bavarian dynasty in the Low Countries: the duke of Burgundy. John of Burgundy had actually planned a campaign, but his intrigues at the French court caught up with him, and his assassination of Louis of Orléans and flight to Burgundy prevented him from helping out when he had initially planned to do so, in November 1407.

Finally, in August 1408, John of Burgundy had his hands free to help his ally. Marching from Flanders, he joined up with the count of Namur, and together they entered the lands of Liège near Dinant. William of Bavaria also came with an army, but as his forces came from the north (Holland), his men were not united with those of John of Burgundy. Anthony of Burgundy, the duke of Brabant and brother of John, was not officially at war with the Liégois; yet he kept a strategic reserve at the borders of Brabant and Liège in case his brother needed the assistance.

When, on 22 September, the duke of Burgundy and his army approached Liège, Henri of Perwez abandoned the siege of Maastricht and immediately headed back to Liège, taking with him all the men at his disposal. His first stop was at Liège itself, where he left his wounded men behind and replenished his ranks with reserves and inexperienced raw recruits. A council was called, where two strategies were considered: the first was to stay inside Liège and await a siege, something that would be hard, as the city had not been properly prepared and was therefore low on food, as well as the fact that the allied army would swell over time as John of Bavaria would link up with John of Burgundy and William of Bavaria. The second strategy was far bolder: to march out with all available men, seek out the forces of Hainault-Holland and defeat them before they could link up with their allies, and then take out the remaining Burgundians. It was a long shot, and a strategy brought on by desperation, but it was certainly the better of the two: after a year filled with military setbacks, the Liégois were hardly ready to give the opponent the initiative and just hope for the best.

And so, filled with desperation yet eager to fight, the Liégois marched out of their city, towing along their mighty artillery train, in the hopes of surprising their enemies off-guard. They were unlucky: the forces of Hainault-Holland had already joined up and were ready for battle. The open plains and fields of the area could not hide the rebel force, and they realised they could not return to Liège: they took up a defensive position.

The Armies

The two opposing forces were quite different in composition: on the one hand, the Liégois forces were a classic urban militia army, comprised for the vast majority of armed townsmen, with only few knights to add to their ranks, and a tiny cavalry force. They probably had only 5,000 infantrymen put together, supplemented by some 300 cavalry. Claims by contemporary chroniclers that they had 100,000 men can be denied out of hand, as Liège itself had only 25 000 inhabitants at this point in time, and its forces were worn out by a year of continuous warfare. Apart from the common fighters, many artillery pieces were present, as well as experienced gunners. The Liégois were greatly disadvantaged by what can only be viewed as a direct consequence of their urban rebellion: while forming a collective with all the cities in the bishopric of Liège and the county of Looz, all the militias returned to their own homes, which they feared were under threat from the Burgundians and their allies. Henri of Perwez could do little to stop this, because infringement of the individual rights of the cities was what had sparked the revolt in the first place; and as all militias had been under arms for months on end, they could hardly be faulted now for returning home. Reluctantly, Perwez had to see his urban allies leave, and because of this the army, which had numbered over 10,000 when camped outside Maastricht, was now hardly larger than 5,000 men, including less professional non-militia volunteers.

The Liégois commander, Henri of Perwez, was a nobleman and long-time soldier, who had once been a confidant of the bishop, John of Bavaria. He had exercised commanding functions in the armies of Liège and Looz and also fought for the dukes of Brabant on occasion. Some chroniclers tell us that Perwez disapproved of the plan to seek out battle, considering it too risky.

The Burgundians had a basic knightly army supplemented with urban troops. Combined with the forces of Namur, they had 3,500 mounted men and 1,500 archers, mostly crossbowmen drawn from the cities of northern France and southern Flanders. The army of Hainault-Holland consisted of 1,500 mounted men and 2,000 infantry, largely urban militias.

The combination of urban and knightly classes into a single army seems similar to that of the English at this time, and it created an effective fighting force. Furthermore, there was a very strong feeling among the noblemen to crush the revolting townsmen, as their example might otherwise spark similar rebellious sentiments in other towns, particularly in Flanders, where the guilds had a long tradition of independent behaviour. John of Burgundy was at this time not a terribly renowned warrior; he had done well modernising his army, but his most famous military enterprise was still the battle of Nicopolis (1396), a catastrophic defeat suffered against the Ottomans when he was 25, and had been given the commanding position primarily because he was the most highly placed French nobleman present. Since then, he had inherited his father's territories (including Burgundy and Flanders) and become far more experienced; his politics in France already displayed a marked pragmatism and cunning, both of which were lacking on the field of Nicopolis. He may have viewed this battle as a chance to redeem himself from his previous defeat, and certainly as an absolute necessity to keep the rebellious middle class in check.

The Battle

Too far from Liège to retreat, and too small a force to attack, the Liégois were left with no option but to defend themselves. The position they took up lay just north of the village of Othée. This was a small settlement of no significance, about 9 kilometres away from the walled city of Tongeren. Henri of Perwez positioned his men on top of and surrounding an ancient tumulus. The soldiers were drawn up in a triangular formation of sorts, with the main front (made up of the most experienced troops) facing the Burgundians and the entire rear protected by carts strung together. These were probably only lightly defended, but could be reinforced by drawing men away from the centre. The small force of cavalry was also drawn up at the rear, but all the commanding officers, including Henri of Perwez, his son and self-proclaimed bishop Thierry of Perwez, and Herman of Salm, who was carrying the banner of Saint Lambert, the city's saint, fought dismounted and close to the front. In front of the infantry, facing the Burgundians, were positioned the municipal artillery and a skirmish line of English archers.

John of Burgundy and his advisors had every opportunity to observe the enemy position, and the duke came up with a sound plan: while his main army would perform a frontal attack, the count of Namur, with some 1,500-2,000 men, would bypass the enemy position and attack them from behind. This would put the Liégois in the impossible position of weakening either their centre or their rear, both of which could prove fatal; it also effectively cut off their retreat.

After a limited and ineffective exchange of fire, the Burgundians advanced - they wished to minimise the enemy artillery fire - and the two battle-lines became locked in deadly combat. For a while, the fight seemed undecided, with both sides fighting fiercely. Then, however, the flanking force arrived, and after the Liégois cavalry was swept away, the carts, defended by poor quality troops, were overrun in very little time. The Liégois position was compromised, and the fight quickly turned into a rout. The rebels were cut down mercilessly, and while a small part fought on bravely, they were eventually overwhelmed and killed. Among their ranks were Henri of Perwez, Thierry of Perwez, and Herman of Salm.
The men of Tongeren had seen the battle start, and had immediately sent out their militia - some 1,000 strong - to assist their allies. Before they could arrive, however, the battle was already decided, and they turned back, Burgundian cavalry in hot pursuit.

Aftermath

The battle of Othée is an interesting battle. While, arguably, the Burgundian victory was inescapable, the tactical disposition of both sides was sound, with both commanders thinking ahead and envisioning more than just a front-to-front fight. John of Burgundy, who fought from the frontlines and here earned his nickname "The Fearless", sought to shorten the battle and minimise losses by flanking the enemy; Henri of Perwez saw it coming and hoped that positioning his baggage train to cover the rear of his army would prevent this from happening. Sadly for Perwez, both the numbers and quality of the Burgundian troops were unmatched by his forces, and the result is well-known.

Another nickname earned during the Othée-campaign is that of John of Bavaria: John the Merciless. He was not personally involved in the battle, but allegedly when he did arrive on the field later, he had the head of his slain opponent, Henri of Perwez, cut off. The view of the embattled bishop is however somewhat obscure: for example, Zantfliet records that John of Bavaria wept to see so many of his subjects slain. This did not stop him, however, from carrying out summary executions of his principal Liège opponents: many canons of the church of Saint Lambert were drowned (it was not deemed acceptable to spill their blood, so this was one of the few acceptable means of execution).

John of Bavaria was once again the undisputed ruler of Liège, yet his position was quite possibly worse than it had been: his former allies demanded the outrageous sum of 220,000 gold écus in reparations, and revoked all rights of the rebellious cities, as well as forbidding John of Bavaria to reconfirm them without their express permission. After numerous complaints some basic rights were returned to the cities by the victors, but the economy of the bishopric remained poor at best, and the prince-bishop and his subjects for the first time suffered together, strengthening ties. John of Bavaria, who never had displayed any particular interest in religion and had not even taken vows, resigned his see in 1417: when his brother, William, count of Hainault-Holland, died, he claimed the throne and fought his brother's daughter successfully in a civil war. He died early, in 1425, allegedly due to a prayer book lined with poison. John of Burgundy also suffered assassination: he kept dabbling in French politics for the rest of his life, fighting a civil war and gaining most of northern France in the process. In 1419, during peace negotiations with the dauphin, the later Charles VII, he was surprised and killed by one of the dauphin's followers. He left a powerful position to his son, Philip the Good, who expanded the Burgundian position considerably.

Sources

The battle of Othée receives very thorough treatment in the excellent biography "John the Fearless", by Richard Vaughan, citing, among others, a letter where the duke describes the battle; however, he does gloss over the Liégois position - we therefore have to resort to French language sources for a complete view. More than a few are available to us, including Claude Gaier's excellent studies on the military history of the city: "Art et organisation militaires dans la principauté de Liège et dans le comté de Looz au Moyen Âge" and "Grandes batailles de l'histoire liégeoise au Moyen Âge". Another valuable addition is Godefroid Kurth's "La Cité de Liège au Moyen-Age", which spends some time on the battle and is available on the internet.