Battle of Bouvines 1214

By Kor

The Background

The great battle of Bouvines, fought on 27 July 1214 on the road between Tournai and Lille, brought to conclusion a multitude of conflicts that had been raging in Western Europe for a long time. Emperor Otto IV of the Holy Roman Empire had been deposed by the Pope, and Otto hoped that, by beating the principal protector of the Papacy, Philippe Augustus of France, he would be able to enjoy superiority over his opponents at home. He attracted a great many allies, principally Ferrand, count of Flanders, and King John of England.

Flanders had been claimed by France for over a century, and had joined the alliance to throw off the shackles of French rule once and for all. Situated on the border of the Holy Roman Empire and France, its position had often been hazy; but as the Emperors were generally weaker and had less autonomy over their vassals, the Flemish believed joining the Empire would be to their advantage.

King John, on the other hand, was fighting to regain all the lands lost to France in the previous decade - all part of the inheritance of his father, Henry II, who had owned Aquitaine, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Poitou and Picardy. John himself would command the war effort from Aquitaine and Brittany, distracting part of Philippe's forces; but he sent a detachment under William Longsword, Count of Salisbury, to help Otto IV on the northern front.

The Armies

Both armies took most pride in their cavalry forces. The French had some 1 200-1 300 knights, according to the contemporary chronicler William the Breton, and a re-calculation of the forces, by using the numbers each feudal lord participating in the battle could muster, yields similar results. The number was relatively low because a further 800 knights were in Poitou, fighting King John. The knights were supported by a further 150 light cavalry. Last of all, a force of 3 000-4 000 urban infantry was present, though these played no great part.

The Imperial army is often estimated to have a larger cavalry contingent, but it may very well have been same size or smaller than the French force. Verbruggen estimates some 650 Flemish knights, some 425 Hainaulters and 275 German and English knights. The low number of German knights, in particular, is striking - but it is not unbelievable, seeing as Ferrand had to meet Otto near Liege with an escort of 200 knights, because Otto had too few men himself to travel safely. The Imperial infantry was most likely greater in number than the French force; their army included troops from the highly urban county of Flanders, where Bruges and Ghent alone could send over 1 000 men. Verbruggen calculated the infantry at some 7 500.

The Battle

While the French were crossing the bridge of Bouvines, heading west, they received news that the Emperor's forces were marching towards them at great speed. The Burgundian troops of Duke Eudes quickly left Philippe's army to fight a rear guard action against the approaching Imperials. They were successful, and bought enough time for the French army to turn around and array itself in neat formation on the heights east of Bouvines. The forces of the Emperor were in less good order, as they had been marching at full speed for half the day, and their infantry in particular had fallen behind.

The Flemish were positioned on the left flank of the imperial army; German (and Dutch) troops made up the centre, while English and German troops were on the right flank. Fighting commenced first on the French right flank, with Flemish and Burgundian troops charging each other; the fight soon spread to the entire front line, with the French cavalry proving particularly effective in thick and tight formations, which smashed through the less densely packed imperial formations.

The centre of the German line proved strongest by far, strengthened by battle-hardened Brabanšons and Flemish forces, who could keep the French knights at a distance with their pole arms. Nevertheless, the French smashed through the weak Imperial right, and outflanked the centre. Otto IV was nearly captured before his Saxon forces grouped tightly around him and escorted him to safety, abandoning the field. Seeing the Emperor leave was a shock to the rest of the army, and their forces collapsed under the French assault. Only the Brabanšons held their nerve, forming a powerful schiltron which beat off multiple French attacks and gave their allies time tp escape. Eventually, however, they too were overcome and scattered.

The Aftermath

The reason for the Imperial defeat is clear: while they were hastening to catch up with the smaller French army, their army became strung out over too great a distance and reached the French in disarray. The French could, subsequently, defeat an exhausted and poorly formed enemy piecemeal; Verbruggen doubts whether much of the Imperial infantry even arrived on the field before the battle was over, and assumes the Brabanšon schiltron was formed by troops who had just arrived on the field and saw their allies run.

Whatever may have been the case, the victory was a great defeat for Emperor Otto IV. He lost his power base in Germany, and the Papal candidate became Emperor instead.

The Flemish count was captured in the battle and imprisoned; French influence over Flanders increased as a result, and the English, too, were badly shaken. King John, while sending only a small force to Bouvines, still failed to make proper use of the opportunity of the majority of the French army being in the north, and subsequently lost the majority of his French possessions, maintaining only Gascony.