A fighting bishop unhorses and captures a royal bastard in an obscure medieval battle and in one swift blow changes European history for centuries. The event leads to the downfall of an emperor and a king and brings new justice to the whole world.
By Paul Bannister
WHEN THE CRUSADER clergyman Philip of Dreux went to war for his king in 1214, he expected merely to kill a few Englishmen. Instead, the ringing blows he struck with his heavy mace on the helmet of William Longsword, the Third Earl of Salisbury echoed down through the centuries. They still resonate today.
The obscure yet momentous event occurred at the Battle of Bouvines. The stunned English earl crumpled to the ground under Philip’s wallops and was swiftly captured. Demoralized at the sight of their felled lord, the English soldiers fled, leaving their entire army’s right flank exposed and and tipping the battle in France’s favour. The resulting rout set off a chain of events that would change European and ultimately world history.
King John’s War
To see how the dominoes were stacked before the first one fell, you have to start in 1214 England, where King John was facing down his rebellious barons. Sardonically dubbed “Lackland” because he was the king’s fifth son and not expected to inherit much, John bled England white in his attempts to recapture the crown’s old holdings in France.
The 47-year-old Plantagenet ruler joined a coalition led by the Count of Flanders that included German, Flemish, Limburger, Dutch and Saxon forces, all of which were keen to take back lands from the French. John hired mercenaries to bolster his English knights and expected to reinforce them with feudal levies from Anjou. The plan was to draw the French army south away from Paris while the German emperor Otto IV marched on the city from the north. The English contingent would be the anvil on which the hammer of the coalition — part of which was led by Longsword, John’s half-brother and bastard son of King Henry II – would strike.
John’s vassals failed to turn up. He was defeated near Angers and retreated to the coast, abandoning his siege train and leaving the rest of the coalition to deal with the French under King Philippe Auguste. The French ruler wheeled to meet the 25,000-strong allied coalition with just 4,000 cavalry and about 11,000 infantry. His small but agile army outmaneuvered Otto. The Holy Roman Emperor thought he was pursuing the French but was astonished to find them waiting for him.
Encounter at Bouvines
The armies collided in marshy terrain outside the Flemish village of Bouvines. Philippe swiftly deployed into line of battle and rested his men. On the French left was vital bridge, an escape route, but Philippe had only the 150 serjeants who were his skimpy reserve force to defend it.
The battle began with a slashing cavalry melee on the French right, and deteriorated into a series of individual contests between knights before the centres joined the fight. The well-trained Flemish infantry drove back the French. Philippe and his knights tore into the fray to save the line, and in desperate fighting, the 58-year-old king was unhorsed and almost killed, but the centre somehow held.
William vs. Philip
On the coalition right, William Longsword led his hired knights against Bishop Philip to seize the bridge and cut off the French retreat. The French clergyman was a lifelong enemy of Longsword’s other half-brother, the 12th Century English monarch Richard Lionheart. During the Third Crusade, Philip accused Richard of murdering the King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat. The bishop’s allies captured and brutalized the English king, who once free had Philip jailed. Richard so hated the bishop he threatened to castrate a Crusader leader who wanted the churchman released. The bishop remained locked up until Richard’s death in 1199.
Longsword, an exceptionally tall man whose immense blade earned him his nickname, led a powerful charge against the infantry defending the bridge and found himself face-to-face with the hated bishop. As the battle raged around them, the two foes fell upon each other.
Philip, 56, was a veteran warrior who followed church custom of using a blunt weapon designed to avoid the sin of shedding blood.
The bishop’s mace, almost five feet long, was heavily weighted to crush both armour and bone. Pointed flanges concentrated the force of the weapon allowing it to dent or even pierce plate.
As the two exchanged blows, Philip’s mace struck the side of Longsword’s enclosed great helm sending him reeling. A second swipe tumbled the English earl from his destrier enabling the Frenchman’s foot soldiers to rush in and take the nobleman prisoner. With their leader downed, the hired knights and the Brabant infantry abandoned their attack and turned tail. It was the tipping point of the battle.
In moments, the French cavalry were outflanking and overwhelming the Flamands; the allied centre under Emperor Otto crumbled — only a former vassal of King Philippe, Reginald of Boulogne held out. He quickly formed his 700 Brabant pikemen into a fighting square and held off a dozen attacks, but with the wings collapsed, the French king ordered 3,000 men-at-arms to charge the war hedge and the sheltron was overwhelmed. All the Brabant mercenaries were executed on the spot. The butcher’s bill revealed 170 dead coalition knights and about 4,000 infantry from both sides.
Philippe Auguste had decisively crushed the invaders. His victory consolidated his hold over France and established it as the most powerful nation in Europe for centuries to come. But the implications of the Battle of Bouvines would be even more far-reaching.
Humiliated, John returned home to an uncertain future. Suddenly at the mercy of his rebellious barons, the English king would be famously forced to put his seal to the Magna Carta at Runnymede. The document, which placed limits on the monarchy’s authority, would lay the ground work for the rise of constitutional law and form the basis for individual freedoms enjoyed in many country’s today.
Bouvines was a hinge of history that changed the world. And it all came down to the swing of a flanged mace and the toppling of a single warrior.
Post script: when William Longsword’s tomb in Salisbury Cathedral was opened in 1791, the ‘well-preserved’ corpse of a rat was found nestled into his skull. Analysis of the rodent showed it carried traces of arsenic confirming rumours that the Earl may have been poisoned in 1225 AD by the royal regent and his onetime ally, Hubert de Burgh.
The Battle of Bouvines is described in the second book of Paul Bannister‘s ‘Crusader‘ series. The novel deals with the reigns of four kings — Henry II, his sons Lionheart and Lackland John, and his grandson Henry of Winchester — and just how John lost his coronation regalia. It’s available through Amazon.com. Visit him online at epistle.bannisterbooks.com