Sunday at Bouvines
I only wish this pile of stones could be silver, gold or diamonds . . . the more precious the materials of this castle, the greater pleasure I will have in possessing it when it falls into my hands.
PRINCE PHILIPPE (LATER KING PHILIPPE AUGUSTE), AGED NINE, IN 1174
Some important battles in history have a surreptitious way of crystallizing what has gone before, as well as putting down a kind of marker for what is about to occur. They can also affect the pattern of events far beyond the battlefield itself.
It is perhaps what makes historians call them "decisive." Bouvines, fought on 27 July 1214, was one of those. It was won by France against a powerful coalition of foes headed by King John of England, on a Sunday. This in itself was unusual, for in those days of religious correctness knights and kings on the whole observed the sabbath as far as battle was concerned. Bouvines was, moreover, to set the future shape not only of France but of Britain, too-and it would be fundamental to the development of the capital city Paris was to become. Some fifteen kilometres equidistant from the present-day cities of Tournai (in Belgium) and France's Lille, Bouvines lies in soggy Flanders, site of the terrible battlefields where the destiny of France was to be played out exactly seven centuries later, 200 kilometres north-east of Paris.
When France's King Philippe Auguste arrived on the throne in 1180,* aged fifteen, he inherited a tiny state, a fraction the size of Plantagenet England and its European dependencies, land-locked and surrounded by powerful rivals. How then did he come to find himself fighting-and winning-such a key battle in so unpromising a corner of Europe?
The then King of England, Henry II, was an imposing, authoritarian ruler who, at least in the early stages of his reign, seemed to have everything going for him. His French father, the Plantagenet Duc d'Anjou, brought him the rich territories of Anjou and Normandy; and he acquired England through his marriage to the unhappy Matilda, heiress to William the Conqueror's son Henry I. Between Matilda and her cousin King Stephen, England had been reduced to anarchy and, by the time Henry Plantagenet came to the throne in 1154 at the age of twenty-one, was only too ready for the smack of strong rule. In short order, Henry found himself reigning unchallenged from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees, his short-lived Angevin Empire looming over the diminutive plot that was Louis VII's France. With conspicuous cunning, Henry set about the encirclement of that plot by a network of alliances, and at times during his reign it looked as if the best the Capetians could expect would be to become vassals of the Angevin Empire controlled from Westminster and Rouen. Yet the murder in 1170 of Archbishop Thomas à Becket-apparently invoked if not actually ordered by the King-turned things upside down. The "turbulent priest" became an instant international martyr, and a saint. Henry could wear a horsehair shirt and have himself flogged in Avranches Cathedral by way of atonement, yet his image, and his power, would never quite recover from this particular bloodstain. Louis, France and Paris were saved.
Storing up trouble for himself and the Angevin Empire, the increasingly unpopular Henry now carried out a Lear-like break-up of his territories between his sons, Henry the Young (aged fifteen in 1170), Richard (the future Coeur de Lion, aged twelve) and Geoffrey (eleven). John, born only in 1167, was left out of the carve-up-thus to be known henceforth in France as "Jean-Sans-Terre." As Lear discovered, this was to prove folly in the extreme. Prince Henry, though already crowned in anticipation in 1170 and strategically married to the daughter of Louis VII, was treated by his father-in-law as if he were already king, but in fact was never to succeed-dying in 1183. In 1173, a general insurrection, the product of widespread popular discontent, broke out against Henry. With his customary vigour, however, over a period of two years he crushed one by one all the coalitions mounted against him.
Meanwhile in 1176 the worst flood of the Seine in memory swept away both bridges, carried off mills, houses and livestock on the crumbling banks, and came close to engulfing the whole city. Attempting a form of flood control untried in modern times, Louis and his entire court and every undrowned monk and priest, headed by the Bishop of Paris, went in procession to the edge of the swirling waters. Holding aloft a nail from the True Cross, the Bishop prayed: "In this song of the Holy Passion, may the waters return to their bed and this miserable people be protected!" The rain stopped, and the waters ebbed just in time.
The uprising of 1173 had demonstrated the fundamental Achilles' heel of Henry's empire-the divisiveness of his quarrelsome sons, greedy for territory and glory. Their future adversary Philippe, heir to the ageing Louis, saw it. Aged only nine, standing before Henry's seemingly unassailable fortress at Gisors, and showing his future mettle, he is said to have remarked to his entourage, "I only wish this pile of stones could be silver, gold or diamonds . . . the more precious the materials of this castle, the greater pleasure I will have in possessing it when it falls into my hands." He would have to wait the best part of a generation.
In 1180 Louis VII died, and Philippe Auguste succeeded him, aged only fifteen. As he grew into the job, Philippe earned a reputation for being rusé comme un renard (cunning as a fox). The only existing contemporary pen-portrait of him describes him as:
a handsome, strapping fellow, bald but with a cheerful face of ruddy complexion, and a temperament much inclined towards good-living, wine and women. He was generous to his friends, stingy towards those who displeased him, well versed in the art of stratagem, orthodox in belief, prudent and stubborn in his resolves. He made judgements with great speed and exactitude.
He was keen to seek the counsel of intelligent men of humble birth, notably Brother Guérin, Bishop of Senlis, and Barthélemy de Roye, and he restricted his advisers at court to a very small circle. He was to give the French monarchy (in the words of the historian André Maurois) "the three instruments of rule which it lacked: tractable officials, money and soldiers." He was also to be one of the first true lovers of the city of Paris.
France was soon at war again. By the facts of life of the twelfth century, this signified skirmishes interrupted by frequent truces, but without any grand battle-until Bouvines in 1214. By the fifth year of his reign, through a combination of skilful campaigning in Picardy and the dowry of his first queen, Isabelle of Hainault, the young Philippe had managed to expand his kingdom substantially northwards and southwards, including the key city of Amiens. Almost immediately, he found himself at war with the mighty Henry. It seemed like David taking on Goliath, but Philippe was cunning in his strategy of isolating the old King by forming alliances with his sons, first Geoffrey, then Richard (Prince Henry having died barely three years after his father-in-law Louis)-and also with Barbarossa, the German Emperor.
Henry, stricken by rheumatism and a painful fistula, was already old beyond his years. At the beginning of 1188, Philippe, having split the Angevin Empire and doubled his forces through his alliance with Richard, was poised to move into Henry's Normandy. Then suddenly news came from the Middle East that the Saracen, Saladin, had taken Jerusalem and was threatening Antioch. The Pope, Clement III, commanded the Christian kings to cease fighting each other and embark on a fresh crusade (the Third). But before they could set out, Henry had died, on 7 July 1189, in the chapel of his French château of Chinon, to be buried in his Abbey of Fontevrault. On the 20th, Richard was crowned duke of Normandy in Rouen, and king of England in London on 3 September. He and Philippe Auguste then departed, as allies and close friends, for the Holy Land.
Despite the romanticized portrait of him given in British Victorian history books, Richard Coeur de Lion was something of a brute. He was arrogant and quarrelsome, with a habit of sowing hatred and rancour around him. At home (which he rashly left in the treacherous and incompetent hands of his brother, Jean-Sans-Terre) he was accepted as a neglectful, popular absentee ruler, as befitting the repute of a knight errant. In contrast, Philippe left his kingdom well organized and in good hands, as set down in a famous document, the Testament of 1190. Among other things, this provided for the construction of a continuous fortified wall or enceinte girdling Paris, making her impregnable to any enemy assailant for the first time in her history. It was just as well, because he and his friend Richard (their intimacy had evidently extended, in the innocent way of the Middle Ages, to sharing a bed in Paris) were soon to become the most bitter enemies. Reaching Genoa together, the two leaders first fell out over the number of ships each was to provide for crossing the Mediterranean. In Sicily there were English charges of bad faith against Philippe, accused of conniving in the destruction of Richard's army. Finally arriving in the Holy Land, the two kings managed to tip the balance in the terrible Siege of Acre, already under attack for two years. But by the time of its capitulation in July 1191, intrigues plus the stresses of a grim campaign had seriously undermined the Anglo-French entente. To the enduring fury of Richard, Philippe now decided to break off from the Third Crusade and head for home. The Count of Flanders had died during the Siege, and Philippe had his eyes on the Count's possessions in Artois and Vermandois.
Richard, on the other hand, in the story so well known to generations of English schoolchildren, during his journey home fell foul of the German Emperor Henry VI, who kept him locked up for many long months in the Danube fortress of Dürrenstein, pending payment of ransom. Unfounded rumours ran round Paris that Richard had tried to poison Philippe at Acre, and even to have him assassinated in his own capital on his return. Rashly, and acting in deplorably bad faith with Richard's evil brother John, Philippe endeavoured to bribe the Emperor with a substantial sum to continue to keep Richard under lock and key. The Emperor Henry thoughtfully revealed all to Richard, who finally reached London in March 1194. Immediately he launched a fresh war against his former friend. It was to last five years, with a continuity and intensity rare in the twelfth century.
Much of the English King's fighting on French soil was carried out by a particularly brutal mercenary, Mercadier, who moved with utmost speed and ruthlessness from one province to another. No quarter was given, with both sides issuing orders to blind or drown prisoners-of-war. Predictably, John switched sides as soon as his brother set foot in Normandy and surrendered Evreux, having first massacred all his French allies there. On 3 July 1194, Philippe Auguste suffered his most humiliating defeat, at Fréteval in the Vendôme, losing his baggage train, his treasury and the national archives. To bottle Philippe up in Paris and to prevent him ever again threatening Normandy, Richard constructed an unassailable fortress at Château Gaillard on a key bend in the Seine, still a most imposing castle commanding the approaches to Paris. Defeat followed defeat for Philippe. Swayed by Richard's superior diplomatic skill, the Emperor Henry also joined in against Philippe, announcing his intention of annexing the right bank of the Rhône.
By the end of 1198, it looked as if France would be sliced up once again and become a fiefdom of either Richard or the Emperor. Once again, intervention from afar saved the day. After news had come from Spain that the Moors were threatening a new invasion, the new Pope, Innocent III, applied irresistible pressure to the combatants to reach a truce. The results were extremely tough on Philippe, obliging him to forfeit all of Normandy save the citadel of Gisors-on which as a nine-year-old he had first set eyes-and with it he in effect lost all the fruits of his campaigning over the previous ten years. Had he died at this point, he would have been remembered with scorn as a historical nobody, and it seemed it would be only a matter of time before Richard renewed the war, with a final drive on Paris.
Then the two sides' fortunes were abruptly reversed. While besieging a rebel fortress in Limousin with the dread Mercadier on 26 March 1199, Richard was wounded in the left shoulder by a bolt from a crossbow. Gangrene set in, and the warrior-king soon died. All the defenders of the besieged city were hanged, but-just before he died-Richard with a last chivalrous gesture requested that his assailant be spared and given a sum of money. The moment he was dead, however, Mercadier had the sharpshooter flayed alive and impaled. "King Richard is dead, and a thousand years have passed since there died a man whose loss was so great," sang the troubadours. In Paris, Philippe Auguste no doubt heaved a sigh of relief. Now there would be only weak, evil and hated Jean-Sans-Terre to deal with.
THE PAPAL ROLE
All through Capetian France's struggles against the Plantagenets, Louis VII and his son had to contend with a powerful, and often unpredictable, player on the sidelines. Stalin's sneering question to Churchill during the Second World War-"How many divisions has the Pope?"-would have been answered in the twelfth century with "a great many." At the wave of the papal crucifix, or with the despatch of a legate, each pope could summon up armies and nations to bring pressure to bear on miscreant rulers. In the Middle Ages, thoughts of death and eternal damnation were uppermost in all people's minds. Upon the spiritual state of grace at the moment of death depended happiness, or misery, for the whole of eternity. Though by the later Middle Ages views on the afterlife had lost some of their certainty, in the twelfth century notions of Purgatory were little considered; it was a straight choice between the Bosom of Abraham and the Cauldron of Hell. Such was the dread of eternal damnation, such the dread of excommunication or an "interdict" upon a whole nation, that the mere threat could reverse policies or even overturn thrones. Perhaps never again would the power and influence of the Pope be greater.