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I've been looking on some history books, history of the Plantagenets (who were part of this) and history of the Capetians, and I don't see why it was such a shock that Phillip II won the battle of Bouvines. He wasn't heavily outnumbered, had a lot of trained heavy knights of his demesne with him and didn't have too many vassals to contain.

My point is, the English-led coalition had a LOT of commanders, tired by marching, surprised by the French army presence and on enemy turf, why would people be surprised by Phillip winning? Why would they give him the Augustus surname?

Living in France, I was told in history course he won against "outstanding odds" and that he was an incredible strategist. Looking at it didn't show me these peculiar points...

EDIT : The sources I've read so far (En français dans le texte):

  1. https://www.cairn.info/revue-historique-2014-3-p-499.htm
  2. https://www.cairn.info/resume.php?download=1&ID_ARTICLE=RHIS_143_0499
  3. http://www.lepoint.fr/culture/il-y-a-800-ans-la-france-naissait-a-bouvines-27-07-2014-1849441_3.php => this one is from a tabloid but it says France was born because of this victory, there is multiple other newspapers on the subject...
  4. https://editions.flammarion.com/Catalogue/au-fil-de-lhistoire/les-plantagenets => John I's chapter talk about this loss and how devastating it was.
  5. http://www.seuil.com/ouvrage/nouvelle-histoire-des-capetiens-dominique-barthelemy/9782020851633 => Phillip II's chapter depict this victory as so incredible that it quelled unrest that plagued the land beforehand.
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    A first glance suggests that it is the magnitude of the victory, a crushing defeat of the Allied army, that is noteworthy. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 11 '18 at 12:54
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    Can you cite a couple of these sources you mention in the first paragraph that say Bouvines was 'incredible' or 'a shock' (or something similar)? I think it would help people trying to answer the question. – Lars Bosteen Sep 12 '18 at 3:12
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    @LarsBosteen Sources added! – LamaDelRay Sep 12 '18 at 8:42
  • Your payload thing surprises me but it maybe depends on your VPN or something. Anyway, thanks for your comment, would you mind posting it as an answer so I can validate you? Still no clue for the Augustus surname but beggars can't be choosers. – LamaDelRay Sep 17 '18 at 8:10
  • There's not really enough in my comment to post but I'll see if I can come up with a bit more in the next day or two which will justify an answer. BTW: I didn't see your comment until now - I guess you forgot the @ + my name :) – Lars Bosteen Sep 28 '18 at 14:02
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SHORT ANSWER

The Battle of Bouvines (1214) saw Philip II of France defeat a coalition of European forces (H.R.E., Flanders, Boulogne, England) brought together by King John of England. The consensus among modern historians is that Bouvines was one of the most important battles of the Middle Ages. It had far-reaching consequences, including Magna Carta, but there is little evidence to support the contention that it was won by the French King Philip II against "outstanding odds".

However, the achievements of Philip Augustus over the entirety of his reign were considerable. He established the power of a previously weak French monarchy, eroded and then effectively crushed the Angevin Empire at Bouvines, as well as humbling the Holy Roman Emperor.


DID PHILIP WIN AT BOUVINES AGAINST 'OUTSTANDING ODDS'?

According to most modern historians, no. In a review of prominent French historian Georges Duby's Le Dimanche de Bouvines (English edition title: The Legend of Bouvines), Carol P. Jamison of Indiana State University notes that Duby made extensive use of five contemporary texts. Duby

describes the differences between French accounts of Bouvines, which often exaggerate the prowess and victory of the French king, and German and English accounts, which attempt to minimize defeat.

Some nineteenth century French historians claimed that Philip's army was heavily outnumbered. For example, A. Magin's Histoire de France (1860) claims the invasion force numbered 100,000. More recently, this 2014 article on the site of the Union Populaire Républicaine (a Eurosceptic party), Les origines et les conditions de la bataille de Bouvines claims

Le roi de France et ses troupes étaient dans une infériorité numérique marquée.

Translation: The King of France and his troops had a marked numerical inferiority.

but then somewhat contradicts itself by saying that French forces numbered 20,000 as against 24,000 for their opponents. Another article, Bouvines, ou la naissance d'une nation, cites no sources but seems to have been digging around in the aforementioned dubious 19th century French histories as it claims total allied forces numbered 80,000 against 25,000 French (though it is unclear if the text is referring the battle itself). The article adds

Les Français sortent finalement, et contre toute attente, vainqueurs de cette bataille

Translation: In the end, the French, against all expectations, come out winners of this battle

A fair enough observation if the numbers cited are correct, but modern historians do not accept such numbers. J. F. Verbruggen, cited in Wikipedia, gives 6,500 to 7,660 French lined up against 8,800 to 9,000 allied. French historian Philippe Contamine seems to concur with the ratio at least:

En face, ses adversaires n'avaient pas une supériorité numérique évidente

Translation: [Philip's] opponents did not have obvious numerical superiority

John W. Baldwin, in The Government of Philip Augustus, concurs:

It is likely...that the two armies were evenly matched in numbers.


WAS PHILIP'S VICTORY DECISIVE? WAS PHILIP A GREAT STRATEGIST?

Bouvines ended up as a decisive victory for the French, but it was close fought at first and Philip II could easily have lost - he was unhorsed and almost killed at one point. Dividing his army before Bouvines was risky but ultimately paid off. Both contemporary accounts and modern historians speak more of mistakes made by the allied leaders in the lead up to the battle and of the actions of individual commanders during the battle itself than of any great tactics or strategy.

All the same, Philip did effectively counter John's strategy of attacking from two different directions by splitting his forces, sending his son Louis to successfully confront John at Roche-au-Moine to the south. John was forced to retreat, thwarted when key allies led by Aimery VII de Thouars refused to fight. Although Philip's strategy turned out to be spectacularly successful, John Guillermin, in The Angevin Empire, argues that it was forced upon him.

Looking at Philip's reign as a whole, he had a patchy record militarily, generally doing well against weak or poorly-lead opposition (e.g. King John) but often on the run when faced by more able opponent, most notably Richard I. Nonetheless, Philip was adept at exploiting the personal rivalries and weaknesses of others to enhance his own position (and thus that of the French monarchy) and rarely let slip an opportunity when presented with one.


HOW IMPORTANT WAS BOUVINES?

In short, very. On the importance of Philip's victory at Bouvines, French historian Philippe Contamine observed:

the battle of Bouvines had both important consequences and a great impact

Bouvines put an end to the Angevin empire built up by John's father Henry II and, in doing so, enabled Philip to lay the foundations of a powerful French monarchy. Philip's success at Bouvines

safeguarded the administrative reforms he had undertaken since 1190, boosted royal ideology, extended royal control in northwestern and central parts of France at the expense of Anglo-Angevin claims, cleared the path for the Albigensian crusade in the south, and eliminated Flemish and German threats from the north and east; the battle’s ramifications for internal English, Flemish, and German affairs were far-reaching. The battle thus secured Capetian supremacy in France throughout the thirteenth century...

Unseating a Holy Roman Emperor was no mean feat. Otto IV, King John's nephew, lost his crown to Frederick II after fleeing the battle. Baldwin calls this Philip's "most spectacular achievement at Bouvines". In 1218, Frederick proved to be valuable ally of Philip's in the War of the Succession of Champagne. Meanwhile, another coalition commander, Ferdinand, Count of Flanders, languished in a French prison for the rest of Philip's reign.

For England, John France, professor emeritus in medieval history at Swansea University, observes that

Bouvines is the most important battle in English history that no-one has ever heard of...

Without Bouvines there is no Magna Carta, and all the British and American law that stems from that. It's a muddy field, the armies are small, but everything depends on the struggle. It's one of the climactic moments of European history.

While Bouvines led to Philip asserting his authority over the barons of France, it had the opposite effect for the loser, King John, in England. J.C. Holt, a Magna Carta specialist, states:

the road from Bouvines to Runnymede was direct, short and unavoidable

Cited in The New Cambridge Medieval History vol 5


Other source:

The Battle of Bouvines (1214) (chroniclers' accounts)

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    Very nice thanks ! Still, the Agincourt part is quite false, it's indeed taught in school, at least in Paris. In France we go by the name Azincourt (for some reason), and we talk about how stupid were the French knights on this battle, we talk quite a bit about how it shaked the French kingdom and how hard it was for the rest of the Hundred Years war, otherwise your answer is quite perfect , thanks a lot ! – LamaDelRay Oct 1 '18 at 8:45
  • @LamaDelRay Interesting point about Agincourt / Azincourt. This information comes from Charlotte Georges-Picot, head of press relations at Les Invalides, but I can well imagine that some schools / teachers do better on being balanced than others. This may also be a generation thing, perhaps things have changed. I'll dig some more. – Lars Bosteen Oct 1 '18 at 9:00
  • I really do not know for a fact if it's teached in history course precisely of if my teacher was zealous about it, most of the people I met in France know "globally" what happend, but then, I do not know if it's mandatory. Also, some people stop their studies quite early (after the Brevet des Collèges) and it's more of a subject we treat in our high schools, so there's that. – LamaDelRay Oct 1 '18 at 9:07
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Well, all the consequences of this Battle were already pointed out, and themselves speak as to why it is historically important.

However, you asked from, we should say, a "military performance" angle.

And it is true that Bouvines was fairly viewed as a great performance in its day.

You pointed out 2 main topic:

-The numbers -The quality

For the numbers, the battle of Bouvines was seen as a great success PRECISLY because the two armies were equal in number (with a slightly superiority for the coalition).

In medieval warfare, Bouvines encompass the "ideal battle". Two armies of equal strength would clash under the eyes of Gods in order to receive his judgement. Therefore, none would dare say the victor "won because of outnumbering his enemies" or because "of some treachery allowing him to outdone an honourable fight". Bouvines was a straight on fight. Some tactic did take place, but it was at the cost of bravery and physical effort the victory was earned (or so it was seen back then).

Now, come the quality. You said the French army had "a lot of trained heavy knight". That is true, but also true for his opponents. In fact, the coalition army was seen as the better previous the battle:

  1. They had more knight (not this much more, but still more), and more importantly, YOUNG knights.
  2. They had mercenaries -Brabançons-, who were considered as experienced troops, used to pitched battles and siege alike (less efficient in skirmish).

This is important for contemporaries, because they knew that the French army of the king was retaining the most seniors knights, while the prince Louis had with him the young ones. Young knights were seen as more dangerous than old: they were constantly riding in tournaments when not at war, they were vigorous and valiant. Seniors had a reputation of being more prudent and cautious, and have less physical resilience. Yet, symbolically, the senior knight also represent somehow the "majesty" of the society. The young were unstable, impatient, unholy somehow, while the old were respectful of the right, of the king, of God, and of the people also -they are the lord still while the young are still waiting for their parents to pass away before getting the lordship-. Therefore, the army of Philippe's was an army of senior knights, more keen with the kingdom interests (or so it was seen) rather than personal interest of the youth, who are less eager to respect their allegiance when they can a personal profit. They don't had the vigour of the young, but armed by the love of God and the righteous cause, they prevailed against this divine test. (As you can see, this is all about representation).

Philippe army at this battle had no mercenary:his forces were feudal levy, his vassals knights with their own retainers, and the "communal militia's" from various cities and village. The bound between the king and his communes are of sacred nature, unlike the unholy employment of the mercenaries, doomed butchers and bandits. The communes fight for "the peace of God", under the king flag, the king who his the keeper of the kingdom peace and welfare. His fight is the "king's war", it is a public war, unlike the private war of the lords. It is not a "feud" (faide). His fight is for the good of the entire kingdom. In the battle, the king was put down by the German mercennaries on foot, who intended to kill him. This is an unholy act, since the person of a king is someone sacred by God. But his commune helped him, and repelled the mercenaries, with God's help, because their cause was righteous.

The commune are not alike the mercenaries, they field sergeants in horse and foot, who are regular citizens in time of peace. They are not professional soldiers, used to the vicinity of war. Yet they stood their grounds against those fierce soldiers.

This is why the battle was still considered a martial prowess by its contemporaries, because for them, the two army weren't this "matched" as we could see nowadays. For them, the inferiority of the king of France was clear, more even when he was on a retreat, and his rearguard attacked (an usual situation that lead often to defeat in medieval period). He had to stand its ground on a Sunday -a day into which the Church usually prevented bloodshed-, but being forced by his enemies, youngster knights full of pride and eagerness and blood drinkers mercenaries, he had to turn his holy army, made of brave and righteous militiamen and cautious and virtuous senior knights, to enact God's judgement upon his foe and undone the Devil work.

I recommend to you to read "The Sunday of Bouvines" of George Duby, a classic of this battle.

  • Thanks for your detailled answer, will most likely read it up :) – LamaDelRay Sep 20 at 7:47
  • (i meant the book not your answer, I already read that) – LamaDelRay Sep 20 at 7:47

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