Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Mary Macgregor

The Battle of Bouvines

About four years after Normandy had become part of France, a great crusade was undertaken by the French. This crusade was not, as you would expect, to go to the east, or to fight against Saracens. It was to go to the beautiful provinces in the south of France; it was to war against French people. For in the fair provinces of Languedoc, Provence, Aquitaine, the people were, so the Pope declared, heretics; that is, they were enemies of the Pope, and worshipped God in other ways than did those who belonged to the Church of Rome. These heretics were called Albigensians. They lived careless, happy lives in the sunny south of France. But in 1208 they were roughly roused from their happiness.

The Pope, Innocent iii. , had ordered the nobles of France to put on the Cross, collect an army, and go slay the Albigensians, as though they were Turks and Infidels.

So great was the army which assembled for this cruel crusade, that an old chronicler tells us, "From near and far they come; there be men from . . . Burgundy, France and Limousin; there be men from all the world. Never did God make scribe who, whatsoever his pains, could set them all down in writing, in two months or in three."

Into the south this countless army poured, led by Simon de Montfort, the father of the Simon de Montfort of whom you have read in your English history in the time of Henry iii.

This Simon de Montfort was a fierce and cruel soldier, and the men under his control were allowed to do wicked and cruel deeds. They had no care for women or little children, but killed them as readily as they killed strong men. They laid waste the beautiful province of Languedoc, and burnt all her villages.

Raymond, Count of Toulouse, one of the nobles of the south, did all he could to help the Albigensians. But his army was small compared with that of the crusaders; moreover, the Pope showed his displeasure by excommunicating the Count. Raymond then submitted to Innocent iii ., and before the war was over he was forced to join the crusaders, and even to lead them against his own people.

The town of Beziers was one of the strongholds of the heretics. It was attacked by Simon de Montfort and taken. Then the city was burnt, and every person in it was slain. Yet the inhabitants were not all heretics. There were many whom the Pope would have called true believers. One of the knights of the crusading army, anxious to spare whom he could, asked an abbot how he might know the true believers from the heretics. "Kill them all," was the brutal answer; "God will know His own."

This Albigensian crusade, begun, as I told you, in 1208, lasted for nearly twenty years. In 1218, however, as Simon de Montfort was besieging the town of Toulouse, a large stone, shot from the walls, hit the cruel captain and crushed him to death. When the Albigensians knew that their great enemy was dead, they roused themselves to a tremendous effort, and drove the crusaders out of their provinces. Thus tor a time the war was at an end.

King Philip had not joined in the war against the Albigensians, but he had looked on, well pleased to see that the power of the nobles in the south was being weakened.

As a boy, you remember, Philip had dreamed that he would make France great, as it had been in the days of Charlemagne, and that he would spoil the insolence and power of the nobles. He had now added Normandy to the French crown, and been welcomed by the barons as her king. He had also seen the powerful nobles in the south of France beaten and stripped of their possessions by the crusading army. But Philip was not yet content Why should he not conquer England, where King John was hated by his subjects? So he assembled a large army, and was ready to sail when the Pope interfered. For King John had begged for the Pope's protection, and had promised to pay a yearly tribute to Rome if he would save the country from the French.

As John had promised to pay tribute, the Pope looked on him as his vassal, and on England as his own. Philip was forbidden to invade the land. The French king was indignant that his plans should be disturbed, but he had no wish to incur the Pope's anger. Instead of sailing to England, Philip therefore led his army into Flanders in order to punish Ferrand, the count of that province. For when Philip had summoned the count, as his vassal, to help him invade England, Ferrand had refused to have anything to do with the war.

On the approach of Philip, the German emperor, Otho iv. , a nephew of King John, and also a large number of English knights and archers, joined the Flemish.

Before the battle Otho assembled his men and said, "It is against Philip himself, and him alone, that we must direct all our efforts; it is he who must be slain first of all, for it is he alone who opposes us and makes himself our foe in everything. When he is dead, you will be able to divide the kingdom according to our pleasure." And then the emperor promised the Count of Flanders that when they had won the day he should have Pans for his prize.

Philip on his side was supported by many brave men. William des Barras, most famous of all brave knights, was there; while bishops used to handle the sword were on the battlefield among his followers. Many Commune towns also sent their trained bands of citizen soldiers to help their king in his struggle against Germany, Flanders, and England.

The two armies marched through Flanders, and on Sunday, August 27, 1214, Philip reached Bouvines, not far from Toumay.

At Bouvines there was a bridge across the river Marque, and, while his army slowly passed over it, Philip threw himself down to rest under an ash tree which grew close to a little chapel.

As he lay there a messenger hastened to him, crying that his rearguard had been attacked by Otho, and was in dire need of help. Philip at once ordered a band of soldiers to hasten back to the rearguard. With them he sent the sacred Oriflamme, which had been taken across the bridge before the van of the army. Then the king himself went into the little chapel to pray. Coming out in a few moments he shouted, "Haste we to the rescue of our comrades!" and rode off to meet the enemy "with a glad countenance," while his knights cried lustily, "To arms! to arms!" and followed after their king.

The soldiers of the Communes were the first to attack the knights of Flanders. The knights were indignant that these ill-armed citizens, as they considered them, should dare to oppose them, and they fought desperately, until the French nobles were forced to ride up to the support of the citizen soldiers.

Soon the battle became general, and after three hours' conflict the Count of Flanders was taken prisoner. The German soldiers, remembering their emperor's words, forced their way to the French king, unhorsed him, and all but killed him. Then a great cry arose, and William des Barras, hearing it, let go the German emperor whom he had seized, and sped to the help of his king. The troops of the Communes at the same time rallied around Philip, and he was saved.

Otho's horse meanwhile was wounded. The animal reared with pain, then turned and fled from the battlefield, carrying his master with him.

The French were now everywhere victorious, and before night the battle of Bouvines had been won.

Many counts were taken prisoners, and these Philip gave to his knights that they might ransom them for a heavy sum of money.

Ferrand, Count of Flanders, however, who had defied the king's summons, was taken by Philip as a prisoner to Paris.

After the battle of Bouvines the French king was, as he had desired to be, the most powerful sovereign, not only in France, but in Europe.

In 1215 King John of England signed the Great Charter, as your English history tells. But he soon annulled it, and then his subjects were so angry that they offered the English crown to King Philip's eldest son Louis.

So Prince Louis went to England, and nearly all the great barons were glad to see him, and flocked to his side. But soon after this King John died, and then the barons were sorry that they had asked a French prince to reign. Now their only wish was to get rid of him, and to make this easier they proclaimed King John's young son Henry, King of England. They then defeated Louis and his French troops at Lincoln, and shut him up in London, where the citizens still supported his cause.

Philip sent a French fleet to aid his son, but it was utterly defeated; whereupon Louis made terms with the English and went back to France, while Henry iii. reigned in England.

Besides adding to his dominions Philip improved his capital, and the streets of Paris were no longer allowed to remain narrow or dirty. He also began to build the palace of the Louvre, which was used as a prison as well as a home for the kings of France.

After a long reign of forty-three years Philip Augustus died in 1223, having accomplished many of the things he dreamed of doing as a boy.

Of Philip's son, Louis viii. , called the Lion, there is little to tell. He reigned for three years, and during that short time any effort he made for the good of his people was due to the wisdom of his queen, Blanche of Castile.

One of Louis's first acts was to summon Henry iii. of England, as a vassal of France, to attend his coronation.

Henry iii. was only a child, but the English barons answered that Normandy should be restored to England before their king would own himself a vassal of the French sovereign.

As Louis did not mean to give up Normandy, war was his reply to the haughty English lords.

But after besieging and taking Rochelle, an important town by which the English could easily enter France, Louis made a truce with England, so that he might be free to carry on war against the people in the south of France; for the crusade against the Albigensians had again broken out.

The king led a large army to the town of Avignon, and demanded that he and his soldiers should be allowed to pass, armed, through the city. The citizens refused, and kept their gates shut. Then the king besieged the town, but before it was reduced fever was raging in the French camp.

At length the citizens of Avignon surrendered, whereupon Louis marched away northwards, meaning to return and crush the Albigensians by taking Toulouse.

But the fever which had spread among his soldiers now took hold of the king, and he grew ill and died in 1226.

He left behind him the beautiful and noble Queen Blanche, and a little son of twelve, named Louis.