The Apex of Chivalry and the Battle of Bouvines

Knights in the high and late medieval periods (c.1000–c.1500) fought on the battlefields of Europe in two very different ways, mounted or dismounted. On the continent, especially in France, Germany, Hungary and Spain, mounted shock attacks were favoured over dismounted warfare. In mounted combat, a typical heavy cavalry formation was drawn up in a continuous shallow line, three or four ranks deep, with 1,000 to 2,000 cavalry deploying with a frontage of perhaps half a mile. This arrangement of heavy cavalry formed what was called a bataille (from which the wordbattle is derived). Each bataille was broken down into smaller tactical units called banners. These were usually recruited through family, lineage or feudal relations, and were supposed to stay grouped around a battle flag or a leader (called a banneret), or were united by a common war cry.

By the eleventh century, heavy cavalry articulation was refined to the point where the units were so closely formed that the horses were touching each other in formation. In the Chanson de geste we read: ‘The Barons are so closely packed as they advance that if you throw a glove on their helmets it would not fall to ground within a mile.’ Other contemporary references state that if a ‘glove, apple or plum had been thrown amongst them, it would not have fallen to the ground but on the vertical lances’, for example, or that ‘the wind should not be able to blow through’ the lances. Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, medieval heavy cavalry units were capable of manoeuvring and fighting in extremely close order on the battlefield.

Close order within heavy cavalry formations facilitated greater tactical command, control and communication, and prevented victims from escaping between the passing chargers, presenting an opportunity for medieval horsemen to mow down infantry with lances, maces, swords, axes and hooves. The heavy cavalry bataille rarely engaged the enemy in a single clash, but banner by banner, often beginning from the right. A banner’s charge began slowly, taking care to keep in line, then picked up speed until the moment of contact. It was best to have room beyond the target in order to follow through with momentum. When heavy cavalry faced unformed infantry, it attempted to isolate and destroy it.

Still, good order and a uniform charge were not natural to noble heavy cavalry. The fighting ethic of the medieval knight was based on personal fame, personal honour and personal courage. To fight with peers and social superiors in a co-ordinated charge often meant subordinating the possibility of personal valour to a group. In fact, the natural trend of knights on the battlefield was for the individual to break out of rank and dash forward, as illustrated in the battle of Arsuf in 1191. These two contrasting styles of mounted warfare, discip-lined and undisciplined, were illustrated in one of the pivotal battles of the high Middle Ages, the battle of Bouvines in 1214.

Bouvines was a significant turning point in the decades-old conflict between England’s Angevin Empire in western France and the ambitions of the Capetian dynasty. The origins of the recent struggle reached back to 1204, when the greatest of the Capetian kings, Philip II Augustus of France, successfully seized Angevin lands in Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Maine, Poitou and Touraine, greatly reducing the size of King John of England’s continental possessions. Distressed, John decided to resurrect the strategy of his father, Henry II, and older brother Richard I, and seek allies in the princes of the lands between France and Germany, most notably Ferrand, count of Flanders, Renaud of Danmartin, count of Boulogne, and Henry I of Brabant, whose daughter married Otto IV of Brunswick, the nephew of King John.

Otto claimed to be king of Germany and holy Roman emperor, and became even more personally involved when Philip supported a rival claimant to the imperial throne, one Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Frederick was a man handpicked by the powerful Pope Innocent III, the same pontiff who extended the papal banner to the Spanish victors at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. Innocent’s influence also held sway in England. The pope had placed the country under interdict when John refused the pontiff’s candidate for archbishop of Canterbury. The interdict lasted seven years and weakened the monarch’s standing among his people and his magnates. Desperate for papal aid after the loss of his Angevin lands, John willingly did what no English monarch had done before and made England a papal fief.

With the civil war in Germany between Otto and the Hohenstaufens stalemated, John intrigued with Otto to recover his lost territories in France, forcing Philip to head off the coalition by invading England. Unfortunately for Philip, the French fleet was destroyed in the battle of Damme in May 1213. Relieved, John prepared his own invasion of France as his allies skirmished against France’s northern and eastern flanks throughout the whole of 1213. Finally, on 15 February 1214, the English monarch marshalled an army of mercenaries (his Anglo-Norman barons would not follow him) and landed an expeditionary force at the port city of La Rochelle in the traditional Angevin stronghold of Aquitaine.

Once in France, John dispatched William Longsword, earl of Salisbury, to bring the coalition into action. Next, John moved north and spent the beginning of the campaign subduing Poitou and incorporating a large number of Poitevan knights into his army. He then moved into Brittany and captured Nantes in mid-June. To block John’s advance, Philip ordered an army of some 800 knights and more infantry under the command of his son Prince Louis to intercept the English king as he was besieging La Roche-au-Moine in Anjou. When the two hosts met, John’s newly acquired Poitevan knights refused to fight their French overlord. Enraged, John withdrew from the campaign. Still, John’s efforts did tie down the prince and his contingents, thus weakening the French king as his enemies assembled at Valenciennes on 23 July.

Philip marched into Flanders wielding fire and sword, reaching the city of Tournai on 26 July. His army consisted of 1,400 knights and 5,000–6,000 infantry. That same day, seemingly unaware of the French king’s proximity, Otto ordered his allied army of similar strength (around 1,400 knights and perhaps as many as 7,500 foot) to encamp at Mortagne, 7 miles south of Philip. When the French and allied pickets discovered how close their armies were to one another, the leaders of each host were forced take immediate action.

That evening Philip held a war council to consider an attack, but was advised that the ground near Mortagne was not suitable for mounted combat. The French decided to withdraw west to Lille. It is possible that Philip was manoeuvring in order to delay the conflict, hoping that some of the allied forces would evaporate before battle was joined. The following morning, a Sunday and sabbath day (27 July), Philip’s army broke camp and marched in column toward Lille along the well-preserved Roman road. One strategic variable lay in the French army’s path, the bridge over the River Marque at Bouvines, 25 miles west of Tournai. This bridge acted as a choke point, and crossing it was a potentially dangerous but necessary manoeuvre. It is estimated that the French army would have been strung out in column for about 5 miles as it crossed the bridge, presenting an attractive target to the coalition army. This opportunity was not lost on Otto and his commanders.

As the French army was breaking camp on Sunday morning, Otto called a war council to decide what to do. He and Renaud of Boulogne were reluctant to fight on the sabbath, but after some heated debate, the German emperor ordered his army to pursue the French, marching on a parallel Roman road that joined the Tournai–Lille road just east of the bridge at Bouvines in the hope of attacking the French in the vulnerable position of crossing the span.

Inexplicably, Philip was initially unaware of his enemy’s intentions, which were discovered only after two of his vassals, the viscount of Melun and Bishop Guerin of Senlis, observed the movement of the allied army and reported its pursuit to the French king. Guerin, who was Philip’s commander-in-chief and a member of the Hospitaller Order, returned to report to the king, while the viscount moved on to occupy the north-westerly road to Bouvines in an effort to delay and harass the coalition army (Map 5.1(a)). The French king was eating lunch and resting near the bridge at Bouvines when he learned that the rearguard of his army, under the command of Odo, duke of Burgundy, was engaged with leading elements of the imperial forces, including Fleming crossbowmen, light cavalry and knights. By this time the majority of the French host had already crossed the bridge.

Philip was in a difficult position. If he continued his march to Lille he placed the duke of Burgundy and his rearguard in peril, and the French king could not afford to lose his best cavalry. Moreover, if his rearguard were annihilated, his entire army would be placed in jeopardy. Perhaps fearing this, Philip decided to turn and fight. He commanded the bridge widened to speed the return of elements that had already crossed. Gathering a sizeable force of cavalry around him, King Philip headed off towards the enemy (Map 5.1(b)).

When Otto and his allies arrived they found Philip’s cavalry already arraying for battle. It was mid-afternoon, and the sun shone on the shoulders of the French and in the eyes of the west-facing coalition. Philip used his cavalry as a screen for his slowly deploying infantry, knowing that if the allied army attacked his own as it recrossed the bridge, all would be lost (Map 5.1(c)). On the right, the duke of Burgundy’s rearguard was reinforced by Bishop Guerin’s horse, forming a new contingent of 600–700 knights. Philip commanded the centre, mounted on his steed next to the fleur-de-lys. There is little evidence that a third division on the left was ever fully constituted before the battle began, though Guerin took great pains to make sure that he had enough cavalry to protect his flanks. The bishop arranged all of the French knights in a disciplined line so that they could fight on one front, yet stay close enough together to maintain cohesion as heavy cavalry.

Wary of this large number of French heavy horse, the German emperor hastily deployed his army from column into proper battle form, with its expanding frontage constantly mirrored by the French. The total front extended to about 1,000 yards. Otto created a similar cavalry force on his own left, made up of knights from Flanders and Hainaut and commanded by Count Ferrand, to screen his own deployments. Otto placed himself and his knights and foot in the centre. Count Renaud of Boulogne and William Longsword, earl of Salisbury, commanded the right wing. There is evidence that special combined-arms tactics were used here. Renaud put his heavy infantry into a circle or square two ranks deep, then launched his cavalry through an opening in the formation in order to withdraw under cover of the infantry’s spears. This co-ordination between infantry and cavalry indicates a preponderance of infantry in this division.


Map 5.1 The Battle of Bouvines, 1214. (a) Phase I: After learning of the proximity of Otto’s army, Philip orders a march from Tournai to Lille (1). As the end of the column nears the bridge at Bouvines, a force under the viscount of Melun and Bishop Guerin (2) detect the approach of the imperial force (3). Guerin rushes back to Bouvines to locate the king (4), while Odo, duke of Burgundy, orders the rearguard (5) to detour onto the Mortagne road to support Melun and confront the approaching enemy (6). (b) Phase II: Guerin finds the king near the bridge (1) and Philip quickly assesses the situation. He directs the bishop to take command of the right wing (2), consisting of Odo’s, Melun’s and Guerin’s own troops, orders the bridge widened, and directs the rest of his army to cross back over the river and deploy (3) to meet Otto’s imperial forces (4). (c) Phase III: Philip deploys his cavalry (1) to screen his infantry columns as they arrive (2). On the imperial left, the cavalry of Count Ferrand of Flanders (3) perform the same duty for the rest of Otto’s troops as they move onto the field (4). Count Renaud of Boulogne and William Longsword, earl of Salisbury, command Otto’s deploying troops on the right wing (5). On the French right, Bishop Guerin forms his cavalry into a tightly arrayed linear formation (6) and opens the action, launching his lightly armoured sergeants against the Flemish lines (7). (d) Phase IV: The Flemish nobles refuse the challenge offered by the common sergeants, who are turned back by crossbow fire (1). The sight of the fleeing sergeants proves too tempting a target and many of the Flemish knights charge out as individuals (2), tiring themselves and their horses for no perceivable gain. To the left of this action, the imperial deployment is completed as Otto takes command of the centre (3) and Renaud’s infantry on the right forms an enclosure from which the cavalry can operate with a measure of protection (4). Philip’s infantry slowly moves into position (5).

(e) Phase V: Guerin orders his knights forward in a series of charges against the tired Flemings (1), one of which, under Melun, penetrates the enemy’s line completely and returns back through it (2). Ferrand’s formations begin to break under the repeated attacks (3), and the wounding and subsequent surrender of the count (4) hastens the disintegration of the left wing. Meanwhile, Otto launches his centre division (5) as the French infantry finishes deploying. The foot soldiers are shaken (6) and Philip survives a close call as German knights and infantry penetrate to his position (7). (f) Phase VI: The French regroup and Philip launches a countercharge (1) that cuts through the coalition infantry. It is the German emperor’s turn to come under personal attack (2) as Otto’s bodyguard narrowly succeeds in saving him from death or capture. To the south, the Flemish wing collapses (3) and the battle begins to turn in favour of the French, though Renaud, launching sallies from within the walls of his infantry formations (4), continues to resist on the imperial right.



(g) Phase VII: The French launch a concerted combined-arms attack against Renaud’s position (1), and the count’s division finally collapses under the intense pressure (2). This is the final straw, and the coalition force disintegrate and rout from the field (3). Philip orders a pursuit of only 1 mile (4), not wanting to risk losing valuable prisoners as nightfall fast approaches.

Once his flanks were secure, Bishop Guerin seized the initiative and sent a contingent of 150 sergeants (lightly armoured horsemen of non-noble birth) forward to harass the Flemings. The Flemish knights despised these commoners and refused to come out against them (Map 5.1(d)). Since the sergeants’ horses were not protected by barding, many of these mounts were killed by allied infantry, probably from missile fire. Then a few Flemish knights left the ranks of their division to participate in the mêlée, riding down the sergeants as they fought on foot or attempted to retreat. A contemporary of the battle, Philippe Mousket, commented on the Flemish cavalry, ‘no one was in order, everyone charged as they wished’. The bishop’s ploy to goad his enemy into battle by offering men beneath their station to fight worked marvellously. Consequently, many of the Flemish knights were already tired when the real battle opened.

After the sergeants were repulsed by the Flemish horse, Guerin ordered a series of disciplined cavalry charges by his nobles and their handpicked knights, beginning with knights from Champagne under Pierre de Remi, followed by the count of St Pol, the count of Beaumont, Matthew of Montmorency, and the duke of Burgundy, who was unhorsed and then rescued by his knights surrounding him (Map 5.1(e)). The viscount of Melun and his men succeeded in penetrating the enemy line and charging back through it – a sure sign the Flemish were weakening under the repeated attacks.

The disparity in discipline between the French and allied forces was evident. In the words of another eyewitness, Anonymous of Bethune:

The king [Philip] put his echelons in formation and they rode forward. You could see among them noblemen, much rich armor and many noble banners. The same was true for the opposite side, but I must tell you that they did not ride as well and in as orderly a manner as the French, and they became aware of it.

The better-ordered formations of French knights carried out many devastating attacks against Ferrand’s more loosely packed formation. After three hours of these steady charges, the French finally cut their way through to the wounded count of Flanders. Ferrand’s surrender took the fight out of his troops, and the imperial left wing soon began to disintegrate.

Meanwhile, Philip’s infantry had arrived on the battlefield and had only just taken position in front of their liege when Otto and his centre division attacked. The levies were thrown back and the German emperor’s knights broke through and threatened Philip’s position. Philip’s bodyguard countercharged, but in the confusion some of Otto’s infantry broke through and unhorsed the French monarch. He was saved only when another French knight, Pierre Tristan, dismounted and offered his mount to his king. As the French bodyguard fought their way to protect Philip, he leapt quickly into the saddle and was whisked away to the rear.

The French decided to give as good as they got and counter-attacked, pressing their way deep inside the coalition lines and reaching the German emperor’s position (Map 5.1(f)). A French nobleman, Gerard la Truie, tried to kill Otto with his dagger, but the blow glanced off the emperor’s mail and struck the royal mount in the eye. Enraged, the horse sprung up and bolted, then fell again some distance away. Another French knight, Guillaume des Barres, reached the emperor again, but could not prise him from his saddle. The emperor’s bodyguard pulled the French nobleman from his horse. Fighting now on foot as the Germans pressed him, Guillaume was saved only by the timely arrival of fifty French knights.

One modern historian describes the battle of Bouvines as actually ‘two battles within a battle, a cavalry battle to the south and a general melee to the north’. After the capture of Ferrand and the subsequent collapse of the imperial left wing, the battle began to turn in favour of the French. In the north, the mêlée became a fluid tug-of-war with rapidly changing front lines, as can be seen by first the French king and then the German emperor threatened with death or capture. But within this confusion there existed a determined defence led by Renaud of Boulogne. As stated above, Renaud ordered his infantry force of about 700 men into a double-ranked circle or square, then placed his mounted knights within its centre. These knights sallied out to attack the French only to return to the safety of the infantry formation. This combined-arms arrangement worked well until the whole formation was overwhelmed by 50 French knights and 2,000 of their supporting infantry (Map 5.1(g)). Contemporary chroniclers do not tell us precisely where this last stand took place. After the collapse of Renaud’s division the coalition effort fell apart. Philip gave the order to pursue the enemy for only one mile. Night was falling and the French king was afraid that if he gave chase some of his important prisoners might escape. The French succeeded in capturing 131 enemy knights, including 5 counts and 25 bannerets.

The battle of Bouvines provides an excellent example of the variety of tactics used in high medieval warfare. The battle opened with a purely cavalry engagement between the well-disciplined French right wing and Ferrand’s unruly knights. Bishop Guerin’s use of orderly small-unit attacks to dictate the tempo of the battle was brilliant, slowly wearing down his enemy while probing for weaknesses. The next phase saw a general mêlée showcasing combined-arms operations with French and coalition knights attacking with the support of foot soldiers, as well as infantry working in close co-operation defensively with heavy cavalry under Renaud de Danmartin.

Politically, the battle of Bouvines reshaped the balance of power in western Europe. King John, though not physically present at the battle, lost both coin and prestige. As a consequence, many of his barons rebelled and accepted the claims of Prince Louis of France to the English throne (a serious claim, since many of these barons were Norman French in both outlook and culture). These barons seized London on 17 May 1215, and by June 1216 Louis was governing from London. John’s death in 1216 did not end the rebellion, which was finally put down by England’s regent and greatest knight William Marshal (holding power for the nine-year-old Henry III) at the battle of Lincoln.

King Philip was the overall winner at Bouvines. His battlefield success translated into increased hegemony over Flanders and consolidation of control over formally Angevin lands. Coupled with lands taken in 1204, Philip’s royal possessions tripled as a result of Bouvines. Many historians mark this victory as the beginning of centralized French rule in the medieval period. Still, these gains would not stand without a challenge. A century later, another English monarch, Edward III, would once again claim these French possessions and initiate the Hundred Years War.

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