Philip II of France: The Cunning King

Philip II of France
August 21, 1165 – July 14, 1223

It was said that Philip II’s birth was God-given. Philip was born on August 21, 1165 to Capetian King Louis VII and his wife, Queen Adela. At the time of his birth, Louis was 44-45 years old and was on his third marriage. His prior marriages had only given him daughters. When Philip was born, he immediately became Louis’s heir.

The French monarchy was in a precarious state with only one male heir. When Philip became ill in August 1179, the old king became extremely upset. Louis VII would go on a pilgrimage to pray for divine intervention for his son. Fortunately for Louis, Philip would recover. However, the experience would adversely affect Louis’s health. He eventually succumbed to an illness on September 18, 1180.

Ascension to the Throne

After his father’s passing, Philip was crowned King Philip II. At 15-years-old, he was already married to Isabelle of Hainault. During the early part of his reign, Philip was under the influence of his mother. Despite Adela’s attempts to guide his rule, Philip was too strong-willed. They eventually had a falling out, and Adela retreated to Blois. With his mother gone, Philip was able to begin ruling independently.

On September 8, 1187, Isabelle gave birth to Philip II’s firstborn child and heir, Louis. Although they would have twin sons in 1190, both twins would die shortly after their birth. The complications of the births caused Isabelle’s death. Despite her death, Isabelle had fulfilled her duty to France. By contributing another male to the line of succession, the Capetians were secured. With the succession in place, Philip II was able to focus on more important political matters.

Philip II vs. Henry II of England

Henry II of England
Henry II of England

When Philip II became king, western France was under English control. Through birthright and marriage, the Plantagenet King Henry II ruled over many French territories. This culminated in the creation of the Angevin Empire in France. Due to these circumstances, the kings of England and France had a rocky relationship.

Angevin Empire

Beginning between Henry II and Louis VII, the strained relations between both countries continued with Philip II. Henry initially believed Philip to be weak like his father. Both Henry and Philip initially sought to achieve peace. In 1180, both kings conducted multiple meetings. Unbeknownst to Henry, Philip would prove to be more cunning than he imagined.

Undermining Henry II

Philip II sought to break England’s influence over France and establish Capetian supremacy. To this end, Philip befriended Henry II’s estranged sons. They were just as determined to undermine their father as Philip. Philip initially gained the support of Prince Henry, then Geoffery, and eventually Richard. After the deaths of his two older brothers, Richard became Philip’s primary Plantagenet ally.

In 1187, both men invaded Berry. They later attacked English territory along the Loire. An attempt at peace between Henry II and Philip II was made the next year but failed. Henry would go on to invade Mantes, though Philip defended it. When the pair met again, Philip demanded that Henry confirm his son Richard as his heir. Henry refused, and Richard left the meeting with Philip in retaliation. Henry’s health would gradually worsen, culminating in his death from a stroke on July 6, 1189.

The Third Crusade

During the late 1180s, Philip II and Richard sought to travel to the Holy Land to fight against Muslim forces. After Henry II’s death, Philip and the newly crowned Richard I were able to make a temporary truce. On their way to the Third Crusade, Richard’s actions would gradually cause a rift between him and Philip. The unresolved issue of marriage between Richard and Philip’s sister Alice irritated Philip. Although he mostly tolerated Richard’s rash behavior, their relationship would become permanently damaged. This breach occurred when Richard decided to snub Alice in favor of another woman.

Justifying his decision, Richard I claimed that Alice had been seduced by his father while in England. Therefore, Alice was no longer fit to be his wife. Although angry with Richard’s decision, Philip II relented. Philip asked for both his sister and her dowry to be returned to him after the crusade. Both men would eventually arrive in Acre, an important port in the Holy Land that was being besieged. Philip arrived on April 20, 1191, and began inspecting Acre’s defenses.

When Richard I finally arrived on June 8th, Philip II was displeased with his lateness. Both men would see varying degrees of success throughout the crusade. However, Philip would return home before Richard. This was due to health concerns and critical political matters. On July 31st, Philip departed from Acre. Before Philip left, an agreement was made with Richard not to break their truce while he was still crusading.

Philip II vs. Richard I of England

Richard I of England
Richard I of England

When Philip II returned to France, he immediately started working on taking advantage of Richard I’s absence. Philip began by allying with Richard’s younger brother John. Philip then set about reclaiming the lands that were included in his sister’s dowry. Once they were in his possession, Philip began his assault on the rest of the Angevin Empire. Due to Richard’s absence, many of these nobles quickly surrendered. When Richard learned of Philip’s treacherous actions, he immediately headed back to Europe.

Fortunately for Philip II, Richard I had made political enemies while in the Holy Land. While heading home, he was captured by the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor held Richard hostage for a hefty ransom until February 4, 1194. Upon his return, Richard made peace with his rebellious brother and turned his attention to France. With Richard’s arrival, Philip’s territorial gains slowly began to be recovered by the English. By late 1195, England had regained over half of its lost lands.

During the late 1190s, both king’s forces would continue to skirmish intermittently. Although Richard I was more of a warrior than Philip II, Philip would be the more fortunate of the two. In 1199, Richard fought in a battle against a rebellious French noble. While attacking the noble’s castle, Richard was struck by an arrow. The wound became infected, and Richard would later die from his injury on April 6, 1199. By a stroke of luck, Philip’s greatest enemy was dead.

Philip II vs. John of England

John of England
John of England

King John would continue his fight against Philip II, but with much less success. Unlike Richard I, John was not a warrior. In April 1202, Philip once more invaded English held lands. Philip would see a new level of success in capturing Angevin territory that he hadn’t previously. Not only was he gaining control of Angevin lands, but he wasn’t facing much English resistance. This was partially due to Philip’s ability as a military commander and the internal issues John was facing in England.

As England struggled to find success against France, John was alienating his nobles. Hoping to take advantage of John’s unpopularity, Philip II and his son, Prince Louis, continued to attack Angevin territory. John made one last effort to push back the invading French forces. He gathered all his allies and attacked. This coalition was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Bouvines on July 27th, 1214. With this crippling loss, the Angevin Empire finally collapsed.

Later Reign

With the lands reclaimed from the fall of the Angevin Empire, Philip II was now firmly in control of France. Philip focused on strengthening the monarchy’s power, maintaining control over his nobles, and urban development. His son, Prince Louis, would go on to invade England to overthrow the vulnerable John. Louis almost became king. However, after the death of John on October 9th, 1216, English nobles would turn against him.

By September 1222, Philip II began suffering from an illness. Sensing his end, Philip prepared his will and met with Prince Louis. After months of continual suffering, Philip died on July 14th, 1223, at the age of 58. Philip successfully passed on a reunited France to his successor, King Louis VIII.

Conclusion

Throughout his 43-year reign, Philip II proved himself to be a cunning and capable king. Through his leadership, Philip successfully fought against three English kings and had overcome each of them. He built upon his military victories by consolidating power to the monarchy. Despite Philip’s other successes during his reign, the destruction of the Angevin Empire was his greatest achievement. This feat alone rightfully earned Philip the epithet of Augustus, the exalted one.

Sources

Bradbury, J. (2010). The Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328. London: Hambledon Continuum.

Pacaut, M. (n.d.). Philip II. Retrieved October 5, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Philip-II-king-of-France.

Philip II. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2019, from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/french-history-biographies/philip-ii-france.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Andy Tree

I'm a European history enthusiast who seeks to share his passion with others. I hope to inform and inspire readers with my posts!

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