Sixty years before the Battle of Bouvines, Henry II of England established the Angevin Empire. Through inheritance and marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the king brought England and Western France under his control in 1154. Alarmed by this development, Louis VII of France sought to undermine the empire. Although the king spent his reign attempting to, he ultimately proved unsuccessful. By the time Louis died in September 1180, Henry still firmly controlled his empire.
Philip II of France
Upon his accession, Philip II of France was only 15 years old. Due to his youth and inexperience, Henry II initially didn’t view Philip as a threat. However, the young king shared his father’s desire to dissolve the Angevin Empire. To this end, Philip chose to befriend Henry’s estranged sons rather than engage in direct combat. Since the king refused to grant his sons any political power, Philip fanned their resentment. By the early 1180s, Princes Henry and Geoffrey began to fight against King Henry and Prince Richard.
As the English king’s heir, Prince Henry wanted control of Normandy. When denied, he became enraged. Encouraged by Philip II, Prince Henry and Geoffrey rebelled. Henry not only desired Normandy but his brother Richard’s Aquitaine too. As a result, the princes began to fight each other. Despite Henry II’s intervention, the war didn’t end until after Prince Henry’s death in June 1183. Geoffrey later died during a French tournament in August 1186.
After the deaths of his brothers, Richard became Philip II’s main ally against Henry II. During 1187, both men attacked Berry as well as English territory along the Loire. Although Henry attempted to stop them, age had taken its toll. On July 3, 1189, the old king finally admitted defeat. Three days later, Henry succumbed to illness. Although Philip II had succeeded in causing disruptions within the Angevin Empire, it remained intact.
Richard I of England
When Richard I succeeded his father, Philip II initially had a cordial relationship with him. However, that would change once they embarked on the Third Crusade. During their journeys to Jerusalem, Philip became alienated by Richard’s behavior. Although engaged to Philip’s sister, Richard instead chose to marry Berengaria of Navarre. Richard’s heavy-handed leadership also irritated Philip.
By the time Richard I arrived in the Holy Land in June 1191, Philip II had already been there since April. Although angry with Richard’s late arrival, the two kings still launched a joint attack against Acre. Shortly after capturing the city, Philip opted to return home, citing illness. After making an agreement with Richard, the French king departed Acre on July 31.
After returning to France, Philip II began taking advantage of Richard I’s absence. Allying himself with Richard’s younger brother, John, the French king started attacking Angevin territory. When the English king learned of this, he left the crusade. On his way home, Richard was captured and imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor. After several months in captivity, Richard regained his freedom in February 1194.
John of England
During the 1190s, Richard I and Philip II’s forces clashed periodically. Although Richard was the better warrior, Philip would be the more fortunate. In April 1199, Richard was struck by an arrow as he besieged a rebellious noble’s castle. The wound became infected, and the English king subsequently died on April 6. Upon his death, John succeeded his older brother.
Unlike Richard I, John wasn’t a seasoned soldier. The king also proved to be an inept politician. Despite these weaknesses, John still believed that he could maintain the Angevin Empire. However, Philip II would experience a new level of success against the king. As John alienated his nobility in England, Philip began taking Angevin lands with little resistance.
As his popularity and support declined, John became desperate. The king knew that he had to restore the empire’s stability by winning a decisive victory against Philip II. To accomplish this, John allied with Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV and various French nobles. The coalition then planned to attack France on two fronts.
The Battle of Bouvines
Initially, the coalition’s plan involved King John attacking France from the west. Meanwhile, imperial forces would attack from the north. After overwhelming the French, both armies would meet in Paris. However, this plan failed after John’s defeat at La Roche-aux-Moines on July 2, 1214. Afterward, Philip II led his troops north to meet Otto IV’s army. The two forces eventually met at a marshy plain between Bouvines and Tournai.
Before the battle, Philip II stationed his army on favorable terrain. Despite having only 15,000 men, French troops were well-trained and disciplined. Philip also had the advantage of being able to organize them. Unlike the French, the coalition had 25,000 troops but less cohesion. Due to having multiple leaders, they were disorganized and lacked unity.
As the Battle of Bouvines commenced on July 27, the allied army immediately attacked without waiting for reinforcements. The coalition was without John after his earlier loss. As reinforcements gradually arrived, the allied soldiers continued their assault on the French position. Although outnumbered, Philip II’s preparation allowed the French to endure the assaults. Finally, Philip led a counter-attack with his cavalry that eventually routed the coalition’s army. Upon France’s victory, the Angevin Empire finally crumbled.
France’s decisive victory at the Battle of Bouvines had many repercussions. In England, John’s support tanked. As a result of his failure, the English nobility forced the king to sign Magna Carta, a document guaranteeing certain rights. In the Holy Roman Empire, Otto IV would be deposed in favor of Frederick II. In France, the Angevin Empire fell, and Philip II now firmly controlled France.
Bradbury, J. (2010). The Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328. London: Hambledon Continuum.
Dougherty, M. J. (2018). Crusaders, Persecutors and Religious Reformers. In Kings & Queens of the Medieval World: From Conquerors and Exiles to Madmen and Saints (pp. 76-78). London: Amber Books.
Phillips, C. (2020, July 20). Battle of Bouvines. Retrieved August 27, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Bouvines-1214