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The Battle of the Bouvines (1214)

King John suffered a major defeat at the Battle of the Bouvines.
King John suffered a major defeat at the Battle of the Bouvines.

In 1202, England's King John launched a war against the French. He engaged the French in Normandy in a conflict that lasted over a decade. Finally in 1214, John and a number of allied states confronted France near Bouvines. The French defeated John's alliance handily at the Battle of Bouvines. In the end, France's King Philip II defeated his enemies, conquered Flanders, and John signed the Magna Carta under duress.

The English nobility originated in Normandy with William the Conqueror's invasion in 1066. Therefore, the English viewed French territory as their hereditary birthright. As a result, France and England had been chronically at war since the middle of the twelfth century. In 1202, King John launched an attack in Normandy to expand his empire and threaten France.

The war continued into 1214 when Ferdinand of Portugal sought vengeance against Philip II of France. King Philip defeated Ferdinand and won a couple of cities in battle. Ferdinand, with Papal blessing, formed an alliance against France. John eagerly joined the alliance. France faced England, the Holy Roman Empire, and the kingdoms of Boulogne and Flanders. Luckily for Philip, John developed the battle plan.

The English king's plan involved engaging his forces while the Holy Roman Empire marched on Paris. John fulfilled his part of the plan. However, the emperor moved too slow and the English retreated. The retreat allowed Philip to swing his forces around to attack John's allies. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV was surprised, launched a counterattack, and was defeated.

The allied army regrouped at Bouvines. They fielded 25,000 men against 15,000 French. The battle began with utter confusion. The two sides exchanged cavalry charges while the heaviest fighting took place in the center. Troops from Flanders began to win the day for the allies when Philip rallied his troops. His efforts began to turn the tide. However, it was nip-and-tuck and Philip came close to death several times.

As the battle swayed, the English force collapsed. The French captured the English leader Philip of Dreux and the troops panicked. The Flemish wing also broke under pressure. Soon thereafter, the allied center collapsed, the French captured Otto's standard, and a retreat began. In the middle of the maelstrom, Reginald of Boulogne and 700 knights held off fierce cavalry attacks before succumbing to an infantry charge.

The allies suffered 10,000 casualties, including prisoners, while the French might have lost 1,000. The allied prisoners marched back to Paris under Philip. Parisians celebrated their king and the great victory. The political capital allowed Philip to concentrate power in the monarchy. Additionally, he conquered English territory in France further limiting English power on the continent. Meanwhile, noblemen overthrew Otto in the Holy Roman Empire. On the other hand, John lost power to his barons. They rebelled and compelled their king to recognize their rights. John signed Magna Carta providing the basis for limited monarchy and common law in England.

The Battle of Bouvines was a great victory in French national history, mythology, and in fact. The French infantry managed to defeat a larger force through Philip's will and their own determination. Afterward, it allowed Philip to concentrate power in the monarchy and cut English power in France. Meanwhile, it helped lead to the English constitutional system centered on limited monarchy, common law, and political rights.

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