Last week, BBC News Magazine published an article, “The Most Important Battle You’ve Probably Never Heard of“. It struck me as interesting as it featured, as had two of our Battle Castle episodes, good old King John. The article describes the Battle of Bouvines–King John’s last ditch effort through European alliances to reclaim the territories he had lost to the French King Philippe Augustus. From Gaillard to Bouvines, King John’s misadventures on the continent would define his reign.
John’s continental intrigues date back to the reign of his brother King Richard (the Lionheart). While Richard was held hostage on the continent during his return trip from the Crusades, John conspired with Philippe to ensure Richard never made it home.
Once released, Richard himself can only be blamed for his untimely death, sieging the castle of Chalus Chabrol as Dan Snow describes in this vlog.
Richard’s death set the stage for John’s big entrance onto the stage of world history. Succeeding Richard in 1199 (despite the existence of their nephew Arthur of Brittany, son of yet another older brother) John would attempt to hold and reclaim the English crowns possessions in France. One of the early key events was the siege of Chateau Gaillard, build by Richard the Lionheart to control access to Paris via the Seine. Chateau Gaillard was believed by most contemporaries to be impenetrable.
Gaillard was gallantly defended by Roger de Lacy over a period of eight months and at one point King John planned an attack to lift the siege:
Like the later Battle of Bouvines, John would not be successful.
The subsequent fall of Chateau Gaillard in 1204, allowed Philippe Augustus to consolidate the territories surrounding his Ile de France power base. He was not as flashy or flamboyant as Richard, but his steady hand and methodical patience redrew the map of Europe and ensured that John would not be able to displace Philippe at Bouvines on July 25 1214.
Philippe’s success would set the stage for his son Louis’ successful invasion of England the following year, culminating in the dramatic siege of Dover Castle.
It leads me to wonder why John underestimated Philippe and I am reminded of the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. The scorpion wants to cross the river and begs the frog to carry him. The frog rightly suspicious, refuses worried that the scorpion would sting him and he would die. The scorpion convinces him claiming that it would not be in his interest to sting him, for the he would drown as well. Of course when the pair reaches the other side of the river, the scorpion does sting the frog and kills him. With his final breath, the frog asks why. “Because I am a scorpion.” is the reply.
While Richard was held hostage, Philippe acknowledged John as King of England even going so far as to signing a treaty to deal with the English holdings in Normandy. (Evidenced by this summary of French treaties listed on a historical map of France I purchased at Carcasssone–note that John was referred by his nickname “Lackland” or Sans Terre in French).
Perhaps John initially believed they shared the ultimate goal of removing his brother Richard from the English throne. What he was unable to comprehend was that for Philippe Augustus, this was but a step to eject the English from France altogether. His inability to perceive Philippe’s grand ambitions and underestimating his military prowess would lead to a collapse of the English holdings on the continent in less than a decade and set the stage for Baron’s Rebellion and ultimately to the signing of the Magna Carta. Little wonder that no one has dared call an English King John since.