The Battle of Bouvines according to the Philippiad, by William of Breton

The Philippiad is rhymed elaboration of William the Breton's continuation of the Gestes de Philippe Auguste.  William was a chaplain to the French king, and was present on the battlefield of Bouvines.

Song X, verses 755-838

. . . He says [these things] and runs to the King. He [the King] can scarcely believe that someone would dare initiate a battle on this holy day which God himself has specially consecrated to himself alone. The King nonetheless suspends the march, gives orders for the banners preceding him to stop, and addresses his friends as follows: "Now, the Lord Himself is giving me what I wanted; now, beyond our merits and our hopes, divine favor is granting us more than all our wishes. Those we were previously trying to reach through long detours and the many turns of the roads, the Lord's mercy has brought to us, so that He Himself could, through us, destroy His enemy in one blow. With our swords He will cut off the members of His enemies; He will turn us into cutting instruments; He will hit and we will be the hammer; He will lead the whole battle and we will be His ministers. I have no doubt that victory will be His, that He will triumph through us, that we will triumph through Him over His own enemies who bear Him so much hatred. Already, they have deserved being struck with the sword of the father of fathers [because] they have dared to despoil Him, to deprive the Church of its property, to take away the small coins [les sous] with which the clergy, the monks, and God's poor were sustaining themselves and whose curses are now causing their damnation, and will keep on doing so, and whose laments rising to the heavens will force them [the enemy] to succumb to our blows. In contrast, the Church is in communion with Lis and assists us with its prayers and everywhere recommends us to the Lord. Everywhere, the clergy prays for us with an ardor that is even greater than our love for them. This is why, strengthened with the unbreakable power of hope, I am asking you to show yourselves to be the enemies of the enemies of the Church. May your fighting prevail, not for me but for you and the kingdom; may each of you, while protecting the kingdom and the crown, take care also not to lose his own honor. However, my wish for battle is less than my reluctance to sully this holy day with the spilling of blood."

He said this and the French, through a long joyous cry, make known that they are ready to fight for the honor of the kingdom and the King. However, they are all of the opinion that they should go to Bouvines to see if the enemy will not choose to respect the holy day and to postpone the duel till the passing of the day would make the battle lawful. Moreover, this position would be a better one for the defense of the baggage and all the other things carried in order to set up camp, in view of the fact that it is only open to one side and that the marsh, lying without break to the right and the left, intercepts the road and makes crossing impossible except through the fairly narrow bridge of Bouvines on which quadrupeds and bipeds can go toward the south. On the far side lie fields and a beautiful plain, abloom with Ceres' grains, and which, continuing over a large area, reaches Sanghin on the west and Cysoing on the east - a place well suited to be sullied with blood since these names recall blood and killing.

Right away, the King has the bridge enlarged so that twelve men could cross abreast of each other and so that the wagons with their four horses could cross it with their drivers. Near a church consecrated to Peter, the King, hot from the sun, hoping that the battle would be postponed till the morrow, was resting in the shade of an ash-tree, not far from the bridge which had already been crossed by the main part of the army, while the sun, having reached its highest point, was heralding the middle of the day. While the King was getting ready for a short rest, a swift messenger, arriving in all haste, exclaimed: "The enemy has already charged the rearguard; neither the troops from Champagne, nor those which you have sent earlier are able to repulse them: while they are resisting and do their best to slow them down, [the enemy] pushes forward and has already traveled two miles."

Moved by these words, the king immediately stands up, enters the church, and places his arms under the protection of the Lord. After a short prayer, he comes out: "Let us go," he exclaims. "Let us go in all haste to help our companions. God will not be angry if we take up our arms at a holy time against those who are attacking us. He has not found the Maccabees guilty of any crime for having defended themselves during a holy Sabbath when they repulsed the forces of their enemies with a holy victory. Even more so, it is seemly for us to fight on this day when the whole of the Church begs the Lord on our behalf and we are proving ourselves to be its friends." Speaking these words, he puts his armor on, throws his tall body on his tall horse, and, retracing his footsteps, hurries toward the enemy while the terrifying din of the trumpets is heard all around him . . . .

Song XI, verses 20-46

Soon after, Otto, already flying his banners as if he wanted to celebrate before the fact the triumph he was so sure of, raises his standard high, surrounds himself with the supreme honors of the empire, so as to make his rays shine in the middle of such a great show and to proclaim himself the sovereign of the whole world. On a chariot, he has a pole raised around which a dragon is curled which can be seen far away from all sides, its tail and wings bloated by the winds, showing its terrifying teeth and opening its enormous mouth. Above the dragon hovers Jupiter's bird with golden wings while the whole of the surface of the chariot, resplendent with gold, rivals the sun and even boasts of shining with a brighter light.

As to the King, he is content to see lightly fly his simple banner, made of a simple silken cloth of bright red and in every way similar to the banners usually used in church processions on prescribed days. This banner is commonly known as the Oriflamme: it has the right to be carried in all battles, ahead of every other banner, and the Abbot of Saint-Denis has the custom of handing it over to the king whenever he takes up his arms and goes to battle. The royal banner was carried ahead of the King by Galon of Montigny, a man of strong body. Thus the two armies found themselves face to face; the portion of plain separating them was narrow; they were lined up face to face, but one could not yet hear the Sound of any voice.

Placed on the other side and opposite the magnanimous Philip, Otto was covered with gold and clothed with the imperial ornaments .

Song XI, verses 53-64

. . . On the right side and at a great distance from the King, the Champagne corps threatens the men of Flanders. With them [the Champenois] are the Duke of Burgundy, the Count of Saint-Pol, John of Beaumont, and the men sent by the Abbot of Saint‑Medard, retainers famous on account of their great prowess, and who numbered 300. Each of them, mounted on a horse, exulted in his armor and brandished his sword and lance; they were from the valley of Soissons which produces strong bodies. Between them and the King was placed a continuous line of men, splendid in valor, and each of their leaders called their echelons close to them while the trumpets sounded terrifyingly, inviting the warriors to promptly charge the enemy . . .

Song XI, verses 116-32

. . . While Ferrand in fighting; arouses courage in his men, lances are shattering, swords and daggers hit each other, combatants split each other's heads with their two-sided axes, and their lowered swords plunge in the bowels of the horses when the iron protection which covers the bodies of their masters prevents iron from penetrating; then. Those who are carried then fall with those carrying; them and become easier to vanquish when they are thus thrown to the dust. But even then, iron cannot reach them unless their bodies are first dispossessed of the armor protecting; then, so much has each knight covered his members with several layers of iron and enclosed his chest with armor, pieces of leather and other types of breastplate. Thus, nowadays, modern mere take much greater care tee protect themselves than did the ancients who would often, as we learn from our reading;, fall by the thousand in a single day. While misfortunes multiply, precautions against these misfortunes multiply as well, and new defenses are invented against new kinds of attack . . . .

Song XI, verses 178-99

. . .The irruption of the combatants is so lively all over the field and those who are hitting or are hit are so close to each other that they can barely find the place or the opportunity to stretch their arms so as to strike more strongly. The silk coverings attached to the top of the armor so that everyone could be recognized by these signs have been so cut tip and ripped into a thousand shreds by the maces, swords, and lances which are pounding on the armor so as to break it that each combatant call barely distinguish his friends from his enemies. One is lying on the ground, overturned on his back with his legs in the air, another falls on his side, a third is thrown head first and his eyes and mouth fill with sand. Here a cavalryman, there afoot soldier voluntarily surrender, fearing more to be killed than to live vanquished. You could see horses here and there lying in the meadow and letting out their last breath; others, wounded in the stomach, were vomiting their entrails while others were lying down with their hocks severed; still others wandered here and there without their masters and freely offered themselves to whomever wanted to be transported by them: there was scarce a spot where one did not find corpses or dying, horses stretched out . . . .

Song XI, verses 538-58

. . . Indeed, the Bishop of Beauvais, having seen the brother of the King of the English, a man of incredible strength whom the English had on this account nicknamed "Longsword," overthrow the men of Dreux and do great harm to his brother's battalion, the bishop became unhappy, and since by chance he happened to have a mace in his hand, hiding his identity of bishop, he hits the Englishman on the top of the head, shatters his helmet, and throws him to the ground forcing him to leave on it the imprint of his whole body. And, since the author of such a noble deed could not remain unnoticed, and since a bishop should not be known to have carried arms, he tries to hide as much as possible and gives orders to John, whom Nesle obeys by the right of his ancestors, to put the warrior in chains and to receive the prize for the deed. Then the bishop, throwing down several more men with his mace, again renounces his titles of honor and his victories in favor of other knights so as not to be accused of having done work unlawful for a priest, as a priest is never allowed to be present at such encounters since he must not desecrate either his hands or his eyes with blood. It is not forbidden, however, to defend oneself and one's people provided that this defense does not exceed legitimate limits . . . .

Song XI, verses 585-718

. . . While flight had entirely emptied the field of battle on both wings, the Count of Boulogne still remained in the center, frequently retreating into the midst of his foot soldiers, furiously and ceaselessly striking with his murderous sword the breasts of his friends and kill. Enemy of his friends and hating the children of his fatherland, neither the tie to his native land nor the love owed to those sharing the same blood, nor the ties of a friendly flesh, nor the pledges sworn so often to his King and lord, had softened his heart hardened by [spilled] blood. His unbridled valor did not allow anyone to vanquish him; it did not matter whom his arm reached, he could [always] walk away the winner, so well could he handle weapons with ability and prudence, so much the prowess which was natural to him in battle loudly proclaimed that he was the true issue of French parents: And even though his fault itself has, oh France, made him fall in your eyes, do not be ashamed of him and do not let your brow blush. Not only are children not cause for shame to those who give them birth but, moreover, it often happens that a good mother puts depraved children into this world and also often a wicked mother nurses healthy children at her breast.

The count kept on retreating with impunity behind the wall of his foot soldiers; he did not need to fear being hit with a mortal blow by the enemy. Indeed, as our knights were fighting on their own with their swords and their short weapons, they would have feared attacking the foot soldiers equipped with lances: these, with their lances longer than knives and swords, and moreover lined up in an unbreachable formation of triple layers of walls, were so cleverly disposed that there was no way that they could be breached. The King, having recognized this, sent against them 3,000 armed retainers mounted on horses and equipped with lances so as to make them abandon their position by putting them in disorder, and thus to free himself of this formidable ring. A clamor then arises; the cries of the dying, the noise of arms make it no longer possible to hear the sounds of the trumpets. They fall, riddled with wounds, all of these unfortunate people with whom the Count of Boulogne had surrounded himself with an art now useless, believing in vain that he could defy all the French by himself, caring to keep on fighting them after all the others had run away and disdaining owing his life to a shameful flight.

These unfortunates could no longer be protected by their long weapons, or their two-sided axes, or by the count who was no longer able to defend his wall. Nothing could then prevent valor from reaching its goal; alone, valor finally overcomes all obstacles; no resistance, nee artifice, o force can resist it; alone it provides everything and rises above everyone. It rejoices in being the intimate companion of the French, it finally grants them the full enjoyment of their triumph. They massacre all their enemies, send them all to Tartarus and completely take away from the Count of Boulogne the sanctuary he had made for himself. As for him, however, having seen the field flooded on all sides with fugitives so that there barely remained around him thirty men, knights and foot soldiers, the remnants of the whole of his troop, and so that no one could believe that he was willing to let himself be taken or vanquished without resistance, he throws himself in the midst of the French, followed by only five of his companions, while the French surround all the others and barely find enough room within their tight ranks to bind them. Then the count, as if he had to triumph alone over all his enemies and as if he had not yet engaged in any combat on this day, furious and using of the whole of his strength and multiplying his efforts, rages in the middle of the French and hurries through them towards the king, having no doubt that he will take his life as prize for his own death, and wishing only to die at the same time as him.

A certain Peter, whom La Tournelle had given both his name and his distinguished birth, was on foot having lost his horse while the count was audaciously throwing himself into the ranks of his enemies. This man, deserving by his origin and his exploits to become a knight, was both beloved and well known at the King's court. Seeing that the Count of Boulogne had taken up the fight again without wanting to surrender and was even resisting all those around him with renewed valor, Peter quickly went toward him, lifted up with his left hand the wire mesh which, tied with large strips, covered the belly of the horse, and with his right hand, thrusting his sword into the body of the horse at the groin, cut his noble parts. Then he pulled out his sword and the blood flowed abundantly from a large wound and covered the green grass. At this sight, one of the loyal friends of the count ran up to him and, quickly grasping the reins of his horse, heatedly addressed words and friendly exhortations to the count himself who, disregarding God's will and while all the others had taken flight, still remained there, attempting to vanquish all by himself those who were the victors, thus provoking his own destruction through such behavior and not fearing to throw himself into well-deserved ruin when it would be easy to escape it by fleeing with the others. While he was addressing the count with these words, he drags him in spite of himself by pulling his horse by the bridle, so as to make him climb on another horse and be able to flee. But the count resists with all his might, his proud heart not being capable of ever renouncing the battle: "I would rather," he says, "be vanquished while fighting and saving my honor than live by running away. Life is not worth [the loss of] honor. I am going back to the battle, regardless of the fate which threatens me."

            He says this but already his horse has felt his nerves slacken and can no longer stand. Then John of Condone and his brother Quenon run up to him and hit the count with many blows on each side of his head and throw down both horse and knight; they both fall head first, and then the count lies on his back, his thigh trapped and crushed under the full weight of the horse. While the two brothers busy themselves in binding the cavalier, John, nicknamed "de Rouvrai" (de Robore) ["strong"], a name which facts justify, appears and finally forces the count to surrender in spite of himself. And as he was slow in getting up from the ground, waiting in vain for help and still hoping to escape, a boy [a commoner] named Cornut, one of the servants of the Elect of Senlis, and walking ahead of the latter, a man strong in body, arrives holding a deadly knife in his right hand. He wanted to cut the count's noble parts by plunging the knife in at the place where the body armor is joined to the leggings, but the armor sowed into the leggings will not separate and open up to the knife, and thus Cornut's hopes are thwarted. However, he circles the count and looks for other ways to reach his goal. Pushing the two whalebones out of the way and soon pulling off the whole of his helmet, he inflicts a large wound upon his unprotected face. He was already getting ready to slit his throat; no one was holding him back and if it had been possible he would have killed him. The count, however, still resists him with one hand, and does his best to repulse death as long as he can. But, finally arriving at a full gallop, the Elect of Senlis pushes the threatening knife away from the count's throat and himself pushes away the arm of his servant. Having recognized him, the count cries: "Oh, kind Elect, do not let me be assassinated. Do not suffer me to be condemned to such an unjust death, so that this boy could rejoice to be the author of my destruction. The King's court would condemn me much better; let it inflict on me the punishment I have incurred." He says this and the Elect of Senlis answers him in these words: "You will not die, but why are you so slow to get up? Stand up, you must be presented to the King right away."

While saying this, he forces the wounded man to stand up in spite of himself. His face and all his members are covered with a stream of blood; he can barely lift his body to climb back on a horse; the Elect of Senlis places him on it and everyone applauds, as he still scarce appears to be vanquished. The Elect finally entrusts him to the care of John of Nesle to go and offer this pleasing gift to the King ....

Song XII, verses 18-50

. . . Here, one man grabs a war-horse; over there, a big cob offers its head to a stranger and is tied with a rope. Others take abandoned weapons from the fields; one grabs a shield, another a sword or a helmet. Another one leaves happy with leggings while yet another is pleased with a breastplate and a third gathers clothing and armor. Yet even happier and in a better position to withstand the vagaries of fortune is the one who can seize the horses laden with baggage or the swords hidden under their bulging sheets, of again these wagons the Belgians are said to have been the first to build in the olden days when they possessed the Empire: these wagons are filled with golden vessels, with all kinds of implements which are not to be disdained, and with silken clothing worked with great art which the merchant transports to our country from far away places seeking in his greed to multiply his petty profits on any object. Each of these wagons, supported by four wheels, is topped by a chamber which in no way differs from the superb nuptial chamber where a newly wed bride is preparing for a new union, so many are the possessions, food, and precious ornaments enclosed in the large belly of each of these chambers woven out of bright willow. Sixteen horses hitched to each of these wagons is barely sufficient to drag away the spoils with which they are laden.

As to the wagon on which the reprobate Otto had raised his dragon and over which he had hung his golden winged eagle, it soon falls under countless axe blows and is broken into a thousand pieces. It becomes the prey of flames as it is wished that no trace should remain of so much pomp and that pride thus condemned should disappear with all its marks of ostentation.  The eagle whose wings were broken was promptly repaired.  The king sent it immediately to King Frederick so that he would learn through this present that, since Otto had been repulsed, the fasces of the Empire had passed into his hands by divine favor ....

Song XII, verses 225-64

. . . At that time, only the city of Rome was offering applause to its kings and the other cities were not in the least concerned with rejoicing over the triumphs of the Romans or of going to any expense to add to the ceremonies. But now, in all places located in the land of the vast kingdom which contains so many villages, so many castles, so many cities, so many counties, so many duchies worthy of the scepter, in all the provinces submitted to so many bishops, each administering justice in his own diocese and publishing his edicts in innumerable towns, every town, every village, every castle, all the countryside feel with the same ardor the glory of a victory common to all, and take for themselves that which belongs to all in common, so that this universal applause spreads to all places and a single victory causes the birth of a thousand triumphs. Applause is heard everywhere throughout the kingdom: people from all social conditions, from all fortunes, from all professions, from all sexes, from all ages sing the same hymns of joy, all voices celebrate at once the glory, the praise, and the honor of the King. And the raptures of the soul are not only expressed through songs or in gesture: in the castles and in the towns, the trumpets sound in every street so that the multiplication of these choruses would proclaim public feelings louder. Do not think either that any expense is spared: knight, bourgeois, villein, all shine under the purple, they all wear clothing made only of samite, or very fine linen, or purple cloth. The peasant, resplendent in imperial adornments, is surprised at himself and dares compare himself to the mightiest kings. The clothes change his heart so much that he believes that the man himself is changed along with the unfamiliar clothing. And each is not simply content with shining as much as his companions, but he also attempts to distinguish himself from the mass of others by some ornament. Thus they all vie with each other, trying to surpass each other with the honor of their clothing.

During the whole night, candles ceaselessly shine in everyone's hands, chasing away the darkness so that the night, finding itself suddenly transformed into day and resplendent with so much brilliance and light, says to the stars and the moon: "I owe nothing to you."

            This happened because love for the King was so great that it led the people in every village to give vent to the rapture of their happiness ....

These translations were all originally published in The Legend of Bouvines: War, Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages, by Georges Duby, translated by Catherine Tihanyi (University of California Press, 1990).  We thank Catherine Tihanyi for allowing to republish this material.