In the two hundred years or so following the Battle of Hastings, set-piece battles were actually rare in England and France. This may have been the result of a laudable desire of the competing protagonists to settle their differences by negotiation rather than conflict. In this sense, the period from 1066 to c.1266 stands out as an impressive epoch of peace and moderation in Western Europe, particularly in contrast to the first half of the 20th century.
Another, more likely, reason was that battles were themselves too much of a gamble for the rival commanders. All could be lost within a few hours. There are several examples of decisive major battles between 1066 and c.1266:-
- The Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25th September 1066. The Anglo-Saxon victory saw the death of King Harald Hardrada of Norway, and marked the virtual end of serious Viking invasions of England – though there were later Viking incursions in 1069/1070 and 1102.
- The Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066. The Norman victory saw the death of King Harold of England, and the establishment of a new Cross-Channel State, and with it, the Anglo/Norman Dynasty.
- The Battle of Tinchebrai, 28th September 1106. The victory of King Henry I of England saw the restoration of the Anglo-Norman State, and the effective elimination of Duke Robert as a serious threat to Normandy.
- The Battle of Lincoln, 2nd February 1141. King Stephen’s defeat greatly revived the Angevin cause in their conflict with Stephen.
- The Battle of Alnwick, 13th July 1174. William the Lion’s Scottish invasion of Northern England was repulsed by Northern English forces, thereby greatly helping King Henry II defeat the Great Revolt of 1173/1174.
- The Battle of Bouvines, 27th July 1214. The defeat of King John’s Allies caused the final end of the Anglo/Norman state, and precipitated the events leading to Magna Carta.
- The Battle of Evesham, 4th August 1265. The defeat of Simon de Montfort’s forces signalled the revival of King Henry III’s monarchy, and, with it, the succession of the future King Edward I.
The decisive nature of these battles can be partly gauged from the personal fate of the losing commanders. Three of them actually lost their lives in battle:-Harald Hardrada, Harold of England, and Simon de Montfort. Three others went into captivity as a result of their defeat in battle: Duke Robert, King Stephen, and King William the Lion. The seventh ‘defeated protagonist’, King John, was neither killed nor imprisoned as a result of Bouvines; but that was obviously because he was not actually present on the battlefield! Even so, the defeat of his allies at Bouvines led to John’s de facto coercion by his barons, leading to his concessions at Runnymede a year later.
What, then, of King Henry II’s success at Verneuil (August 1173)?
- In 1173, King Henry II faced a major challenge to his authority. Three of his sons rebelled against him: Henry the Younger, Richard and Geoffrey. They were motivated by a desire for more authority within the Angevin Empire; and, up to a point, Henry II was possibly too rigid in denying them any power. These sons were joined by rebel barons in England, such as Hugh, Earl of Chester, and Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. This revolt in itself was a major threat to Henry II’s power; but what turned a serious revolt into a major challenge was the adherence of two foreign monarchies to the rebels’ banner: King Louis VII of France, and King William I of Scotland (The Lion). Both these two monarchs were motivated by sheer opportunism: the desire to profit by Henry II’s apparent weakness to gain territory for themselves. King Louis VII wanted to weaken the Angevin Empire by gaining Normandy. King William I wanted to regain northern English counties he had had to relinquish to Henry shortly after the latter’s accession to the English Crown. Philip, Count of Flanders, also threw in his lot with Henry’s opponents.
- A lesser monarch than Henry II would perhaps have quailed under this combined assault; but Henry II was made of sterner stuff. He rallied his loyal forces to destroy this serious threat to his power. We have already seen how Henry’s northern sheriffs rose to the challenge by defeating King William I at Alnwick. What, then, of King Louis VII of France?
- In May 1173, Henry’s enemies launched their invasion of Normandy. Philip, Count of Flanders invaded Normandy from the north-east. King Louis VII then invaded central Normandy from the south-east, targeting the fortress-town of Verneuil. Their combined invasion was a pincer movement on the great prize: Rouen, capital of Normandy. If Rouen fell, then Normandy would probably be lost to Henry. This in turn would greatly diminish his authority as King of England.
- Philip’s northern invasion had seemed successful; but his brother, Matthew, Count of Boulogne, had been mortally wounded in their advance. Losing heart, Philip of Flanders withdrew from the invasion. Showing great military acumen, Henry now exploited his adversaries’ weakness by taking the offensive against the invading forces of King Louis VII of France. What happened next is best told by a contemporary chronicler, William of Newburgh, regarded by historians as a generally reliable writer.
- Once Henry had heard of Count Philip’s abandonment of his invasion, Henry II: “concentrated his mercenary forces, together with as many others as felt bound not to desert him in his hour of extreme need, he sent a message to the king of France, who had already wasted the greater part of the summer in besieging Verneuil, to this effect: that he should either raise the siege or shrink not from fighting a decisive battle [my italics] on a certain day.” (‘English Historical Documents’, Volume II, page 373). Knowing the potentially disastrous consequences of fighting a decisive battle, King Henry II was either courageous or simply reckless – probably both. As it was, King Louis VII of France solved Henry’s military quandary by imitating his ally, the Count of Flanders, and abandoning the siege of Verneuil. Whatever Louis’ reasons, it was not an heroic act, nor even a pious one.
- Although no battle was actually fought at Verneuil between the rival forces of Henry II and Louis VII, the withdrawal of the French forces must be counted as a great military success for Henry II. Normandy was safe, and on 11th August 1174, Henry II entered Rouen in triumph, accompanied by his welsh supporters. In consequence, Henry II’s authority was greatly strengthened. As no battle was fought, it is not possible to precisely date Henry’s military success at Verneuil. Even so, the date of 9th August 1173 is as good as any, because it was on that date when King Henry’s army ascended the hills overlooking Verneuil. They could see that the citadel was still in loyal hands, and they might also have even seen the retreat of Louis’ army, as Henry ordered his forces to harry Louis’ rearguard.
Postscript: Does History repeat itself?
- Almost exactly 250 years after King Henry II’s great military success at Verneuil, English forces were again desperately defending their occupation of their territories in France, including Normandy. After King Henry V’s decisive military victory at Agincourt, in October 1415, England had regained control of Normandy, lost centuries before by King John.
- After the sudden death of King Henry V in 1422, a combined Franco-Scottish Army took the offensive against the English forces in France (as in 1173). A preliminary English victory, at Cravant in Burgundy, on 31st July 1423, eased the English position; but the decisive battle would very likely be fought in Normandy, the lynch-pin of English territory in France in the 1420s (as in the 1170s).
- The decisive conflict was not long in coming. On 17th August 1424,at Verneuil in Normandy, a combined Anglo/Norman Army, about 8,000 strong, faced a combined Franco/Scottish Army possibly twice as strong. The Anglo/Norman Army, ably commanded by John, Duke of Bedford (the late King Henry V’s brother), destroyed the Franco/Scottish Army. Though Anglo/Norman losses were high, at around 1,600 men, they were dwarfed by the 6,000 losses sustained by the French and Scots, the latter losing both their leaders, the Earls of Buchan and Douglas. As already mentioned, pitched battles in the Middle Ages could involve death for the rival commanders.
- Even so, King Henry II would have applauded the significance of the Anglo/Norman success in 1424. It guaranteed the English retention of Normandy for the next 25 years, and even then, Normandy was only lost to the French by the incompetence of Henry V’s heir, King Henry VI. In the same way, Henry II’s success at Vereuil in August 1173, guaranteed the Angevin retention of Normandy for thirty-one years, till 1204 (possibly also due to the incompetence of the reigning English king). Perhaps therefore, History really does repeat itself!
Two questions for all my Angevin supporters . . .
- Which famous 19th century German philosopher is often credited with coining the proverb, ‘History repeats itself,’ and what caveat did he add?
- What is the nickname of King Louis VII of France?