Battle of Brémule: Anglo-Normans Defeat French During A Succession Dispute

 
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Battle of Brémule: Anglo-Normans Defeat French During A Succession Dispute

"Battle of Brémule," author unknown
Illustration in Grandes Chroniques de France, 14th century
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 20, 1119

Today's history lesson takes place in the early 12th century in the Duchy of Normandy. It was a small skirmish – with less than 1000 men total in the two opposing forces – but it had long-term repercussions for Normandy, England, and France.

Background

Possessions of William the Conqueror at his death (1087) (Image courtesy of http://www.timeref.com/williammap1.htm)
Possessions of William the Conqueror at his death (1087)
(Image courtesy of http://www.timeref.com/williammap1.htm)

On August 2, 1100, English King William II Rufus died in a hunting accident (a number of historians have speculated that William was assassinated). Robert Curthose, the eldest brother, was Duke of Normandy and the next likely successor to England's throne. However, Robert was returning from the successful conclusion of the First Crusade and was currently unavailable. His younger brother Henry Beauclerc quickly rode to Winchester, persuaded a number of powerful barons to support his claim, and seized the royal treasury. On August 5, Henry Beauclerc – the youngest of William the Conqueror's four sons – was crowned King Henry I of England.

Henry had the political acumen to realize that his newly won royal authority in England required him to reunite Normandy and England. He focused all his energy on reuniting England with Normandy. Six years after coming to the English throne, he achieved that objective with a stunning military success at the battle of Tinchebray in 1106. In the process of winning that battle, he captured his brother Duke Robert Curthose. Henry kept his brother in captivity for the rest of his life, until Robert's death in 1134.

Henry I Beauclerc of England (reigned 1100-1135); Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris; Original in the British Library
Henry I Beauclerc of England (reigned 1100-1135)
Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris
Original in the British Library

Even so, Henry still faced major challenges to his authority in Normandy. Henry may have eliminated the direct threat from Duke Robert; but Robert's only legitimate son – William Clito – born in 1102, became increasingly the center of baronial opposition to Henry in Normandy. Even worse, King Louis VI of France – surnamed "the Fat – crowned in 1108, was determined to assert central royal authority and weaken Henry's authority in Normandy. As Henry's nominal overlord in France, King Louis became a continual thorn in Henry's side.

Normandy faced an increased threat from France, Anjou and Flanders after 1108. Louis demanded Henry give homage to him and that two disputed castles along the Normandy border be placed into the control of neutral governors. Henry refused, and Louis responded by mobilizing an army. After some arguments, the two kings negotiated a truce and retreated without fighting, leaving the underlying issues unresolved.

Concerned about the succession, Henry sought to persuade King Louis to accept his son, William Adelin (also known as "the Ætheling"), as the legitimate future Duke of Normandy, in exchange for his son's homage. Henry crossed into Normandy in 1115 and assembled the Norman barons to swear loyalty; he also almost successfully negotiated a settlement with King Louis, affirming William's right to the Duchy in exchange for a large sum of money. However, the deal fell through and Louis, backed by his ally Baldwin of Flanders, instead declared that he considered Guillaume Clito the legitimate heir to the duchy.

In 1118, Henry attempted to crush a revolt in the city of Alençon, but was defeated by the Angevin army. Forced to retreat from Alençon, Henry's position deteriorated alarmingly, as his resources became overstretched and more barons abandoned his cause. Early in 1119, Eustace of Breteuil and Henry's daughter, Juliana, threatened to join the baronial revolt. Hostages were exchanged in a bid to avoid conflict, but relations broke down and both sides mutilated their captives (which included 2 of Henry's grand-daughters). Henry attacked and took the town of Breteuil, despite Juliana's attempt to kill her father with a crossbow. In the aftermath, Henry dispossessed the couple of almost all of their lands in Normandy.

Henry's situation improved in May 1119 when he enticed Fulk of Anjou to switch sides by finally agreeing to marry William Adelin to Fulk's daughter, Matilda, and paying Fulk a large sum of money. Fulk left for a crusade in the Middle East, leaving the County of Maine in Henry's care. With one dangerous opponent out of the way, the English king was free to focus on crushing his remaining enemies.

The Armies

Typical 12th century Anglo-Norman or French knights (Image courtesy of http://www.perry-miniatures.com)
Typical 12th century Anglo-Norman or French knights
(Image courtesy of http://www.perry-miniatures.com)

Both of the forces ("armies" would be a little too grandiloquent a name) involved were fairly small. This lends credence to my supposition that these were only small-scale raids designed to grab supplies, burn cropfields, and generally cause havoc among the Norman lands that were still not solidly in support of Henry as the overlord of Normandy.

As the reader can tell from the above illustration, these "knights" greatly resembled the Norman cavalry that conquered England over fifty years earlier. At this time period, most mounted nobles and their followers were still learning the classical tactic of the couched lance (holding the lance under one's arm). Many horsemen still attacked with the lance overhand or even threw it from horseback.

It addition to the knights and men-at-arms, King Henry's force contained a number of men who wielded bows and crossbows.

Prelude to the Battle

On August 20, Henry advanced from Rouen, with a force of about 500 knights and men-at-arms, all mounted. Accompanying the English monarch were three of his sons: Richard and Robert (both illegitimate) and Henry's heir, William Adelin. Orderic Vitalis, one of the few contemporary chroniclers to write about the coming battle, stated that both rulers were conducting raids throughout the Norman countryside.

King Louis had assembled a force of 400 knights and men-at-arms, including Guillaume Clito and William Crispin, a Norman knight who hitched his star to the French king (more on him later). [Guillaume Clito, son and heir of Duke Robert, had been born in October 1102, making him about seventeen years old when he fought at Brémule. Henry's heir William Adelin, at the age of 16 years old, was therefore only a year younger than Guillaume Clito.] Both Henry's and Louis's forces were operating in the same general area of Normandy, about 15 to 20 miles southeast of Rouen. Louis is recorded as saying that he wanted to bring Henry to battle. At one point, some of Louis's horsemen set fire to a farmstead, which warned Henry of the proximity of the French forces.

In addition, some Anglo-Norman scouts found Henry's main force and reported that the French force was very near. Searching for a place to make a stand, Henry and his men found the palisaded farmstead of Brémule. It was located on an old Roman road, between two thick forests. Henry ordered most of his force to dismount – sending their horses to the rear – and form a long line, the left flank resting on a forest edge, the right on the walls of Brémule. He placed a still-mounted group of Anglo-Norman nobles and their retinues just in front of his long line. King Henry placed himself in the dismounted division, in order to lead by example.

At the same time, King Louis's scouts had located Henry's battle group, and the French king began to make his own preparations. He formed his 400 men into three batailles, or battles (divisions). The forward battle consisted of about 80-100 mounted men, with the second and third lines containing the remaining men, with the French king located in the rearmost division.

Battle of Brémule

The battle began with a charge by the first division of the French. They were counter-charged by the Anglo-Norman mounted contingent. A brisk fight ensued, during which about 80 of the French horsemen were unhorsed and captured, and their mounts killed. These Frenchmen were marched to rear to be held as prisoners. The remaining Frenchmen temporarily scattered the English horsemen, and attacked the main English battleline.

Battle of Brémule
Battle of Brémule

As soon as he saw King Henry's battle standard, William Crispin charged the English monarch and began to rain blows on him. One of Crispin's strikes came very close to taking out Henry, but his helmet took the blow and the king survived. Driven back from the attack on Henry, Crispin was quickly hacked to death by King Henry's bodyguard. Shortly afterwards, the foremost French division broke and retreated.

The English mounted division reformed just in time to absorb the attack of the second French cavalry division, which consisted mainly of French feudal lords and their retinues. Unfortunately, the English cavalry was still rather disordered, and they were driven back upon their infantry line. The second French division also attacked the dismounted men, but their attack was blunted, another 60 Frenchmen captured, and the rest routed back to King Louis's division, which had not yet entered the battle. Seeing that nearly a third of his force had been wounded or captured, Louis decided to retreat back into French-held territory. Seeing, the French leave the field, Henry decided to mount a pursuit, chasing the French for the rest of the day. After about an hour of concentrated fighting, the battle of Brémule was over.

Aftermath

The battle was a triumph for King Henry I. The number of casualties for both sides are a bit foggy. Henry's force suffered what one chronicle said was "insignificant" losses. French casualties are also matter of speculation, but 140 French knights were captured. Finally, Brémule helped to consolidate Henry's authority in Normandy, symbolized by the investing of William Adelin with the Duchy of Normandy in 1120.

Footnote #1: The war slowly petered out after this battle, and Louis took the dispute over Normandy to Pope Callixtus II's council in Reims that October. Henry faced a number of French complaints concerning his acquisition and subsequent management of Normandy, and despite being defended by Geoffrey, the Archbishop of Rouen, Henry's case was shouted down by the pro-French elements of the council. Callixtus declined to support Louis, however, and merely advised the two rulers to seek peace. Henry and Guillaume Clito failed to find a mutually satisfactory compromise. In June 1120, Henry and Louis formally made peace on terms advantageous to the English king: William Adelin gave homage to Louis, and in return Louis confirmed William's rights to the duchy.

Footnote #2: In November 1120, fairly soon after his investiture, William Adelin died tragically in the "White Ship" Disaster. William was then only 17 ½ years old. Guillaume Clito similarly had an untimely death. He died of a gangrenous wound sustained in battle in July 1128, at the age of 25. Neither William Adelin nor Guillaume Clito left any legitimate heirs. Their premature deaths therefore meant that the direct male line from William the Conqueror was now extinguished. The result was political and military upheaval in England after King Henry I's death in 1135, which led to a period of English history known as "the Anarchy."

Footnote #3: Large pitched battles were rare during the Middle Ages in Europe, mainly because they were too much of a gamble. A monarch could lose everything in a battle (including his freedom or even his life).

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