Your RDA of Irony

The Welf of Nations

You know the adage about “the best laid plans of mice and men.”  On this day in 1214 the scheming rodent happened to be King John of England.  He had devised a brilliant plan to crush King Philip II of France, a monarch who showed the annoying promise of being the greatest king of France since Charlemagne.  Upon his succession to the throne in 1199, John ruled more territory in France than Philip did:  Normandy, Brittany, Gascony and Aquitaine.  In effect, John owned all of western France.  By 1206, John only had Gascony left.  Through conquest and diplomacy, Philip had acquired everything else.  Craven and inept on the battlefield, John also had the type of personality that made entire provinces defect to Philip.  If Eleanor of Aquitaine couldn’t stand her son, the rest of her duchy was not likely to be any more tolerant of John.

But John had a plan to get back his French lands.  He still had one relative who liked him, his nephew Otto.  Through the vagaries of German politics–plots, civil war, excommunications and a very opportune assassination–Otto had become the King of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire.  Phillip had backed Otto’s rival; furthermore,  the French king was encroaching on territories of the Empire.  Those were two good reasons as well as family loyalty for Otto to ally himself with Uncle John and crush Philip.

Here was the plan.  In the summer of 1214, the English army would invade Aquitaine and then push northeast to Paris.  At the same time (allowing for 13th century punctuality), Emperor Otto and the German army would attack France through the low countries.  (That would prove to be a very popular itinerary, but this time the Flemish were siding with the Germans.)  Philip would be trapped between his two armies and would be lucky to keep a pew at Notre Dame Cathedral.  So what could go wrong?  John was leading the English army.  His forces landed at La  Rochelle and at the first sign of French resistance, he retreated back to La Rochelle.

Philip predicted that John would do that, so he only dispersed a token force to intimidate the English.  Most of the French army moved north to confront the Germans.  Although Philip had the smaller army, he did have both the element of surprise and the better cavalry.  On this day in 1214 at Bouvines, a village in northern France, Philip won a resounding victory.  Otto managed to avoid capture; most of his commanders did not.  However, upon returning to Germany, he was stripped of power and title.  He didn’t even manage to keep his hereditary duchy of Saxony.

The English nobles weren’t much kinder to John.  Disgusted with his incompetence, the following year they revolted and forced John to sign some charter.  Yes, habeas corpus is very nice, but those nobles really would have preferred keeping their estates in France.

As for Otto, having lost his title, power and estates, he was ruined.  He was so depressed that he permitted himself to be beaten to death as penance.  (Why wait for purgatory?)  At least his family–the Welfs– did retain a few minor estates.  But after being the Duke of Saxony, having  just Hanover was a tremendous letdown.  Indeed, in 1714 a descendant of the family became a migrant worker in London.   Fortunately, the work proved steady.

Yes, the family’s real name was Welf.  Did you actually think that Hanover was a last name?

  1. Peg Pruitt says:

    Is this the last recorded example of France standing up to Germany?

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Peg,

      The Germans would tell you that they have been the victim of French aggression from Charlemagne to Napoleon. Of course, from 1870 to 1945 they certainly had their turn.


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