How Philip Augustus outmanoeuvred three English kings

By Timothy R. Jones

Of all the turbulent relationships that existed in medieval Europe, one of the most enduring and insatiable was that of the conflicting and at times fraternal connection that bound the Kingdom of England with the fluid concept that was France under King Philip Augustus.

The forty-three-year reign of Philip (1180 to 1223) saw four English monarchs. During this time he maintained dialogue at a stately level with all whilst developing his own kingdom through diplomatic manoeuvres with foreign powers. His ascension to the French throne gave him the title and rights of a King, but in terms of physical domains his inheritance was far less prestigious. The territory that could be said to have been completely under his control comprised of the land directly centred around Paris, with the rest governed by powerful French barons, including Henry II of England,  who ruled over France’s coastal regions as part of his Angevin Empire.

Philip’s limited resources meant that an increase in his regnal power and influence would depend almost entirely upon sensible foreign relations. His first foray into this deceptive world was undertaken with his marriage at the age of fourteen to Isabella, who brought with her the county of Artois as well as familial connections to both the counts of Hainault and Flanders. This was a calculated move that actually went against the wishes of his ancestral houses of Champagne and Blois. It demonstrates a clear intention to acted deliberately where the extension of land under Philip’s rule could be implemented.

The next five years brought with them a conflict between Philip and the Count of Flanders and conflicts with other nobles that were crucially finished at the negotiating table as opposed to the battlefield. Again, Philip showed a conscientious desire to place the expansion of his realm above the colossal cost of constant warfare as well as an advanced understanding of negotiating with political entities that existed independently of his own.

Detail of a miniature of Philip Augustus receiving an envoy, and Philip Augustus and Henry II taking the cross. British Library MS Royal 16 G VI f. 344v

The result was that by the death of Henry II, Philip was in a position that allowed him to be considered a threat to the remaining English territories in France. He had made the transition from a relatively impoverished monarch, enclosed by powerful barons to the major rival to the dominant twelfth-century empire through a careful manipulation of foreign powers. Despite the increase in his power, he was careful to foster at least nominal relations with the English Emperor, pledging to go on crusade with Henry in the last year of Henry’s life. This was a considered move to consolidate their relationship in the eyes of the international community and to secure Philip’s position by associating his rule and actions with that of the crusading movement.

Pitting brother against brother

His relations with King Richard I following the death of Henry II in 1189 are testament to the advantages of Philip’s considered approach as well as his continued policy of viewing foreign relations objectively and with careful consideration. It began as a working relationship with Richard in the final years of his father’s reign by supporting Richard in his efforts to replace Henry prematurely and this relationship was consolidated by a joint command of the crusading endeavours in 1189-90. When Richard made demands for half of Cyprus and the Kingship of Jerusalem for his part, Philip was quick in denying this to Richard so that the English King could not expand his power base and encircle Philip. This would have diminished Philip’s carefully cultivated stance in foreign affairs and the French King promptly left the crusade at the earliest convenience.

Detail of a miniature of Philip Augustus assembling his army, and the attack on Rouen. British Library MS Royal 16 G VI f. 356

The pre-eminence of Philip’s ability for foreign relations is especially evident in the event of 1194, in which he aligned himself with Richard’s brother John, just as the former had done against their father in the early 1180s. Philip had perfected the art of discerning the desires of his foreign counterparts and subtly encouraging them to seek fulfilment in a manner that was preferable to him. John had wanted land that his brother was reluctant to give up. This decision to help the younger brother is reflective of Philip’s tendency to look at foreign affairs from a distinctly object viewpoint. His stance was complacent in setting aside concepts of chivalry and even familial obligations in the pursuit of enlarged territories. It seemingly did not matter to Philip if he supported a brother against another brother or against their father as long as the means justified his overall aim. He can be observed as having been stalking the cracking Angevin Empire throughout the entire period of Richard’s reign, with a view to benefitting from its inevitable collapse. The culmination of this policy was to manifest itself towards the end of the reign of King John in England.

Detail of a miniature of John, king of England, doing homage to Philip Augustus. British Library MS Royal 16 G.VI f. 362v

It is possible to say that John received the same initial treatment from the French King as his brother had done at the beginning of his reign. Philip conducted polite formal relations which John and recognised his position as the legitimate state of political affairs. However, this period did not last long and by 1207, John was embroiled in a disastrous war with Philip in an unsuccessful attempt to retake the lands that had been lost to Philip since the death of Henry II. Philip for his part,  responded with military action. Whilst this did not result in Philip’s ambition of England under his control being realised, it did send a clear message on the international stage that he had replaced the Angevins as the major power in the relationships that governed that part of Europe. Philip continued to torment John by instigating discord amongst his barons. This is again typical of Philip’s superior understanding of political machines and how they can be manipulated through diplomacy administered in foreign lands. He deviated from the normal by making dialogue with disaffected nobles as opposed to the nominal head of government, knowing that his actions could have far-reaching consequences.

The result of this mastery of foreign relations was that by John’s much-anticipated death in 1216, the once powerful Angevin Empire was reduced to a fraction of its former size and influence and a new superpower had taken its place. The start of the reign of Henry III could not have been more different from the inheritance of his uncle Richard in 1189. Across the sea, King Philip Augustus began the new reign as the dominant partner in any relations that were to follow.

The territorial conquests of Philip Augustus of France, at the time of his birth (1180) and at the time of his death (1223). Image: SamWilson989 / Wikimedia Commons

Timothy R. Jones  is a graduate student in Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln. Click here to read more articles by Timothy

Top Image: The coronation of Philip Augustus in British Library MS Royal 16 G VI f. 331 

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