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‘The Worthiest Man’: The story of Count Philip I of Flanders

By David W. Vahey

Philip I Count of Flanders was one of the most controversial nobles in twelfth-century France. His choleric temperament was equaled only by his reputation in many historical and literary works. Where he went, trouble and greatness followed.

Philip of Alsace, as he was commonly known, was born in 1143, the eldest son of Thierry of Flanders and Sibylla of Anjou. As John W. Baldwin notes, Philip was born into “one of the two richest and best-governed principalities in the kingdom (Normandy was its chief competitor),” with Flanders having a prosperous economy from agriculture and textile manufacturing, and boasting one of the first chanceries in the Low Countries.

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By the age of 14, Philip was already co-ruler and regent of Flanders, since his father was in the Near East taking part in the crusades. But he could also be found on the tournament circuit. One of the earliest stories told of Philip can be found in The History of William Marshal. The author accuses the Count of hanging on the coattails of Henry the Young King and William Marshal at tournaments: “to vie with the Young King that the good count of Flanders, so valiant and wise, set out to prove his prowess to the world.” Over the course of the tournament Philip and his men put the Young King and his retinue to shame teaching them a lesson in humility.

Count Philip was remembered as a competitor to be reckoned with at the early tournaments. He was renowned for his tactic of preying on the weaknesses of his opponents: “the count of Flanders would bide his time, joining the tourney only when all were flagging and had lost their shape! Then, seeing his advantage, the count, shrewd as well as valiant, would charge in from the flank…that was his tactic every time!” Many opponents would pay dearly for underestimating the Flemish. His ruthless strategy at the tournaments would reward him well with plenty of booty and ransom payments.

Guilded statue of Philip I, Count of Flanders on the façade of the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium. Photo © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Letter to Hildegard

A lesser-known story tells how Philip wrote to Hildegard of Bingen, a respected German Benedictine abbess and mystic. Miriam Rita Tessera shares this anecdote about how on the eve of taking the cross for his first crusading foray, Count Philip was having doubts. In his letter he asks Hildegard: “[W]hat I ought to do to exalt the name of Christianity in these days and to bring low the terrible savagery of the Saracens, and if it would be useful to me to stay in that land or to return.”

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Hildegard responded by preaching about the way of administering justice by law and punishment. She reminded him of the common sentiment of per veram penitentian, that is, the first step to true penitence was to acknowledge one’s own guilt. The Count of Flanders was rumored among his peers to have taken his crusading vow to abolish the guilt of recent affairs.

The letter points to a well-known fact that Philip was prone to bouts of extreme cruelty and violence. Those who are known to have incurred his wrath suffered at the hands of an intemperate man. It is one of the recurring themes in the anecdotes of his life. Historian John D. Hosler shares a salacious episode from after the Count’s participation in the rebellion of King Henry’s heirs in his book Henry II: A Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189:

Ironically, it was now his old rivals who found themselves engulfed by rebellion. In August, Philip of Flanders, in some ways the cruelest rebel of them all, was rewarded with an uprising of his own. After accusing Walter de Fontaines of having relations with his countess, Philip ordered him beaten with clubs, hung upside down in a sewer, and suffocated to death. In response, the sons of Walter fortified their castles in rebellion and ravaged the Count’s lands, a fitting repercussion of Philip’s role in the uprisings of 1173 and 1174.

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Philip of Flanders was not a man to be crossed. However, his letters to Hildegard of Bingen bring to light the toll of the Count’s private spiritual concerns as a Christian knight. He would designate his brother-in-law, Baldwin V of Hainaut and his sister, Countess Margaret, as heirs before departing on his pilgrimage for Acre in the Near East.

Seal of Count Philip from 1170. Wikimedia Commons

On Crusade

Philip arrived with great promise (and a considerable military force) at Acre in the Holy Land in August of 1177. The Count had been prepared “to subject himself to divine service” as reported by William of Tyre. With “more resources than any other French baron and perhaps even than the monarchy” a great armed force was able to travel with the Count of Flanders, according to historian Malcolm Barber. His arrival seemed to betoken a change in fortune for the wavering Crusader States. Barber elaborates on the great hope that came with Philip’s arrival:

They would have been encouraged in that belief by the Latin leaders in Jerusalem, for King Baldwin had become very ill, and Philip of Flanders was an obvious replacement, even if only temporarily. Accordingly, the count was offered what William of Tyre calls ‘the rule and general administration of the entire kingdom.’

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They would be disappointed when he refused to accept the dominion offered by his cousin Baldwin. He would also disappoint them after he refused to join the invasion of Egypt with the Byzantines. Philip would be sufficiently coaxed to help Raymond of Tripoli to attack Hama, and Bohemond of Antioch to besiege Harim. There were complaints, according to Barber, “blaming Philip and his entourage for continually returning to the city to indulge in drinking and the pleasures of the flesh. Morale was not helped by Philip’s frequent references to his desire to return home.” His indulgent imbibing was matched by his fervent devotion to attend religious services. The Count insisted on abandoning a military campaign to return and celebrate Easter service at Jerusalem. Eventually, Philip returned home from the Holy Land to Flanders. Two years after his arrival in the Holy Land he had fulfilled the commitments of his crusader vow.

Greatest Tale Ever Told

Count Philip of Flanders was as respected as he was reviled by his contemporaries. Perhaps what can be considered the most enduring depiction of Philip is found in the dedication of Chretien de Troyes’ Story of the Grail.

Chretien had written a poem for the royal courts as entertainment about knights for knights. The Story of the Grail follows the escapades of a young, naïve Welsh country boy who gets caught up in a series of chivalric adventures connected with King Arthur. His poem, according to Richard Barber in The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, “was immediately popular … [w]ithin twenty years of the date at which Chretien broke off his work on The Story of the Grail, there were two attempts to continue his story, as well as two new and almost totally different versions of the Grail history.” The date of composition is believed to be sometime in the 1180s.

The dedication opens with a paraphrased proverb that harkened back to Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Chretien is quick to use the conceit and draw a parallel between the success or ‘bounty’ of his story and the prosperity of his patron Philip and his County of Flanders. He celebrates the fact that he “sows it in so good a place that he is bound to reap reward: his work is for the worthiest man in the empire of Rome – Count Philip of Flanders, who is of even greater worth than Alexander.”

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What follows is a list extolling the spiritual virtues of Count Philip compared with the vices of Alexander the Great. Alexander III of Macedon was also a very popular figure in the romances of French royal courts. Walter of Chatillon had composed an acclaimed epic poem written in the Latin style of Virgil’s Aeneid about Alexander called The Alexandreis. His poem had been dedicated to William of the White Hands, uncle of Philip II Augustus and Archbishop of Reims.

Chretien concludes his checklist of the Count’s virtues in the style of a verse from the First Epistle of John. He invokes the logic of this verse to ask the audience: “the gifts bestowed by good Count Philip are given in charity, prompted only by his kind, fair heart which bids him do good. So is he not of greater worth than Alexander, who gave no thought to charity or other good deeds?” His follow-up to this acclamation draws the pandering verse to a conclusion. All credit should fall to the Count of Flanders: “Chretien’s labor will not be in vain as he strives by the count’s command to put into rhyme the finest tale ever tale told in a royal court.”

A final victory

Philip’s main adversary in the 1180s was King Philip II of France, so it was somewhat surprising to find them going together to the Near East for the Third Crusade. When Philip, Count of Flanders succumbed to illness on the day before Pentecost at Acre in 1191, news of his death spread quickly. Rumors spread, too, of King Philip II of France abandoning the Third Crusade at the same time to return home back to France. Gilbert of Mons, who was provost of Philip’s brother-in-law, Count Baldwin V of Hainaut, first heard the news at the Imperial court of Rome. The provost records in his Chronicle of Hainaut:

Therefore it is said that King Philip of France returned quickly from those regions to his own land on account of his death, as he would succeed him in his greater properties, having taken this other opportunity both because of the king of England’s hatred and because of his own bodily illness.

King Philip was expecting to have the element of surprise on his side. Gilbert caught wind of news in Borgo San Donnino that the king of France had dispatched “certain knights (namely, Pierre of Mesnil, and Robert of Wavrin, brother of Hellin the steward, and some others, some of whom died in Italy, but Pierre and Robert came to France and Flanders) from overseas regions to occupy all of the count of Flanders’ land to the count of Hainaut’s detriment.” Wasting no time he quickly dispatched a courier to warn the count of Hainaut of imminent danger.

Gilbert of Mons’ courier arrived eight days before the French knights to inform the count of Hainaut. Baldwin V and his vassals raced to secure the regions of Flemish land due (by hereditary right) to be inherited by his wife, countess Marguerite, sister of Count Philip.

The name of Philip Count of Flanders would indeed live on in infamy.

David W. Vahey is an independent scholar. He holds a B.A. with Honours in English from York University. His research focuses on religion, medieval history, and popular literature.

Top Image: Count Philip I of Flanders with a coat of arms showing a black lion. From Rhyming Chronicle of Flanders, created in 1401. Cod.poet.et.phil.fol.22. fol. 282r 

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