It’s a spring afternoon somewhere in eastern Normandy. Count Waleran de Beaumont rides in the vanguard of the relief force which defended the estate of Vatteville against forces loyal to English King, Henry Beauclerc. Moving through the Norman woodlands, Count Waleran was still a day away from the rebel headquarters. He didn’t expect any enemy encounters since at the time royal Anglo-Norman forces loyal to the king were still camping a safe distance to the west. Yet to Waleran’s surprise, upon reaching a forest clearing, the rebel’s marching route was unexpectedly blocked by another armed contingent. The well-disciplined men under Waleran’s command were already scrambling to take up their positions in an attack formation. The battle was about to begin.
The Battle of Bourgtheroulde 1124 AD
It’s November 25th of the year 1120. Almost three hundred people aboard the royal vessel named White Ship depart the port of Barfleur bound for England. Yet the ship never reached its destination, as a deadly mix of alcohol and overconfidence among its crew and passengers causes it to hit a submerged rock, capsize and sink. The chances of survival were minimal.
Nearly everyone on board perished in the cold waters off the Norman coast. The unexpected sinking of the White Ship shook the political landscape of the region, as among many of nobles that were taken by the sea that day was young William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir of Henry Beauclerc, incumbent King of England. In a matter of hours, twenty years of Henry’s careful planning and effort to preserve his dynasty through succession fell apart. The English King spared no effort to control the damage caused by this accident.
Just two months later, in early 1121, he took a new wife, opening the prospect for a royal son. But the death of William Adelin seemed an irreparable loss, as Henry invested a huge amount of time and energy over the past decade to secure the future of his sole legitimate son as both King of England and Duke of Normandy. After the White Ship incident,
Henry’s grip over his continental possessions visibly weakened and another struggle over these lands was but a matter of time. Late in 1121, Henry was challenged by one of his most recent allies Count Fulk of Anjou, who had just returned from the Holy Land. As the alliance between these two nobles was founded on the marriage of Fulk’s daughter to Henry’s son, the death of the latter put a strain on their mutual relations. Soon Fulk demanded the return of both his daughter and her dowry, the valuable estates in the County of Maine.
A request Henry promptly refused. Conflict between the two extended well into 1123, sparking significant discontent among the Norman nobility. To further complicate King Henry’s ambitions, Count Fulk married another one of his daughters to William Clito, son of Henry’s imprisoned older brother Robert Curthose,
and serious contender for the Duchy of Normandy. Though William Clito was defeated by Henry some years earlier in the Battle of Bremule which rendered his claim to Normandy null, the death of Henry’s son and a new alliance with Fulk of Anjou turned his fortunes and brought him back into the game.
These developments lay at the root of another aristocratic rebellion in Normandy, gravitating around the figure of William Clito with the aim of toppling the King of England. Henry dispatched some of his most trusted officers to bring order back to the Duchy, but in late 1123 the situation worsened to the point that Henry was compelled to lead his own force across the Channel.
History Of Bourgtheroulde War
Taking advantage of the last days of the campaigning season and exploiting the lack of a unified command among the rebels, Henry was able to storm a couple of castles before the winter, most of which he spent in the city of Caen. As it soon turned out, the cold of winter did little to cool rebel heads and in March of 1124 swathes of the Norman countryside were put to flame.
Two of the most powerful nobles chaffing at Henry’s rule in Normandy, Count Waleran of Meulan and Count Amaury of Evreux were reported to be operating in the area south of Rouen. In the second half of March their force was spotted marching back from Vatteville castle to the town of Brionne, a rebel holdout. Upon realising that the enemy was on the move, King Henry’s confidant in the area, castellan Odo of Bernay saw an opportunity to intercept the rebel force, but for this he had to act swiftly.
Having elements of the royal household under his command, Odo quickly gathered as many men as he could from the local garrisons and, wasting no time, departed Bernay with a few hundred strong unit, marching northeast. Possessing quite reliable information regarding the enemy’s marching route, Castellan Odo deployed his force in the Brotonne forest, expecting to meet the rebel troops at any moment. He did not have to wait long as the rebels soon reached the loyalist units preparing for an upcoming encounter.
The heavy cavalry unit commanded by Count Waleran was certainly less numerous, but undoubtedly better trained and motivated, consisting mostly of highborn Norman nobles. In contrast, Odo’s mounted troops of the royal household were knights recruited from lesser nobility, including the commander himself.
Seeing that Waleran was preparing for a cavalry charge, Odo secured the flanks with archers and ordered the bulk of his riders to dismount and set the defence line as infantry, giving a clear signal that no matter the outcome, his unit would not flee, thus heartening the morale of his men. Eventually, the horn signalled the beginning of the battle and the rebel cavalry moved out from their position, building momentum. But then,
during this charge, a division of loyalist archers that had remained hidden up until this moment, stepped forward, emerging on the flank, and rained arrows down upon the unexpecting riders. As anticipated, havoc broke out as many of Waleran’s men were thrown from their unarmoured horses. Yet this setback didn’t stop the young count, and the rebel unit surged forward, straight into yet another volley,
coming from the bulk of the archers that were kept in the main line of Odo’s contingent. Though shooting from the front was less effective than the side, just a fraction of the rebel cavalry reached the line of dismounted knights bracing for impact. The clash ended almost as soon as it began. Upon reaching Odo’s defence, the rebel cavalry had neither the numbers nor the momentum to break their line and what was meant to have been a destructive charge in no time turned into an uncoordinated retreat. Seeing the enemy’s charge broken,
Odo sent forward a cavalry unit expressly kept in the rear for such a scenario. But since the defeated rebels were almost exclusively influential nobles, there was no bloodshed. Both leaders of the rebellion were captured and imprisoned. The encounter in Brotonne forest was one of those examples, that well-positioned footed troops were able to come away completely unscathed from a clash against an experienced heavy cavalry contingent which was thought to be the ultimate weapon of the medieval battlefield. Upon hearing of the victory,
King Henry was so pleasantly surprised, that he rode to the field itself to see it with his own eyes. The battle proved the king’s man management skills, as royal regional administrators were often individuals dispensing solid tactical command and able to act effectively in the absence of the king. Without strong leadership,
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the insurgents in Normandy were soon compelled to yield to the royal forces. On top of this successful military intervention, Henry convinced the Pope to cancel the marriage between William Clito and Fulk’s daughter, though this did cost him a hefty amount of money.
As a result, the King of England once again regained full control over the Duchy of Normandy, this time for the remainder of his reign. But despite his successful campaigns, the chief problem that kept Henry up at night was still the matter of his uncertain royal succession which, as history has taught us, posed a great threat to the integrity of any medieval state.