The Reign of Philip II Augustus in France

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader Ph.D., William & Mary University

Philip II Augustus ruled from 1180 to 1223. He made notable achievements that ended in France’s expansion of territory, pushing back the English power, and gaining the loyalty of numerous counts and dukes. Although he was more of an administrator than a fighter, he took part in a war and won against the German-English alliance. What else did he do to become such a great name in history?

The photo shows a scene from the Battle of Bouvines (1214) in which Philip II of France has been unhorsed.
Philip II Augustus was a surprisingly strong king who took back much of French lands from the English. (Image: Corpus Christi College/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Philip II Augustus

Of all the French kings who helped to put the kingdom of France back together again, Philip II Augustus was the most successful. Philip II Augustus was the first Capetian king who did not bother with anticipatory succession. The fact that he was comfortable with this suggests that his contemporaries, at least, accepted the notion that Capetians were the true dynasty within France.

When Philip II Augustus began his reign in 1180, many counts and dukes were loyal to the patient Capetian Crown. Success did not come easily to Philip II Augustus, and in some ways, he was a most unlikely ruler to restore the French monarchy.

Philip II was notoriously neurotic, a hypochondriac, and always convinced he was sick and dying. He did not like war and fighting and even left the Third Crusade after a few weeks. At the same time, he was a patient and deviously intelligent king, who preferred administration and accounting. From day one, he wanted to take back western France from England.

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Strategies on Taking Back French Land

A portrait of Philip II, the King of France.
Philip was not a fan of wars. He tried to use his devious intelligence to get back his lands from the English. (Image: Luclaf, CC BY-SA 3.0<>, via Wikimedia Commons)

His first strategy for taking back the French lands from English kings was to turn royal family members against each other, cause a crack and fit himself in to get back the lands. He gained some success with sons of Henry II but could not get the desired result from turning John Lackland against his brother, Richard Lionheart. Thus, he decided to use his feudal ties with English kings.

In 1204, he summoned King John to the French court for charges that had been leveled against him by one of the king of England’s own French vassals. However, John did not go, and Philip declared all of John’s possessions on the European continent to be forfeited. John had failed to do his duty, to appear at the French court, and now he had no right to hold the possessions anymore.

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The English-German Invasion

Philip II stormed into the English holdings on the continent from 1204 to 1206. He went first to Normandy, the heartland of the Angevin Empire, and repossessed it in 1204. He took back the region of Anjou in the following year, and in 1206 he took back the region of Brittany in the far northwest of France.

Having lost so many of his continental possessions to Philip II, the annoyed John Lackland decided to form an alliance with Germany against France. It took John a while to get organized, but in 1214, he and the ruler of Germany, Otto of Brunswick, invaded the kingdom of France jointly. The joint English-German invasion of France in 1214 marked a grave threat to the Capetian Dynasty. The degree to which they had succeeded in increasing royal power within France was now to be put to the test.

England raided France from the west and Germany from the east. Although Philip was not a fighter, he defeated the Germans at the Battle of Bouvines in the same year. He then went to the west to fight the English, who gave up immediately after hearing the news of Germans’ defeat. Philip II got back most of the lands, except for Aquitaine that would lead to the Hundred Years’ War later.

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Catharism in the South

Philip II re-established royal control over the south of France as well, where heresy was getting very popular. In 1208, a papal representative was murdered probably by the Cathars; hence, in 1209, the pope declared a crusade. It was against against anyone who protected the Cathars, which meant most of the southern French nobility.

The Crusade against the Cathars, which was fought from 1209 to 1229, was known as the Albigensian Crusade. The name comes from the town of Albi in the south of France, which was reputed to be a strong center of Catharism.

Philip II did not want to take part at first as he had just had confiscated Normandy and Brittany and was waiting for the English king to react. The northern French aristocrats were more interested and joined the Crusade in the south.

The photo shows the seal of Philip II Augustus.
Philip II Augustus’s seal serves as a reminder of all his achievements during his reign. (Image: Archives nationales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

After defeating the Germans and the English, Philip II realized he could gain royal control in the south again. Thus, he sent his son, the future King Louis VIII, to the south in 1218 to take part in the Albigensian Crusade. The crusade lasted for 20 years, and it was a bloody event. The crusade ended after the death of Philip II and resulted in victory for the northerners, against the inhabitants of southern France.

To sum up, the reign of Philip II Augustus marked a decisive turning point in French history. His victory in the Battle of Bouvines showed the triumph of French monarchy over Germans and English.

During his reign he had also secured the loyalty of a certain number of counts and dukes. It was only after his death that the French barons, counts, and dukes, had formed a major coalition against the Capetians because they felt that the Capetians had become too powerful within the kingdom. However, by that point, the Capetian position was so secure that they were able to beat down this rebellion.

Common Questions about Philip II Augustus

Q: Who was Philip II Augustus?

Philip II Augustus was the king of France from 1180 to 1223. He made the Crown more powerful than any feudal king, expanded the royal domain significantly, and, most importantly, turned the balance of power between France and England in favor of France.

Q: Did Philip II Augustus specify his heir before dying?

Philip II Augustus died in 1223, without specifying an heir.

Q: When was the Battle of Bouvines fought?

The Battle of Bouvines was fought in 1214, in which Philip II Augustus defeated the invading Germans that made their English allies give up and end the war.

Q: Why did the King of England form an alliance with the King of Germany against Philip II Augustus ?

Philip II Augustus stormed into the English holdings on the continent from 1204 to 1206. This annoyed the English king and he formed an alliance with the German king against Philip II Augustus.

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