Sergeants at the Battle of Bouvines

By C. A. Powers

(AKA Sgt. Charric Van der Vliet)


The battle of Bouvines took place in 1214 A. D.  Its primary chronicler was William the Breton, chaplain to the French king.  William the Breton’s text, which may be found in m.s. 5925 in the Bibiotheque Nationale, gives some good glimpses into the nature of the medieval Sergeant, about the time of “bad King John” of England.


In the army of this time, knights, squires, and their feudal levies, made up one group.  The second group was footmen from the “communes”, basically town tradesmen, very loyal to the King.  The third group consisted of the Sergeants. 


The Sergeant of 1214 was a professional mercenary in armor, and there were a lot more of them than there were knights.  The ratio of knights to sergeants seems to be about 1:40. 


“Saint-Valery…appeared there with fifty knights and 2000 sergeants.” (1)


On the day, the French scouts seek the Flemish/German forces.  The first indication French scouts have that the battle will start is when they see


“…the Sergeants and the foot soldiers up front, which is a sure sign of  battle.”  (2)


Deploying for battle, Sergeants took the lead.  Even as battle commenced, far from leading the way, the Chivalry entered the battle after the Sergeants,


“…following the mounted Sergeants whom the (bishop) elect had sent ahead to start the battle, the …knights…plunged into the fray.” (3)


After the professionals had softened up the enemy, then the Knights attacked.  If Sergeants on his side received approval from William, the enemy knights certainly didn’t like them much. 


“He sent ahead 150 mounted Sergeants to start the battle.  He did this with the aim that the noble combatants…would find their enemy somewhat agitated and worried, but the Flemings and the Germans, who were very eager to fight, greatly scorned being first challenged by Sergeants instead of Knights.  Because of this, they did not deign to move from their position but waited and received them very harshly;” (i.e., from behind 700 dismounted Sergeants of their own.) “…many of their horses were slain and they suffered many injuries but only two were wounded unto death.  These Sergeants were born in the Soissons valley; they were full of prowess and great courage and were fighting no less virtuously on foot than on horseback.”  (4)


William is capable of admiring a Sergeant on his own side.  Of the Sergeant Peter de la Tournelle: 


“…he does not seem to be of noble blood yet he is so valorous that he could be worthy of knighthood,…  (5)


The Sergeants seem to have been effective.  Sergeants on the side of Otto drove forward and almost killed the French king, pulling him from his horse, but Peter Tristan jumped down and


destroyed and killed all those Sergeants on foot.” (6)


Of Sergeants in the opposing army he has a lower opinion, despite (or because of) their effectiveness. 


“After the King had remounted…the rabble who had brought him down had all been destroyed and killed…”  (7)



Sergeants also appeared on foot.  Being mounted does not seem to be the quality that confers Sergeantry.   From this description of a new innovation in tactics, it seems that the Sergeants were intended to be on foot.


“Count Renaud of Boulogne…was using a new art of battle:  He had set up a double row of well-armed foot sergeants pressed closely together  in a circle in the manner of a wheel.  There was only one entrance to the inside of this circle through which he went in when he wanted to catch his breath…” (8)


It may be that Sergeants who were afoot were only that way due to attrition in battle.  Count Renaud with six knights left by him, is still fighting strongly, but


“At this point a courageous and daring sergeant by the name of Peter of Tournelle, who was fighting on foot because his enemies had killed his horse, went toward the count, lifted up the covering of his horse, and struck it so well that he plunged it to the guard all the way to the guts.”  (9)


This would seem to indicate that the expected initial condition of the Sergeant was mounted and armored. 


To be a Sergeant on the losing side was bad.  Since having a large group of unpaid mercenaries wandering around extorting money from the populace was undesirable, the Sergeants of the enemy were not considered for ransom.  After everyone else of Otto’s army fled,


“…there still remained in the field the 700 foot Sergeants…who had been used as a defense against the onslaught of the enemy.”  (10)


The French king sent Thomas Saint-Valery, 50 knights, and 2000 foot Sergeants against this 700, and killed them to a man.  Despite this, William the Breton admires the King’s clemency, since no ransomable noble was killed.


The early Sergeant would appear to have been a mercenary of disreputable character but whose expertise was sorely needed by the nobles who found themselves forced to hire them.  The later adaptation of installing the experienced warriors in a leadership role over troops of common foot soldiers awaited a later era.  This would seem to argue for early period Sergeants fighting in troops of their own, while late period ones lead inexperienced troops.  Thus, both roles appear to be appropriate, each in their own era.


Work Cited


All quotes are taken from:


The Battle of Bouvines: War, Religion, and Culture in the Middle Ages

By Georges Duby, Translated by Catherine Tihanyi

University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles

English Translation © Polity Press, 1990

First Published as:

Le Dimanche de Bouvines, © Gallimard, 1973

ISBN # 0-520-06238-8

(Most of Georges Duby’s quotes are from William the Breton’s text found in m.s. 5925 in the Bibiotheque Nationale.)


  1. Battle of Bouvines, Pg. 46
  2. Ibid., Pg. 38
  3. Ibid., Pg. 42
  4. Ibid., Pg. 41
  5. Ibid., Pg. 24
  6. Ibid., Pg. 46
  7. Ibid., Pg. 45
  8. Ibid., Pg. 46
  9. Ibid., Pg. 47
  10. Ibid., Pg. 48