Post-classical history

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King John and the Sources for His Reign

John was the youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He acceded to the throne of England, on the death of his brother Richard the Lionheart, in 1199. Yet he was far more than simply king of England. At its start Magna Carta proclaimed him also ‘lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou’. In an important respect, even this panoply of titles failed to reflect John’s power, for it suggested nothing of his dominance over Wales and Scotland. It was that which provoked the Welsh rulers and the king of Scots, Alexander II, to ally with the barons in 1215. There were chapters in their favour in Magna Carta, making it a British, not just an English, document. Nor were the other dominions irrelevant to what happened in 1215. Quite the reverse. The rebellion had no footing in Ireland, and the 1215 Charter was not sent there, but John’s quarrels with some of his greatest barons had major Irish dimensions.1 Even more important, indeed absolutely crucial, was the continental empire. How right that Normandy, Aquitaine and Anjou stand in large letters on the first line of Magna Carta, as though weighing down all the rest! The financial burdens placed on England to defend and recover the continental empire were the single most important cause of Magna Carta. Had John been content with ruling England and dominating Britain and Ireland, there would have been no Charter.

The assemblage of territories proclaimed in John’s title was put together by Henry II. Henry began to rule in Anjou and Normandy in 1151. Anjou he had inherited from his father, Geoffrey, hence the way that historians refer to the dynasty as that of theAngevins, while calling the dominions under their rule the Angevin empire. Henry’s title to Normandy, as to England, came from his mother, Matilda, daughter of Henry I (r. 1100–1135), and thus a granddaughter of William the Conqueror. In 1152 Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine brought him her extensive duchy, which embraced both Poitou and Gascony. Then Henry, ending at last the long civil war, forced King Stephen to accept his claim to the throne of England, becoming king on the latter’s death in 1154. More was to come, for Henry’s intervention in Ireland in 1171–2 created the dynasty’s lordship there. He conferred it on John, who, at the start of his reign, added ‘lord of Ireland’ to the royal titles.

The continental dominions, Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine, were held as fiefs from the Capetian king of France. They might be liable to forfeiture for any breach of the homage and service that was owed him. In the early years of Henry II’s reign, the likelihood of any such sentence being enforced was negligible, given the weakness of the Capetian king, Louis VII (r. 1137–80). Everything began to change with the accession of Philip II, later called Augustus, in 1180. His burning aim was to weaken, and, if possible, destroy the Angevin empire. Gradually he built up the resources to do so. He also proved a master at exploiting divisions within the Angevin family. When Henry died in 1189, only two of his sons by Eleanor of Aquitaine remained alive, Richard and John. Richard succeeded to England and to all the continental possessions, and then left immediately on crusade. During Richard’s absence in the Holy Land, and then in captivity in Germany, John first challenged the government in England and then laid claim to the throne.Philip Augustus, meanwhile, overran much of Normandy. Richard, on his return in 1194, having put down what was left of John’s revolt, spent the following years on the continent in a fierce struggle to recover what he had lost. He had great success, yet failed to put the frontiers of Normandy back to their state in 1189.2 Then, in 1199, Richard’s dramatic career was abruptly ended. Laying siege to the castle of Chalus-Chabrol in the Limousin, he left his tent one evening on a tour of inspection. With characteristic but fatal self-confidence, he had not donned his armour. He was carrying a shield, but then failed to duck behind it in time when an arrow winged its way towards him from the battlements. The arrow bit deep into his shoulder, its extraction was botched, the wound festered, and Richard died on 6 April.3 He was childless. There were two candidates for the succession, John himself and his nephew Arthur, the son of John’s deceased older brother Geoffrey of Brittany. Arthur, however, was only twelve, and had few supporters among the Anglo-Norman barons. John was able to secure Normandy and England without difficulty. In 1200, by the Treaty of Le Goulet, King Philip accepted his succession to all the continental dominions. Of the disasters that soon followed, we will say something in Chapter 7. They culminated in 1203–4 with John’s loss of Normandy and Anjou. He spent much of the next ten years exploiting England in order to gain the resources to win the empire back. The financial exactions of Angevin government were already unpopular in 1199. Now the situation seemed many times worse. The result was Magna Carta.

The needs of the Angevin empire cannot be seen in isolation from the system of government that fed them and the structure of the society on which that feeding impacted. Both are reflected powerfully in the Charter, as we will see in Chapters 4 to 6. Equally important were the political ideas, discussed in Chapter 8, that set the standards by which the king’s rule was judged. Important too was the character of the king. John’s government would have been unpopular whatever his character, given the level of his exactions. Yet had he been a better man, he might well have got away with them. Without the intense hostility to him as a person, there would have been no revolt and no Magna Carta.

The Charter itself can seem very personal to King John. His name is its first word, the ‘J’ in some of the engrossments and later copies being elongated and decorated. The words ‘we’ and ‘our’ – ‘nos’ and ‘noster’ – appear no fewer than 139 times in the text. At its end, John ‘gives’ the Charter with his own hand. And then, hanging beneath all the originals would have been John’s seal. There he appeared, on one side, sitting elegantly crowned and holding orb and sword, while on the other side he was astride his horse, in armour, brandishing his sword, and with a shield bearing the lions of England. The seal gave a wonderful picture of kingship’s majesty and might. How ironic that it should authenticate a charter that was designed to diminish both!

The Charter also suggested something of the menacing contradictions in John’s character. At its start, John said that he was acting for the honour of God, the health of his soul, the exaltation of holy church and the reform of his kingdom. Noble sentiments, which did not come altogether falsely from his lips. They were certainly not invented just for the Charter, for John often explained his actions in such terms. Yet the Charter also suggested John’s other side. Under chapter 62, he remitted ‘all ill will, indignation andrancour’ between himself and his men, angry feelings from which might flow the arrest, imprisonment, outlawry, dispossession, exile and destruction mentioned in chapter 39. The Charter also testified powerfully to the belief that John was utterly untrustworthy. Hence the way the security clause gave such extraordinary coercive powers to the twenty-five barons and the commune of the land if John broke the agreement. Suspicion also hovered over John’s sincerity as a crusader, hence the way the Charter envisaged that he might never in fact set out. And John’s promise at the end of the Charter to seek nothing by which it might be invalidated revealed all too clearly the suspicion that he intended to do just that. John’s character was far from straightforward, which was one reason why he was so dangerous. He was perfectly capable of acting in what appeared to be a gracious and consensual manner. He frequently said he wished to uphold law and custom. On the other hand, he could equally behave in ways that seemed utterly unacceptable. The better one knew him, the more one detected the malevolence behind the smile and the knife beneath the cloak.

John was in his early thirties when he came to the throne in 1199 and late forties at the time of Magna Carta, having been born in England in 1166 or 1167. We know little of his physical appearance. Over his tomb in Worcester cathedral lies an effigy of the king made from dark, rather forbidding Purbeck marble. It gives John a short beard, a clipped moustache and a smallish, almost delicate face with prominent cheekbones. Although presumably finished in time for the removal of John’s body to its new tomb in 1232, there is no reason to think that it bears a likeness to him.4 The tomb itself was opened in 1797, when some grey hairs were discernible under the covering of the head, a covering that disappointingly was not removed. The teeth in the displaced upper jaw were good, and the bones of the right foot were well preserved ‘on two or three of which the nails were still visible’. Some teeth, a thumb bone and a shoe from the tomb are displayed in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition. The body measured five foot six and a half inches, so John, for the time, was of reasonable height.5 When, therefore, Gervase, a monk of Canterbury, writing of early in the reign, spoke of John’s ‘smallness of body’ – ‘corporis parvitatem’ – he was probably referring to the slightness of his frame. Later, given his good appetite, for which there is ample evidence, he probably put on weight. The St Albans chronicler, Matthew Paris, has a former servant of John, in the course of narrating a very fanciful story, describe him as ‘strong in body, not tall, but rather compact’.6

How then can we get a feel for what John was like? The answer is through the works of contemporary writers and through the records of royal government. This chapter explores John’s personality as seen through the lens of both, thereby also providing an introduction to what are the most important sources for the Magna Carta period. The contemporaries who wrote about King John have not received a good press, being often judged both prejudiced and inaccurate. Yet it is remarkable how many accounts were written by men who either saw John at close quarters or had information from those who did. Such sources often preserve what seem authentic and intimate pictures of John in action and conversation. They can take us close to the king.


We get a first glimpse of John in the writings of Gerald of Wales, a prolific and prejudiced author, sometime royal clerk, and aspirant to the bishopric of St David’s.7 Gerald accompanied John to Ireland in 1185, and gave an account of the expedition in hisConquest of Ireland, which was finished four years later. At this time, Gerald was still broadly a supporter of the royal house. His picture of John betrays the contradictions that were to become familiar. Gerald has John falling at his father’s feet and begging ‘in a most laudable fashion it is said’ to be sent not to Ireland but on crusade to Jerusalem. This was certainly no easy option, but it was to Ireland, by decision of his father Henry II, that John went. There his young and irresponsible entourage showed its contempt for the native rulers by pulling their beards, ‘which were large and flowing according to the native custom’. Such offensive conduct was one reason, Gerald believed, for the failure of the expedition.8

John’s reputation in the ensuing years was further blasted by his rebellion against his father. It was Gerald, in a later dyspeptic phase, who gave the vivid picture of Henry, on his deathbed, turning his face to the wall when learning of the treachery of his youngest and favourite son. This was followed by John’s rebellion against his brother Richard while the latter was absent on crusade and then in captivity. The most detailed account of these years is given by Roger of Howden, another royal clerk, but one whose writings, compared to Gerald’s, are measured and self-effacing. Howden preserves Richard’s contemptuous reflection on John’s treachery: ‘my brother John is not a man to conquer a land if there is someone to resist him with even a meagre degree of force’.9 Yet Howden also has John, after his rehabilitation on Richard’s return in 1194, fighting loyally and successfully against the king of France, as well as clearing himself of further charges of treachery. Indeed, in 1196, John and the mercenary captain Mercadier, having captured the bishop of Beauvais, returned to Richard ‘gloriously triumphant’.10


This mixed but far from wholly negative picture is continued in the chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall, a monk and, from 1207, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Coggeshall in Essex. Ralph’s narrative of the years 1199–1201 was written very soon afterwards,and certainly before the disasters of the loss of Normandy in 1204 and the Interdict pronounced on England in 1208 by Pope Innocent III.11 Coggeshall was not a court insider like Gerald of Wales and Roger of Howden, but when it came to narrating John’s quarrel with the Cistercians, he was almost certainly an eyewitness.

When the Cistercians, standing on their rights of exemption, refused to pay a tax levied on England in 1200, John ‘in anger and fury’ ordered the sheriffs both by word of mouth and by letters to do as much damage to them as they could. They were to deny the Cistercians any ‘justice’ or assistance and refer everything to him. After the intervention of his chancellor, the archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, John withdrew these ‘cruel’ orders, but he then brushed aside, as far too small, the payment of 1,000 marks that Hubert suggested for a settlement, and gave orders to his foresters to expel all Cistercian-owned animals from his woods. When a great council met at Lincoln in November 1200, the Cistercian abbots did not go in procession to greet the king, for fear of being turned away by his attendants and excluded with ridicule from the royal hall. John, meanwhile, refused to listen to another attempted intervention by Hubert Walter: ‘My lord archbishop, I beg you not to enrage me today, because I propose to be bled.’

In the end, however, after the archbishop had talked to John as he came out from Mass, the abbots were allowed to prostrate themselves before the king, and were then given access to his chamber. There John left them standing as he twice withdrew for private discussion with ministers and bishops, before Hubert Walter himself, on John’s command, pronounced a settlement. The Cistercians were restored to the king’s favour, no mention was made of the tax and John promised to found a monastery of the order (which he did later at Beaulieu). When, in return, the abbots forgave all the damages that they had suffered, John prostrated himself humbly at their feet, his face covered with tears, while the monks in their turn fell to the ground, ‘seeing such great humility and reverence from the king’. The abbots, Coggeshall, concluded, ‘were filled with immense joy and gave manifold thanks to God, who had so inclined the mind of the king to mercy and reverence for their order’.12

John here seems very different from the ignorant, ineffectual youth portrayed by Gerald of Wales and dismissed by Richard. He is hands on and intimidating, as kings needed to be, yet he also takes counsel and changes course, coming out of a quarrel with his reputation enhanced, indeed as one guided by the hand of God. All this is not disimilar to John’s conduct in his quarrel, in 1201–2, with the abbey of St Augustine, Canterbury, over the patronage of the church of Faversham. Here, according to the abbey’s account, John in a fury threatened to burn Faversham church down and all inside it. He certainly issued orders that led to the church’s blockade, the violent extraction from it of the abbot and some monks, and the seizure of St Augustine’s estates. Then, however, with the pope becoming involved, sentences of excommunication flying round and the monks offering money for a settlement, John calmed down and asked advice from Hubert Walter. The archbishop, in a long and nuanced letter, counselled a climb-down. His conclusion was that it was John’s agents, rather than John himself, who had profited from the seizure of the estates: ‘for as to you it may be said on this matter that you have shaken the bushes and others have caught the birds’. Clearly John was someone to whom a leading counsellor could write frankly and fully. Apart from deciding to take the offered money, John acted on the advice. ‘And thus he who had formerly been the most cruel persecutor of this monastery became its patron and protector’, the abbey’s account concluded.13

John’s record early in the reign won favourable comment in matters of greater moment. Thus Coggeshall welcomed the peace John made with Philip Augustus in 1200, hoping this would end the terrible financial exactions that had been needed to finance Richard’s wars.14 Gervase of Canterbury (who finished writing in 1210) was also impressed by the peace. If it led the ‘malevolent and envious’ to call John ‘softsword’, that was only because ‘by prudence more than war, he had obtained peace everywhere’.15


There was, of course, no peace, or not for long. In 1204 Philip Augustus completed his conquest of Normandy and Anjou. After that John was soon embroiled in his quarrel with the papacy, which saw his excommunication and England being laid under an Interdict.16 There is one intimate account of John written during this time, written in fact in 1213, so before Magna Carta. This comes in the Life of Hugh of Avalon, the bishop of Lincoln between 1186 and 1200, who was canonized in 1220. The Life of Saint Hughwas the work of his chaplain, Adam of Eynsham, and is one of the greatest biographies by an acolyte ever written, quite worthy to stand beside Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Inevitably, Adam’s account of the start of John’s reign is prejudiced by later events. Bishop Hugh is made to rumble the king’s character and foresee the disasters that were to come. Yet Adam, in his position by Hugh’s side, was extremely well informed. Once the later veneer is removed, he can actually show John as much like the ‘good’ king revealed by Ralph of Coggeshall.17

Thus at Chinon, just after Richard’s death, seeing Bishop Hugh approaching, John spurred his horse forward in his eagerness to meet him, leaving all his companions behind. The pair met again a few days later, at the abbey of Fontevrault, where both Henry II and now Richard were buried. Standing under the great Last Judgement portal, Hugh, as a dreadful warning, pointed up to kings being dragged down to Hell, only for John to point up to the kings on the other side, joyfully ascending to Heaven, with the assurance that he would be among their number. Next year, when Hugh was dying, John dismissed his attendants and sat alone for a long time beside his bed, ‘saying many kind words’.

Mixed in with such conduct, however, was other behaviour that seemed utterly inappropriate and disrespectful. Thus John boasted to Hugh that a stone set in gold, which he wore around his neck, would preserve all his dominions from harm. This prompted the natural response that John should put his trust not in magical gems but in the Lord Jesus Christ. A little later, John scandalized the bishop by seeming for a moment about to pocket the twelve gold coins of his offering at Mass. And then, to cap it all, being hungry and wanting to eat, he sent three messages asking the bishop to conclude the sermon and hurry on with the service. The Life of Saint Hugh also reported the laughter and levity of John’s entourage during his investiture as duke of Normandy. Turning round to join in, John dropped the lance that had been placed in his hands – not a good omen.

John’s contradictory treatment of Bishop Hugh has parallels with his conduct in Jocelin of Brakelond’s Life of Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds, which was finished soon after 1202. Here John won golden opinions by going at once, after his coronation, on a pilgrimage to Bury. He then spoiled the effect by giving the monks not the great offering that they expected but a single silken cloth which he had borrowed from the abbey’s sacrist, and never paid for.18

Adam of Eynsham’s Life of Saint Hugh is the last significant testimony to John’s personality actually written in his reign. The other relevant works come from the decade after his death. One of these, an account of Hugh of Northwold’s election as Samson’s successor at Bury, written by a Bury monk and eye witness, gives a fascinating impression of John in 1214 and 1215, and we have saved it for our narrative of these years. Here let us look first at an account of the reign by a writer known as the Anonymous of Béthune.


It is hard to think of a more unappetizing name than ‘the Anonymous of Béthune’ for the author of what is a superb and unique account of the Magna Carta period. This is found as part of a larger work, conventionally entitled ‘The History of the Dukes of Normandy’.19 At the heart of the portion that concerns us is a circumstantial narrative of events between 1213 and 1217. This is combined with a character sketch of King John, and a much vaguer account of episodes in his reign prior to 1213, notably John’s expedition to Ireland in 1210 and the fall of the Briouze family. The work is enlivened by numerous anecdotes, vivid scenes, and quotations from John’s actual conversations. Since the author is unnamed he is called ‘the Anonymous’. Since he was in the entourage of Robert de Béthune (judging from the number of times Robert appears), he becomes ‘the Anonymous of Béthune’.

The author had every reason to be well informed. He was writing at the latest soon after 1220. Between 1213 and 1216 his master, Robert de Béthune, was intermittently in England in John’s service. Indeed, he was there for the weeks either side of Magna Carta. Our author was almost certainly with his master and thus an eyewitness to what he narrates. Given the level of detail, in such matters as dates, he must also have taken notes at the time. Robert was the younger son of the lord Béthune in Artois and Dendermonde in Flanders. He and his associates were regarded and regarded themselves as Flemings. Robert had, however, inherited land in 1214 (on his father’s death) in no fewer than five English counties.20 With numerous connections with the great English and Anglo-Norman barons, he was far from being an outsider. The Anonymous wrote for Robert de Béthune’s entertainment (hence in French), and the amount of detail about warfare doubtless reflects Robert’s soldierly interests. There was also a political agenda. Although never openly avowed, the way the narrative switches focus in the middle of 1216 strongly suggests that Robert, at this point, had switched sides and entered the service of Prince Louis on his arrival in England, having been offered the throne by the rebels. The portrait of John as ‘bad’ thus justified this conduct. That does not make it any the less believable.

The Anonymous acknowledged John’s lavish hospitality and his generosity in giving robes to his knights. But the overall picture was negative indeed:

He was a very bad man, more cruel than all others; he lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. Whenever he could, he told lies rather than the truth. Her set his barons against one another whenever he could; he was very happy when he saw hate between them. He hated and was jealous of all honourable men; it greatly displeased him when he saw anyone acting well. He was brim-full of evil qualities.21

Here then we meet two of the key charges against John: his cruelty, and his tampering with the wives and daughters of his barons. The Anonymous gives an example of the second in relaying Robert fitzWalter’s claim that John had tried to seduce his daughter, the wife of Geoffrey de Mandeville.22 He gives an example of the first in a graphic account of the murder of Matilda de Briouze and her eldest son. Although the Anonymous does not make the connection, here John had form, for he had also been responsible for the murder of his own nephew Arthur.23 Arthur had come into John’s hands in 1202 and been imprisoned first at Falaise and then at Rouen. The annals of Margam abbey in south Wales give the only circumstantial account of what happened next:

In the tower of Rouen, after dinner on the Thursday before Easter [3 April 1203], when he was drunk and possessed by the devil, [John] killed him with his own hand, and attaching a great stone to the body, threw it into the Seine.24

The Margam story probably came from William de Briouze, Matilda’s husband. He was in Rouen at the time, but is obviously a hostile source. That, however, John, in one way or another, murdered Arthur, there can be little doubt. The murder was not necessarily unpremeditated. Ralph of Coggeshall had heard of an earlier plan to blind and emasculate Arthur when he was at Falaise.25 Arthur, as we have said, had little support in England, but Louis, son of Philip Augustus, thought the murder worth harping on in his manifesto when he invaded England in 1216.26 According to the St Albans abbey chronicler, Roger of Wendover, Matilda de Briouze herself refused to surrender her sons as hostages on the grounds that John had wickedly murdered Arthur.27

If the murder of Arthur was bad enough, that of Matilda de Briouze and her eldest son seemed far more shocking, for it struck at the heart of a great baronial family, with wide lordships in Ireland, Wales and England. The course of the family’s quarrel with KingJohn we will trace in Chapter 7. It ended in 1210 with Matilda and William de Briouze junior being starved to death. There was nothing unpremeditated about that. The Anonymous’s account registers the full horror of this atrocity:

He imprisoned Matilda and her son at Corfe and ordered that a sheaf of oats and one piece of raw bacon be given to them. He did not allow them to have any more meat. After eleven days, the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, still upright albeit leaning forward against her son’s foot. Her son, who was also dead, was found sitting straight, bent against the wall. So desperate was the mother that she had eaten her son’s cheeks.28

So far so terrible, yet when the Anonymous gets to his narrative of 1213 and portrays John close up, the picture is rather different. We see a king acerbic certainly but also quite able to take counsel and act in a rational and appropriate manner.29 Thus when, in 1213, Robert de Béthune comes to court to seek help for the embattled Ferrand, count of Flanders, John is welcoming and well informed: ‘I know exactly what you want.’ He calls in his counsellors, and agrees to send out the earl of Salisbury, the result being the destruction of the French fleet at Damme. Next year, when Robert announces the arrival of the count in England, and asks why John (at the Tower of London) is not at once riding to meet him, John appears to mock:

Hear the Fleming, he does think his lord the count of Flanders is a great man.30

But when Robert replied that ‘by Saint James’, he certainly was, John laughed, summoned his horses and outrode his entourage in his haste to get to Canterbury. On arrival he went straight to the count’s hostel and, with the count waiting outside in the road, dismounted to salute and kiss him. Inside, John was affability itself and invited the count to dine with him on the next day, when their alliance would be sealed. It is difficult to think John could have handled this better.31 Here is very much the king who, as the Anonymous observed, treated Robert de Dreux, when captured later in 1214, ‘most honourably’, allowing him to hunt and hawk.32 On balance, therefore, the Anonymous’s picture of John between 1213 and 1215 was a positive one.33


The same could not be said for the second great work written for aristocrats who had actually participated in the events of John’s reign, namely the life of William Marshal. William was a younger son of a middle-ranking magnate who had lands in Wiltshire and Berkshire and was marshal of the royal household. Born around 1147, and with no prospect of an inheritance, William had made an awesome reputation as a knight on the French tournament circuit, French because France, not England, was the centre for such chivalric enterprises.34 He eventually entered the service of Henry II, where he combined his reputation as a fighting knight with that of a counsellor and military strategist. On Henry’s death, King Richard married William to a stupendously wealthy heiress, thus transforming him into one of the greatest barons in the Anglo-Norman world, lord of Leinster in Ireland, Chepstow in Wales and Longueville in Normandy. At the start of his reign, John went further and accepted William’s claim (through his wife) to the earldom of Pembroke. Despite much provocation, William never rebelled against King John and is named in Magna Carta as the first of the ‘noble men’ on whose advice John said that he had acted. On the king’s death in October 1216, William became regent for his son, the nine-year-old Henry III, despite being around seventy. He held the post until shortly before his death in May 1219, winning the war for the young king, and sealing with the papal legate the new versions of Magna Carta issued in 1216 and 1217.

In the mid-1220s William’s sons decided that this extraordinary life should be made known and preserved. So they commissioned a poet to write it in what turned out to be no fewer than 19,214 lines of rhyming French verse. The History of William Marshal, as it is called, is a cardinal text for the ideals and actions of chivalric knights. It is equally so for the factual course of events. William’s family and entourage took great pains to see that the poet was well informed. Key testimony came from the Marshal’s former steward, John of Earley, who witnessed many of the crucial passages between John and the Marshal. The vivid picture of the king is thus well sourced.

The portrait of John has a few redeeming features. The immensity of his victory at Mirebeau in August 1202 (described later) is brought out, even if the fruits are then thrown away. In one passage John seems concerned over the health of one of the Marshal’s younger sons (Richard), kept as a hostage; and there is pathos in the account of the king on his deathbed, when he asks the Marshal’s pardon and begs him to assume the regency of the kingdom. Occasionally the pleasant face the king could adopt is acknowledged:

he reverted to his former habit

of displaying friendliness [bele chiere]

in [the Marshal’s] company

as if he bore no grudge against him

or was angry with him.35

It is, however, made very clear that such friendliness was duplicitous, assumed merely when the king needed the Marshal’s support.36 The general thrust of the History is to substantiate the Anonymous’s view that John was ‘brim-full of evil qualities’. There is a subtext here, not very different from that in the work of the Anonymous. The Marshal was loyal, but his eldest son, William Marshal junior, perhaps with his father’s connivance, joined the rebels and was one of the twenty-five barons commissioned to enforce the Charter. Nothing is said about his rebellion in the History, but clearly, as the chief patron of the work, William Marshal junior would have welcomed evidence to justify his conduct. John himself would certainly have defended his own treatment of the Marshal. Should William not have been more grateful for becoming earl of Pembroke at the start of the reign? Was he not guilty of trickery and disloyalty in striking a deal with Philip Augustus, and thus keeping his Norman lands after John’s loss of the duchy?37And yet, when all allowances have been made, the picture in the History, supported by much circumstantial detail, remains a powerful and for the most part convincing indictment of the king.

The History does not mention directly the murders of Arthur or Matilda de Briouze, but it certainly agrees with the Anonymous’s charge of cruelty, notably in John’s treatment of the prisoners taken at Mirebeau:

When the king arrived in Chinon,

he kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner

and in such abject confinement

that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace

to all those with him

who witnessed his cruelty.38

It was not just at Chinon that the prisoners suffered. The Margam annals mention twenty-two noble and gallant knights taken at Mirebeau being starved to death at Corfe castle.39

An aspect of his cruelty was John’s readiness to lie in the cause of giving pain. One day, riding out from Guildford, John summoned the Marshal up to him and announced news from Ireland. In a great conflict there, the Marshal’s knights had apparently been victorious, but some had been killed, including John of Earley. It was all made up, but until he learnt the truth, the Marshal was left ‘greatly aggrieved at heart’.40

The conflict in Ireland illustrates another characteristic mentioned by the Anonymous, namely the way in which John ‘set his barons against one other whenever he could’. Thus, in Ireland, the king did all he could to exploit and exacerbate the tensions between his governor there, Meiler fitzHenry, and the Marshal. He also made strenuous efforts to undermine the loyalty of the Marshal’s men. During these quarrels, the History shows the difficulties of being a great man at court. Between his bursts of ‘good cheer’, the king could treat the Marshal so coolly that no one would speak to him.41 And in such situations, we see again the John who loved to mock. In one confrontation, when the court was in a field overlooking the sea at Portsmouth, waiting to embark for Poitou, John stomped off to one side with his entourage, leaving the Marshal virtually alone:

The king, from where he was standing,

looked at the scene and was greatly pleased by it,

and he said: ‘That is how I want it.

He really is richly counselled.

The Marshal has nobody there

with him in his deliberations,

from amongst all those he wanted to be present,

except Henry fitzGerold

and that mangy John of Earley …’42

The king had reason for his anger. The Marshal was refusing to join the expedition, being unwilling to fight against the king of France, to whom he had done homage for his Norman lands. Yet to seek to humiliate the Marshal in this way, in an episode that clearly burnt deep and was long remembered, was neither wise nor kingly.43

The men John went off with, while taunting the Marshal, were not his barons but his ‘bachelors’. These were his household knights, some of good birth, some not, who had taken a special oath of loyalty to the king and, usually without great landed estates, were totally dependent on his favour. It was one of these, John of Bassingbourn, who acted as John’s spokesman against the Marshal.44 Later, in another episode, it is a man of similar status, Gerard d’Athée, a knight from the Touraine, and very much one of John’s creatures, who is seen in the History going into the king’s chamber after dinner, with Meiler fitzHenry, to discuss the Marshal’s affairs, while the Marshal himself is left outside, cold shouldered. It was with people such as Bassingbourn and Athée that John felt most comfortable, people who would laugh sycophantically at his jokes and, without question, do his bidding. Athée himself was dead by 1215, but his name appears in Magna Carta chapter 50, where John was made to dismiss his relations from office.

The History shows something else about John, namely the way he could swing from over-confidence to under-confidence, from ill-judged arrogance to exaggerated fears and suspicion. The king owed much of his victory at Mirebeau to William des Roches, but in the flush of that success he fobbed William off, telling him first to meet up with him at Chinon, then at Le Mans:

… day by day the king’s arrogance [orguels] grew

and grew, a fault which does not allow those in its grip

to see reason but brings them down.

John thus saw no need to honour his promises to des Roches, and the result was the latter’s defection to the king of France, and the undermining of John’s position in Anjou.45 Next year, John seems very different. Sensing treason everywhere, the History gives a graphic picture of his flight from Normandy, steeling away in the morning before people were up, avoiding the main roads and promising he would return, while leaving everyone suspecting that he would not. The reason for such conduct was clear:

A man who does not know whom he has to fear,

and who always thinks he is in an inferior position,

is bound to fear everybody.46

Ralph of Coggeshall’s verdict was the same on these events. John ‘always feared betrayal by his men’.47 No wonder the king so often tried to secure loyalty by the taking of hostages.


Ralph of Coggeshall’s account of the later stages of John’s reign, that is from 1212, was written after John’s death in 1216, in much the same period as the work of the Anonymous and the History of the Marshal. It is of the first importance as evidence for the Magna Carta period, but lacks the intimate picture of the king at work found in the portion finished soon after 1201. What is clear is that Coggeshall’s view of John has completely changed. The catalyst was probably the Interdict, during which the Cistercians were major sufferers. Thus Coggeshall’s hostility to the king was now set, albeit expressed in clipped remarks rather than set-piece denunciations. Thus he stigmatized John’s ‘violent’ exactions from the English church, his resort to fraud, ‘as was his custom’, his cruel threats at the siege of Rochester in 1215, and his tearful, terrified and shameful retreats after Prince Louis’ invasion. To seek mercy from John was to seek ‘mercy from the unmerciful’.48 Coggeshall gives an eerie and lurid account of John’s death in Newark castle during the night of 17–18 October 1216, and adds that ‘many horrible and fantastic visions were told by many people afterwards, the tenor of which we will forgo describing here’. His readers would have known what this meant. The visions were of John suffering the torments of Hell.49

A second major account of John’s last years is found in what is often called ‘the Barnwell chronicle’, this for no better reason than that a copy of it once belonged to Barnwell abbey in Cambridge. In fact, thanks to the work of Cristian Ispir, there can be no doubt that the original text was written by a monk at Crowland abbey in southern Lincolnshire, and it will be called the Crowland chronicle in this book.50 Getting into its stride around 1212, the chronicle offers what is generally agreed to be the most perceptive analysis of John’s last years. The chronicle has none of the unremitting hostility to the king found in Coggeshall. It recognizes the domination he achieved for a while over Britain, the popularity of his concessions in 1212 and 1213, and the advantages gained from his submission to the pope. On the other hand, in its final comments, the chronicle observes that John favoured foreigners and oppressed his native subjects, being deserted by them at the last. John was ‘a great but unlucky prince’ – ‘princeps magnus sed minus felix’. Like Marius, he experienced both types of fortune – the reference being to Gaius Marius, the seven-times consul and triumphant general who, at the end of his life, suffered exile and then engulfed Rome in a bloody civil war.51 This measured view is striking and may be explicable. The abbot of Crowland between 1190 and 1236 was Henry de Longchamp. The family was Norman but Henry spent most of his life in England, having been a monk of Evesham before becoming abbot. He owed his promotion to his brother, none other than John’s great enemy in the 1190s, William de Longchamp, bishop of Ely, Richard’s chancellor. Henry had, therefore, reasons to dislike John. Yet when, early in the reign, he saw John at close quarters, this in the course of Crowland’s great dispute with Spalding abbey, he found him perfectly reasonable. The king ‘graciously’ promised to show the abbot ‘the fullness of justice’, and though he postponed the case again and again, and took money from both sides, he ultimately came down in Crowland’s favour, having taken advice from ‘the wise men of his court’.52 The monks of Crowland knew that John was not all bad.


At St Albans, Roger of Wendover did not complete his account of John’s reign until 1225 at the earliest. That account was then copied and embellished after 1235 by his successor as the St Albans house chronicler, Matthew Paris. Given the circumstantial detail that Wendover offers, he must have been working from a draft or from notes made close to the events he describes, although this did not free him from invention and error. Neither Wendover nor Paris is of much value when it comes to an assessment of John’s character, but their works were important in fostering the picture of John as a cruel, godless tyrant. Thus it is Wendover who has the story of how John tortured to death Geoffrey, archdeacon of Norwich, by having him pressed to death in a leaden cope, his crime being disloyalty during the Interdict. Here, however, there was at least some truth behind the story, for the sober annals of Dunstable record how Geoffrey of Norwich (not the archdeacon) died in prison at Bristol, having suffered a long and grievous ‘martyrdom’. A Reading abbey source has him being starved to death there.53 Matthew Paris, however, was certainly ascending into the world of pure fantasy when, having heard the tale from one of the supposed envoys, he described an embassy John sent to the emir of Morocco offering to convert the kingdom to Islam. Paris copied Wendover’s famous account of John’s death in which the king’s fever is exacerbated by pigging himself one night on peaches (would there be peaches in October?) and new cider. He then concludes with a much-quoted verse:

England is still fouled by the stink of John,

The foulness of Hell is defiled by John’s foulness.54


In making use of the writings of contemporary writers, scholars are, of course, utilizing a source with a long pedigree behind it. When they also use the records of royal government, they are using a source that, in good part, is sensationally new. It is at the start of John’s reign that the full orchestra of government records begins to play with a pounding force. These records allow the history of John’s reign to be written in a level of detail impossible for any previous period of English history. In understanding those records, and the government that produced them, there are also two remarkable books both written in the reign of Henry II. One of these, called the Dialogus de Scaccario, was by Henry’s treasurer, Richard fitzNigel, and explains the workings of the exchequer. The other, named Glanvill after Henry’s chief justiciar, Ranulf de Glanvill, does the same for the new legal procedures introduced in Henry’s reign, which were at the heart of the common law. Both the Dialogus and Glanvill are extraordinary achievements, full of professional pride for the systems they describe with such passionate precision.55

The Dialogus and Glanvill are about how things ought to work, at least in the eyes of their authors. How government actually did work (and how society responded to it) is shown by the gigantic corpus of royal records. From 1155 there is a continuous annual sequence of pipe rolls that record the exchequer’s annual audit of the money owed the crown. Then, from 1199, many rolls survive on which the chancery recorded the charters and letters issued by the king, as also the offers of money to him for concessions and favours. From the 1190s there are also the rolls recording pleas in the king’s courts. Thanks to the labours of nineteenth- and twentieth-century editors, nearly all this material has been published. On a rough count, for John’s reign it runs to some 8,650 printed pages of various shapes and sizes, all of it indexed, albeit to variable standards. Even this does not exhaust the corpus of government material, for only now, under the Magna Carta Project, are John’s original charters and letters (as opposed to the copies on the chancery rolls) being collected, analysed and published.

The records produced by the chancery, exchequer and law courts show the great power of the governmental machine in John’s hands. They also shed light, sometimes oblique, sometimes direct, on his character. To be sure, many of the king’s letters, copied and thus preserved on the chancery rolls, were about routine matters and were the work of ministers, sometimes explicitly so. Where the king was directly involved, he probably gave general instructions about the form of the letters, rather than dictating them word for word, but he could still give vigour to their phraseology. One picture in the Marshal History takes us close to how things worked:

The king said to his chancellor:

‘Make all haste to carry out the task.

Prepare these letters forthwith,

with explicit wording aimed

at all those holding land from me,

to the effect that, if they fail to come to England,

they will not hold so much as a foot of land

from me in the whole of England.’

Some letters, therefore, may well catch John’s own emphatic words, as where miscreants are to be ‘hanged from the nearest oak’, or Jews are to be protected since ‘even if we give our peace to a dog, it ought to be inviolably observed’.56

Above all, the records show John’s tremendous grasp of detail. He was always thinking around the angles of the problems he faced, in the process sometimes revealing all too clearly his anxiety that things might go wrong. The wording of a charter is altered by his ‘special order’; a prisoner is to be kept in a deep dungeon; knights sent to garrison a castle are not to go into the surrounding country; prisoners are to be released although not named in his letter (he doesn’t know their names); payment of a debt is to be delayed until he can come to the exchequer and see from its rolls exactly how much is owed; if he is right in thinking an instalment of a pension has been paid twice over, then it is to be adjusted accordingly; houses and lands are to be taken away because he has been deceived by lies about the size of a debt; Engelard de Cigogné is to bring Robert de Dreux to Winchester provided he can safely leave the castles in his custody; if he cannot, he should give the job to reliable men.57 These examples involve relatively small matters, but the same attention to detail was displayed in matters of more significance, notably in devising punishments and in setting often excruciating terms for the repayment of debts. The Oxfordshire baron Henry d’Oilly was to pay off a debt of £1,015 at 100 marks a year. If he did not keep the terms, in an oft-used threat, he was to lose all he had paid.58

The letters also testify to positive sides of John’s kingship, amply justifying the Anonymous’s claim that he was an expansive host. With such alimentary extravagance, John hoped to enhance the morale of his entourage, conciliate those who came to court and by holding great feasts with erstwhile enemies demonstrate that quarrels were at an end. For John it seemed especially grievous that someone ‘who ate my bread’ should betray him.59 The records also hint at a human side of the king. He allows the hostage son of Robert de Ros to spend the winter with his parents, although he wants him back at Easter. Sometimes the threats themselves were jokes, as when John sent his minister William Brewer a fat deer, and told him he would not get another unless he carried out the accompanying order.60 The letters can express what seems like genuine friendship:

Know that we are safe and well … we are coming into your area soon and are thinking about you concerning the hawk, and although we have been apart from you for ten years, on our arrival it will not seem to us more than three days.

This was addressed to the German knight Theodoric Teutonicus, whom John had made constable of Berkhamsted. The hawk was probably a gift of Theodoric to the king.61 John could also write letters full of fulsome praise, none more so than when thanking William Marshal for his support in Ireland in 1212. Here John concluded by responding to the Marshal’s anxieties about his hostage son. The king offered to entrust the boy to John of Earley, volunteered to buy him a much needed horse and robe (although wanting to be repaid), and denied that he had the least intention of sending him to Poitou. Indeed, he had heard nothing about the idea until it was mentioned by one of his ministers.62

The rolls recording the lawsuits that were heard at John’s court likewise show his activity in a favourable light.63 John thus declares that cases should be decided according to custom, reason and ‘the counsel of his barons’. He is frequently consulted by his judges (‘speak with the lord king’) even over minor cases. In one, he makes a ruling in favour of one Emma, daughter of Holfrid, who was seeking a mere eight acres of land as her inheritance. Doris Stenton, reviewing this material, felt such involvement, even in difficult times, ‘demonstrates a singular strength of character, a genuine “stabilitas”, which is wholly admirable whatever view is taken of King John as a man’.64

The records, on the other hand, also go some way to support allegations of impiety. Two rolls recording John’s day-to-day expenditure during the regnal years 1209–10 and 1212–13 (apart from revealing the king’s regular baths) are full of offerings to the poor as acts of penance. Thus John frequently fed a hundred paupers because he dined twice on a Friday, supposedly a day of abstinence. Five hundred paupers benefited when, instead of fasting, he ate fish and drank wine on the feast of the Adoration of the Holy Cross.65Other occasions for almsgiving were when John went hunting or hawking on a church festival. One Holy Innocents’ Day, he gave a penny apiece to 350 paupers, this being fifty for each of the seven cranes taken by his hawks.66 The less than pietistic atmosphere at court is also reflected in the way John fed paupers because of the food and drink transgressions of his ministers, one beneficiary being Thomas Basset, who was named as a counsellor in Magna Carta.67 On the other hand, the fact that John felt the need for acts of penance at all shows he was not wholly irreligious. He also fed paupers for reasons other than his own transgressions, for example for the souls of his father Henry and brother Richard. When his mother died in 1204, he arranged for the feeding of over two thousand paupers each day throughout the summer.68 If he asked Bishop Hugh to hurry up his sermon so he could go and eat, it was surely because he had fasted before the service.69

The records have something to say about John’s recreations. We have just seen him as a hawker. Indeed his hawking helped provoke a couple of the chapters in Magna Carta.70 He was also a great hunter with hounds. John’s hunt ‘shadowed’ his itinerary and could rise to as many as 300 greyhounds, nine other hunting dogs and sixteen boarhounds, with sixty-four handlers, an impressive sight as they went past.71 The rolls also record payments of John’s gambling debts and occasionally mention his mistresses. In 1212 a chaplet of roses was sent to John’s ‘friend’ from a manor of the chief justiciar, Geoffrey fitzPeter.72 More sinister is an entry concerning the wife of John’s chief forester, Hugh de Neville. The ‘fine rolls’ for 1204–5 record her as offering the king ‘200 chickens so that she might be able to lie one night with her lord, Hugh de Neville’. Interpretations of what was going on have varied, but the most likely explanation is that the wife was John’s mistress and the two of them were joking about what a night back with Hugh was worth; the answer was a ridiculous 200 chickens. The joke was made all the more humiliating for Hugh by putting him down as surety for the delivery of a hundred of the chickens.73 Hugh was to desert John in 1216, although he had little to hope for in the rebel camp. Another, even more high-profile desertion was that of John’s half-brother, William Longespee, earl of Salisbury (an illegitimate son of Henry II). The French court had a simple explanation for that. While Longespee was in French captivity in 1214, John had seduced his wife.74

How in the end to balance all this up? It is tempting to agree with John Gillingham’s pithy conclusion that John was a ‘shit’. This was said in a radio debate in which my unpalatable task was to defend the king! Yet a defence can be made. John was energetic, intelligent, astute, imaginative, informed and a master of detail. He was sensitive to behavioural expectations, and, when he felt like it, could appear pious and penitent, courteous and considerate, a king eager to act justly (if for money) and ready to take advice. John also faced immense problems. He inherited a monarchy already unpopular and an empire already seriously under threat. The Crowland chronicler, even at the end of the reign, thought of John as a great prince, if an unlucky one. One can, however, see the force in a Gillingham-type verdict. If the testimony of Wendover and Matthew Paris can be discounted, it is much harder to set aside, whatever their agendas, the character sketch by the Anonymous of Béthune and the picture that emerges from the MarshalHistory. That they were written after John’s death merely increases their force. The record was now complete. Those who really got to know John realized that behind the sometimes acceptable exterior there lay a fractured personality, suspicious, untrustworthy, aggressive and cruel. John, as we have seen, seems to have got on best with subordinates, who did what they were told. It is no accident that the greatest show of affection in his letters is precisely to one such man, Theodoric Teutonicus. The king felt much less easy with those more his equals, and probably did not like their company. In one telling episode (for which one of his letters is evidence), he tried to persuade William Marshal to leave court and go and visit his estates until the next meeting of the king’s council. (The Marshal, knowing the dangers of absence, refused to go.)75 Whereas John’s good characteristics were assumed, his bad ones were part of his very being. When he was pleasant to the Marshal and the Flemings, he was so out of calculation. When he cast aside William des Roches, and murdered Matilda de Briouze, he gave vent to real feelings.

It is also far from clear that John’s character began well and then deteriorated under the pressures created by the loss of Normandy. If he acted sensibly in his quarrels with the Cistercians and St Augustine’s, Canterbury, early in the reign, that is not so different from how he appears at work in the Anonymous of Béthune’s account between 1213 and 1215. Equally, the negative sides of John’s character can all be seen before 1204: his delight in mockery; his cruelty; his arrogance; his fearful suspicions; his unseemly conduct (Adam of Eynsham’s stories here cannot be entirely made up). What happened is that after 1204 these characteristics operated in a far more hostile environment created by absolutely novel financial exactions. John’s character itself would not have provoked the rebellion that led to Magna Carta. Nor would his financial exactions. It was the two together that were unsupportable.

How John became like this one can only speculate. Did his conspiracies against his father and brother make him always expect treatment in like coin? Had he been damaged as a youngest son, treated by Richard with contempt, and for long holding only the remote lordship of Ireland? The nickname ‘Lackland’ (‘sine terra’) was contemporary, as (unfairly) was ‘softsword’.76 Did his slight frame, in early life, make him feel inferior to macho knights such as William Marshal? Whatever the causes, for the Anonymous of Béthune, even John’s perfectly reasonable treatment of the Flemings could not erase his reputation as an evil man. On his death-bed, William Marshal was equally explicit. Turning to the young Henry III, and clasping his hand, he expressed the hope that he would grow up to be a worthy man. If, on the other hand, he followed the path of ‘any criminal ancestor’ (‘alcun felon ancestre’), then ‘I pray God that he does not give you long to live’. The ‘criminal ancestor’ was, of course, King John.77


Magna Carta begins with King John. It ends, in the security clause, with his queen and children. No mention is made of their names, but their persons, like that of the king, are to be spared in any actions taken by the twenty-five barons. John married Isabella of Angoulême, then at most in her early teens, in 1200, his first marriage to the countess of Gloucester having been annulled. John thereby gained Isabella’s rich and strategic inheritance of Angoulême. Beyond that, Isabella certainly fulfilled her primary role of providing John with an heir.78 Her first child, born in October 1207, was a son, the future Henry III. She went on to produce another son and three daughters. Despite John’s mistresses, marital relations continued throughout the reign, and Isabella was pregnant with her last child, Eleanor (the future wife of Simon de Montfort), at the time of John’s death in 1216.79

The St Albans chroniclers provide two stories about Isabella. One, from Wendover, was that John dallied in her company while Normandy fell in 1204. That, of course, is ridiculous.80 The other, from Matthew Paris, is that the envoy sent to Morocco told the emir that John had her many lovers strangled on her bed.81 If so, she certainly paid John back for his infidelities, although with unfortunate results for the lovers. But of course the story is even more unbelievable than Wendover’s. Both chronicle and record evidence suggests that Isabella resided in a series of royal castles, where she was doubtless carefully guarded. At a critical moment in November 1214, by an order typical of John’s micro-management, Theodoric Teutonicus was told, once he had sufficient knights (doubtlessfor a guard), to take Isabella to Berkhamsted by a specified route. A month later, Theodoric was ordered to go with her to Gloucester, and ‘keep her there in the chamber in which our daughter Joan was born’.82

It does not sound as though Isabella had much say about these arrangements, and that would have been par for the course. She had been crowned and anointed with much display. Isabella was queen ‘by the grace of God’, just as John was king. As queen, the expectation was that she would play a role as an intercessor and peacemaker. Yet, there is no evidence that John involved her in political or any other decisions. Even when she must have been in her twenties, he denied her the traditional revenues of queenship, and treated Angoulême as his own. Isabella’s later career shows she was a woman of hard and high spirit. After John’s death, denied any role in the minority government, she left her five children, returned to Angoulême, and produced another family with her second husband, Hugh de Lusignan. She never forgot her queenly status and was ‘killed’ (as she put it) when made to stand in the chamber of the king of France like some ‘fatuous servant’, while the royal family lolled on the bed. When her husband went on to entertain the French at Lusignan, she ransacked the castle, took all her goods back to Angoulême and kept Hugh waiting outside for three days before she would see him.83 How Isabella must have wished to treat John in the same way! That she did try to stand up to him is suggested in one story preserved by the Anonymous. With the French overrunning the continental possessions, John tried to reassure her:

My lady, don’t worry … I know a corner where you won’t have to watch out for the king of France for ten years, not for all his power.

This was Isabella’s reply:

Indeed, my lord, I really think you are keen to be a king who is mated in a corner.84

If this reflects the nature of their conversations, one can understand why Isabella had so little influence over her husband. After she left England, she mentioned him in not a single one of her charters.85


This chapter has concentrated on the written sources for John’s reign. It is a pity that so little survives of the physical environment in which he lived, all the more so since John was a master of manipulating space, as the contemporary accounts of him at work show. He moved discussions between halls, chambers, chapels and chapter houses, in a kind of ritual of the rooms. With different spaces came different audiences, as John first took counsel from one group, then another – ‘you, you, you, the rest wait outside’ – before announcing his decisions or having them announced. We have no evidence for dining arrangements, but these too were part of the ritual. Hoi polloi ate (and slept) in the hall, while the king himself, save at great feasts, ate with the favoured few in his chamber. An invitation to the chamber meal showed you were ‘in’. If you were excluded, you knew you were ‘out’.

Fortunately, one building does survive to give an impression of the environment John created for this theatre. It is Corfe castle, on which he spent over £1,400.86 John was at Corfe in nine years of his reign. He made three visits in 1215. In 1216 he was there for a month as he prepared for what turned out to be his final campaign. John was acutely aware of the different gradations of Corfe’s architectural layout. In 1215 the privileged prisoner Robert de Dreux was to be entertained in the castle’s hall and allowed, if he wished, to enter the keep, but nothing was said about the more private apartments.87

The castle on which John lavished such attention was built on an extraordinary natural mound, sticking up in a cleft between two ranges of the Purbeck hills. John strengthened the castle because it had great strategic significance, controlling the harbours of Poole and Wareham. He also wanted it to be utterly secure, a place where he could keep his prisoners, and house his wife and sons. And John also wanted the castle to impress. A visitor arriving at Corfe came up from the little village and entered through the gateway of the castle’s outer bailey. Having dismounted, he then walked up the steep incline and passed through a second gateway, from where he saw the great palisaded ditch dug, on John’s orders, to protect the middle and inner bailey. The middle bailey John had strengthened with new wall towers, making the whole ensemble resemble the most famous of all contemporary castles, Richard I’s Château Gaillard. In the middle bailey was the king’s hall where Robert de Dreux was to be entertained. To progress further, the visitor had to go on and up into the inner bailey, where he could enter, as Robert was permitted to do, the towering twelfth-century keep, and reflect on those who had starved to death in its dungeons. He had still not reached the king’s own private apartments. John had built these at the very highest point of the castle. To reach them, you had to climb a covered stone stairway leading to the middle stage of a three-storey tower, from which doorways opened left to the king’s chapel and right into his ‘great chamber’. And what a chamber! For John, after the might of the rest of the castle, had gone not for size but for delicacy and sophistication. Built like the rest of the apartments in beautifully cut stone, the chamber was lit by long lancet windows, four on either side, each rising from window seats. From the windows on the eastern side, standing above the castle’s outer wall, there were magnificent views towards the Dorset coast. In the great chamber, the king’s clerks, counsellors and cronies mingled, waiting to be called into another room, or for the king to come out from it. For the great chamber was not the end of this set of apartments. Beyond it (alas now lost) was an even more extraordinary room, called quite probably by John himself ‘La Gloriette’. The name seems to have derived from a twelfth-century chanson de geste, in which a Saracen palace called La Gloriette has, among other wonders, ‘a fantastical marble tower with fixtures in gold and silver including silver windows’. How John’s inner chamber resembled that we do not know, but evidently it did.88 It was here, if he could get past the ushers, that a baron could at last bow down before John himself, a king doubtless bejewelled and dressed in magnificent robes, playing perhaps with a new sword or crown, and poring over some of the many treasures of gold and silver he kept at the castle. Was the baron awed and inspired to do John’s bidding? Or did he see through the outward show, to John’s real personality? Probably he did.

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