Post-classical history



The Madman – John

a trifler and a coward

Lord Macaulay1

The foulness of John

John is arguably the worst king in our entire history. ‘Foul though it is, Hell itself is defouled by the foulness of John,’ wrote Matthew Paris.2 Yet, in a negative sense, he is one of the most important. As well as for Magna Carta, he deserves to be remembered for speeding up the Plantagenets’ transformation into Englishmen, by losing the empire left by his brother.

The Victorians took a particularly poor view of John, Kate Norgate crediting him with almost superhuman wickedness. Twentieth-century historians differed, and for fifty years it was orthodoxy that the real-life John had not been so bad as he was painted by chroniclers, that closer study showed him as effective and much better-hearted. Recently, however, it has been generally accepted that the chroniclers were telling the truth.3

Losing an empire

Despite having named Arthur as his heir when in Sicily, Richard left his throne to John. Archbishop Hubert Walter told William Marshal he thought Arthur should be king, but reluctantly agreed to support John. ‘Marshal, you’ll never regret anything in your life so much as you will this,’ he warned.4

Meeting at Angers, the barons of Anjou, Maine and Touraine recognized the fifteen-year-old Arthur as their lord, on the grounds that an elder brother’s son had a better right than a younger brother, and John narrowly escaped capture at Le Mans. He had no trouble in Normandy, however, where he was invested as duke in April, while in England he was crowned king in May. His mother made sure of Aquitaine. During the ceremony at Rouen some cronies sniggered when the lance (part of the Norman regalia) was placed in his hand and, turning to join in their laughter, he dropped it. Many spectators thought this a bad omen.

Like the Angevins, the Bretons declared for Arthur. (The Barnwell annalist tells us they hoped he would be a second King Arthur and destroy the English.5) However, when John invaded Maine in September, William des Roches, constable of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, went over to him. At Le Goulet in May 1200 John reached an agreement with Philip II, who, in return for minor territorial concessions and a ‘relief’ (inheritance tax) of 20,000 marks, recognized him as heir to all lands once ruled by Henry II.

The agreement earned him the name ‘John Soft Sword’.6 Accepting Philip’s feudal overlordship by paying the ‘relief’ was an admission of weakness – neither his father nor brother ever paid one – as was abandoning a war Richard had been winning. Another was swearing not to help his nephew Otto of Brunswick or the Count of Flanders or any French lord should they attack Philip, which deprived him of allies.

In 1200 (having divorced his barren wife, Isabella of Gloucester, for consanguinity) John married another Isabella, the Count of Angoulême’s twelve-year-old heiress, ignoring her betrothal to Hugh of Lusignan, Count of La Marche, despite the fact that betrothal in thirteenth-century canon law was almost as binding as marriage. This reopened the war for the Plantagenet succession since, instead of compensating Hugh, John confiscated La Marche. Hugh then appealed to their joint overlord, King Philip, who summoned John to Paris to answer a charge of oppression. He declined, so in April 1201 Philip proclaimed him a ‘contumacious vassal’, announcing that his lands were forfeit and Arthur was their rightful lord.

Next month, Philip attacked north-eastern Normandy, seizing strongholds along the Seine. Without waiting for the Bretons, Arthur and his ambitious mother joined the Lusignans and invaded Poitou. Learning Queen Eleanor was at the little town of Mirebeau on the Angevin border, they tried to capture the old lady, who took refuge in its minute citadel from where she sent for help to John at Le Mans, 80 miles away. He arrived at dawn, within forty-eight hours. Catching the besiegers off guard, he captured Hugh de Lusignan, together with his brother and over 200 knights.

However, John threw away his victory by the way he treated his prisoners. Although Hugh de Lusignan, the most dangerous, was allowed to ransom himself, the rest were shipped to England, where some were blinded and twenty starved to death, which made bitter enemies among their friends and relatives. At the same time, the king alienated William des Roches by refusing to let him have custody of Arthur.

A worse mistake was murdering his nephew. John offered to let Arthur go if he would abandon Philip, but he told his uncle to hand over England to him, with all Richard’s other territories. Angrily, the king sent him to Rouen under close guard and ‘shortly after, the said Arthur disappeared’.7Everyone in France thought John had killed him with his own hands. Probably he did so when drunk, throwing the body into the Seine, weighted with a heavy stone. (One source claims he grabbed the boy by his hair and drove a sword into him.) By April 1203 Arthur was known to have vanished. Brittany rose in revolt at the news, accusing his uncle of murder, and King Philip again summoned John to Paris for trial.

Philip invaded eastern Normandy again in 1203, as in feudal law John had forfeited the duchy by refusing to answer the charges, and a Breton army attacked from the south-west. Besieging a town or a castle, Philip invited its defenders to accept him as lord or be hanged or flayed alive, one defiant castellan being dragged to execution at a horse’s tail. Garrisons gave in without putting up even token resistance. Few Norman barons would fight for John. Those in the east had flirted with Philip II’s overtures for years while John had antagonized many in the south by his treatment of their kinsmen captured at Mirebeau. Now he alienated those in the centre by employing mercenaries who plundered the property of local knights and raped their wives.8 In any case, he was crippled by lack of money, able to extract only half the taxes that the duchy had paid his brother.

Throughout, John showed pathological inertia, spending Christmas 1203 at Caen where he feasted daily with his queen and slept until long after everybody else had risen. If told a town or fortress had fallen to Philip, the king muttered, ‘Whatever he captures now, I’ll get back tomorrow.’ Some said a spell had been cast on him.9 In August he found the energy to besiege Alençon, but he retreated as soon as Philip’s troops appeared. At the end of the month he sent boats along the Seine to revictual the great castle of Château Gaillard, to be thwarted by adverse river tides. (He had not led the flotilla in person, remaining safely at Rouen.)

Warned that the Normans planned to hand him over to King Philip, who would punish him for Arthur’s murder, John’s paranoia became so intense that he travelled by night, and Ralph of Coggeshall heard he was ‘incapable of relieving the besieged, terrified his own subjects might betray him’.10 The only troops with whom he felt safe were his bodyguard or his mercenaries. More Normans deserted every day, despite the barrels of silver coin he spent on trying to buy their loyalty; the French telling beleaguered castellans they had been abandoned and that Philip was a better ruler. In December, John left for England, with only the Cotentin, Mortain, Rouen and a few castles still holding out for him. In March 1204 Château Gaillard surrendered, no further attempt having been made to relieve it. In June Philip rode into Rouen. He had conquered the entire duchy of Normandy.

When Queen Eleanor died in April many Poitevins went over to Philip, who entered Poitiers in August 1204. Led by William des Roches, the barons of Anjou, Maine and Touraine followed suit. That winter, Philip even threatened to invade England. In January 1205 a terrified John ordered every male over twelve to swear to defend the realm, under the command of shire, hundred and parish constables, or a specially appointed ‘city constable’ – anyone failing to do so would be proclaimed a public enemy. Forty-five galleys were hired to guard the south coast and East Anglia, from whose ports no ship could sail without the king’s written permission.

John’s recovery

In an astonishing mood swing, John suddenly regained his nerve, convinced he could not only defeat a French invasion but reconquer his lands in France. He began assembling an army and an armada, and in March held a council at Oxford, demanding oaths of loyalty from his barons, whom he insisted must join the expedition. They joined very half-heartedly, after making him swear to respect their rights.11

Although Chinon’s surrender at Easter 1205 meant he had lost his last foothold in Anjou, John went on with plans to invade Normandy and Poitou. After six months of preparation, 14,000 men assembled at Portsmouth in June, ready to go on board 1,500 ships. At the last moment Archbishop Hubert and William Marshal begged John to call off the expedition, saying he would be outnumbered and that, because of his performance in Normandy, his barons would not fight.

However, after he had approached each magnate personally, with threats or bribes, some agreed to come with him, and in June 1206 he and his fleet sailed into La Rochelle, which was still loyal. Nearly all Poitou had gone over to Philip, but John did recover the south-west. Marching into Anjou, he occupied Angers for a week before striking north towards Maine, devastating the lands of Angevin barons who had deserted him, but retreating when he heard that Philip was coming. In October both kings agreed to accept the status quo: John keeping Gascony, southern Poitou, the Angoumois and the Saintonge (a small, seaboard province beyond the Garonne). Given his supine performance three years before, it was a surprising achievement, largely due to Savari de Mauléon and the Archbishop of Bordeaux, Hélie de Malemort.

One factor had been the area’s commercial interdependence, based on rivers and the sea. Moreover, John had retained La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Bayonne, ports that, with the Channel Islands, formed a sea lane to England. The campaign confirmed his interest in shipping, as a defence against invasion as well as a link with Poitou and Gascony. By 1208 he had created an organization that amounted to an admiralty. In 1209–12 twenty galleys and thirty-four other vessels would be launched for the king; if he did not make England a maritime power, he certainly gave her a navy.12

The impact of losing Normandy on the greater English magnates cannot be exaggerated. In 1204 there were over a hundred tenants-in-chief in England with manors in Normandy,13 who now had to choose between an English or a French king, losing lands and castles in one or other country – they could not pay homage in both.

The man

Born at Oxford at Christmas 1166, John bore no resemblance to Richard, being swarthy if high-coloured and only 5ft 5ins tall (a reasonable height in the twelfth century), while in middle age he grew fat and lost his reddish hair. Because of his childhood in Poitou, he was most at home with Poitevins, neither liking nor trusting Englishmen. As a youth, he possessed all Melusine’s diabolical charm: his parents were devoted to him. Richard, although with few illusions about his brother’s capacity, made him his heir: ‘My brother John is not the man to conquer a country if anybody puts up the slightest resistance’, he had commented on hearing of his revolt in 1193.14

In those days John had been alarming in his drunken rages, his face distorted and dark red, foaming at the mouth, eyes blazing. Now, he was terrifying – there is a wolfish quality in his face on the effigy at Worcester Cathedral. His mental health was unsound and throughout his career he showed pathological lack of selfcontrol, as he did during the fall of Normandy. When Archbishop Geoffrey of York visited him in 1207 to appeal against a heavy new tax, Geoffrey threw himself at his feet, imploring him to have mercy. In response, John threw himself at the archbishop’s feet and cried mockingly, ‘Look, Lord Archbishop, I’m doing just what you did!’ Then, sniggering, he sent him away. That is not the conduct of a man who was wholly sane.15

Although highly intelligent and often hard-working, he was also gluttonous, and would, besides, drink to excess. He kept numerous mistresses and begot five known bastards, and his predatory attitude towards his barons’ wives and daughters was notorious – he was infuriated when Eustace de Vesci put a common woman in the royal bed instead of his wife. A note on the royal expenses for 1204 states, ‘The wife of Hugh de Neville promises the lord king two hundred chickens if she is allowed to spend one night with her husband.’16

Matthew Paris alleges that Isabella of Angoulême, eighteen years younger, was as lustful as her husband, ‘an incestuous and depraved woman, so often guilty of adultery that the king gave orders for her lovers to be throttled on her bed’.17 While there is no evidence of her infidelity, she was undoubtedly arrogant. Even so, between 1207 and 1215 she gave the king three sons and three daughters who reached maturity. If he gave her a lavish dress allowance, she was treated meanly, deprived of her revenues. In 1208 she was placed in close custody at Corfe Castle, while on several occasions she was left at Marlborough Castle with Hugh de Neville, husband of John’s mistress. One shudders to think how someone as formidable as Isabella reacted. ‘The wives of Plantagenet kings may have been quick tempered and hell to live with,’ writes Nicholas Vincent. ‘Dull they never were.’18

Like his father, John had an insatiable love of hunting and hawking, partly to keep down weight. He, too, pursued the otter along the rivers. He pampered his falcons, ordering that a cherished gyrfalcon called Gibbon be fed plump hens and well-fed goats, supplemented once a week by a hare. He was unusually clean, taking baths and owning a dressing gown, and his clothes were magnificent, even for a king, some made from Byzantine or Arab fabrics. He was fond of backgammon, and he had a small library (among them a Pliny) that went with him on progress. He collected rings and gems that also accompanied him. Most must have been lost crossing the Wellstream in 1216, but a hoard found at Devizes Castle after his death included 111 rings set with sapphires, 107 with diamonds, twenty-eight with rubies, fifteen with diamonds and nine with garnets.

But the qualities that stand out most are not love of luxury or self-indulgence. They are treachery, cruelty, vindictiveness and avarice. He was suspicious to the point of mania.

The quarrel with the Church

Adam of Eynsham records that John did not receive the sacraments at Easter 1199 or at his coronation. ‘Close friends said he had never done so since reaching adulthood.’19 He hunted on fast days and ate meat on Fridays. Yet in his odd way he believed, hearing Mass regularly, giving alms, making offerings at shrines, and wearing a relic on a gold chain round his neck. He had a particular devotion to the Anglo-Saxon saint, Wulstan of Worcester.

With typical perversity he enjoyed teasing the saintly Bishop Hugh of Lincoln. When Hugh drew his attention to a sculpture of the Harrowing of Hell, he pointed to a carving of souls in Paradise, saying ‘You ought to show me those over here, as they’re the ones I shall be with.’20 While the bishop was saying an Easter Mass, he ostentatiously pocketed the gold coins he was meant to offer, and during a sermon asked him three times to keep it short as he wanted his dinner. Even so, John venerated Hugh, sitting by his deathbed and helping to carry his coffin; he was so moved by his death that he founded Beaulieu Abbey.

Probably he was unaware of Hugh’s prophecy – that Philip II would take revenge for Queen Eleanor’s desertion of his father and wipe out the English royal family. ‘Three of Henry’s sons, two of them kings and one a count, have already been destroyed by the French, who will only give the fourth a brief respite.’21 So long as John lived, Philip fought an unending duel with him.

One of the few men who could handle John, Archbishop Hubert Walter, died in July 1205, much to the king’s pleasure. Besides resenting Hubert’s dictatorial guidance and sheer ability, John had even suspected him of being in French pay. By now he was on bad terms with his other great supporter, William Marshal, whom he also suspected of treachery. In consequence, he took his sons hostage, confiscated his castles, and told household knights to challenge him to mortal combat. Wisely, William went off to expand the vast territory he had inherited in Leinster. His advice might have avoided the next catastrophe.

Among the rare Englishmen whom John trusted was his secretary John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich. Adept at raising money, de Gray, who had worked for him since before he came to the throne, was a boon companion. John wanted John de Gray to succeed Hubert Walter at Canterbury, but the monks of the cathedral chapter elected their sub-prior, sending him to Rome to obtain confirmation. The king was so angry that the monks gave in and elected de Gray, with the English bishops’ approval. After examining the case the pope, Innocent III, appointed a distinguished theologian living in Rome, Cardinal Stephen Langton, whom he consecrated in June 1207. The king refused to accept Langton, turning the monks out of their priory and seizing the cathedral’s revenues.

When Innocent placed England under an interdict in 1208, John’s reaction was to promise that if any clerics arrived from Rome, including the pope himself, he would send them back with their noses slit and no eyes. He also sent threatening letters to Innocent. But the bishops enforced the interdict, which meant there were no church services other than baptisms or the last sacraments for the dying, while the dead were buried in ditches without funeral rites.

However, John saw an opportunity to amass funds for his war chest. Seizing all Church property, from parish glebes to cathedral and abbey lands, he left just enough for the clergy to live on – women who lived in presbyteries, whether housekeepers or mistresses, were arrested and released only on payment of a fine. Monks had to pay heavily to keep their abbeys, although John did stay on good terms with one or two abbots, such as Sampson of Bury St Edmunds. To some extent the interdict’s impact was softened by Mass being said at monasteries or in fields.

Later it was estimated that the king took 100,000 marks (£66,666) from the Church, although some clerics thought the real figure to be much higher.22 He dragged out negotiations with the pope to prolong the windfall, sending Langton back to France when he arrived at Dover. Innocent III then excommunicated John, and every bishop save one fled abroad. The king was unworried. When a cleric, Geoffrey of Norwich, announced that a clergyman did not owe loyalty to an excommunicate, he had Geoffrey wrapped in a lead cope that killed him. In 1211 he promised to hang Langton if he set foot in England.

John’s heyday

In his erratic way the king improved administration, which he saw as a means of increasing his power, and spent hours sitting on the bench with Exchequer officials, discussing financial problems and new ways of adding to the revenue. For the first time proper archives were kept, with dated documents. He also created a new office, the Wardrobe (originally a royal clothing closet), where he kept his private seal so that he could enforce his will more swiftly.

Possessing a detailed knowledge of the law, he asked his judges for their opinion on innumerable cases, as ‘his goal was to assert the continued primacy of royal justice’.23 Always on progress, he travelled twenty or thirty miles a day, meeting sheriffs, castellans, barons and abbots, joining the justices who rode with him in hearing disputes. He could be merciful – immediately pardoning a small boy charged with killing another by accidentally throwing a stone – and was tireless in hearing pleas, listening to plaintiffs in court and giving them private audiences. Barons might complain but most of his subjects got good treatment in his courts.

However, John’s taxation was ruthless. He extorted scutages for non-existent campaigns, racked up reliefs (death duties), and sold wardships, heiresses and rich widows to the highest bidder – increasing the sum paid by those who did not want to remarry. He levied ‘gracious aids’ on personal goods and tallages on royal manors, and enforced forest laws more severely. Jews did not escape, and both sexes were tortured to make them pay – when a Bristol Jew defied him, the king had one of his teeth pulled out every day until he gave in. Mercenaries were made sheriffs or justices, mulcting rich landowners with writs of false charges. In consequence, John amassed treasure exceeding any possessed by his predecessors. In 1208 he had 40,000 marks stored at Winchester, and in 1212 50,000 marks at Nottingham. This was a fraction of his wealth in coin, which in 1212 amounted to somewhere in the region of 200,000 marks – billions of pounds in today’s money.

Frontier policy

In 1209, John accused the King of Scots of sheltering his enemies. William the Lion hastily made peace ‘since he knew the English king was prone to all kinds of cruelty’,24 handing over his daughters as hostages, surrendering castles and paying an indemnity. In 1210 John dealt with the Irish Anglo-Normans, leading an army of English knights and Flemish infantry on a short campaign that brought them to heel – but left Anglo-Ireland facing a threat from native kings with whom he failed to reach a settlement, endangering the entire future of English rule.25 During 1211 he starved Llewelyn ap Iorwerth out of Snowdonia.

‘In Ireland, Scotland and Wales no man dared to disobey the King of England, which we all know was never the case under his predecessors, and appeared successful in every way he wanted, except for being robbed of his territories overseas and under the ban of the Church,’ wrote a chronicler.26

Uniting the barons – in opposition

At the end of 1211 Llewelyn burst into central Wales, killing English settlers. Bent on retaliation, next autumn, John gathered a great army at Nottingham where he hanged twenty-eight hostages who were the sons of Welsh chieftains. But letters came from his daughter Joan (Llewelyn’s wife) and the King of Scots, warning of a plot to use his excommunication as an excuse for handing him over to Llewelyn. The flight of Robert FitzWalter, Lord of Dunmow, and Eustace de Vesci, Lord of Alnwick, confirmed the warning. In a panic, the king dismissed the army, barricading himself inside Nottingham Castle for a fortnight, after which he arrested several magnates.

There was bound to be conflict with the barons, whom John had saddled with debts to the Crown or to Jewish money lenders, and with inflated feudal dues. In 1203 a ‘gracious aid’ had taken a seventh of their movable property and in 1207 another aid a thirteenth. Their biggest grievance, however, was the huge duties they paid to inherit their patrimony.

One means of cowing them was taking sons or nephews as hostages. In 1208 William de Briouze, a henchman who had lost favour, offered to surrender his three grandsons, but when royal officers came to collect them, his wife Matilda refused, shouting, ‘I’m not going to hand over any children to King John, who murdered his nephew Arthur.’27 After hunting her down in 1210, John had Matilda starved to death at Windsor with her eldest son – one report says they were given a flitch of bacon and a sheaf of oats, and that, driven mad by thirst, she gnawed the boy’s cheeks before she died. They were murdered because Matilda knew what had happened to Arthur.28

Besides henchmen who had served him well in France, he employed Flemish and Welsh bodyguards, who were lavishly paid to put down any opposition. ‘There were English barons whose wives or daughters had been raped by the king’, writes Roger of Wendover, adding that he reduced many to poverty with unlawful taxes, driving others into exile and seizing their estates. ‘Above all and behind all he was secretive and suspicious, over-sensitive to the merest flicker of opposition, relentless in revenge, cruel and mocking when he had men in his clutch.’29 Understandably, ‘the king’s enemies were as many as his barons’.30

While a small landowner could appeal to the king against a baron and have his case settled by a jury, there was no way a baron could appeal against the king – ‘the under-tenant had access to a system of justice which was far more predictable than that available to the great man opposed to his equal in the king’s court . . . The magnate in the king’s court was altogether less certain and secure.’31 For John would seize the estates of a baron who failed to pay fines or feudal aids, when humbler men could not be dispossessed without judgement against them in the courts.

During 1212 the king was terrified by a Yorkshire holy man, Peter the Hermit, who foretold he would be dead by Ascension Day next spring. Shaken by this and by other signs of his unpopularity, he relaxed forest laws and remitted a number of taxes. Then William Marshal came to the rescue, urging Irish barons to swear an oath of loyalty to John. Realizing he had at least one dependable supporter, he recalled William, who suggested he could strengthen his position by reaching a settlement with Pope Innocent.

The pope had been on the point of deposing him and asking Philip of France to take his place when his envoys reached Rome. Even so, Philip went on with plans for invasion and in May 1213 an English army gathered near Canterbury to be ready when it landed. However, John’s bastard half-brother the Earl of Salisbury destroyed Philip’s fleet off the Flemish coast. The king then made peace with Rome, agreeing to everything the pope demanded – Langton as archbishop, reinstatement of exiled clerics, return of Church property and payment of compensation. He also placed England and Ireland under papal overlordship. At the Templar commandery of Ewell, kneeling at the papal legate’s feet, on 15 May he surrendered the kingdom to the pope, receiving it back as his feudatory.

Finding himself still alive on Ascension Day, John had the clairvoyant Peter the Hermit, who had prophesied his imminent death, drawn behind a horse’s tail till he died, marking the occasion with a great feast for the court.

At Winchester Cathedral on 20 July Archbishop Stephen Langton publicly absolved the king, ending his excommunication, while John swore to bring back the laws of the English kings before him, especially Edward the Confessor’s. The interdict stayed in force for another year, until John repaid the Church. However, Innocent let him keep two-thirds of the money he had plundered.32

The last campaign in France

Now was the moment for the king to recover his lost lands in France, the motive behind all his policies. But there was a new obstacle. Peace with the Church forced him to allow the return of Robert FitzWalter and Eustace de Vesci, who had posed as martyrs for religion, and now led the magnates in insisting on better government. They had absorbed the pre-Conquest belief that the king should rule according to the advice of his witan.

A council of bishops that convened at St Albans in August to discuss compensation for the Church was joined by not only earls and barons but by humbler men who demanded a return to the laws of Henry I. In London, at St Paul’s, Langton showed a group of magnates the old king’s coronation charter with its promise of good laws. Unfortunately for John, his justiciar Geoffrey FitzPeter died at this moment, a man whose tact might have calmed the situation. ‘When he gets to hell, he can go and say hello to Hubert Walter, whom he’s bound to find down there’, John joked inanely, adding, ‘By God’s feet, for the first time I really feel I’m King of England and the master.’33 Led by Eustace de Vesci, the barons of northern England then announced they did not have any duty to fight in Poitou or pay for troops. John marched north to crush them but was persuaded by Langton to compromise at a parley at Wallingford on 1 November. Later that month he summoned his magnates and four knights from each shire to an unsatisfactory meeting at Oxford.

But he was ready for his great overseas campaign. While he attacked Philip II from the south-west, Otto of Brunswick (now Emperor Otto IV), the Duke of Brabant and the Counts of Boulogne, Flanders and Holland, would invade France from the north. He sent his half-brother Salisbury to reinforce them, then sailed for Poitou on 2 February 1214, with an army of mercenaries, taking gold, silver and gems for use as bribes. He left England in the hands of a justiciar, the Bishop of Winchester, a former knight from Touraine who had been the only prelate to stay loyal to him during the interdict.34

The expedition was welcomed at La Rochelle, which depended on English trade. Hoping to win over the barons of Aquitaine, John spent two months marching through Angoulême, La Marche, the Limousin and Gascony, securing the Lusignan clan’s homage through bribery. Early in summer he struck north, defeating a French army and capturing Nantes, the Breton capital. In June he occupied Angers as an Angevin count, holding court. Encouraged, he prepared to attack Paris, which Philip II – in the north, trying to intercept the Emperor Otto’s invasion – was unable to defend. En route, he besieged the castle of Roche-au-Moine near Angers, the last obstacle to his advance.

When it was about to surrender, Philip’s son Louis arrived from Chinon with 800 knights and the Poitevin lords, whose troops formed a substantial part of John’s army, refused to fight him. Losing his nerve, the king returned to La Rochelle, where he waited anxiously for news of his northern allies. Despite frantic pleas, the barons of England refused to come to his aid.

On 27 July on some marshy fields near Bouvines, a village between Lille and Tournai, 24,000 imperial troops confronted Philip’s slightly smaller army and a confused battle was fought until Otto’s wounded horse ran away with him and the French won a crushing victory. This ended all John’s hopes, if at first he did not realize it, sending money to the emperor and ordering Peter des Roches to hire 300 Welsh mercenaries for a fresh campaign. In September, however, he accepted a truce from Philip based on the status quo. Next month, he sailed into Dartmouth, humiliated. Normandy and Anjou were lost for ever.

Magna Carta

When at La Rochelle John had demanded financial compensation from magnates who had failed to accompany him while his justiciar, Peter des Roches, had outraged the entire baronage by abusing the law. Further taxes were the last straw for the northern lords led by Eustace de Vesci, who refused to pay despite Peter’s threat to confiscate their estates. Nor were they more amenable after John’s return. Protests came from East Anglia, led by Robert FitzWalter, then from all over England. In autumn 1214 the barons assembled at Bury St Edmunds to voice their grievances and at Epiphany 1215 met in London, fully armed, demanding reforms. The king promised to discuss their complaints at Northampton on the Sunday after Easter, but they did not trust him.

Early in the spring of 1215, five earls and forty barons – almost the entire nobility – elected FitzWalter ‘Marshal of the army of the Lord and Holy Church’, then gathered at Stamford before marching south. Their army consisted of 2,000 knights, with many more sergeants (mounted men-at-arms) and foot soldiers. Occupying Northampton, they besieged the castle but, failing to take it, advanced on London. En route, they renounced their feudal homage to the king – questioning his occupancy of the throne.

However, John had powerful allies in the Earls of Chester, Derby, Devon, Salisbury, Surrey and Warwick, who were the richest magnates in England, and in William Marshal. He was also backed by Archbishop Langton, eight other prelates, the Master of the Temple and the papal legate. He could rely, too, on lesser but extremely able men, such as Hubert de Burgh and Peter des Roches. On Ash Wednesday 1215 the king swore an oath to go on Crusade, which secured Innocent III’s support. Early in May he gave the city of London a charter allowing its citizens to elect their mayor annually.

John’s anxiety to avoid armed confrontation shows in a draft that historians call the ‘Unknown Charter of Liberties’, drawn up before June. Referring to Henry I’s coronation charter, this contains such concessions as scaling down feudal dues, granting freedom of inheritance, abolishing scutage and military service overseas, cancelling debts to Jews and relaxing forest laws. ‘Why don’t the barons ask for my entire kingdom?’, he had commented. ‘What they’re demanding is stupid and altogether unrealistic, with no sort of logic behind it.’35 Yet the document shows he was ready to grant a good deal.

At Windsor on 9 May he announced that the dispute would be settled by eight arbitrators, four chosen by each side. When the barons rejected this, he ordered the sheriffs to seize their goods, which was impossible. On the morning of Sunday 17 May, when most citizens were at Mass, the barons entered London, where they took the opportunity to rob and kill Jews. There was trouble elsewhere, rebels capturing and occupying Exeter. Negotiating a truce through Archbishop Langton, John played for time in which to assemble a really large army. Finally he accepted that he must give way if he was to avoid deposition.

The two sides met on 15 June at Runnymede meadow, between Staines and Windsor, a draft treaty having been agreed as a basis for negotiation. ‘Through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mediation, and that of some of his fellow bishops and several barons, a species of peace was concluded’, says Ralph of Coggeshall with a certain understatement.36 What was agreed after nearly a week’s discussion was a reaffirmation of ancient law and custom applying to every freeman in England.

The real importance of the ‘Great Charter of the Liberties of England and of the Liberties of the Forest’ lies of course in the clause that no freeman can be imprisoned or dispossessed of his land or liberty, or outlawed or exiled or punished in any way, except by judgement of his peers or the law of the land. Translated into French in 1219 so that ordinary men could understand it, the Magna Carta was re-issued over 30 times – the last occasion being in 1423 – and, if many clauses have been repealed, is still on the statute books. As a twentieth century Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, famously put it, the charter is ‘the greatest constitutional documents of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.’

The charter covered a bewildering number of grievances. There were clauses on the freedom of the Church, death duties, feudal aids (scutage, wardships, dowries, taxes, fines and marriage of heirs), widths of cloth, measures of wine, fish traps, debts to Jews, London liberties, free passage for merchants in war time, releasing Scottish hostages, exiling foreign mercenaries and relaxing forest laws – poachers would no longer risk losing their private parts. The last clause provided for a committee of twenty-five barons, chosen by those present at Runnymede, who were to seize the king’s castles and lands if he failed to remedy all grievances listed within forty days.

Summoning John to settle a law case while he was ill, the twenty-five insisted he came in a litter, refusing to rise to their feet when he arrived. In any case, an investigation by another committee of twelve knights into the ‘evil customs’ of sheriffs, foresters and their officials (extorting money) made cooperation impossible – the king needed the revenue. Archbishop Langton did his best to reconcile the two sides but a letter from Pope Innocent released John from his oath, annulled the Charter as diabolical, and called Langton and the English bishops worse than Saracens for trying to depose an anointed king.

Civil war and death

Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris (who continued Roger’s chronicle) often exaggerate. Yet as monks of the great abbey of St Albans near the capital on the road north they met well-informed travellers and their accounts contain a basis of truth. Wendover may talk nonsense in claiming that after Runnymede John spent three months at sea as a pirate, but we can believe that he was in great agony of mind. Matthew adds that John imagined people saying behind his back, ‘Look at a king without a kingdom, a lord without land!’ While he smiled in public, in secret he ‘ground his teeth and rolled his eyes, grabbing sticks and straws from off the floor which he chewed or tore in shreds with his fingers’.37

Warning castellans of the royal castles (there were nearly 150) to be on the alert, he sent to Flanders for more mercenaries, as he had few troops beside his bodyguard – Wendover says that only seven English knights remained with him. He expected them to arrive at the end of September, but their fleet ran into a gale and their bodies were washed up all along the Norfolk coast. When he heard the news he seemed out of his mind.

Collecting a scratch force from his garrisons, in October John laid siege to Rochester Castle, defended by William of Aubigny (one of the twenty-five barons) that barred the way to London. Instead of marching to William’s relief, the barons occupying the capital spent their time ‘gambling at dice, drinking the very best wines, which were freely available, and indulging in all the other vices.’ The only action they took was to send envoys to Philip II’s son, Louis, offering him the throne since he had a claim to it through his wife Blanche of Castile, who was a granddaughter of Henry II.38

Eventually, foreign troops joined John (Poitevin and Gascon knights under Savaric de Mauléon who brought Flemish crossbowmen) and Rochester was starved into surrender at the end of November. The king was encouraged still more in mid-December by Pope Innocent excommunicating thirty barons for rebellion – the document reached England in February, to be read from pulpits throughout the country. No other baronial stronghold put up a fight and, in control of the south and the West Country, John occupied East Anglia and the north, the revolt’s real centres.

In the north he made his men set fire to towns and hedgerows as they marched, burning baronial manors and farms, torturing people of all classes until they paid a ransom. They ransacked towns and villages, hanging victims by their hands or roasting them. Markets and trading ceased, agriculture came to a standstill. Yet the king preferred money to revenge, extracting £1,000 from York, while rebels could purchase a pardon. By the spring of 1216 he had restored his authority across the whole country save London.


The situation altered dramatically in May when Louis of France came with an army to claim the throne, landing on the Isle of Thanet. John made no attempt to intercept him. Leaving Dover Castle to be defended by Hubert de Burgh, he withdrew to Winchester, before establishing his headquarters in Dorset at Corfe Castle, which was almost impregnable. In August the sixteen-year-old Alexander II of Scots – whom John called ‘the little, sandy fox-cub’39 – took Carlisle and then marched to reinforce Louis, who was besieging Dover. Next month Alexander did homage to Louis at Canterbury, as King of England.

Louis quickly overran eastern England, where the only fortresses that held out for John were Dover, Lincoln and Windsor. Even so, the Cinque Ports supported him, while in Kent and Sussex there was guerrilla resistance in his favour, led by ‘Willikin of the Weald’, and on Whit Sunday 1216 Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, the papal legate, excommunicated Louis. But in June the Frenchman was welcomed by the Londoners as their King. John’s position looked desperate. Winchester, the ancient capital, fell next and Windsor was closely besieged. The Earl of Salisbury, his half-brother, went over to Louis, with the Earls of Albemarle, Arundel and Warren, who together mustered 430 knights. The king retreated westward, as far as Radnor in Wales, where he hired Welsh archers.

Nonetheless, a third of the baronage stayed loyal and in late summer the Earl of Salisbury rejoined him. The rebels’ relations with Louis were strained, since the French saw the war as a second Norman Conquest – in London a dying French nobleman warned that Louis had sworn to banish them after he won, for betraying their king. Taking Savaric de Mauléon as military adviser, in September John tried to relieve Windsor but, outnumbered, withdrew to ravage East Anglia. Chased off by the French, he went north to relieve Lincoln. Then he marched south, devastating Norfolk.

But after a feast at King’s Lynn, John contracted dysentery and realized he was seriously ill. (Revealingly, he granted a Briouze lady leave to found a religious house to pray for the souls of her kinswoman Matilda de Briouze and her son.) On 12 October he took a short cut across the Wellstream, part of the Wash, where he ‘lost all his carts, wagons and pack horses, with his money, plate and everything of value, because the land opened in the middle of the waters and whirlpools sucked them down, men and horses’. He was lucky to escape with his life.40 He spent the night after at Swinehead Abbey, stuffing himself with peaches and new cider that made his dysentery worse. He struggled on to Newark in a litter of willow branches or clinging to a slow paced nag. Here, in the Bishop of Lincoln’s castle, he received the last sacraments, making a short will in which he asked to be buried in St Wulstan’s cathedral at Worcester and named William Marshal as his principal lay executor. The king died at midnight on 18 October, during a whirlwind.


If the Barnwell annalist thought John a great prince, no doubt, but hardly a lucky one, every other chronicler agreed with Matthew Paris that he was too bad even for Hell. He left England in chaos. Louis ruled London, Winchester and the home and eastern counties, the Welsh occupied Shrewsbury, the Scots held Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland and most barons remained in revolt. Whatever revisionists claim, a reign that saw the loss of Normandy and the Angevin patrimony, ending with civil war and foreign occupation, can scarcely be called a success.

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