The battle of Lincoln was only the latest in a series of dramatic shifts in England’s political fortunes. Over the preceding 150 years, the country had endured foreign occupation and a near-collapse of central government. For a while, it emerged as the financial powerhouse of an empire stretching from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees, only to fall victim once more to civil war and foreign aggression.


William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings in 1066 brought an unsought attachment to the Duchy of Normandy and a wholesale political and cultural realignment. Anglo-Saxon England had looked northwards. Hastings was the last leg of a three-cornered contest for the throne between an Englishman, a Norwegian, and a Norman Frenchman. Scandinavian intrusions into English affairs did not cease for another three decades, when Magnus Barelegs of Norway shot a Norman Earl of Shrewsbury dead on an Anglesey beach in 1098, before sailing away for ever. Norman England would look south. Five of her seven kings between 1066 and 1216 were born overseas in modern France, and four died there. The English Channel was an internal waterway for over a century. William Marshal crossed it repeatedly, first as a young squire in 1159, finally as an elder statesman in April 1216. The mobility of twelfth-century elites reflected the fluidity of Western European politics. Borders were porous, governments migratory, lordship discontinuous.

The chief beneficiaries of England’s new arrangements were the Conqueror’s Norman followers. Their duke became a king, equal in status to his suzerain, the King of France. French-speaking Normans displaced Anglo-Saxon landholders. Latinate ecclesiastics imposed a new liturgy, extinguished the Old English literary tradition, and rebuilt Anglo-Saxon churches in the Romanesque style that the English still call Norman. In the courts, trial by combat, blinding, and castration replaced oath-taking and fines.

The most concrete symbols of subjection were the defensive structures known as castles that sprang up at strategic points across the country. Usually they took the form of a conical mound or motte, topped with a wooden blockhouse, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Sometimes mottes were associated with earth ringworks or baileys. Sometimes they reinforced existing enclosures like the Anglo-Saxon burgh at Wallingford, or the Roman walls at Lincoln and Chichester. Earlier English fortifications were refuges for the population. The new structures were small, a quarter of an acre (0.1ha) at the base, safe deposits for wives and other valuables, easily held by a few against the many. The most important, like the Tower of London or those at Rochester and Colchester, were great square-faced stone slabs, with entrances on the first floor. The ‘bones of the kingdom’, they were the largest secular buildings of their day, 90 feet (27m) high, with walls 15 feet (4.5m) thick. Known in modern English as ‘keeps’, their French name donjonrelates linguistically to dungeon, domination, and danger. They were uncompromising, vertical expressions of dominance. William Marshal held several, notably at Chepstow and Goodrich. Cheap and easy to construct, the simpler motte and bailey spread quickly. Domesday Book, the inventory that William I made of his conquests in 1086, named forty-nine. Robert of Torigny, writing in the late twelfth century, counted 1,115 at the accession of Henry II, few subject to any central authority.

The spread of castles across north-west Europe in the eleventh century was a physical manifestation of the extreme fragmentation of political power characterised as feudalism. A term invented much later and taken up by Karl Marx, ‘feudal’ has become a byword for the archaic. In the medieval context it relates to a system of holding land in return for military service that developed around the turn of the first millennium. A would-be tenant did homage to a landholder, becoming his man or vassal, and receiving a piece of land, a feodum or fief, complete with its agriculturalists, on whose produce they all lived. For this the vassal undertook to serve his lord or seigneur with horse and arms, and mount guard in his castle. In return the lord provided many of the services of the modern state: physical and legal protection, even a measure of social security. It was a practical response to the collapse of central authority following the Viking attacks of the tenth century, the breakdown of communications and urban life, and the disappearance of money.

Feudal society at its height consisted of three broad classes of person: men of prayer, men of the sword, and men of the countryside. Women were of little political account. Few feature in the History, except as close relations or props for some exploit. The clergy enjoyed a self-conscious moral superiority as representing the only social hierarchy to survive the break-up of the Roman Empire. Unable to bear arms, they monopolised learning and the mysteries of the sacraments. Their views shape modern perceptions of the Middle Ages, as the Church’s institutional continuity favoured the preservation of ecclesiastical records. William Marshal’s life coincided with the great age of chronicles, making it possible to verify many of his biographer’s statements. Originally written by cloistered monks, later chronicles were often produced by secular clergy, who might be very worldly indeed. Roger, Vicar of Howden in Yorkshire, travelled to France, Scotland, and Palestine in the king’s service. A royal judge, spy, and diplomat, Roger’s works include unique copies of official correspondence, such as Richard I’s reports of his victories at Arsuf and Courcelles. Even monkish chroniclers were not necessarily cut off from the world, as they gathered news from travellers taking advantage of monastic hospitality. Ralph of Coggeshall’s account of Richard I’s death probably came from the dying king’s chaplain. Ralph was a Cistercian, an order whose network of monasteries was particularly effective at collecting and disseminating information. King John’s alienation of the white brothers was not his least mistake. Clerics in royal households lay behind the twelfth-century explosion of documentary evidence – legal writs and accounting records – hard evidence to back up or refute chroniclers and poets. In the 1170s William Marshal employed a clerk of the royal kitchens to track his tournament winnings, a reminder of the mass of domestic records that have been lost.

The men of the sword contested clerical pre-eminence, asserting their own moral worth as the hands of the body politic, carrying out the directions of justly constituted authority. Their leaders were the barons or magnates, who in Norman England held their lands directly from the Crown, hence the expression tenants-in-chief. Senior ecclesiastical figures, bishops, and abbots were also tenants-in-chief, expected to maintain their own military following. The Archbishop of York sent sixty knights to fight in the battle of the Standard in 1138. While William Marshal was learning his trade in the 1160s, Henry II’s inquest into knight service in England identified 270 lay tenants-in-chief. Another survey in 1199 listed 165, among them William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. A fluid class varying widely in wealth and influence, barons enjoyed broad judicial and fiscal powers and controlled most of the nation’s material assets. Often misrepresented as ignorant reactionaries and inveterate opponents of royal government, they were the king’s natural advisers and companions, sharing similar economic and cultural interests.

The physical exercise of royal and baronial power depended on a broader class of armed followers, known as knights from the Old English cniht. Of ambiguous social origins, by the eleventh century their possession of such expensive items as armour and horses clearly differentiated them from the peasantry. Chroniclers described them as soldiers, milites in Latin. The 1166 survey identified some 6,278 knights’ fees – the territorial units owing a mounted warrior’s service – in England. Allowing for wastage this represented some 5,000 actual knights. Some were vavassours or landed knights, married men who lived on their estates, but were still available for military duties. Younger men or bacheliers, who had yet to settle down, formed the military households orfamilia of kings and magnates. Sleeping together on the floor of their lord’s hall, they lived a roistering life. Often the bastard or younger sons of good families, unable to marry unless an elder brother died or an heiress came along, they were ripe for trouble. Well fed, physically fit, and boiling over with repressed sexual energy, they swarmed out of their castles in times of unrest like angry wasps, to pillage and burn. Unsympathetic clerics punningly labelled them malitia, malice not soldiery. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle saw little difference between the destructive passage of Henry I’s royal household, and the ravages of an invader. William Marshal spent twenty-two years as a household knight before leaping into the upper reaches of the nobility by his marriage to Isabel of Clare, bypassing thevavassours’ staid ranks in one bound.

The great mass of the labouring population, society’s feet in contemporary social analysis, lived outside the polite world of the History. Total English numbers are uncertain, perhaps two million at the Conquest, doubling by the early thirteenth century. Bound to the soil, they played no part in early medieval politics, except as victims. Magna Carta’s famous guarantee of due legal process applied only to free men, entitled to bear arms. The rejoicing in France after the nation-defining victory of Bouvines in 1214 was confined to the court and towns.

The twelfth-century economic revival created a new class of burgesses or townsmen, who had escaped the bonds of serfdom to supply goods and services that the countryside could not provide. Magnates like William Marshal took advantage of this new urban wealth. Fresh in London to marry his heiress, he borrowed from his alderman host to finance the festivities. Towns were small. Domesday Book suggests that London’s population was just 12,000 in 1086. Winchester was next at 6,000. Towns would increasingly assert their independence, as their numbers and prosperity increased. The History records burgesses joining hesitantly in the defence of their town during William’s first battle at Drincourt, emboldened by his example. Fifty years later, London was the mainspring of the opposition to John, inserting commercial clauses into Magna Carta, and resisting the regent to the very end. William was more than a passive consumer of urban wealth. He founded new towns in Ireland, notably at New Ross, secured trading privileges for Pembroke, and reduced feudal reliefs at Haverfordwest and Kilkenny.

The Anglo-Norman social model did not apply throughout the British Isles. As today, England shared the British mainland with two other entities: Scotland and Wales. When William was born, the former was fast becoming a unitary kingdom, the Scottish kings performing a balancing act between their powerful southern neighbour and an inflammable mixture of English-speaking Lowlanders and Gaelic or Norse speakers in Galloway and the Highlands. An elastic border that sometimes reached as far south as the Rivers Tees and Ribble provoked sporadic conflict throughout William’s life. The History reflects the new southern orientation, however. It records just one encounter with Scottish knights, at a tournament near Le Mans.

The Marshal’s dealings with Wales were more extensive, following his marriage into one of the great Marcher families. Unlike Scotland, Wales remained a patchwork of mutually hostile chiefdoms. Welsh annalists styled their warlords Dux or leader, not prince. Divided by geography, united only by culture, the principal Welsh political units were Gwynedd in the north, Powys in the centre, and Dyfed in the south. Inheritance practices ensured deadly family rivalries. Six members of Powys’ ruling dynasty between 1100 and 1125 were killed, blinded, or castrated by relatives, one every four years. Political disunity and economic backwardness made Wales a tempting prize for land-hungry Normans, who pushed up to the foot of the mountains and along the southern Welsh coast. When William Marshal appeared in the 1190s, the frontier had stabilised along the Welsh Marches, a military border running from Chester down to Hereford, and around by Monmouth into Pembrokeshire. Violence was endemic. William of Braose massacred his Welsh dinner guests at Abergavenny in 1176, as revenge for his uncle’s killing the year before. Such vendettas demanded constant military preparedness.

Beyond Wales lay Ireland, 80 miles (120km) across the sea from the great land-locked harbour of Milford Haven. Unconquered by the Romans, Ireland was an unknown quantity before 1169. Then Norman adventurers sailed from Pembrokeshire to exploit the internecine wars that, in the Irish chronicler’s expressive phrase, made all Ireland ‘a trembling sod’. Four decades later, Ireland would provide William with a refuge from King John’s disfavour, and an alternative power base.

Historians dislike the omnibus expression ‘Celtic Fringe’, with its spurious implication of cultural uniformity. From an English perspective, however, these areas represented a hostile ‘other’, with several common features. The author of Gesta Stephani, the Deeds of King Stephen, contrasted England’s settled society with the barbaric world beyond: ‘a country of woodland and pasture … [which] breeds men of an animal type, naturally swift footed, accustomed to war, volatile always in breaking their word as in changing their abode’. Richard of Hexham described the Scots king at the battle of the Standard surrounded by his knights, ‘the rest of the barbarian host roaring around them’. Except in southern Scotland, social structures were heroically pre-feudal, marital customs unspeakable, and speech incomprehensible. Populations were smaller outside England: perhaps a million in Scotland and 300,000 in Wales, with half a million Irish. Their potential for mischief was by no means negligible, as William’s final years would show.


The feudal combination of weak government and a militarised ruling class ensured chronic political instability. The most notorious English example occurred during Stephen’s reign (1135–54) when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed with gloomy hyperbole that Christ and his angels slept for nineteen winters. The expression ‘Anarchy’ exaggerates the breakdown of government, but it shared much with the conflicts of John’s reign: a disputed succession, an inadequate king, and overwhelming military challenges.



The Conqueror’s youngest son, Henry I (1100–35), consolidated the Anglo-Norman realm by defeating his elder brother Robert Curthose in the battle of Tinchebrai (1106), and imprisoning him for life in Bristol Castle. A man against whom the Welsh annalists thought that ‘none could contend except God himself’, Henry once made his point by throwing an opponent off Rouen Castle. He was less effective at providing an heir. His only legitimate son drowned off Barfleur in the wreck of the White Ship, leaving an elder sister. Matilda was female, vindictive, and married to a foreigner, Count Geoffrey of Anjou, whose Latin name Andegavia gave the name Angevin to her supporters. The family did not acquire the surname Plantagenet until later. When Henry died, after eating too many stewed eels, the Anglo-Norman magnates broke their oaths to support Matilda, and accepted Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, as King of England and Duke of Normandy.

Stephen’s unfortunate reputation derives from his enemies, who controlled the historical narrative after his death. William of Malmesbury was an unashamed panegyrist of Robert Earl of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and leading supporter. Walter Map, who described Stephen as ‘a fine knight but in other respects almost a fool’, was an Angevin courtier. Stephen’s successor, Henry II, denied the legitimacy of his predecessor’s reign, which he disparaged as tempus guerrae, the time of war. Angevin denigration of the last Anglo-Norman king resembles the Tudor propaganda that inspired Shakespeare’s Richard III. Less prejudiced authorities present Stephen as a powerful warrior – bellator robustissimus – only subdued at the first battle of Lincoln in 1141 after being hit on the head with a rock. Gesta Stephani described him as munificus et affabilis – generous and pleasant. That played to William Marshal’s advantage when he fell into Stephen’s hands as a hostage, but it was not the stuff of a successful twelfth-century king. The Old FrenchHistory of the Dukes of Normandy and the Kings of England agreed. Stephen was debonaire et moult piteus, admirable qualities, but unlikely to ensure firm government.

Stephen’s ineffectual image was well established by the 1220s when the History of William Marshal was written: ‘in his time was England in great sorrow and strife, and the kingdom in great discord, for no peace nor truce nor agreement was kept nor justice done’. It was not only Angevin propagandists, like William of Malmesbury, who recalled ‘a land embittered by the horrors of war’, when freebooters flocked to England for plunder. William of Newburgh reckoned there were ‘as many kings or rather tyrants as … lords of castles’. Their methods resembled those practised in King John’s time: pillage of churchyards where people placed their property under ecclesiastical protection, torture of anyone suspected of possessing hidden wealth, systematic blackmail of religious and local communities.

Like John, Stephen faced a coalition of powerful enemies, making it difficult to concentrate against any of them. Magnates, including some bishops, resisted royal attempts to constrain their castle-building, ‘each defending, or more properly speaking, laying waste their neighbourhood’ (William of Malmesbury). Stephen defended himself well enough at first, but never crushed his opponents, a precocious illustration of Clausewitz’s principle that while the defensive is the stronger form of war, it is unlikely to achieve a decision. Stephen’s defeat and capture at Lincoln in February 1141 was disastrous. The History saw it as a major blow to the king’s prestige, leaving him nothing but the crown.

The Angevin Rout of Stockbridge in September saved Stephen from death in captivity, but he remained a lame duck, suffering major territorial losses in Normandy and northern England. Magnates, including William’s father, defected, seeking protection from lords better able to provide it. Royal revenue collapsed preventing the king hiring mercenaries to replace disaffected knights. When rival armies met, the leading men refused to fight. The stalemate lasted a dozen years, before the Church brokered a compromise peace, allowing Matilda’s son Henry to succeed on Stephen’s death. Just as John’s baronial opponents rallied to his successor, so Stephen’s supporters accepted Henry II in 1154.


Notorious for his deadly quarrel with Thomas Becket, Henry II better deserves to be remembered for his restoration of order following the Anarchy. Flemish mercenaries were sent home, unauthorised castles demolished, and the King of Scots evicted from England’s three northern counties. A series of great Assizes or edicts laid the enduring foundations of English judicial practice. His contemporaries saw Henry as the Alexander of the West, though Jordan of Fantôme said he preferred craft to war. The Victorian constitutional historian Bishop Stubbs rated him alongside Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror. Such was Henry’s speed of movement that Louis VII of France thought he must fly rather than travel by horse or ship. Henry’s energetic expansion of his inheritance made him the most powerful ruler in Western Europe by the 1180s, eclipsing his lacklustre French suzerain.

The core of Henry’s possessions were England and Normandy, which he inherited from his mother, Matilda. The paternal County of Anjou and its associated territories on the Loire, Henry inherited after a brother’s lucky death. Brittany, a longstanding target of Norman acquisitiveness, he gained by marrying his third son Geoffrey to its heiress in 1166. Ireland he was given by the Pope. South of the Loire, from Poitou to Gascony, stretched the Duchy of Aquitaine, the patrimony of Henry’s wife Eleanor, whom he married following her divorce from Louis VII in 1152. The latter, she said, was more of a monk than a king. Molt vaillante et courteise, gallant and courtly, she would play a key role in William Marshal’s rise.

Labelled the Angevin Empire for modern convenience, this personal union of lordships comprised three strategic areas: England and Normandy were richest and best governed; Aquitaine the poorest and most unruly, its quarrelsome Poitevin lords a byword for treachery – William Marshal suffered his most serious wound at their hands. Anjou was richer than the south but less docile than the north. Communications were assured by sea to the west and by Roman roads running up through Poitiers and Chinon to the commercial and ecclesiastical centres at Tours and Angers, bypassing the future French heartland between Orleans and Paris. Nationalist-minded historians have emphasised the Empire’s linguistic and legal disunity, and taken its collapse for granted.

The attractions of French administration and culture were less apparent in the mid-twelfth century. The Capetian kings who claimed to rule Francia, the northern French lands settled by the Franks, took their name from Hugh Capet, who usurped Charlemagne’s mantle in 987. They struggled even to control their demesne lands in the Ile-de-France; their resources were dwarfed by the great feudal principalities of Normandy, Champagne, and Flanders. Eleventh-century Paris with a population of 3,000 was half the size of Winchester. Its rise to political and cultural significance only began after Louis VI, known as the Fat, made it his capital in the 1120s.

There was no compelling reason in 1170 why government from London or Rouen should have appeared less inviting than from Paris. Nevertheless, the Angevin Empire’s components were vulnerable. Dispersed around the French periphery, they lay open to attack down the Seine and Loire Valleys, unable and unwilling to come to one another’s help. Two days’ march from Paris, Normandy was especially exposed. Brittany and England’s Celtic neighbours were a constant liability. Only England provided support in depth. The chief weakness of the Angevins was their inability to sink personal differences in the family interest. Henry’s marriage broke down in the late 1160s, his four sons becoming weapons in the parental battle.

The king’s initial plan seems to have been to divide his empire among them, under overall direction of the eldest, another Henry. In earnest of this, the king had the latter crowned in 1170, aged fifteen, imitating contemporary French practice. Feudal custom sought to ensure that lands inherited from the father’s lineage remained intact. Younger sons were compensated elsewhere. The Young King would receive all his patrimonial inheritance: England, Normandy, and Anjou. Richard the second son would have his mother’s Aquitanian inheritance, as Count of Poitiers, while Geoffrey was settled with his Breton heiress. Only John, the youngest, was unprovided for, his father dubbing him Jean Sans Terre or Lackland.

Young Henry stood to gain most in the long run, but meanwhile had less real authority than his brothers. An annual allowance of £3,500 a year, the earnings of 2,300 foot soldiers, gave him wealth without responsibility. It was a morally corrosive combination. Robert de Torigny, Abbot of Mont St Michel, commented that it was insufficient for the greatness of his heart; the History said he could deny no-one. Feckless and feather-brained, the Young King became a rallying point for Henry II’s enemies: a wife embittered by royal infidelities; a French king nervous of Angevin power; dissident barons smarting from years of firm government. All looked towards the rising star.

Shortly before Easter 1173, the Young King left court and fled to Paris, the first Angevin to seek a kingdom by dismembering his inheritance. With French support and wild promises, he conjured up a four-front war against his father: French and Flemish in northern Normandy, Scots in northern England, mutinous barons in Brittany and East Anglia. Henry II with his loyal knights and 10,000 Brabançon routiers – paid infantrymen – saw them all off. The Count of Flanders went home after an archer shot his brother; Louis VII withdrew, having burnt Verneuil and abducted its citizens; the Scots invested Carlisle but were scared off by rumours of a relief force; Henry’s Brabançons chased the Breton lords into Dol, killing over a thousand of their supporters, and forcing eighty of their leaders to surrender. Meanwhile the English rebels were beaten outside Bury St Edmunds at Fornham, and their army of unemployed Flemish weavers annihilated. Jordan de Fantôme wrote in his eyewitness verse history:

The wool of England they gathered very late
Upon their bodies descend crows and buzzards

The following year brought the Young King no better luck. While contrary winds stopped him joining his English supporters from Gravelines, his father sailed from Barfleur to do penance at Becket’s new shrine at Canterbury. Spiritual absolution brought immediate military reward. Angevin loyalists marching the same night from Newcastle captured William the Lion, King of Scotland, as he ate breakfast outside Alnwick Castle. Within a month Henry kicked away his son’s last prop by raising the French siege of Rouen, the demoralised besiegers destroying their siege engines as they left.

Abandoned by Louis VII, his followers reduced to selling their horses and armour, the Young King sought peace. His father blamed his son’s evil counsellors, particularly Queen Eleanor, whom he placed in internal exile at Winchester. Nearly a thousand rebel prisoners were released without ransom, although castles were confiscated and woodlands cut down to pay for wartime devastation. The Old King appeared stronger than ever, but the substantive issues between him and his impatient brood remained unresolved.

For nearly ten years, the Young King diverted himself on the tournament circuit, while his brother Richard engaged in more serious hostilities against his Poitevin vassals. Tensions boiled over during a family Christmas at Caen in 1182. The Old King asked Richard to do homage for Aquitaine to his brother, as future head of the family. This was offered with such bad grace that the latter refused it, riding south to join Richard’s Poitevin dissidents. When Henry II went to Limoges to mediate, the Young King’s men shot at him from the castle, their arrows piercing his surcoat and hitting one of his household knights in the eye. Parricidal violence was not unprecedented. William the Conqueror was injured fighting his son Robert Curthose at Gerberoy in 1079, and his horse killed beneath him. While the Young King simulated reconciliation, his brother Geoffrey ravaged their father’s estates, carrying off church ornaments, devoting towns and villages to the flames, depopulating fields and byres, sparing none, in the chronicler’s cliché, on grounds of age, sex, status, or religion.

The Young King broke out again, doing his best to justify Walter Map’s description of him as ‘a prodigy of untruth, a lovely palace of sin’, standing by while his knights beat his father’s envoys with swords, and threw them off bridges. Unable to pay his routiers, the Young King plundered Poitou’s sacred places, including the great shrine of St Martial, proto-evangeliser of Aquitaine, at Limoges. Pressing south, he fell sick at Uzerche in Lot. Roger of Howden thought he developed dysentery out of pique at his inability to do his father any further harm, an acute fever followed by fluxis ventris cum excoratione intestinorum – the bloody flux. A fortnight later, on the evening of 11 June 1183, Young Henry died at Martel in the Dordogne, the picture of penitence, lying on a bed of ashes, wearing a hair shirt and a noose around his neck.

The Old King refused to visit his dying son, fearing further treachery, and hid his grief as princes were supposed to do. The History echoes the lamentations of the Young King’s tournament companions. Chivalry was reduced to idleness, largesse orphaned, and the world cast into darkness. Transported northwards, the well-salted remains inspired such popular hysteria at Le Mans that they were buried temporarily, pending transfer to Rouen. Despite his plundering, the Young King left nothing but debts. His chaplain stole the collection at Le Mans. One of his routiers took William Marshal hostage as surety for his men’s wages. The Count of Flanders described the dead prince as the flower of Christian men and the fountain of largesse, but his end was as futile and self-seeking as his life.

The Young King’s death threw Henry II’s plans into confusion, intensified by Geoffrey of Brittany’s death three years later, when he was trampled by his horse during a tournament at Paris. Reduced to two sons, Henry faced a wholesale management reshuffle. Ingrained mistrust following the disastrous experiment of the Young King’s coronation prevented him from recognising Richard, Eleanor’s favourite, as his primary heir. Richard, in turn, would not surrender Aquitaine to John, his father’s favourite, as the first step in a general redistribution of territory. This irreconcilable dispute would bring Henry II to his grave.

The one constant factor behind the diplomatic twists of these years was the slow-burning malice of the new French king, Philip II, and his unremitting pursuit of the destruction of the Angevin Empire. At every turn, he backed a competing claimant against the Angevin incumbent, first Richard against his father, then John against Richard, then Geoffrey’s posthumous son Arthur against John, and finally his own son Louis against John’s heir Henry III. The History describes Philip as more cunning than a fox, and blamed him personally for the deaths of the Old King and all his sons. There is no doubt that Philip dominated Western European international relations after 1200. Tripling the size of the Capetian royal demesne, he well deserved the title ‘Augustus’ awarded him by Rigord, the official French historian.

The spark that lit the final conflagration of Henry’s reign came from the Middle East. Frankish Crusaders from Western Europe exploited Muslim disunity in the last years of the eleventh century to carve out a number of Christian principalities in Syria and Palestine. Reunited under the great Saladin, Arab and Turkish forces annihilated the Crusading states’ armies at Hattin near Lake Tiberias on 4 July 1187. The shock killed Pope Urban III outright, and inspired a wave of Crusading fervour across Europe. TheHistory thought that no man of worth had not abandoned wife and children to take the Cross and avenge God’s disgrace. Defaulters were handed a distaff and wool in the same way that women distributed white feathers during the First World War. Count Richard was among the first to take the Cross. Even cautious politicians like Henry and Philip felt compelled to do likewise. When Henry returned to England in January 1188 to prepare his departure, however, Philip attacked the town of Châteauroux north-east of Poitiers, menacing the Angevins’ southeastern flank. This, remarked the History, was the start of the great war whose effects were still felt. King Henry was at a disadvantage, reduced against his will to fighting fellow Crusaders who continually urged departure, while doing everything they could to prevent it.

At first Richard and Henry made common cause. Henry’s obstinate refusal to confirm Richard as his heir, however, allowed Philip, the Angevins’ feudal lord, to undercut the Old King by offering Richard the counties of Touraine, Anjou, and Maine. Une vileine enprise, a vile undertaking, commented the History, by which Philip would rob Henry’s heirs of their lands. Soon Richard and Philip were sharing the same plate and even bed, a reflection of primitive domestic arrangements rather than mutual passion. In November, they arrived together for a conference at Bonmoulins in lower Normandy. Convinced his father meant to disinherit him in John’s favour, Richard knelt in homage to Philip, and rode away to prepare for war.

That winter Henry fell ill. Richard and Philip raided his territory as baronial support faltered. Henry fortified Le Mans, his birth place and a communications hub between Normandy and Anjou. Ditches were cleared, and houses pulled down around the gates to clear fields of fire. After Whitsun both sides went armed to a conference between Ferté-Bernard and Nogent-le-Rotrou sponsored by a pope anxious to expedite the Crusade. Richard lined up with the French, who denied the Pope’s authority to interfere in a domestic dispute. Henry withdrew to Le Mans, like a fox to his earth. On 12 July his enemies dug him out, provoking the nearest thing to a battle in the whole war. Arrangements had been made to burn down the suburbs in case of attack, and the flames spread to the city. Smoked out of his lair, Henry fled south by a circuitous route to Chinon.

Henry was on his last legs militarily and medically. The Norman magnates had led their forces as far as Alençon, 30 miles (50km) north of Le Mans, but withdrew when Henry retreated away from them. Most of his Welsh infantry were killed retiring from Le Mans. Henry’s health worsened, the ulcers on his heels spreading to his feet, legs, and body, giving him no rest. William Marshal, one of the few to stand by the king to the bitter end, recalled his going first red then a leaden hue, suggesting gangrene. Richard and Philip treated Henry’s illness as a ruse, and pressed their advantage. On 3 July, they captured Tours by escalade, the River Loire being particularly low. Next day, hardly able to sit his horse, Henry submitted to their demands at Ballan-Miré, south of the Loire between Azay-le-Rideau and Tours. Even Philip was embarrassed, spreading a cloak on the grass for the dying king, who preferred to be held in the saddle.

Thunderstorms rumbled as Henry surrendered his continental lands to Philip, receiving them back for 20,000 marks and a binding commitment to make his vassals swear fealty to Richard. Giving the latter the kiss of peace, he is supposed to have hissed in his son’s ear the hope that he would live to be avenged. The History has a similar tale of Henry promising to give his enemies their fill of war, if only William got him through his current fix. Returning to Chinon, Henry took to his bed, dark blue and feverish, unable to see, hear, or speak coherently. He died before the chapel altar three days later, blood streaming from nose and mouth. Richard had won. He soon recovered his territorial losses, but not the money, roughly a third of Philip’s ordinary annual revenue, nor the independence he had sworn away. Dukes of Normandy historically avoided oaths of fealty, regarding themselves as subject to nobody but God. Richard’s empire was physically intact, but legally and morally compromised.


Richard I spent his whole reign fighting, except for thirteen months as a prisoner in Germany. Apart from his captivity and exorbitant ransom, Richard is best remembered for his role in the Third Crusade, ending the siege of Acre and winning an exemplary battle against Saladin at Arsuf. He never saw Jerusalem, but ensured that a residual Christian foothold survived in Palestine for another century. The twenty-six months between Richard’s embarkation at Marseilles in August 1190 and his departure from the Holy Land in October 1192 were not the costly diversion from responsibilities nearer home that his critics allege. The Crusading experience was an essential item in the medieval grandee’s curriculum vitae. Three kings of France campaigned in Palestine. Richard’s great-grandfather Fulk V of Anjou had become King of Jerusalem in the 1130s. Henry II never visited the Holy Places, but he funded 200 knights to defend them. Richard’s expedition honoured a long-standing Angevin commitment.

His situation was less secure than that of his predecessors, however. He left behind his brother John, whose name headed the list of traitors handed to the Old King after Ballan-Miré. Richard treated John with mingled generosity and caution, granting him swathes of land in the West Country and Midlands, but keeping the castles under royal control. He further limited John’s scope for mischief by exiling him to Normandy, appointing a team of justiciars to rule England, and recognising his nephew Arthur as his heir. Once Richard departed, however, no power on earth could keep John overseas. By the autumn of 1192 divisions among the justiciars, nervous of alienating Richard’s most obvious heir, allowed John to assert his claim to be rector totius regni, ruler of the whole kingdom, a title not dissimilar to that which William Marshal used twenty-five years later.

Philip’s early return from Acre in the summer of 1191 leaving Richard behind ensured a prompt resumption of the three-cornered Capetian-Angevin game of beggar-my-neighbour. Defying the traditional immunity of Crusaders’ property and his personal oath not to attack Richard until at least forty days after the latter’s return, Philip invaded Normandy early in 1193, immediately he knew of Richard’s capture near Vienna in December 1192 while travelling home from Palestine. Philip captured Gisors and the border castles along the River Epte, but took fright at Rouen when the citizens derisively opened the gates before him. John joined in, gaining control of the royal castles at Nottingham, Tickhill, Wallingford, Windsor, and Marlborough. Shiploads of Flemish mercenaries gathered in Channel ports, as they had in the Young King’s time. The justiciars stood firm, however, guarding the coast and besieging John’s garrisons. He fled abroad in November to join Philip, ceding him most of Normandy, the worst example yet of the Angevin capacity for self-harm.

Richard was not always much wiser. He had struck a deal with Philip on the way to Palestine that simultaneously gave the French king cause for resentment and a weapon. The agreement terminated Richard’s long-standing betrothal to Philip’s half-sister Alice, in return for 10,000 marks. It also provided that Richard’s hypothetical heirs by his new fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre, should hold their continental inheritance as tenants-in-chief of the King of France by parage, that is sharing their patrimony between them. If Richard died without legitimate issue, these provisions gave Philip the legal excuse to drive a wedge between John and his nephew Arthur.

Richard had also alienated Duke Leopold of Austria, casting down his banner at Acre and denying him a share in the plunder. Leopold took his revenge for this slight by capturing Richard on his way home, and selling him on to Henry VI, Emperor of Germany. Richard was related to Henry’s Saxon rivals, giving the emperor good reason to accept Philip Augustus’ bribes to detain Richard indefinitely. Queen Eleanor’s ransom proposal of 150,000 silver marks was an offer Henry could not refuse, however. A freshly released Richard landed at Sandwich on 13 March 1194, to complete his justiciars’ work by compelling John’s garrison at Nottingham Castle to surrender. Before escaping the emperor’s grasp, he was forced to recognise Henry as his liege lord, paying him £5,000 a year. The whole Angevin Empire was now subject to foreign overlords: England to the emperor; its continental lands to Philip Augustus. The only consolation was that Leopold, excommunicated for violating Crusader immunity, had developed gangrene after a riding accident, and perished horribly after amputating his own foot with an axe.

Richard transferred operations to Normandy, hoping to recover the losses suffered during his absence. The ensuing conflict was one of skirmishes, sieges, and mutual devastation. Contradictory sources and a lack of obvious turning points obscure the chronology, different authorities sometimes assigning the same event to different years. English sources and the war’s conclusion suggest Richard had the upper hand. More than once Philip ran away to avoid confronting his rival: at Fréteval in July 1194 when the French treasury and archives were lost, and outside Gisors in September 1198, when the bridge broke and, as King Richard wrote in his battle report, Philip drank of the River Epte. When Philip attacked his Flemish vassals for supporting Richard, they destroyed the bridges behind him and flooded the low-lying countryside so that he was lucky to escape drowning or starving.

Both sides raided relentlessly. Only highlights are recorded: Philip’s destruction of Evreux, when he desecrated the churches and carried off the holy relics, or the capture of Philip’s cousin, the Bishop of Beauvais. Roger of Howden reckoned that Philip burnt twenty-five Norman towns in 1198, besides Evreux for a second time. Mercadier, ‘chief of the accursed race of Brabançons’ and Richard’s favourite routier, plundered Abbeville fair, killing numerous French merchants and carrying off more for ransom. TheHistorythought Philip had had enough by summer 1198. Richard hemmed him in so tightly he did not know which way to turn. Anglo-Norman self-confidence was such that thirty of their men did not hesitate to attack forty French, an inversion of the traditional pecking order.

Militarily beaten and morally discredited by his bigamous marriage and cynical breaches of Crusader immunity, Philip Augustus offered to return all his wartime gains, with the exception of Gisors and the Vexin border area. Negotiations were fraught. Such was Richard’s hatred for Philip, he had abstained from Communion for seven years, rather than forgive him. When the kings met between Les Andelys and Vernon at Le Goulet on the Seine to agree a five-year truce, Richard spoke from a boat. The imprisoned Bishop of Beauvais, was a particular problem. Taken in arms, helmet laced on like any knight, he was objectionable to Richard for seeking to prolong his imprisonment in Germany and as a notorious incendiary of Angevin lands, a false Christian let alone bishop. When a papal intermediary suggested letting him go, the king’s rage was so frightful that the luckless Italian fled fearing imminent castration.

The long rivalry ended off stage, almost by accident. Richard went south early in 1199 to confront the incorrigibly rebellious Viscount of Limoges during the military closed season of Lent. Besieging the insignificant tower of Chalus-Chabrol in Haute Vienne, he was hit in the left shoulder with a crossbow bolt, envenimé according to the History. It was after dinner, in the evening. Richard was slow in seeking medical attention and too quick in breaking off the arrow shaft. Extracting a 4-inch (10cm) bolt head from rolls of fatty neck tissue by flickering torchlight was a hopeless task for Mercadier’s luckless surgeon. Within a fortnight, Richard was dead of gangrene on 6 April 1199. The History thought that Fortune, which casts down the good and exalts the wicked, had struck down the best prince in the world. William the Breton, Philip’s chaplain, thought Richard’s death a visitation from God. It was the luckiest stroke of Philip’s career. His only credible opponent was eliminated at a stroke, leaving a succession disputed between the double-dealing John and the twelve-year-old Arthur of Brittany.


John’s reputation remains contentious. Unlike his French contemporaries he had no official chronicler to polish the royal image. The St Albans historians, Roger of Wendover and his copyist Matthew Paris, pursued a virulently anti-royal line, endorsed by moralistic Victorians. More recent historians, impressed by the written evidence for the reign, have lauded John’s administrative achievements. Even his military record has attracted favourable reviews, belying contemporary opinion. Gervase of Canterbury styled himJohannem mollegladium – John Softsword – a softness transmuted into unprecedented cruelty. The sober Barnwell Chronicle took a mixed view:

a great prince, but less [than] happy, and like Marius* enjoying both kinds of fortune. Generous and open-handed towards foreigners, but a robber of his own people, trusting more in aliens than his own. Hence he was abandoned by his people before the end, and ultimately mourned by few.

William of Newburgh described John as nature’s enemy. A papal legate thought him more William the Bastard than Edward the Confessor. On his deathbed, able to say what he thought, William Marshal is supposed to have cautioned Henry III against his felon ancestre. At best John was unlucky, his elaborate schemes outrunning his means. He left an empty treasury, a diminished patrimony, a ruined economy, and a country wracked by civil war.

When Richard died John seized the treasury at Chinon, and took control of Anjou and Poitou with Queen Eleanor’s help. Richard’s servants, alerted by the dying king, swiftly asserted John’s claims to Normandy and England. Anglo-Norman custom favoured brothers over nephews, and Arthur was rejected as proud and difficult. He disliked ‘those of the land’, and was subject to felon conseil – bad advice from his Breton mother. The accession crisis was soon resolved, but John’s insecurity persisted, nourishing fears of treachery that undermined relations with his magnates, and undercut his attempts to defend his patrimony. Back at Le Goulet in May 1200, John restored the truce Philip had agreed with Richard. The terms looked favourable, but John recognised Philip’s jurisdiction in Anjou, paying a stiff 20,000 marks as a feudal relief. He dropped the Flemish allies who controlled access to Normandy’s north-eastern frontier, and accepted a marriage alliance between Philip’s son Louis and his own niece, Blanche of Castile. John had weakened his own hand, while presenting Philip with a card that in time he could play against the throne of England itself.

Three months later, on 24 August 1200, John married Isabel, heiress to the County of Angoulême on the River Charente, a strategic area dominating the main road from Poitiers to Bordeaux. With luck, the gambit might resolve John’s lack of a legitimate heir and stabilise the Angevin Empire’s southern flank. He was married already, and his new queen hardly of age, but time and the Church could resolve those difficulties. More seriously, Isabel was promised to Hugh the Brown, Count of la Marche, and one of the Lusignan clan, the Angevins’ deadliest enemies south of the Loire. Not only did John abduct and marry his enemy’s wife, he offered him crooked justice, hiring professional champions to resolve the issue by judicial combat.

John’s sharp practice converted a brilliant coup into a casus belli. The History viewed it as the occasion of the shameful war in which John lost his lands. The Lusignans appealed to their feudal overlord, the King of France. When John refused to plead, Philip’s court pronounced him contumacious. On 28 April 1202 John forfeited all his continental lands, not just south of the Loire but in Normandy too. Outright dispossession rarely followed such sentences, but Philip was a new type of ruler. Intent on subordinating his great feudatories, in particular the Angevins, he would fight a total war.

The Angevins’ strategic position had deteriorated since hostilities began in 1188. Philip’s revenues had almost doubled, partly through his inheriting the County of Vermandois in northern France, partly through fiscal reform. Historians argue about the two sides’ relative financial advantage, but Philip could now maintain a sizeable standing force on the Norman frontier: 257 knights, 245 mounted sergeants and 1608 foot, besides 300 routiers. Normandy’s devastation in the 1190s had alienated the Norman Church and magnates. Their disinclination to fight forced John to employ more routiers, whose depredations, as if in an enemy’s country, did nothing to encourage Norman support. The Duchy was a strategic liability, dependent on outside help. This could only come from England, John’s southern possessions being poor and disaffected. As for Richard’s ally, Baldwin Count of Flanders, he was away on Crusade, soon to perish in a Bulgarian dungeon.

John might have held out, despite his moral and financial handicaps, by resolutely exploiting the defensive resources of the country until Philip ran out of money or luck. He nearly did so in July 1202. Philip had been keeping John’s nephew Arthur safe at the French court as a card to be played when his claim to the Angevin dominions might prove most embarassing to his uncle. Now sixteen years old and freshly knighted, Arthur invaded Anjou with 200 choice knights and besieged his grandmother, Queen Eleanor, in the castle at Mirebeau or Mirabel, 16 miles (25km) north of Poitiers. John was at Le Mans and reacted with Angevin vigour. The enemy had got inside Mirebeau’s town walls, and blocked all the gates except one. Cheerfully awaiting John’s arrival, they were confident in their own numbers and courage. John marched 80 miles (120km) in two days, and broke into the town with an all-out onslaught early on 1 August, to catch the French eating breakfast. All his enemies fell into his hands, including Arthur and the Lusignans. The blow might have ended the war at a stroke, except, commented the History, for the evil destiny and pride which always brought him down.

Much of the credit for Mirebeau was due to William des Roches, Seneschal of Anjou. Like William he had been one of Henry II’s last-ditch loyalists. Instrumental in the decision to march on Mirebeau, he lost three horses killed beneath him fighting at the town gate. Careless of this debt of honour, John broke promises not to take his prisoners north of the Loire, carting twenty-two of them off in chains to starve to death at Corfe Castle in Dorset. Even his closest followers were embarrassed. Inconsistent as always, he released others, including the Lusignans, who promptly revolted. Such, commented the History, is their way. Arthur was held at Falaise, menaced with blinding and castration, triple rings of iron round his feet. Taken to Rouen, he disappeared from the record about Easter 1203, probably stabbed by his uncle after dinner, and dumped in the Seine. Once more John had converted success into disaster. Supplanted as seneschal, William des Roches joined the rebels, who now included the outraged Bretons. Norman tax yields fell away as John’s moral authority disintegrated. Exploiting the universal outrage, Philip Augustus swore he would never abandon his attempts to bring John down.

Military collapse soon followed. The medieval aversion to confrontation in the open was reinforced in John’s case by fears of treachery. The History recalled his taking indirect roads for fear of ambush, and sleeping in castles rather than hostelries. He may not have been altogether wrong. Count Robert of Alençon gave John dinner and kissed him on the mouth, before transferring homage to Philip the same day. Gervase of Canterbury thought John was rendered an ineffectual coward by traitors who surrendered his castles to the King of France. Philip exploited such people, but despised them, telling William Marshal they were soiled rags to be thrown into the latrine after use. The most shocking betrayal came from English turncoats. Philip advanced down the Seine to Vaudreuil, an outlying bastion of the Norman capital, just 15 miles (24km) from Rouen. As soon as Philip deployed his siege engines, the castle’s commanders, Robert fitz Walter and Saer of Quincy, surrendered with all their knights and military equipment, making no attempt at resistance. Ralph of Coggeshall suggests that they doubted John’s willingness to come to their aid. Even so, they disappointed contemporary expectations. The population mocked them in satirical songs, and Philip threw them in jail.

Philip encircled the vital cliff-top castle of Château Gaillard above Les Andelys on the Seine in September 1203. Richard had built his ‘saucy castle’ at the immense cost of £11,500 as the springboard for his intended reconquest of the Vexin. Bristling with defensive features of royal devising, Château Gaillard was reputed impregnable. With Vaudreuil gone it was isolated, but the garrison held on until March 1204, surrendering for want of provisions. By then John had left Normandy for ever:

… failing to lend any assistance to the besieged, because he always feared treachery from his people, he sailed away to England in December, the depth of winter, abandoning all the Normans in great distress and fear.


Philip besieged and took Falaise, abjectly surrendered by its routier commander, then swept through western Normandy to take Caen, Domfront, and Barfleur, the Angevin embarkation point for England. Philip arrived outside Rouen in May, the citizens purchasing a fifty-day respite to seek their duke’s assistance. Coggeshall says that John refused, suspecting treachery. The History claims that a host was summoned belatedly to Portsmouth, commenting that while the dog was doing its business behind, the wolf got away. And so, lamented Coggeshall, the illustrious city of Rouen, hitherto unconquered, surrendered. Merlin’s prophecy that the sword should be separated from the sceptre was fulfilled after 139 years. Normandy and England were once more divided.

John’s continental possessions all fell by autumn 1204, except the castles of Chinon and Loches, the seaport of La Rochelle, the Channel Islands, and far off Aquitaine. The strategic revolution was as complete as that of the 1150s. Philip kept his Norman conquests as royal demesne, consolidating his financial lead over his Angevin rival, who was driven to ever more radical steps to fill his war-chest. The Channel was now the front line, a potential invasion route. Where Henry II had menaced Paris from Gisors, French fleets now threatened the English coast from Cherbourg and Boulogne. At Christmas 1216 a French prince would hold court in London. As Stephen found in the 1140s, defeat in Normandy presaged civil strife in England.


John devoted a decade to recovering his overseas patrimony. The protracted time scale is explained partly by the difficulty of the task, partly by his enemies’ diversionary tactics. He first tried just twelve months after Rouen fell, assembling the largest fleet yet seen at Portsmouth, 1,500 ships with innumerable knights, to invade Normandy and Poitou. As so often with John’s plans the enterprise foundered in a miasma of contradictory advice and mutual recrimination. The last Angevin stronghold at Chinon fell a week after the expedition broke up, following horrendous portents, including an ass-headed monster struck by lightning near Maidstone. A smaller expedition to Poitou enjoyed some success, but John had missed his best chance of counter-attacking while the Normans were still unreconciled to French rule.

John was distracted by problems nearer home for the next seven years. His quarrel with Pope Innocent III over the election of a new Archbishop of Canterbury began in 1207. The dispute escalated into a formal Interdict which suspended ecclesiastical services throughout England and Wales until John recognised the papal candidate Stephen Langton. A brilliant scholar who organised the Bible into its current chapters, Langton was tainted by French connections unacceptable in the king’s leading adviser. In the short run the Interdict was advantageous to John, who confiscated £50,000 of Church revenues. In the longer term it undermined his legitimacy, and invited foreign intervention.

John’s presence on English soil created other strains, sharpened by his predatory financial policies. Previously the English could benefit from Henry II’s legal reforms, while blaming royal officials for any miscarriage of injustice. John’s personal role in government after 1204, which so excites the admiration of administrative historians, made the king himself the focus of resentment. This was especially so among the magnates, whose cases the king reserved for himself. These often entailed cash payments for the king’s good will, which exceeded the litigant’s ability to pay. It is not surprising that Magna Carta has been described as a rebellion of the king’s debtors, or that one of its most enduring clauses prohibited the sale of justice.

Besides inflating the profits of justice, John sought new or increased sources of revenue. Traditional feudal incidents, such as fines on marriage, trebled in scale. Henry II had levied scutage, a payment in lieu of personal military service, seven times in thirty-two years. John did so eleven times in sixteen years, while almost trebling the rate to 3 marks in 1214. He invented taxes on moveable goods and customs dues, and stockpiled huge quantities of coin in barrels at royal castles ready for the great counter-offensive. Some thirty million silver pennies were withdrawn from circulation, half the national stock, depressing prices and choking economic activity.

Baronial indebtedness consolidated political and financial grievances, as John exploited baronial debts to enforce political discipline, even upon his closest associates. One of John’s leading supporters during the accession crisis, William of Braose had captured Arthur at Mirebeau. In the winter of 1207–08, however, he lost royal favour. The History professed not to know why; the issue remained sensitive. The official reason was non-repayment of debts incurred for new Irish estates. John’s extreme actions suggest a darker cause. When he demanded hostages to ensure his magnates’ loyalty against the Pope, William’s wife Matilda defied John and her husband, refusing to surrender her children to someone who had murdered his own nephew. Clearly the Braose household knew too much about Arthur’s death, the fullest account of which comes from Margam Abbey in South Wales, a religious establishment to which they had suspiciously close ties. The family fled to Ireland, after an ineffectual rebellion, pursued by John and a large army. William escaped to France disguised as a beggar, but Matilda and her eldest son were shipwrecked in Galloway, handed back to John by their rescuers, and starved to death in a dungeon at Windsor Castle. The moral for potential victims of the king’s malice was clear.

Pending hostilities with Philip Augustus, John launched expeditions against Scotland in 1209, Ireland in 1210, and Gwynedd in 1211. The apparent success of John’s activities on England’s Celtic flanks is sometimes contrasted with his failure elsewhere, but his insatiable demands for tribute and hostages poisoned relations, and created common grievances with English dissidents. Strands of opposition coalesced in 1212. Llewelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd had surrendered hostages and paid tribute of hawks, dogs, steeds, and cattle two years before. Now he revolted, with other Welsh leaders, exterminating castle garrisons and causing great slaughter of the English in Powys. Possible motives include John’s provocative new castle at Aberconwy, papal attempts to destabilise John’s throne, and Llewelyn’s treasonable relations with Philip Augustus. John abandoned plans to attack the latter, turning on the Welsh instead. He hired 8,330 pioneers to clear the road, twice the number his grandson Edward I would use. Suddenly the king cancelled the whole exercise, hanged his hostages, and barricaded himself inside Nottingham Castle, surrounded by foreign crossbowmen. John’s own magnates were plotting, either to kill him outright, or to deliver him to the Welsh. Among those implicated were Robert fitz Walter, lately of Vaudreuil, and Eustace of Vesci whose wife John was rumoured to have seduced.

Pressure mounted the next year, as a papal legate incited Philip to invade England. A popular preacher, Peter of Pontefract, prophesied that John would not be king after Ascension Day, without specifying which one. While Philip gathered ships at Boulogne and threatened to exterminate the English, John massed forces along the coast from Ipswich to Portsmouth. By the end of May, the crisis had passed. The papal legate double-crossed Philip, and cut a deal with John to end the Interdict. John went a step further. He did homage to the Pope, making England a feudal dependency of the Holy See. A fortnight later, on 30 May, English ships fell upon Philip’s fleet in the River Zwyn at Dam near Brugge, capturing 300–400 vessels and destroying more on the beach. Not since Adam’s day, judged the History, had such a fleet come to grief. Philip watched it blaze, as if the sea was on fire. The year’s other big loser was Peter of Pontefract, hanged at Wareham in November.

John was now ready to counter-attack. His treasury was stuffed with 200,000 marks and domestic opposition silenced by his submission to the Pope. A Flemish-German army led by John’s nephew Otto of Brunswick, the German emperor, hovered on Philip’s northern border. John sailed for La Rochelle on 9 February 1214, accompanied by few earls but many knights of inferior fortune. The plan was to divide French forces or retake Normandy while they fought Otto. The scheme was over-complicated and fatally dependent on Poitevin support. In any case, Philip Augustus could now afford two armies, fielding over 2,000 knights between them. John manoeuvred skilfully to draw away the southern French army, but his Poitevin allies refused to engage inferior numbers at La Roche-au-Moine eight miles (12km) down the Loire from Angers at Savennières. Roger of Wendover avers that both sides ran away. While John retreated to La Rochelle, the main French army under Philip crushed Otto at Bouvines, between Lille and Tournai. One of the great battles of the century, Bouvines left France predominant in Western Europe. It sealed the loss of Normandy, and fixed John’s course for the rest of his reign.

*   A Roman general who died in 86 BC, having been exiled then restored to the consulate.

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