Civil war was a frequent consequence of royal failure in pre-modern England. The Barons’ War that followed John’s return from Poitou in October 1214 would have been predictable in other, less fraught circumstances. For John it was the fitting climax of an appalling reign; for William it was a dramatic pause, before he emerged centre stage as saviour of his country. The History glosses over the Marshal family’s role in the conflict. Other sources reveal the older William’s complicity in John’s counsels, an embarrassment for his son whose loyalty was less certain.

The poet observed that John’s troubles began with his allies’ bad day at Bouvines, and continued until his death. Those whom the king had injured turned against him, followed by others with less excuse. Both sides committed excesses that were unbelievable, had they not been seen. William’s conciliatory attitude as regent suggests he shared the poet’s ambivalence. The barons held the initiative, compelling John to grant the concessions framed in Magna Carta. As John mobilised his superior financial and political resources, however, he gained the upper hand, besieging Rochester in October 1215 and a launching a chevauchée through northern England at Christmas. Only French intervention in May 1216, led by Philip Augustus’s son Louis, stemmed the royalist tide. Reduced to roaming the country like some bandit, John died at Newark in October 1216, ending the first instalment of hostilities.


The baronial movement originated in the conspiracy of 1212, whose exiled leaders returned after John’s submission to the Pope. The royal climb-down brought together an explosive combination of lay and clerical malcontents. Throughout the crisis, John’s enemies posed as defenders of the liberties of both Church and kingdom, a potent mixture. Their personal grievances were less exalted. Professor Holt, Magna Carta’s great historian, described the Barons’ War as a rebellion of the king’s debtors. Magnate indebtedness to the Crown quadrupled between 1199 and 1209. Robert fitz Walter, a ringleader, was deeply in debt to the king, as was Geoffrey of Mandeville, who owed 20,000 marks for the hand of John’s cast-off queen. As son of John’s long-serving justiciar, Geoffrey fitz Peter, Mandeville was a natural royalist, but his debts drove him to revolt. Indebtedness was more than just a financial hazard, as the Braose affair showed. It was a life-threatening condition.

The rebellion’s hard core lay in the north, so much so that Northerner became a general term for the dissidents. Ralph of Coggeshall called them Northumbrians, but the dividing line lay further south, at the Wash rather than the Humber. Many rebels came from East Anglia, explaining Lincoln’s strategic importance astride Ermine Street, the main road between the revolt’s main foci. The Northerners had refused to follow John to Poitou after the naval victory at Dam in 1213, claiming to be exhausted after defending the coast all summer. Next year they would neither serve, nor pay the 3-mark scutage demanded of defaulters. Nearer home, they resented the intrusion of alien royal servants into county administration, hard-faced men such as the Tourangeau Philip Mark, the real-life Sheriff of Nottingham, or Philip of Maulay, Arthur’s alleged assassin. Unrestrained by local ties, such men had no compunction about extracting every penny John demanded for his foreign adventures. Between 1199 and 1212 Yorkshire’s tax revenues trebled, in line with inflation but not custom.

Menaced by debt and excluded from office, magnates and gentry were also exposed to John’s whimsical application of legal process. Partly this arose from his transferring legal business from fixed courts at Westminster to the peripatetic royal court; partly it resulted from his confusing the administration of justice with money raising, magnates having to offer large sums for the king’s favour. More than one chronicler cited John’s arbitrary dispossessions without prior judgement as a grievance; ‘thus was tyrannical will the law for him’ (Waverley). More than one rebel leader nursed claims to a castle withheld by a suspicious monarch: Robert fitz Walter to Hertford, Saer of Quincy to Mountsorrel in Leicestershire, Geoffrey of Mandeville to the Tower of London.

The war was also a rebellion of cuckolds. Some reports of John’s affairs emerged later, and may be dismissed as fabrications. Walter of Guisborough, for example, told a bizarre tale of a raddled harlot smuggled into the royal bed in place of Eustace of Vesci’s wife. Better documented, though equally odd, is the fine of 200 chickens that Hugh de Neville’s wife offered the king for a night back home. Hugh would abandon John in June 1216, handing Marlborough Castle to the French. Allegations of sexual misconduct were a common feature of thirteenth-century political discourse. Poitevin rebels had accused Richard I of debauching their women, before marrying them off to his mercenaries. John’s misconduct, however, was flagrant. The Brabançon minstrel who wrote aHistory of the Dukes of Normandy and Kings of England (known as Anonymous of Béthune) was no unworldly monk. He thought John de bieles femes … trop convoiteus – too desirous of fair women: ‘by which he brought great shame upon the highest men of the land, for which he was much hated’. The Melsa Chronicle from Yorkshire says that John ‘deflowered the wives and daughters of the nobility, [and] spared the wives of none whom he chose to stain with the ardour of his desires’, a claim echoed at Waverley in Surrey. Even rumours of sexual misconduct with a high-status woman could prove devastating, as William had found in 1182. Three major aims emerged from this maelstrom of grievances: to limit John’s exorbitant financial demands; to regain control of the localities; and to restrain the arbitrary application of royal justice. The conflict’s personalisation, however, made John’s disappearance the only sure way of ending it.

William’s role in the crisis reflects a personal ambivalence. Like other magnates he had suffered confiscation of castles and lands, demands for hostages, and the wasting of his lands. But he owed everything to the Crown. A younger son made good, William was as much a parvenu as John’s less savoury supporters, making him a natural curialis or member of the court party. John emphasised where William’s material interests lay by granting him Cardigan and Carmarthen in January 1214. As the History commented, it was John’s custom to keep his prud’hommes at arm’s length, until he needed them. When the barons presented John with their charter of liberties at Epiphany 1215 (6 January), William acted as a surety for the king’s answering their demands the Sunday after Easter (26 April). Another guarantor was Stephen Langton, the archbishop wished upon John by the Pope. Roger of Wendover stresses Langton’s leadership in the negotiations leading to Magna Carta, but William was Stephen’s constant companion. Together they represented society’s twin pillars, the churchmen and the knights. John sought delay, arguing the novelty and time-consuming nature of the baronial programme. The Barnwell chronicler, our surest guide, said that John had other ideas in his mind, however. Recruiting officers, like Hugh of Boves, began hiring French and Flemish mercenaries, of which the barons were soon aware. Royal letters to the Pope denounced baronial disloyalty. Sheriffs imposed oaths of fealty, backing John against the charter. John boycotted further meetings, using William and Langton as intermediaries.

William’s diplomatic skills emerge no more brightly from these deliberations than from his abortive missions to Philip Augustus. In neither case did he hold winning cards. He would do better after John’s death, playing his own hand. Meanwhile, John prevaricated, hoping to provoke his opponents into violence. On Ash Wednesday (4 April), the king and his household put on the English Crusaders’ traditional white crosses. He thus gained three years’ immunity from attack, pleased the Pope, and infuriated his enemies. They asserted that ‘he had not done it out of feelings of piety or the love of Christ, but in order to cheat them of his promise’ (Barnwell). After the Epiphany conference, the barons had formed a conjuratio, a sworn league, to demand redress. Almost by accident, they became the first rebels with a cause greater than mere self-aggrandisement. Being practical men, they fortified their castles, and despatched their own envoys to the Pope.

Distrusting John, the dissidents foregathered, ‘with horses and arms’, at Stamford in Lincolnshire, a tournament venue on England’s main north–south road. On Easter Monday (20 April) they moved to Brackley, a day’s ride from John’s location at Oxford, ‘committing no warlike acts, beyond the mere appearance of war’ (Barnwell). Brackley was the seat of Saer of Quincy, Robert fitz Walter’s companion in dishonour at Vaudreuil. John had paid their ransoms and made Saer Earl of Winchester, but he failed to secure their loyalty. Like William, Saer was a self-made man with links to the Young King’s household. He had vouched for the sufficiency of William’s hostages in 1210. Matthew Paris thought there was no more handsome knight in the world. Heavily indebted to the Jews, Saer played a leading role throughout the rebellion. The slide to war gathered momentum as the barons threatened to withdraw fealty, the formal prelude to hostilities. William and Langton rode between Oxford and Brackley, returning with a written statement of the barons’ demands. Failing agreement, the dissidents threatened to seize John’s fortresses. According to the plentiful but unreliable Roger of Wendover, the king refused in a rage. On 5 May, the barons withdrew homage, and marched off, banners flying, to attack Northampton, 18 miles (29km) to the north-east.

The baronial démarche caught John at a disadvantage. Roger of Wendover identified forty-four ‘chief promoters of this pestilence’, who mobilised ‘two thousand knights, besides horse sergeants, attendants, and foot soldiers … variously equipped’. As Magna Carta’s twenty-five enforcers promised to provide nearly 1,200 knights, 2,000 knightly followers does not seem excessive for forty-four magnates. A third of the English knight service, it explains John’s unwillingness to take the offensive. It also bears comparison with the 1,380 knights later named in writs of restitution as dispossessed for rebellion. It is, however, more than Philip Augustus concentrated at Bouvines, while specific references to baronial armies range from 500 to just over 1,000.

The arch-traitor Robert fitz Walter was appointed commander-in-chief as ‘Marshal of the Host of God and Holy Church’. Represented on his seal brandishing a sword and sporting one of the latest flat-topped helmets, Robert also held Castle Baynard, London’s second strongest fortress after the Tower. The Barnwell chronicler confirmed widespread rebel support, ‘especially younger sons and nephews … seeking to make their military reputation’. Older men, with more to lose, supported the king. Others, ‘friends of fortune or lovers of novelties’, went with the tide. Among the families thus divided were the Marshals. Roger of Wendover’s list of rebels includes the younger William, who no doubt resented seven years spent as John’s hostage. Alternatively, the family may have backed both horses. William and his brother John were accused of doing so in 1194, and Scottish families did likewise during the eighteenth-century Jacobite risings. The alliance of Alexander II, the new King of Scots, and Llewelyn of Gwynedd with the malcontents had the advantage for John of consolidating the Marcher lords behind him. If the rebels enjoyed quantitative superiority, the king had quality: the Earls of Salisbury, Chester, Pembroke, Derby, Warenne, Aumale, and Cornwall. John pawned his jewels, including Matilda’s imperial regalia, to the Templars to hire mercenaries. He had fewer men, but the simpler aim of gaining time until the barons tired of besieging royal strongholds, and went home. The History glosses over the fighting: ‘there were too many dishonourable circumstances to relate’, and the author feared for his safety if he dwelt upon them.

Northampton was a washout. Lacking siege engines, the barons made no impression on the castle, which lay at the south end of town, near today’s railway station. Northampton was an important communications centre. Its position ensured further fighting there during the Second Barons’ War of 1264 and the Wars of the Roses. Lying clear of the wetlands that stretched inland from the Wash, possession of Northampton would have secured the Northerners’ retreat to Stamford, past the Fens. John’s garrison proved unco-operative, however. A crossbowman shot Robert fitz Walter’s standard bearer in the head, and the barons decamped to Bedford, held by a friendly castellan. Here they met envoys from London, offering to surrender the city. John had issued a charter confirming London’s ancient liberties, but concessions extracted under duress enjoyed little credibility.

Five hundred knights set off at once for Ware near Hertford. Next day, Sunday 17 May, they pressed on 20 miles (30km) to the capital ready for battle. While the population were hearing Mass, the rebel advance guard scaled the walls using scaffolding erected for maintenance work, and let in their friends. The intruders plundered royalist merchants and Jews, and rifled the usurers’ document chests, a common target during attacks on Jewish communities. Jews were especially vulnerable during civil wars when royal protection became a liability, while the destruction of credit agreements also hurt the king, who inherited the debts of dead Jews. In this holy campaign, remarked Ralph of Coggeshall, the invaders filled their empty purses many times over. Taking control of the city, the rebels appointed a new mayor, placed guards around the perimeter, and pillaged stone from Jewish houses to repair the walls. Only the Tower held out against them.

London’s capture was a fatal blow to the king. Cities were almost impossible to besiege. Antioch resisted the First Crusade for 226 days, and only fell through treachery. Jordan de Fantôme, writing in the 1170s, claimed that no-one had ever besieged London. Since his day fresh ditches had been dug outside the Roman walls, most recently in 1213. The ‘head and crown’ of the kingdom, London provided a sure refuge for the baronial party until the last days of the war. Its loss to the barons was decisive for the first round. When they issued letters threatening to destroy the manors of those who supported the king, including William, most of John’s supporters changed sides. Only the staunchest curiales remained loyal.

The collapse of John’s position in England was mirrored in Wales. While John had focussed on Europe in 1213–14, Llewelyn gained ground in North Wales, taking John’s new castles, ‘by force, one by one, the townsmen partly killed, partly ransomed and partly ordered to depart’ (Welsh Annals). As royal difficulties intensified, Llewelyn allied with the Northerners and Giles of Braose, Bishop of Hereford. ‘One of the first confederates against the king’, Giles drove John’s bailiffs out of the Braose family castles at Abergavenny, Brecon, and Builth. Towards Ascension, as the rebels took London, Rhys ap Gruffydd’s descendants marched through William’s recent acquisitions in Cardiganshire, to take Kidwelly in South Wales. Entering the Gower peninsula in force, they ‘carried out lootings and burnings, and burnt and cast down the castles, not without loss of life’ (ibid.). Carmarthen’s English colonists burnt their town rather than see it fall into enemy hands. Llewelyn himself burst out of North Wales to capture Shrewsbury, Shropshire’s county town. It was an unprecedented English humiliation, the timing too good to be coincidental.

Reduced to seven household knights, while rebel armies ranged about despoiling royal manors and hunting lodges, John hid in Windsor Castle, not daring to step outside. Philip Augustus increased the pressure by denying him French recruits, and offering to send the barons volunteers, money, and siege engines to batter the Tower. In Whit Week (7–14 June), the Northerners occupied Lincoln town, and blockaded the castle. William had already ridden into London seeking an armistice. John’s delaying strategy had failed. He had no choice but to accept the barons’ terms, or at least pretend to do so.


Magna Carta has become the corner stone of English constitutional law. In 1215 it was a temporary expedient, like most of the treaties that punctuated medieval conflicts. The original agreement was overthrown within months, denounced by the Pope, its undertakings and guarantees declared null and void for ever. It acquired its name and significance later. What Bishop Stubbs called the Great Charter of Liberties, contemporary sources knew as the concordia de Runingemede, or carta de Runemede, from the place where it was agreed.

The Charter differed in substance from contemporary international treaties, dealing with feudal custom, legal process, and economic regulation rather than lands, castles, or marriages. Its sixty numbered chapters and three supplementary clauses made it the longest piece of English legislation since Cnut’s reign. No individual could claim sole responsibility for its content. John had been outmanoeuvred not defeated. His forces remained in being. The document was a compromise, reflecting common ground between loyalist and rebel barons, the bishops, and John’s officials. Stephen Langton had the intellect to draft the charter, and may have produced an Unknown Charter of 1213–14, found 650 years later in the French national archives. Even a vengeful King John, however, could find no evidence for his authorship, however hard he tried. Sidney Painter credited Langton and William jointly, but the Marshal’s role remains opaque. Age, prestige, and experience made him an essential interlocutor in the three-week negotiations, but theHistory is silent.

Peace talks were always held at secure locations to ensure that neither side took advantage of the other. Henry II and Stephen discussed terms across the Thames at Wallingford; Richard went to Le Goulet in 1198 by boat. Runnymede was a traditional meeting place on the southern bank of the Thames, between the rival headquarters at Windsor and Staines. Lying on the Roman road from Silchester to London, low marshy ground protected it to south and east, while the river covered the barons’ advanced base at Staines. Ponds and streams along the river’s old course provided further security, making the area a virtual island.

John arrived from Windsor on 10 June, and camped at one end of the field, the barons at the other, ‘with a multitude of distinguished knights, all well armed’ (Coggeshall). Matters were sufficiently advanced by 15 June for John to admit his recent enemies to the kiss of peace, whereupon they renewed their homage and fealty. Barnwell makes it clear that peace was restored before John ‘[granted] them all what they wanted, confirming it with his charter’, thus preserving the legal fiction that the agreement was by mutual consent, not extracted under duress. John did not sign Magna Carta. Kings did not do things like that. Royalist witnesses included eleven bishops led by Langton, followed by the Master of the Temple, and sixteen curiales led by William. The loyalists were balanced by twenty-five barones electi, magnates chosen to oversee the charter’s implementation. Originally unnamed, the subsequent list includes such committed rebels as Robert fitz Walter, Eustace of Vesci, and the younger Earl Marshal.

Magna Carta lacks the ringing statements of principle fashionable in more recent constitutional documents. Both sides’ leaders were concerned with practical issues. Neither anarchists nor reactionaries, they sought to preserve the positive features of Henry II’s legal innovations while protecting themselves against the abuse of royal power. The opening chapters reasserted existing ecclesiastical and feudal rights, limiting the royal exactions that drove so many into debt. Scutage was to be levied by common counsel of the realm, the thin end of a constitutional wedge that would eventually broaden into ‘no taxation without representation’. Chapters 39 and 40 placed real limits on the arbitrary exercise of power. No free man might be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, banished, or otherwise ruined without lawful judgement. The nature of that judgement was unspecified, legal process being in flux between the old-fashioned ordeal favoured by William in his confrontations with royalty, and the evidential procedures favoured by canon law. Chapter 40 comes nearest to a statement of principle with its terse promise that ‘To no-one shall we sell, refuse, or delay right and justice’.

Other chapters reflect the charter’s conflictual origin. Property confiscated before or during hostilities was to be restored. The winners’ allies were rewarded. London got standard weights and measures and guarantees of freedom of movement, including removal of fish weirs from the Thames. Welsh and Scottish hostages were to be freed. Magnates passed on royal concessions to their knightly accomplices in rebellion. John’s alien servants, ‘knights, crossbowmen, sergeants, mercenaries, who had come with horses and arms to the harm of the kingdom’, were to be expelled. This was not just xenophobia. Gerard of Athée from Touraine, one of those mentioned by name, had played a leading role in destroying the Braose family. The History describes him plotting William’s ruin in 1207. The Barnwell annalist summarised contemporary priorities:

And the king immediately gave back his right to everyone, the hostages whom he held, the castles and estates which he had long held in his hand … and even those which his brother Richard had carried off …

Recent enemies restored peace with traditional conviviality, eating and drinking together. John wore his grandmother’s regalia, redeemed from the Temple. A day was set to finalise implementation, peace declared, and those besieging Lincoln and the Tower told to stop. It was too good to last.


Magna Carta was a victory for John’s moderate supporters, who probably included the Marshal. Extremists on either side saw it as a breathing space. John stands accused of dragging his feet, but he was prompt enough to dismiss expensive mercenaries, and restore castles and estates. He was less willing to replace trustworthy foreign officials with disaffected Englishmen. Gerard of Athée and his colleagues remained in post. John’s immediate request for papal dispensation from his oath to observe the charter, however, casts serious doubt on his sincerity. The rebels were no better. Some left Runnymede early, making their absence a pretext for continued dissidence. As cover, they arranged a tournament at Stamford, the prize a live bear, an appropriate symbol of England’s descent into chaos. Mistrust was mutual: ‘neither did he [John] entrust himself to them, nor did they come to him’ (Barnwell). Some rebels returned to London, others to their castles. Some built munitiunculae, minor strongholds like those that plagued Stephen’s reign. In areas dominated by dissidents, royal servants were beaten up and imprisoned.

Magna Carta subordinated John to a committee of twenty-five, a revolutionary constraint that a milder king might have found intolerable. Baronial intransigence made matters worse. When John lay sick of gout, they had him carried into court to give judgement, recalling Count Richard’s shameful treatment of Henry II. ‘Of such pride and such outrages,’ wrote Anonymous of Béthune, ‘there was great plenty’. The bishops sought to mediate. William participated in one last effort at Oxford on 16 July. John stayed away, claiming that the presence of so many armed men made it unsafe. Meetings in August were equally fruitless. The Twenty-Five instituted a parallel administration, appointing themselves sheriffs to eastern and northern counties. William withdrew to his estates to co-ordinate action against the Welsh.

Meanwhile, John gathered shipping, blockaded the south coast, and summoned fresh mercenaries. Hugh of Boves preached a Crusade in Flanders with papal letters of doubtful authenticity, inviting ‘all those trained to arms [to] come to England for the remission of their sins, and hand out death there’ (Coggeshall). Real papal letters were equally deadly. Consistently out of step with events in England, the Pope became increasingly peremptory. Langton and the moderate bishops ignored papal demands for widespread excommunications while continuing mediation. Late in August they were overtaken by a papal bull addressed to the Bishops of Norwich and Winchester. The former was the Italian legate who had ended the Interdict in 1213, and was now a royal favourite. The latter was Peter des Roches, a hard-line royalist, who exploited the Pope’s commission to unleash counter-revolution. On 5 September he suspended Langton and excommunicated anyone attacking the king, propelling the archbishop into exile and England into civil war. The History says little about the conflict that would eventually bring William to the supreme moment of his career, either from embarrassment, or because John of Earley was on the Marches, away from events. Its course must be told from other sources. Anonymous of Béthune fills many gaps. Writing with a soldier’s eye of events that he had often seen for himself, he complements and confirms much of the History’s often sparse account.

Raiding began immediately, ‘the king holding out in his strongholds … the barons roving freely about the country, although so far they had spared the people on account of the harvest’ (Barnwell). Royal estates and forests were particular targets, the rebels selling the king’s timber and killing his deer. John lurked at Dover, commanding the narrow seas across which he looked for support. Meanwhile, the arrogance of the Twenty-Five drove moderate magnates into his arms, much as intransigent Parliamentarians created a Royalist party in 1642. Summoned with dire threats to discuss John’s deposition, a substantial number of magnates objected, ‘especially as he had pronounced himself ready to observe the agreed peace. And so they were divided among themselves, and the ills of the land were multiplied’ (ibid.). ‘Of all this evil,’ the History assures us, ‘nothing was undertaken or done by the Marshal’s advice.’ Known at the time as Regales or Reaulx, the royalist hard core included eight earls, among them William. Their opponents included six earls, besides Robert fitz Walter and Eustace of Vesci, ‘and many others whom it would be tedious to enumerate’ (ibid.).

Such generalities illustrate the problematic nature of medieval orders of battle. Roman numerals were difficult to manipulate, muster rolls scarce, and unworldly monks less numerate than merchants or architects. Roger of Wendover wrote with spurious precision of ‘three battalions of sergeants and crossbowmen’, thirsting for human blood. Less inventive chroniclers wrote of Gascons, Poitevins, and Brabançons pouring in, lured by promises: ‘foreign barbarians and a great multitude of different tongues steered for England, encouraging the king in his error’ (Waverley). The History specifies Flemings, ‘foreign knights and sergeants, who wanted to plunder every day. They hardly thought of helping him [John] win his war, but only of spoiling his country.’ Estimates reached 15,000, a figure comparable with the 14,000 routiers that Henry II paid off after the Young King’s Revolt.

Figures from record evidence are generally lower. Gilbert of Mons, the Count of Hainault’s chancellor in the 1180s, quotes Flemish comital forces of 700 to 1,000 mounted men. Fewer made it into the front line. Villehardouin estimated the Fourth Crusade at 20,000 overall, but specifies battlefield contingents in the low hundreds. Lack of money limited army sizes, and drove them to plunder. Professor Carpenter reckons that John fielded 800 mounted men in late 1215. Garrisons absorbed considerable numbers, although individual detachments were small, like the three knights and ten sergeants captured at Odiham in June 1216. Literary references suggest that average wartime garrisons were nearer 100. Even at half that figure, John needed 7,500 men to hold the 150 castles he is believed to have owned in 1215, a figure comparable with Professor Barlow’s estimate of 6,500 for Henry II’s total establishment. These static forces must have sustained themselves from local resources. Deployed across a much smaller area than Henry’s empire, John’s larger establishment supports contemporary perceptions of a militarised despotism.

John’s opponents appear simpler to assess, the Twenty-Five guaranteeing contingents totalling 1,187. The most notorious did not make the largest contribution: Robert fitz Walter and Eustace of Vesci supplied fifty and thirty knights respectively. Geoffrey of Mandeville and the younger Marshal were joint top with 200 each. The latter’s contribution matches the mesnie his father led to North Wales in 1212. It also explains the History’s reticence concerning 1215–16. None of these figures includes foot. Mounted troops, knights and sergeants, provide an index of an army’s fighting value, but infantry always surpassed them in numbers. Richard held Saintonges against his father in 1174 with sixty knights and 400 crossbowmen, and shipped 2,100 Welsh from Portsmouth in 1196, compared with a few hundred knights. The role of infantry was significant but unquantified.

The nascent conflict escalated with rebel sieges of castles at Oxford and Northampton, while the barons in desperation offered the throne to the Dauphin. The History dismissed the decision as granz folie, but it did ensure a supply of French artificers to build siege engines. Meanwhile, John suffered his usual bad luck. On 26 September, Hugh of Boves and a large party of Flemish mercenaries were shipwrecked off Dunwich, their bodies washed up along the east coast. Then a rebel party occupied Rochester Castle, perhaps as a staging post for French reinforcements, or to block a royalist advance on London. The Sheriff of Kent, Reginald of Cornehull, was holding it for the Archbishop of Canterbury pending legal consideration of its rightful ownership. At Michaelmas, he admitted William of Aubigny, one of the Twenty-Five and sponsor of the Stamford tournament. Finding Rochester destitute of warlike stores, the rebels considered returning to London, until William appealed to their honour as knights. They ransacked the town for provisions, but John left them no time to gather booty from further afield.

The king, ‘who for some days had been as it were skulking at Dover now began to raise his head’ (Barnwell). The loyal Earl of Salisbury took some mercenaries to relieve Oxford and Northampton, while John tackled Rochester. Lying east of the ancient bridge where Watling Street crosses the Medway on the way from Dover to London, Rochester was a strategic sore point, like Northampton. The scene of a Roman victory of AD 43, it was besieged by William Rufus in 1088, and Simon de Montfort stormed the bridge in 1264. A rough diamond shape, the castle’s corners were oriented to the main points of the compass, its outer bailey surrounded by deep ditches and crenellated stone walls on an earth bank. Its curtain, as yet, lacked towers to enfilade the perimeter. The keep in the southern corner was 70 feet (21m) square, rising 113 feet (34m) to the parapet, with walls 12 feet (3.6m) thick strengthened by corner towers.

John’s first step was to isolate the defenders from their friends in London by burning the wooden bridge. He presumably attacked downstream along the west bank opposite the castle, ‘the river flowing between’ says Coggeshall. Robert fitz Walter, however, ’with 60 knights and sergeants and trusty crossbowmen held the bridge and put out the fire, compelling the king, foiled in his intentions, to flee’. Regrouping, John returned on Sunday 11 October, ‘and bursting in, besieged the castle, attacking the defenders with all kinds of machines’. Five of these were on Boley Hill south of the castle, whence they showered the defenders with stones, covered by relays of crossbowmen and archers. Rochester’s defenders fought back, ‘with over a hundred knights and sergeants and many stout crossbowmen’, inflicting heavy losses. Between spells in the line, the attackers stabled their horses in the cathedral, ‘and there indulged in eating and drinking, whoring and lewdness, with none of the usual respect for saints or holy places’ (ibid.).

A fortnight into the siege, the London barons rode down to Dartford with nearly 700 knights, intending to lift the siege: ‘but when they heard the king had set out in battle order to meet them, having left no fewer continuing the siege, it was agreed to await a better time, because they had few infantry, and the king a great multitude’ (Barnwell). Returning to London, they proposed a further expedition on St Andrew’s Day, choosing to believe that the besieged could hold out until then. John, however, urged on the siege, using miners to bring down the outer wall. Ralph of Coggeshall describes the technique used by Richard I at Chalus-Chabrol:

So the king attacked them himself with crossbows, while others dug around, so that hardly any dared to appear on the tower battlements, or defend it in any way. Nevertheless, they threw large stones off the top of the battlements, which falling down with great force, terrified bystanders, but could not injure the miners in the least or prevent the works, since these were protected on all sides …

When the bailey fell, Rochester’s defenders withdrew into the great tower: ‘All else broken down, only the keep stood, to which, on account of the age and solidity of the work, the hurling of stones did little damage’ (Barnwell). Miners dug beneath the keep’s southeast corner, since rebuilt with a telltale cylindrical tower. Orders despatched to Dover on 25 November commanded the justiciar ‘to send us … with all haste 40 bacon pigs of the fattest and those less good for eating to use for bringing fire under the tower’. At La Roche-au-Moine John had experimented with sulphur, pitch, and mercury. Now he reverted to more traditional incendiaries.

Even when John’s men entered the shattered keep, the defenders held out north of the cross-wall, whose imbedded well shaft spared them thirst if not hunger:

Nor does our age record another siege more vigorously pressed nor so bravely defended. For no rest was allowed them for days on end, also within the keep they suffered the pangs of most bitter hunger, lacking anything else they lived on horse meat and water, which was hard for those brought up on delicacies.


John’s rapid investment, denying the garrison time to plunder the locality, paid off. On 30 November, St Andrew’s Day, the garrison surrendered for want of food. Those who could not claim benefit of clergy were thrown into chains, while John considered their fate. Eventually the commons were released, the gentry held for ransom. John wanted to hang the lot, as Stephen did at Shrewsbury in 1138 and Henry III would do at Bedford in 1224, but Savari of Mauléon, the Poitevin commander, urged restraint. The war had just begun, and the enemy might retaliate in kind. Finally, just one crossbowman was hanged, whom the king had brought up from a boy. Otherwise, only one of the garrison was killed, though many ‘useless mouths’ expelled during the siege had their hands or feet cut off.

The capture of Rochester has attracted much favourable comment. The Barnwell annalist thought it struck terror amongst John’s enemies, who took refuge in religious houses, as ‘few … would trust themselves to fortifications’. The History was less positive, focussing on the financial cost: ‘in five weeks [sic], he had spent all the riches he used to have in his treasury … whoever lays out much and gains little and allies himself with evil people is soon reduced to the dregs’. Ralph of Coggeshall estimated the operation’s cost at 60,000 marks, a third of John’s war-chest in 1214. So expensive a victory was both an opportunity and a spur to action. His treasury empty, John had to end the war while his opponents were cowed, or seek the means of prolonging it. His solution was achevauchée through northern England to bring the rebels to terms, while maintaining his army at their expense. William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, stayed behind to keep the Londoners in check with a handful of routier captains. The Marshal remained in the west, where Giles of Braose’s submission in October may represent a local success. Neither side sought battle: the barons awaited the outcome of their negotiations with Philip Augustus; John, as always, preferred to put off a decision.

Leaving Rochester on 6 December, John split his forces at St Albans on the 20th, heading north with 450 knights. In sixty-five days he marched to Berwick and back to Bedford, nearly 600 miles (900km) as the crow flies. Slower than William’s raids on Mantes and Montmirail, but more extensive, John’s winter campaign bears comparison with the Black Prince’s Languedoc chevauchée of 1355. John spent Christmas at Nottingham, ‘not as customary, but as if on campaign’ (Barnwell). Pro-forma charters were issued for repentant rebels to abjure their oaths to Magna Carta, for John’s aims were political as well as punitive. The day after Boxing Day, he persuaded William of Aubigny’s garrison at Belvoir to surrender, to save their lord being starved to death. Passing through York, Newcastle, and Durham, John reached Berwick on the 14th, an average of 12 miles (19km) a day. None stood against him. The King of Scotland who had besieged Norham in October retreated across the border, leaving the citizens of Berwick, then a Scottish town, to face John’s wrath. Ralph of Coggeshall claimed that John penetrated as far as ‘the Scottish Sea’ – the Firth of Forth – depopulating baronial lands, spreading destruction and levelling castles. Everyone fled his face, ‘except a few who gave themselves up to the mercilessness of his mercy’.

Ralph lived 14 miles (20km) down Stane Street from Robert fitz Walter’s castle at Great Dunmow, and saw royalist depredations in East Anglia for himself. Defying meteorology and military convention, Salisbury’s southern task force stormed Geoffrey of Mandeville’s castle at Pleshey in Essex on Christmas Eve, devastating his tenants’ estates. Next day they moved on to the Cistercian Abbey at Tilty north of Great Dunmow. Bursting in during Mass, they ‘destroyed all its furnishings, and breaking into the numerous cellars looted and carried off many merchants’ deposits’. Ralph’s own abbey was raided on New Year’s Day and twenty-two horses taken. Turning north through Bury St Edmund’s, the royalists then attacked the Isle of Ely, where many knights and ladies had sought refuge. Bitter cold froze the surrounding marshes, allowing the routiers to bypass rebel roadblocks, and storm the cathedral swords in hand, plundering refugees and monks alike. Some escaped across the ice, while ‘the worthy Earl of Salisbury’ extended his protection to the ladies. William Longsword is one of the History’s favourites, ‘the good earl’, one who ‘made largesse his mother, and whose banner untarnished prowess bore before him’. Matthew Paris styled him ‘the flower of earls’. The presence of such a paragon of chivalry at such scenes highlights the intense moral paradox of knightly warfare.

Damage to life and property during these operations remains speculative. There was no thirteenth-century Domesday Book to assess devastated manors, as the original had done after William the Conqueror’s depredations. Ecclesiastical sources were loud in their lamentations, particularly Roger of Wendover, but rarely specific. Monks were John’s natural enemies; their treasure an irresistible temptation to a cash-strapped regime. It is hard to know how far clerical accusations of cruelty were just monkish propaganda. John maintained some discipline, punishing a soldier for stealing goods from a churchyard. Violence may have been more threatened than applied. The Abbot of St Albans, ‘lying open to the to-ing and fro-ing of the many’, preserved his abbey’s assets by paying protection money to both sides: £951 in total (Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani). Besides taking cash, armies stole untold quantities of livestock and inflicted random destruction. St Albans lost over 100 horses in a year. King John took three from Redburn, with an iron-shod cart. Fawkes of Bréauté’s men burnt three houses at Langley, with thirty-five pigs. John Marshal and Anonymous of Béthune both accompanied John’s winter campaign, but neither military source mentions it, whether from embarrassment or acceptance.

King John resurfaced at Bedford on 22 February, after an absence so protracted he was rumoured to be dead. Advancing into Essex, he met no resistance except at Colchester, which fell after a short siege. Apart from Mountsorrel and Helmsley Castle in Yorkshire, only London held out against him. Leading rebels, including Eustace of Vesci, considered making terms. Late in March John reached Waltham, 12 miles (19 km) outside London. The capital remained defiant, as in 1471, when menaced by another raiding army after the second battle of St Albans. Learning that John had primed his mercenaries to attack the city, the citizens opened their gates to give battle: ‘the king recognising their hostility, and numbers, and readiness to fight wisely withdrew from danger’ (Coggeshall). He was probably right. Jordan of Fantôme comments how every Londoner of military age was armed to the teeth. As Savari of Mauléon rode past the suburbs, he was ambushed and badly wounded. John had rallied waverers throughout the Midlands, and brought the rebels to the brink of defeat, but it was too late. Another player was about to enter the game.


One reason for John’s success was the absence of an opposing field army. Castles must fall if unrelieved, but barons never fought kings. Norman magnates had avoided confronting Philip Augustus at Fontaine in 1194, because their own king was elsewhere. The Young King’s supporters only fought Henry II’s lieutenants, and fled his face at Dol. Robert of Gloucester was exceptional in attacking Stephen twice, but Robert was himself of royal blood, defending his half-sister’s right to the throne. The rebels in 1215 needed a royal figurehead, as the rebels of 1173 needed the Young King.

Arthur’s murder and Otto’s humiliation at Bouvines narrowed the field. The most hopeful claimant was Blanche of Castile, John’s niece, whom he had carelessly allowed to marry Philip Augustus’ son Louis in 1200. The title of Dauphin used by the heir to the French throne really does derive from the Provençal dalfin for dolphin, symbol of the lords of Vienne in the Dauphiné. Born in 1187, the future Louis VIII grew up with Arthur, and nursed a lifelong hatred for King John. A sickly youth, Louis matched the Capetian stereotype of piety and sexual continence better than his father. Unlike his great-uncle Philip of Alsace, he never risked his neck jousting, watching helmetless from the sidelines. Count of Artois from 1212, Louis became his father’s substitute field commander after Bouvines, earning the surname of the Lion. His claim to the English throne was equally improbable. The manifesto that his envoys presented to the Papal Curia in May 1216 was a model of diplomatic chicanery, even by French accounts, its arguments vague, false, and contradictory.

Rumours of baronial appeals for French help went back to 1212. The following year, before the Interdict’s sudden end, Philip Augustus planned to put Louis and Blanche on the English throne, creating a united Anglo-French realm after his own death. The renewed negotiations of October 1215 progressed slowly, however. A direct assault on a papal vassal was a risky business. When agreement seemed near, John threw a spanner in the works, sending bogus letters under his enemies’ seals, claiming that all outstanding issues had been amicably resolved, and apologising for any expenses the French monarchy might have incurred. Saer of Quincy, the barons’ leading negotiator, swore that the letters were false, allaying Philip’s suspicions with fresh oaths and hostages.

The first French contingents reached England in December and January 1216. Some 250 knights altogether with similar numbers of crossbowmen and more sergeants, they were insufficient to challenge John in the field. Short of money, they stayed in London grumbling about the food and their hosts: ‘The French rabble,’ said the History, ‘drank many a barrel and cask of fine wine … full of boasting, they said England was theirs, and the English would have to quit the land, for they had no right to it.’ When John took Colchester, he sowed fresh discord between the allies by releasing his French prisoners while keeping the English. Back in London, the French were first threatened with hanging, then kept in irons pending the Dauphin’s arrival.

This was long delayed. While Louis struggled to raise troops by a mixture of bribery and threats, a papal legate appeared. Guala Bicchieri was a cardinal tasked with frustrating French designs on England, now part of St Peter’s patrimony. He would become the indefatigable ally first of King John, and later of the Marshal. At Melun in April 1216, Guala strove unsuccessfully to prevent the Dauphin’s departure for England. Learning from spies of Louis’s plans, John despatched William and the Bishop of Winchester to remind Philip Augustus of the truce made after Bouvines, ‘but they returned without being heard’ (Coggeshall). It was William’s last cross-Channel excursion. Planned for January, promised for Easter, the Dauphin’s expedition finally sailed the Friday evening after Ascension, from the traditional embarkation points: Calais, Boulogne, Gravelines, and Wissant. The expedition featured 1,200 knights, as many as Philip Augustus deployed at Bouvines, in up to 800 ships. Eustace the Monk, pirata fortissimus, who had conveyed French military aid to the barons the previous summer, directed naval operations. The crossing was rough, the ships blown along by the ‘euro-eagle’, a stiff north-easterly, which next morning (Saturday 21 May) brought Louis off the North Foreland with just seven ships.

John had been patrolling the Kent coast, assembling ships from Yarmouth, Lynn, Dunwich, and the south coast towns named the Cinque Ports. His plan was to repeat the pre-emptive strategy of 1213, when English galleys savaged French shipping from the Seine round to Dieppe. The principle that England’s front line was the enemy coast later became a strategic commonplace. Drake and Nelson both tackled invasion fleets in port, but as usual John was unlucky. The gale that brought Louis struck the English shipping on the night of 18/19 May, and ‘wrecked most of the fleet through collisions, sunk them, or blew them far to the south’ (Coggeshall). Running downwind, Louis landed unopposed at Great Stonar. Just north of Sandwich, Stonar is now several miles inland, separated from the sea by the Sandwich Flats. A friendly crowd was on hand to greet the invaders, a comment on John’s popularity. Anxious to be first ashore, Louis fell in the sea and stumbled dripping up the beach to kiss the crucifix held out to him by a local priest.

Ralph of Coggeshall claims that John might have attacked Louis and his men while exhausted from the crossing, before other French ships came up. John, however, had spent the night at Canterbury. By the time he reached Sandwich, it was too late. Besides, John was paralysed by doubt:

‘since he had foreigners and mercenaries with him, for the most part of French allegiance, he did not consider opposing the landing nor attacking [them] once on the beach’


The Dunstable annalist attributes the decision to William: ‘King John hurrying up with a great army … withdrew (on the advice of William Marshal) for he did not have much trust in his own troops.’ John’s distrust and William’s caution combined to postpone a decision. William had argued at Arras that foresight and common sense were the complement of courage: fighting at a disadvantage was no part of his military credo. Anonymous of Béthune describes John riding distractedly up and down the shore, before leaving his routiers in the lurch. Unpaid for some time, they presented a shabby appearance, and needed more than a few trumpet blasts to cheer them up. His plans in ruins, John fled westwards in tears, slighting Hastings and Pevensey Castles as he went. Boldly sending back his ships, Louis advanced on London. Bypassing Dover, he took Canterbury and Rochester, to link up with forces summoned from London. Numerous English magnates did homage, including the younger Marshal. On 2 June, Louis was received in London amidst general rejoicing, the burghers swearing fealty in St Paul’s. The Tower held out as usual, with the monks of Westminster Abbey; ‘and it was imagined the whole island was about to fall’ (Barnwell).

Wasting no time, Louis followed the king, taking castles at Reigate, Guildford, and Farnham: ‘and wherever John’s alien supporters were caught, he hanged them’ (Melsa). John and William retreated 120 miles (180km) west to Winchester, England’s second capital. Arriving on 28 May, they ‘raised the dragon flag of war as if to crush Louis in battle if he should come’ (Coggeshall). But, before Louis arrived, John threw down his standard and fled, leaving Savari of Mauléon to defend the city. His men fired the suburbs, withdrawing into Winchester’s two castles: the ‘castle in the town’, i.e. the royal castle near Westgate at the top of the High Street, and the bishop’s palace, or Wolvesey Castle, beside the River Itchen. The citizens extinguished the flames, and greeted Louis enthusiastically. He approached cautiously and under arms, drawing up his batailles and making them advance in conrois, suggesting a formation in column of squadrons equally appropriate for movement or fighting. Louis stationed men in the town to stop the defenders burning what was left, while his perrières and mangonels battered the castles. Ten days later, Savari evacuated his men in exchange for surrendering the palace and castle. Louis moved on to Odiham, where the tiny garrison held out for a week, capturing a dozen prisoners during a sortie, and eventually ‘saving their horses and arms, to the great admiration of the French’ (Wendover). Meanwhile Hugh Neville surrendered Marlborough Castle, Louis’s westernmost conquest and the culminating point of his offensive.

The invasion wrought a strategic revolution. Confronted with overwhelming numbers, John was physically and psychologically incapable of fighting back. The only coherent royalist response came from the legate. The day before Louis landed, Guala arrived at Romney (Kent) dressed in papal robes, riding a white palfrey. Avoiding capture at Canterbury, he followed John to Winchester, excommunicating Louis and his supporters on arrival. This had little immediate effect, church services continuing in occupied London. Meanwhile, Louis and the barons ‘prevailed to such an extent that the king did not know where he should turn’ (Melsa).

John’s winter triumph had proved shortlived. Those who had fled his face soon raised their heads. The Northerners surrendered Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmorland to Alexander of Scotland. Robert fitz Walter regained control of Essex and Suffolk. The south-coast Cinque Ports changed sides, to protect their trade from Eustace the Monk. By August 1216, John was directing merchant shipping west of the Isle of Wight, as Portchester and Southampton fell to Louis’s blitzkrieg. John’s mercenaries were first to go: ‘when the king had no more wealth, few remained who were there for money: they took off with their winnings’ (History). Among them was Anonymous of Béthune, who joined a company led by the Avoué of Béthune, a brother of William’s old friend Baldwin. Some of John’s closest associates betrayed him. The Earls of Salisbury and Warenne could both resent John’s attentions to a wife or sister, and had territorial interests threatened by Louis’s advance. According to the History, only William, ‘who had a pure and untarnished heart’, stood by him to the death.

This was not strictly true. The Earls of Chester and Derby remained faithful, for their own reasons, while the Marshals played a double game. In July, the younger William occupied the city of Worcester in the rebel interest:

But on St Kenelm’s day [17 July], the Earl of Chester, Fawkes, and others faithful to the king riding up, despite the citizens’ bravely defending themselves, much to the astonishment of the besiegers, at last broke into the town, through the castle not being carefully guarded on all sides, and took the citizens, hitherto defending themselves on the ramparts, by surprise, and by exquisite torments extracted from them whatever they had, and more.

(Worcester Annals)

The younger Marshal’s soldiers were dragged from the cathedral, where they sought sanctuary, but he escaped, ‘heeding his father’s warning by flight, as it is said’ (ibid.).

Worcester lay deep in John’s redoubt of western counties, outside which he controlled only the neighbourhood of his surviving castles. Most of these lay in the Midlands, with outposts at Lincoln, Windsor, and Dover. Their resistance amply justified Angevin expenditure on castles and routiers. The most significant was Dover. Blocking Louis’s direct communications with France, Dover was ‘strongly fortified by art and nature’ (Barnwell). Matthew Paris described it as ‘the front door of England’. It was held by Hubert de Burgh with 140 Poitevin and Flemish knights, and a profusion of sergeants and supplies. Justiciar of England since 1215, Hubert had defended Chinon long after Rouen fell, being wounded and captured in a hopeless sortie in June 1205. If anyone could hold Dover he could.

Louis occupied Dover Priory below the castle, while his men built a hutted camp outside, complete with shops to demonstrate their intention to stay. Unimpressed, the garrison launched ferocious counter-attacks, to which Louis replied by threatening to hang the defenders. He then launched a co-ordinated attack from the high ground to the north-west, while troops demonstrated from the town, and ships cruised offshore to cut off all hope of relief. Crossbowmen shot at the defenders, and perrières and mangonels battered the walls. Engineers constructed a tower of hurdles and a ‘cat’ to protect miners entering the ditch to dig beneath the barbican, a palisaded fortification before the gatehouse. The avoué’s company took the barbican, killing the sector commander, but when their miners brought down one of the gatehouse towers, the defenders repulsed the storming party, and blocked the breach with oak beams and tree trunks. After twelve weeks both sides were ready for a truce.

The sieges of Lincoln and Windsor were equally futile, though financially more advantageous for the attackers. The chatelaine of Lincoln, Lady Nicola de la Haye, bought off the Northerners, who rode to Dover with the King of Scots to do homage. They were followed in September by the Count of Nevers, whom Louis had sent with many English barons to take Windsor. This was defended by Enguerrand of Athée, fresh from the defence of Odiham. His garrison of sixty knights launched violent counter-attacks, twice cutting through the French perrière’s arm. The French commander battered the walls for two months, but ‘when they were on the point of the castle giving up, having accepted a bribe from the castellan, he treacherously withdrew with the army.’ (Dunstable). On 14 October, Louis agreed a truce with Dover’s undefeated garrison, consummating his triple failure.


For nearly two months, John lurked in Corfe Castle, on the remote and swampy Isle of Purbeck, while the shock of the French intervention wore off. Then, realising that Dover would occupy Louis for some time, John went to secure his rear in the Marches. His presence was overdue. Exploiting the unusually mild winter of 1215–16, Llewelyn had led an army drawn from all Wales to Carmarthen, which he took and destroyed after a five-day siege, ‘having expelled the French [i.e. English] not in warlike conflict, but solely from fear’ (Welsh Annals). Newport fell before Christmas, with half a dozen other castles. Only Pembroke held out. On Boxing Day Llewelyn took Cardigan and Cilgerran, both in William’s keeping: ‘whence the Welsh went home rejoicing. The French, however, sorry and everywhere driven out, were scattered here and there, like birds’. The New Year saw further Welsh gains, with the capture of Swansea Castle ‘at the first onset’, the defenders of Ros offering hostages and 1,000 marks, ‘because they could not resist’ (ibid.).

Llewelyn’s winter campaign does little for William’s military reputation. His defence might be that Wales was a side-show, its light infantry unlikely to leave the shelter of their native hills. What mattered was to hold the frontier. He was at Hereford in July 1216 to join John’s counter-offensive, the Dunstable annalist claiming that they ‘took and destroyed the castles of Reginald of Braose [Giles’s nephew] and his other enemies in the Welsh Marches’. The Welsh Book of the Princes was less positive: John ‘came to Hereford accompanied by many armed men’, and ineffectually summoned Reginald and his allies to make peace, ‘after which he burned, ravaged, and destroyed Oswestry’.

Back at Corfe on 25 August, John set off next day to relieve Windsor, already past the average term of a siege. He was at Reading on 6 September, 18 miles (27km) up the Thames from Windsor. Anonymous of Béthune claims that the opposing armies were so close that John’s Welsh archers shot into the rebel camp by night, ‘inspiring great fear’. When the rebels offered battle, John veered off north of London to ravage their East Anglian estates, as William had thought he might back in 1194. Burning their engines, the barons followed, John retreating before them:

And wherever he came across the lands of his enemies in this march, he gave them over to plunder; and they were given over to burning and food for the flames, so that our age cannot remember such fires to have been made in our part of the world in so very short a space of time.


Monasteries were particularly targeted, as dissident refuges. The day after Michaelmas (30 September), Savari of Mauléon’s men:

… came unexpectedly to Crowland [in the Fens], and not finding there those whom they wanted, burst into the monastery. Knights and horses charging through the church, cloister, and monastic buildings, they seized men from the very altar itself, amidst the holy sacrament of the Mass, and dragged them from the church. In their withdrawal, they carried off with them an incalculable booty, as much herds of cattle as flocks of sheep.


The first signs of dysentery interrupted John’s career at King’s Lynn on 9 October. Ralph of Coggeshall blamed over-eating in general; Roger of Wendover new cider in particular. Monastic rumour, followed by Shakespeare, claimed that a black monk poisoned John for threatening to raise the price of a halfpenny loaf to one shilling. Turning back into Lincolnshire, the king lost part of his baggage crossing the River Wellstream, final proof of incompetence. He was bled at Sleaford, aggravating his condition, and carried to Newark. Here John died during the night of 18/19 October, during a storm so terrible the townspeople feared for their houses. The dead king’s attendants plundered his personal effects, as usual, but the Bishop of Winchester was nearby, as were a ‘great body of armed men … nearly all of them mercenaries and foreigners’ (Barnwell). William was directing operations on the Marches, a more fitting role for a septuagenarian than galloping across East Anglia. John Marshal was present, however, with two of William’s Marcher associates: John of Monmouth and Walter of Clifford, near Hay-on-Wye. They seem to be the source of the History’s account of John’s last words.

Part of a broader confession, these were carefully edited to emphasise William’s pre-eminence. First, John asked those present to seek the Marshal’s forgiveness for the wrongs inflicted upon him. Then, because he had more faith in his loyalty than anyone else’s, John asked them to persuade William to take care of his son, ‘for never will he keep his lands through anyone, if not through him’. John’s will, which survives, shows that William was in fact one of thirteen executors appointed to assist John’s sons in the defence and recovery of their inheritance. Anonymous of Béthune, however, repeats John’s specific request for the Marshal to take his eldest son Henry under his protection. Partial as the History may be, it reflects the political reality that would allow William to assert his leadership over John’s other supporters, and lead them to unexpected victory.


Closely formed conrois of knights pursue fleeing opponents with lances couched for maximum impact. Mail shirts are longer than at Hastings, but helmets remain open. One knight (left) has lowered his lance to finish off a dismounted enemy.(M.736 f7v – Life of St Edmund, twelfth century. New York, The Pierpont Morgan Library. ©2013. Photo Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource/Scala, Florence)


(Author’s photo)
The Young King’s effigy at Rouen cathedral – overshadowed by his younger brother Richard even in death. The inscription reads:

Whose brother was called the Lion Heart
Henry the Younger sought a place in Normandy by right of arms
In the year 1183 cruel death took him hence


Effigy of Richard I in Rouen cathedral: only Richard’s heart is at Rouen; his body was buried at Fontevraud beside his parents. Like the Young King’s effigy this is a nineteenth-century impression of the dead man’s appearance, which is unknown. (Author’s photo)


The keep and ruined inner ward of King Richard’s ‘saucy castle’ at Château Gaillard, perched high above the River Seine. Built at enormous expense as a jumping-off point for an Angevin counter-offensive, Château Gaillard fell to the French after a six-month siege in March 1204. (Author’s photo)


One of King John’s favourite objects, a denier or silver penny: John hoarded so many, he precipitated a liquidity crisis. The royal portrait and the name Henricus remain unchanged from the reign of John’s father. Original size about 1cm.(Author’s photo; original coin courtesy of Mark Wingham)


The overgrown ruins of Tancarville Castle: the square tower where William lived as a squire is tucked away behind the seventeenth-century Château Neuf, and the whole site remains difficult of access. (Photo courtesy of Marcel Barbotte and Les Amis du Château de Tancarville)


A nineteenth-century impression of a Crusader’s first sight of Jerusalem, suggesting the emotional nature of a moment shared by every pilgrim. Intended to represent the First Crusade of 1099, the armour depicted is nearer that worn by William’s contemporaries. (Postcard in author’s collection)


Chepstow Castle on the River Wye in the early twentieth century: William added the gatehouse with its revolutionary drum towers in the 1190s when he extended the lower bailey towards the landing area below the cliffs; the square keep pre-dates the Marshals by a century. (Postcard in author’s collection)


The Marshal’s Tower at Chepstow Castle, seen from the barbican. Believed to have been built for William and Isabel as a personal apartment, the accommodation comprised a ground floor kitchen and a first floor private chamber lit by elegant west-facing windows. (Author’s photo)


William’s castle at Kilkenny converted into an eighteenth-century Irish Ascendancy mansion: only the massive drum towers recall the stronghold that his countess defended against the assaults of King John’s henchmen in the dark winter of 1207–8. (Postcard in author’s collection)


The murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, after a thirteenth-century image. Note the variety of protective headgear – round and flat-topped helmets and a chain mail hood caught up at the front to cover the mouth. The leftmost figure has mail leg guards and an early heraldic device on his shield. (Author’s collection)


Twelfth-century blacksmiths forging the tools of war, including a rare representation of horse armour: the helmet on the anvil is a reminder of the occasion William required a blacksmith to remove his much-battered helmet. (MS 0.9.34 f24r, by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge)


No longbowmen are recorded fighting at either battle of Lincoln, but one appears amidst the decoration of the cathedral’s western porch, a reminder of their ubiquity in English society. Allowing for distortion inherent in the medium, the archer is clearly pulling the string to his ear. (Author’s photo)


Rochester Castle from the side attacked by King John, engraved in the eighteenth century before the gatehouse (right) was demolished: the two square towers in the curtain wall were added after the siege, when miners undermined the walls and brought down the keep’s leftmost corner. (Postcard in author’s collection)


Dover Castle from the east showing the depth of the fortified area: the French attacked from right to left. They broke through the first line of defences on the site of today’s Norfolk Towers, but were driven out again in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. (Postcard in author’s collection)


King Saul’s battle with the Amalekites from a French Old Testament c.1250: knights and sergeants lead off bound prisoners, driving sheep and cattle before them. King John never faced opposition like this during his chevauchées, his opponents fleeing his anger. (M.638 f24v – New York, The Pierpont Morgan Library. ©2013. Photo Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource/Scala, Florence)


Newark Castle, the scene of King John’s death and the Marshal’s last military enterprise, is seen from the bridge whose medieval predecessor gave the town its name. Most of the present structure was built later, but the square keep and gatehouse on the left is twelfth-century. (Author’s photo)


Goodrich Castle was in the front line of the Welsh uprising of 1215–17. Llewelyn’s men attacked it on the eve of Henry III’s coronation, forcing William to interrupt the feasting and send a rescue party. The keep is the only part of the castle left from William’s custodianship. (Author’s photo)


Joshua’s Conquest of Ai showing all the horrors of a medieval siege: knights repulse a sortie; sergeants in gambesons scramble up ladders; miners set to work covered by crossbowmen; a captured leader is loaded into a trébuchet, recalling William’s childhood experience at Newbury. (M.638 f10v – New York, The Pierpont Morgan Library. ©2013. Photo Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource/Scala, Florence)


Three generations of Marshals besieged the Bishop of Winchester’s Wolvesey Castle: William’s father in 1141; the Regent and his son in 1217. Both the structures seen here, the East Hall (left) and Wymond’s Tower (right), were built during the reign of King Stephen. (Author’s photo)


Lincoln from the south-west in the eighteenth century, hardly altered since the Middle Ages: castle and cathedral on the skyline dominate the lower city which runs down the slope towards Brayford Pool (left); Wigford’s church towers are centre right, behind the trees. (Image courtesy of The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery, Lincoln))


One of the fine medieval townhouses attributed to Lincoln’s thirteenth-century Jewish community perched on the aptly named Steep Hill. Armoured knights once battled past their front doors; today they house a bookshop and the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology. (Author’s photo)


Lincoln Castle and Cathedral in the twelfth century, showing the former’s West Gate entered by Peter des Roches and Fawkes of Bréauté during the battle’s opening moves. The round shell keep is the Lucy Tower, the square Norman keep the Observatory Tower. (Drawing by David Vale; courtesy of the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology and the Usher Gallery)


Lincoln’s northern gate at Newport Arch, the last Roman gate in England still in use for traffic: the medieval structure was deeper and higher, while the street level was eight feet lower than today, making it a tough nut for the assaulting Royalists to crack – if they ever did. (Author’s photo)


The West Gate of Lincoln Castle retains its original box-like structure, beyond the modern bridge. The massive simplicity of the twelfth-century walls and the height of the Norman embankments defied every attempt by the Dauphin’s supporters to break in. (Author’s photo)


The exterior of the Lucy Tower after an eighteenth-century sketch made before housing blocked the view: the original shell keep had an extra storey, dominating Lincoln’s skyline. The postern gate’s inaccessibility makes it an unlikely route for troops entering the castle. (Original watercolour courtesy of Eileen Brooks)


Lincoln Castle’s East Gate through which Fawkes attacked the Franco-rebel knights on Castle Hill: the original structure was simpler, similar to the West Gate. The turrets, which have lost their upper floor, were added later as part of a general upgrade of the defences. The cannon were captured in the Crimea. (Author’s photo)


Castle Hill, the scene of the main action viewed from the castle walls: Fawkes sortied bottom left, to be joined by William from Bailgate, left of centre next to the black-and-white half-timbered Tourist Information Office. The enemy commander was killed near the cathedral porch, beyond the later medieval Exchequer Gate. (Author’s photo)


The Siege of Lincoln as imagined by Matthew Paris: a crossbowman directs a parting shot at fleeing rebels, while the Angevin leopards fly over an expiring Count de la Perche. The text above describes the fugitives’ difficulties negotiating the flagellum gate at Lincoln’s southern exit. (MS 16 55v, by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College Cambridge)


The probable site of the rebels’ attempt to rally at the junction of Steep Hill and Christ’s Hospital Terrace (right foreground), looking up to the top of the rise (left). The medieval townhouse is attributed to Aaron, Angevin England’s greatest money-lender. Note the gradient. (Author’s photo)


A modern impression of the East Bargate after an eighteenth-century sketch. Now demolished, the two Bargates and the waterlogged Sincil Dyke were a serious obstacle for anybody wanting to leave Lincoln in a hurry. The turrets may be those repaired in 1228. (Original watercolour courtesy of Eileen Brooks)


The quay at Sandwich was still in commercial use at the turn of the twentieth century. This would have been the nearest point for William to have observed the progress of the battle. The Barbican gate beside the bridge in the background is later medieval. (Courtesy of Sandwich Museum)


The River Stour’s winding course today, looking back towards Sandwich: in the Middle Ages these reed beds were open sea. The medieval town was located around St Peter’s Church behind the trees (left centre). Stonar, where Prince Louis landed, is across the river to the right. (Author’s photo)


A medieval boarding action pictured by Matthew Paris, resulting in wholesale slaughter of the losers: missile weapons include a staff-sling and longbow projecting a jar of some unspecified substance. The list of earls present, beside the trio of bishops (left), omits William, epigraphic evidence of Matthew’s unremitting bias. (MS 16 56v, by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College Cambridge)


An early twentieth-century reconstruction of the capture of a French vessel by Henry III’s great ship the Queen in the Bay of Biscay in 1225. Painted by Charles Dixon, this was one of a series linking Victorian and Edwardian naval vessels to their heroic predecessors. (Author’s collection)


The chapel at St Bartholomew’s Hospital: material evidence for the battle’s location off Sandwich. The chapel was restored by Sir Gilbert Scott, designer of the Albert Memorial in the 1880s, and its associated almshouses still shelter the Brothers and Sisters, remote beneficiaries of the battle. (Author’s photo)


The circular nave of the Temple Church was inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that William visited in the 1180s. Henry III added the Gothic chancel (right) in the 1240s. Such a prestigious resting place, overshadowing the family mausoleum at Bradenstoke, is material proof of William’s contemporary reputation. (Author’s photo)


Inside the Temple Church: William’s effigy lies nearest the font accompanied by his sons William and Gilbert on his left and at his feet respectively. The exact site of the Marshal’s grave is lost, but the setting retains an elegant dignity appropriate to the knight who saved England. (Photo by Christopher Christodoulou, courtesy of the Temple Church)


William’s sorely damaged effigy suffered worse injuries during the Blitz than the Marshal ever did in his lifetime. One of the earliest such portraits of a layman, the stylised image suggests how a thirteenth-century warlord might wish to be remembered. (Author’s photo)


The Flower of Chivalry: part of a modern tapestry celebrating the Marshal’s part in the foundation of New Ross in Leinster. The panel shows his three manifestations as the Young King’s guardian, knight errant, and magnate, and is edged with chivalric scenes from William’s early life. (Reproduced by kind permission of The Ros Tapestry Project Ltd. ©The Ros Tapestry Project Ltd, New Ross, Co. Wexford)

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