John’s death altered the tone of the war. His savage policies had achieved little at great cost. There would be no more punitive chevauchées now. Fire-raising razzias made way for a stubborn struggle for advantage, characterised by the Marshal’s quiet but purposeful leadership.


John was buried in Worcester Cathedral, the first Angevin to rest on English soil. As Newark lay within enemy territory, John’s remains had to be escorted to safety by the ‘great body of armed men attending him, nearly all of them mercenaries and foreigners …’ (Barnwell). William and the legate met the cortège outside Worcester. William had been observing the Welsh battle-front from Gloucester. Now he took command.

We may doubt the History’s claim that William regretted John’s passing. The king’s death certainly gave his followers a problem, similar to those that William had confronted during previous changes of regime. This time, however, he was well placed. His own men held Gloucester, the Severn’s lowest crossing place. Savari of Mauléon, another of John’s testamentary executors, held Bristol, ensuring maritime communications with Chepstow. Beyond the Severn lay the Forest of Dean with its coal and iron, essential ingredients for crossbow bolts, lance-heads, and armour. Relative to his only serious competitor on the royalist side, the Earl of Chester, William enjoyed what a later age called interior lines, with ready access to the queen and her children, held at secure locations in the south-west.

Events moved swiftly. John received proper burial on 26 October, William sending John Marshal to fetch the rich cloths appropriate for a royal funeral. Immediate steps were taken to fill the lacuna in royal authority by crowning John’s heir, just four weeks past his ninth birthday. The royal sergeant responsible for Prince Henry’s personal security was sent to collect him from Devizes Castle. William met the royal party ‘on the plain outside Malmesbury’, escorted by ‘a great company of armed men … as was proper’. There followed the first of several affecting scenes. Unlike Roger of Wendover’s synthetic speeches, the History’s exchanges are credible and moving, preserved by John of Earley. Too young to ride solo, Henry was carried in his custodian’s arms, like one of those precious brides that medieval manuals enjoined knights to imagine they were holding when beginning a charge. The boy was well drilled, greeting William politely and recommending himself to the Marshal’s keeping: ‘As God has my soul’, replied the old man, ‘I will stand by you in good faith and not fail you, as long as I have strength’. At which, everyone burst into tears. This touching encounter had a serious aspect. Devizes lay within easy reach of Louis’s outpost at Marlborough. It made sense to remove John’s heir to safety under as strong an escort as possible.

There seems to have been no idea of abandoning Henry in return for a peace deal, as Stephen’s partisans had done with his heirs in 1153. Perhaps John’s supporters felt they had nothing to gain from such treachery. For William, it would have betrayed a lifetime’s service. There was anxious discussion of whether Henry should be crowned at once, before the arrival of the Earl of Chester. Expediency won, ‘for nobody knows what may happen’. Only one person could possibly knight the little prince first – William Marshal, who forty-three years earlier had girt the Young King with his own sword, and would thus have knighted two kings.

Two days after his father’s funeral, on 28 October, Henry III was anointed and crowned in Gloucester Cathedral. It was William’s fifth coronation, if one includes Philip Augustus in 1179. The legate sang Mass, then commanded the Bishop of Winchester to place a gold circlet donated by the queen mother on the new king’s head. The ceremony was a wartime improvisation: Westminster Abbey was in enemy hands, the crown jewels in pawn, and the Archbishop of Canterbury in exile. Only seven bishops attended, with William and one other earl; ‘the rest of the earls and barons supported Louis’ (Waverley). It was a far cry from Richard I’s splendid coronation, when William processed in style with fifteen other magnates. As if making up the numbers, the Melsa chronicler counted William twice, once as Earl of Pembroke and again as Earl of Striguil. Nevertheless, the ramshackle affair gave Henry III a sacral quality the Dauphin never enjoyed.

Afterwards, Henry’s knights bore him into the banqueting hall on their shoulders, led by Philip of Aubigny, Constable of Bristol. Others held out their hands, said the History, but were of little help. As they sat down to dinner, a rider came from Goodrich Castle, 17 miles (25km) to the west between Ross and Monmouth, blurting out his message, ‘more like a fool than a wise man’. Welsh patriots had attacked the castle that morning, and the constable urgently required help. William reacted promptly, despatching knights, sergeants, and arbalestriers to ride through the night to the rescue. Some thought it a bad omen for the reign. It was a salutary reminder of problems ahead.

Henry III was England’s first minor king since the Conquest. With no precedent to guide them, beyond customary notions of feudal wardship, his supporters took just over twenty-four hours to put in place the troika that would defeat the Dauphin: ‘By common consent, care of the king and the kingdom was entrusted to the legate, the bishop of Winchester, and William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke’ (Barnwell). John of Earley’s eyewitness account fills in the detail, showing medieval decision-making at its best: the search for consensus; the elaborate courtesy that masked the jockeying for position; the Church’s practised mediation. William’s handling of the discussions shows his maturity as a prud’homme, and how far he was from the intellectually challenged knight errant evoked by Painter and Duby.

The coronation feast concluded, a preliminary council urged William to take immediate charge of the king, but the Marshal refused to be rushed. He was old and feeble, he said. They should await the Earl of Chester. As a good lord should, William withdrew to take counsel with his retainers: John of Earley, John Marshal, and Ralph Musard, Castellan of Gloucester Castle. Tempted by the fruits of office, the latter two pressed William to accept. More concerned for the Marshal’s personal well being, John of Earley sought to dissuade him. Facing contradictory advice, William sought refuge in sleep: God would provide counsel and peace of mind.

Ranulf Earl of Chester arrived next morning. Half William’s age, his loyalty was equally impeccable, and his English possessions even more extensive, including the semi-autonomous County Palatine of Chester, and the honours of Lancaster and Bolingbroke in Lincolnshire. Erstwhile Duke of Brittany by marriage, his claims to Richmond in Yorkshire brought him into irreconcilable conflict with the Dauphin’s half-brother, the current duke. Politically, Ranulf was a moderate, having already extended Magna Carta’s guarantees of good lordship to his own vassals. His ready acceptance of the need to crown Henry before his own coming augured a realistic approach to the matters in hand.

When deliberations resumed under the Bishop of Winchester’s chairmanship, Sir Alan Basset, one of John’s senior household knights, suggested there were but two possible royal guardians: the Marshal or the Earl of Chester. This was not strictly true. In other circumstances the legate or Queen Isabel, even Hubert de Burgh, the kingdom’s chief political and judicial officer, might have had a claim. Guala was no soldier-administrator, however, and if England was a papal fief, it was not an Italian colony. Queen Isabel later became one of the century’s most remarkable women as Countess of Angoulême. Matthew Paris styled her ‘more Jezebel than Ysabel’. Her part in her son’s minority was almost nil, however. John had denied her the financial means or opportunity to develop an affinity of her own, cheating her of her dower and guarding her closely. Hubert, as John’s last justiciar, might have taken a lead as Richard’s justiciars did in the 1190s, but he was occupied at Dover, deep in enemy territory, and lacked the two earls’ territorial base.

William stood firm, declining so great a charge. He was past eighty, or so he said, and broken down with age. He offered Chester his wholehearted support, as long as God gave him grace. Chester responded as if reading a script. The choice could only fall upon the Marshal, ‘so worthy a knight and a proven counsellor, as much feared as loved, and so wise … one of the finest knights in the world’. Compliments over, the legate took the candidates aside with the other chief men, but could not overcome William’s resistance. The breakthrough came when Guala invoked his delegated papal authority to offer William full remission and forgiveness of his sins. This was too good a bargain to miss. Nearing the end of a long, violent, and acquisitive life, William must have known how far short he fell of the Christian ideal. Some veteran knights sought absolution in the cloister. King John was said to have been buried in the cowl of a Benedictine monk, perhaps hoping to slip past St Peter in disguise. If the price of salvation was to take charge of the kingdom, William would pay it. Even at this exalted moment, his political instincts remained sound. To preserve his personal freedom of movement, and broaden the basis of his support, he asked Peter des Roches, the hard-line royalist spokesman, to retain his oversight of the king’s safety and education.

William was now regent, a title then unknown. Contemporaries used the Latin expression regis rector et regni: keeper or guardian of king and realm. The Middle French History speaks of William receiving the king and la baillie. The modern English ‘bailiff’ has squalid overtones of eviction and repossession; in French it implies a judicial officer acting for the Crown, not unlike the justiciarship. A few documents even called William justiciar, a practice abandoned when Hubert surfaced from Dover. Anonymous of Béthune styled William maistres or souverains baillius de regne, ‘lord or sovereign custodian of the kingdom’. Emphasising his pre-eminence, the title recalls the History’s earlier sobriquet, Sire et mestre de son seignor, used in connection with a previous Young King. The precise extent of the Marshal’s powers was uncertain. He would struggle to subdue rebels or control John’s unruly servants. He was, however, the mainspring of what government there was. Whatever taxes there were passed through his hands. The first letter ‘by the Earl’ went out within days of the coronation. If William sometimes struggled, it is more remarkable that he prevented a repetition of the anarchy that characterised his childhood.

The common people outside rejoiced at this lucky roll of the dice; God had looked upon them kindly, for no one in England could resolve the situation more successfully than William. The poet’s eulogy was not overdone. Nobody on the royalist side combined so much military and political experience, with service stretching back to Richard’s and Henry’s successes against Philip Augustus and beyond. As long ago as 1183, William’s enemy, Geoffrey of Lusignan, had sworn he was the only man able to help the Young King, offering to fight anyone who disagreed. At the same time, William’s semi-detached attitude during much of John’s reign distanced him from the worst excesses of Angevin despotism. He was the perfect figure to reconcile the warring factions.

Even so, when William withdrew to take counsel of his men, the task ahead brought tears to their eyes. They were embarked on a bottomless sea, from which it were a miracle if they ever reached harbour. Above all: ‘the child has no money’. John of Earley took a more positive view. If the worst came, and William had to retreat to Ireland, he would still win great honour; on the other hand, if he succeeded how much greater the renown. ‘By God’s sword,’ swore the earl, ‘that counsel is good and true.’ If everyone else failed the boy, he would carry him on his own shoulders from island to island, even if he had to beg for their bread. On which stirring note, they retired to bed, trusting that God would aid those faithfully seeking to do right.


The younger son of a minor robber baron, William had reached such heights that he might be excused an attack of vertigo. Later regents were almost always members of the royal family: Queen Isabella in the 1320s or the Duke of Bedford a century later. But was the situation as desperate as William feared? Did the History exaggerate to magnify his achievement? The next few months suggest that the Marshal’s trepidation was not unjustified.

Contemporary assessments of the strategic situation in November 1216 vary. Roger of Wendover reported that while John’s supporters adhered to his son more firmly, Louis and the barons ‘confidently expected that they now had the kingdom of England in their own power’. Those dependable analysts, the Barnwell chronicler and Anonymous of Béthune, disagree. The latter saw John as ‘disinherited of the most part of England’. If the king was unbeaten, it was only because he had avoided a military decision that must have been unfavourable. The Exchequer was closed, and the treasury empty. Royalist forces were too attenuated to risk a battle or siege. But at some point one or both of these would be necessary to expel the French and cow the rebels. The fringes of the British Isles were in uproar, Llewelyn’s raiding parties a day’s march from William’s headquarters. Nevertheless, ‘rumours of the king’s death cheered the whole country’ (Barnwell). They also undermined the rebel narrative: Louis was no longer the noble defender of English freedom, but a foreign usurper. Henry III was by contrast: ‘an innocent youth, [who] had offended nobody, [and] many who were hostile to his father, began to adhere to him’ (Dunstable). A review of the strategic balance suggests that while conventional forces momentarily favoured the Dauphin, popular feeling and the soft power of the Pope tended the other way.

Sidney Painter counted ninety-seven barons in revolt at John’s death against thirty-six royalists, implying that Louis disposed of nearly three-quarters of England’s feudal levy, an ostensible 3,500 knights. Such numbers never took the field, but they give a sense of the royalist disadvantage. The disparity was increased by whatever remained of the French invasion forces. These had initially totalled 1,440 knights plus sergeants and crossbowmen, plus defectors from John’s service. Unspecified French reinforcements arrived in August, under Count Peter of Brittany, pursuing his Richmond inheritance as brother-in-law to the murdered Arthur. Even without a major battle, the wear and tear of campaigning soon diminished these numbers. Geoffrey of Mandeville died in a tournament; Eustace of Vesci was shot dead outside Barnard’s Castle. Many French and Flemish departed in the summer, fighting their way past English pirates in the Channel. The Barnwell chronicler thought the French too few to occupy such a large kingdom: ‘Realising this, Louis hovered round the coast, so that if by chance something untoward happened, his men and he would have an easy way home.’

Supported half-heartedly by his father, Louis depended on his own County of Artois for money and troops. He had financial difficulties from the start. The Dunstable Annals comment that many of the knights that he sent ahead to London were ruined and begging for want of wages. Roger of Wendover describes French troops with insufficient clothing, ‘to cover their nakedness’. Compelled to reward his French supporters with English lands, Louis risked alienating the English, who were often fighting to recover fiefs or castles lost over the preceding eighty years of revolt and confiscation. William Marshal the Younger launched his ill-fated Worcester adventure after the Dauphin granted Marlborough Castle to his own half-brother Robert of Dreux. The History describes the Count of Nevers, commandant of Winchester, as proud and cruel, guilty of numerous unspecified excesses. The Dunstable Annals agree, claiming that Nevers ‘inflicted such tyranny upon the people, that his name and that of his lord made a stink in their sight’. Many accounts of Anglo-French discord were shameless inventions, however. One of Roger of Wendover’s finest was a deathbed confession of Gallic treachery attributed in September 1216 to the Viscount of Melun, who survived to accompany the Dauphin to Winchelsea the following April.

The country was still in dispute, despite John’s losses during the initial French onset: ‘For there were many royal castles strongly garrisoned, maintaining control of nearly the whole kingdom’ (Barnwell). Self-sustaining, through ransoms and local extortion, these formed a barrier across the country from Bamburgh to Corfe, inhibiting attacks on the Angevins’ last-ditch position on the Severn. Many dominated river crossings or strategic defiles, as Newark did the intersection of the Fosse Way and the Trent. Anonymous of Béthune listed eleven, a figure which can easily be trebled:




Lost to Dauphin?





Barnard Castle




Newcastle upon Tyne




















East Anglia



Jan 1217



Exchanged for truce

Jan 1217






Exchanged for truce

Jan 1217



Exchanged for truce

Jan 1217



Exchanged for truce

Jan 1217




Jan 1217



Exchanged for truce

Dec 1216






Dec 1216


Tower of London


Nov 1216



















Nov 1216




Many of these places were commanded by professional military men, entirely dependent on royal favour, ‘foreigners, who frequently ranged about the country laying it waste and taking plunder’ (Waverley). Foremost was Fawkes of Bréauté, Sheriff of Oxford, Northampton, Buckingham, Hertford, Bedford, and Cambridge, the war’s central front. Fawkes also controlled the Isle of Wight, through his wife, commanding the approaches to Portsmouth Harbour. A poor royal sergeant of Norman origin, Fawkes ‘so bettered himself that he was one of the richest men in England. Small he was of body, but most valiant’ (Anonymous). Matthew Paris and the Waverley annalist were less enthusiastic, describing him respectively as ‘a rod of the Lord’s fury’, or quidem furiosus – a lunatic.

Medieval public opinion is hard to assess, as most people were never asked. This did not stop the Barnwell canon claiming that ‘Few in these times were seen to approve of Louis or his coming into England, or that he should get the kingdom, as those who brought him in had promised’. The English, moreover, were changeable and fickle. A paradox familiar from modern invasions ensured that the invaders were blamed for collateral damage, even when they came by invitation, and most of the harm was caused by the incumbent regime. Knights and sergeants, in the sense of minor landowners, hid themselves to avoid fighting on either side. Common folk, unable to escape, turned on their perceived tormentors. The History’s informants remembered seeing a hundred French corpses eaten by dogs between Winchester and Romsey.

The chief focus of popular resistance lay on the Kent/Sussex border. West of the prosperous Watling Street corridor and the Channel ports, the ancient forest of Andredsweald filled the great valley between the South Downs and Surrey Hills. Its uncleared woodland, sparse population, and difficult access made it a classic refuge for guerrilla forces. Kentish dissidents would harass Henry III’s forces there before the battle of Lewes in 1264. They were so successful in 1216 that their leader’s name has been preserved, in some thirty different spellings. He is most securely identified as William of Kasingeham or Cassingham (now Kensham), a manor in the Kentish hundred of Rolvenden. The History calls him Willekin de Wauz or Willy of the Weald, French tongues struggling with Kasingeham. Refusing to acknowledge Louis, Willekin recruited a thousand archers, who harassed the French from the woods, ‘and slew many thousands of them’ (Wendover). Anonymous of Béthune confirms that Willekin’s exploits were more than patriotic propaganda. Unfortunately for theories of spontaneous popular resistance, this real-life Robin Hood was a royal official, an erstwhile Flemish mercenary, of uncertain expertise with the bow.

The balance of external forces favoured the royalists. Philip Augustus refused to make the invasion a French national cause for fear of papal disapproval. Scottish knights were scarce, their footmen only suited to plundering the north of England, which belonged to the Dauphin’s allies. Alexander II had ridden to Dover to do homage, but it was a perilous journey. Eustace of Vesci was killed on the way, and John nearly intercepted the party going back. The Welsh had no knights at all, and their foot were commonly massacred whenever they strayed into England. This weak hand, two kings and a jack, was trumped by the Pope’s unwavering support for the other side. Innocent III had been ‘feared by everyone above all who preceded him for many a year’. His death in July 1216 encouraged John’s enemies, ‘speculating that the new pope would make a new policy, and would not follow in his predecessor’s footsteps’ (Barnwell). They were disappointed.

Innocent’s successor, Honorius III, learned of John’s death early in December 1216. He boldly decided to make a stand on behalf of the orphaned boy king, ‘the cause to be supported not only with words, but if it were necessary, with arms as well’ (Barnwell). Like his predecessor, Honorius was organising a Crusade to recover the Holy Land, and needed to terminate Christian disputes as soon as possible. Given time, papal support would alter the war’s moral and numerical balance. The process was slow to take effect, however, as events on the ground would show.

The minority government lacked the resources for active campaigning. William used John’s last reserves of jewellery and rich fabrics to pay the bills due at Michaelmas, including wages and supplies for the Dover garrison. His well-documented distaste for both sides’ excesses suggests that the regency had no appetite for extensive raiding. It pursued the war by other means, opening a peace offensive on three fronts. Two were business as usual; the third was game-changing. John’s policy of issuing safe conducts and offers of pardon to potential rebel defectors continued under the Marshal’s name. Guala maintained the spiritual pressure, rallying the bishops to the new king. Within a fortnight of the coronation, would-be royalists were invited to swear fealty to their new king at Bristol on 11 November. Eleven bishops attended, four more since the coronation, nearly all those in post and not in exile. Wales and other areas under the Dauphin’s control were placed under an Interdict, and Louis and his followers excommunicated again.

The Bristol Council’s most dramatic measure was to reissue Magna Carta in the new king’s name. Sealed by William and Guala, for want of an authentic royal seal, it was witnessed by eleven bishops, four earls, and eighteen other magnates and curiales. Among them were Hubert de Burgh, fresh from Dover, and the Earl of Aumale, one of the Twenty-Five and the first magnate to abandon the rebel cause. William employed his new title for the first time: rector nostri et regni nostri – ‘guardian of ourselves and our kingdom’. Having helped draft the original charter, William now rescued it from the oblivion into which Pope Innocent had consigned it, with the active assistance of the Pope’s personal representative.

The new document’s contents reflected its official origin. Enforcement clauses and attacks on specific royal servants were dropped, while ‘weighty and doubtful’ issues as scutage and forest laws were reserved for future consideration. The crucial feudal and judicial reforms survived the exigencies of war, however, a commitment to civil liberties which compares favourably with modern governments’ readiness to curtail them during emergencies. The new document clearly reflects a desire for reconciliation, born of William’s own resentment of royal tyranny and his loathing of the excesses of civil war. There is every reason to believe that his views were shared by other loyal magnates, who had supported John out of habit and self interest rather than absolutist conviction. The incoming government’s bold statement of its programme suggests a remarkable confidence in final victory. In the short run it stole the rebels’ thunder. In the longer term it foreshadowed a new style of more responsible government based on co-operation rather than coercion.


The enemy were unmoved. Hearing of Henry III’s coronation, they had solemnly sworn ‘that no descendant of King John, formerly king of England, should ever hold the land, for the same were not worthy to bear the name of king’ (Barnwell). As for the legate, Louis denied his authority, and threatened church leaders who bound themselves to Henry, ordering them to swear fealty to himself instead. The diocesan authorities, however, took the royalist side. Rebuffed diplomatically, Louis and his allies withdrew from Dover, ‘determined to reduce the smaller castles throughout the country, so that after the lesser fortresses were in their power, they might attack the larger ones’ (Wendover). As Louis left, Dover’s undaunted garrison emerged to replenish their supplies by plundering the neighbourhood. The Dauphin’s withdrawal from Dover may be seen in Clausewitzian terms as the campaign’s culminating point. The invaders had exhausted their initial impetus, leaving them over-stretched and vulnerable.

Reaching London during the first week of November, Louis took the Tower on the 6th. The Barnwell Chronicle implies treachery, but this is the common medieval attribution of military outcomes to personal frailty rather than the objective balance of forces. The Tower’s fourteen-month siege was well past the norm. Pursuing his strategy of consolidating the south-east, ‘[Louis] shifted his quarters from London into the interior of the country, dragging throwing engines after him and the instruments of war’ (Barnwell). While the royalists gathered at Bristol, he opened siege operations against Hertford Castle. North of London near the head of the Lea Valley, a little west of Ermine Street, Hertford’s capture would safeguard Louis’s northern communications. It would also protect the rebel heartland, blocking the Roman road from St Albans into East Anglia, which William Longsword had taken the previous winter.

Hertford Castle lies on the River Maran’s east bank. Once an Anglo-Saxon burh, its features are obscured by the urban development that occupies most of the semicircular outer ditch. The mound measures 100 feet (30m) across the base, and 22 feet (6.5m) high. Its commander was one of Fawkes’ household knights, Walter of Godardville, who had recently shaken down the Abbot of St Albans for 50 marks, a gold cup, and a palfrey worth 5 marks. Louis surrounded the castle with machines to batter the walls, presumably on the east side to avoid attacking across the river. Roger of Wendover assures us that the garrison made great slaughter amongst the French, before surrendering on 6 December, saving their lives, arms, and property. The History claims that the garrison requested a twenty-day truce, expecting no relief, but as we shall see the poet’s informants found this part of the war deeply confusing.

Louis moved on to Berkhampstead, 22 miles (35km) further west. Another of William the Conqueror’s royal castles and site of the English surrender in 1066, Berkhampstead lies 10 miles west of St Albans, and six from Roger of Wendover’s birth place (15km and 10km respectively). It occupies a well-chosen position commanding the narrow valley through the Chilterns taken by Akeman Street, the Roman road from Aylesbury to London, and the modern railway. Strategically, Berkhampstead covered Watling Street, which runs north-west from St Albans towards Saer of Quincy’s estates in Leicestershire. It might also provide a jumping-off point for a rebel advance into Oxfordshire, bypassing Windsor Castle in the Thames Valley.

Berkhampstead Castle’s outer perimeter is one of the largest surviving in England, its oblong embankment 150 yards (135m) north-to-south topped with a flint rubble curtain wall. The mound in the north-east corner is even bigger than Hertford’s, 180 feet (54m) across the base and 45 feet (13.5m) high. It featured a circular shell keep, with walls 7 feet (2m) thick, an economical way of upgrading the original palisade. Thomas Becket had built the walls and keep in the 1150s. Since then little work had been done, before John had the defences repaired with timber from nearby woodlands. A wet ditch surrounded the whole site.

The garrison was commanded by a German routier called Waleran, and offered a vigorous defence. While the barons were still pitching camp, the defenders sallied forth, seizing baggage and a standard. Waleran’s men sortied again at dinner-time, flying the captured banner in hopes of catching the besiegers by surprise. The main and south gates faced away from the French approach, so these stirring events may have occurred to the north outside the Derne Gate beside the motte. Next day, Louis set up his machines to launch a destructive shower of stones. Eight mounds along the outer bank to north and east are sometimes identified as the firing platforms, but archaeological excavations disagree.

Meanwhile, William and the king hovered around various royal strongholds in the south-west. Lack of money hampered vigorous action outside the belt of south Midland castles. Tradition and common sense, however, dictated that unrelieved garrisons should surrender in good time to preserve their lives, arms, and horses. William made the most of Berkhampstead’s hopeless situation by exchanging the castle for a Christmas truce lasting until 13 January 1217, the week after Epiphany. Its hero’s inaction puzzled theHistory’s author, whose garbled account deepens the chronological confusion: the Waverley Annals dates the surrender to St Lucy’s Day or 13 December, perhaps when a truce was first proposed; Roger of Wendover’s date is a week later, perhaps reflecting the physical transfer of custody.

The royal party spent Christmas at Bristol, after which both sides summoned a council of their supporters: Louis at Cambridge, the guardians of the kingdom at Oxford. Roger of Wendover makes much of the rebels’ predicament, disillusioned with Louis, but unwilling to give him up, ‘lest they should be like dogs returning to their vomit’. In reality, they could no more change sides than their opponents. Both factions were competing for the same limited set of territorial assets. Neither would budge until compelled by a shift in the military position. Only two prominent rebels had changed sides since the Marshal’s peace offensive, the weathercock Earl of Aumale, and Rochester’s gallant defender William of Aubigny, grown weary of Corfe’s compulsory hospitality.

The rebel garrison of Mountsorrel in Leicestershire celebrated the end of the truce by raiding the Trent Valley on 20 January. Alerted by scouts, the Nottingham royalists killed three of them and captured thirty-four. Louis resumed operations by besieging Hedingham in Suffolk. Once more William exchanged a threatened castle for a truce, this time until 23 April, four weeks after Easter. Colchester, Norwich, and Henry II’s polygonal castle at Orford all surrendered at the same time. Lincoln and Ely were also under pressure, the city and Isle under rebel occupation, their castles closely invested. William seemed incapable of stemming the Dauphin’s advance. Nine out of thirty-two royalist castles held at Henry III’s accession changed hands by the end of January: ‘Thus all the eastern part [of the country] fell into Louis’s hands’ (Barnwell).

Medieval motivation is hard to fathom from the sources available. Intentions have to be deduced from actions, or the guesswork of contemporaries and earlier historians, who may have been worse informed than we are. The History blamed the Hertford garrison’s unauthorised negotiations for the loss of other eastern castles, a view which might pass muster if William’s written orders had not survived in the Rolls of Letters Patent. When Sidney Painter disparaged royalist strategy as over-cautious, he was unaware of the regent’s crushing financial difficulties as revealed in Exchequer records published after he wrote. William’s threat to burn Worcester in December unless the city paid £100 that it owed King John, is not a story the History might celebrate. His inaction during the winter of 1216–17 bears a depressing resemblance to John’s inertia in Normandy in 1203 or at Stonar in 1216, episodes for which William bore some responsibility. In both cases, however, John had lacked the material means to offer effective resistance. Decisive action is only justifiable if attended by reasonable hopes of success. William had been more aggressive in earlier conflicts, on a more even playing field.

As Chapter Three’s discussion of knightly warfare suggests, medieval commanders did not lack strategic resource. William was more than a baronial Micawber waiting for something to turn up. Painter himself advances two good reasons for the regent’s inactivity. Firstly, East Anglia’s garrisons might be more useful elsewhere. William had never entertained exaggerated notions of the value of isolated strongholds. He had advised Richard I to let Philip Augustus keep the Vexin’s disputed castles in 1198, as long as he held the surrounding countryside and its revenues. Richard’s routiers beset the French garrisons so closely that winter that they dared not water their horses outside their own castle gates. The tables in 1217 were turned. It was Angevin garrisons who were unable to venture out. Men and supplies were better transferred to more important sectors, as they were from Norwich and Orford to Dover, the war’s strategic pivot. Secondly, yielding indefensible castles bought time for negotiations with uncommitted magnates in the far south-west, consolidating the Angevin position in that quarter.

The Barnwell Chronicle adds a third consideration: ‘It was rather hoped that Louis would return home during the truces, and it might easily happen that the royalist side would gain [some] chance advantage through this’, a precociously Clausewitzian analysis of the importance of gaining time when on the defensive. William’s main aim was to maintain the regency as a going concern, avoiding risky adventures in areas dominated by the Dauphin’s friends. His first sortie to Nottingham in early January, to organise help for Lincoln’s hard-pressed garrison, stayed safely within the Angevin castle belt. William took steps to encourage other threatened garrisons, writing to Bedford and Northampton to thank the constables for their efforts, assuring them that reasonable ransoms would be paid for anyone taken prisoner.


Medieval truces rarely lasted. The History blamed the customary arrogance of the French for William’s refusing further negotiations. The Barnwell Chronicle says it was the English who broke the peace. Everyone agrees that hostilities restarted around Quadragesima, the first Sunday in Lent, which that year fell on 12 February. Gervase of Canterbury records a French defeat near Lewes, probably at the hands of William of Cassingham. High-status prisoners included two nephews of the Count of Nevers. About the same time, the royalists regained control of Rye, one of Louis’s few Channel ports, par engien or by cunning.

Louis had been thinking of returning home to confront a papal diplomatic mission, and gather reinforcements. His English supporters smelt a rat, and made him swear on the sacraments that he would return before the truce’s scheduled end. As he prepared to sail, bad news came from Sussex, ‘whence Louis angrily moved the army thither, although he had few men’ (Barnwell). Anonymous of Béthune confirms Louis’s march to Lewes, and then Winchelsea, the next place to Rye. Cassingham’s men, ‘retreating into the woods, broke down the bridges behind him [Louis], and laid ambushes, so that he could not bring up supplies behind him’ (Dunstable). The stage was set for an obscure episode that might have brought the war to a sudden and embarrassing conclusion – for the French.

The History naturally attributed the Sussex campaign to the Marshal’s ‘prudent and high-minded counsel’. Assembling every royalist capable of bearing arms, he sent Philip of Aubigny, who held the king aloft after the coronation, to occupy Rye with combat-hardened knights and sergeants. As royalist warships cruised offshore, William approached with a great host, gripping Louis so tightly he did not know which way to turn. The French historian Charles Petit-Dutaillis dismissed such claims of co-ordinated action as ‘fantaisistes’, but some documentary evidence suggests pre-planning. The regent sent letters in December to Irish shipmen on the Norman coast to gather at Winchelsea by 13 January, the end of the first truce. Philip of Aubigny took command in Sussex a week later, a suggestive coincidence. William remained in the Thames Valley gathering reinforcements, but it is hard to deny him credit for a strategic combination carried out under his overall direction.

William’s ability to confront Louis in the field was a product of Guala’s tireless preaching and its dramatic effect on public opinion: ‘those who had formerly called themselves the army of God, and boasted of defending the freedoms of the church and kingdom, were [now] counted as the sons of Belial’ (Barnwell). As days grew longer, ‘Many, nobles as well as commons, placed the sign of God’s Cross on their breasts that they might eject Louis and the French from England, preferring to have a king of their own country than a foreigner’ (Waverley). Played down by sceptical Protestant English historians, Crusading ideas and rhetoric were fundamental to the royalist war effort. Henry III had renewed his father’s Crusading vows, soon after his coronation, reinforcing the respect due to royalty with Crusader immunity. Henry’s opponents were now the enemies of God and the Church. Where Robert fitz Walter once posed as ‘Marshal of the Host of God and Holy Church’, Philip of Aubigny was now ‘leader of the army of Christ’. Rebel defectors or reversi took the Cross as a condition of absolution. Those who had done so already postponed their departure overseas to join the royalists. When the war ended, combatants from both sides left for the Holy Land to fulfil their vows. While Guala played the Crusade card, his clerical opponents attacked his moral authority, accusing him – and the Pope – of accepting bribes and trampling justice underfoot.

Winchelsea and Rye were two of the Cinque Ports, an association of towns on the south coast. Founded before the Norman Conquest, they originally numbered five towns, hence their collective name. Prospering from fishing and piracy, they dominated cross-Channel traffic. In return for royal recognition, they ‘defended the sea-coast from the attacks of the enemy’ (Gervase of Canterbury). Winchelsea and Rye joined the confederation during the twelfth century, providing five and ten ships respectively. They were tiny places. Domesday Book records sixty-four burgesses at Rye, implying a population of just over 300. Thanks to a shifting coastline, the two towns now lie a mile or two inland from Rye Bay, halfway between Hastings and Dungeness. Rye stands above the surrounding countryside on a hill surrounded by rivers: the Tillingham to the west, the Brede to the south, and the Rother on the east. Their confluence with Wainwright Creek formed an excellent harbour known as the Camber. Land access was limited to the narrow isthmus from Rye Hill to the north. Anonymous of Béthune describes Rye as a strong place, although today’s defences are thirteenth century. Modern Winchelsea was rebuilt west of Rye after thirteenth-century floods destroyed the original town. In 1217, Winchelsea lay east of the Camber, a mangonel’s throw across Wainwright Creek from Rye to the north.

The loss of Normandy lent the Cinque Ports a new significance, converting them from a transportation facility to England’s first line of defence. John recognised this by confirming their charters in 1205, styling their burgesses ‘barons’, like London’s leading citizens. As usual, however, he alienated essential allies. The History tells us that in the summer of 1217, the men of Sandwich still resented the injuries John had done them nine years earlier. Gervase of Canterbury describes him hanging some on the gallows, slaying others by the sword, imprisoning more in fetters, exacting heavy ransoms and hostages. The Cinque Ports’ initial resistance to Louis was minimal.

Courted by royalist diplomacy, the Cinque Ports were among the earliest defectors from the Dauphin’s camp, essential allies for William’s Sussex campaign: ‘Louis … having not confirmed the truces he granted earlier, went to Winchelsea near the Cinque Ports, which had abandoned him. Our men intercepted him, and having broken down the bridges, kept him in dire straits’ (Worcester). Anonymous of Béthune, who witnessed the siege from inside Winchelsea, observed Louis’s difficulties at first hand. The townspeople had fled on board ship, smashing their mill stones as they went. There was plenty of corn, but no way of grinding it for flour to bake bread, the medieval soldier’s staple. The French tried rolling grain between their hands and fishing, but English boats shot them up. The best food was a store of nuts. The History confirms the Brabançon’s account. William was on one side, at a distance; on the other side was Philip of Aubigny’s chivalry, who killed many of Louis’s men, while the fleet injured them from the sea. In the countryside, Willekin of the Weald harassed them mercilessly, cutting off many heads to show he was not playing.

The Dauphin was caught, as his father had been amidst the Flemish polders in 1198. Courageous French sergeants ran the gauntlet to fetch help from London, which came slowly. The Castellan of St Omer set off with insufficient numbers to risk entering the Weald. His knights rode east down Watling Street to Canterbury, then turned west past Romney, where they found Rye blocking the land route into Winchelsea. Frustrated, they retreated to Romney, and summoned naval assistance from Louis’s vassals in the Boulonnais region across the Channel. Several hundred ships set sail, but only one ran the English blockade, ‘through the courage of the sailors’ (Anonymous). The others stopped at Dover, where Louis had left a detachment when he abandoned the siege. The Romney force rode back to Dover, but storms prevented them from going aboard. For a fortnight, Louis and his men endured an unusually rigorous Lenten fast.

The ship that did reach Winchelsea was commanded by Eustace the Monk, who promptly justified his reputation for maritime ingenuity. Winchelsea had been a royal dockyard, constructing ten galleys for King John in 1213. Eustace constructed a floating siege tower from local material, planning to tow it across the Camber with his own galley, to engage the English beyond. On top of a captured boat, he built a fighting castle, ‘so big that everyone stared at it in astonishment for it overhung the ship’s sides in every direction’ (Anonymous). He then placed a perrière on a second ship lashed alongside to provide covering fire. Meanwhile, Louis mounted two more perrières to shoot across the creek. Before Eustace was ready, however, an English raiding party destroyed the galley under the very eyes of the starving Frenchmen, only four of whom had been fit to stand guard.

The History speaks of a thousand French killed over the course of the siege, ‘as soon as they strayed from the ranks’, suggesting they were cut off while out foraging, and never properly counted. It was a large number, equal to the infantry force John took to Ireland in 1210:

and so were ruined and routed the lowborn troop,
who made such excessive boasts of having England at their disposal.

Louis himself might have been captured, had Fortune not turned in his favour. The day after Eustace’s galley was destroyed, the French relief squadron broke through from Dover. The reinforcements, says the History, brought Louis’s numbers up to 3,000, not an impossible number if it includes sailors and infantry. Louis launched an amphibious assault across the creek to drive out Rye’s outnumbered defenders, capturing welcome stores of wine and food, and the English ships, whom the new arrivals had cut off from the sea.

Louis sailed off home on 27 February. Next day, when it was too late, William addressed a letter to Rye’s erstwhile defenders urging them to hold out, promising ‘greater succour than they could believe possible’. All the royalists’ secular leaders were assembled, four earls, half a dozen Marcher barons, and a troop of mercenary captains, followed by a multitude of knights, sergeants, crossbowmen, and loyal Welshmen, ‘together with the lord legate, the clergy, and a host of Crusaders’. William’s army, however, was still at Dorking, several days’ march away. Rye was in French hands and Louis safely overseas. Nevertheless, the Sussex campaign had two lessons. Firstly, the French were not invincible. Secondly, medieval strategic combinations lacked neither scale nor ambition. Land and sea operations extending from the Thames Valley to the south coast and across the English Channel had aimed at nothing less than the wholesale decapitation of the Franco-rebel army.


The Dauphin’s departure restored the initiative to the royalists, and undermined his political position. The following month saw 150 safe-conducts issued to rebel defectors. The most significant reversi were the Earl of Salisbury and William Marshal the Younger. Avoiding inconvenient details, the History suggests that they simply fell in with the regent near Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex, and went off to besiege the old Braose castle at Knepp. Their change of allegiance had been under discussion for some months. John’s death had assuaged their personal grievances against the Crown, and both men nourished claims to castles that Louis had granted to more reliable supporters. Salisbury was especially valuable. An experienced commander, he would play a significant part in the closing stages of the war, leading a royalist eschiele at Lincoln.

William would have known of Louis’s oath to return in late April. This gave him seven weeks to regain lost ground. The French field army being absent, rebel-held castles became vulnerable. Garrisons were small and exposed. Mountsorrel’s numbered just ten knights, plus sergeants. Deep in hostile country, with little prospect of relief, they were easily intimidated. Louis had left his nephew Enguerrand de Coucy to safeguard London during his absence, and the latter took a narrow view of his responsibilities. Until Louis returned, William had a free hand.

He began with Farnham and Winchester. Carrying the war into Hampshire, away from the solidly fortified Thames Valley, William opened a new front and menaced London’s communications with the south coast. Sir Ralph Hopton’s Cavaliers would try a similar manoeuvre in the 1640s. The two sieges were mutually supporting, a day’s march apart along a good road. Farnham lies at the western end of the Hog’s Back, forming an advanced post for England’s second capital, and the Solent ports. The castle belonged to the Bishop of Winchester, the king’s tutor, another good reason for taking it. Its great central motte was not at one end as usual, but in the middle of a tear-shaped embankment, the eleventh-century earthworks surmounted by a polygonal shell keep and a curtain wall of flint rubble. The History gives no details of events at Farnham, a particular loss as other chroniclers are equally uninformative. Documentary evidence shows that William was there 7–12 March, when the garrison received a safe-conduct back to London. The Dauphin’s rapid recapture of the bailey after his return, but not of the keep, suggests the latter suffered little damage.

Winchester was a more serious proposition, with two castles and extensive walls. Lying at the junction of Roman roads from Portchester, Southampton, Salisbury, and Marlborough, it was a major centre of government, and Henry III’s birthplace. The ancient walls formed an irregular quadrilateral stretching half a mile (880m) westwards up the slope from the River Itchen. In 1141, William’s father had helped besiege Wolvesey Castle, whose square keep and gatehouse still stand in the south-east corner of the walls. William the Conqueror’s royal castle lay at the other end of town, overlying the south-west corner of the city walls near the Westgate. The royal castle occupied an elliptical mound 300 yards (270m) long north–south and 100 yards (90m) across, separated from city and countryside by a wet ditch 30 feet (9m) deep and wide. Stone walls had been added in the late twelfth century, John spending 100 marks on repairs in 1215. A cluster of square towers occupied the motte at the southern end of the bailey, a square great tower standing at the northern end, near the section of city wall leading to the Westgate. Today, the site is occupied by the Law Courts and the old Peninsula Barracks. The only medieval structure left is Henry III’s Great Hall, built after the siege in the 1220s.

Salisbury and the younger Marshal established themselves at Hyde Abbey, a good spot north of Winchester for directing operations against either castle. Wolvesey fell almost immediately. Then, for a week, the two friends beset the royal castle so closely by day and night that the garrison could neither rest nor show their faces. The History does not mention engines, but references to both shooting and throwing imply bows and machines. The defenders probably had engines too. Castle accounts from the 1190s include payments for a mangunel and a petraria. The attackers’ best firing position, by analogy with John’s practice at Rochester, would have been to the west, on the higher ground beside the Romsey Road. The presence on that side of the castle’s main gate, always a weak point, would also invite attack from that direction. The gate’s subsequent reinforcement with a barbican may not have been coincidental.

Operations were momentarily interrupted by an urgent summons from the Marshal, during which the garrison came out to punish the citizens for siding with the royalists. Winchester’s suburban inhabitants joined in the looting, suggesting tension between those living inside and outside the walls. The History puts the interruption early in the siege, but the return of Salisbury and the younger Marshal on hearing that Farnham had fallen suggests a date nearer 12–13 May. The regent arrived on the 14th, ‘with such a company of knights the river banks and countryside were full of them and the town all round’. There were already enough royalists to bottle up the defenders, so William despatched his more active associates to recover Southampton, Portchester, Chichester, Odiham, and even Rochester. The History never explicitly mentions Winchester’s capture, suggesting a gap in the text, which suddenly jumps to describing how the poorer royalists enriched themselves at their enemies’ expense. The castle held out as long as was prudent. When Louis returned, Anonymous of Béthune reveals that he found much of the wall collapsed by mining, and had to fill the breaches with stout oak palisades. The defenders presumably gave up towards Easter, for shortly after that the Marshal divided the army. The Earl of Chester headed north to pursue his claim to Mountsorrel Castle. Fawkes went to relieve his garrison at Ely. Blending family concerns with the national interest, the younger Marshal invested Marlborough Castle the Friday after Easter, which he took, ‘though not without great trouble’.

Louis was back in England by then, ready to take the gloss off the royalist recovery. His trip home had mixed results. Philip Augustus was mending fences with the Pope, and pretended not to be on speaking terms with his heir. The History claims that Louis returned with a large and warlike army, but Anonymous of Béthune says he ‘brought but few knights’, seven score of them besides some mercenaries. More interesting was the Trebuket, something ‘much spoken of for at this time they had been little seen in France’. Among seventeen named magnates was the ill-omened Thomas de la Perche, the French commander at Lincoln.

The date on which Louis returned has caused much confusion, but the Worcester Annals support Anonymous of Béthune’s timetable, placing it on Saturday 22 April, the eve of St George’s Day. A favourable wind carried the French fleet past Dover so close that Louis could see the huts left from last year’s siege. He did not land for Willekin of the Weald chose that day to attack the caretakers and burn the huts, while country people lined the cliffs ready to shoot down into the ships. Louis landed further north at Sandwich, not without further loss from English galleys lurking offshore. Here he received intelligence that Winchester, Southampton, Marlborough, and Mountsorrel were all besieged, diverting him from his immediate objective of renewing the siege of Dover. Keeping the pick of his knights and sailors, he patched up a local truce with Hubert de Burgh and marched top speed for Winchester. Before leaving he fired Sandwich, a gratuitous atrocity reflecting the deterioration in Anglo-French relations. The Brabançon’s timetable provides a rare insight into the marching powers of a medieval army under pressure:





Miles (km)

Tuesday 25th



28 (45)

Wednesday 26th



42 (67)

Thursday 27th



10 (16)

Friday 28th



Saturday 29th



25 (40)

Wednesday was qualified as a long march. The transport stopped overnight at Reigate protected by the rearguard, and caught up next day, while Louis stormed the bailey at Farnham. The daily average of 26 miles (42km) compares favourably with nineteenth-century march rates. The British General Staff in 1914 advised that only small commands of seasoned troops could cover such distances, under favourable conditions. John did 40 miles (65km) a day at Mirebeau in 1202, but Louis was held up by his train: ‘carters, sergeants and crossbowmen, mercenaries and riffraff’ (History). At vespers on the 26th, the sun appeared red as blood, and remained so for many days, celestial confirmation that dreadful deeds were afoot.

Still at Farnham, Louis was joined by Saer of Quincy, with grant chevalerie d’Englois. Of the rebel strongholds under siege, only Mountsorrel still held out. A bone of contention between the Earls of Leicester and Chester during the Anarchy, Mountsorrel lies 8 miles (13km) north of Leicester in the Soar Valley. Standing on high ground south of the village, the castle was situated near the intersection of the boundaries of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Lincolnshire. Not far from Fosse Way, the great highway that runs diagonally across England from Exeter to Lincoln, it menaced Chester’s communications with his honour of Bolingbroke in south Lincolnshire. Forfeited to the Crown after a previous Earl of Leicester was captured at Fornham, fighting for the Young King, the castle had been returned to Saer following Magna Carta. Saer’s support for Louis gave Chester a fine chance to reassert a claim dating back to his great-grandfather.

Roger of Wendover’s statement that the siege was undertaken on William’s orders affords it wider strategic significance than a baronial property dispute. The only rebel castle south of the Humber to escape John’s clutches in 1216, Mountsorrel’s capture would ease pressure on the Lincoln royalists, 45 miles (72km) to the north. Chester’s army included Fawkes and a swathe of Midland castellans with their garrisons. Battered by machines, the defenders ‘courageously returned stone for stone and shot for shot’ (Wendover). Having demonstrated their mettle, they called on Saer for help, who appealed to his own feudal lord. Focussed on the southern theatre, Louis had little to send. ‘Unable to get rid of him otherwise’, he gave Saer permission to relieve Mountsorrel with his English chivalry, supported by seventy French knights led by de la Perche. More Brabançons might have gone, but the Avoué of Béthune was not asked. Two other leaders lacked the men.

The rebel army divided next day, 29 April. Saer returned to London; Louis headed for Winchester, hoping to win the war at a blow by capturing the boy king. Squires riding ahead to seek billets caught some royalist stragglers, but king and regent had gone, retreating to Marlborough along the road that John Marshal had traversed so painfully seventy-six years before. For all William knew, Louis’s whole army was present including Saer’s English, while he had only part of the royalist array. By luck or cunning, the younger William Marshal persuaded Marlborough’s defenders to surrender just before the Dauphin’s return became common knowledge. The garrison saved their lives and bodies, avoiding death or mutilation, but were deeply embarrassed. Frustrated in his wider aims, Louis spent several days restoring Winchester’s defences:

Rebuilt the keep and the high walls richly with stone and mortar,
And all the breaches in the walls and the damage
Made well and truly good, as if they were all brand new.

He then returned to London en route for Dover, leaving the Count of Nevers to hold Winchester with a strong garrison. When Louis sat down before Dover on 12 May, it was as if the royalist spring had never happened.

Saer of Quincy’s column left London on Monday 1 May, ‘pillaging all the places they passed’. Roger of Wendover put their numbers at 600 knights, which is credible, and 20,000 infantry, which is not. Roger, who saw them ravaging the vicinity of Belvoir Priory, described them as the refuse and scum of France, ‘their poverty and wretchedness … so great that they had not enough bodily clothing to cover their nakedness’. Marching via St Albans and Dunstable, Saer approached Mountsorrel on the Wednesday. If Chester’s force represented half the royalist troops present at Lincoln three weeks later, it would have been outnumbered two-to-one in knights. For all the royalists knew, Louis was coming with his entire army. After the war, some commentators still thought he had been there. Warned by scouts, the royalists burnt their machines and huts, and withdrew to Nottingham to await events. The rebels re-provisioned the castle, repaired mangonel damage, pillaged the local churchyards, and marched off to Lincoln. Hugh, Castellan of Arras, and Gilbert of Ghent, Louis’s candidate for the Earldom of Lincoln, had been besieging the castle since Lent. With Saer’s reinforcements, they felt sure of liquidating its gallant defenders.

The crisis of the war had come. Both sides had divided their forces, but the royalists occupied a central position between the enemy corps at Lincoln and Dover, able to strike a concentrated blow at either before the other could come to its aid. William, lying at Oxford, enjoyed easy communications with the Earl of Chester at Nottingham. The situation called for extreme measures. The rebels were pinned down in sieges, their nearer detachment commanded not by the Dauphin but by magnates inferior in status and reputation to the Marshal. They were ripe for slaughter.

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