Post-classical history



Henry II

Then, at the age of 21, the young Henry Plantagenet ascended the throne of England in December 1154, he established a new royal dynasty, the fame of which ensured its name would echo through the ages. His sons, the ‘Devil’s brood’, included two of England’s most legendary kings, resulting in a succession of three remarkable monarchs from 1154 to 1216. Henry ushered in an age of constitutional and legal changes against a turbulent background of political intrigue, diplomatic manoeuvring and, above all, war. But, first and foremost, he founded the Angevin Empire.

Son of the Empress Matilda, heiress of England, and Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and grandson of King Henry I of England and Fulk of Anjou, King of Jerusalem, Henry was clearly born for great things; but even his natural ambitions must have been pleasantly exceeded by the relative ease with which he became King of England. One contemporary chronicler wrote: ‘It is astonishing how such great good fortune came to him so fast and so suddenly.’35 The struggle for the throne of England which had plunged the nation into the anarchy of King Stephen’s reign was ended by the treaty of Winchester in 1153. By the terms of this treaty Stephen recognised Henry as his heir, jure hereditario. Stephen, worn out by the incessant strife of his reign and shattered by the sudden death of his eldest son Eustace, whom he had groomed to succeed him, relinquished any further serious dynastic ambitions for his own house and acquiesced to the demands of the Church, which sought peace for both sides, and to the barely tempered demands of his Angevin competitors. The treaty left Henry as the first undisputed heir and successor to the throne of England in over a century.36 What Henry had only partially achieved by military force, fate had finished for him.

By the time of his Christmas coronation in 1154, Henry was already a hugely powerful figure on the European stage: Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and, through his inspired marriage to the divorced wife of King Louis VII of France, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou. This match with Eleanor of Aquitaine had doubled his continental dominions and halved those of King Louis at a stroke. It was an irony of the French king’s dissolved marriage that Eleanor had borne him only two daughters – a serious, if blameless, failing in any queen – but went on to provide her new husband with no less than four sons. However, despite this temporary blip for the French crown, the Capetian dynasty, founded in 987 and from which Louis was the eighth monarch, was notably fortunate in its long unbroken line of direct and relatively undisputed male successions; Louis later went on to produce a son with a new bride.37 But Henry had married not only into power – he had also married into considerable trouble. For as much as Eleanor was bored by her unadventurous and unsatisfying life with Louis – she had complained that she had been married to a monk, not a king – it would seem that Henry was more than a match for this extraordinary woman; the result was a clash of two overbearing, ambitious and egotistical personalities. The marriage, even though a royal one, was not big enough to contain them. Henry, eleven years younger than Eleanor, took a series of mistresses, the most famous being Rosamund Clifford; Eleanor herself stood accused of infidelities during her marriage to Louis. Henry was a powerfully built, robust and energetic man who engaged upon an almost frenetically active involvement in the governance of his lands.38 Eleanor, despite her allegedly amorous appetite, struck an elegant figure as queen and patroness of the arts.39 In a manner reminiscent of the Empress Livia in Augustine Rome, she channelled her own ambitions through her male offspring; Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John. These she turned against her husband, so much so that Henry compared himself to a picture in which an old eagle was being relentlessly harried and pecked by four eaglets.

For two decades Henry’s reign was clearly a fruitful one. He re-established order and royal authority in England, leaving himself free to consolidate his continental interests; by 1173 he had accomplished this by becoming overlord of the neighbouring territories of the Vexin, Brittany and Toulouse, a tribute to his formidable diplomatic skills. All were of strategic importance and would prove to be so in the years of war that were to follow. He began the subjugation of Ireland and forged close links with Henry, Duke of Saxony, and also with Navarre and Lombardy.40 The Constitution and Assizes of Clarendon in the mid 1160s added renown to his political authority and, notwithstanding the controversy over Archbishop Thomas Becket’s death in 1170, 1173 saw Henry esteemed as perhaps the pre-eminent ruler in western Christendom. It was at this moment he faced the greatest challenges to his authority, all of which emanated from within his own family.41 Motivated by King Louis of France, who never failed to meddle in and ferment Angevin familial discord, and by their mother Eleanor, Henry’s sons allied themselves with disaffected barons and the King of Scotland in a military strike at the crown. However, a lack of synchronisation and coordination by the rebels doomed their revolt and permitted Henry to deal with and overcome one threat at a time. Henry was magnanimous in victory to his eaglets, but unforgiving of Eleanor: for the rest of Henry’s reign, she remained in effective imprisonment.

In 1183 trouble brewed up again. In an acute manifestation of sibling rivalry the young Henry, who held Normandy, Maine and Anjou, allied with his brother Geoffrey, who held Brittany, against Richard, Duke of Aquitaine and their father. The two eldest sons were aided in their task by the new King of France, the eighteen-year-old Philip II. This dangerous instability threatened the Angevin power structure but was removed by the unexpected death from dysentery of the young Henry. Richard thereby became heir to the throne of England and inherited the elder brother’s continental lands. Henry II wished to provide for John, his youngest and most favoured son, by giving him Richard’s duchy of Aquitaine. Richard would have none of this: his many talents were already well established and he successfully countered all moves against him. In 1186 Henry was threatened by Geoffrey, again spurred on by King Philip of France; once again the premature death of a son – Geoffrey was killed in a tournament accident – saved Henry’s position from greater danger. But the last years of Henry’s reign witnessed no alleviation of his troubles. The scent of a new order was in the air and the old King found it increasingly difficult to shake off the hereditary hounds. His initially cordial relations with Philip of France broke down into open warfare. At first he was assisted by Richard against the French king, but then opposed by him. Inexplicably, Henry continued to favour John at the expense of Richard, his most gifted son. Prompted by fears for his inheritance and by Philip’s sly encouragement, Richard joined forces with the French King in a well-organised military campaign against Henry over a battle-ground that was thus prepared for the conflicts of John’s reign. Henry lost Le Mans and Touraine, and hence the struggle. In July 1189 he succumbed to the humiliating terms of Richard and Philip. Two days after signing his defeat, sick in heart and body, Henry died.

Richard I

True to the ever-changing nature of medieval alliances, when Richard became King of England the familiar pattern of Angevin-Capetian rivalry was renewed afresh, barely restrained even by their combined leadership of the Third Crusade (1190–2). Whatever King Philip had learned from the military genius of Richard in the Holy Land, he could not put it to effective use against him back in Europe, for Richard usually bettered the French King at war. Philip had returned home early from the crusade, making much of an illness that was afflicting him (arnoldia), but in reality his purpose was to lay claim to his inheritance of the county of Flanders, using the opportunity to make gains on Richard’s continental territories in the English king’s absence; he was not overly deferential to the protection afforded by the Papacy to crusader’s lands. This was about the only time that Philip made any real sustained headway against Richard; and what progress he did make was often in collusion with John, Richard’s treacherous younger brother. On his return, Richard soon made good any losses he had incurred while in the Holy Land or while incarcerated by Henry VI of Germany.

Richard was adored by contemporaries for the chivalric hero he was; the judgment of historians has proved, until recently at least, to be more censorious, one damning him as ‘A bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler, and a vicious man’.42 The two main charges laid against him are his over-exploitation of England’s resources to fund his ‘foreign’ wars and his wholesale neglect of his kingdom due to his absence fighting these wars on the continent, spending only a few months of his entire reign in England. The first of these charges will be discussed later in the context of Angevin military finance; the second has been comprehensively rejected by John Gillingham (though not universally accepted) who has shown the importance of Richard’s continental lands to overall Angevin strategy.43 Richard’s assured judgement of character (except where his younger brother is concerned: he was extremely lenient with John’s rebellions and alliances with King Philip of France) meant that England was always left in safe hands; indeed, as J.C. Holt has written of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury and chief justiciar who governed England in Richard’s absence, the King actually benefited from ‘one of the greatest royal ministers of all time’.44

A further, neglected but extremely positive aspect is suggested here. Richard’s victories abroad, brought about by his active involvement in warfare, denoted greater security for England, not less. One only has to examine John’s pitiful record on the continent – which we will soon be doing – to witness the consequences of military defeat there, when unsuccessful campaigns were invariably followed by threats of invasion. In 1216 these threats were put into operation and became frighteningly real after heavy English losses in France. It has always been Britain’s strategy to fight its wars on foreign soil, thereby preventing conflict on home territory. This strategy is widely understood in the more modern context of the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century and the world wars of the twentieth century. Thus one historian of the Napoelonic wars has written for the early nineteenth century that ‘in one sense Britain’s defences began east of the Rhine with her Continental allies. Military dependence kept drawing Britain into European affairs.’45 (In fact Richard carefully nurtured alliances with German princes.) Even in the twenty-first century, the British government has justified military action as far afield as Iraq and Afghanistan as a means to ensure safety at home. This is, as one historian of the Cold War put it, ‘the age-old formula of security-through-expansion’.46 The feudal nature of English medieval society does not preclude England, as many seem to think, from adhering to the wisdom of such a sensible ‘age-old’ policy in this earlier period. We can see this policy in action in the period of the Hundred Years War. Between 1377 and 1383, English strategy centred on taking and holding forts along the northern French coast to prevent further French and Castilian raids on the south coast which had culminated in an invasion of the Isle of Wight in 1377. This strategy was sold successfully to the commons, which granted the huge war funds for it, as a defensive measure. With the expiry of a truce in 1385, the French King Charles VI began preparations for an invasion of England the following year. He was in a position to do so because he had gained control of ports in Flanders from where he could assemble and launch his huge invasion fleet. This ‘presented the most serious threat that England had faced in the whole course of the war, and provoked widespread panic in southern England’.47 The fleet of 1386 gathered near Damme, in exactly the same place where the French King Philip Augustus had gathered his invasion fleet in 1213. Had John been as successful as Richard in his continental wars, then Philip would not have been in a position to pose this threat then or for his son to make the threat a reality three years later in 1216. This is the overlooked vindication for Richard’s policy of fighting his wars abroad. This book will show how John’s military failures combined with his political ones to leave England exposed to invasion.

Seen in this light, it is a measure of Richard’s achievement that he did spend so much of his time fighting on the continent; likewise, it is an indication of John’s shortcomings that in 1216 he fought his last war in England and against French invaders. It may safely be assumed that the French subjects of King Philip were happier during 1216–17 when their troops were inflicting the ravages of war on the English, than in the 1190s when Richard the Lionheart took the war to them. It is likely that contemporaries understood this; hence the English offered their grateful praise for Richard’s military accomplishments, which were regarded in practical rather than merely jingoistic terms: the defence of the realm was a king’s highest duty, and Richard performed it supremely well. It is therefore not surprising that fears of a French invasion abounded in England on Richard’s death in April 1199, mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt shot from the battlements of a castle while suppressing a revolt in the Limoges. As William the Breton, no lover of the Angevin king, wrote of this event: ‘God visited the kingdom of the French, for King Richard died.’48

The Angevin Empire

At the close of the twelfth century, the Angevin Empire stretched from the north of England to the Pyrenees, splitting modern France in half all the way down. It was a disparate collection of lands which included the peoples of Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Anjou, Limouisin, Angoulême, Agenais and Gascony at a time of pre-nascent French identity. Some of this territory, most notably Normandy, was held from the King of France as a suzerain; some of it formed part of personal patrimony. Holt has written: ‘The Plantagenet lands were not designed as an “empire”, as a great centralised administrative structure … On the contrary, these lands were simply cobbled together.’49 Yet this construction worked: with little more to unite it than a common allegiance to its (usually absent) master, it managed to be a viable, indeed healthy, entity. Under Henry’s and Richard’s dynamic itinerant rule, the natural strengths of the empire came to the fore. As ever when examining territorial struggles, it is necessary first to establish the state of the regional economies. Gillingham has demonstrated these to be of great importance; thus they aroused the predatory interest of rulers, princes and magnates. ‘Economically speaking the Angevin Empire may be described as a number of complementary regions bound together by a series of well-defined waterways,’ he writes; the Angevins ‘ruled over an immense trading zone’.50 Chief among the commodities were grain, salt and wine, especially that coming from Anjou, Aquitaine, Bordeaux and Poitou. The busy traffic down along the Seine, Loire and Garonne testified to the economic viability of the empire which garnered great profits from this traffic in trade. Lucrative tolls, customs and licences added further to the Angevins’ wealth. Economic strength translated into military strength; as the anonymous chronicler of Béthune notes, King Richard was ‘extremely rich in land and resources, much more so than the King of France. He could raise a very large army from his vassals and mercenaries, for he was able to summon English, Normans, Bretons, Manceaux, Angevins and Poitevins. He also had numerous routiers, who inflicted much damage on the King of France.’51 So here was another clear reason for Richard devoting so much of his time to the Empire: it was a source of funding for his wars and enabled him to continue his conflict on the Continent, outside his kingdom. England, too, was wealthy; but its relatively stable boundaries and greater centralisation of power, which owed much to the efforts of Henry II, meant that by and large it could confidently be left in the hands of competent administrators. The more volatile situation on the continent, with the Angevin frontier running contiguously with a hostile Capetian one (to which must be added the consideration of the more fragmented form of political life there) demanded greater attention. Although suzerains of France, the Capetians could lay claim only to personal royal lands centred on the Île-de-France, extending in a corridor from Artois in the north to Berry in the south.

Historians have drawn attention to the fact that contemporaries never addressed the Plantagenet dominions as an empire because they did not deem them as forming an institution.52 However, in the Old French poem, The Song of Dermot and the Earl, written during the second quarter of the thirteenth century but following an earlier original, the Irish chieftain Dermot McCurrough speaks to Henry II of ‘les baruns de tun empire’.53

Empire or not, the lands of the Angevin kings constituted the foremost political power of the time, and one well worth fighting for control of. Robert Bartlett believes that the danger to Capetian France from the Angevin Empire has been overestimated: ‘For the Capetian Kings of France this accumulation of territories under the Angevins was not primarily a threat to their existing position but rather a large and potentially permanent obstacle to their ever doing anything about it. If the lower reaches of both the Seine and the Loire were held by Henry II and his sons, there could be no expansion downstream from the Île-de-France.’54 This containment policy by the Angevins is an important factor; however, by 1214 John’s fight to recover the Empire after its dismantlement sucked in the Holy Roman Empire as an ally and the existence of Capetian France was very much on the line. Ralph Turner believes that the Capetians held the military advantage, as Philip had a compact base in the Île de France, which made it easier for him to dispatch his forces ‘to attack Angevin-held castles in the Seine or Loire valley’. By contrast, Richard and John had ‘the disadvantage of defending a long frontier, extending from the Channel to the Pyrenees, stretching lines of communication and requiring dispersal of resources among widely scattered fortresses’.55 This is a serious consideration; in the Russian civil war of the early twentieth century, a similar geo-strategic set up greatly assisted the Bolsheviks, compactly centred around Moscow, to defeat the dispersed forces of the Whites who, on the map, surrounded them. However, some of these disadvantages of the Angevins can easily be inverted into advantages: they could attack from anywhere on a long frontier, which in Normandy was close to Paris; the compact base around the French capital was threatened by a swift takeover; the wealth of areas within the empire meant that resources for war could be collected locally for regional fortresses; and the extent of the empire meant, as Bartlett hints, that it was harder for the Capetians to deliver a knock-out blow to their enemy. The events of 1204 and 1214 bear out these aspects of the strategic situation.

This informal empire was to be the arena for the climactic Angevin-Capetian clash. The years after Richard’s death experienced an almighty contest between two of Christendom’s greatest kings, the English and French monarchs, for the very existence of the Empire itself.56


Whereas Richard ensured his inheritance fell to him intact through his extraordinary efforts and abilities, John could boast no such merit when his turn for the crown came; he owed his position entirely to luck and to the services of the Grim Reaper, who had obligingly gathered to him John’s three older brothers. Prince Henry, Geoffrey and Richard had all met premature ends; Richard, typically enough, struck down while in action. As the direct consequence, in 1199 John, fourth in line to the Angevin succession and 33 years of age that year, became King of England, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou and Lord of Ireland.

His position was not fully secure, and in some areas castles were victualled in preparation for and anticipation of any trouble that might have erupted. In England his ascension to the throne was broadly undisputed, but in the French provinces there was a consensus that the young Arthur, Duke of Brittany and John’s nephew through Geoffrey, had a better claim to the throne. Anjou, Maine and Touraine declared for Arthur, amid rumours that he also had the support of Archbishop Hubert Walter. The 12-year-old duke was taken under the aegis of Philip Augustus, who saw in him too good a chance to miss for trouble-making against the new King of England, just as his father had done. By a strange coincidence of history, John was with Arthur when Richard was killed. In one of his periodical bursts of energy, John made straight for Chinon to secure the Angevin treasury deposited there. Seizing the treasury was always the first action of any triumphant claimant to the throne: the financial resources thereby obtained signalled to his new subjects that they may hope for largesse in the form of gifts and patronage; but they were also made aware of the possible repercussions should they choose to resist someone who was now in a position to afford the employment of substantial mercenary forces in support of the new regime. John got off to a reasonably good start in England, gaining a measure of popular support by fixing low prices for Angevin and Poitevin wines. By the end of his reign he had created for himself one of the most controversial reputations, and possibly the worst one, of any monarch in English history.57

His legacy has led to some ambiguous judgements on his abilities, and there is still no consensus on his reign, though one has begun to emerge over the last decade. Stellar and Yeatman’s humorous history of England, 1066 and All That, published in 1930, conveyed a simplistic summary of John which held sway for a long time: he was ‘a Bad Prince’, ‘an awful King’, a ‘wicked’ monarch who ‘demonstrated his utter incompetence’ during ‘his awful reign’.58 Since then a great deal of scholarly revisionism of his reign has accentuated some positive aspects of John’s monarchy, especially in the field of administrative processes. In 1902, Kate Norgate accused John of blunders in statecraft, errors in strategy, weakness, cowardice, sloth and superhuman wickedness.59Compare this to Alan Lloyd’s assessment in 1973: ‘He was himself an ingenious administrator and a shrewd strategist. When pugnacious barons dubbed him ‘Softsword’, they paid unwitting tribute to his preference for negotiation rather than violence. The inference that he was a feeble soldier is a false one.’60

In some ways these conflicting views reflect the times in which the historians wrote. The Victorian age, with exceptions such as Stubbs, admired the manly heroic figure cut by the chivalrous form of Richard (who, as we have seen, is himself the subject of conflicting views in the modern academic community) to the detriment of John who, it was believed, lacked the chivalry of big brother.61 Many modern historians, more preoccupied with quantifiable information gleaned from official documentary evidence, and in reaction to unfashionable military history, praise John’s undoubted administrative skills, sometimes effusively so.62 But against this praise must be balanced Colin Richmond’s telling observation that ‘The records of government are all very well, but on issues that matter they do not tell the truth. In fact, they seek to obscure it.’63 Favourable views based on bureaucracy accentuate chronocentric bias and preference, placing one skill at a premium over the other instead of valuing both as the two sides of the same coin. A good military commander in the Middle Ages had to be a good administrator: Richard the Lionheart excelled in both areas, hence his deserved reputation as a military genius; John excelled only in one, and even this was chiefly the result of his military failings which forced him to administer his kingdom ever more efficiently in an effort to find revenues to pay for the losses inflicted by war. Whatever today’s sensibilities may be, medieval subjects expected their monarch to achieve success in war; as Ralph Turner neatly summarises it: ‘modern scholars’ admiration of kings such as John for attention to administration is anachronistic, applying standards of the twentieth century rather than the thirteenth.’64 Growing recognition of this has seen John’s reputation plummet. An important collection of papers from scholars published in 1999 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of John’s accession to the throne is universally damning of the King, and the most recent research even challenges John’s innovations in administration. David Crouch, writing in 2010, promotes wide, though not universal, current agreement in judging John’s rule as ‘ham-fisted’ and the King as ‘unpredictable and unreliable’, whose ‘irrational capacity for abrupt, extravagant, and uncontrolled resentment’ put him ‘outside the courtly world’.65

The balance must weigh heavily against John. Indeed, the greatest achievement of his reign, Magna Carta, was the result of his inability to rule effectively. With only some reservations, therefore, it is safe to concur with mitigated opinions of contemporary chroniclers, while bearing in mind John’s record in administration. Gerald of Wales, virulently hostile to the Angevin house, declared that John ‘feared not God, nor respected men’; Richard of Devizes depicted John as a raging madman, his face so contorted as to be unrecognisable; the more even-handed Barnwell writer says of John that ‘he was less than successful’ and ‘a pillager of his own people’. Of course, such monastic voices had their own political and financial agenda, but John fares little better at the hands of secular sources. The anonymous biographer of William the Marshal portrays the King as a suspicious and resentful ruler, heedless to reason, blinded by pride and incapable of retaining baronial affection. The Anonymous of Béthune (whose master fought for John) labels John ‘a very wicked man: he was cruel to all men … he ashamed many of the great men of the land, for which he was much hated.’ The Anonymous goes on to relate how John set his barons against each other, ‘happy to see animosity between them, and that he hated them through envy’; quite simply, ‘he had too many bad qualities.’66 This last assessment is one of the most telling; it confirms the inconsistency of the King and his woeful inability to manage people. Whereas Richard was an inspired leader of men, John was a Machiavellian manipulator, and not a particularly good one.

Was John mad? Contemporary depictions of his rages and rolling around on the floor gnawing frantically at straws would suggest this. But the question of whether John really was insane is debatable. Charles Petit-Dutaillis thought so, believing that John ‘was subject to a mental disease known today and described by psychiatrists as the periodical psychosis … Philip Augustus had a madman as his rival.’67 Vivian Green, in his study The Madness of Kings, offers a more equitable judgement, questioning whether there is any real justification in labelling John as a madman; rather he was ‘immature in behaviour and outlook …His occasional bouts of energy, his rage and cruelty, his obsessive suspicions may well suggest that he was a victim of an acute personality disorder.’68Perhaps it would be more pertinent to say that those around him were the victims of his personality disorder.

The summation of faults displayed by John was dangerous in a king and disastrous in a medieval military commander. When John attempted to be assertive he often came across as shrill, cowardly and malevolent, as seen in his monstrous treatment of William de Braose’s family (his wife and child were starved to death in a royal prison), his deadly intentions for the defeated garrison at Rochester and his duplicitous massacre and decapitations at Evreux in 1194. In W.L. Warren’s memorable phrase, John ‘could not resist the temptation to kick a man when he was down’.69 He could not even keep his balance while doing so. In contrast, when Richard was assertive, the signal sent out was one of ruthless efficiency: his mass execution of nearly 3000 Muslims at Acre in the Holy Land, though reprehensible, at least had the merit of being an effective solution to a serious logistical problem, caused by an enemy failing to satisfy agreed demands.70 The important point here is one of perception: whatever good John may have done, it was always overshadowed by his darker acts. Contempories considered him a loser, and so labelled him with the damning soubriquet of mollegladium, ‘Softsword’.71 Churchill believed that the British nation owes more to the vices of John than to the labours of the more virtuous monarchs (but then he also considered the loss of Normandy to be a good thing);72 this was not the view of contemporaries, and their judgement was fairly sound.

Philip Augustus

Perhaps John’s failings would have counted for less if he had been faced with a less formidable opponent: King Philip II of France. That Philip had made little headway against Richard in the 1190s is more of a reflection of Richard’s qualities than Philip’s shortcomings. Philip is the most important of all the seventeen Capetian kings of France: he did more than any other to create the foundations of modern France. Jean Flori, his most recent biographer, rightly claims that his reign constitutes ‘a fundamental moment in the history of the French kingdom’ and he ‘merits the title of the first King of France’.73 He became monarch in 1180 when only fourteen. During his reign the very existence of the French nation was constantly in peril, a danger that persisted until a climactic battle for survival in 1214, when John’s allies were poised to deliver a crushing blow to Philip. The Anglo–French conflict of the early thirteenth century is the story of a fight for survival between the Angevin Empire and the Capetian monarchy. This contest was fought out within the boundaries of modern-day France, except during the period 1215–17, when the war spilled over into England for its final round. So bitter had the struggle become, by 1214 both sides seemed to veer towards Catonic strategy:delenda est Carthago. Ultimately, France survived, and to this day the French revere Philip for expanding and consolidating his kingdom and for guaranteeing its long-term security.74

When John became king, Philip already had nearly 20 years of experience as ruling monarch under his belt. He had been schooled in the art of kingship by Henry II and Richard I, two of its great practitioners; his lessons were well learned and consistently applied. However, in many respects Philip and John were evenly matched. Philip was only two years younger than John. Both were possessed of singularly unengaging personalities. Turner notes that Philip ‘shared unattractive traits with John: lustful, authoritarian, cynical, suspicious, and treacherous’; Steven Runciman remarks on Philip’s ‘nervous disorder’ and his predisposition to indulge in ‘underhand intrigue’; Elizabeth Hallam has written of ‘cruelty, treachery and authoritarian behaviour’. French historians have also noted his unappealing features: Robert Fawtier accurately labels him ‘a cautious, cynical distrustful man’; Charles Petit-Dutaillis describes Philip’s politics as ‘flexible and unscrupulous’; Flori, less critically, describes his character as ‘complex and secretive’ and also ‘stern and severe’ when compared to Richard the Lionheart.75 Like John, a picture of calculating slyness emerges; but unlike John, this unsavoury quality was used to great effect, for Philip was a master Machiavellian, a schemer whose machinations got results. For this reason, similarities in character are not matched by similarities in reputation. Philip had developed talents at an early age. In 1184 he was faced with a serious threat from Count Philip of Flanders, ‘one of the shrewdest soldiers of the day’ (under whom Richard the Lionheart had served his military apprenticeship).76 Henry II, who had afforded Philip a considerable degree of protection during the latter’s early years on the French throne, brokered an armistice between the two sides for a year. The two parties had to name their allies who were to be included in the agreement. King Philip audaciously implicated his father-in-law, Count Baldwin of Hanault, by naming him without prior consultion and without Baldwin ever having even taken the King’s side. Furthermore, Baldwin had no wish to antagonise his powerful and dangerous neighbour, the Count of Flanders, who was at odds with the French king. By this brazen move, the French King succeeded in achieving two aims: he artificially represented his position as being stronger than it really was while simultaneously manufacturing a useful split between Flanders and Hainault.77 Philip was indeed ‘a prudent and skilful diplomat’,78 no matter how dubious this diplomacy may have been. The French historian R-H. Bautier has rightly praised Philip as ‘a remarkable tactician of politics’, who augmented his strength by his ability ‘to judge allies and adversaries, and discover their weaknesses and profit from them’.79 I would argue also that an even greater attribute was his capacity, which developed with his political maturity, to gauge and recognise his own debilities and limitations, especially in the military sphere.

Philip’s phenomenal success offers one explanation for his great renown; another is provided by the panegyrical writings of the chroniclers Rigord and William the Breton, the official royal biographers: Rigord bestowed upon Philip the appellation of ‘Augustus’, complete with quasi-imperial overtones, and one altogether more flattering than ‘Softsword’ or ‘Lackland’, which English writers had stuck on John; William was sycophantically unstinting in his praise, regularly lapsing into eulogistical hyperbole. There was no battalion of hostile monks taking up their quills against him such as John faced in England. But Philip had some need of literary flourish in support of his martial endeavours: in another resemblance to John, Philip was not heroic material. A pale, sickly child who grew into a fat, prematurely balding young man, Philip was not the stuff of chivalric legend.80 There is much truth in the accusation levelled by Gillingham that Philip was a ‘timid soldier’, but it is misleading to say, as A.L.Poole does, that he was ‘not a great soldier’ or, as Alan Lloyd concurs, he was ‘not an outstanding warrior’.81 Holders of this view might have cited the outburst of Philip’s contemporary, the pathologically belligerent troubadour, Bertrand de Born, who charges Philip with being too soft (’trop mols’) and chides him for ‘hunting sparrows and tiny birdies’ instead of pursuing the manly and noble past-time of war.82 But Philip was to prove himself militarily as a commander-in-chief rather than as a fighting man.

The Treaty of Le Goulet

When John came to the throne of England in December, 1199, these two unlikely generals stood on the eve of unleashing upon each other the fury of their armies in a series of bitterly contested and viciously waged wars, which extended the established patterns of the Angevin-Capetian struggle. John and Philip were to be the chief instigators of the momentous events of the next eighteen years, but it would have been difficult for them to have forseen the desperate character that these wars were to take on, or the new levels of intensity that they were to reach. However, just before the storm was about to break, there came the lull. This appeared in the shape of the treaty of Le Goulet, signed on 22 May 1200. By the terms of this treaty, Philip Augustus recognised John as Richard’s heir in all his French possessions, with Brittany held by Arthur as John’s vassal. In return, John ceded the strategic Vexin and Evreux to the French king, reflecting, in part, Philip’s recent military advances. Further terms were agreed as the two kings talked by themselves, surrounded by their retinues, at this border conference that a papal legate had done so much to bring about: John abandoned his alliances with Otto of Brunswick and some of Philip’s vassals, which Richard had carefully cultivated;83 he paid 20, 000 marks to Philip as a succession duty, a feudal relief for taking up his continental inheritance; and the treaty was sealed by the marriage of John’s niece, Blanche of Castille, to Philip’s son, Prince Louis of France.Warm embraces between the monarchs were followed by John’s summer visit to Paris, where he was lavishly entertained by his Capetian host.84

The salient features of the treaty formed telling portents of future events; alternatively, they may be viewed as actively shaping the future course of Anglo-French relations. Although the Norman Vexin was relinquished to France, Andelys and its defensive network, centred on Richard’s magnificent ‘bold castle’ of Château Gaillard (also, but less accurately, called ‘saucy’ castle), remained in John’s hands: this set the immediate scene for the epic struggle for Normandy in 1203–4. John’s payment of the colossal sum of 20,000 marks for his continental territories defined his feudal relationship with his overlord, Philip of France: when this contract was ruptured in 1202 it allowed Philip, however tenuously, to justify his military moves against John in legalistic terms. And the marriage of Blanche of Castille to Louis was perhaps most significant of all: it gave the young Prince Louis his claim to the English throne in 1216.

It would be too much to assert that the treaty sowed the seeds of John’s overwhelming troubles during his reign; equally, it is hard to see, as many historians do, that Le Goulet was something of a triumph for John in any but the most superficial of applications. ‘Overall’, writes one recent biographer, ‘John had done well. He gained his goal by threatening force without seriously using it; and the settlement with Philip II bought him two years of peace, during which he would consolidate his power over his continental possessions. He seemed to be establishing control over his continental lands from the English Channel to the Pyrenees.’85 This was certainly the impression John gave during his successful tour of his French fiefs from June to August 1200 – and the importance of impressions of power on the medieval mind should not be underestimated – but, as developments were to prove, ultimately John would have little to show for this consolidation. Instead, the treaty seemed to reveal John’s habitual flaws in the area of Clausewitzian diplomacy: as John Baldwin succinctly summarises, ‘Philip had extracted from John the major military objectives he had been unable to win from Richard.’86 This brief statement captures the essence of Richard and John’s competition with Philip Augustus. The payment of the huge relief stipulated in the treaty (itself a partial rebuttal to those who believe that Richard had all but bankrupted England) draws apposite comment from Warren: ‘The significance of the relief demanded of John lies partly in the enormous sum asked, but even more in the demand itself and the agreement to pay. No one had ventured to ask it of Henry or Richard; they had simply taken possession and no one dared say them nay.’87 Previously the Angevin monarchs had, in effect, ruled half of France; but now the Capetians were asserting their feudal hegemony with John playing the part of compliant vassal. As Turner points out in his study of John, it was the King’s signing of the treaty of Le Goulet, and not his subsequent military defeats, that earned him his label of ‘Softsword’.88 Gervase of Canterbury, who first recorded this judgement of contemporaries on John, believed that the King was right to settle for peace.89 Historians have followed Gervase’s lead, giving persuasive background reasons of war-weariness and economic concerns to explain why John was right to sign at Le Goulet.90 One is tempted to add a more cynical explanation: John’s tendency was to choose negotiations before a conflict rather than after it, was perhaps a recognition that his own limited military skills could leave him in a worse bargaining position following any fighting. It may be that the collective wisdom of contemporary opinion reflected a clearer insight into the realities of the situation, perceiving as it does John’s fatal flaw in kingship: his inability to play the role of warrior-king. Whatever the argument, ultimately John was to gain nothing lasting from the treaty. Sometimes it seems that whatever action John took, he was predestined to make a mess of it, and whatever path he followed it would leave him lost and bewildered.

Despite all his achievements, there was one area in which Richard had not left his brother a strong hand: relations with the Church in Angevin territory in France, especially beyond the Norman borders. Ralph Turner’s study of Richard’s administrative kingship in his French domains reveals the limitations of the King of England’s influence. Being pious in the conventional sense, as Richard was, was not sufficient to smooth over matters of diplomacy, economics, peace and war, these being the chief practical and secular concerns of his episcopacy on the Continent.91 Here Richard could not exert the leverage over episcopal elections that he could in England and thus he could not reap all the advantages that this entailed (which included those of vacancies and patronage).92 Turner writes that the Angevins ‘lacked the aura of sanctity that surrounded them in England as anointed kings. On the Continent, the French monarchs as heirs to the Carolingians asserted their role as protectors of the church even within the territories of their rivals, the Plantagenets. This tradition earned the Capetian rulers the devotion of French ecclesiastics who went so far as to support their French King against the pope.’93 Certainly, Philip enticed the clergy with such sweeteners as free episcopal elections so as to lure their loyalties away from the Angevins; however, when his hand strengthened, Philip dispensed with the willingness to be so accommodating.94 Where free elections did occur in the Angevin territory, the results could go against Richard’s interests: in 1190 at Le Mans, the monastery of St Martin of Tours, which provided the Capetians with intelligence for the Loire valley, elected one of its number to the bishop’s chair.95 Beyond Normandy, it was only in Angers that Henry II and Richard succeeded ‘in planting their own clerks, bound to them by personal attachment and committed to the cause of an Angevin empire’.96

There were serious problems even in Normandy, notwithstanding the close political and ecclesiastical ties with England which constituted an Anglo-Norman realm. Here, the strains and exigencies of continuous warfare were taking their toll: pressures of financing military operations and, especially on the borders, raids and depredation, focused the minds of the war-weary clergy evermore on peace. Richard’s demands had already led to an interdict on the duchy in the mid-1190s, following a showdown with Walter of Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen (whose toponym disguises his Cornish origins). At Andely, Richard had seized the archiepiscopal manor there (together with its lucrative tolls imposed on traffic up and down the Seine) to build his mighty fortress of Château Gaillard. After representations at Rome and an interdict, Richard settled with Walter by compensating him with two other manors and the important seaport of Dieppe, a mark of just how highly Richard valued the site.97 Philip Augustus also recognised Andely’s significance, as his father had before him (Louis VII had burned the town in 1167).98 During the peace made between Richard and Philip at Louviers in January 1196, the French king, clearly appreciating its strategic importance, had, in the words of one chronicler, ‘demanded Andely for himself’.99 But Richard would not concede it: with the vital border fortress of Gisors and most of the castles on the Epte having recently fallen into French hands, and with Vaudreuil unable to control the road on the other side of the Seine, a weak point had been opened in Rouen’s satellite defences. Richard was therefore determined that the Capetians should not obtain possession of Andely; instead, he planned to build there a superb defensive complex (with offensive capability) to safeguard the duchy’s capital. He was, quite literally, laying the foundations for the key battle of Normandy between John and Philip.

In the tense military stand-off at the turn of the century, England needed Richard, not John, to counter Philip of France. As the Archbishop of Rouen presciently lamented on hearing of Richard’s death: ‘What hope remains to us now? There is none, for, after him, I can see nobody able to defend the kingdom. The French will overrun us, and there will be no one to resist them.’100

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