Post-classical history



John and the Anger of the Barons

The state of John’s mind as he sailed back from La Rochelle in mid-October 1214 can be easily imagined. Even if he had come to terms with the massive defeat at Bouvines – and the defeat did not stop him conducting government business and making plans for the future – he knew that he was returning to a kingdom that was approaching boiling point in terms of political discontent; the heat had been rising before he had left England and the Bouvines disaster could only fan the flames of opposition. Following his allies’ defeat, John had sent secret instructions back to England to put his castles in a state of readiness in expectation of the trouble to come. In his absence, the justiciar Peter des Roches – soldier, bishop and chief administrator – had done nothing to cool things down. Incessant demands on the baronage for service and money were made all the more grating to them by the elevation of this foreigner over them. His lack of popularity can be gauged by a contemporary rhyme that was not designed to be flattering: ‘The warrior at Winchester, up at the exchequer / Sharp at accounting, slack at the scripture’.321 John had increasingly reacted to his own distrust of his countrymen by importing men from France, especially Poitou, and placing them in high office at the expense of English candidates. This abuse of patronage, as the disaffected regarded it, was compounded by the physical reinforcement of foreign mercenaries in the realm, adding to the perceived threat of arbitrary government. The political events in England leading to Magna Carta and civil war have been much studied and need not detain us for long here in what is a military study of events. That said, the political context needs addressing briefly, as do the reasons for the personal animosity of the leading rebels against their king, so that we have an understanding of the motivations that compelled men to take up arms in a civil war.322

John had earned for himself the label of a loser; ‘Softsword’ had rarely seemed so appropriate as a sobriquet. The successes that John had achieved in the military sphere, and which some historians view favourably for his record, were all temporary and could never balance out the disasters of 1204 and 1214. David Carpenter has succinctly summarised the impact of the latter, following the massive defeat at Bouvines: ‘In Germany it undermined Otto and set up Frederick II. In Normandy it ended the chance of an Angevin recovery. In Europe it made King Philip supreme. In England it shattered John’s authority and paved the way for Magna Carta.’323 The contrast with the enhancement of Philip Augustus’s reputation could not have been clearer. Philip’s panegyrist, William the Breton, pretty much concludes both his books on the King with the Bouvines climax, even though Philip was to reign for another decade. This purposeful neglect can be explained largely by how unexciting the rest of the reign was in comparison prior to Bouvines: overwhelming military success had brought France relative peace and security, as the theatre of war moved to England itself. Richard I’s policy of fighting his wars abroad was, as suggested in the first chapter, a highly effective and successful one; criticising him for his military absence is a misunderstanding of fundamental defensive strategy. Now Philip benefited from the same luxury: he had all but finished the war on his home territory, and he could now take it to England.

John’s inability to show anything concrete for his vast outlay of national treasure inevitably led to the sensible conclusion that his squeezing the country for money to fight more wars was tantamount to throwing good money after bad. Finances lay at the root of John’s problems, just at it lay at the heart of politics; above all, money was needed for war. Baronial reluctance to fund John’s overseas campaigns arose from resentment at expectations of scutage and military service, which itself was of course extremely costly, as John was told in no uncertain terms in 1212 and especially 1213. The refusal of the northern barons to heed the summons in 1213 resulted in John attempting a military display of power in the north before Archbishop Langton stopped him. This resentment went back to the 1205 scutage: Robert Fitzwalter and Roger Bigod were resolutely against the King from this point. John’s habit of imposing a scutage and then abandoning the expedition funded by it did nothing to foster mutual trust. 1214 saw the scutage rate hit a record high; Peter des Roches failed miserably to reach his tax targets since May and on his return in October John demanded three marks per fee from those who had not, in his mind, fulfilled their obligations to him in Poitou. This increased anger especially in East Anglia and the north. Henry II had levied eight scutages in 34 years; John levied eleven in just sixteen. The tactless, indeed, aggressive manner of John’s financial exactions antagonised his subjects further. The sale, exploitation and manipulation of justice but failing to deliver it fairly in the courts; pressurising the Jews who in turn pressurised their baronial debtors; the instatement of over-eager royal officials seeking income for the crown such as the ruthless Brian de Lisle in the north and the promotion of insensitive foreigners such as Engelard de Cigogné as sheriffs; the use of hostages as coercion; the seizure of land by will; and always tax, tax, tax, like the onerous aid of 1207: the pressure on the barons was severe and unrelenting.324 And John never had anything to show for it.

It was the increasingly arbitrary nature of exactions and rule that caused the most unsettlement. A particularly personal and unpleasant tactic of John was the use of amercements. These were ostensibly a system of penalties for those convicted for offences against the King’s peace; in reality they were a means by which barons bought the King’s goodwill. Robert de Ros, Sheriff of Cumberland, failed to keep some prisoners in custody and was fined 300 marks. Thomas de St Valéry sought the King’s goodwill in 1209 probably for no other reason than he was the brother-in-law to William de Braose who had fallen from favour with John. In 1210, Robert de Vaux, another northerner, offered John 750 marks and five top quality horses so that, according to the official pipe roll, the King ‘would keep quiet about the wife of Henry Pinel’.325 Amercements could be extortionate: William of Cornborough died in gaol because he was unable to pay his. As Ralph Turner says of John, he ‘became master at enmeshing those who had lost their favour in administrative difficulties that could result in financial ruin. John made the most of his ability to entangle his subjects in debt.’326 A substantial element of John’s financial policy might therefore be described as part extortion and part blackmail for political ends. He might have found sympathy and help a better way to ensure loyalty; no wonder men such as Robert de Ros joined with the rebels in 1215. Debtors like Gilbert de Gant and Henry d’Oilly were also well represented among the rebel ranks; James Holt has identified the upheaval of 1215 as, in part, ‘a rebellion of the King’s debtors’.327

We can perceive in all this the distinctly unpleasant nature of John’s vindictive character. This is best exemplified by his notorious treatment of Willaim de Braose and his family, ‘one of the defining events of the reign’.328 John’s actions were part of his suspicion of powerful nobles and his desire to cut them down to size; Ranulf of Chester was on the receiving end of this trait in 1203–4, as were William Marshal and de Braose in 1205–7. It was the latter who suffered the full brunt of John’s animosity. De Braose, a close advisor of the king’s, had done well out of John; many barons had benefited from the king’s patronage and largesse, thus delaying a united front against him for far longer than might otherwise have been expected. De Braose was Lord of Bamber and Barnstaple and a Marcher Lord in South Wales with land around the Gower. In 1201 he had been offered the honour of Limerick in Ireland by John, for which the baron promised to pay £666 annually for five years. Six years later he had managed only £468. This lack of payment, coupled with de Braose’s affiliation with William Marshal and, more seriously, possible involvement with the Welsh, served to heighten John’s anger and mistrust. He ordered his justiciar in Ireland to raid the baron’s land and seized his lands in Wales. De Braose attempted military action to regain three of his castles in Wales but failed; he burned some of Leominster and killed some of John’s crossbowmen and sergeants before taking refuge in Ireland. As seen above, John even marched to Scotland in 1209 to ensure no help was received in Ireland from that quarter before making for Ireland in 1210. De Braose attempted to make his peace with the King, but John seemed hell-bent on destroying him, proclaiming him a traitor, and demanded an impossible 40,000 marks payment from him. De Braose’s wife, Matilda, and son were taken hostage and imprisoned in Windsor Castle. The baron could not find the money for their release and, ignobly or pragmatically, fled to France. In 1210, John had Matilda and her son starved to death in a dungeon. This shocking news spread like wildfire across the country, made all the more horrible by lurid details of the position in which their bodies were supposedly found: she slumped between her son’s legs with her head lying on his chest, having gnawed at his cheeks for food.

John sent out a carefully detailed public letter explaining the financial and political reasons for his actions, revealing an awareness that his actions were causing grave disquiet. It has been reasonably argued that John had to pursue his course ruthlessly: once one baron was indulged with non-payment of debt, all would try for the same treatment. But another convincing argument could be made that in fact William was not his target after all – Matilda was. Perhaps money was only the excuse John put forward for such extreme action and another reason is needed to explain why John was so implacable and vicious. This other reason may be the de Braoses’ knowledge of John’s involvement in the death of Count Arthur of Brittany. De Braose had in fact captured Arthur at Mirebeau and was around John at the suspected time of Arthur’s death. Interestingly, de Braose was the patron of Margam Abbey the annals of which offer a unique insight into the young Count’s murder, laying the blame squarely on John during a drunken rage.329 It is worth asking whether de Braose felt that his position of influence combined with his knowledge of John’s dark secret led him to believe that he could be relaxed about the payment of his debt to the King. If so, he was playing a dangerous game that backfired tragically. A key moment in the affair came when, as was John’s custom, he demanded the de Braoses’ sons as hostages. Wendover has Matilda paling at the prospect, explosively declaring in front of John’s officers: ‘I will not hand over my boys to your master King John, who wickedly murdered his nephew Arthur, whose custody had been honourably granted.’ Just as revealing is William’s measured response; upbraiding his wife for her foolish (that is, dangerous) words, he said: ‘If I have offended him [John] in anyway, I am and shall be ready to give my lord satisfaction, without hostages, according to the decision of his court and of my fellow barons.’330 The ‘without hostages’ provision might easily be taken as damning, for hostages were habitually surrendered to John by barons, even by those deeply antagonistic towards him. John was ‘enraged’ and from this point on did not relent until Matilda’s death.

It may be wrong to look at this whole, terrible affair from just one angle, either financial or personal; both would have been important and both had serious political implications. Why this case is so significant, and why it has been afforded so much space here, is because it shows the alienating combination of John’s greed, inept management of people and his arbitrary viciousness that did so much damage to him. All of England quickly came to know about these events; the barons now felt more vulnerable and edgy than ever: if John could treat one of his leading nobles in this capricious and disgraceful way, who among them could be sure of their own safety and that of their families? Historians have rightly and consistently made much of the consequences of John’s fatally flawed and paranoid character. In 1961 Warren wrote that ‘the king’s ability to cripple his vassals was all the more disturbing in John because he was capable of using it for no very good reason – a caprice of his twisted suspicions, his dislike of men simply because they were great and powerful’. He adds, ‘Even if the barons accepted John’s explanation, they could only have been more alarmed, and felt more dreadfully insecure, at this terrible illustration of the king’s interpretations of his rights. Even the mightiest among them could be crumpled if they lost the king’s “goodwill”, and the goodwill of a king, moreover, who was so suspicious and mistrustful.’331 In 2010, David Crouch, in the most recent assessment of the Braose case, says that it reveals the king’s ‘irrational capacity for abrupt, extravagant, and uncontrolled resentment that put John outside the courtly world. He was unpredictable and unreliable.’ Sidney Painter has called the Braose affair ‘the greatest mistake John made during his reign’.332

John delighted in adding insult to injury, and rumours abounded of his licentious behaviour at court. Such stories may have been added after rebellion had broken out as a form of justification for taking action against the monarch. Certainly, William the Breton did not hesitate to lay into the Angevin enemy by claiming that John took advantage of his half brother Earl William of Salisbury’s captivity in France after Bouvines to seduce his wife. Two of the rebel leaders both accused John of adultery, not with commoners and servants, but with women in their families: Eustace de Vescy claimed John attempted sex with his wife, while Robert Fitzwalter accused John of having forced himself upon his daughter. Clearly there was great rallying, anti-John propaganda to be made here, and again the effective warning was sent out that if the wives and daughters of great nobles were vulnerable to John’s advances, then no one’s family was safe, no matter how elevated they were. These stories are likely to have been more than merely malicious gossip. It could not have been easy for such proud nobles as Fitzwalter and Vescy to admit to such stories. The Anonymous of Béthune – not a monastic chronicler, remember – condemns John because ‘he lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated.’333 Even government records make a knowing nod towards this, probably with dark humour: the chancery rolls record that ‘the wife of Hugh de Neville gives the lord King 200 chickens that she might lie one night with her lord, Hugh de Neville.’334 Other kings had been serial adulterers, not least John’s father, Henry II, whose ‘adultery was conducted on a truly regal scale’; he was able ‘to make free with the women even of his greater barons’. That John’s ‘crimes against women’ were not tolerated in the same way says something not only about their nature, but also about his personal stature, authority and the character of his misrule.335

So there were plenty of reasons to take up arms against the King: political, patronage, personal (often deeply personal) and financial. John was overwhelmingly responsible for this state of affairs: his crass incompetence in dealing with his magnates, his erratic behaviour and his spiteful, almost sadistic violence, this displayed in destabilising, arbitrary and unchivalrous kingship marred by persistent military failure, all fused into a programme of opposition to John and a casus belli in the autumn of 1214. This amalgamation of grievances did not help in settling upon a single, rallying cry of rebellion. This makes it harder to identify the rebels as a homogenous group, a task made all the harder, as we have seen in France, by the fluctuating allegiances of knights and barons. Individual bones of contention might more easily be settled by mutual self-interest than a raft of demands; some would show allegiance to the side that most threatened their own land. With the crisis of 1212, John had shown that he could be flexible and pragmatic when the occasion – and pressure – warranted, the Barnwell chronicler noting that suddenly the King ‘began to conduct himself more civilly to his people and the country subsided’.336 It was then that, crucially, John healed his differences with William Marshal to get him back on side. However, John seemed inherently incapable of sustaining such judicious and measured behaviour for any length of time and the baronial party formed into a recognisable movement.

For David Crouch, in his recent important article on paranoia and the barons in King John’s reign, a real measure of the how critical matters were can be seen by the number of ‘corporate baronial letters suddenly flying everywhere’, arguing that ‘statements of joint baronial positions and beliefs are the most evocative symbols of crisis. Things have to be really bad to get the barons to work that closely together.’337 Already by late summer 1213, according to Ralph of Coggeshall with some exaggeration, ‘nearly all the barons of England formed an association to fight for the liberty of the Church and the realm.’338 The appeal to Church and rights of liberty was a strong one. James Holt takes a more jaundiced view of the rebels’ cause. ‘It was a rebellion of the aggrieved, of the failures’ (the two should be taken separately and include those wronged and those who lost out on patronage and advancement); it was ‘a protest against the quasi-monopoly of privilege by the King and his friends’. At its most significant it was ‘a call, not to break bonds, but to impose them … on the monarchy’.339

A highly vocal defence of the Church and liberties of the realm gave the opposition honourable and attractive ideals; while these provide convincing cover for more practical concerns, these concerns, no matter if self-serving in practice, had genuine connections with the liberties being fought for. Crouch says of the aristocracy that ‘Even under John’s ham-fisted rule it was by no means predisposed to rebel, and it took a lot to bring it to the point of resistance.’340 Rebelling against the king, even one as undeserving as King John, was not to be undertaken lightly, and many baulked at the idea. An exact rendering of who was in the rebel ranks is no easy task, not least because of the fleeting allegiances mentioned above. By May 1215, of some 197 baronies in England, only 39 had declared for the rebels; however only a similar number openly expressed their support for the king. The majority stood to one side, wishing either to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict or waiting to see which side gained the advantage. Thus, with the arrival of the French a year later, the number of rebel barons grew in the summer to 97 but may have dramatically dropped after John’s death. The numbers in themselves do not tell the whole picture: variables are introduced by the relative wealth and strength of barons, the size of their knightly retinues and whether these retinues were largely loyal or not. This last factor is a matter of debate amongst historians. John was aware that knights might have multiple fealties (William Marshal brought the point sharply home in 1204), and sought to take advantage of this in 1212 and 1213 by summoning knights to discuss matters of the realm at a national assembly, but this has ‘never earned John any credit as one of the fathers of the English Parliament’.341

Historians have emphasised the three major regional groupings of the barons. In the north, its chief leaders were William de Forz, the Count of Aumale, John de Lacy and William de Mowbray, and Eustace de Vescy, one of John’s most implacable enemies; including Lincolnshire, this group also counted Gilbert de Gant and William d’Albini (Roger of Wendover’s patron) among their number. Contemporaries labelled the rebel barons collectively as ‘the Northerners’, probably because the seeds of rebellion had been sown there most fruitfully with resistance to service and scutage in 1213–14, but also because animosity towards John was generally at its most bitter there. From East Anglia and Essex came the most important group: Robert Fitzwalter, Lord of Dunmow in Essex; Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk; Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford; Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex; and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford (whose lands were overwhelmingly held in Essex and Cambridgeshire). Given the number of earls, it is not surprising that this group provided the main leadership of the rebels; the soon to be established baronial council comprised no fewer than twelve men from this group. Less emphasis has been given to the western rebels, chief of whom were Henry de Bohun, Earl of Hereford; Giles de Braose (unsurprisingly), Bishop of Hereford; and William Marshal’s oldest son, also William (who had spent time as one of John’s hostages). Important recent research has redressed the neglect of this region and argued for its more significant role in the rebellion.342 From elsewhere, the chief men of note were Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester with land in Northamptonshire and Cambridge, and the baron William de Beauchamp with lands in Bedfordshire.

The leadership of the rebels has not been viewed favourably by historians: Poole says that ‘the leaders do not inspire confidence’; Warren condemns Fitzwalter, the elected leader of the rebels, as ‘altogether disreputable and mischievous, rescued from ignominy only by his great fiefs, and owing his leadership to his dominating aggressiveness’. He and Eustace de Vescy were little more ‘than baronial roughnecks’.343 The Anonymous of Béthune tells the colourful story of how Fitzwalter’s son-in-law, fellow rebel Geoffrey de Mandeville, once killed a servant during an unseemly row taking place near to where the King was staying. When John threatened Geoffrey with hanging, Fitzwalter challenged the King with ‘You will not hang my son-in-law! By God’s body you will not!’ before threatening intervention with 200 of his knights. At Geoffrey’s trial, his father-in-law turned up with an estimated – but completely implausible – 500 knights.344 Fitzwalter and Saer received opprobrium for giving up Vaudreuil so easily to King Philip in 1203, but there is uncertainty over this episode. Fitzwalter clashed with John in 1210 over the rights to a priory which he ravaged, prompting the King to send troops against him and he was declared an outlaw in 1212 for his part in the assassination plot; his estates were seized and two of his castles, including Baynard’s Castle in London, were destroyed. Influential as these groupings were, regional associations were just one of the ties that bound them together. As seen above, kinship and marriage were important, as was friendship; Robert de Ros and Eustace de Vescy were brothers-in-law to the new King of Scotland, Alexander II.

But most significant ‘was their shared hatred of King John on account of personal wrongs done to them’.345 These wrongs included being denied privileges and rights; having castles, lands and offices withheld without justification; corrupted justice and extortionate fines; excessive, punitive royal debt collection; the favouritism towards foreigners; personal affronts to families and honour; exorbitant demands for failed military campaigns; and the sheer arbitrariness of a vindictive royal will. Underneath it all lay a deep and bitter resentment against the monarch. The rebellion that began in England in 1215 had been a long time in gestation, and John was its feckless father.

Magna Carta and Civil War

The peace that John and Philip had made was formulated to last until Easter 1220. While it signified military disaster on the Continent, it freed the Angevin King to focus on the dangerous unrest in his own country which, in turn, had itself been stoked further by John’s military failure. However, although clearly by far and away still the dominant military force in England with his network of royal castles and influx of mercenaries, his position was much weaker than ever before; the domestic opposition had increasingly fused into a substantial entity with a focus on personal opposition to the King.346 John tried to make amends where he could with conciliatory gestures. In November he attempted to win over the Church and Langton in particular through a charter which granted freedom and swiftness in ecclesiastical and abbatial elections; the reservations he attached to it rendered the offer less generous than it seemed and Langton remained more inclined to the rebel cause than the royal one. Overtures to the Welsh princes Llewelyn and Maelgwn failed to secure them to his side. Robert de Ros and John de Lacy were sweet-talked and substantial efforts were made to retain the loyalty of barons who were at risk of wavering.

In parallel with these emollient moves were sensible, practical ones. Knights from Savary de Mauléon were due in February and from Hubert de Burgh, Seneschal of Poitou, in March. John’s continental mercenaries, principally Poitevin in origin, were distributed to royal castles under the command of Falkes de Bréauté. Strengthening of garrisons meant not only that castles were well prepared for defence, but could also readily launch a force in the field in the locality. Increased garrison sizes were a clear indication of heightening tensions on the political barometer. When discussions between the opposing factions broke down in January, this garrisoning was stepped up further, as exemplified by Nottingham and Scarborough. In October, Nottingham Castle received 20 men, more were sent in late January and six knights were dispatched there in February. At Scarsborough at the end of March, the garrison comprised no fewer than 10 crossbowmen and 60 soldiers; within three weeks it had climbed to 13 crossbowmen, 72 soldiers and a minimum of 10 knights. Throughout autumn and winter the castles themselves underwent repairs and had their fabric reinforced: Northampton, Mountsorrel, Corfe, Winchester, Oxford, Hertford, Wallingford, Berkhamstead and the Tower of London all appear in the records as undergoing such work; that many of these were soon to see action reveals the necessity of such operations.347

The contumacious barons had also been busy. They, too, were forging and reinforcing links, aiming first at John’s principal princely enemies in Wales, France and Scotland. It was not just the Northerners who had ties with the Scottish; connections went deep and wide across the barons and the royal court as Keith Stringer has shown.348 The sixteen-year-old Alexander II came to the throne of Scotland only on 5 December 1214; he was very possibly in consideration by the barons for the title of the next king of England, four centuries before James Stuart achieved this. But the availability of Prince Louis of France, backed by the might of the newly victorious Capetian monarchy and the prospect of lands being regained in Normandy without war, proved easily the better prospect. It was this line of communication that was pursued most enthusiastically.

The baronial party is believed to have met at Bury St Edmunds in the autumn of 1214 under the guise of a pilgrimage. Here they attempted to bolster their platform of reform by appealing to Henry I’s famous coronation charter, which promised the King’s commitment to adherence to rights of custom and regulation of the correct intercourse between the baronage and the monarch. For some historians such developments point to a real attempt at reform by the community of the realm for the betterment of the crown’s subjects; for others, they merely represent a fig-leaf to cover the naked self-interest of over-mighty nobles. The cynical interpretation is probably closer to the truth, but that should not blind us to the programme of genuine reform that manifested itself with Magna Carta, no matter how self-serving the motivation behind it. The precise events leading up to Magna Carta are not known in great detail but what is has been told elsewhere. The very nature of conspiracy and surreptitious meetings inevitably mean that even the best-informed commentators of events can take us only so far. Even with the 24-hour-media coverage and information overload of the twenty-first century we still perceive only glimpses of the reality behind decisions made by governments going to war.

In the second week of January 1215 the disaffected barons met with John in London. They turned up in what seems to be a display of force and demanded that John keep true to his absolution oath taken at the time of his reconciliation with the church and uphold the ancient laws and liberties of the realm as indicated by Henry I’s coronation charter. (It is not clear whether they wished to see this reissued, or a new one drawn up.) John tallied and procrastinated, promising to give such grave matters lengthy consideration. If true to form, he would have initiated a series of one-to-one meetings with individual barons to cajole them and encourage their loyalty, thereby weakening the baronial party by desertions. Safe conduct was granted the rebels and it was agreed that their grievances would be addressed by 26 April.

The time was used by both sides to bolster their positions with appeals to Rome, where John, as a prized feudal supplicant, was more readily heard. John cynically and cleverly increased his leverage here by swearing the vows of a crusader on 4 March; by taking up the cross, he could expect, by church law, even greater papal protection. On a less spiritual propaganda level, he brought in more mercenaries from the Continent (Savary de Mauléon had now landed in Ireland) while the baronial party appealed to King Philip in France. Following the January meeting, John ordered throughout the country that the oath of allegiance to him to be pledged anew as liege homage, so that men swore to ‘stand by him against all men’, which was taken by his opponents to be ‘contrary to the charter’.349 Safe conduct letters were issued in February and April to allow for negotiations between the King’s party and the baronial one. The actions taken by John in this period are not easily interpreted. On 13 March John sent some of his Poitevin allies home, thanking them for their readiness to serve but telling them that they were no longer needed. Did this mean he was feeling confident of a favourable outcome? Or was he meeting some demands of the rebels to play for time? A week later, letters from the pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury were on their way to England, his support a vindication of John’s papal policy. These letters set forth the ‘three-fold peace terms’ (triplex forma pacis) wholly in support of the King. The pope took to task the clergy and episcopate (including Langton) for not mediating to the King’s advantage, condemned all conspiracy against the King on pain of excommunication, and praised John for submitting England to the Papacy. By the time this epistolary reinforcement had arrived in England in late April or early May, the situation had deteriorated dangerously.

Delay did not suit the barons. The circumstances approaching the pre-arranged meeting of 26 April to settle issues were increasingly discouraging. They knew in early March that they had lost any hope of papal support or even papal ambiguity and they did not wish to see the impact of this support for John grow to their disadvantage. They wished to provoke John into action that would be characteristically unmeasured and so unite baronial opposition against him. They were well aware of John’s deliberate policy of procrastination and vacillation, the latter designed to throw out mixed signals and stir up uncertainty among the barons not yet fully committed against him. On 13 April another meeting was held with some of the barons at Oxford, possibly to set the agenda for the forthcoming conference. In further readiness, the barons mustered at Stamford in arms and in great force. Wendover puts their number at ‘two thousand knights, other cavalry, sergeants and infantry, armed with various equipment’.350 Wendover, displaying a rare anti-baronial moment, calls this gathering a ‘pestilence’, possibly affected by the hindsight of the bloodshed that was to follow. Among the five earls and 40 barons present he lists Robert Fitzwalter, Eustace de Vescy, Robert de Ros, Saer Earl of Winchester and Geoffrey de Mandeville. This show of strength was designed both as an insurance policy and to intimidate the King at the imminent meeting (although for some historians the barons’ intent by this time was solely military). But this long heralded conference, arranged in January, never took place.

John permitted smaller scale talks to continue, but buoyed by his papal backing, he was confident that he, rather than the barons, could set the agenda. He sent Langton to clarify the baronial demands at Brackley, near Northampton, a day after the scheduled but cancelled meeting. The barons were guided by Langton’s coherent political reform programme that held broad appeal, but as Painter has observed and as we have discussed above, there was more to it than this: ‘The leaders of the baronial party were the king’s personal enemies. Their chief object … was to avenge old injuries real or fancied and to secure their private rights – lands, castles, and privileges that they felt John or his predecessors had deprived them of.’351 They set out in detail the laws and ancient customs of the kingdom that they expected to see verified and, says Wendover, ‘declared that, unless the King immediately granted them and confirmed them with his own seal they would, by seizing his castles, lands and possessions, force him to give sufficient satisfaction’. On hearing these demands, John’s sarcastic comment was: ‘Why do these barons just not ask for my kingdom?’ Sarcasm turned quickly to rage and he swore that he would not enslave himself by granting the barons their demands. He refused to be pacified by Langton or William Marshal and had his uncompromising reply sent back to the rebel camp. Their immediate response was to openly defy the King by 5 May, by breaking their homage to him (diffidatio), and to reaffirm Fitzwalter as their leader, but now in a clearly military capacity, as ‘Marshal of the army of God and the Holy Church’. The storm had finally broken and the war had begun.


With occasional truces, the war was to last over two years. Its first military operation was launched by the barons against Northampton Castle directly following their act of defiance. John, in typically uncommitted fashion, had tried to step back from the brink with an appeal for arbitration on 9 May which revealed admission of wrongs that needed righting; this was immediately rejected and followed up with a royal writ two days later commanding his sheriffs to seize the lands and chattels of the rebels. While this served to strengthen the opposition against him, he countered this to some extent by granting their possessions to his own supporters, thereby encouraging royalist loyalty. The rebels meanwhile had begun their two-week siege of the major royal castle of Northampton. The castle held out under its mercenary captain Geoffrey de Martini because the barons, though arrayed splendidly for war, had no siege machinery at this early stage; they had hoped that Henry de Braybrooke, Sheriff of Northampton and predisposed to the rebel side, might have been able to persuade the garrison to surrender. But John’s defensive measures had been intensified during April: Bristol, Salisbury, Norwich, Oxford and London had their defences strengthened; William Marshal had supervised the garrisoning and readiness of royal castles throughout the country; and men had been brought in from Poitou and Flanders. From the latter came Robert of Béthune, patron of the anonymous chronicler who furnishes us with such valuable information about the war. We know little of the action that took place at Northampton, but among the dead was Robert Fitzwalter’s standard bearer, shot through the head with a crossbow bolt. With the resistance clearly set to hold, the rebel force moved on to the lesser fortress of Bedford Castle, held by William de Beauchamp, which did open its gates to them.

It was not a promising start, but at least the rebels were nonetheless gaining important momentum; once they had led the crossing of the Rubicon, others followed, not least many from the younger generation of sons and nephews of the great baronies, ‘hoping’, judges the Barnwell chronicler, ‘to make a name for themselves in war’.352 With Winchester firmly under the control of his lieutenant Savary de Mauléon, John dispatched Flemish mercenaries under his brother-in-law William Longsword, ransomed back from the French, to secure London. John was looking dominant – but that all changed in a moment: the barons beat them to the capital. When messengers reached them at Bedford with news that the citizens of London were ready to support them, they rushed down to the city where, in the evening of Sunday 17 May, they found, as they had been told, the capital gates open to them in a welcoming gesture of embrace. (The Anonymous of Béthune says that the gates were shut but unguarded; the Barnwell annalist claims that the barons made use of ladders left unattended from the refortification works.) They swiftly entered the city, set up guards at all the gates, and proceeded to the next order of business without delay: they plundered the supporters of the King and the Jews, even tearing down the houses of the latter to utilise their stones in strengthening the defences. Although the Tower held out for the time being, Baynard’s Castle, the city’s second major fortress, though damaged, had for its master Robert Fitzwalter; it was his faction within the city that had helped the rebels land this most critical of prizes.

The occupation of the capital was obviously an immense and prestigious fillip for the rebels. Not only had they control of London’s wealth, large population and surrounding regions, especially Essex; it also provided a tremendous recruitment boost, especially among waverers. As Fitzwalter was to write later that year to his rebel cousin William d’Albini (also written as d’Albini, d’Aubigny and d’Aubigné): ‘You know well what a great benefit it is to you and all of us to keep the city of London, which is our refuge; and what a shame and danger it would be to us if by our own fault we lost it.’353 Its strategic value was as important as its economic and political ones, as it allowed the barons to ship in reinforcements safely from France. It remained in baronial hands throughout the entire conflict and was a major thorn in the loyalists’ side all this time. It proved a major bargaining counter in the Magna Carta negotiations that developed soon afterwards; indeed, it could be argued that its loss forced John to agreement at Runnymede.

Immured securely in London, the rebel leadership sent out letters across the land to earls, barons and knights ‘who appeared to still remain faithful to the king, though only pretending to be so’. These letters were more threatening than exhortative, as Wendover indicates: the London party ‘encouraged them with threats, as they considered the safety of their property and possessions, to abandon a King who was perjured and who waged war against his barons, to unite with them to stand firm in a fight for liberties and peace; and if they declined to do so they would be treated as public enemies, with war raged against them, their castles knocked down, their homes and building burned down, their parks, warrens and orchards destroyed’.354 This is an eternal dilemma of war: being forced to take sides. Wendover claims that the stratagem was effective, with the greater part of the undecided barons now joining them. Among this number were John de Lacy and Robert de Ros. John had wooed these to no effect; what really mattered was the military – and hence political reality – on the ground. Although Wendover is exaggerating the tide away from John, it was nonetheless real, as Coggeshall corroborates: London caused ‘many daily to go over to the army of God’. John was so shaken by the loss he ‘was besieged with terror and never left Windsor’.355 Wendover claims that the King was so abandoned, the pleas of the exchequer and the sheriff’s courts, central to royal administration, came to a halt throughout England, ‘because there was no one to make a valuation for the King or to obey him in anything’. Comments such as this serve to demonstrate how military events and momentum rapidly have an impact on politics.

The news grew worse for John elsewhere as this momentum grew for the barons. Philip Augustus was in contact with the barons, and sent over, probably without official public sanction, the naval mercenary Eustace the Monk transporting siege equipment for the rebels, much needed if they were to break John’s network of over 100 royal castles.356 Over the next month Northampton was lost (the townsfolk rose up against the royalist garrison, killing some of them) as were Lincoln, Chester and Carlisle, these last two also defecting. In Wales and Scotland, Lleywelyn and Alexander were mobilising to capitalise on the situation. Rebellion had broken out in the south-west by the second week of May under William de Montague, William Malet and Robert Fitzpain. John sent the Earl of Salisbury at the head of a Flemish force to lift the siege of Exeter there; however, his intelligence was faulty and the city had already been taken. At Sherborne Castle, Earl William heard that the rebels were prepared to meet him in ambush with knights, sergeants and Welsh archers on the road through woods that he had to take to reach Exeter; he was told that his forces would all be captured and so he returned to the King at Winchester. Here his half-brother the monarch scorned him for his lack of resolve: ‘You are not good at taking fortresses.’ The Flemish were ashamed by these words. John ordered that they make a further attempt. The Anonymous of Béthune, from whom this account comes, tells us that his master Robert was stung into oratory to encourage his men for another expedition on 24 May, declaring that he would rather take a chance ‘either to die or conquer, rather than retreat shamefully.’357 Even when informed that enemy numbers had increased so that that they were now outnumbered by an improbable ten-to-one, they were not deterred. The rebel force was actually not confident in meeting the loyalist forces: on hearing of their approach they abandoned Exeter to them and fled. We shall see in the next two chapters how troops being deployed to a siege was often enough to end the siege without engagement; for this reason it was a central strategy employed throughout the conflict.

Regaining Exeter was a small victory which did little to change the seismic upheavals of May and early June. John continued to play for time, granting safe conducts for negotiations, writing to the pope for help and all the while planning to build up his military resources to crush the rebels when the time was right. With the situation so fluid, it has been argued that John also wanted time to determine which of his barons were still loyal and who had deserted him. But again we see the central flaw of John’s military leadership: indecision and procrastination. His optimistic plans for recovery were always for the future rather than for the present. He responded to the loss of Normandy with an apathetic claim that it could all be recovered quickly; his continental campaigns succeeded only in retaining Gascony from the Iberian threat, not in regaining Angevin territory and hence preventing Capetian consolidation; and now he was once again failing to act decisively. Had John moved resolutely against the rebellion in its first stages, he may have prevented it gaining successes and all-important momentum. Painter suggests that he held back from easy victory ‘in order to satisfy the pope and the rest of the baronage of the correctness of his conduct.’358 However, John’s failure to meet with the baronial party on 26 April only served to confirm his unreliability to the rebels; by this stage, anyway, they had long ceased to trust him. But the appeals to the pope, as with his letter mentioned above, highlight the point made about John deferring decisive action not only to a later date, but also to external agencies rather than his own. It could easily be assumed that John’s sanguine front was a mask for a justifiable lack of confidence in his own ability to solve crises. Painter goes on to make the valid argument that a concentration of royal garrisons and mercenaries might easily have overwhelmed the rebels while in the open field, but London, Fitzwalter’s ‘refuge’, changed all that. ‘Clearly John had waited too long.’359 Instead, he concentrated on reinforcing his castles and ravaging the lands of his enemies. We have already stressed the importance of London. We shall see later how John’s failure to deal with it again reveals his lack of resolve and how this led to his military failure. It was John’s wish to gain time that led him to Runnymede and one of the most famous events in English history: the signing of Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta Interlude

In mid-June, John finally met the barons again face-to-face by the Thames halfway between the rebel camp at Staines and his castle at Windsor. Here they presented to him the ‘Articles of the Barons’, their programme of reforms, which became, with little emendation, the Great Charter. The baronial party had worked on this for months, with the help of Stephen Langton. A cerebral pragmatist, Langton was excoriated by Innocent for his involvement with the rebels and was suspended from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury by the papal legate Pandulf and summoned to Rome; he remained out of England until 1218. Three meetings between 10 and 19 June saw Magna Carta agreed upon. Central as this document is to English constitutional history (and it is still evoked in court cases today, much to the dismay of judges), it is important to keep it in its medieval context. It is not a charter of liberty in the American constitutional sense as declaimed in the Declaration of Independence, but rather a charter of liberties. The charter is dominated by financial matters relating to feudal incidents, such as reliefs, which were no longer vaguely designated to be ‘reasonable’ (the interpretation of which was very different between crown and subject), but fixed at £100 for a barony and 100 shillings for a knight’s fee. The rights of widows and minors under wardship were protected to permit volition against highest bidders. Finances are also addressed in clauses dealing with debts, tariffs and consent for scutage. The arbitrary and corrupt nature of the justice system was another primary concern for the barons, who, as we have discussed, had long suffered under exploitative fines used as much for political purposes as judicial ones. Two consecutive clauses state: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice’; and, more famously, ‘No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed, neither will we set forth against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.’ Security issues are dealt with in clauses dealing with the return of hostages and lands and castles and another calling for the removal ‘from the kingdom of all foreign knights, crossbowmen, sergeants and mercenaries, who have come with horses and arms to the detriment of the kingdom’. Both concerns over security and patronage through the presence of foreigners holding office and hence power is seen in the preceding clause which demands the removal of named alien servants of the state such as Gerard Athée, Guy de Cigogné and Geoffrey de Martingy. The conditions of the charter were designed to maximise a broad appeal; they reveal explicitly the heart of baronial protest against John’s autocratic and capricious government.360

The most radical and uncompromising clause of all is the last, 61. It is also by far the longest and aims to insure the preceding provisions. By this clause, the barons wish to present themselves as acting for ‘the community of the realm’ by establishing a council of 25 barons who will oversee the King’s adherence to the charter. That this council would be inherently anti-John was ensured by the rebels’ insistence that the members should be drawn from their own number. If they deemed a complaint against the King justifiable and if he did not address it satisfactorily within 40 days, this ultimate security clause gave them the power to organise the whole land to seize his lands, castles and possessions. The lack of any faith in John’s word and promises as monarch had been enshrined in a legally binding document. For some commentators, one King had been replaced by 25 kings. David Carpenter judges that ‘the restrictions placed by Magna Carta on the workings of kingship were unprecedented and profound’; Warren says that John ‘was virtually reduced to the role of executive officer of the law under the supervision of a baronial committee’; while Galbraith calls the last clause ‘the most fantastic surrender of any English king to his subjects.’361

When negotiating with the barons, John was all urbanity and reason; but Mathew Paris writes that when he withdrew from the talks he gave full expression to his humiliated outrage: ‘he gnashed his teeth, rolled his eyes, grabbed sticks and straws and gnawed them like a madman, or tore them into shreds with his fingers.’362 John did not actually sign the charter or perhaps even seal it himself, but he did agree to it. That he did so reflects partly his relative weakness at the time after the losses listed above, especially London; however, this was a relative weakness to his earlier position, as John was still the leading military force in the land. More typically, he was again putting off a decisive reckoning, confidently and correctly expecting the pope to declare the document null and void, agreed to under duress and altogether illegal. Almost ironically, a King whose reign was characterised by arbitrary law was appealing to legal justification of his own position. Again, John’s duplicity is revealed. As Holt says, ‘Throughout, even when he sealed Magna Carta, John had not the slightest intention of giving in or permanently abandoning the powers which the Angevin kings had come to enjoy.’363 John reluctantly acquiesced to the charter because he never intended to heed it. But in his acquiescence he paid the high personal price in abasing himself before his barons.

Not that the barons ever believed that John was going to turn over a new leaf and become the model of a constitutional monarch. They did not trust him before and they did not trust him now. Most protagonists on both sides realised that what had occurred at Runnymede was little more than a prolonged truce. Some of the barons themselves paid little attention to the charter and began plundering royal lands; others took recourse to this action because the King was dragging his feet in implementing the restitution of land, castles and property to them as the charter stipulated he should. Many southern barons planned gathering at a tournament in Stamford on 6 July to ‘celebrate the peace’; such meetings were well known to be mustering points for armies. They changed the venue and date to a week later back in Staines as they feared venturing too far from the capital. (Here, the Tower of London was placed under the supervision of Archbishop Langton.) For the barons involved, it allowed them practice in war games and strategies as well as giving them the excuse to bear arms. Neither side relaxed their guard after Magna Carta; rather, they prepared for the next round of the conflict. Elswehere, royal officials were given a hard time in performance of their duties and barons fortified their castles (including those recently received back from the King), and even built new ones.

John’s faith in his papal ally and overlord was rewarded in the technical sense, but not a practical one. In August, Innocent III annulled Magna Carta in the strongest terms, excommunicated 30 leading rebels and had Langton suspended. But the reality of the situation was dictated by raw power on the ground and not by spiritual vindication; the latter was useful but it was never going to be decisive. For all that John’s putative ‘masterstroke’ in submitting to the Papacy has been lauded for its Machiavellian and cynical creativeness, it did very little indeed in bringing him any worthwhile success in the ensuing conflict. John placed too much emphasis on papal support, but that did not mean he failed to make more practical preparations from overseas. While his castles were readied for immediate action, abroad troops were being raised in Aquitaine and Flanders, where the leading mercenary captain Hugh de Boves was active. He even tried to win Philip Augustus over by making extravagant promises, but as the Barnwell annalist so succinctly put it, ‘others had been to him beforehand’.364

The temperature rose precipitately in mid-August. The barons were refusing the charter condition for the return of London to the King by the 15th, and the King refused to meet the barons at a pre-arranged meeting in Oxford on the 16th, claiming that he had been badly treated and was in personal danger from them. Episcopal interventions for the Papacy failed to bring the sides any closer together, and the pope’s annulment of 24 August and the excommunications that followed shortly for their leaders and the whole of London served only to remind the barons that they had to rely on their own devices. There was no longer any middle ground: the choice was between war and submission. They chose war. Their talks with Prince Louis of France intensified.

The Return to War

All sides could smell war in the air, coming with the change of season in September. John placed his family in the secure royal stronghold of Corfe Castle. He meanwhile sailed at the end of the month to the impressive fortress that is Dover Castle where he awaited Hugh de Boves and his army from the continent: Poitevins, Flemings, Brabantines and Gascons were all expected. From here he could also check any potential threat from France and restrict access to London from the east. Rochester Castle was to play an important role in this strategy. Sporadic military operations broke out, a stuttering start to renewed hostilities. Rebel forces besieged Oxford while some of the London garrison headed eastwards to Ospring in Kent to block any potential advance on the capital by John. The king, hearing of their advance while at Canterbury, retreated hastily to Dover; the barons, no less fearful, made for Rochester. The Anonymous of Béthune sarcastically comments that thus both sides were vanquished without a blow being struck. John suffered a major setback on 26 September when Hugh de Boves’s large contingent of reinforcements were drowned in a channel storm; countless bodies, including that of the leader, were swept up onto the beaches of the south coast. Much treasure and coinage, so necessary for the payment of the royal mercenaries, went down with the ships. The survivors struggled into Dover.

On 2 October, John instructed his brother, Earl William of Salisbury, to visit ten royal castles and form a field army from their garrisons, while his leading mercenary captain, Falkes de Bréauté, was sent on 4 October to take command of the midlands and the west. Along with William Marshal, John relied heavily on these two commanders to lead military operations. William, illegitimate son of Henry II and the Earl of Salisbury, was an intelligent and capable soldier with long experience in serving John: commander of the royal fleet, he had led the naval victory at Damme and fought bravely at Bouvines where he had been captured and ransomed. Warren says that he ‘was the only one of the greater barons with whom John was on terms of back-slapping intimacy’.365 John would often send him casks of wine and help him out with his gambling losses (he was a card partner of the King). John felt comfortable with his half-brother, a blood relation whose illegitimacy rendered him, in theory at least, less of a threat. Falkes de Bréauté played a central military role throughout the conflict. A veteran mercenary leader, capable of raising large, professional forces for service in his master’s armies, Falkes raised himself to a position of significant political power and influence. The bastard son of a Norman knight, he was perhaps John’s most loyal commander; it was a relationship not built on respect but on the surer foundations of money and reward. He accumulated important castles in the southern midlands from Oxford to the borders of East Anglia and a favourable marriage to a rich widow. He also accumulated a reputation for brutality when Sheriff of Glamorgan (one of several shrievalties) a characteristic which seems to have marked his youth; his first name is reputed to derive from a scythe with which he had slain a knight. His contemporary reputation and popularity was low: a bastard foreigner who had worked his way up to be a favourite of the King, his ruthless plundering of abbeys served only to ensure that the monastic writers gave him a terrible obituary for posterity. He will be a regular companion in our story of the war.366

The focus of the struggle was, for the time being at least, in the south-east corner of England. With the rebel leadership moving tentatively eastwards from London, and John in Dover with his surviving reinforcements from the continent. With both sided poised to engage each other bloodily and dramatically at Rochester, it is perhaps an opportune moment to assess the state of play. The King held the better hand with a number of ‘powerful advantages’.367 Turner points out how the loyal barons,such as William Marshal and Ranulf of Chester, were the only ones who could put major feudal forces into the field. This was not always entirely reassuring for John, though, who held deep suspicions of both men. At the same time the Marcher lords had to consider the irruptions of the Welsh under Llewelyn and other princes, and therefore had to look west as well as east. Royalists had to look north, too: like, the Welsh, the Scots also entered into alliance with the rebels, providing important military assets to them that cannot be overlooked. Royalist earls such as those of Warenne (Surrey) and Arundel (Sussex) owned important castles not just in the south and East Anglia, but also in the north. John’s royal coffers never seemed to empty to the point where he would fail to employ mercenaries in strength; the machinery of royal government, though creaking under the pressures of war, together with control of the countryside ensured that the influx of funds to the royal cause continued to a considerable degree. The military organisation of the realm also meant that the King could afford the engineers and costly equipment and machinery necessary for siege warfare.

The role of castles and town was crucial in medieval warfare, but in this one especially.368 Of 209 castles identified as being directly involved in the struggles, 72 were royal and, significantly, fourteen were episcopal; Rochester was the one remaining episcopal castle not under John’s control. Diplomatically, the Church and Papacy were on the King’s side, even if John considered Archbishop Langton a bare-faced traitor. The only leading ecclesiastic on the rebel side was Giles de Braose, Bishop of Hereford. The military strength this support afforded the royal cause came not just in castles but also in knightly quotas. By September 1215, all the royal castles except Hertford, Bedford, Carlisle and Colchester, and possibly York and Rockingham, were firmly in John’s command, with garrisons captained by steadfast loyalists. Of the 123 baronial castles involved, 51 were owned by loyal barons; 7 held by neutral barons were in John’s hands; and 12 rebel castles were under the supervision of royal constables. This left the rebel barons with only 53 castles: they were outnumbered three-to-one on this most telling of military assessments. The royal castles were also more impressive: perhaps fewer than half the rebel castles were constructed in stone, with only some 20 being tellingly redoubtable, compared to about 50 of the royal castles.

The loyal barons also held not just more but better castles.369 That the stronger barons tended to remain loyal also meant greater manpower resources. They could impose scutage on their own vassals and employ professional soldiers to match those in the service of the Marcher lords. These combined with John’s mercenaries to form a fighting force of considerable experience. By comparison, relatively few baronial knights could be termed veterans; of the leadership, only Saer de Quincy, William d’Albini, Roger de Crecy, Robert de Ros, William de Mowbray and Robert Fitzwalter were tried and tested campaigners. At this stage it was, as one historian has called it, ‘a war of professionals against amateurs’.370 No wonder the rebels looked abroad for powerful allies.

In Prince Louis, they found one. Channels of communication had long been open in one capacity or the other with the Capetian court. Philip Augustus might have sent surreptitious help, but, given the situation with the Church and, to a lesser extent, his post-Bouvines truce with John, he could not be seen to do so overtly. His son, however, offered an alternative strategy. The King could make a show of disapproval of the Prince’s involvement in the war, while tacitly encouraging it. It is even possible that he directed the rebel leadership to his son. Given the seriousness of the situation described above, the rebels called directly on Louis to assist them in September; having broken allegiance with their own king, they sought a new one. Louis, restless, ambitious and war-like, responded positively. A fig leaf of justification was required to warrant Louis’s newly discovered claim for the English throne. He proffered two. The first was a hereditary one through his wife, Blanche of Castile, granddaughter of Henry II; as far as successionary claims went, this was a blatant case of queue-jumping. The other was due to a putative, but unverified, condemnation of John in the French court following the murder of Arthur of Brittany; this was entirely disingenuous: as we have seen in Philip’s pseudo-feudal justification for expropriating Normandy from John, the Capetians, unlike the Papacy, had no overlordship of England. Both claims were hopeful and unrealistic and given purely for form’s sake. The barons had their jus ad bellum, and now Louis could pretend that he had his.

In making this appeal to a foreign Prince to rule over England, the rebels lost much of their moral cause and damaged their broadly-based programme of reform; the appeal, believes one leading historian, ‘proved that the rebel barons were a faction, no longer representative of the community of the realm, a propaganda plus for King John’.371 While this statement is undoubtedly true, it was clearly the right course of action for the rebels to take; it did much to transform their position. A point not often made is that a period of political uncertainty beckoned in the future even without the current civil strife. John’s heir to the throne was the seven-year-old Henry. This meant a minority, and a minority meant aggressive vying for position and influence as regent and royal advisers. For some who feared losing out in this scramble, the prospect of a foreign Prince, in all likelihood ruling from a distance in Paris, was a preferable option. And there was the added bonus of an early departure from the scene by John. Without Louis, the rebels’ military position was relatively weak. It might be argued that they had previously held the moral high ground and that they had derived propaganda value from this. Little good did it do them. While such things were important and seen to be such by contemporaries, they were only of real practical value if they produced tangible gains with men on the ground and increases in military materiel. These were to come with Louis, and what a difference they made to the course of the war. While a final agreement between the two parties was being negotiated, Louis made his preparations.

War across the Land

The hesitant atmosphere of conflict erupted into full warfare with the epic siege of Rochester in mid October. Rochester lay on the road between London and Dover. Its strategic importance came from its ability to hinder – or aid – communications with the continent, guard the mouth of the channel, and threaten London.372 On 11 October, Reginald of Cornhill, who was holding the castle for Stephen Langton, allowed in a band of rebel knights under William d’Albini. D’Albini, an experienced war leader and one of the baronial 25, was Wendover’s patron at Belvoir, so it is not surprising that the midlands chronicler furnishes us with the most detailed account of the siege. Robert de Béthune had also just come over to John at Dover, and so the Anonymous also provides us with a directly contemporary account involved in the heart of the action.

D’Albini had heeded the calls from the rebels in London to come south from his stronghold in Leicestershire and give assistance. Having provisioned his Castle Belvoir there with arms, victuals and loyal men he made for the capital and was received warmly. They told him of their plan to block the Dover to London road by securing Rochester Castle. Their priority was, as Fitzwalter had made clear, keeping London safe. To Rochester they dispatched a force of selected men under d’Albini’s command. When Cornhill let him in, he found the castle so woefully lacking in all things necessary to withstand an investiture that, under pressure from his men, he was forced to consider whether to abandon the castle altogether. However, he rallied his men, who comprised 95 knights and 45 sergeants, to avoid the shame of deserting their duty; they went through the town and took what they could into the castle. The precariousness of their frontline position and the proximity of royalist forces meant that they dared not venture outside the town to collect supplies from the surrounding area. Doing so might have left them exposed to ambush from an advance royalist force; John himself was at the town two days later.

Robert of Béthune warned John that he underestimated the enemy ‘if you go to fight them with such a small force’. John was unconcerned, replying ‘I know them too well; they are nothing to be made much of or feared.’ It is unlikely that John was undermanned, given the numbers of men who had just crossed the channel; John had been waiting for these before taking any major actions, and he could react to the new developments in Rochester in force. The reinforcements included large numbers of crossbowmen, essential for the successful prosecution of siege warfare. Wendover is more realistic in saying that the King brought a multitude with him, even though he would, naturally, wish to emphasise the scale of opposition faced by his patron.

The Barnwell annalist and Ralph of Coggeshall tell us of John’s first objective: the destruction of the bridge over the Medway. This was a priority as it would greatly hinder reinforcements from London coming to relieve the siege. The threat of a relief force falling upon a besieger’s camp was always to the forefront of a besieging commander’s mind; the events at Mirebeau in 1202 were repeated throughout the Middle Ages and we will be seeing them again at Lincoln in 1217. John sent a group of men in boats to row under the bridge and set fire to it from below, which they achieved despite being fiercely assaulted by Robert Fitzwalter’s group of 60 knights, sergeants and crossbowmen guarding the crossing. The defenders put out the flames and wounded and killed many of the attackers, many of whom drowned. It would appear that immediately following this, Fitzwalter returned to London. A second assault on the bridge brought it down.

John now shifted his focus to the town. The Anonymous says that the citizens ‘made a great show of defending themselves’ on the town walls. But, seeing the extent of John’s siege preparations, their morale quickly collapsed and they abandoned the battlements in such haste that the garrison had to make rapidly for the refuge of the castle. John’s troops poured through the gates into the town, where the King took up comfortable lodgings. The siege was pressed home intensely and unrelentingly. On 14 October John ordered all the smiths in Canterbury to work around the clock to make pickaxes which were to be delivered to him as soon as they were made. Reinforcements arrived daily. Robert of Béthune consulted with the King and both sent letters to Robert’s brother, William, who hurried from Flanders to join them at the siege, as did Gautiers Bertaut with 100 knights. It would be a mistake to think of these reinforcements being deployed for the sole purpose of taking the castle: many would have been there to form an outer line of defence against an attack; and others were involved in foraging to meet the needs of the ever-growing royal army. To achieve this last purpose, the King’s men ravaged Kent and plundered Rochester. The sheer weight of numbers would also hopefully intimidate the rebels and precipitate a collapse in resistance; as Wendover writes, the King’s men were so numerous ‘it struck fear and horror in all who beheld them.’ All the while the King pounded the walls of the castle with his petraries and other siege machines, so that the garrison was constantly bombarded by a continuous barrage of stones and other weapons; underground, the pickaxes were steadily doing their work, digging their way to the walls.

Rochester was a major fortress, constructed from stone and with strong high walls twelve feet thick; internally it had a dividing wall so that the castle could be defended even if one half of it fell. The rebels knew, however, that faced with such a concentration of the King’s military forces, it could stand only for a limited time. They hoped that the garrison would resist long enough for reinforcements to come to its aid from France. The Anonymous places the de Quincy diplomatic mission to Louis at this juncture; Louis was in the process of sending out the call across France for knights to fight in England and his call was being heeded. However, it was feared that Rochester could not buy enough time for this outcome, and so the barons planned their own relief force. This was probably the reason why Fitzwalter had hurried back to London after the bridge action. Wendover relates how this was also the fulfilment of a solemn pledge taken by the barons, who had sworn on the gospels to come to d’Albini’s aid should Rochester be besieged. On 26 October, a large force (Barnwell exaggeratedly inflates their number to 700 knights) under the restless command of Fitzwalter headed out for Rochester. It is not clear if this was a genuine attempt at relieving the castle through a military engagement; the greater likelihood is that by sending out a force the rebels hoped that John, not known for his personal bravery and resolve on the battlefield, would turn tail and run, as he had done before. Certainly, the relief force itself displayed a remarkable lack of resolve. On reaching Dartford, they promptly turned back themselves and withdrew to the safety of London. Wendover cannot conceal his sarcasm at this abject failure to assist his patron: ‘although only a mild south wind was blowing in their faces, which generally does not trouble anyone, they retreated as if beaten back by swords.’ Back in the safety of the ‘strongly fortified capital’, they amused themselves with gambling, drinking the best wines and indulging in all manner of vices, while their comrades in Rochester faced death and endured all kinds of misery. The Barnwell annalist offers a more plausible reason: they had learned of the size of John’s army positioned against them. (The royal army would have been augmented further in the time between Fitzwalter’s departure from Rochester and his arrival back at Dartford.) Barnwell also suggests that they planned a further relief operation for the very end of November. This was certainly in the expectation of French troops arriving. The lengthy delay was an admission of their inability to operate effectively without Louis’s help. Simultaneously, they made approaches to the King for a form of settlement, in all likelihood to gain time before a French rescue. John rebutted their approaches; he sensed victory.

D’Albini’s garrison was left to fend for itself. Their resistance was nothing short of heroic. The Barnwell annalist stirringly claims that ‘living memory does not recall any siege so urgently undertaken and so bravely resisted.’ John went from strength to strength. With the relief force scurrying back to London, royal troops were free to roam across the countryside and forage at will. His army would be well fed while the garrison saw their meagre and hastily gathered provisions dwindle daily. Constant pressure was applied: incessant barrages from five large siege engines, crossbowmen and archers combined with repeated assaults to prevent the garrison getting any rest, day or night. While the King’s large forces allowed for rotation of troops in combat, the hard-pressed garrison was always in action or on stand-by, manning and defending the curtain wall. This prolonged exposure to direct combat over six weeks was exhausting both mentally and physically. They were being ground down.

One motivation for the garrison holding out was fear of John. We have seen Philip Augustus successfully employ fear as a weapon against Rouen in 1204; it worked there because the French King could be trusted to keep his word on clemency if the city submitted. No such trust could be placed in John: Wendover says that the rebels endured their situation because they ‘sought to delay their own destruction for they greatly feared the cruelty of the king’. They could only have been more determined to resist when, in an effort to stretch out their meagre supplies, they ejected their wounded and sick from the castle; according to the Barnwell chronicler, John had their hands and feet cut off.

The dogged defence inflicted serious casualties among John’s troops. When mines brought down a large section of the curtain wall, John’s men stormed the breach and forced the rebels to conduct a frantic, fighting retreat into the great tower. Such was the onslaught royalist troops forced their way in to this last stronghold, only to be repulsed and the tower cleared of attackers. The garrison was in such straits for lack of food it consumed horses; the knights were even driven to the extreme recourse of eating their destriers, their hugely valuable trained warhorses.

And still the onslaught continued. John issued his famous order to his justiciar to dispatch urgently 40 fat pigs to Rochester. These were not primarily to feed the troops but to assist the firing of the wooden props in the tunnel supporting the excavated foundations of the south-western tower.373 When the miners brought down the corner of the tower, the crisis reached its climax. D’Albini and his men continued to fight desperately from within the castle, but knew that any future resistance would be short-lived. Wendover says that they were in fact starved out and that they considered ‘it would be a disgrace to die of hunger when they had not been overcome by arms’; while their provisions had failed them, the greater danger was from a storm assault in the castle that would put their lives in immediate peril. On 30 November, they surrendered.

A foremost castellologist has called the siege ‘one of the greatest operations in England up to that time’.374 Turner has argued that John’s operation at Rochester shows him to be a competent military leader deserving of a positive reappraisal of his military reputation.375 It is certainly true that John demonstrated here the determination and single-mindedness that he was occasionally capable of; but such displays were far too infrequent to mark him out as a consistently competent general. Yes, the organisation of his forces was impressive and put to excellent effect and the positive side of his military balance sheet boasts some memorable victories – Mirebeau, Damme, and now Rochester – but none of these had a truly lasting impact, unlike his failures on the continent. (Rochester did not remain in royalist hands for long.) Rochester was a formidably strong castle, but arraigned against it were the forces of a kingdom, whose men were well provisioned and reinforced, while the garrison was isolated and weakened by exhaustion and hunger. If John had built on this success by moving on to take London, then his military reputation would indeed merit reassessment; instead, as we shall see shortly, he embarked on another of his destructive chevauchées across the country. The Barnwell annalist commented that after Rochester, ‘few cared to put their trust in castles’, a judgment that some historians have been quick to pick up on. The truth was, in fact, that they continued to do just this; the whole war was going to continue as it had begun, centred on castles.

D’Albini’s men emerged from the dust of the castle weakened but largely intact. Only one of his knights had been killed, the victim of an arrow; arrows and crossbow bolts were the most common cause of death at sieges.376 John had a gibbet erected and ordered that the entire garrison be hanged, but he was talked out of this extreme action, hanging only some of the crossbowmen. (The Barnwell annalist believes that only one crossbowmen was hanged: someone who had served with John in his youth.) D’Albini and his knights escaped the same fate due to the intercession of John’s calmer and more measured commander, Savary de Mauléon. Savary had been captured by John at Mirebeau in 1202, but served him loyally on his release, defending Niort stoutly against Philip Augustus in 1206 when other castellans defected to the French. Whereas John, enraged by the length of the siege at Rochester, its cost in blood and treasure, and, most of all, the affront of such open rebellion defiance, wished to spread terror among rebel resistance elsewhere, Savary cautioned otherwise:

My lord king, our war is not yet over; therefore you ought carefully to consider how the fortunes of war may turn; for if you now order us to hang these men, the barons, our enemies, will perhaps by a similar event take me or the nobles of your army, and, following your example, hang us. Therefore do not let this happen, for in such a case no one will fight in your cause.377

Savary’s self-interested pragmatism tempered John’s bloodlust. Acts of terror had their place in medieval warfare, but the nature of this civil war was not so bitter as in other conflicts: divided families could understand differences of allegiances, and even royalists could not fail to appreciate the grievances against the King. Other counsels for clemency for the same reason are occasionally depicted in medieval chronicles. In 1347, having spent almost a year besieging Calais, Edward III was in a bloody mood on taking the town and wanted the defeated garrison executed; Sir Walter Mauny successfully advised him against this for the same reason given by Savary: ‘My lord, you may well be mistaken, and you are setting a bad example for us. Suppose one day you send us to defend one of your fortresses; we should go less cheerfully if you have these people put to death, for they would do the same to us if they had the chance.’378 D’Albini and his knights, who included William of Lancaster, Osbert Gyffard, William d’Einford and others named by Wendover, were imprisoned in Corfe Castle; others, such as Thomas de Melutan, Richard Gifford and Thomas of Lincoln ended up in Nottingham. John rewarded his troops by handing over to them the sergeants for ransoms. As Wendover concludes, ‘By these misfortunes the cause of the barons was much weakened.’

Military activity had occurred elsewhere in the south-east, but we have only snippets of information for this. Royalist gains elsewhere include the slighting of Mountfitchet Castle in Stansted and the capitulation of a number of castles. The Anonymous of Béthune relates how his lord persuaded the Tonbridge garrison to hand over Gilbert de Clare’s castle to him. Here we see a common example of castle-taking: not by force, but by negotiation. Robert warned the garrison that when John had finished at Rochester, which would be very soon, his army would make for Tonbridge and that the rebel force in London would not come to its aid. The garrison and Robert came to an agreement by which the besieged were allowed to send a messenger to London; if no help would be forthcoming from the capital, the castle would be handed over peacefully. This is what transpired, and on 28 November Robert placed his troops inside.379 A similar agreement left William de Beauchamp’s Bedford Castle in de Bréauté’s hands on the same day, when Hanslope (Castlethorpe) fell to him, too. He, Bréauté and the chamberlain Geoffrey de Neville roamed freely across much of the eastern midlands.

The inability to help beleaguered rebel garrisons could only serve to undermine the resistance of such men everywhere. John was building up a dangerous momentum in the south-east that threatened to crush the opposition there. The baronial party was more secure in the north and the east as long as John was contained in the south. Although Llywylyn’s forces in Wales were holding down the forces of Ranulf of Chester and William Marshal, at the same time these earls were preventing the Welsh from making incursions into England. In the north, the teenaged Scottish king, Alexander II, failed to take the border town of Norham. But John’s army was growing daily; he even had to appoint a Templar named Brother Roger whose sole purpose was to hand out funds and expenses to troops arriving from the continent. No wonder the barons appealed to Louis with the line, ‘if only he would pack his clothes and come, they would give him the kingdom and make him their lord.’380

Negotiations between the baronial diplomatic mission and Louis entered their final phase. Saer de Quincy probably led these discussions from the English side: he was brother-in-law to Simon de Montfort, a close friend of Louis with whom he had shared the dangers of the Albigensian crusade. The barons decisively agreed not to hold any fiefs from John and made homage to Louis as their lord. The talks nearly broke down when Philip Augustus heard of the new round of negotiations between the barons and John that had begun on 9 November. If these discussions did take place, they may have been limited to Rochester Castle and the fate of its garrison. The baronial party in France did not know if this news was genuine, or whether John was up to some diplomatic skulduggery attempting to disrupt the talks. This was a perfectly reasonable suspicion: both the English and French kings had delved into the world of falsified intelligence to implicate others into their machiavellian schemes.381 Amid accusations of treacherous behaviour, the baronial party agreed to a guarantee by sending over 24 of their sons to France as hostages. As was usual in such cases, the hostages were well cared for in comfortable conditions. The crown was now Louis’s for the taking. Practicalities of an actual coronation – there was no archbishop to perform the ceremony and hence confer spiritual authority, and there was no prospect of papal blessing when John was Innocent’s vassal – were left for a later date. The first and most important step remained military success. Louis now committed himself to the baronial side and to the enterprise of England. The French had joined the war.

The first contingent of French forces had landed at the Orwell estuary by the start of December. Just as the rebel tide was at a low ebb, it now turned, carrying on it the firm hope of victory. Numbers are uncertain – perhaps 140 knights with their retinues and an unlikely total force, according to Coggeshall, of 7000 – but a sizeable division was able to make its way into London.

Louis had emulated William the Conqueror in promising followers land in England, an enticing prospect to landless younger knights. One of their leaders was the unflatteringly named William Ratsfoot.382 Their impact was, for the time being, entirely psychological, boosting morale. A French commitment had been made, with Louis promising to arrive with his main force in the new year. The French brought with them experienced, professional soldiers to match John’s; they would bring not just men, but money, supplies and vital siege equipment. But until then, the French stayed in London over winter, moaning about English beer but otherwise living comfortably and safely.

John, on the other hand, took the war to his enemies across the land with sword and fire. He wished to keep his momentum going and to make sufficient headway to render further French intervention pointless after Christmas. John travelled through Essex, Surrey and Hampshire in the first half of December, checking in on Windsor before holding a major war council in St Albans between 18 and 20 December, where the rebels were publicly proclaimed as excommunicants. Wendover (whose mother house was St Albans) writes that John ‘retired with a few of his advisers into the cloister and devised plans for overcoming his enemies’, adding, notably, that he also wished to address the question of ‘how he might find pay for the foreigners fighting under him’.383 The two were, of course, intimately linked. John took the opportunity to assess the strength of his resources and how they should be disposed. A document survives from this occasion which Stephen Church has identified as the earliest English muster roll.384 This gives us some idea of the number of knights in John’s service. It lists 47 household knights of the King, and 375 other knights. Very few of the latter were English; most were from the Low Countries. The conflict was never simply a matter of English against the French. In fact, Wendover suggests that one main reason for the crown being offered to Louis was because he was suzerain of so many of John’s troops. Church estimates this to represent half the number of knights available to John: at a total of 800 knights, easily outmatching the knights at the barons’ disposal.

A clear strategy was determined upon at St Albans and rapidly implemented.385 John split his army into two. One, under the command of Earl William of Salisbury, supported by Falkes de Bréauté, Savary de Mauléon, William Brewer (or Gerard de Sooteghem) and the Brabantine Walter le Buck, was to conduct operations in the south while keeping the rebels pinned down in London; the other, led by the King, was to march north ‘to ravage’, says Wendover, ‘the whole country by fire and sword’. This strategy deliberately left London to one side in the hope that by crushing resistance throughout the rest of the realm, the capital would feel its isolation and surrender. The flaw of this was that the richest city in the land stood defiant, and not just symbolically as it could absorb an influx of foreign troops to match John, provide resources and funds, and therefore continue the resistance against him. Was it wise to leave London? Even with hindsight it is not easy to judge the wisdom of John’s plan. A siege of London would have been lengthy, costly and dangerous. We can not claim with any certainty to know in detail the actual relative strengths of the armies now that the French were arriving; even after John’s death William Marshal and the royalists still made no move on the capital. A ravaging campaign made good sense in many ways. It was a chance to reassert the King’s power over the country and thus re-establish the machinery of governance which would bring in the revenues to fund his military machine; the plundering itself would reward his mercenaries and keep them sweet; the rebels’ resolve would be undermined by the catastrophic economic damage done to their estates; it carried few direct risks; and wavering barons and knights might be dissuaded from joining in with an inactive force stuck in a city in the south-east. But for all the chroniclers’ mocking of the rebel forces staying holed up in the capital and not venturing forth, their strategy might be vindicated by the fact that in perhaps making London too strong for John to take, they successfully gained the time necessary for French reinforcements to appear on the scene; without these reinforcements, they had little chance of victory. This arguably should have made the capital a priority objective for John. A strong investiture may have decided the war. Warren’s assessment seems a judicious one: John’s decision was ‘a typical example of his reluctance to commit himself to decisive military action: the rebellion would have collapsed had London been captured. The rebel headquarters there were the nettle that he should have grasped and uprooted without flinching … One cannot help feeling that a Richard or a Philip would have gone straight for the hardest task and sought a decisive victory.’386 This perceptive commentary encapsulates a major weakness of John as a war leader: going for the easy success. He had missed his opportunity in 1215, before the French started to arrive. If London had fallen, it is unlikely that there would have been any rebellion left for Louis to support, and no reasonable prospect of an English crown for the French Prince.

John led his army from St Albans on the evening of 20 December to unleash devastation across his own kingdom and put fear into the hearts of his own people. Christmas 1215 ushered in an eighteen-month period of warfare that was the worst England had experienced since the anarchy of King Stephen’s reign over half a century before.387 The new year would see civil war become a national one. The French were coming.

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