Fire and Sword
John and his advisers had made their war plans at St Albans just a few days before Christmas. The new year saw the plans executed with maximum force. When the King divided his army into two and set his men loose on his land, he knew that he had to achieve significant military gains, even victory, before Louis set out from France with his main force to transform the rebels’ position. Although the plan was arguably flawed – the rebel stronghold of London was deliberately left until a later date in the hope that a victorious military expedition would leave it isolated and ready for surrender – the winter campaign of 1215/16 witnessed John demonstrating urgent and focused energy against his enemies, for which some historians have praised him. The campaign revealed the destructive power of the King as nothing had before.
While John made his way northward with as many as 400 knights (predominantly Flemish), his southern army made its move in the south-east. This force was under experienced leadership. William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury and John’s half-brother, had been released from captivity in France following his capture at Bouvines, by means of a prisoner exchange with the high-ranking Robert de Dreux. Although he had failed to keep London out of rebel hands, he had chased the rebels away from Exeter in the south-west. With him was the notorious mercenary commander Falkes de Bréauté, a loyal (and well-paid) officer of John and heartily detested by the barons. Successful in his operations the preceding autumn, his approach to warfare was as ruthless as it was coldly professional. Accompanying them were Savary de Mauléon and the mercenary Walter Buck. Their orders were to contain the main rebel force in London, deprive them of supplies and reassert royal authority outside to the immediate north and east of the capital. They followed their orders with efficiency and, even though resistance was limited, brutality.
While the garrisons of Windsor, Hertford and Berkhamstead patrolled close to London, attempting to ensure that no troops came out and no supplies went in, Salisbury’s and de Bréauté’s forces ravaged and quickly subdued Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire by mid-January, and drove the rebels at Bury St Edmund’s back to a temporary refuge on the Isle of Ely. The chronicles speak of serious destruction and brutality: everywhere the royalist forces seized booty, forced money tributes from towns and people and burned the barons’ estates. The inhabitants of London could see – as the marauding soldiers meant them to – the smoke from burning land around the capital; a suburb was attacked. The retreating rebel forces were pursued to Ely and the city sacked and put to fire. Ralph of Coggeshall wrote: ‘[T]hey made great slaughter, as they did everywhere they went, sparing neither age, nor sex, nor condition, nor the clergy.’388 The Earl of Salisbury managed to afford the women of the city some protection from Walter Buck’s rampaging Brabançon mercernaries, but Coggeshall reports how people were horribly tortured to give up their valuables and reveal where they had been hidden. Abbot Ralph had no sympathy with the soldiers; they had just raided his Cistercian monastery and seized 22 horses from his stables. The Barnwell chronicler informs us that those who could fled to London, an indication that the royalist blockade was not secure.389
Meanwhile, John’s larger expedition wreaked greater havoc.390 He left St Albans with Philip d’Albini, John Marshal and continental commanders with Flemish troops and crossbowmen, ‘lawless people who neither feared God nor respected man’.391 Resting on the first night at Dunstable, he advanced through Northampton and Rockingham, reaching Nottingham by Christmas Eve: ‘destroying everything in his way, he gave a miserable spectacle to all who saw it’.392 No wonder one chronicler wrote that John spent Christmas Day at Nottingham Castle ‘not in the usual fashion but as one on the warpath’.393 On hearing of the King’s approach with large forces, castellans abandoned their rebel strongholds and fled to safety, hastily leaving their provisions behind to the advantage of the advancing royalists. This was common practice of those in charge of castles when, as here, they faced clearly unfavourable odds with little or no prospect of relief from their own side if besieged.394 However, this was often a fine judgment to make. Castellans who too readily gave up their castles might be suspected of treason or cowardice and be punished accordingly: decapitation for capitulation. This was the case at Touques in 1417 when a leading citizen was beheaded for surrendering the town too swiftly, even though help was not on its way (even the messenger was hung for being the bearer of this bad news).
John’s next target was Belvoir Castle. This is where Roger of Wendover’s priory stood. Its lord, William d’Albini, was languishing in the prison of Corfe castle since his capture at Rochester. From the nearby manor of Langar, John sent messengers to the castle, held by William’s son Nicholas d’Albini and two of his knights, William of Studham and Hugh de Charneles. The message was simple: surrender the castle on the first time of asking or their lord would be starved to death, a ‘digraceful’ and ‘ignominious’ way to die, says Wendover. The defending knights took counsel with one another, deciding that as they could not hold out, they were better to lose their castle rather than master, as opposed to both if they resisted. Nicholas and Hugh took the keys of the castle to John at Langar. The following day John went to Belvoir and placed it under the charge of two Poitevin brothers, the mercenaries Geoffey and Oliver de Buteville, and then moved northwards to Newark. This was an important gain for John: as part of a royal castle network with Lincoln, Nottingham, Newark and Sleaford it provided him with essential military assets in a strategically vital area: the last stages of the war were to be played out here the following year. From Newark John ordered Roger of Clifford to take Geoffrey de Mandeville’s castle at Hanley in Warwickshire and for Thomas of Eadington to destroy Tamworth in Staffordshire. Painter believes that ‘in all probability these were the only baronial castles left to the west of the king’s line of march with the possible exception of Mountsorrel.’395 It is tempting to say that the year had ended well for John: the rebels were not daring to stand before him and his army was progressing equally well further south. But the rebels still held London in the south and there was unfinished business in the north.
By 1 January John was in Doncaster. He was taking the war against the northern barons and their chief ally in the region, the teenaged King Alexander II of Scotland. In the time honoured tradition of Scottish kings, Alexander had taken advantage of an English king’s problem to add to his discomfiture. When John engaged in open war with his barons in the previous autumn, Alexander had promptly moved south into Northumbria and lain siege to Norham, close to the pivotal border town of Berwick, on 19 October.396Three days later the Northumbrian barons paid homage to him in return for military aid. Alexander was no doubt trying to improve the harsh conditions of the 1209 and 1212 Anglo-Scottish agreements while reasserting traditional Scottish claims to Northumberland and Westmorland. Eustace de Vescy invested Alexander with Northumberland during the siege of Norham. The garrison held out and a 40-day truce was arranged; Alexander moved on. John was now intent on once again proving his mastery over the British Isles as he done just a few years earlier. And he intended to punish the Scottish king, to ‘run the sandy-eared little fox cub to his earth’.397
John moved northwards through Yorkshire, burning his way to Pontefract. Here the castellan, John de Lacy, Constable of Chester, submitted to the King. His lord, Earl Ranulf of Chester, spoke up on behalf of de Lacy allowing the rebel to return to John’s mercy by swearing oaths of loyalty while disavowing any ties with the barons and rejecting Magna Carta; as surety, his brother was given over as a hostage. Another rebel, Roger de Montbegon, submitted to John here. Both de Montbegon and de Lacy were two of the original 25 barons. York placed itself at John’s will with a votive offering of £1000, as did Beverley; Robert Oldbridge, Brian de Lisle and Geoffrey de Lacy were given extra men to hold the area. Before he moved on, John wrote to Robert de Ros demanding that he give up Carlisle to Robert de Vieuxpoint while the Earl of Chester took Richmond Castle and probably Middleham, too. On 7 and 8 January John was at Darlington and thence quickly on to Durham, giving the charge of the latter to the powerful Philip of Oldcoates. The speed and ferocity of his march had put his enemies to flight. Alexander, who had burned Newcastle, took to his heels; on 11 January at Melrose the rebels chased out of England vowed their oaths to him again on holy relics. By the third week of January John was at Berwick, the town falling on the 15th, and sacked with great violence. A short but devastating raid across the river Tweed into Scotland was undertaken, John’s forces reaching, and burning, Haddington and Dunbar; at Dunbar the castle was stormed. Roxburgh and numerous villages met with a similar onslaught; even Coldingham Priory was sacked. Keith Stringer has labelled the ‘ruthless thoroughness’ of John’s chevauchée as ‘shocking’.398
On home territory, Alexander rallied his forces from their organised retreat and harassed the English army. He may have sought an engagement with John but the latter characteristically avoided this and used intelligence from scouts to alter the direction of his march. The English raid had anyway achieved its punitive objective in the north, and a lack of supplies – exacerbated by Alexander’s own retreating scorched earth policy – saw the English out of Lothian by 23 or 24 January. Matthew Paris believed that ‘urgent necessity’399 dictated this. The urgency may have been the news telling of a second wave of French reinforcements reaching London on 7 January. Berwick was torched before the English left (the Scottish chronicles claim at John’s own hand); the castle and bridge across the Tweed were also reported as destroyed and the ships and their cargoes in the port profitably appropriated. Overall it appeared that John had, within a short space of time, ‘delivered a mighty blow to Alexander’s war effort, the more so because long-term infrastructural damage was done. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after this “extraordinary and unequalled devastation” – the Melrose chronicler’s words – John appears to have thought Alexander would soon accept peace.’400 There was no doubting that John had humiliated the Scottish king.
John now headed southwards in the last week of January, sending out his incendiaries into rebel lands once again. The castles of Morpeth, Prudhoe, Wark, Brancepeth and Mitford fell into his hands, and Alnwick was attacked.401 The rebel Gilbert Fitzrenfrew went over to John, bringing with him his two castles and ten hostages. Robert de Ros, clearly recognising John’s unstoppable momentum, granted his constable at Carlisle permission to submit to de Vieuxpont, leaving John’s man in complete dominance of Cumberland and Westmoreland except for Cockermouth Castle. The castles of Lancashire were placed under Earl Ranulf’s care and those of Yorkshire under Geoffrey de Neville (the barons in Yorkshire paying homage to John on 11 January). Further afield, John was issuing orders regarding the control of Manchester and Moulton. By 7 February John had taken Skelton Castle from Peter de Bruce, leaving Robert de Ros’s Helmsley the only definitely rebel castle in Yorkshire, says Wendover.402 John progressed through Lincoln, Sleaford, Stamford and Fotheringay, arriving south in Bedford at the very end of February. The ferocious and speedy expedition witnessed victory after victory and some notable submissions. Painter is not alone among some historians in judging that ‘the King’s northern campaign had been highly successful.’403
But was it? On paper the bald recital of facts and of castles taken would appear to support this view. The reality was, yes, John had been triumphant in vanquishing all before him; but the trouble was, as ever with John, that it was all so ephemeral. John’s campaign had to be fast: he did not want to be in the same position as King Harold in 1066, fighting at Stamford Bridge while an invasion force landed on the south coast. As Holt so perceptively recognises, this necessary speed ‘reduced the effectiveness of John’s onslaught, for the rebels could readily appreciate that he could stay in the north for a limited time’.404 The loss of castles was a serious blow to the rebels, already outnumbered in this department, and the royal garrisons left behind had significant control of the north. But the garrisons were expensive to maintain and they could not ensure a pacified region that had as its neighbour a hostile King of Scotland and the English rebels that had retreated north of the border. The rebels had deliberately employed a strategy of non-resistance for their castles, surrendering them without a fight. Wendover says that Donnington was left vacant when John arrived there; in probability there was a skeleton garrison in place there. As Ralph Coggeshall wrote: ‘The King and his army … depopulated the lands of the barons, incessantly dedicated to plunder and burning … The Northern barons fled before his face while a few submitted themselves to the mercy of the merciless one.’405 This was a sensible tactical retreat that, while executed at a considerable cost, permitted them the freedom to fight later with the French on their side. Already by 20 January another contingent of French troops had arrived in London with Louis promising to come with his main force at Easter. With John back in the south, regional stability would be harder to enforce: before John had even arrived back at Bedford, the Scots had crossed over the border again to besiege Carlisle, and by spring the rebels were besieging York. John had decidedly gained the upper hand for the moment, and, in addition to peace overtures by the leading barons Robert de Ros, Eustace de Vescy and Peter de Brus, many minor figures amongst the rebels made their peace with John, reflecting the new developments. The northern rebellion was essentially over. That John was ready to come to terms with them indicates an awareness of his position: much better than it was before Rochester’s fall, but still with the capital in enemy hands. If John had held London as well, Louis might have thought twice about invading.
John’s successes arguably came at another cost. The sheer brutality of the campaign, with the worst excesses committed by foreign mercenaries on English soil, alienated many of his own subjects. The monastic chroniclers, never short of ammunition to fire at John, lamented the terrible sufferings of the English, but even writers on the royalist side acknowledged this, speaking of how the ‘men of Flanders, foreign knights and soldiers, who every day were set on pillage … bent on laying waste’ the land.406 We have encountered Ralph of Coggeshall’s descriptions of events at Ely and the fear created by John’s army, but it is Wendover who provides us with the devastating reality of John’s campaign. In a passage entitled ‘On the various types of suffering endured by the Christian people’, he writes of John’s soldiers:
The whole surface of the earth was covered with these limbs of the devil like locusts, who assembled … to blot out every thing from the face of the earth, from man down to his cattle; for, running about with drawn swords and knives, they ransacked towns, houses cemeteries, and churches, robbing everyone, and sparing neither women and children; the King’s enemies wherever they were found were imprisoned in chains and compelled to pay a heavy ransom. Even the priests, whilst standing at the very altars … were seized, tortured, robbed and ill-treated … They inflicted similar tortures on knights and others of every condition. Some of them they hung up by the middle, some by the feet and legs, some by their hands, and some by the thumbs and arms, and then threw salt mixed with vinegar in the eyes of the wretched … Others were placed on gridirons over live coals, and then bathing their roasted bodies in cold water they thus killed them.407
Such depictions may owe some literary flourish to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or ecclesiastical traditions (St Laurence, for example, was martyred on a gridiron), but, as I have argued in my book By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare, such medieval tales of barbarity had firm and disturbing foundations in reality. Here, the atrocities are confirmed by Ralph of Coggeshall’s account of the attack on Ely. The violence was not gratuitous, or even merely punitive in nature; at its heart lay the prosaic but vital motivational force of money. Wendover makes this vividly clear:
The wretched creatures uttered pitiable cries and dreadful groans, but there was no one to show them pity, for their torturers were satisfied with nothing but their money. Many who had worldly possessions gave them to their torturers, and were not believed when they had given their all; others, who had nothing, gave many promises, that they might at least for a short time put off the tortures they had experienced once. This persecution was general throughout England, and fathers were sold to torture by their sons, brothers by their brothers, and citizens by their fellow citizens.408
Wendover corroborates Coggeshall’s similar but briefer account of the sacking of Ely. Here churches and even the cathedral were plundered, the latter being spared torching by handing over nine marks of silver. Stephen Ridel was dragged from the cathedral and lost all his possessions – including horses and books – and avoided torture only by handing over 100 marks.409 Pain was the mangle that squeezed out every drop of wealth. John’s winter expedition actually served a secondary purpose beyond the purely military one that was hardly less vital: he needed the campaign as a means of paying his troops and keeping them in his service. Wendover is explicit about this: ‘so that … by robbery John might support the wicked agents of his iniquity. All the inhabitants of every condition and rank who did not take refuge in a churchyard were made prisoners, and, after being tortured, were forced to pay a heavy ransom.’410 It was not just for oppressive taxes, as is often thought, that the Barnwell chronicler famously labelled John as ‘a pillager of his own people’; that is exactly what he was.411
It has been suggested that these atrocity stories have been exaggerated by biased chroniclers. Support for this view lies in some legal records. For example, a jury statement from 1228 reveals that Ripon was spared any depredations by John’s army.412 There could be various reasons for this, such as local politics and strategy, or an understanding of some form of payment of ‘goodwill’ or protection money (tenseria). John was always on the lookout for hard cash; as Poole notes: ‘wanton destruction was not John’s method of revenging himself on rebels; he preferred to extort money by the threat of despoiling them.’413 We have seen how York and Beverley handed over £1000 to John for protection; Retford and Melton Mowbray gave 100 marks; Laxton gave £100 and Thirsk paid 800 marks so as to not have their houses torched. Other evidence shows that a soldier of John’s army faced the equivalent of a courts martial and had a hand amputated for the theft of a cow from a churchyard. But important as such records are, perhaps some historians make too much of them, relieved as they are to have some official documentation quantifying some aspect of history. It is worth reiterating here Colin Richmond’s wise words: ‘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.’414 As I have shown elsewhere, medieval chroniclers were often very close to the fighting with first-hand reports of what happened corroborated by many different eyewitnesses. We have only to look at the war in former Yugoslavia, the Sudan and Congo to know that atrocities are always committed in time of war.415 One of the worst charges Wendover directs at the royal soldiers is that of ransacking cemeteries. This was actually common in medieval warfare. Bodies were often buried with valuables which were worth the effort of digging up. The bodies themselves had value: they could be ransomed back at half the price of a live hostage. Recent corpses might also have nutritional value. In 1317 a Scottish invasion of Ireland coincided with the Great Famine. Foraging was very poor. A chronicle relates that the soldiers were ‘so destroyed with hunger that they raised the bodies of the dead from the cemeteries’.416 Both Ralph of Coggeshall and Roger of Wendover had first-hand knowledge of John’s winter campaigning; Wendover’s accounts are especially valuable for their detail of noncombatant sufferings.
The campaigns in the north and south ensured that John’s men were not only paid in wages, but also received bonuses in kind. Plunder, extortion and stealing from helpless civilians was easy money; the license to do so was an attractive recruitment encouragement. This was not simply wanton destruction, but destruction with a two-fold purpose. As well as recompensing troops, ravaging destroyed the economic base of the rebels, undermining their ability to wage war. The destruction was not random but precisely targeted at John’s enemies (just as they targeted royal and loyalist lands). All the chronicles tell of how the barons’ lands were attacked, but Wendover, the most well-placed to comment, is the most explicit.
Spreading his troop’s abroad, [John] burned the houses and buildings of the barons, robbing them of their goods and cattle, and thus destroying everything that came in his way, he gave a miserable spectacle to those who beheld it … burning the buildings belonging to the barons, making booty of their cattle, plundering them of their goods and destroying everything they came to with the sword.
John gave his commanders orders to ‘destroy all the property of the barons, namely their castles, buildings, towns, parks, warrens, lakes and mills … to finish the business with equal cruelty’. William Longsword was doing the same in the south, where royalist soldiers were collecting booty and indulging in pillage; they levied impositions on the towns, made prisoners of the inhabitants, burnt the buildings of their barons, destroyed the parks and warrens, cut down the trees in the orchards and, having spread fire as far as the suburbs of London, they took away an immense booty with them.417
Note the very specific targets, such as warrens and orchards. Wendover later gives accounts of attacks where anti-royalist forces ‘observed one good rule’ of only attacking the King’s people and places and even individual houses within villages.418 Armies could be very well disciplined, following ordinances for troops in the field. Even Scottish troops, feared for their seemingly unbridled savagery, proved themselves capable of such restraint, closely adhering to the command not to trouble the English clergy and only to ravage the land of King John and his supporters as they made their remarkable march to Dover later that year.
Such widespread ravaging was to be a major feature of the war that continued for the next year and a half. It was about to become a lot worse.
For all of John’s success, real or superficial, he was racing violently against time. This spurred him into frantic action, the speed of which may give an illusion of efficiency. The second tranche of French troops had arrived in London on 7 January, revealing the limitations of the Earl of Salisbury’s movements in the south. Another 100 knights under the command of the marshal Gautier de Nemours reinforced the London garrison, making a total of 240 French knights present in England. With them came 140 crossbowmen (40 of whom were mounted), infantry and war materiel. Forty-one ships were involved in the operation.419 Louis had indicated that he would appear in England in person by the end of January, but delays in his preparations required that this date be postponed. To encourage the rebels he sent over a number of messengers and men at the end of February, just as John was approaching Bedford. Louis sent his promises of his own arrival on Easter Sunday and warned his English supporters to be wary of false intelligence, hinting that this may be fabricated by John’s side. It was important for Louis to give hope to the rebels: if they despaired and came to terms with John, as many were doing, then Louis’s greatest asset in England would be lost, and with it the prospect of a successful invasion.
The psychological impact made by these French troops provided a real morale boost to the rebels who, in addition to John’s almost totally unimpeded march north and back south again, had also to suffer at the end of February the imminent prospect of their public excommunication, along with their French allies. The actual physical impact on the war was initially very limited. In fact, the French first drew blood against one of their key English allies. While carrying out joint military training exercises in the form of a tournament, a French knight called Acroce-Meure tilted with a partially armoured Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Gloucester and Essex, and accidentally inflicted a mortal wound in his stomach.
John did not waste time and in early March, not letting up his momentum, continued his attempts to fully reassert his authority in the kingdom with his troops operating on the Welsh border and, crucially, in the south-east. Immediate triumph came at Framlingham on 12 March, which simply opened its gates to him, despite being a very strong castle. This was very satisfying to John as it was the chief castle of Roger Bigod whom, says the Anonymous of Béthune, the King ‘greatly hated’. The Earl entered into talks with the King; John gave the castle to Savary de Mauléon. On 14 March John was besieging Colchester with a large army, reports Ralph of Coggeshall; this castle gave signs of resistance and had been reinforced with French troops. After some days (John was there until 24 January) the garrison agreed to terms of surrender: the English troops were to be held ransom while the French were to be free to return to London. Coggeshall tells how John reneged on his promise: while the French were allowed through his lines, the English garrison were shackled in chains and imprisoned. When the French reached London they were met with deep suspicion: the English barons charged them with betrayal and wondered how their fate was so different to their English comrades. Such was the fervid atmosphere there were even threats of a mass hanging of the French. Instead, they were imprisoned and their fate was to be decided by Louis when he came. So far the practicality of French involvement had been a disaster: one dead earl and a capitulation that caused massive distrust.
Hedingham followed on 28 March, after John had been there three days. This was the seat of the Earl of Oxford, Robert de Vere. According to the Anonymous, after his loss the Earl swore allegiance to John, but never kept his vow and ‘broke it like the traitor he was’.420 Earl Richard of Clare asked John for safe conduct to his court about this time, indicating that more desertions to him – real or feigned – were taking place. The Earl’s lands had been given to the Anonymous’s patron, Robert of Béthune. John bolstered his position at Hedingham by the distribution of plunder from his winter campaign, an act which further secured the service of the thousands of mercenaries he had in his employ.
This period of campaigning ended with an interesting postscript in the form of two small engagements just outside of London which gave the rebels a fillip. John came close to London on 1 April when he spent the night at Waltham Abbey. According to Coggeshall, the citizens of the rebellious capital opened their gates and made ready for battle with their king; John, as was his habit, wished to avoid the risk of any such encounter, especially as he no doubt felt that the new year had gone satisfactorily so far. His leading captain, Savary de Mauléon, ventured closer to the city, perhaps reconnoitring its defences for possible weaknesses. He and his men were ambushed, suffering heavy casualties; Savary himself suffered a near fatal wound. Royalist forces – ‘pirates’, Coggeshall calls them – were also trying to blockade the Thames. The Londoners attacked them, killing, drowning or capturing 65 of them. To add to John’s displeasure, and to cast a cloud over his seeming triumph in the north, the rebels had besieged York and exacted 1000 marks from its citizens in return for a truce. These were small victories, but they proved that the rebels remained an active force and one which would be of use to Louis.
The situation at the start of April was ostensibly very favourable for John:
Only the walls of London and the prospective arrival of Prince Louis stood between the baronial party and complete destruction. Except for a few isolated strongholds all the castles of England were either razed or occupied by royal garrisons. The lands of the rebels had been thoroughly ravaged by John’s mercenary troops. Moreover the mercenary captains and the Englishmen loyal to the King had been given the custody of the states of the rebellious lords and were collecting their revenues.421
But the shadow of the small figure of Louis loomed large from the continent: ‘if it had not been for Louis of France, John could simply have sat before London until his barons made their submission.’422 From his enemies’ point of view, the situation, serious as it was, clearly dictated that they await help from France.
April was marked by high political tension, intense diplomatic activity and an atmosphere of anticipation and foreboding.423 John continued to cajole rebels over with assurances and relatively moderate sanctions. To this end, on 17 April he instructed his sheriffs to grant safe-conducts to any rebel who wished to reconcile with the King; those that remained recalcitrant were to suffer the loss of their lands by being disinherited forever. Three days previously more tangible preparations to face the French were made by his order for 21 coastal towns from Land’s End to the Wash to send all their ships to the mouth of the Thames. The French had been expected at Easter, so their arrival was threatened at any time.
John directed much energy to his diplomatic efforts. Coggeshall tells of a high-ranking delegation under William Marshal and the Bishop of Winchester travelling to Philip Augustus’s court to place pressure on Philip to forbid his son to make the expedition to England. The Papacy also mobilised its forces on John’s behalf. At Easter papal instructions to the clergy of London finally saw the full public excommunication of the rebels and their French allies in England. (According to Wendover, this public announcement had little effect, ignored as it largely was by clergy and people alike.) The pope also sent his legate Guala Bicchieri to France to act on behalf of the church and her vassal the King of England. Guala, a lawyer steeped in civil law, met with Philip and Louis at Melun on the 24 and 25 April in an eleventh hour attempt to stop the invasion.424 Here claim and counter-claim mixed unproductively as each side put forward their case as just.
The Capetian court presented a very weak case to the legate in an energetic but intellectually empty attempt at justification of their position. Louis’s hopeful claims to the throne were reiterated and backed up with the always dubious support of negative argument to show why John was not the rightful king of England. Philip opened with the traditional expression of respect from a loyal son of the Church before moving on to attack John with the argument that England never was and never would be in Saint Peter’s patrimony as John’s treachery against Richard in 1194 stripped away his legal claim to the throne and thus he had no power to give up the country without the consent of the barons; and even if his crown were legal, this was forfeited by his murder of Duke Arthur of Brittany. In fact, John’s succession was largely undisputed as Richard was unambiguous in naming him as his successor (if a little late in the day) and, as discussed earlier, John’s killing of his nephew (which Philip reminded the legate was tried in the Capetian court) was a domestic feudal matter which had no relevance to the throne of England. The following day, a knight, acting as Louis’s proctor, emphasised the Prince’s claim to the throne through his wife, Blanche of Castille, a niece of Richard through his sister Eleanor. In reality, if John was not the true king, the person with the greatest claim was Arthur’s sister, Eleanor of Brittany, safely incarcerated in one of John’s prisons.The proctor went on to list all the wrongs John had inflicted on Louis’s own lands, including the holding of prisoners without ransom.
Only the case of forfeiture based on baronial discontent following John’s breaking of promises carried any real weight. Guala, as the Papacy’s diplomat, understandably would hear none of this. He held to the position of John being a vassal of Rome and furthermore, having taken the vow of a crusader, John was protected from action against him for four years. Louis’s man countered this last point by saying that the fact John had continued to wage war himself exempted him from this protection. Guala then played his strongest hand and threatened all those taking part in any expedition with excommunication. This had little effect on Louis, who professed to this father that he would rather undergo this from a misguided pontiff than break his word to the barons in England. The Prince reassured his vassals that he would protect them from any material damage caused by excommunication. He also reminded his father that Philip actually had no authority over him outside his French fiefs. It is unlikely that Philip needed any persuasion.
For his part the French King, anxious to avoid the same spiritual opprobrium that awaited his son, made a strong pretence of not condoning the planned invasion, and of wishing to maintain his truce with John. With cynical hypocrisy, he distanced himself from Louis and, according to William the Breton, even imposed sanctions upon him by confiscating some of his lands and those of his followers.425 Such actions fit in with Philip’s polished Machiavellianism (in both its more accurate and its more pejorative meanings). Innocent III was dubious about Philip’s role, but he was dying and little came of it. Later, the Papacy acknowledged that the French King’s high-profile denunciation was genuine, probably because it suited the political situation at the time to do so.There is some debate over Philip’s genuine attitude to Louis’s campaign after the Melun meeting, but the overwhelming likelihood was that Philip was supportive; it was just politic not to let this be widely known.426 The well sourced Anonymous of Béthune gives the clearest indication of this: when, at the baronial meeting at Melun, ‘Louis heard their words, he sought advice from his counsellors and those of his father, who encouraged him to carry out the affair. His father, however, publicly made it appear as though he did not want to be involved because of the truce he had granted; but privately, it was believed that he had advised him.’427 Had he wished to, Philip could easily have prevented Louis’s expedition. As it was, the campaign provided the Capetians with the greatest of opportunities, holding out the possibility of enormous rewards – the final removal of the Angevin foe and England falling under Capetian rule – for little personal risk. The invasion was on.
Guala’s mission had failed, as, indeed, had John’s own extensive measures. It should be remembered that John’s submission to the Papacy was motivated first and foremost by the threat of invasion and the need for papal condemnation of the enterprise. For all the money John had obtained from the interdict, and for all the accolades of his submission as a political masterstroke, John had failed to achieve his primary objective.
The legate’s next step was to make for England and to confirm John’s worst fears. To facilitate this as swiftly as possible, he asked Philip for the diplomatic courtesy of safe conduct to the Channel. The French King’s response was not to his liking: ‘I will gladly grant you safe conduct though my lands, but don’t blame me if by chance you fall into the hands of Eustace the Monk or any of Louis’s men who guard the sea and evil befalls you.’428 Guala left the French court in a rage. Nicholas Vincent’s study of the legate indicates that Guala followed a circuitous route to England, taking nearly a month to arrive at his destination, such was his anxiety to avoid Louis’s forces.429 The position of legate was no guarantee against maltreatment.
Meanwhile, in England, John was a blur of activity in the south-east. In the days immediately before the council of Melun, John had moved from Windsor, through Surrey and back to Rochester. When the council was in progress he was at Canterbury ordering his troops at Rochester to follow him immediately ‘wherever he might be’; the following day he was at the key stronghold of Dover. His itinerary then shows his movements for the next three weeks ‘flitting up and down along the coast of Kent’, waiting in anticipation for Guala and in dread for Louis.430 Just as he had seen to the provisioning of castles, so he had also ensured his fleet was in a state of readiness and on constant alert. The Cinque ports fulfilled their central role in his planning, their function being to provide the core of the ships and crews in the royal fighting fleet. They reinforced their support for John by oaths and the handing over of hostages. Despite the name, there were more than five coastal towns in this military confederation (there were more than 20 ports in the confederation by 1226): to the original Hastings, Dover, Hythe, Sandwich and Romney had been added with similar privileges Winchelsea, Rye and others; the chronicles report that Dunwich, Yarmouth and Lynn were just some of the other ports that sent their ships to Dover for the muster.
John was intent on the eminently sensible and traditional strategy of maritime defence. It had served him well at Damme and now he hoped to replicate that success under even more critical circumstances. In a precursor to the Royal Navy’s blockading strategy in the Napoleonic Wars, John planned to sail to Calais and its neighbouring ports with all his fleet and contain Louis’s huge expeditionary force there in the harbours. He placed his confidence in England’s acknowledged naval superiority: the Anonymous of Béthune writes that John knew ‘the little vessels of Louis could not defend themselves against his ships, which were so large; one of his was worth four of Louis’s.’ But John was undone by the weather: just as Louis’s men were on the point of embarkation, a huge storm broke out in the Channel on 18 May. John’s ships had to fly to safer havens or face destruction. The following day the battered ships were either too unseaworthy or ‘they were so widely dispersed the King could not gather them altogether again’.431Louis seized the chance: on 20 May he ordered his troops on board their ships and made ready to sail.
A remarkably detailed breakdown of Louis’s expeditionary force comes from the quill of the Anonymous of Béthune. He provides precise figures of leading knights and their contingents, not hesitating to admit that for some forces ‘I do not know the number of men.’ In all he estimates that Louis’s army comprised 1200 knights. The scale of the army can also be gauged by the number of ships needed to transport it across the Channel: ‘a good eight hundred’. Wendover offers a figure not too far off this one, giving a total of 680. The scale of the expedition meant that Calais itself was insufficient to accommodate the army numbers: Boulogne, Gravelines and Wissant were also embarkation points. The money invested in such an enterprise was enormous, requiring the taxation of royal provinces, tellingly ‘in the name of the king’ in some places. Great barons who refused to contribute were coerced into forced loans: Duke Eudes of Burgundy had to come up with 1000 marks. When Blanche, Countess of Champagne, made excuses not to pay, soldiers broke in as she was dining and exacted payment from her.
To these ports came many of France’s great lords along with their knightly retinues and soldiers: Robert de Dreux, Etienne de Sancerre, Gérard la Truie, Enguerrand de Couci, Robert de Courtenay, Jean de Montmirail, Guillaume des Roches, the Viscount of Melun, and the loyal Capetian stalwart and veteran commander, Guillaume des Barres. These were highly experienced and respected soldiers, representing some of France’s finest fighting men. Many had performed with distinction on the battlefield at Bouvines. The calibre of this distinguished army was such that had Philip himself been leading the expedition, it would not have been very different in its make up. This is an indication of two factors: one, that Philip’s position on the throne was now so secure he could afford to spare his kingdom these men; and two, despite his protestations, his will was behind the invasion. Amongst the army was the shady Hervé de Donzy, Count of Nevers, ‘an arrogant and vicious man’ according to William Marshal’s biographer, with a dazzling retinue of 100 knights. Nor were there just French knights; Flemish lords were well represented such as Raoul de Nesle and the Count of Guines. And more French lords were to come: in late summer the chivalrous Count of Perche and Pierre Mauclerc, Count of Brittany, added their weight to Louis’s army, the latter laying claim to the county of Richmond. All were about to begin their great adventure in search of new lands, rich wives and booty, echoing the aspirations of William the Conqueror’s invasion force exactly 150 years earlier.432
The admiral in charge of the fleet and responsible for its preparation was the infamous Eustace the Monk, one of our story’s most colourful characters and one of the most inappropriately named.433 Eustace came from a noble family living in the Boulonnias region of northern France. At the time of the invasion he was probably in his mid-forties. He trained as a knight and gained experience of seamanship from his early travels. It is curious as to why he ever contemplated being a monk in the first instance: his storyteller depicts him as a completely disruptive character in the cloisters, causing mayhem and encouraging such unmonkish habits as cursing. The Romance of Eustace the Monk portrays this ribald character as a foul-mouthed, irredeemably dishonest trickster, fond of four-letter words and farting (blaming the latter on his horse’s saddle); but in his favour we are told that he was not a sodomite (the Romance uses a far more colloquial term) and only dressed as a woman to deceive a knight. Unsurprisingly, he renounced his holy orders. He entered the service of Count Renaud de Boulogne, rising rapidly to become his seneschal, before falling out with him on the Count’s suspicion of Eustace’s likely financial irregularities. Eustace took to the woods and began his career of notoriety, this short little man becoming one of the most feared and infamous figures of the day: ‘His name was enough at one time to strike terror into the hearts of Channel seamen.’434 His feud with the Count of Boulogne soon involved Eustace in many actions, including capture and escape, after which he offered his services to King John in 1205. We are told that John hailed Eustace as ‘brave and bold’ and recognised in him a kindred spirit: ‘You know a great deal about guile and cunning and do not need any cat’s grease to help you.’435
Eustace deployed his naval skills to good effect by raiding the French seaboard until 1211 – something that profited him personally as well as his master – and was rewarded by John with lands in Norfolk. There appears to be some truth to the legend that he captured Sark and used it as his pirates’ base. His antagonistic opportunism led him into conflict with the coastal ports of southern England, to such an extent he required safe-conducts to visit England. Eustace’s reputation grew alongside daring tales in The Romance of Eustace the Monk, written shortly after his death, of (a temporary) recovery of the Channel Islands, raids up the Seine and of victorious encounters against Philip Augustus’s leading mercenary commander, Cadoc. The Romance tells of how John rewarded Eustace with a large palace in London.
That two such unpleasant and self-serving figures as John and Eustace should fall out seems inevitable with hindsight. The break came between late 1212 and November 1214; the causes were familiar to those that had alienated many of the country’s great barons. When Eustace failed to pay off a debt of 20 marks, John had his lands in Norfolk seized for a time; the Anonymous of Béthune also reports that his wife was taken hostage by the King. His daughter had already been handed over as a hostage. One can speculate on how they were treated by John; the Romance says that later John had the daughter burned, disfigured and killed, another revealing condemnation of John from a non-clerical source. There thus seems to have been growing animosity between the two over this time, exacerbated by Eustace’s seemingly growing independence. It is worth considering that the ever-opportunistic Eustace may have been manoeuvring himself in light of John’s defeat at Bouvines and the Capetian ascendancy, and that this was what made John uneasy about Eustace. When Eustace’s old enemy the Count of Boulogne joined forces with John in 1212 it may well have motivated him to change his own allegiance. John ordered Philip d’Albini to lead a successful raid against Eustace on Sark: many of the pirate’s men were captured, including family members who were incarcerated in Portchester Castle; but Eustace won these areas back during 1215–16 and in 1215 he had supplied the rebel barons with siege machines. Over the next eighteen months Eustace was to continue playing a central role in the French war effort in England right up to its bloody climactic battle.
It was on Eustace’s flagship ship that Prince Louis embarked on the evening of Friday 20 May. With him were Stephen Langton’s brother, Simon, the chamberlain Ours de la Chapelle and the Viscount of Melun. The winds were still high but for Louis this was an opportunity, even though some of his men waited until the seas had calmed before setting off. To deal with the winds an oblique course was charted. At 9pm the trumpets sounded their fanfare across the port of Calais to signal the departure of the invasion fleet. Louis set sail for England.436
One day ahead of him was the legate Guala. He had landed at Romney on the night or early morning of 20/21 May. John, anxious to exchange valuable information with him, rode out from Canterbury to meet him on the road. Guala was resplendent in his scarlet cardinal’s attire riding on a white horse. With Stephen Langton suspended and in exile in Rome, Guala was the foremost ecclesiastical figure in England and now ‘the uncontested guardian of the English church’.437 He and John dismounted and embraced. The King, having received intelligence from the coast, told him that Louis’s ships had been sighted; the legate immediately renewed the excommunication of John’s enemies and the two went to Canterbury. Guala did not tarry here long; fearing a successful French landing, he moved quickly farther inland to avoid capture.438
Louis arrived in England on 21 May at Stonor on the Isle of Thanet just ahead of his main fleet, landing with just seven ships, through a combination of keenness and the compulsions and disruptions of the storm and its effects on his squadrons, many of which had turned back until the winds subsided. Louis wished to be the first ashore. He missed his footing slightly and landed in the water instead of on the earth. From a crowd that had gathered on land, a priest emerged with a crucifix. Louis kissed the crucifix and planted his lance in the ground. He had come with his army to claim the throne of England as his own.
His full force appeared off the coast the following day. John hastened to Sandwich to gauge its size for himself. For decades English armies had crossed the Channel to fight in France; now that was all turned on its head. The long-threatened French invasion of England was now a reality staring him defiantly in his face. The moment was at hand and the crisis was upon him. John had been fearing this event for years; but he had also been preparing for it. His naval force might have been rendered temporarily inoperative, but on land he had amassed his troops in readiness. At this critical juncture, John had the opportunity to seize the military initiative from the onset: he could have been in position to attempt to prevent Louis’s invasion force from landing or engage with it in a pitched battle and drive it back into the sea. He did neither. Instead, he fled. The French poured onto land unopposed.
Was John’s reaction an ignominious one of panic? William the Breton would have us believe this. According to his account, Louis sought battle even though he and his men were the worse for wear after the arduous crossing and were outnumbered three-to-one. The Anonymous, who says that Louis initially had 200 knights with him, depicts John as riding along the bank and sounding off his trumpets after the main fleet arrived but this ‘little emboldened his men, and little comforted them, great was the display of French power’.439 John is an easy target to criticise in his military role and he may indeed have lost an important chance at the onset. But as we have seen battle avoidance was a mainstay of medieval warfare and this advice was given by the old warrior William Marshal, according to the Dunstable annalist. John’s decision was taken because he had an even greater fear than the French joining up with the baronial forces: he could not trust his own men. Wendover explains John’s thinking: ‘as he was surrounded by foreign mercenaries, he did not dare attack Louis on his landing, in case they all deserted him in battle and went over to Louis’s side; he therefore chose to retreat rather than engage in battle in uncertainty.’440 Remember that one of the attractions of Louis was that he was from the French royal family; the barons hoped that John’s foreign troops, many of whom were French themselves, would not fight against the son of their overlord king. Even without this threat, the knowledge of Hastings in 1066 must have played heavily on his mind; John did not want to lose his kingdom, and perhaps his life, that day.
But, as mentioned above, John is an easy target to criticise. John had proven himself energetic and thorough in his preparations for this war, expending vast amounts of treasure and sweat in building his massive army. But at the decisive moment to what avail had it been to him? One must question the wisdom of building an army so dramatically augmented by foreign mercenaries. The idea of these was that they could be trusted above his own barons, if the pay was forthcoming. If John’s position was such that he could realistically place limited faith in his own countrymen, then he had little recourse than to look across the Channel for forces. Yet if these in turn were potentially undependable then what was the massive outlay of money for? Untrustworthy himself, he placed little trust in others. The significance here is that John had not fully utilised these men when they might have had their greatest effect in the months before the invasion: had John crushed the baronial revolt and its epicentre in London, there would have been no French invasion and no potential clash of loyalties. John was in the precarious position he found himself in late May 1216 precisely because he had failed to achieve military victory against a much weaker enemy before the French arrived on the scene. He compounded this failure with the current one, leaving Louis to establish his army on land unopposed.
John seemed to realise that his reluctance to commit fully to the grim but necessary task at hand was another failure. He resorted to character and slinked speedily away from the coast and was well on the way to Dover before most of his men even knew he had gone. When captains such as Robert of Béthune and Baldwin d’Aire realised the King was no longer with them, they were angered and critical. When they followed him to Dover, they found him there greatly agitated and disheartened. John’s woeful lack of leadership skills, highlighted and exposed cruelly in times of extreme pressure, did not bode well for his campaign.
While Louis took control of Sandwich on 23 May, with all its ships, wine, meat and booty, John continued his flight further inland to Guildford and thence, distressed, to Winchester by 28 May with a Flemish rearguard protecting his movements all the way. Before retreating from Dover, he left this new, powerful fortress in the capable hands of the justiciar Hubert de Burgh (a reflection of its importance); with him were a large garrison of Flemish knights (as many as 140 calculates the Anonymous) and sergeants, and plentiful supplies to withstand a long siege. Louis proceeded to subdue the whole district around eastern Kent with ease, except for Dover. Dover was to be to Louis what London had been for John: an obstinate focus of prolonged resistance. Canterbury surrendered without a struggle, Guala himself deserting the city in undignified haste ahead of the French advance, and from there Louis reached Rochester around 25 May, the scene of John’s triumph the previous autumn. The barons and Louis’s French troops in London were now able to leave the capital and at long last meet up with their leader at Rochester. Here Robert Fitzwalter, Hugh Bigod, Saer de Quincy, William de Mandeville, Robert de Vere, William Marshal the Younger and others paid homage to Louis.
They soon made good their earlier defeat at Rochester on 30 May, the castle holding out for less than a week. It had taken John almost two months to win it. That Rochester fell so precipitously was not merely a measure of military pressure, but its often vital concomitant: political momentum. Louis’s arrival, supported by his large invasion army, transformed the situation in England. Now that he had finally made good on his word and turned up in England, there was confidence and expectation amongst many that John’s reign was over and that if they were to be part of Louis’s success and its consequent benefits they should declare themselves for him now. Those who had made peaceful overtures to John in the preceding months when they were completely on the defensive, now reverted to their true, pro-French colours; many waverers and even fair-weather supporters of John soon followed their example, clearly sensing fin de regime in the spring air. These considerations outweighed any expected, wholesale national reaction to the presence of a foreign invader on English soil (this was to come later); this speaks volumes as to how far John had alienated his subjects. The momentum was with Louis, just as it was with his father in his conquest of Normandy in 1203–4.
Against this, repeated proclamations of excommunication, as again pronounced when Guala reunited with John at Winchester on 28 May, counted for little. Louis entered the capital triumphantly on 2 June to a rapturous reception. The canons of Saint Paul’s, unperturbed by Guala’s frantic condemnations, welcomed Louis warmly with a procession in the cathedral. No fewer than twelve of the country’s twenty bishops welcomed Louis as the new defender of the English church. Perhaps Louis’s satisfaction was marred a little by Westminster Abbey’s refusal to grant him entry (one of only five London churches which obeyed excommunication protocol) and, more importantly, that the Tower of London remained neutral and treated him similarly, for the time being at least.441 William Hardel, the mayor of London and a host of others paid homage to the French Prince. From the start, Louis acted in every way as the rightful King of England. He swore on the holy gospels that he would restore to his new vassals all their rightful inheritances and good laws. He wrote to Alexander of Scotland and then to all the barons who had not yet done homage to him, instructing them either to do so or ‘to leave the kingdom of England with haste’.442
It had been a perfect start for Louis: all his forces safely across the Channel; no men lost; Sandwich, Canterbury and Rochester all secure; and now a real sense of palpable success in his claim to the throne with his experiences in London. The outcome so far had vindicated not only his careful, lengthy planning but also the stubborn, if largely passive, resistance of the barons in the capital. Louis would have hoped that the impressive impact of his arrival and the momentum that it had created would persuade his opponents that the sensible option was to abandon the despotic John and come over to him. Indeed, Wendover reports that many on the King’s side abandoned him, ‘quite certain that Louis would obtain the kingdom’ while many of John’s continental troops – but not the Poitevins – either headed home or joined with Louis.443 But the real struggle was only just beginning.
Louis was not the type to hang around and hope for the best. He intended to capitalise on his momentum and seek out John while the Angevin was still on the back foot. He would have guessed from his own knowledge and that of the barons that John’s reversal would be affecting him adversely and that he should keep the pressure on. The chronicler Robert of Auxerre reports that John had lost his nerve and was unable to act. On 6 June Louis led a large army out of London making for the King at Winchester while another force set out to assert control of the eastern counties. It was as if the forces of the long pent-up barons and early French arrivals had now combined with the massive influx of Louis’s army to burst out of the capital and flood across the land. Meanwhile, Alexander of Scotland besieged Carlisle again while pro-baronial factions stirred up more trouble in Wales and Ireland. The desultory civil war was over and the driving war of conquest had begun. ‘The realm was thrown into chaos,’ writes Warren.444
The day before Louis’s departure, John had actually quitted Winchester and retreated farther west to the safety of the formidable Corfe Castle. While Louis led his men, John used his as a buffer against the enemy. Louis’s first objective was Reigate Castle, owned by the Earl of Warrene; he reached it on 7 June to find it abandoned. He entrusted its care to Robert de Courtenay. The following day Louis took Guildford and on the 10th he arrived before Farnham, a castle belonging to Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester. Hardly had Louis set up a siege camp when the garrison surrendered the next day. By the 14th Louis was before Winchester. Here, for the first time, the French Prince met with real resistance.
Before leaving Winchester, John had reorganised his forces. He sent Falkes de Bréauté to defend the region around Oxford, centred on his royal castle there, while Savary de Mauléon was charged with preparing the defences of Oxford. We can determine here that John knew he had to draw up a defensive line before the French proceeded too far west and undermined royal support there. De Mauléon fired the suburbs to deny the oncoming enemy resources and shelter (Coggeshall claims John personally committed this incendiary act); the fire, however, spread into the city razing perhaps as much as half of it to the ground. The flames were seen by the rebel forces. Louis ordered his army to arrange itself into battle order and to approach the city quietly and carefully. He found the city deserted and entered it. However, before having left to meet up with John, Savary had left garrisons in Winchester’s two castles, its main one in the west and another in the east called Wolsevey belonging to des Roches and captained by the young squire Oliver, whom the Anonymous identifies as an illegitimate son of John. Louis wished these garrisons to be checked so they could not sally forth and fire the rest of the city or make a surprise attack on his camp; he instructed Robert de Béthune and Baldwin de Belvoir to see to this task which they performed with assiduous labour. Louis’s siege engines went to work on the main castle, his perriers and mangonnels bombarding its tower. The siege lasted until 24 June. On this day Savary came from the King to discuss surrender terms of the castles with Louis; the garrisons were allowed to withdraw and Louis took full possession of Winchester. Louis awarded Count Hervé of Nevers with the city and main castle. With this success emerged the first inkling of trouble in the Franco-baronial alliance. William Marshal the Younger contested Adam de Beaumont’s marshalship of the army; Louis, fearing loss of English support, granted this to him. This was to be the first of many squabbles and evidence of growing friction between the rebel barons and the French over the increasing share of spoils, which did much to cause acrimony among their ranks.
More serious to John than the loss of Winchester was the flurry of high-level desertions to Louis while he was in the city and what it said about John’s expected chances. These were pretty devastating to John on the political, military and personal level. Four great earls changed sides and submitted to Louis: three who were previously seemingly committed supporters of the King – Arundel, Warren and Salisbury – and Aumale. With them went 430 knights and thirteen castles. Salisbury, William Longsword, was the king’s half-brother; William the Breton suggests that he was looking for vengeance for John’s unwarranted advances (‘incest’, William claims) on the Earl’s wife when he was captive in France after the defeat at Bouvines.445 Salisbury and the consistently inconsistent Aumale soon returned to John, but it must have shaken the King at the time. Another deserter was Warin Fitzgerald, a chamberlain of the exchequer, a castellan in possession of over 100 knights’ fees. Within a fortnight Hugh de Neville let John know that he was ready to hand over Marlborough, a town which owed its charter to John, and John Fitzhugh followed him. John tried to stop and even reverse this flow with increasingly desperate attempts at reconciling himself with his estranged barons, even the de Braose family, and safe-conducts were offered to any thinking of returning to his service. At the same time, rallying himself into more solid action, he checked the readiness of royal castles in Wiltshire and Dorset while instructing Bayonne to send galleys against the French.
Louis had not finished his triumphal progress yet. From Winchester he went to the south coast and the old Roman camp of Portchester, taking it and giving the castle to Nevers. At the beginning of July he moved on to Odiham, a small town belonging to des Roches. Despite its minor castle with a minimal garrison of only three knights and ten soldiers, a spirited defence was put up in the face of a barrages and assaults. The garrison commander was Engelard de Cigogné, one of the foreigners complained about in clause 50 of Magna Carta. On the third day of the siege, the garrison sortied out and caused substantial losses among the French. The garrison held out for a full week before surrendering on 9 July. As they emerged from the castles with their horses and armour – their defence ensured them honourable terms – the French were amazed at their paucity of numbers and were filled with admiration for them.
It was while at Odiham that John’s chief forester Hugh de Neville offered Marlborough to Louis. The French Prince in turn handed it over to his relative Robert de Dreux. The Anonymous goes into considerable detail about the handover of Marlborough. De Dreux headed there with a considerable force which included Enguerrand de Coucy, Robert de Béthune and Baldwin of Belvoir. When they approached the town they feared a trap: the gates were shut, men armed the battlements and other soldiers moved around in the woods. At first they decided to return to Louis but, gathering their courage, they instead made camp for the night. As they were leaving in the morning, de Neville sent a messenger to them to arrange details of the handover. The castellan then turned up and handed over the keys to the castle. De Dreux garrisoned it with ten knights under Jean de Lisdain and returned to the host. The Anonymous judges the garrison as insufficient to protect the castle, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, as it was soon to be retaken by the royalists.
Again, William Marshal the Younger complained about Louis’s disposition of his victories, claiming the castle for himself in vain. Instead, Louis sent the young Marshal further west to capitalise on another defection, this time that of Walter de Beauchamp, Sheriff of Worcester. The younger William occupied the city, much to his father’s annoyance: ‘the impertinence of his heir’s incursion into a region so near his own command was apparently too much for the old Earl.’446 William Marshal senior, who was at this time holding down the Marches for John, warned his son to quit the city. There may have been paternal care in the warning, as a royalist force under Earl Ranulf of Chester and Falkes de Bréauté retook the city on 17 July. It is likely that William Marshal saw the benefit of a division in family loyalties, as it meant a foot in both camps in very uncertain circumstances.447
Louis was back in London by mid-July where his cause received more fillips. Pope Innocent III died of fever at Perugia on 16 July; when the news reached London the French were delighted. The Barnwell Chronicler reports that the rebels and French were hopeful of a positive change. The new pope, Honorius III, was a less stringent character but no less supportive of John. More immediate was the knowledge that his forces under Robert Fitzwalter, William de Mandeville and William of Huntingfield were experiencing similar successes in the east of England, especially in Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The details of this campaign are less clear and largely absent in the chronicles. Wendover, the much and wrongly maligned chronicler, reports that the army found Norwich deserted; it was occupied and used as a base from which the freshly installed garrison could impose the new order’s authority in the region, not least through taxation to assist the war effort. A more brutal way of raising war funds was achieved successfully at Lynn, a coastal town of the Wash. The town was attacked and seriously damaged and many inhabitants were taken away as prisoners for ransoming. The expedition left garrisons in strongholds before returning to London weighed down with great amounts of booty.
Gilbert de Gant came to Louis in London with more good news from further north, Gilbert presenting his lord with the sword of Lincoln. Louis rewarded him by creating him Earl of Lincoln. He gave orders to Gilbert and Robert de Ropsley to subdue the region and to hem in the royalist garrisons of Newark and Nottingham, as John’s men had been making incursions from the castles to harry and destroy baronial land and property. Louis’s captains took control of Lincolnshire and its principal city, imposing taxation across the region, but Lincoln Castle would not fall to them. Its castellan, the formidable lady Nichola de la Haye, negotiated a bought truce. The castle was to be besieged later for the duration of war and was to play a central role at the war’s end. The two rebel commanders then went on ravage the area of Holland and impose further taxes on its people. York and Yorkshire also fell into Louis’s control, due to the advance of Robert de Ros, Richard Percy and Peter de Brus. Further north again, King Alexander had, as mentioned, moved south with his host to besiege Carlisle and into Northumbria to ravage royalist lands up to Durham. ‘All these provinces’, says Wendover, ‘were subdued and swore allegiance to Louis.’448
These victories were rendered all the sweeter by John’s money problems; despite Guala’s imposition of taxes on the clergy, the King was losing money fast. The author of The History of William Marshal makes the point: ‘I should inform you at this point that, when the King ran out of resources, very few of the men stayed with him who were there for his money; they went their own way with their booty in hand.’449 And then there were the desertions of as many as a sixth of John’s household knights, the core of his army, including men such as Robert of Ropsley and Hugh de Neville. Stephen Church, in his valuable study of John’s household knights, describes this as ‘a remarkable picture of disloyalty from the rank and file … These were the men who … had a special relationship with the King … Yet when John’s position became seemingly untenable, or when the lands of the household knights came under threat, these men who had supped the king’s wine, eaten his food, received his benevolentia, rejected their master and chose to look instead after their own and their families’ interests.’450 Ties of family; the need to protect their own lands; following the lead of their lords and, crucially, the expectation that John was no longer in a position to offer sufficient rewards for their service now that Louis was in the ascendan – all of these factors contributed to Louis’s hugely successful initial thrust.
The months of June and July had produced significant and telling victories which left Louis in control of more than one-third of England, including some of its most important and prosperous regions and centres, with strong allies entrenched in areas from the south coast up to and including Scotland. This could only encourage further waverers to come over to Louis’s winning side. But this picture is incomplete: Louis had not done enough to force a definitive outcome. Just as the barons had held out precariously against John, so now John was holding out against the rebels. Not everything had gone Louis’s way.
On the diplomatic front, Louis’s ambassadors to the papal court failed to win any concessions from the dying Innocent III. The military impact of this, like the excommunication, was slight, but it showed that the Papacy did not regard Louis’s victories as being afait accompli which merited a new response. Wendover thinks the diplomatic mission to be worthy of several pages in his chronicle. Louis also entered into fresh talks with Guala in mid-July, but again nothing came of them. Ironically, on the political front, the flocking of barons to Louis’s banner – peaking at two-thirds of the total by the summer’s end – increased the friction in the Franco-rebel camp. As exhibited by William Marshal the Younger’s attitude, jealousies and suspicions increased: the more that barons offered their allegiance to Louis, the less land and spoils were available to Louis’s Frenchmen.
The great swathes of territory dominated by Louis, tightly concentrated across the whole south-east and in pockets beyond, can lead to a slightly misleading impression of his position. Strong as it was, there were weaknesses in it. While victory brought men to his cause, he was actually losing some at the same time. The Count of Holland had earlier taken the cross and, unlike John, intended to fulfil his crusading vows, and so he left with his men to make his preparations for the Holy Land. Over two months of assembling at French ports and subsequent campaigning was enough for some of Louis’s other troops: Hugh Havés and his men wished to return home to Artois after Winchester. From London they made to the coast along the Thames and ‘reached the sea with great joy’, but here had to outrun a royalist naval squadron trying to intercept them.451
The biggest block to Louis’s momentum, however, setting limits to his expansion, was John’s system of royal castles. Medieval warfare centred around sieges, none more so than this conflict. When Louis failed to take John’s strongholds, the lands that he took around them remained vulnerable: hence Gilbert de Gant’s operations against Newark and Nottingham. Alexander’s depredations in the north failed to win the castles of Philip de Oldcoate and Hugh de Balliol who, between them, pretty much held all the castles of Northumberland; Barnard Castle and Durham Castle remained in loyal hands. Newark, Nottingham and Lincoln marked the extent of Louis’ secure control into the northern midlands. While in the otherwise strongly consolidated south-east, two large thorns remained stuck in Louis’s side: the powerful royal fortresses of Windsor and Dover. These defiant islands of resistance indicated, just like London did for the rebels, an enemy that remained unbroken. The chronicler’s statement after the siege of Rochester in 1215 that none now placed their faith in castles was completely inaccurate. While some of his troops were occupied in small-scale warfare and raiding, John had been ensuring that the majority were securing his castles: while Louis was busy in the field, a contemporary wrote that John ‘laid in good supplies of knights, provisions and arms in the castles of Wallingford, Corfe, Wareham, Bristol, Devizes and others too numerous to mention’.452 John was playing a longer game in the hope that events would turn for him. It was not a heroic or perhaps even advisable course to take, but it suited John and it greatly discomfited the rebels in the meantime. The most significant centres of resistance were Lincoln, Windsor and Dover. Lincoln enjoyed an arranged truce until August; its fate will be discussed in the next chapter. Windsor and Dover were priorities for Louis and we shall cover his operations against these two castles shortly.
But first it is necessary to look briefly over John’s other activities in leading the resistance against the invaders lest the impression be given that he had remained relatively passive. A study of government records reveal his movements from this time.453 While Louis was at Winchester and moving through Hampshire, John was doing the rounds of his castles in Wiltshire and Dorset ensuring that they were fully readied for war. As well as his instructions to Bayonne for naval actions, granting safe-conducts and appealing to the de Broase family as mentioned above, he was issuing specific orders to his castellans across the land. One feature of these orders was castles such as Richmond and Bolsover that could not be held should be destroyed; instructions were actually sent out for the destruction of the frontline Castle of Newark before being cancelled shortly afterwards. He also granted his men permission to submit, temporarily of course, to the French tenserie payments when militarily prudent to do so; in allowing this, John was recognising that in many cases he knew help to his men might be a while in coming. The King was probably expecting Louis to continue his advance into John’s western and south-western territory, as perhaps signalled by William Marshal the Younger’s occupation of Worcester in mid-July, and so he had concerned himself with the border defence of this area. Just after the middle of July, John left Sherborne and headed northwards to reach Leominster on the 31st, having passed through Bristol, Berkeley, Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Hereford. His proximity to the border facilitated his talks with Welsh princes as he tried to elicit their support; on 2 August he crossed into Wales at Radnor to pursue these further. His itinerary thereafter until 19 August was Clun, Shrewsbury, Whitchurch, Bridgenorth, Worcester, Gloucester and Berkeley. From Berkeley Castle on the 19th he wrote a letter which explained these movements: he believed Louis intended to besiege Hereford and Worcester.
In fact, Louis had returned to London four weeks earlier to consolidate his position in the southeast and to oversee operations against Windsor and Dover. One historian has therefore put John’s activity in the west down to poor intelligence;454 this may well have been the case, but throughout the war both sides generally had a very good idea of the enemy’s troop movements – indeed, responsive strategies were commonly devised around these – and so it is worth considering if John was consciously avoiding a decisive encounter to concentrate on keeping his existing strongholds rather than winning back lost ones.
Although Louis had returned to London, he was still taking the fight to the enemy. An army of barons left London to ravage Cambridgeshire and capture the weak royal castle of the shire’s principal town – a rare example of a royal castle falling to force – and seized the twenty soldiers garrisoning it. They continued to rampage throughout Norfolk and Suffolk, pillaging the countryside and churches and extorting ransoms from Yarnmouth, Dunwich and Ipswich before subjecting Colchester and its surrounding areas to the same treatment. It was a profitable little chevauchée that no doubt raised morale further through full bellies, full pockets and a tangible military gain.
Dover and Windsor were harder nuts to crack. Louis had returned from his westward advances to concentrate on these hugely important strategic fortresses. Dover dominated the south coast and it was here that Louis arrived on 25 July to oversee a full investiture of the castle and ensure, according to William the Breton, ‘free access to England’, necessary for logistical support and reinforcements.455 Matthew Paris offers an interesting anecdote that shows how the wise Philip Augustus recognised Dover as ‘the key to England’ when he took his son to task for not prioritising Dover from the very start of the campaign.456 Philip, the master castle-breaker and conqueror of Château Gaillard, was making a very pertinent military point, which Louis appreciated. Windsor, which severely curtailed any movements by Louis to the west and midlands, was laid under siege by Robert de Dreux and the Count of Nevers within a couple of days. The invasion forces entrenched for their first lengthy sieges of the campaign. Both were to be dramatic and violent.
Louis had been in contact with his father as the Prince requested heavier siege machinery to help with the capture of the castle. This arrived in the form of a huge stone-thrower called ‘Malvoisin’ (‘Bad’ or ‘Evil Neighbour’), and joined the ranks of other machines constantly bombarding the castle; this petraria may have in fact been a trebuchet, mentioned for the first time in English sources at this siege.457 While his ships secured the sea outside Dover, Louis’s large army completed the blockade on the land side. Inside the castle were 140 knights and many soldiers, mainly Poitevin and Flemish, under Hubert de Burgh and the Flemish mercenary captain Gerard de Sotteghem. It was a strong force for a strong castle. They had been well prepared and well provisioned. Louis was billeted in a priory in the town; his leading knights also preferred the solid shelter there to life in the tented camp. They settled in for the siege.
Hubert de Burgh, ‘a brave knight’, says Wendover, led an active defence. The garrison made many sorties and inflicted heavy casualties on the besiegers. Louis’s men kept up the pressure, eating away at the castle’s defences. Louis conducted the siege operations from the field north of the castle; this gave him a clear view of the action. His first target was the north-east barbican protecting the main gates, guarded by Pierre de Créon and reinforced by strong oak timbers and a surrounding ditch. The soldiers within the garrison could be clearly seen by the besiegers as they manned the battlements to engage in crossbow exchanges with the French, one of whom, Perenaut, was obviously a crack shot because on his approach the garrison would hurry into cover. Mangonels and petrarias were repositioned to hurl their rocks at the walls and gates while from on high soldiers shot down from a tall belfry and below, under the protective mantlet of a cat, miners swung their pickaxes against the base of the ramparts. Louis then ordered his knights to make an assault; a squire by the name of Paon was the first to make his way into the barbican. Pierre de Créon stood fast at his post and was fatally struck down.
But the siege dragged on into September. The garrison’s resistance increased in proportion to the level of attack. Casualties forced the French to withdraw their lines and even their tents. There were serious manpower losses, too. As the siege became ever more protracted, many of his men returned home, including leading knights such the Count de Roussi, Jean de Montmirail, Hugh de Rumegny and others. The Anonymous says that Louis’s ‘host dwindled marvellously’. John, meanwhile, was on the move to relieve the siege of Windsor. The siege caused Louis tremendous frustration as both his momentum and the military initiative slipped away. Wendover reports that ‘he was enraged and swore that he would not leave until he had captured the castle and hanged all the garrison.’ He then increased the psychological pressure: he ordered his men to construct a highly visible market in front of the castle with the clear implication that while his forces wanted for nothing, the garrison’s supplies could not last forever. The intention was ‘to strike terror into them’ with the fear of starvation; but Wendover also implies that it was an admission of the inability of the French to take the castle by force.
A significant boost bolstered Louis, possibly around the second week of September. Alexander II of Scotland, who had taken the town of Carlisle on 8 August (the castle still held out) made a quite remarkable 400-mile march from here to Dover to greet his powerful ally.458 Keith Stringer, who has admirably compensated for the lack of historians’ attention to Alexander’s role in the war, notes that the Scottish King was able to do so untroubled by John due to first-rate intelligence and the successes of the rebels: most of Yorkshire was rendered safe by the control of Robert de Ros, especially through his castle at Helmsley, and his progress was further assisted by Earl Warenne’ s castles above Lincoln, where Alexander met up with the rebel besieging force. The knowledge that John was busy with his military activity in the West Country at this time was exploited fully: ‘the royalists were caught completely off-guard.’ His return north afterwards was more dramatic and even more successful: he made a profitable raid on John’s camp. As Stringer writes: ‘no one could deny that Alexander’s parading through England’s heartlands was a stunning feat of arms; and the unpalatable memory of his astonishing exploit remained seared on the English government’s psyche for years to come.’459Contemporary Scottish chroniclers took note with some pride of Alexander’s journey; he had, after all, led a Scottish army triumphantly from the north of England to its south-eastern most corner and back again. No wonder it shook the English government.
There had been one episode to cast a shadow on his journey southward. During a brief siege of Hugh de Balliol’s castle at Barnard, he was joined by some barons, chief among whom was one of the leading northern barons, Eustace de Vescy, brother-in-law to King Alexander. As Eustace rode around the castle looking for weaknesses in the defence, he ventured in the range of a crossbowman who loosed his weapon at him. The bolt struck him through the forehead and pierced his brain. He died instantly.
Louis went to meet Alexander at Canterbury before bringing him to Dover. With Alexander was the force besieging Lincoln before the truce was arranged there. Also at Dover by now were the Counts of Perche and Brittany, recently arrived from France; Perche was to play a leading role at the climax of the war. Thus it was that a notable and sizeable congregation assembled to witness Alexander pay homage to Louis. This was a moment of great symbolic significance. It was quite something to have over two-thirds of the barons recognise the 28-year-old Louis as their lord; but here we have one king publicly acknowledging another king. In the absence of the Archbishop of Canterbury to perform the religious ceremony of coronation, Louis instead at least had the eminent satisfaction of his de facto role as King of England being affirmed in practical terms: as Wendover explains his action, Alexander was paying homage to Louis for the lands he held in England from ‘the King of the English’.460
But neither the accolade nor the Scottish troops were of help to Louis at Dover. Alexander, his promise to pay homage fulfilled, had to return home and the siege of Dover continued. John, as we shall see shortly, was on the march and Louis was needed elsewhere. Efforts to take the castle were intensified. His miners had all the while been sapping away at the gatehouse towers. The tunnel, which still exists, went under one tower. The roof was propped up with timbers, which were set alight and the sappers withdrew. When the supports burned through, a tower collapsed and Louis’s men charged into the breach. But they were repulsed vigorously by the defenders, who killed the French knights Guichard de Baugy and Jean de la Rivière. The gap was then refortified with large timbers, crossbeams and barricades of oak trunks. Whether this material had been brought in in readiness for the siege, or whether the defenders followed typical besieged practice and were stripping the buildings is unclear. The bodies of the knights killed were taken back to France for burial.
Louis’s siege operations – and indeed his whole movement of men in the south and south-east – were severely hampered by the guerrilla activities of a royalist band of archers living in the great forests of the Weald under the inspirational leadership of a folk hero who was determined to fight against oppression. The French invasion of England in 1216 provides an historical figure as a possible inspiration for the Robin Hood stories, which may well have developed around this time. The guerrilla force’s leader was William of Kensham, a royal bailiff, and his men were volunteer archers from the seven hundreds of the Weald, all loyal to the crown, who fought against the French during their occupation of southern England. Based in the great forest of the Weald in Kent and the south, this group waged highly effective ambush warfare against the French occupiers. We have only a tiny amount of information on William, but it is telling that such a little-known figure very quickly took on a popular folk name: Willikin of the Weald.461
Roger of Wendover writes of ‘a young man named William’ who, collecting a company of 1000 bowmen, took to the deep forests and ‘continued to trouble the French throughout the whole war, and slew many thousands of them’.462 The Anonymous speaks admiringly of his ‘noble prowess’ and how he was ‘renowned in Louis’s army’.463 The author of the History of William Marshal confirms William’s effectiveness: writing of French losses, he instructs the reader to ‘witness the deeds of Willikin of the Weald’.464He inspired fear in French ranks as they tried to make their way from London to the southern port of Winchelsea, where at one point he even had Louis trapped. He also made an effective raid on the French siege camp at Dover. Lest he be considered too romantic and dashing a hero, he apparently had a brutal tendency to behead his prisoners. His contribution to the war effort was recognised by both John and his successor. Records suggest that William survived the war and lived to the year 1257.
Meanwhile things had not been going any better at the siege of the other great southern royal castle at Windsor.465 The Anonymous drily comments of Robert de Dreux and the Count of Nevers and their besieging force, ‘long were they there, and little did they gain.’ In charge of the mighty fortress was Engelard de Cigogné with 60 knights and their retainers; despite the massive contrast to Odiham, Engelard defended his new castle with equal tenacity and his skills as ‘a man well tried in war’, says Wendover. As at Dover, the garrison would often burst from the castle in violent sorties that frightened the French. Twice the garrison broke the besiegers’ main petraria. The Anonymous reports that during the siege a knight from Artois by the name of Gullaume de Cerisy was killed; apparently it was no great loss as his death went unlamented ‘because he was hated by many’. The precarious position of Windsor and Dover spurred John into action. At the beginning of September he set out on a major campaign. It was to be his last.466
John’s Last Campaign and the Final Defeat
We have no definitive view of John’s paramount strategic objective for the last campaign: intercepting Alexander’s army as it returned to Scotland; marching on Windsor to force directly its relief; or burning the lands of the barons to undermine their power bases and in the hope that the provocation would compel them to leave Windsor, Dover and Lincoln to defend their own regions. Turner and others believe that the ‘furiously energetic’ John only feinted at Windsor, but ‘actually aimed at East Anglia, hoping to meet the Scottish King on his way north’.467 There may appear to be a feeling of exigency about John’s movements; this is not at all to say that it was directionless, but rather that John’s army was flexible in its response to situations in the field. All three objectives could be part and parcel of an overall strategy; but of the three, the last – drawing away enemy forces from the great sieges – seems to dominate and it certainly fits in with the pattern of John’s style of warfare: avoiding a decisive engagement and putting his energy into a defensive castle strategy and an offensive ravaging one.
There is also the question of the timing of the campaign. There clearly was an urgency to act if Dover and Windsor were to stay out of French and baronial hands. There may also have been the concern that some of the remaining loyal one-third of barons would start to go over to Louis. Whether John had fled from the initial French advances in array or beat a judicious tactical defeat can be argued; but certainly now was an opportune moment for John to counter-attack. He had held the line in the west of the country with important bases in eastern rebel territory. The desertions seemed to have reached their natural limit and now time was not on Louis’s side. The Earls of Salisbury and York returned to John’s side, as did William the Marshal’s heir; John, calculating how much he needed the return of prodigal sons, was magnanimous in his neediness. On Louis’s side, the comments from the Anonymous that Louis was losing men fast is confirmed by the annals of Dunstable: ‘Day by day the followers of the French dwindled.’468 Robert de Dreux, a leading commander of the French forces, returned to France at this juncture. Nor were the Cinque ports fulfilling their submission oath to Louis as they continued to aid John by naval actions in the Channel. The overall position was still highly favourable for Louis, but, crucially, he had lost the momentum.
John’s campaign was a belated but necessary counter-attack, a testing of the strength and resolve of the enemy by a violent and intimidating incursion into their secure territory in the hope of regaining the initiative. Charting John’s campaign movements is not straightforward and exact dates can be hard to confirm: Stringer notes ‘the increasingly punishing and erratic nature of John’s itinerary’.469 Having secured his position in the west, on 2 September he left Cirencester with his army and Savary de Mauléon to reach Reading four days later, having travelled through Burford, Oxford (staying here for three days) and Wallingford. He was augmenting his forces by collecting men from royal garrisons along the way. After two nights at Reading he went to nearby Sonning where he stayed until the 13th. In so doing he was placing himself within striking distance of Windsor. This obviously unnerved the besiegers. Their fears increased when a contingent of John’s Welsh archers approached the siege camp at night and fired into the host and a substantial skirmish broke out. The joint Franco-baronial force readied themselves in battle array for a full-scale engagement which never came.
John withdrew – the Anonymous admits he does not know who counselled this move – and on 15 September ravaged his way through baronial lands from Walton-on-Thames through Aylesbury and Bedford, reaching the recently rebel-held Castle of Cambridge the following day. The besiegers at Windsor held a quick war council and decided to follow him. ‘Gaining little or no advantage at Windsor Castle’, says Wendover, ‘they determined to lift the siege.’ They did this at night, leaving their tents behind and burning their siege machines, and made a forced march to Cambridge in an attempt to intercept John. Wendover reports the rumour that the Count of Nevers, who counselled this strategy, did do because he was in the pay of King John.470 Had John moved away from Windsor because he felt confident matters could be left with Nevers? Or was he gambling successfully that his actions would draw off the besiegers and grant Windsor some temporary relief? The latter offers a more likely pertinent analysis. The ravaging of lands was a classic diversionary tactic of medieval commanders attempting to draw away besiegers from strongholds; it worked here and throughout the war. It was harvest time, and the damage being done was calculated and massively destructive. The barons and French may well have agreed a truce with the garrison; the latter had seen John come and then go. And again we come to John’s consistent policy of battle avoidance: Coggeshall tells of how John ‘fled’ from the barons at Windsor.471 It makes more sense to see the Franco-baronial force at Windsor pursuing the King to force him into a decisive engagement and protect their lands rather than a battle-shy John risking a full-scale battle to relieve Windsor.
This promotes scepticism for the suggestion that John was trying to catch Alexander on his return to Scotland. The Barnwell chronicler reports that John moved into Norfolk and ‘occupied the places through which Alexander was about to return home’;472 but this does not necessarily mean that he was waiting to fight him, but might be that he was simply disrupting Alexander’s movements and denying him supplies. One lesser chronicle says that John was making blocking movements, ‘destroying bridges, immobilising boats, excavating fords, and stationing troops in ambush positions’.473 This was harassment, not engagement. And it was a failure: not only did Alexander’s army march unscathed back home, it was at this time they even managed to ransack one of John’s camps.
Thus it was on the night of 17 September at Cambridge that when John’s scouts warned him of the approaching enemy force from Windsor he once again took to his heels, ‘like a cunning traveller’ says Wendover, and went further north to Stamford having first made a clever, counter-intuitive short march southwards which wrong-footed his pursuers. No battles for John, he did what he always did, resorting to the same old policy of hugely destructive chevauchée. John was good at this; it may have been the one military activity he was truly comfortable with. His incendiaries scorched their way through enemy territory in Norfolk and Suffolk, destroying harvests and undermining his enemy’s economic capacity to wage war, John was at one and the same time punishing rebellious barons and trying to force them into submission, ‘burning their houses and crops and inflicting great damage to his enemies’, says Wendover, reporting the ‘King’s ‘fury’ against the lands of the Earl of Arundel, Roger Bigod, William de Huntingfield, Roger de Cresy and other barons: ‘the cruel destruction which he wrought among the houses and crops of the barons afforded a pitiable spectacle to all who saw it.’ Laying waste was a powerful diversionary weapon. As John headed rapidly out of the southern theatre of operations, the force from Windsor headed south again, to London says Wendover, gaining consolation by ‘devoting’ themselves in turn to the rapine and plunder of Cambridgeshire once again, while the Count of Nevers ensured Alexander’s safe passage past Cambridge as the Scottish King made his way to Gilbert de Gant’s small containing force at Lincoln.
On 21 September John headed west from Stamford to reach Rockingham. Before he set out for Lincoln himself to prevent a stronger baronial investiture of the castle, a tale is told of John by Matthew Paris that depicts his vengeful anger – and possible frustration – at its height. Burning his way through Oundle and the manors of the Abbey of Peterborough, John, Savary de Mauléon ‘and their nefarious accomplices perpetrated unheard of wickedness’.474 According to Paris, John ordered Savary to torch Crowland Abbey and its village while the King watched on. Savary did not carry out the order directly; instead he accepted from the fearful monks a sum of money as protection against destruction and brought this to the King. Such protection offerings, especially from monasteries, was a normal feature of the war, but John was enraged and hurled violent invective at his captain. He then picked up a torch and personally set alight the harvest fields, Paris depicting an apocalyptic figure of the King running through the flames and black smoke like a deranged demon. There may well have been method in John’s madness, for Gilbert de Gant and his men had the fear of God put into them: leaving Lincoln in a hurry, they ‘fled before his face, dreading his presence as if it were lightning’.475
John had brought relief to Windsor and now, very briefly, to Lincoln, and still he waged war with relentless energy and stamina, sometimes covering 40 miles a day. He pursued Gilbert’s force to the Isle of Axholme, terrorising the land around ‘by sword and fire’ between 26–28 September.476 In this brief time away, the Barnwell chronicler claims that Alexander had spent a couple of days at Lincoln during the King’s absence. If John had really been after Alexander, this was a missed opportunity. John’s scouts had been keeping him well informed of enemy movements, as had Alexander’s for him; so who was avoiding whom? On 30 September John dispatched Savary back to Crowland Abbey to root out ‘the king’s enemy knights and sergeants hiding in secret places’ in the surrounding area.477 Not finding his intended prey, and probably hesitant to return to his master empty-handed, Savary forced his way into the abbey and dragged from its cloister church men and a great deal of booty, bringing these back to John, who by 9 October was in King’s Lynn. The King, for his part, had kept his momentum and the fires going through early October, marching and destroying through Grimsby, Louth, Boston and Spalding. At King’s Lynn, a port whose importance was exceeded only by Boston, Southampton and London, he received a very warm welcome and was laden with gifts. From here John planned to arrange for provisioning and reinforcements for his northern campaign. He had no intention of easing up. As he indulged excessively in a feast in his honour, John may have been reasonably satisfied at the gains of his persistent and energetic counter-attack. If so, his satisfaction was fleeting – perhaps only hours, if that – and crushed beyond hope in the week that followed.478
It is believed that John fell ill at King’s Lynn with a major attack of dysentery, probably precipitated by exhaustion; according to Coggeshall, insatiable gluttony was the cause. Nevertheless, he set out for the north on the morning of 11 October, having left Savary behind in King’s Lynn to fortify and defend the town. There is uncertainty over the exact date and location of what happens next, but Holt is convincing in arguing that John crossed the nearly five-mile wide estuary of the Wellstream (now the Nene) in the Wash between Long Sutton and Walpole Cross Keys on the morning of 11 October around low-tide (11:15 am).479 Not only was John attempting a well-known short-cut, but he was also avoiding the roads in the rebel-dominated Fenlands. Stringer suggests that Alexander’s movements imposed ‘a sense of urgency’ on John.480 John’s haste went against him. Wendover’s no doubt exaggerated account vividly relates what happened as the King’s baggage train made the crossing: ‘The land opened up in the middle of the waves and caused whirlpools which sucked in everything, men as well as horses, so that no one escaped.’ John only narrowly got away in time, but he lost ‘all his carts, wagons, baggage horses, his money, precious vessels and everything he treasured’. Wendover, like John, was on uncertain ground for this episode. It may have been the case that John did not wait until the waters had fully receded, making navigation across the natural causeway extremely treacherous. Explorations have revealed a thick layer of wet quicksand from medieval times at this point. There was clearly a desperate struggle by his men to escape the catastrophe. This famous disaster of John’s lost treasure in the Wash may well be a myth, for reasons discussed in the next chapter. Coggeshall records the event as a noteworthy one but does not resort to hyperbole: he mentions the loss of life, the royal Chapel and its relics and some pack-horses. No victim is of sufficient rank to be named by either chronicler, but both reveal how badly the King was affected by the loss; Wendover attributes John’s onset of illness to ‘anguish of mind over his possessions swallowed up by the water’, causing him to be ‘seized with a violent fever’.
John gathered himself at Wisbech and spent the night of 12 October at the Cistercian Abbey of Swinesford. By this stage John is thought to have been extremely ill, but if so this did not affect his appetite, Wendover claiming that the notoriously gluttonous King made himself worse by stuffing himself with peaches and by drinking new (not fully fermented?) cider. Comfort eating and drowning his sorrows left him in a worse state than ever in the morning, and as he made for Sleaford on 14 October he was apparently in great pain. However, the well-placed Barnwell chronicler claims that it was at Sleaford that John began to fall ill, which would explain his feasting and what has been seen by some as a catastrophic attack of indigestion.481 Fearing the worst, John wrote to Honorius III ‘in grave illness’ and pleaded ‘on bended knee’ that the new pope would protect his heir against the enemies of the King and the Holy Father.482
We have noted Warren’s observation that John could not resist kicking a man when he was down; now John felt what is was like to be on the receiving end. At Sleaford he received the news from Dover that Hubert de Burgh and Gerard de Sotteghem had arranged a truce with Louis. They had held out valiantly for nearly three months but knew they could not resist the French siege operations for much longer. The time was granted them to approach John for either help or for permission to surrender. The truce came into force on 14 October. The news ‘greatly angered the king’ says the Anonymous, who claims that it was after this that the King fell ill.483 Coggeshall, a man with medical interests, says that the blow brought on a more severe fever and the King had to be bled, but this did nothing to improve his deteriorating condition.
Either that night or the next day John travelled to the Bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark. Wendover says that he reached there on horseback only with great difficulty. Matthew Paris’s account tells of how the King suffered so much from riding that, ‘moaning and groaning’ he ordered a litter to be made for him. This was roughly put together from trees along the road and seems to have piled even greater agony upon the failing King who cried out that it was killing him. At Newark Castle, the Abbot of Croxton, renowned for his medical knowledge, took charge of the fully coherent royal patient who continued to see to urgent business. Most urgent of all was his soul. He confessed his sins to the Abbot and received Holy Communion. Coggeshall writes that about midnight of 18/19 October a mighty wind arose over Newark; it was so fierce the inhabitants of the town feared their houses would be blown down. Perhaps the chronicler interpreted it as the King’s spirit leaving his body, for King John died that night. His death changed everything.