Magna Carta was a response not to one particular king or set of circumstances, but to an entire tradition of ‘Angevin’ kingship. There is no doubt that John was a bad king. His badness, however, was an inherited, family characteristic. In many ways, it was his failure to do bad as successfully and with such impunity as either his father or his elder brother that led him to the surrenders that Magna Carta embodied. Henry II had connived at the murder of a sainted archbishop of Canterbury, and had set his own family against him, through adultery, through neglect, and through a refusal to grant his sons the titles and recognitions that they believed to be their due. His eldest son and heir, Richard I, came to the throne in 1189 in the midst of a rebellion against his father, supported by the French. Far from resolving the problems inherent in Plantagenet government, Richard had embarked almost immediately for Crusade, strutting and posing on an international stage yet leaving England in the hands of an administration that soon collapsed into backbiting and chaos. Even so, neither Henry nor Richard faced the disasters that threatened to engulf King John. John’s faults were inherited. His failures were his own.
The youngest of Henry II’s sons, originally intended for a clerical career, John had been plucked from obscurity at the death of the eldest of his brothers in 1183. Promoted to rule the remotest of Henry II’s dominions, in Ireland, during a brief visit in 1185, he infuriated local opinion through his cruel sense of humour, pulling the long red beards of the Irish kings who came to render homage. In 1189, in secret and apparently at the last moment, he had joined the rebellion of his brother Richard. The news that John’s name headed the list of rebels is said to have sent Henry II broken-hearted to his grave. With his father dead and Richard about to embark for Crusade, John was granted an estate out of all proportion to his merits: to Ireland were now added the westernmost counties of England including the port of Bristol, the ‘honour of Lancaster’, and the so-called ‘honour of Mortain’ controlling south-western Normandy. Taken as a whole, this was a remarkable collection of lands, a maritime empire linked by the sea from the frontiers of Brittany via the Devon and Dorset coasts to Bristol, Ireland, and the ports of Lancashire. It is perhaps not surprising that one of John’s few achievements generally acknowledged is his role in re-establishing England’s naval forces, once amongst the glories of Anglo-Saxon England, now revived through John’s equipping of a fleet of galleys and his subsequent focus upon Portsmouth as a centre of naval activity. There was only one proviso to Richard’s recognition of John’s vast estate: John himself was to stay out of England for so long as Richard remained on Crusade.
Typically, John broke his oath almost as soon as Richard had set sail for the East. In particular, he encouraged two lines of attacks against the bitterly divided administration that Richard had left to govern England. Both of them were attacks that were to have a bitter posterity for John himself. In the first place, he and his propagandists criticized the alien birth of William Longchamps, the man whom Richard had left to rule England as justiciar. According to John’s supporters, Longchamps was a Frenchman insensitive to English traditions of liberty. Secondly, and despite the fact that the realm was in theory placed under the protection of the Church, at peace during the absence of its king doing God’s work in the East, John entered into a treaty with the French king, Philip Augustus, intending to carve up Richard’s lands in northern France. The political crisis that ensued – the worst in English history since Stephen’s reign – was exacerbated by the fact that Richard, largely through his own pride and pig-headedness, was captured on his return from the Holy Land, held ransom in Germany for the massive sum of £66,000. The money was raised. England was an immensely wealthy realm. Nonetheless, the pressures brought to bear on the king’s finances began to mount.
This was a period of monetary inflation. Since the king’s income depended upon resources leased out to the king’s sheriffs and other local officers at fixed annual ‘farms’, inflation posed a particular problem to the royal purse. Where barons and bishops could react to inflationary pressures by taking back the majority of their resources into direct ‘demesne’ management, thereby avoiding the erosion of their ‘farms’, the king had other factors to consider. On occasion, he might impose ‘increments’, additional payments, over and above the traditional farms, but these were locally unpopular. He also had to consider the needs of his sheriffs. The sheriffs took their profit from the difference between what they collected for the king and the ‘farm’ that they were obliged to pay each year at the Exchequer. As farms remained static but income rose, the sheriffs’ profits mounted, so that more and more income was diverted from the king himself to his local henchmen. This, however, was the price that the king had to pay for recruiting major figures to serve as his enforcers in the shires. If he raised the sheriffs’ farms or sought to abandon ‘farms’ altogether by paying fixed salaries to sheriffs thereafter expected to account to the Exchequer for all their revenues, the effect would be to discourage great men from taking up office as sheriff. The king would lose in political credibility what he gained in hard cash.
Both inflation and the cost of Richard’s ransom were to have long-term effects. For perhaps the first time since the tenth century, we find England’s kings struggling to pay their way. A pattern was established whereby the king found himself in near permanent financial need, a pattern that was to determine much of the political history of later medieval England. In the immediate term, the Angevin kings bloated themselves on arbitrary fines and exactions. Every landlord in England ultimately held his estate from the king, and the king’s ‘will and want’ had long determined relations with his subjects. Richard, and subsequently John, not only continued the policy of their father in imposing swingeing fines on those they claimed had caused them offence, but significantly increased the pressure by speeding the terms for repayment.
To take a handful of examples, in 1193, Hervey Bagod, a Staffordshire landowner, offered 200 marks (just over £130, since one mark = two-thirds of a pound) to succeed to a major estate. In the following year, when King Richard returned from his captivity, the fine was raised to 300 marks (£200). Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, offered 100 marks for protection against arbitrary seizure of his lands without judgment in court: a response to the royal protection racket whereby the king could threaten to overturn even the most clear-cut of judicial decisions should the price or the circumstances be right. In 1196, however, when Roger was serving on campaign with the king in Normandy, the fine was raised from 100 to 700 marks, and Roger found himself obliged to discharge the entire debt in less than a year. This was a protection racket forced to meet extraordinary pressures, determined to squeeze the last possible ounce of silver from those who fell within its toils. Kingship itself, for the first time in 200 years, was starved of resources. The bewildered king reacted, as mob bosses are accustomed to react, with vicious and arbitrary demands that his subjects pay the shortfall.
John’s treaty with the King of France paved the way for a French seizure of much of southern and eastern Normandy, so that during the last five years of his reign, King Richard was engaged in permanent warfare in France. The costs here were met through fines, through military campaigns intended to grab treasure and the spoils of war, and through increased demands for ‘scutage’ (a tax payable by those who held land from the king but who failed to discharge their military service in person). The unprecedented levels of ‘scutage’ demanded by Richard led to a political crisis in the late 1190s, when the English bishops sought, unsuccessfully, to evade all payments charged for campaigns conducted outside the realm of England. The king’s craving for treasure led directly to Richard’s own death in 1199, since it was whilst campaigning in southern France, laying siege to a castle where treasure was reported to be hidden, that Richard was struck by a crossbow bolt and died, after a few days of typically futile heroics.
John, meanwhile, had been pardoned his rebellion. When Richard returned from captivity in 1194, he chose to forgive. ‘He is only a boy’, Richard is said to have announced of his by now 27-year-old younger brother. Although kept out of England, John remained in a key position in Normandy, waiting in the wings whilst the childless Richard sought to rebuild their father’s French estate. At his death, Richard left two possible successors: John, and Arthur of Brittany – John and Richard’s nephew, born in 1187 shortly after the death of his father, John’s elder brother, Geoffrey, duke of Brittany. A 12-year-old boy in 1199, Arthur was in no real position to challenge John, even though there were some who favoured his claims, and even though English law supplied no clear guidance as to whether inheritance should pass to the son of an elder brother (Arthur) or to a younger sibling (John).
In 1199, there were nonetheless already signs that John would prove neither a kind uncle nor an ideal king. According to a story reported in the Life of St Hugh of Lincoln, John visited the site of Richard’s burial at the great abbey of Fontevraud on the Loire. There he was conducted on a tour of the abbey by the saintly bishop of Lincoln. He was shown the images to the left of the entrance portal of the abbey church of evil kings burning in hell, clearly with the intention that he put aside evil and embrace the good. John, however, pointed to the images of good kings ascending into heaven on the other side of the portal, before boasting of a jewel hung around his neck, by whose power he claimed he was guaranteed never to lose his lands in France. At Mass, he hesitated over whether to give the traditional royal offering of coin: a sign of his impiety revealed once again, a year later, when during St Hugh’s Easter Mass, John sent a note up to the bishop not one but three times, begging Hugh to cut short his sermon so that the king might dine.
In a treaty negotiated in May 1200, John bargained away parts of southern Normandy to the king of France in the hope that this would buy permanent peace. At almost exactly the same time, however, he embarked on a course of action that, within three years, was to doom his ‘empire’ to destruction. In August 1200, he married Isabella, heiress to the southern French county of Angoulême. There was sense to this union, since the neighbouring counties of Angoulême, Limoges, and Périgueux had long threatened to disrupt communications between Plantagenet Gascony and the king’s lands north of the Loire. It was in imposing his authority within this region that Richard had met his death in 1199. Nonetheless, there were objections to John’s marriage that affected both bride and groom. To marry Isabella, John had to divorce his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, to whom he had been betrothed since the late 1180s. In the aftermath, he not only held on to the Gloucester estates, including the town of Bristol, but effectively consigned his former wife to house arrest, often in the vicinity or even in the same lodgings as his new French bride. The impediments to the marriage of Isabella of Angoulême were even greater. She was already betrothed to the neighbouring French baron, Hugh de Lusignan, lord of La Marche. Yet Hugh had held back from consummating the marriage, almost certainly because Isabella was considered under age. An English chronicler claims that, on her arrival in England in 1200, she appeared to be about 12 years old. In reality, she could have been as young as 8.
By making off with his child bride, John provoked Hugh de Lusignan and the barons of Poitou into rebellion. Joined with Arthur of Brittany, the rebels attempted to besiege the king’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the castle of Mirebeau north of Poitiers. Their attack brought about the one great military triumph in John’s career. With lightning speed, John surprised the rebels and took the majority of them prisoner. Triumph, however, rapidly dissolved into disaster when the most significant of these prisoners, Arthur of Brittany, disappeared. Precisely what happened remains unknown. Some alleged that Arthur was murdered at the command of the king. Some claimed that he had fallen from the tower of the castle of Rouen, attempting to escape. Whatever his precise fate, Arthur and his disappearance forged a great alliance against King John. Summoned to the court of King Philip of France to explain Arthur’s fate, John refused to attend. Philip declared John’s continental lands to be forfeit.
Through careful management, the king of France was now almost certainly richer in cash resources than the king of England. Not only were John’s lands in Normandy unable to bear the costs of near continuous defensive warfare, but the Norman aristocracy had grown to resent the transformation of their lands into a battle zone. By the 1190s, the vast majority of Anglo-Norman landowning families had divided into branches holding estates in either England or Normandy. Save for the king and a handful of the wealthiest magnates, there were precious few truly Anglo-Norman families left to defend the Anglo-Norman settlement. John himself, as count of Mortain before 1199, had chiefly encouraged those with lands in England at his court, neglecting or being cold-shouldered by his specifically Norman subjects.
As a result, within less than two years of Arthur’s disappearance in 1202, a French army swept John and his supporters from Normandy and all their French territories as far south as the banks of the Loire. Even the Plantagenet family mausoleum at Fontevraud, where Henry II and Richard lay buried, henceforth stood in territory ruled by the kings of France. Only the southernmost parts of Poitou, and Gascony with its capital at Bordeaux, remained under Plantagenet control. The date generally accepted for this ‘Loss of Normandy’ is 1204, the year in which the ducal capital, Rouen, fell to the French.
No king could suffer military defeat on this scale without it being interpreted as proof of the withdrawal of God’s favour. Moreover, since John was henceforth committed to the reconquest of his continental empire yet confined to his lands in England, the king’s demand for cash for reconquest was now added to the already extensive burden of grievances against royal profligacy and extortion built up during the reign of Richard. The king himself, previously a distant figure, often absent in France, was now established permanently on the doorsteps of his English barons whose silver he coveted and against whose wives and daughters he was now rumoured to cast lascivious glances. The events of the past few years had branded John a failure for his loss of Normandy, as a lecher for his second marriage, and as a murderer for his disposal of his nephew, Arthur. His reputation was irreparably destroyed.
Something of the spirit of John’s court can be recaptured from his government records as they survive from 1199 onwards. Indeed, the emergence of these royal records – enrolled copies after 1199 of the majority of the king’s outgoing letters – has in itself been interpreted as evidence both of John’s suspicious nature and of his pressing demand for cash. Only those who have to calculate profit and loss on a near daily basis are inclined to keep records on the scale maintained by King John’s Exchequer and Chancery. From these records, in the immediate aftermath of the capture of Arthur, we read of the king devising passwords for those seeking access to his prisoners, and of John’s tendency to forget the passwords that he himself had invented. Many reveal a seamier side to court life: the king’s taking of the sons and nephews of his barons as hostages for future good behaviour, his payment of a bounty for the scalps of Welsh outlaws, his gifts of flowers and favours to his mistresses. Richard Marsh, later royal chancellor and bishop of Durham, commemorated for his love of beer rather than religion, extracted ‘blank’ charters from monasteries, sealed with their seals obliging them to abide by whatever terms the king or his agents might care to write onto the parchment. Hugh de Neville, the king’s chief forester, adopted a similar practice towards state prisoners, obliging them to seal charters agreeing to the direst of penalties should they attempt to escape, yet himself supplying these men with seals so that they had no choice but to sign. In 1210, the Pipe Roll records that the major northern baron ‘Robert de Vaux owes five of the best horses so that the King should shut his mouth about the wife of Henry Pinel’. Whatever the scandal here, this was a world of less than comfortable domesticity. We also have a notorious fine, recorded in 1200, whereby ‘The wife of Hugh de Neville offers the King 200 chickens so that she may lie one night with her husband’. Was Hugh’s wife, as some historians have proposed, attempting to escape from service as the king’s mistress in order briefly to rejoin her husband, or was this a joking reference to the fact that Hugh’s duties deprived his wife of company? In either case, the fact that Hugh, his wife, and both of the king’s betrothed (his former wife, Isabella of Gloucester, and his present queen, Isabella of Angoulême) were lodged for long periods at Hugh’s castle at Marlborough must have led to some very peculiar encounters. The fact that Hugh, although a trusted royal official, was one of those royalists who, after 1215, threw in his lot with the rebel barons, opening the gates of Marlborough to the king’s enemies, suggests that, in his case, as in many others, the ties of loyalty between the king and even his closest henchman threatened to fray or snap.
One of the consequences of the king’s loss of his continental estates had been to drive into exile many dozens of Frenchmen, lacking any previous connection or landed estate in England. Compromised by their service to the Plantagenets before 1204, such men were so useful to the king that they were offered sanctuary across the Channel. One such man, Peter de Maulay, it was rumoured, had actually carried out the murder of Arthur at John’s command. Peter was nonetheless promoted to rich estates in England including custody of Corfe Castle in Dorset and marriage to a northern heiress by whom he came into possession of the honours of Doncaster and Mulgrave in Yorkshire. John’s favour, however, was a fickle commodity. In 1212, Peter de Maulay was himself the victim of a series of guarantees extracted from his fellow courtiers, including provisions that the son of the earl of Cornwall be whipped and the earl of Salisbury give the king all his hawks should Peter cause offence: almost certainly another of John’s cruel jokes. This was a court consumed by angst and racked with paranoia. As such, it stands in rather surprising contrast to the court of Henry II, John’s father, where for all of the complaints about the inconstancy of fortune, and despite the murder of one particularly unfortunate former courtier, Thomas Becket, those promoted as the king’s friends tended to keep not only their places but their profits.
John’s French friends, led by the French-born bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, played a murky role at court. Des Roches, one of the richest bishops in Europe, promoted to Winchester in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Normandy, became involved in all manner of business from negotiations with other European rulers to the presentation of love tokens to the king’s lady friends. Another such Frenchman, Girard d’Athée, with his sons and nephews from much the same region around Tours from which Des Roches had sprung, controlled many of the more significant of the king’s castles in the English south-west: Bristol, Gloucester, Hereford. So unpopular were Girard and his kinsmen that Hugh of Wells, once a king’s friend, subsequently elected bishop of Lincoln, was prepared to offer 40 marks to a Nottinghamshire knight in order to save his son from marrying Girard’s daughter.
Girard d’Athée played a leading role, together with another foreigner, Fawkes de Bréauté, a Norman adventurer, in the administration of south Wales. Their interventions here were the consequence of the king’s attacks upon yet another disgraced courtier, William de Braose, who in 1208 had been dramatically stripped of his lands and favours and forced into exile, first in Ireland then in France. Quite what inspired this disgrace remains uncertain, but one possibility is that William de Braose or his wife had spoken rather too openly of the circumstances in which the king’s nephew, Arthur, met his death. Braose’s wife and eldest son, it was alleged, were then starved to death by King John, locked up in either Windsor or Corfe Castle. The king’s attack upon the Braose estates in Wales was undertaken, so the king himself proclaimed, according to the ‘law of the Exchequer’: in other words, as the result of William’s failure to meet the terms of his financial obligations to the king, not governed by equity or customary English law. Even so, the fact that the king considered it necessary to compose and preserve a long written justification of his actions against William, and even to claim that William’s subsequent outlawry, the result of his inability to pay a crushing fine of 50,000 marks, was enforced ‘according to the law and custom of England’, suggests an anxiety on the king’s behalf to be seen to act justly however unjust such actions were in practice.
Meanwhile, the presence of so many foreigners so close to the king began to inspire native English outcry against the king’s Frenchmen, now denigrated as ‘aliens’, enemies of the English people and of English liberties. Precisely those accusations which John himself had first raised against the regime of his brother in the 1190s were now brought to bear against John and his inner circle of henchmen, described by the chronicler Roger of Wendover as John’s ‘evil counsellors’. Wendover’s list is of particular interest since it suggests a court dominated by a very small circle of royalist barons and placemen, only a few of them Normans or ‘aliens’ from south of the Loire, most of them in fact Anglo-Norman barons from families long settled in England, very close in age to the king, born in the 1160s or 1170s. This stands in marked contrast to the courts of John’s father and elder brother where there had been a much more diverse mingling of generations, and where the earls and bishops had tended to play a more prominent role. It is also noticeable that several of John’s closest henchmen died in the years around 1210, perhaps depriving the king of counsel that might otherwise have carried him safely through the final years of his reign.
This was a world of rumour and intrigue. In 1212, for example, it was falsely reported that the queen, Isabella of Angoulême, had been raped at Marlborough and her youngest son slain together with his tutors. Two years later, when the king returned from a disastrous expedition to France, he sent the following letter to his henchman Theodoric the German (‘Terry the Teuton’):
Know that we are well and unharmed, and … we shall shortly be coming to your parts, and we shall be thinking of you like a hawk. And although we may have been absent for ten years, when we come to you it shall seem to us as if we had been away no more than three days. Take care of the thing entrusted to you, letting us know frequently how it fares.
This is a letter that only makes sense when we realize that Theodoric had recently been appointed chief guardian of the queen. The ‘thing’ entrusted to him was Isabella of Angoulême, so that the letter should be read either as a covert message of love directed by John to his absent wife, or more realistically, as a threat that the queen and her guardian were being closely watched.
To John’s catalogue of crimes, after 1205 was added a final self-inflicted injury: an open breach with the Church. Since the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, although obliged to tread warily, the kings of England had been allowed very much their own way in appointments to bishoprics. In 1205, for example, and despite some resistance, John had been able to secure Winchester for his henchman Peter des Roches. Determined to prevent another such infringement of ecclesiastical privilege, in the following year the pope, Innocent III, refused all inducements to promote a courtier as successor to the late archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter. Instead, in a process almost as murky as the royal intrigues against which it was directed, the pope secured promotion to Canterbury for a scholar in late middle age, a master at the schools of Paris and quite possibly the pope’s own former tutor, Master Stephen Langton. Sprung from a family of minor Lincolnshire knights, Langton was in many ways a peculiar choice, famed more for his work as a commentator on the Bible than for any political or administrative expertise. For at least the past twenty years, he had taught in Paris, a fact that in itself would have disqualified him in the eyes of King John, since Paris was the home of John’s arch-enemy, Philip Augustus, recently the conqueror of Normandy.
Langton’s Bible commentaries can appear dry as dust: thousands of pages of explanation of the meanings of scriptural words or phrases, the vast majority of them still unpublished, as indigestible today as to the students who, 800 years ago, laboured to make sense of them. Yet amidst this vast torrent of words are secreted nuggets of pure political gold. The Old Testament, after all, tells the story of good and bad kings and their attempts to enforce or evade God’s laws. Langton was not slow to draw modern parallels. The kings of Scripture, he argued, had been wise to arm themselves with a Deuteronomy, a book of laws, set down with the aid of the priesthood. By contrast, modern rulers sought to evade both the advice of their priests and the obligation to rule according to written law. ‘Necessity’, or absolute need, Langton argued, was the sole justification for taxation as set out in the Bible, yet modern rulers taxed for trivial reasons, from mere vanity or pride. Those who attended Langton’s lectures would have heard him contrast the priesthood recruited by Moses with modern bishops ‘recruited from the Exchequer in London’. Those who read his commentary on the book of Chronicles would have found him railing ‘against princes who flee from lengthy sermons’, surely a reference to King John’s attempts to escape the sermonizing of St Hugh of Lincoln. Kingship itself, Langton argued, had been decreed by God not as reward but as a punishment to mankind. As the Old Testament book of Hosea (13:11) proclaims, ‘I have given you a king in my wrath’.
Historians in search of an ‘author’ for Magna Carta have on occasion advanced the claims of Stephen Langton, even though there is little evidence to suggest that it was he in person who drafted the document. Far more significant was the impact of Langton’s exile from England after 1208, leading in 1209 to the imposition of a sentence of papal ‘interdict’. For the next five years, the laity were in theory excluded from the sacraments of the Church: no Mass, no burial in consecrated ground. The king was threatened with personal excommunication. The majority of England’s bishops fled into exile. From this, a number of consequences flowed. The public display of the king’s impiety compounded the sense that John had flouted God’s laws. Some claimed that the king was considering conversion to Islam, or that the pope had licensed John’s deposition, empowering a French army to cross the Channel and seize the English throne in defence of Christendom and with the same privileges as a crusade. Neither rumour was true. Nonetheless, with a French fleet massing on the Flemish coast, and with the threat of rebellion from both the Welsh and the Irish, in 1212 John was forced into a sudden change of policy. On 1 June, still oblivious to the gathering storm, he ordered an inquest into knights’ fees and the rights of the crown on a scale that, had it been completed, might have rivalled the Domesday survey of 1086. Simultaneously, a judicial visitation or ‘eyre’ of the northern forests of England imposed fines and punishments unprecedented even for a notoriously rapacious administration. By mid-August, made aware of the threats against him, the king had abandoned both his great inquest and his forest enquiry.
Rumours began to circulate not just of rebellion but of something far more serious: a baronial plot either to kill the king or to lure him into death in battle against the Welsh. John was forced to call off his Welsh campaign and to deal with the alleged conspirators. To this end, in August 1212, he summoned six knights from every county of England to attend his court. This summons (itself significant as the first precedent for the summoning of knights of the shires to take counsel with the king, later a key element in the constitution of the English Parliament) led to the suggestion that two particular barons, Robert fitz Walter and Eustace de Vescy, were responsible for plotting the king’s death. Both men had cause for discontent. Rumours that the king planned to seduce Robert’s daughter and Eustace’s wife were almost certainly false. Nonetheless, both men were major landholders, Eustace in Northumberland, Robert chiefly in Essex. Both had been involved in John’s unsuccessful wars in Normandy and had lost lands as a result. Both were closely related to a network of English barons most of whom by now smarted under financial grievances exacerbated by more than fifty years of Plantagenet rule. Both now fled into exile, Eustace to Scotland, Robert to France.
There are similarities between the events of 1212 and the last great baronial rebellion against a Plantagenet king, in 1173–4. Both in 1173 and in 1212, baronial rebellion seems to have followed contingently from attempts by the king to survey the landholding and financial resources of his barons. Intriguingly, both in 1173 and in 1212, rebellion followed soon after royal expeditions to Ireland, by Henry II in 1171–2 and by John in 1210: expeditions that perhaps offered rather too practical a demonstration of the ways in which an angry king might rule if left to his own arbitrary devices. Nearly 200 years later, similar things were to happen as a result of King Richard II’s Irish expedition of 1399. There was nonetheless one key distinction between the rebellion of 1173–4 and that which began to gather pace in England after 1212. The rebels of the 1170s, led by Henry’s own son, failed in their attempts to make common cause with the Church, despite their claims to be acting in the name of the recently martyred St Thomas of Canterbury. After 1212, there is evidence that the rebels against King John, led by barons rather than by any malcontent Plantagenet prince, were able to call upon a far more active alliance with ecclesiastical opinion.
The fact that, throughout this period, the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was exiled in France, served to strengthen this alliance between Church and rebels. Langton himself played up the association between his own exile and that of the martyred St Thomas Becket, using a seal that showed Becket’s martyrdom as a symbol of Langton’s own resistance to royal tyranny. These same years witnessed a more general sense of crisis throughout Christendom provoked by events in southern France. There, since 1208, a crusade had been in progress against a sect dubbed the ‘Cathars’ or ‘Albigensians’: heretics who rejected the authority of the pope and whose extirpation had provided an opportunity for the barons of northern France to seize the rich southern lands of the Languedoc. The fact that King John appeared to support the heretics, maintaining communications with his cousins, the counts of Toulouse, and even supporting an anti-French alliance between Toulouse and the kings of northern Spain, only increased the sense that John himself was an agent of anti-Christ. In July 1212, at more or less precisely the same time that the baronial conspiracy emerged at his court, a great fire engulfed London Bridge. This too was interpreted by contemporaries in an apocalyptic sense, as proof that London itself had suffered the fate of Old Testament Sodom. In the north of England, John was the subject of prophecies broadcast by a hermit, Peter of Wakefield, claiming that the king would lose his crown by the forthcoming feast of the Ascension (23 May 1213). Amongst the rumours circulating by now was one that the rebel barons had already selected a candidate to replace King John. Their choice is said to have fallen on the ultra-orthodox Simon de Montfort, leader of the Albigensian crusade: yet further proof of the degree to which King John was reckoned to have forfeited God’s favour.
All of this helps to explain the king’s decision not only to call off his inquests into land and forests but to make peace with the Church. The settlement negotiated with the pope in the spring of 1213 was timed for the eve of Ascension Day, thereby disproving the prophecies of Peter of Wakefield who was himself put to death, torn apart between galloping horses as his body was brought for execution. By the end of May 1213, news had reached England of the destruction of the French fleet gathered off the Flemish coast. Nonetheless, John’s settlement with the Church did little to silence rumour. For a start, it resulted in no immediate lifting of the Interdict, delayed for more than a year until terms had been agreed for compensation to be paid to the Church and the exiled bishops. This was accompanied by a deliberate linking of the grievances of clergy and barons, so that the cause of the exiled conspirators, Robert fitz Walter and Eustace de Vescy, was now taken up by the Church with demands that they be restored to the king’s peace. This was of great significance. It confirmed that the exiled clergy, led by Stephen Langton, not only sought to appeal to the needs of a community of all the faithful, the ‘communitas fidelium’, but that, for the first time since Becket and the great rebellion of the 1170s, dissident clergy and barons were brought together into a godly alliance directed against an ungodly English king. Furthermore, the settlement of May 1213, far from refuting the prophecies of Peter of Wakefield, seemed in some minds proof that Peter’s claims had come true. In a device intended to ensure the pope’s protection against his enemies in France, John now declared England and Ireland to be papal fiefdoms.
At Dover in May 1213, perhaps laying his crown before him on the ground, John knelt before the pope’s representatives and offered a perpetual annual tribute of 1,000 marks. There were precedents here. The kingdom of Sicily had long been regarded as a papal fief. Portugal had been claimed as such since the 1170s, and in 1204, the King of Aragon had placed his lands under the protection of Innocent III, once again as a feudal vassal. Aragon was in particularly close negotiation with King John throughout the years of the papal Interdict, as John’s chief ally with Toulouse against the French. None of this, however, served to lessen the sense of shock that John’s actions induced. To contemporaries, particularly to monastic chroniclers fiercely protective of the independence of their own oligarchic institutions, this appeared nothing short of abject surrender on the king’s behalf. Having lost Normandy and his continental lands to the French, John was now prepared to subject his own realm of England to papal authority.