Post-classical history

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Resistance, 1212–1215

There were plenty of reasons to judge John’s rule oppressive and tyrannical. The question was what to do about it. Signs of an answer were already apparent in the first part of the reign. In 1205, according to Gervase of Canterbury, after the king had convened the ‘magnates of England’ at Oxford, they ‘compelled’ him to swear to uphold the ‘rights [jura] of the kingdom of England’ ‘with their counsel’. John, in return, extracted an oath from the earls and barons that they would give him their due service. We know no more about this episode, which was probably related to the scheme for national defence against invasion that John promulgated a few days later.1 It reveals, however, two key elements in the revolt of 1215: first, the ability of the barons to take collective action against the king; and second, the way that action was in support of a political programme, however vague and insubstantial. There seems here to have been a major advance from the situation under Stephen, when the barons had pressed their individual claims upon the contestants for the throne and extracted their own individual charters of concession. The rebels of 1173–4 probably hoped for similar individual solutions. The barons in 1215 certainly obtained redress of their own individual grievances, but they did so under procedures set up by a Charter conceded to the kingdom. The Charter also laid down general rules of conduct for the king from which all barons might hope to benefit. This change from individual to collective remedy had above all been produced by the pressures and abuses of royal government. These had given the barons a community of interest in their resistance to the crown.


If the episode in 1205 suggests a course was being set that would eventually lead to Magna Carta, in 1212 it took a radically different direction. The barons conspired not to make John respect the rights of the kingdom, but to get rid of him altogether. The first crack in John’s authority had come in Wales. There, in the summer of 1212, Llywelyn formed a coalition of Welsh rulers, including the maltreated Gwenwynwyn of southern Powys. They were strengthened by an alliance with Philip Augustus, and soon informed him thatthey had wrested ‘a great part of the land and the strongest castles from the yoke of English tyranny’.2 Llywelyn himself certainly recovered all the land between the Conwy and the Dee which he had ceded in the treaty of 1211. John could not possibly let this go. Quite apart from his loss of territory, the alliance with King Philip set a pernicious example. John, therefore, mustered an army for another Welsh campaign. Only then, while he was at Nottingham in mid-August, on his way to the rendezvous at Chester, did he hear of a conspiracy against him.

When John took action against one ringleader of the conspiracy, Robert fitzWalter, it was for plotting ‘our death, betrayal and imprisonment’.3 The forthcoming campaign, when the king would be surrounded by treacherous barons and Welsh enemies, could clearly facilitate ‘something happening’ on those lines. With John out of the way, the aim then, according to a story that reached the Dunstable annals, was to give the throne to the great French noble Simon de Montfort, lord of Montfort l’Amaury near Paris. He had just carried the papal banner in the campaign against the Albigensian heretics in the south of France, and had a claim (which John had briefly recognized) to the earldom of Leicester.4

As soon as he heard of the plot, John called off the campaign, dismissed his baronial army and hurried foreign mercenaries to his side.5 Only two magnates were directly fingered as conspirators, fitzWalter himself and Eustace de Vescy. FitzWalter was lord of Dunmow in Essex and Baynard’s castle in the city of London. Vescy was lord of Alnwick in Northumberland. Each had many knightly tenants. Both ranked among ‘the most high men of England and most powerful’.6 There may have been something deeply personal about their revolt. FitzWalter when in exile in France alleged that John had tried to seduce his daughter.7 According to a story current in the late thirteenth century, John had likewise made advances on Vescy’s wife.8 There were also material grievances. Vescy’s had begun with his 1,300-mark fine to enter his inheritance in 1190. Under John, having made several offers for justice and judgement, he was amerced 300 marks for losing one lawsuit, and then lost another in which he was trying to establish his overlordship over a knightly tenant. The 300 marks were pardoned, but in a writ attested by Peter des Roches – and Peter did not do such things for free. Meanwhile Vesci owed money to the Jews.9 In themselves, many of these were small things, but they mounted up.

Compared to the darkly formidable Vesci, Robert fitzWalter appears a far more dashing and dramatic figure. On his silver seal die, we see him galloping along, in a great helmet, brandishing his sword, the heraldic devices proclaiming his alliance with Saer de Quincy, earl of Winchester.10 The two together had defended the castle of Vaudreuil in Normandy in 1203, and had lived down the apparently ignominious circumstances of its surrender. FitzWalter had one clear material grievance, over Hertford castle, which John had given him and then, in 1209, taken away. FitzWalter’s right to the castle was to be recognized at Runnymede.11 In one story, told by the Anonymous of Béthune, when John threatened to hang fitzWalter’s son-in-law during a quarrel at court, fitzWalter riposted ‘You would hang my son-in-law! By God’s body you will not. You will see 2,000 laced helms in your land before you hang him.’12 At St Albans abbey, fitzWalter was remembered for laying siege to Binham priory in an attempt to assert his rights as its patron,making John cry out ‘Is he or me king in England?’ Matthew Paris caught the essence of the man:

There was scarcely an earl in England who was his equal. He was vigorous in arms, courageous and proud, abounding in many possessions, of noble birth, with numbers of powerful relations, supported and strengthened by a multitudinous affinity.13

In 1212 there must have been more conspirators than simply Vescy and fitzWalter, although they clearly escaped discovery. Vescy and fitzWalter themselves were apparently unconnected and came from different parts of the country. John suspected another northern baron, Richard de Umfraville, and also Earl William de Warenne, lord of Conisbrough in Yorkshire and Lewes in Sussex. (His sister had been John’s mistress.) There was clearly a British dimension to the plot, just as there was to the rebellion in 1215. Indeed, according to one story, it was Joan, John’s illegitimate daughter, the wife of Llywelyn, who warned her father what was afoot. Another story was that the leak came from the Scottish court.14 Eustace de Vescy’s wife, the recipient of John’s alleged attentions, was an illegitimate daughter of William the Lion, king of Scots, and it was to Scotland that Vescy fled. Another suspect was King William’s brother, Earl David of Huntingdon.

The opportunities offered by the campaign in Wales were doubtless the immediate trigger for the 1212 plot. Behind it lay the transformation of royal government that John had effected since 1205, above all in the area of financial exactions. One can sense both the mounting grievances, and the beginnings of collective action, in the groups of supporters who rallied behind individual barons as sureties for the payment of their gigantic debts. By 1212, moreover, the murders of Matilda and William de Briouze junior must have been well known. One of those who came under suspicion was Earl Richard de Clare. He had to hand over as a hostage his daughter Matilda, who was William’s widow.15 The year 1212 also saw an exigent forest eyre and a threatening inquiry into land tenure. John had launched the latter on 1 June. He wanted information about the fees that were held from him in chief, and alienations made from them which might impair the service owed the crown. The returns in some counties were extraordinarily detailed (in Lincolnshire, in a modern edition, they run to forty-four printed pages). They covered the holdings of many later rebels, barons and knights. In fact, the knightly jurors gave little information about alienations and often stoutly denied that there had been any to the king’s detriment. With the disintegration of his political position, John never acted on the results. Yet the intention of penalizing alienations or bringing them back under royal control must have been alarmingly clear.16

Just exactly what was planned by the conspirators in 1212 we do no know. Presumably, at some point, a great council would have met to offer the throne to Montfort or someone else. This is what happened in 1215, after the failure of Magna Carta, when the barons chose Louis, the eldest son of King Philip of France, in John’s place.17 Ideas about removing tyrannical kings were certainly around. John of Salisbury illustrated the terrible ends met by tyrants, and said it was ‘equitable and just’ to kill them.18 There was also a famous example in the past of the pope sanctioning the removal of kings. Outlawed with Robert fitzWalter in 1212 was the canon of St Paul’s, Gervase of Howbridge. Gervase was surely familiar with the Leges Edwardi, of which there was a text in London. This told how the pope had sanctioned the transfer of the kingship from the Merovingians to the Carolingians, the former having so signally failed to defend church and people.19 Simon de Montfort, singled out as John’s successor, was probably familiar with Carolingian precedents. His son was later to tell Henry III that he deserved to be imprisoned like the Carolingian king Charles the Simple.20

In fact, Innocent III never went as far as deposing John, but it was easy to believe, or manufacture the belief, that he had or was about to do so.21 Archbishop Langton had urged the knights of the realm to defend the church with their swords, and made clear that John’s subjects would be absolved from their fealty if he persisted in his disobedience.22 Innocent himself in a letter of April 1211 had threatened John with ‘ruin’ if he did not repent.23 What that meant was very clear. The year before, Innocent had absolved the subjects of John’s nephew and ally, the Emperor Otto, from their allegiance and forbidden them to obey him.24 The justification for the Welsh revolt against John in 1212 was the belief that Innocent had absolved the Welsh rulers from their allegiance to John and had urged them to make war on him.25 Simon de Montfort himself perfectly fitted this scenario. Having led the crusade against the Albigensian heretics, he was a favourite son of the church. A great baron, would he not also be sympathetic to baronial aspirations? Indeed, in December 1212 he was to issue for his state of Béziers and Carcassonne provisions that, in protecting the rights of his subjects, anticipated Magna Carta.26 There could be no greater contrast to King John and no more suitable replacement.


John was profoundly shocked by the plot of 1212. In January 1213 he went north and reached Alnwick, in order, as he said, to ensure his hold over ‘the northern part of England’.27 Running into 1213, he made a series of concessions designed to re-establish his position. He treated widows with more leniency, reformed the administration of the forests, promised to demand only the capital in debts owed to the Jews, and abandoned his policy of extracting profits from the counties. He also dismissed some of the northern sheriffs, and, ‘moved’ by the complaints against them, mounted an inquiry into their activities.28 The concessions were deliberately designed to appeal to knights and free tenants as much as to earls and barons. Indeed, the latter were specifically excluded from the measure on the Jews.29 John knew what he was about. The Crowland chronicler thought his concessions were worthy of ‘memory and praise’, and several of them were affirmed and elaborated in Magna Carta.30

John also settled his great quarrel with the papacy. The catalyst here was the threatened French invasion of 1213. Philip Augustus had decided to invade at a great council held at Soissons early in April. What he represented as a pious enterprise, designed to avenge the injuries to the church, was in reality a pre-emptive strike against John’s continental campaign, plans for which were now reaching completion. If Philip, as he intended, could put Louis, his eldest son, on the English throne, he would end the Angevin threat once and for all, and make the Capetians supreme in Europe. Accordingly, an army was summoned, a fleet was assembled and Louis issued a charter subjecting himself, if he became king of England, to his father’s ‘will and counsel’ in various matters, one being what was to happen to John if he were captured.31 In response to this grievous threat, John mustered a great army in Kent and took action against French shipping. On 30 May a naval force under the earl of Salisbury destroyed the French fleet at Damme in Flanders, thus eliminating the threatened invasion.32

It was while the two armies were facing each other across the Channel that John reached his settlement with the pope. He had already been weakening in his refusal to accept Stephen Langton as the papally imposed archbishop of Canterbury, but he had continued to haggle over the extent of compensation due to the church. Now he gave way and on 13 May 1213 bowed to the papal terms. Two days later, he went even further and made England a papal fief. On 20 July, in a ceremony at Winchester, sealed by a great feast, John tearfully prostrated himself before the bishops and was absolved from his excommunication by Langton himself.33 John also sought to appease individual bishops. Immediately after his absolution, he granted Langton and his successors the keepership of Rochester castle, thus meeting a long-standing Canterbury grievance.34 Next year, as partial compensation for the church’s losses during the Interdict, John also offered Langton half of a 20,000 mark fine he was extracting from Geoffrey de Mandeville. This fine, as we will see, was one of John’s most notorious exactions. If Langton accepted money, he would be benefitting from John’s oppressive rule. Yet accept it Langton did. How John must have laughed. He had compensated the church and compromised the archbishop all in one go. The cynicism with which he doubtless regarded pietistic and prating prelates like Langton seemed amply justified.35 In fact, not for the last time, John had miscalculated. Langton himself did not feel compromised in the least. If he hesitated over taking money from so tainted a source, he took it in the end with a clear conscience. The needs of the church must come first. In 1215, Langton steered his own course and placed the welfare of the kingdom, as he saw it, above any narrow allegiance to the king.

Quite apart from losing half of the Mandeville fine, the settlement with the church was expensive. How much John repaid of damages put at £100,000 is unknown. In terms of hard cash, he certainly handed over at least £25,000.36 More serious was the political cost, for John had to accept the return to England of Eustace de Vescy and Robert fitzWalter, who had cleverly linked their cause to that of the church. Both played central parts in the coming rebellion, Vescy being the only noble who earned a personal letter of rebuke from the pope.37 Making England a papal fief was also thought by many to be humiliating. Indeed it seemed to fulfil the prophecy of the hermit Peter of Wakefield that John would not reign beyond his fourteenth year, which ended on Ascension Day 1213. John spent the day holding an open-air feast, before having Peter dragged from Corfe castle to Wareham and there hanged. Many, however, said that handing the kingdom over to the pope had made the prophecy come true. For all these disappointments and disadvantages, John’s settlement with the church was still a masterstroke. It meant that henceforth the pope stood steadfastly behind him. Without that support, he would not have survived. Innocent’s support was given material shape by the presence in England for over a year from September 1214 of a papal legate, Nicholas of Tusculum. He was there to lift the Interdict, having ensured proper compensation for the church. He also undermined Langton’s authority and seemed to favour the rights of the crown more than the liberties of the church.38 On his departure, Pandulf, the papal ‘familiaris’ – a member of the papal household and thus someone very close to Innocent – remained in England, and was named, of course, as one of John’s counsellors in Magna Carta.

For all John’s concessions, when they returned to England both Vescy and fitzWalter found a simmering pot just waiting to be stirred. However justified in John’s eyes, his treatment of the conspirators could seem further evidence of his tyranny, involving as it did a fresh round of hostage taking and disseisins. In May 1212, so even before the plot, John had confiscated Godmanchester in Huntingdonshire, one of Earl David’s richest manors. He admitted at Runnymede that this was a disseisin committed ‘by our will without judgement’. Equally disseised were twelve of David’s tenants, a good example of how John’s arbitrary conduct impacted at the level of knightly society. After the plot, David was made to give his son as hostage, and, under threat of siege, surrender his castle of Fotheringhay.39 Although John had to accept back Vescy and fitzWalter, he made sure to pull down Alnwick castle and Baynard’s castle first.40

There was also, almost certainly, criticism of the processes by which fitzWalter, Vescy and earlier William de Briouze had been outlawed. In fitzWalter’s case one part of the customary process had undoubtedly been followed. FitzWalter had been summoned to four successive county courts (in Essex) and had been outlawed by judgement of the court on failing to turn up. Another part, however, had been violated. According to the law and custom on outlawry, proceedings had to be initiated, not by order of the king, but through an accusation made by the ‘fama patrie’, which probably meant by the indictment of a jury. Yet it is clear that in the outlawry of fitzWalter, proceedings had been begun by a royal order. The very writ to the sheriff of Essex was enrolled on the close roll. No mention was made of the ‘fama patrie’. When chapter 39 of the Charter said that no free man should be disseised or outlawed ‘save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’, it was thinking, among other things, of the disseisins and outlawries following the conspiracy of 1212. Indeed, the stipulation about the ‘law of the land’ had particular relevance to outlawry where the correct procedures, as we have seen, required indictment by a jury and a summons to four successive county courts.41

Quite apart from his treatment of the conspirators, John had continued to bear down heavily on baronial families.42 The new offers made to the king in the pipe roll of 1213–14 included William de Monte Canisio’s 2,000 marks to have his inheritance and be quit of debts to the Jews, William fitzAlan’s 10,000 marks to have the land of his father, and Robert de Vere’s 1,000 marks to enter the lands of his brother. Despite this large fine, he was still denied the earldom of Oxford. The same pipe roll shows John de Lacy still owing 4,200 marks of the 7,000-mark fine for his inheritance, as security for which John had retained his castle of Pontefract. Meanwhile, John continued to exploit widows in ways that would be clean contrary to the Charter. Margaret, the widow of Robert fitzRoger, thus agreed to pay £1,000 to have her dower and inheritance and not be forced into remarriage. Sibilla of Ewyas Harold, the widow of Robert de Tresgoz, offered 800 marks for much the same privileges, only for John then to sell her remarriage for £1,000 to the Welsh marcher lord Roger of Clifford. John continued to exploit down on the towns, slapping a 2,000-mark tallage on London.43 And he continued to disseize ‘by will’, taking Trowbridge from Henry de Bohun, earl of Hereford, and giving it to William Longespee, earl of Salisbury, a lawless act that was to be reversed at Runnymede.44

This period also saw one of John’s most extraordinary impositions, namely the fine, already alluded to, made by Geoffrey de Mandeville. Geoffrey was the son of John’s justiciar Geoffrey fitzPeter, who had died in 1213. He had, however, taken the surname Mandeville, his father having made good on a controversial claim through marriage to the old Mandeville earldom of Essex. Mandeville’s first wife was the daughter of Robert fitzWalter, and, if there was any truth in the story, the subject of John’s libidinous attentions.45 On her death, Geoffrey agreed to pay the colossal sum of 20,000 marks to marry Isabella, countess of Gloucester, the Isabella whose union with John had been annulled so that he could marry Isabella of Angoulême. The countess’s inheritance, which included Glamorgan, was rich, even though John held back the title of Earl of Gloucester, but there was no way that Mandeville could pay the 20,000 marks in the stipulated ten months. John’s aim was simply to place Mandeville in his power, and make as much money as he could from him. The Dunstable annals stated that Mandeville entered the marriage unwillingly, as surely was the case. He had agreed to it because of a promise (unfulfilled) that he would now be recognized as Earl of Essex. More importantly, if Geoffrey did not go ahead, John was threatening him with the loss of the whole Mandeville inheritance, this through the revival of the claims of the Says, which Geoffrey fitzPeter had defeated in order to secure the inheritance in the first place. No wonder this monstrous fine, as the Crowland chronicler recognized, became a major issue in 1215. It was a classic example of the fines made unjustly and against the law of the land that the Charter, in chapter 55, insisted John must remit.46


While John was settling with the pope, resisting French invasion and struggling to retain authority in England, he was also labouring to build up the continental alliances that would enable him to recover his lost empire. The defection of King Richard’s allies, the counts of Flanders and Boulogne, had been a major factor in the fall of Normandy. John would not make the same mistake again.

There was much in the international situation that John could exploit, beginning with the predicament of the emperor of the Romans, Otto of Brunswick. Otto was John’s nephew, the fruit of the marriage between Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, and Matilda, daughter of Henry II. As emperor, Otto both ruled in Germany and claimed authority in Italy. In asserting such claims, he had, however, quarrelled with Pope Innocent. In 1210 Innocent called on the German princes to depose him and elect as king of Germany, Frederick, king of Sicily, the young son of Otto’s predecessor, the Emperor Henry VI. In March 1212 Frederick set off for Germany. In December he was elected king by his supporters and crowned. Since Frederick was heavily backed by Philip Augustus, Otto and John became natural allies, all the more so since John had the money that Otto desperately wanted. In May 1212 John joyfully proclaimed their alliance. It was an alliance that also included Renaud Dammartin, the count of Boulogne. Ousted by Philip, Dammartin now offered his homage to John, who restored him to his lands in England. Negotiations were also in train with Ferrand, count of Flanders, the count of Holland, and the dukes of Limberg and Louvain. John was building up a great coalition against France’s northern frontier.47

Tantalizing possibilities were also emerging for a great alliance in the south. There political structures had been transformed by the success of Simon de Montfort and his French army in the crusade against the Albigensian heretics. The first phase had concluded in 1209 with Montfort establishing himself as lord of Béziers and Carcassonne. In the cause of resisting the French advance, this made natural allies of Raymond VI, count of Toulouse, and King Pedro of Aragon. The two were also, therefore, natural allies of King John. Raymond was John’s brother-in-law, having married (thanks to King Richard) a daughter of Henry II, Joan. Pedro, after his destruction of Moslem power in Spain at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in July 1212, was free to challenge Montfort, rather than, as he had done hitherto, compromise with him. In 1212 and 1213 envoys were going back and forth between John and both Raymond and Pedro.

With his northern alliance falling into place, and his southern one at least in the air, John in 1213 was eager to be off. He summoned an army to muster for a continental campaign in March, only then to abandon his plans when faced with the threat of a French invasion. With that over, buoyed up by his settlement with the church, he summoned another army for August. The summons met a hostile reception, especially in the north of England. Resistance was fortified by the argument, set out later in the Unknown Charter, that military service overseas was only owed in Normandy and Brittany, so not in Poitou, where John’s campaign necessarily must begin. As a measure of his determination, John embarked anyway and got as far as Jersey, before accepting that he lacked the requisite forces to continue.

Once back in England, John in late August set off for the north in order to punish those who had disrupted his plans. This was the moment for a decisive intervention by Archbishop Langton. He hurried after John, caught up with him at Northampton and warned him not to attack his opponents without having first secured a judgement against them.48 John continued to the north, but then decided on negotiations. At the start of November 1213 he met certain northerners at Wallingford and promised to observe their ‘ancient liberties’. The agreement quickly collapsed. On 7 November John ordered the knights from each county previously summoned to a meeting at Oxford to come armed, while the barons were to come unarmed – apparently an attempt to use the one to intimidate the other. At the same time John reached out to a second group of knights, summoning to the assembly four knights from each county to discuss with him the affairs of the kingdom.49

It is in the resistance to the continental campaign of 1213 that the ‘northerners’ first appear in contemporary narratives as taking the lead in the opposition to King John. They are, of course, the subject of Holt’s classic book. Contemporaries did not use the term with any geographical precision but they would certainly have seen as ‘northerners’ men from Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, as well, of course, as men from Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumberland. John’s government had lain heavy on these areas through the exploitation of the royal forest and the oppressions of the sheriffs. Philip Marc (dismissed from office under Magna Carta) was sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. John retained the loyalty of some magnates with interests in the north. He had a grip on Westmorland through Robert de Vieuxpont, to whom he granted the sheriffdom in hereditary right. Ranulf, earl of Chester, was lord of Richmond in Yorkshire, and William, earl of Warenne, was lord of Conisbrough in the same county. But there were many more northerners at the heart of the opposition to the king, notably Eustace de Vescy, William de Mowbray, Richard de Percy, Roger de Montbegon, Nicholas de Stuteville, Gilbert de Gant, Peter de Brus – and, at a later stage, Robert de Ros and John de Lacy.

In individual terms the grievances of these men were little different from the grievances of men elsewhere in England. But they were given a special edge by the way the north, under John, had felt the direct hand of kingship as never before. Henry II only visited the north on eleven occasions during a reign of thirty-five years. Richard took a brief look at Sherwood forest (he liked it), and went no further north. John, by contrast, penetrated northern counties in every year of his reign save the four when he was largely abroad. On what were sometimes long tours of inspection, he extracted large sums in fines for favours and benevolence. All this impacted on a baronial society that, in some ways, was more self-contained and cohesive than elsewhere in England. Many of the northern barons had compact baronies and limited interests further south. They rallied behind each other, acting as sureties for the enormous amounts of money they owed the king. At the same time, the northern barons gained strength and independence through their proximity to Scotland and connections with the Scottish court. At the very least, Scotland could be a bolt-hole. At most, the king of Scots might ally with them against King John. And there was one final factor. The northern barons had leadership, leadership from Eustace de Vescy. He was at the centre of the plot of 1212 and later, as we have said, was singled out for reprimand by the pope. It was Eustace above all, one may suspect, who rallied the north against the king.

After his abortive settlement with the northerners, John continued his preparations for his continental campaign. He finally set sail in February 1214. By this time his position was weaker than the year before. In September 1213, Simon de Montfort had won a comprehensive victory against King Pedro and Raymond of Toulouse at the battle of Muret.50 Pedro, refusing to surrender, had been killed. His demise was caused, his son later thought, both by bad tactics and by a judgement of God for having lain with a woman before the battle.51 Raymond of Toulouse escaped and came to England. He returned home in January 1214 with, it was said, 10,000 marks, but his power was broken.52

The rest of John’s plans, however, were well laid and very much intact. In January 1214 he received the homage of Ferrand, count of Flanders, who had come to England with the counts of Holland and Boulogne. They then returned to Flanders with an English force under the earl of Salisbury. John, meanwhile, landed at La Rochelle in Poitou on 15 February. The strategy, of course, was to force Philip Augustus to divide his forces between north and south and defeat them individually. Despite opposition to the campaign, John had with him, apart from a large number of foreign mercenaries, a good body of tenants-in-chief of baronial and knightly status as well as household knights.53 As in Ireland in 1210, John supported such men by giving them loans. At first all went well. John secured Poitou, if not Poitiers itself, and in May 1214 he received the homages of the Lusignans, thus at last smoothing over the offence of his marriage. In June he crossed the river Loire and by 17 June he was at Angers, capital of Anjou, the ancestral home of his dynasty. Here, however, he was still over eighty miles from the Norman frontier. It was the nearest he got. From Angers, John moved south-west and laid siege to the castle at La Roche-aux-Moines. It was there that Louis, King Philip’s eldest son, came to meet him in battle array. John was eager to fight. The Lusignans and their Poitevin allies were not. It was one thing to ride with John and take his money. It was quite another to risk everything in a battle. Deserted by his allies, John abandoned the siege of La Roche-aux-Moines on 2 July and fled south. By 9 July he was back at La Rochelle. From there he addressed an all too revealing letter to the earls, barons, knights and faithful men of England. His claim that all was going well was immediately contradicted by an appeal for them to join him. They could then help him recover ‘his’ rights and conquer ‘his’ land, which showed plainly that no one else’s rights and lands were involved. John added that those who felt they had incurred his ‘indignation’ could put matters right by joining him. Clearly he recognized very well the ill feelings back in England. How sensitive the point was is revealed by the way the letter was redrafted so that ‘indignation’ replaced the original ‘rancour of mind’, perhaps because it carried a stronger sense of justified disapproval.54 It was ‘rancour’, however, as well as ‘indignation’, that chapter 62 of Magna Carta got John to remit. The truth was that John’s campaign was over. It had been a complete failure. Everything now depended on his northern allies.

A full muster of John’s allies, with Otto at their head, had taken place at Valenciennes in northern France in July.55 Everyone was there and confidence was high. King Philip mustered his own forces at Péronne. The confrontation eventually took place on 27 July outside the village of Bouvines in the much fought-over borderland between France and Flanders. It was a close-run thing. At one point, King Philip was caught by the hook of a halberd and dragged to the ground, before being rescued by his bodyguard. In the end, however, he won a total victory. Otto fled. The counts of Flanders and Boulogne, together with the earl of Salisbury, were taken prisoner.

Bouvines is rightly regarded as one of the most decisive battles ever fought. It established Frederick II in Germany, ended the Angevin empire, assured the supremacy of France and led to Magna Carta. John arrived back in England on 13 October 1214. His treasure in money was gone. His revenue was collapsing. That revealed by the pipe roll of 1214 was £25,700, less than half the level of two years before. Individual barons, such as William de Mowbray, were ceasing to pay their debts.56 John’s prestige was in tatters. All his work of ten years lay in ruins.

The animosity towards John, which he had acknowledged in his letter of 9 July, had also been aggravated by events in his absence. A significant number of northerners had refused to go with him to France and had also refused to pay the scutage, which was fixed at the high rate of £2 a fee. In Yorkshire, it could not be collected at all. In November the pope wrote to Eustace de Vesci warning him not to obstruct the king’s agents in the performance of their duties. Probably it was Eustace who led the opposition.57 All this was made worse by John’s new chief justiciar, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester. In place of the cautious and emollient Geoffrey fitzPeter, so keen to be accepted as a member of the high nobility, the government was now run by an arrogant, abrasive, armour-plated foreign prelate (he was later in the thick of the battle of Lincoln) who was very ready to push John’s policies to the limit. Des Roches had Vescy’s chattels seized for his failure to pay the scutage, and he threatened consequences for Earl David’s hostages if David failed to attend a meeting. Des Roches was equally domineering in the localities.58 When a group of Devon knights resisted the sheriff in defence of their charter of liberties, he descended on Exeter, and threatened the sheriff with loss of life and chattels if he failed to defend the rights of ‘the crown’.59 No wonder that Ralph of Coggeshall declared ‘the nobles of all the kingdom complained that an alien man was placed over them’.60

The political narrative after John’s return to England in October 1214 has two main strands. The first is the way John’s opponents evolved the programme that became Magna Carta. Here one cardinal fact had transformed the situation since the attempted deposition in 1212. This, of course, was John’s settlement with the church. The king now seemed to the pope a wonderful example of ‘the boundless and infinite goodness of God which makes just men of transgressors and turns sinners into saints’.61 Where now was the excommunicated tyrant whom the pope was urging everyone to resist? Since John’s new status made it much harder to contemplate his deposition, his opponents looked to other remedies. Their detailed development we will explore in the next chapter.

The second strand is the way John’s enemies mustered the force necessary to coerce the king. It is here that we come to another cardinal point, which shaped both the events of 1215 and the nature of the Charter. John was gravely weakened when he got back to England in October 1214. His enemies saw their chance, and were concerting action even before his return. Yet the king remained a formidable opponent. As the start of the Charter showed, he retained the loyalty of the earls of Pembroke, Salisbury, Warenne and Arundel, as he did also that of the earls of Chester and Derby. While he increasingly lost control in the shires, his castles remained firmly in his hands, many garrisoned by his ruthless foreign agents. Although John’s cash mountain was gone, he still had thousands of pounds with which to hire foreign mercenaries.62 In England, during the whole period down to Magna Carta, he was never defeated in the field. The Charter was thus a negotiated document. It might have looked very different had it been dictated to John on his knees.


The first and most crucial task of John’s opponents was to form themselves into an association, a corporate body that could hold together in defiance of the king. It needed to be of a type that could expand but not contract, stopping members coming and going as they pleased as though held together merely by a rope of sand. All this was achieved by an oath. The great oath that led to Magna Carta is little discussed by historians, yet its importance is clear. The pope fulminated against the ‘sworn associations’ formed against the king, while John in 1215 gave letters of conduct to rebels ‘withdrawing you from the oath and confederation made against us’.63

No formal text of the oath is known, although one may come to light – a great discovery waiting to be made. The oath was probably developed from earlier ‘confederations and sworn associations’ made during the Interdict, to which Innocent III refers. There was almost certainly an oath taken by the conspirators of 1212, while Ralph of Coggeshall in 1213 refers to what was clearly another sworn association, having just narrated the attempted settlement with the northerners that November: ‘nearly all the barons of England confederated together to protect the liberty of the church and all the kingdom’.64 This links very well with the fullest description of the oath, as it was in 1215, which appears in the Welsh chronicle the Brut:

All the leading men of England and all the princes of Wales made a pact together against the king that not one of them without his fellow would have from the king either peace or alliance or truce until he restored to the churches their laws and their rights which he or his ancestors had before that taken from them, and also until he restored to the leading men of England and Wales the lands and the castles which he had taken from them at his pleasure without either justice or law.65

That the oath had a clause preventing members making a separate peace is confirmed by the Southwark and Merton annals’ description of the confederation between the barons and the Londoners.66 That the oath began with the church was to be expected, and helps explain how Robert fitzWalter, as general of the rebel forces, could style himself ‘marshal of the army of God and holy church’. That it had clauses about the restoration of lands and castles taken lawlessly by the king fits exactly with chapter 52 of Magna Carta.


A confederation binding men together in support of a political programme was worth little unless it incorporated, or sat alongside, an agreement to impose that programme by force. Everyone knew that John would never give way willingly. The crucial meeting at which resort to force was agreed is described by Roger of Wendover and took place in 1214 at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The precise date is discussed below. According to Wendover, the earls and barons, having gathered at Bury for a ‘colloquium’, came before the high altar and swore that, if the king refused to accept the Coronation Charter of Henry I and the laws of Edward the Confessor, they would withdraw from their fealty and make war on him, until he made the desired concessions in a sealed charter. They alsoagreed to press their demands on the king after Christmas and meanwhile provide themselves with horses and arms.67

Holt is highly sceptical about this account, for which Wendover is the only source.68 Credence is not helped by later elaborations. On the north-east pier of the presbytery at Bury, a tablet proudly proclaims:























J.W. DONALDSON, Scripsit.        J. MUSKETT, Posuit, 1847.

Wendover would doubtless have been delighted to hear his Flores Historiarum described as a ‘deathless record’, yet in fact he neither gave a precise date for the assembly nor said that Langton was present at it. Indeed, he named none of the participants. Neither lapidary effusions nor Holt’s reservations, however, should prevent us accepting the gist of Wendover’s narrative. The arguments in its favour are far stronger than have ever been appreciated, in part, as we will see, because of one fundamental misunderstanding.

Wendover completed his account of this period around ten years after the events described. He can make egregious mistakes, including conflating John’s Charter with those of Henry III. Yet it is equally clear that these mistakes are set in a narrative which, given its precision and dates, must have been written fairly close to the events. Indeed, his account of the Bury meeting follows a date for John’s return to England, namely 19 October, which is only six days too late.69 There is nothing in the account of the Bury meeting that is clearly false, and indeed it links perfectly with the events of January 1215 when the barons did indeed appear in arms and press their demands on the king.

The misunderstanding which has blighted previous discussion is the assumption that the meeting took place on 20 November. This is grounded on Wendover’s statement that the barons, as cover for their real intentions, came to Bury as if ‘for the sake of prayer’. What better day, then, to come to Bury ‘for prayer’ than the feast day of St Edmund itself, that is, 20 November. Yet, of course, it was perfectly possible to come to Bury for prayer on other occasions. John himself made six visits, none on the day. Given his reputation for impiety, perhaps that is not much of a guide, but even his pious son only timed two of his many pilgrimages to coincide with the feast itself. More important in undermining the 20 November date is what Wendover actually says. Having stated that John returned to England on 19 October, he affirms that the Bury meeting took place ‘around the same time’ – ‘sub eadem tempestate’. Wendover, then, thought the gathering took place not on 20 November but about a whole month earlier. That seems far more likely on political and prudential grounds. Rather than waiting until John was at home and at large, the barons wisely planned their meeting as soon as they heard rumours of his return, and of course in the full knowledge of his defeat at Bouvines. The meeting then took place around the time of that return, so sometime around (following Wendover’s date) 19 October.

Once this date is accepted, much else falls into place.70 Out in Poitou, Hugh of Northwold, abbot elect of Bury, had won John’s favour. He had good reason to hope that when John returned to England, his election would be speedily confirmed. In the event, both Hugh and John arrived back on the same day, 13 October. Hugh went straight to Bury, which he reached on 24 October, and then returned south to see the king. All seemed set fair, for, between 18 and 20 October, John had issued a letter protecting the abbey’s possessions and looking forward, ‘God willing’, to a solution of the quarrel. Yet when Hugh met John in London on 28 October, the mood was totally different. John now accused him of stirring up ‘rebellion’ – ‘bellum’. Holt argued that this meant no more thanHugh’s opposition to John’s wishes over the election; it seemed unlikely that it referred to any political rebellion in England, since that had yet to gather steam. This second point is disposed of once we accept the re-dating of the meeting. ‘Bellum’ in any case seems a strong word to use for the dispute over an abbatial election, however important. What had happened is that, by 28 October, John had heard of the Bury assembly. No doubt the news came from his own local officials. It also came from John’s supporters within the convent, who set off to see him as soon as Hugh got home. One of them told John directly that Hugh was ‘working in every way and with all his strength to deprive you of the royal crown’.71 In accusing Hugh of stirring up rebellion, John was thus charging him with involvement in the Bury meeting. If the meeting took place before Hugh’s return to Bury, that charge was, of course, unfair, but fairness was never John’s strongest suit. If, on the other hand, it occurred around the time of Hugh’s brief stay at the monastery, then John might very reasonably have thought him complicit. Whatever the truth here, Hugh vigorously denied the charge, and John then backed down: ‘I did not say this with reference to you in particular, but on account of certain others.’ Evidently, John accepted that the meeting had not been with Hugh’s connivance or consent. Nonetheless, he still despatched a fiery letter to the monks saying that Hugh was in deep disfavour.

What happened next was equally remarkable. Leaving London on 1 or 2 November, John made a dramatic dash to Bury, which he reached on 4 November. He took his privy seal instead of his great seal, which he left behind in London with Peter des Roches. John had promised, soon after his arrival in England, to visit Bury and settle the matter of the election, but he now came in very different circumstances. His decision was taken in haste, for as late as 25 October he was planning a tour of Kent, taking in Rochester, Canterbury and Dover.72 That Hugh, on his return, went straight to Bury, and then came south with the abbey’s charters, shows that he had no expectation of an imminent royal visit. John’s aim now was not primarily to settle the issue of the election, which in fact was not settled. The main motive was to stamp royal authority on the place of the rebellious assembly. John’s anxieties are clear from other orders. On 30 October he despatched archers to boost the garrisons of Corfe and Nottingham, increased the forces under the command of Engelard de Cigogné, the sheriff of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, and told Theodoric Teutonicus, at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, to attend diligently to the castle’s custody and keep him frequently informed about its state. Then, on the way to Bury, he ordered Theodoric to conduct the queen to Berkhamsted castle under armed guard, and by a prescribed route. Meanwhile, in London, on 4 November, Peter des Roches ordered a payment in connection with writs that the papal legate had made out ‘against those sworn together’, in other words against those sworn together at the recent gathering.73

At Bury, John had with him the earls of Winchester and Norfolk, and probably also Robert fitzWalter and Geoffrey de Mandeville – all of course future rebels – so he made an impressive show of his support.74 When he entered the chapter house, the sword was carried before him by Philip of Oldcoates, the sheriff of Northumberland. Its edge was directed not just at the abbey but at those who had so recently defied the king. When one of John’s supporters among the monks begged that ‘the royal majesty may flame out in anger “with powerful arm and mighty hand” against its adversaries’, John left the reply to Oldcoates: ‘O, man, fenced in as you are on every side with the king’s peace, you need not be afraid’.75 This reassurance summed up very well the wider purpose of John’s descent on Bury.

John remained at Bury merely for a day. The birds had flown and he had made his point. On 5 November he was on his way back south. He remained, however, acutely suspicious. While at Bury he had refused to release William Marshal’s hostages, despite the intercession of the earl of Norfolk, agreeing only that one could be exchanged for two others.76 All this is the background to the major concession that John made in London on 21 November. At the New Temple, he issued his famous charter giving the church freedom of elections. This was the charter that was to be confirmed in the first chapter of Magna Carta. John, therefore, after the shock of Bury, was desperately trying to bind the church to his side. The issue of elections was a particularly live one, given that six bishoprics and thirteen abbeys had been left unfilled during the Interdict and needed new pastors appointed.77 However hedged around, the charter, in legislating for speedy elections, also promised a great reduction in the king’s revenues from vacancies. John followed up the charter with a personal concession to Archbishop Langton, for it was on 22 November that he gave Canterbury the overlordship of the bishopric of Rochester. There is no evidence that Langton was at the Bury meeting. Almost certainly he was not. But to it he owed these great victories. In issuing his charter granting free elections, John tried to do something else, namely show that the kingdom was united behind him. Of the thirteen witnesses to the charter, five were to be named in Magna Carta as John’s counsellors, while four were among the twenty-five barons of the security clause.78

Who then was at the Bury meeting? Into early 1215, sources continued to describe the insurgents as northerners, and they probably made a major contribution to the assembly. This is confirmed by the striking appearance at Bury of Philip of Oldcoates. As sheriff of Northumberland, Oldcoates is very rarely found at court. On 27 October John had written to him as though he were still at his northern post.79 Yet, a few days later, he suddenly turns up, bearing the sword before John, in the Bury chapter house. Most probably, Oldcoates had come south in the wake of the insurgents in order to monitor their activities. The northerners, however, were clearly keen to widen the basis of their support, hence the choice of Bury for the meeting. One London chronicler later observed that the barons in 1215 were described as northerners, ‘although they came from divers parts of the kingdom of England’, and increasingly that became the case.80 A government record from January 1215 described Roger de Cressy as one of ‘the Northerners’ who were against the king, but, in fact, his main interests were in East Anglia. Cressy may well have been at the Bury meeting.81 John, however, still had Saer de Quincy at his side. He was the one layman, apart from Oldcoates, to be with him in the chapter house, and was the custodian of the Marshal hostages. Despite the statement in the Bury tablet, the presence with John of fitzWalter, like that of Mandeville and Norfolk, argues against their participation, but one cannot be sure. They may have come to make their excuses and explanations.


In accordance with the plans laid at Bury, when the ‘magnates’ appeared before John at the New Temple in London in January 1215 they came in military array. The pope later described them as making their demands ‘arrogantly and disloyally by force of arms’.82Just how close the situation was to civil war is shown by the way ‘all those’ who had come before the king with ‘grievances’ were given the king’s ‘peace’, until another meeting at Northampton, as well as safe conducts guaranteed by Archbishop Langton, seven bishops and four loyalist earls. While fitzWalter, Mandeville and the earl of Clare were still sufficiently persona grata to attest royal charters in January, none of the great northern barons did so, apart from Robert de Ros.83 The demands put at the New Temple centred on the Coronation Charter of Henry I, quite probably with some extra provisions tacked on. John’s response was to condemn these ‘novelties’, and call for a general oath of fealty together with assurances (embodied in individual charters) that such demands would never be raised again. The meeting ended in stalemate. All that could be agreed was to postpone the issues until the meeting at Northampton, which was fixed for 26 April.84

There was now a hiatus as both sides appealed to the pope, a measure of the extraordinary role he had assumed in English politics since John had made him overlord of the kingdom. John, on his side, had cleverly prepared the way. During the New Temple meeting, he had reissued his charter conceding free elections to the church, and sent it to Innocent III for his confirmation.85 John’s envoy, Walter Mauclerc, at the start of a long career in royal service, arrived in Rome on 19 February, although delayed ‘by a great illness’. The envoys of the insurgents, clerks of Eustace de Vescy and another great northerner, Richard de Percy, arrived at the start of March. In a letter to the king, Mauclerc explained that he had been unable to see their letters, but had learnt their gist. The barons certainly mounted a powerful case, and may well have hoped to change Innocent’s mind. They claimed that the northerners were now joined by ‘all the barons of all England’. They also challenged John’s new status as a papal favourite, claiming that it was their own struggles for the church’s liberty at papal command which had forced him to submit and make England a papal fief. They themselves were only demanding their ‘ancient liberties’ conceded by the charters of John’s ancestors and confirmed by the king’s own oath, probably a reference to the oath that he made on his absolution.86

During this hiatus, John took another step that was meant to bolster his position. On 4 March, Ash Wednesday, and so at the start of Lent, he took the cross in St Paul’s cathedral, and committed himself to go on crusade.87 From now on (one can imagine him thus at Runnymede), he wore on his shoulder a white cross that proclaimed his new status. John thus hoped to gain the protections of a crusader, which might allow him to shelve some of the complaints against him, as indeed happened in Magna Carta.88 He had also bound himself yet more closely to the pope. For Innocent, the king was now threefold blessed: he had restored liberty to the church, subjected his kingdom to the papacy, and then taken the cross so that he could ‘liberate the land which Christ had purchased with his own blood’. God would now ‘on earth secure and confirm the throne of the kingdom to you and your heirs, and in heaven the righteous judge will give you a crown of glory which fadeth not away’. By the same token, as Innocent made clear, the obstruction offered to John’s holy purposes by the recalcitrant barons was all the more illegitimate.89

John was now in a confident mood, and very ready to amuse himself by playing cat and mouse with Bury’s still unconfirmed abbot elect. When the two met riding in Sherwood Forest, towards the end of March, Hugh dismounted, went down on his knees and begged John to confirm his election. John was gracious, raised him up, welcomed him as abbot and spoke to him lengthily in private, although always ‘saving the rights of my kingdom’. But next day, when Hugh sought another audience after Mass, he was fobbed off and told to speak to William Brewer. Brewer then upbraided Hugh for showing contempt for the king’s liberties, and told him to come before a council that was to meet at Oxford on 6 April. There John refused to accept the election unless he was given money (which Hugh refused on Langton’s advice), and then postponed the whole matter until the return of the envoys sent to Rome to protest about elections being held ‘in contempt for my liberties’. On the same day, John ordered for himself five tunics to wear under his armour and five banners with his coat of arms, trimmed with gold.90 John celebrated Easter Day, which fell on 19 April, at the New Temple in London. A few days later he made the traditional payment to the clerks of his chapel who had sung the ‘Christus vincit’ in his presence:

Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules, hear O Christ,

To the king of the English, crowned by God, salvation and victory.91

How John must have hoped that would now come true. He was quickly disabused.

John had been too clever by half. His taking the cross only provoked the barons, who thought rightly that he had acted merely to ‘defraud them of their proposals’.92 There was soon further provocation in the letters of 19 March in which the pope gave his judgement. There is a puzzle over when the letters arrived in England. Pope Innocent himself, in his later narrative of events, seems to indicate that it was after the baronial defiance of the king that took place on 5 May. This seems rather late, given that the journey between England and Rome could take about a month, and this was certainly a letter of some urgency.93 The Crowland chronicler has the letters arriving when John was in and around Oxford, which was between 7 and 13 April. This is impossibly early. There is nothing, however, impossible about the letters having become known in England during Easter week, which was the week of 19–26 April. Probably, in any case, the likely tenor of the letters was already known from earlier reports sent by the baronial envoys. If so, the intelligence must have been a major factor in the great escalation of the crisis, which now took place.

Pope Innocent put his judgement into three letters, one to John himself, one to the barons of England and one to Langton and his suffragans.94 John was urged, ‘as he hoped to have his sins remitted’, to treat the barons kindly and listen to their just petitions. The barons were to make their claims not by force of arms but ‘in humility and loyal devotion’. Langton and his suffragans were blamed for failing to support the king and for giving the impression that they favoured the barons. The pope now denounced all ‘conjurations and conspiracies’ on pain of excommunication.95 The letters made it absolutely clear that the barons could receive no help from him. The idea that they should approach John humbly and witness his God-given change of heart was ludicrous. They had now either to put up or shut up. They put up. It was during Easter week that the barons mustered in arms at Stamford in Lincolnshire, a famous tournament ground. Previously the barons had been individually in arms. Now they were gathering an army, with which they marched from Stamford to Northampton. There was, of course, no question of meeting John there on 26 April as agreed back in January. Instead, the rising gained new force with the northerners, as the rebels were still called, being joined by Robert fitzWalter, Geoffrey de Mandeville and Giles de Briouze, bishop of Hereford. FitzWalter styled himself ‘marshal of the army of God and holy church in England’, an ambitious attempt to retain the status of fighting for the church, despite the papal condemnation. Bishop Briouze was a younger son of the murdered Matilda, and now heir to the family lordships. In March, John had actually restored these to the bishop, only then to create a fresh grievance by demanding 9,000 marks in return.96

On Monday, 27 April, now at Brackley in Northamptonshire, another tournament ground, the insurgents, through the good offices of Archbishop Langton and William Marshal, sent John a schedule setting out their demands. According to Roger of Wendover, these were an amalgam of the Coronation Charter of Henry I and the Leges Edwardi. More probably, they were an early draft of the Articles of the Barons. The fact that they were divided up into ‘capituli’ just like the Articles, and that the barons wanted them sealed by the king, as the Articles eventually were, supports this idea.97 John’s violent reaction is thus understandable. The demands, he angrily declared, would make him a slave; why did they not ask for his kingdom? Yet John also now made an attempt at conciliation.98He offered to abolish the evil customs introduced by himself and his brother Richard, and deal with those of his father Henry ‘by the counsel’ of his ‘faithful men’. This might seem fair enough, but it was a pathetically vague response to the detailed concessions being demanded. It was also all subject to appeal to the pope. Not surprisingly, the barons rejected the offer. John next asked Langton to excommunicate the insurgents under the terms of the 19 March papal letter. The archbishop refused. He used the conventional excuse of knowing the mind of the pope, which meant that, in his judgement, Innocent would have written differently had he known the real situation.99 The truth was that Langton would do nothing that threatened to escalate the crisis. He would not side with the barons, but equally he would not condemn them. That in itself, however, was enough. The archbishop’s passivity may well have encouraged their next decisive step.


On 5 May 1215, at Reading, a monk formally defied John on behalf of the barons and returned their ‘homages’.100 In justifying what in effect was rebellion, this was a vital step. In the thought of the period, any breach of faith to a lord could be judged as treason; ‘seditio’ and ‘proditio’ was the contemporary word. There could be no more blatant example of that than the taking up of arms. Equally, it was universally accepted that the penalty for treason was loss of life or limb, so execution or mutilation. Yet it was also accepted that a tenant, in cases of deadly enmity, could defy his lord and return or renounce his homage and the obligations that went with it – the ‘diffidatio’.101 Having done that, he could then take up arms without breaking faith to his lord. He no longer had a lord. He was free from any taint of treason.102

From one point of view, in escaping the consequences of rebellion, the ‘diffidatio’ only went so far. It might cleanse the insurgents from the taint of treason in their own eyes, but hardly necessarily in those of the king. The king might simply ignore the defiance and treat those who issued it as traitors. Even if he accepted that a ‘diffidatio’ was the proper procedure, and indeed defied his opponents himself, it was not because he wished to place the war on some gentlemanly footing in which both sides fought according to Marquess of Queensbury rules – quite the reverse. He wished to be free from all rules. The insurgents would become his enemies whom he could attack and kill without let and hindrance. The medieval ‘diffidatio’ therefore led, in theory at least, into a lawless jungle where warfare and politics could be nasty and brutish, not into a neat playing field where they were sanitized and controlled. In theory, but not in practice. In practice, it was rare for nobles to be killed in battle, for when unable to fight on they were allowed to surrender. It was unheard of for nobles to be executed for political crimes.103 Even John was not expected to break these rules of conduct. That was not the least reason for the readiness to take up arms against him. The rebels were not wrong in this calculation. In the whole of the 1215–16 civil war, John executed not a single noble.

Having defied the king on 5 May, the barons marched from Brackley to Northampton. Lacking siege engines, they failed to take it, but this was the first open act of warfare. John now shifted his ground, if only a little, by putting flesh and bone on his earlier proposals. On 9 May, at Windsor, he issued a charter, addressed to ‘all the faithful of Christ’. It was pointedly not addressed to all his faithful subjects, for many of these were no longer faithful, but at least John acknowledged that they were still faithful Christians.John’s offer was that the ‘complaints and articles’ being pressed upon him should be considered by four barons chosen by himself and four chosen by ‘the barons against us’, with the pope as head ‘above them’. John would then abide by whatever they decided. Next day, in a further act of conciliation, John promised that, until the work of the arbitrators was completed, he would not seize, dispossess or make war upon the barons ‘save by the law of our kingdom or by judgement of their peers in our court’, here of course anticipating chapter 39 of the Charter.104 At the same time, John tried individual acts of conciliation and promised to deal, by judgement of his court, with the exorbitant fines imposed on both Geoffrey de Mandeville and Bishop Briouze.105

John may well have hoped that this proposal would lead to some minimal concessions, after which peace would be restored. Given that the pope would have the last word, there was little danger in the king having to concede too much. The barons thought so too. The proposal led nowhere. John’s reaction was aggressive. On 12 May he ordered the lands of his enemies to be seized by the sheriffs.106


An event now occurred that changed the situation completely. Early on 9 May 1215, before he left for Windsor, John had been at the London Temple. There he agreed that a 1,100-mark loan which he had received from the Templars, to finance the bringing of 200 knights to England, could, if necessary, be repaid from his gold in their custody.107 John also took steps to secure the loyalty of the Londoners, issuing a charter free of charge allowing them the right to elect annually their own mayor.108 The conciliation of the Templars succeeded. The master of the Temple was at Runnymede by John’s side and is named as one of his counsellors in Magna Carta. The conciliation of the Londoners failed. It may be that John offered them too little. Certainly he was soon outbid by the rebels, who, in the Articles of the Barons, made the levying of tallage on the city subject to the common consent of the kingdom. On 17 May, while the citizens were still at Mass, or pretended to be, a party of barons clambered up some steps placed outside the walls in thecourse of their repair, and got into the city, where they opened the gates to their fellows. John still held the Tower, but his forces there were insufficient to regain control of the capital. His view was that the Londoners had surrendered the city ‘of their free will’. They certainly sealed an alliance with the rebels, got their demands into the Articles of the Barons and had their mayor as one of the twenty-five barons of Magna Carta’s security clause.109

The loss of London was a hammer blow for John. Its financial resources were now at the disposal of the rebels. Its walls now protected them from any danger of attack. London, if properly defended, was virtually impregnable, for it was far too large to besiege. And properly defended it was, for the barons immediately placed guards on the walls.110 There was no way now that John could easily win the civil war. He was also damaged in another way, for the loss of London meant the closure of the exchequer at Westminster.111 It had hitherto been at work hearing the accounts of the 1213–14 financial year. Those for Yorkshire were heard after 5 March 1215, since a pardon issued to John de Lacy on that day was included in the pipe roll.112 How much revenue was actually arriving into the exchequer was another matter. On 5 May John had wanted to repay the Templars their 1,100 marks from the first moneys received by the exchequer, only for the Templars to insist the loan be secured on the king’s gold.113 They obviously thought no money was coming in. Once London had fallen, the exchequer’s seal and some of its rolls were taken to Reading abbey. Other rolls were left behind at Westminster, where next year they fell into the hands of Prince Louis. John, recognizing the treasury was empty, ceased to issue writs ordering the exchequer to pay out money.114

After the fall of London, the river of supporters joining the rebels now became a flood. The rebellion had expanded way beyond its original northern base. Of the twenty-five barons eventually named in Magna Carta’s security clause, only eight could be described as northerners. Barons from the eastern and home counties predominated. The twenty-five included seven earls and three sons of earls. Nearly all the rest, apart from the mayor of London, were great barons.115 The fact that the eldest son of William Marshal was on the side of the barons shows the weakness of the king’s position. The Crowland chronicler noted how young men were attracted to the rebel cause, wishing to make a name for themselves through deeds of arms, sometimes pulling their fathers in with them.116 John could name as many earls among his supporters, but the rest of those who appeared as his counsellors at the start of the Charter hardly compared in terms of status with the twenty-five barons of the security clause.


The gathering rebellion in England posed a difficult choice for Alexander II in Scotland.117 Alexander had succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, William the Lion, in December 1214. It was a time of acute anxiety. Alexander knew full well that John would now expect him, under the terms of the 1209 Treaty of Norham, to do homage for the kingdom. He had, therefore, every reason to welcome the baronial revolt and the collapse of John’s power. On the other hand, he had to be careful. If he joined the barons and John crushed them, the consequences for his country would be disastrous. Alexander, until June 1215, also had his hands full in Scotland dealing with the rising of Guthred macWilliam. In Magna Carta, the constable of Scotland, Alan of Galloway, is named at the start as one of John’s counsellors. This, however, is less significant of Alexander’s attitude than it might seem. Alan, ruling Galloway as virtually his own kingdom, spent little time at the Scottish court and was essentially an independent potentate whom John had drawn to his side in 1212, notably by encouraging him to conquer Ulster after the expulsion of Hugh de Lacy. By contrast, Alexander’s uncle, Earl David of Huntingdon, joined the rebels, despite John’s belated grant of the third penny of the earldom.118 David was old and sick, but his actions were more than symbolic, for his illegitimate son, Henry, was active in the baronial cause and was later captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1217. It was he who, at Runnymede, recovered Godmanchester.119 As for King Alexander himself, he was certainly abreast of baronial intentions. He welcomed his brother-in-law Eustace de Vescy to court in March 1215, and Saer de Quincy, earl of Winchester, probably now playing a double game, in April. No fewer than five members of Magna Carta’s twenty-five barons (the earls of Hereford, Oxford and Winchester, and Eustace de Vescy and Robert de Ros) were Anglo-Scottish landowners, and thus in Alexander’s allegiance as well as John’s. My own view is that Alexander had made promises to the baronial leaders, and had agreed to join them when the time was right. Hence the concessions to him in the Articles of the Barons and Magna Carta. Both the Crowland and Dunstable chroniclers had heard of such an alliance.120 Of course, that still left open the possibility for Alexander that the time might never be right.

The situation in Wales was very different, for here the rebels did get very material help for their cause. John had done his best to shore up his position after the disasters of 1212. He hurried William Marshal into the custody of Cardigan and Carmarthen. From 1213 he also began to restore Walter de Lacy to his Welsh lordships and finally, on 12 April 1215, returned Ludlow castle to him.121 The king also dangled before him the prospect of restoring his estates in Ireland. Bolstered in this way, in the early months of 1215, John tried to draw Llywelyn and his allies into negotiations, but to no avail. Both the Dunstable and Crowland chroniclers report the alliance between the barons and the Welsh rulers. The Brut, as we have seen, goes into its details. Around the time of the fall of London, Llywelyn seized Shrewsbury, while further south the Welsh aided the Briouzes in recovering the family lordships in and around Brecon. John retained the loyalty of many marcher barons, but the uprising disabled them from giving him much help in England. Apart from William Marshal and Peter fitzHerbert, none feature among the king’s counsellors in the Charter.122


After his return to England in the autumn of 1214, John had sought to outflank his baronial opponents by winning over knights, nowhere more so than in the West Country, a particular centre, as we have seen, of local feelings and independence. In December John ordered the sheriffs of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall to send him twelve knights from each of their counties to discuss possible concessions over the royal forest. One result was a fine of 1,200 marks made in April 1215 by the men of Cornwall for deforestation and other liberties. Exeter, however, on which Peter des Roches had descended the year before, was still to be a centre of the rebellion. In the south-west generally the revolt was to be less one of great barons than of county society.123

There were two ways in which knights could participate in the rebellion. One was by joining the main baronial army that gathered at Stamford and swelled thereafter. The other was by participating in local activity, where they might challenge the king’s government in the shires. The general impression is that knights joined the rebellion in large numbers. According to Wendover, 2,000 mustered at Stamford, a figure that is far from impossible.124 By mid-May, knights from the honour of Trowbridge were throwing in their lot with their ousted lord, the earl of Hereford, against his replacement, the earl of Salisbury.125 Around the same time, a Cambridgeshire knight, Jocelyn of Stukeley, was probably in the rebel camp, for he was given letters of safe conduct. He is earlier found as a grand-assize juror, custodian sheriff of Cambridgeshire-Huntingdonshire, steward of the abbot of Ramsey and briefly a justice at the bench.126 He gives some idea of what John was up against. At Runnymede itself, we now know from Nicholas Vincent’s discovery, the barons appointed four knights in each county to help implement the terms of the Charter, and presumably all these knights were already on the rebel side. Their names survive for Kent and are typical of the middle and upper levels of the knightly class, ranging from those who sat on local juries to those of virtually baronial wealth and status.127

Lists of rebels from a few counties drawn up in 1216 and 1217 confirm this impression of extensive knightly participation in the revolt.128 In 1216 John was told by his local agents that ‘the whole county’ of Herefordshire and ‘all the knights’ of Shropshire had been against him, although the rebellion had much less purchase in Staffordshire. One striking fact about the rebel knights, when we have their names, is the numbers who appear on grand-assize juries. In other words, the rebellion had penetrated far deeper than just the elite of the knightly class, who were above such work. In Yorkshire, among those returning to the king’s allegiance in 1217, Hugh Thomas found forty-six such knights, and thought many more were of comparable status. Kathryn Faulkner found thirty from Northamptonshire, and twenty-seven from Cambridgeshire. A Rutland return has five knights who sat together on a grand-assize jury in 1211. A short list of Leicestershire rebels, with only six names, included two grand-assize jurors.129 A Gloucestershire list has around a dozen.

Knightly conduct in this period was governed, in varying degrees, by ties of lordship, neighbourhood and friendship, as well as by personal grievances and political ideas. The force of lordship was certainly strong. The loyalist earls of Chester and Derby kept the rebellion out of their key lands. On the other side, the great northern rebels, Holt concluded, were followed by their particular tenants ‘almost to a man’. In Herefordshire the county rebelled with Bishop Briouze in the early summer of 1215 but returned with him to John in the autumn.130

It would be a great mistake, however, to conclude that the knights in 1215 were mere puppets. They were quite able to push their own agendas, even against their lords. The knights of Cheshire extracted from Earl Ranulf the Cheshire ‘Magna Carta’. Ralph of Coggeshall’s impression was that the knights of the loyalist earls and barons deserted to the opposition, which was an exaggeration, but it suggests the flow of the tide.131 Indeed, outside Cheshire, in Earl Ranulf’s honour of Richmond, which he had only acquired in 1205, there were many rebels, as there were in the Fossard barony in Yorkshire, into which Peter de Maulay had been intruded. Some knights may well have pushed their lords into rebellion. One suspects that was the case with Oxfordshire’s ineffectual baron Henry d’Oilly. The four knightly tenants who joined him were all active in local government and two had been to Ireland in King John’s army of 1210.132 The baron Roger de Cressy and the knight William fitzRoscelin clearly formed a team. They both had their lands seized when Cressy quarrelled with John in 1207. From Easter 1215 they were running Norfolk and Suffolk together, with fitzRoscelin acting as Cressy’s under-sheriff. He was well qualified to do so since he had already been the county’s under-sheriff in 1211.133The rebellion in Shropshire clearly had much to do with the fitzAlan lords of Clun, labouring under a 10,000-mark relief, but two of their tenants, Vivian of Rosshall and Thomas de Costentin, both grand-assize jurors, were singled out from the other, unnamed knights in the list of rebels, and were clearly influential men.134 In other areas such as Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire where there were few dominant lords, many knights were able to choose their own course, and, as we have seen, numbers of them did so in favour of rebellion.135

Many of these knights have careers and backgrounds that can be traced in detail, although there is not the space to do that here. In Rutland, first on the list was the grand-assize knight Thomas de Hotot, whose descendants compiled a family cartulary with copies of the 1217 Forest Charter, the 1225 Magna Carta and John’s charter submitting the kingdom to Pope Innocent III.136 In Leicestershire, first up was another grand-assize juror, Ralph de Martinwast, from a very prominent knightly family in the county.137 One of the Gloucestershire knights, William de Parco, had been arrested, along with several other leading knights (they were knicknamed ‘big shots’ (‘buzones’)), for allegedly giving false judgements in the county court. Another Gloucestershire knight certainly had his own opinions as well as a direct interest in chapter 50 of Magna Carta, dismissing from office the relations of Gerard d’Athée, including Gio de Cigogné. This was William de Mara, who was arrested by Gio for speaking ill of King John.138

Conspicuous among knights acting for themselves were those holding from baronies in the hands of the king. Many from within the honours of Tickhill in Yorkshire and Peverel in Nottinghamshire joined the rebels. In April and May 1215, John sent out urgent orders to ten knights in the honour of Wallingford about garrisoning Wallingford castle. Half of those thus harried are later found in rebellion. Another Wallingford knight, William fitzEllis, had his grievances over unjust disseisin remedied at Runnymede itself. Doubtless such men pressed for chapter 43 of the Charter with its protection for those holding from such honours, those of Wallingford and Nottingham (so Peverel) being mentioned by name.139

By far the longest list of rebels is that from Gloucestershire, with some eighty-one names. About a third of these, in Adrian Jobson’s analysis, are of men whose rebellion and indeed whose very existence is otherwise unknown.140 Many of the unknown probably came from the ranks of the non-knightly under-tenants, as did a good proportion of those for whom some property can be found but without evidence that they were knights. This suggests that the rebellion embraced the kind of free tenants found on the hundred juries, whose importance we have already discussed.141 In Rutland and Leicestershire, the sheriff made some effort to indicate a level of involvement beneath the knights, since he also gave the names of fourteen rebel ‘serjeants’. Probably these were substantial free tenants of less than knightly status. At the muster at Stamford, besides the 2,000 knights, Roger of Wendover likewise mentioned that there were ‘serjeants’ both on horse and foot. Detailed inquiries into the rebels of the 1215–17 civil war, like those surviving for the civil war of 1263–7, would probably have revealed the very considerable social depth of the rebellion against the king.142


John had now to accept that he was losing authority throughout the country. From Easter in 1215, Norfolk and Suffolk were together controlled by Roger de Cressy and William fitzRoscelin.143 Herefordshire, as we have seen, had gone with the defection of Bishop Briouze. In the West Country, Exeter was briefly occupied. A large part of Northampton was burnt in a conflict between the townsmen and the castle garrison. In London, the Tower was attacked, while a northern army, hearing of events further south, occupied Lincoln in Whitsun week (7–14 June).144

Major defections also continued, including those of two great northerners, Robert de Ros and John de Lacy, whom John had struggled to keep on side. Lacy had gone with John to Poitou and taken the cross with him on 4 March in St Paul’s cathedral. He had then been pardoned all his debts. John still thought Lacy was loyal on 31 May. Probably he was already with the rebels. At Runnymede, Lacy, like Ros, became one of the twenty-five barons of Magna Carta’s security clause.145 Even worse was the defection of Saer de Quincy. He too had taken the cross with John on 4 March and was still thought to be loyal on 6 May. Yet on 25 May he was the only baronial negotiator named in a safe conduct that John issued. Given his alliance with Robert fitzWalter, Saer, one may suspect, had long been in baronial counsels.146 John had been generous in making him earl of Winchester, but had then denied him the castle of Mountsorrel, leaving him an earl without a castle, almost as bad as a knight without a horse. Saer’s throwing off the mask of fealty to his king was a major gain for the barons, since he knew John’s government from the inside, having been for a while a baron of the exchequer. As his role on 25 May suggests, he probably played a large part in the negotiations at Runnymede. When he finally re-entered the allegiance of John’s son, Henry III, in 1217, the clerk recording the fact on the close rolls wrote in the margin: ‘I will hate as long as I am able; if not, unwillingly, I will love.’147 No other baron provoked a comment.

With his situation thus deteriorating, John executed a fundamental change of course. On 16 May, the day before the fall of London, he was still offering the insurgents just a truce.148 But on 25 May (while at Odiham) the safe conduct he gave to Saer de Quincy was to treat about ‘peace’, which clearly meant a settlement that would lead to peace. Evidently the king was now engaging seriously with the baronial demands. John followed up the safe conduct of 25 May with another two days later, allowing Archbishop Langton to come to Staines, again to treat of ‘peace’ between the king and the barons.149 Quite probably, the envisaged location was already Runnymede. In these circumstances, the king’s offer on 29 May to submit the demands of the barons to the pope was merely going through the motions for papal consumption. John knew very well there was no way forward on that basis.150 On 8 June, now at Merton priory, he issued another safe conduct to last until 11 June for those coming to Staines on behalf of the barons ‘to make and secure peace’.151 The negotiations at Runnymede were about to begin.

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