Post-classical history

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The Rule of the King: John and His Predecessors

The structure of royal government placed formidable power in the king’s hands, both to do good and to do ill. How the ill, in the view of the king’s subjects, came to predominate is the subject of this chapter. Its focus is primarily on the rule of King John, yet his predecessors too must shoulder some of the blame. That was the view at the time. According to Ralph of Coggeshall, the barons demanded that John ‘abolish the evil customs … which both his father and brother once introduced, together with the abuses which he had added’.1


Coggeshall thus pointed the finger at Henry II and Richard I as well as John. Yet he could easily have gone further back. Immediately after his coronation in 1100, Henry I had issued a Charter abolishing the evil customs that had oppressed the kingdom.2 These, as the Charter went on to make clear, were the customs of Henry’s brother, William Rufus, and even his father, William the Conqueror. When the opposition in 1214–15 demanded that John confirm Henry’s Charter, it was not for merely symbolic reasons. It was because the Charter, in its details, covered matters that still seemed very relevant. Many of the grievances against John, therefore, had much earlier roots. The 1100 Charter, like Magna Carta, dealt with such issues as relief, wardships, marriages and the rights of widows. It also dealt with debts, wills, amercements and the royal forest, which again were all subjects of concern in Magna Carta.

Henry I certainly did not keep his promises in the 1100 Charter. Indeed, his financial exactions, as revealed in the pipe roll of 1130, were not, in real terms, far short of John’s.3 Yet Henry’s successor, his nephew Stephen, was not made to repeat Henry’s Charter on his accession in 1135. The reason was that, given Stephen’s character, his baronial background and the political situation, a charter restricting him seemed hardly necessary. With the collapse of royal power in the ensuing civil war, as Stephen was challenged for the throne by Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and then by her son, the future Henry II, individual barons concentrated on extracting charters, making concessions to themselves. A charter making concessions to the kingdom as a whole was not on the agenda.

HENRY II (R. 1154–1189)

Henry II was a bully with brains and brawn. His overriding aim in England was to rebuild royal power after its disintegration under his predecessor. That he certainly achieved. Up to a point, the way Coggeshall linked Henry, when it came to evil customs, with Richard and John was unfair. After all, in developing the legal actions of the common law, Henry did more than any king in the medieval period to create a solid base for monarchy – a base that reached out beyond the baronage to the knights and free tenants who were the main users and beneficiaries of the procedures. Magna Carta attacked many aspects of royal rule. The one thing it did not attack were the common-law assizes that Henry had introduced. Indeed, between chapters 17 and 19, it made them more available. The king was not, therefore, to be reduced to a mere feudal overlord. His justice was in demand.

There was also, around the time of Magna Carta, a feeling that things had been better under Henry. Thus the 1217 Charter, in three places, tried to put back the clock to what had been ‘customary’ in his time, customary that is when it came to the enclosure of riverbanks (chapter 20), the levying of scutage (chapter 44) and the sheriffs’ exactions in the hundred courts (chapter 42). Clearly Henry’s government had acquired a golden glow. That was understandable. The work of Thomas K. Keefe has shown that, with some exceptions, Henry placed limited financial pressure on his earls and greater barons. Keefe’s conclusion was that the contest between monarchy and baronage over administrative abuses and financial exactions which led to Magna Carta had hardly begun in Henry’s reign.4

This is not, however, the whole story. In 1173–4 Henry II faced a massive revolt against his rule.5 In some ways, this was very different from the revolt that produced Magna Carta. At its heart was a conflict between Henry, on the one side, and his sons and their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, on the other. The English barons who joined the revolt, themselves in a minority, put together no general manifesto and hoped their wrongs would be righted simply by the benevolent rule of Henry’s eldest son, also called Henry. He was known as ‘the Young King’, following his coronation in 1170 with a view to his acting as his father’s deputy in England. Yet the grievances of the earls of Chester, Ferrers, Norfolk and Leicester over claims to castles, lands and rights, and over heavy fines and amercements, were very comparable to those of the rebels of 1215. Although, moreover, Henry II had earls as leading ministers, he was reluctant to create new earldoms and refused to accept that old ones were ‘in their essence hereditary’.6 During the ‘anarchy’ of Stephen’s reign, there had been a proliferation of earldoms and the expansion of their local power. Henry was determined to put a stop to it. There were twenty-three earls at the start of his reign. By its end there were twelve, and only the earl of Chester had control of the local government in his shire. Grievances over this were still there under John. Gilbert de Gant’s claim to be earl of Lincoln, recognized by Prince Louis in 1216, went back to a grant of King Stephen that Henry II had refused to recognize.7 Royal policy with regard to earldoms was closely related to policy over castles. Here Henry’s actions, both at the start of the reign and after the 1173–4 revolt, were a major factor in shifting the ratio between royal and baronial castles from 1 to 5 in 1154 down to 1 to 2 in 1214.8Against this background, it is not surprising that Magna Carta, in chapter 52, put on the agenda the disseisins of Henry II as things to be dealt with after John returned from or decided not to go on his prospective crusade. The Articles of the Barons had gone further and demanded that those disseised by Henry should have ‘right’ without delay, by judgement of their peers, in the king’s court.9

The demands of 1215 revealed another aspect of Henry’s rule, namely his administration of the royal forest. When John, in 1215, offered to remedy the ‘evil customs’ of his father ‘by the counsel of his faithful men’, the forest would have been top of the agenda.10Everyone agreed that the extensive boundaries, which made it such a burden to wide sections of society, had been the work of Henry’s notorious chief forester, Alan de Neville. His forest eyre in 1175, partly designed as punishment for the rebellion, produced debts worth an exorbitant £12,305, far more than the total of any later eyre.11 De Neville would doubtless have claimed that he was merely restoring the bounds of the forest to their extent in 1135, before the losses of Stephen’s reign. Whether or not that was true, when the Unknown Charter in 1215 called for the deforestation of Henry II’s afforestations, it made no distinction between his restorations and creations de novo. All the areas he had brought within the bounds of the forest were to be removed from it, and thus no longer to be subject to forest law. In the liberated areas people could now hunt freely, cut down trees, erect buildings and create new arable land without fear of punishment. If implemented, the demand would have reduced the royal forest to little more than the king’s demesne woods. John evidently put up a stiff resistance to this demand, and, in Magna Carta, only conceded the immediate deforestation of his own afforestations, which were insignificant compared to his father’s.12 It was left to the Forest Charter of 1217 to return to the charge, and abolish the afforestations of Henry II once they had been established by knightly jurors.

There was, of course, one final stigma to Henry’s rule, the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in his own cathedral. This terrible event appalled Christian Europe and within three years Becket had been canonized by the pope. Henry claimed that he had no murdering intent. His words, spoken in anger, had been taken all too literally by the knights who carried out the deed. But the murder, nonetheless, seemed to encapsulate his dynasty’s capacity for rancour and malevolence, the very things John promised to forgo at the end of the Charter. If, moreover, Becket cast a shadow over the dynasty, he was a shining light for conscientious churchmen, demonstrating all the courage, endurance and ultimate sacrifice that might be necessary to protect the liberty of the church. For no one was this more true than John’s own archbishop, Stephen Langton. He enhanced the image of Becket’s murder on the seal of the archbishop, like Becket he spent his exile at the Burgundian monastery of Pontigny, and in 1220, in a greatinternational ceremony, he translated Becket’s body from its old shrine to its splendid new one in Canterbury cathedral.13

RICHARD I (R. 1189–1199)

If anyone could rescue the reputation of the dynasty, it was Henry’s successor, his son Richard. (The Young King had died in 1183.) Henry had failed to go on crusade, hence the misfortunes of his last years, thought Roger of Howden. Richard, on the other hand, both went to the Holy Land and won eternal fame there through feats of arms. For Ralph of Coggeshall, Richard had another saving grace – his ostentatious piety. He delighted in the divine office, and did not hurry through it so that he could attend to business or have a meal. He adorned his chapel with precious vestments and rewarded its choral clerks with many gifts, sometimes conducting their singing and indeed joining in with it. In Coggeshall’s view, Richard’s general treatment of the church was also commendable. He appointed suitable churchmen as bishops and abbots and did so quickly, not prolonging vacancies so he could take the revenues.14 Initially, moreover, Richard’s rule had not been financially oppressive. He had certainly raised large sums at the start of his reign, but that had been partly achieved by selling off lands and rights.

Here, however, the chronicler William of Newburgh was critical. In granting away so much, was Richard not showing a ‘lack of care’ for his kingdom? Indeed, had he not said, ‘I would sell London if I could find a suitable buyer.’15 Nowhere was Richard’s self-confident irresponsibility clearer than in his treatment of John. John was already lord of Ireland, and count of Mortain in Normandy. Richard now married him to Isabella, countess of Gloucester, whose inheritance included the lordship of Glamorgan. Richard also gave him six royal castles and total control of seven counties, so that their revenues completely disappeared from the pipe rolls. Having thus empowered John, he then provoked him. It is here that Arthur first enters the picture. Born in 1187, Arthur was Richard and John’s cousin, the son of their deceased brother, Geoffrey, by his marriage to Constance, the heiress to Brittany. On his way to the Holy Land, Richard suddenly recognized Arthur as his heir. The aim was to seal an alliance with Tancred, the ruler of Sicily, under which Arthur was to marry Tancred’s daughter. Not surprisingly, John was furious. In a series of confrontations, he overthrew William Longchamp, whom Richard had left behind as governor of England, and gained recognition as Richard’s successor. Then, when Richard, in December 1192, was captured on his way back from his crusade, eventually becoming a prisoner of the Emperor Henry VI, John announced that his brother was dead, and did homage to the king of France, Philip Augustus, for the continental dominions. Philip proceeded to overrun a large part of Normandy.

Richard finally arrived back in England in March 1194. He quickly extinguished the embers of John’s revolt, and then spent the rest of his reign on the continent. There, in warfare against King Philip, he recovered much of Normandy and reasserted authority more widely over the Angevin dominions. During this period, Richard certainly ‘cared’ for England but he cared chiefly for its money, money he desperately needed to support his continental wars. The years between 1194 and 1199 marked a significant ratcheting up in the financial demands that led ultimately to Magna Carta.

Richard’s revenue from England between 1194 and 1198, as calculated by Nick Barratt from the pipe rolls, averaged some £25,000 a year, this against a little over £23,000 averaged by Henry II in the last eight years of his reign.16 Richard’s pipe roll revenue, however, was on top of all the money he raised from England to pay his ransom to the emperor. Just how much of the £90,000 eventually handed over came from England, as opposed to Normandy and John’s other dominions is unknown, but it must have been a significant proportion of it. A tax was levied in England in 1193–4 at a quarter value of everyone’s rents and movable property. There was a precedent for this in the ‘Saladin tithe’, levied in 1188 to support the crusade proclaimed by the pope following the fall of Jerusalem the previous year, but then the rate had been a tenth. The quarter of 1193–4 was the highest rate of taxation in medieval England. The levy should obviously have raised more than the £57,000 of John’s great tax of 1207 when the rate was only a thirteenth, although the collection in 1207 may have been more efficient. One can at least be sure that if the yield from Richard’s tax could be added into his total revenues between 1194 and 1198, then it would boost their annual average to way over the £25,000 revealed by the pipe rolls.17

Richard’s ordinary revenues, leaving aside the tax, were also achieved despite a significant decline in easy money from crown land. Over the course of the twelfth century, the great stock of land in the king’s hands at the time of Domesday Book had dwindled, being given away to reward service and buy support. The results are graphically laid out in the pipe rolls where the county accounts have long lists of deductions from the farm because of ‘land given away’. The losses had been particularly severe during the turmoil of Stephen’s reign. Henry II had tenaciously retained the land that was left and indeed reversed some of the losses. Richard, on the other hand, in the great sell-off at the start of his reign, undid his father’s work ‘virtually overnight’.18 The result was that John inherited a royal demesne worth over £2,000 a year less than in 1189. Had this land still been there, it would have helped mitigate some of the grievances that led to Magna Carta. Revenue from crown land was politically uncontentious, coming from selling the crops and taking the rents of the peasants, hence the way chapter 25 of the Charter exempted the king’s demense manors from the restrictions placed on money raised above the county farms. Once the demesne was lost, the difference had to be made up by exploiting more unpopular sources of revenue.

Richard’s government had done that in ways very much reflected in the demands of 1215. Indeed, even before the meeting at Runnymede, John had volunteered to extirpate Richard’s ‘evil customs’ as opposed to offering merely to take counsel about those of Henry II.19 In 1194 Richard’s government imposed increments above the farm of many counties. This meant that the sheriffs had to account first for the farm and then an additional fixed sum, ‘the increment’, demanded above it. Such additional exactions were specifically banned in chapter 25 of the Charter. In 1198 there was an oppressive forest eyre, and a drive against widows: forty were forced to offer a total of 1,689 marks for permission to stay single or marry whom they wished. The forcing of widows into remarriage would be banned under chapter 8 of Magna Carta.20 Richard also extracted inheritance payments way above the Charter’s £100 ‘relief’ laid down for a barony: the ‘fine to inherit’ of the Gloucestershire baron Robert of Berkeley was £1,000; that of the great baronial leader in 1215, Eustace de Vescy, was 1,300 marks.21

Richard’s magnates also felt threatened by arbitrary disseisins, unjust fines and denial of justice, all things that the Charter stood against. Robert de Ros was disseised of his lands for allowing a French prisoner to escape and had to offer 1,200 marks to get them back; Walter de Lacy offered 3,100 marks to recover the king’s benevolence and seisin of his lands; the Lincolnshire lord Simon of Kyme was penalized to the tune of 1,000 marks for allowing foreign ships and merchants to depart from Boston fair in Lincolnshire.22When Roger Bigod offered King Richard 1,000 marks to succeed to the earldom of Norfolk, included in the fine was the concession that Roger’s brother, Hugh, should not be placed in any of the lands of their father save ‘by judgement of the king’s court made by his peers’. The implication was that if fortune’s wheel swung Roger down and Hugh up, then Richard might simply transfer the lands from one to the other without legal process. The matter did not end there. A few years later, Roger offered 100 marks not to be disseised of lands claimed by Hugh save by judgement of the king’s court. The offer was accepted by Hubert Walter as chief justiciar, in charge of the home government, only for Richard to intervene from overseas and bump the fine up to 700 marks.23 Richard’s disseisins remained of concern in 1215 and they were treated in the same way as those of Henry II. Thus, under the Articles of the Barons, the victims, with certain qualifications, were to secure redress without delay by judgement of their peers in the king’s court, although under chapter 52 of the Charter the issue was postponed until the termination of John’s prospective crusade.

Coggeshall gives a vivid picture of Richard in the last years of his reign. When petitioners came to court, they could glimpse him with his private entourage, affable and relaxed, enjoying games and jokes. But when they approached his presence, they found a king whose menacing glares, violent gestures and ferocious words made him seem every bit a raging lion.24 Coggeshall’s verdict of the reign was despairing:

No age can remember, no history can record any preceding king, even those who reigned for a long time, who exacted and received so much money from his kingdom, as that king exacted and amassed in the five years after he returned from captivity.25

It was in the light of Richard’s malpractices, as well as Henry’s, that John’s supporters in England, before his accession, promised the assembled earls and barons that he would restore everyone to their rights, if they accepted him as king.26


John on his accession in 1199 was very aware of his brother’s unpopularity. Indeed, eager, as he said, to abolish ‘evil customs’, he immediately reduced the excessive charges Richard had imposed ‘by will rather than reason’ for issuing charters and letters.27When John made peace with the king of France and settled an early quarrel with the Cistercians, agreeing to found what became Beaulieu abbey in Hampshire, Coggeshall thought a new age was dawning.28

It was not to be. John’s tumultuous and tempestuous quarrel with the church was a centrepiece of his reign, and had a major influence on the content of Magna Carta. Chapter 1 of the Charter set the church free. In doing so, it followed the Coronation Charter of Henry I, but it also went further. John, as testimony to his good faith, referred to another charter. This, as he said, was a charter conceding ‘the liberty of elections, which is deemed to be of the greatest importance and most necessary for the English church’. John was here referring to his charter of November 1214, which he had reissued in January 1215. It had then been confirmed by Pope Innocent III, as Magna Carta said in chapter 1.29 The liberty of elections meant that bishops should henceforth be chosen, without royal interference, by the cathedral monks or clergy, while abbots would be elected by their monks. As a result, conscientious churchmen hoped that prelates would no longer be secular-minded royal servants, but men committed to their spiritual mission. They would also, under the terms of the November 1214 charter, be elected quickly, thus dealing with a second great evil, namely the way that the king kept bishoprics and abbeys vacant so that he could take their revenues. Admittedly John, a master at qualifying his concessions, was still allowed, under the terms of the charter, to refuse consent to elections, if he could show ‘a reasonable and legitimate cause’. Nonetheless, the charter was a great triumph for the church, which was why it was confirmed in Magna Carta.

John granted his freedom of election charter in November 1214 because of immediate political pressures, as we will see. But the concession was also in partial settlement of his more general quarrel with the church. That quarrel had begun with the death of his archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, in 1205. Walter had been just the kind of archbishop that kings liked. An efficient and resourceful administrator, he had grown up in government service. He believed in reform of the church, and was the first archbishop to place Becket’s martyrdom on his seal. But he was also happy to combine the archbishopric with the justiciarship under Richard and with the chancellorship under John, the total reverse of Becket. John wanted another archbishop like him, and thought he had the man in John de Grey, bishop of Norwich. But the monks of Canterbury, the electoral body, were not unanimous in their choice, some going instead for their sub-prior. The dispute was referred to the pope, Innocent III, who, in 1206, ordained a fresh election and ensured the votes went to Stephen Langton. Langton was a professor at the University of Paris. His lectures and commentaries on the Bible, and his division of it into chapters, had built him a towering reputation. John was amazed and infuriated by the choice. University professors did not swim into his orbit very often and he did not know this one. That Langton was English (as the pope stressed) counted for little beside his lecturing for twenty years in the capital of John’s greatest enemy, the king of France. The contrast with Hubert Walter, whose learning was ridiculed but whose loyalty was absolute, could not have been more stark. The custom that the king should influence the election of the archbishop had been flouted.

John, therefore, refused to accept Langton. Henry II and Richard might well have done the same. John could not be blamed for his predicament. He was just unlucky, the victim of growing papal authority and Pope Innocent’s determination to assert it. In March 1208, with John obdurate, Innocent imposed an Interdict on England. In November 1209 he followed this up with the personal excommunication of the king:

Oh what a horrible and miserable spectacle it was to see in every city the sealed doors of the churches, Christians shut out from entry as though they were dogs, the cessation of divine office, the withholding of the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord, the people no longer flocking to the famous celebration of saints’ days, the bodies of the dead not given to burial according to Christian rites, the stink infecting the air and the horrible sight filling with horror the minds of the living.30

This was Ralph of Coggeshall’s description of the Interdict imposed on France in 1200. His comments on the much longer English Interdict were so heated that after John’s reconciliation with the church he excised them.31 The reconciliation, however, took some time in coming. John would not give way, although nearly all the English bishops went into exile, a remarkable testimony to papal authority. In retaliation, John seized the revenues of the church, making as much as £100,000 from them. The Cistercians suffered in particular. Coggeshall’s hopes for John’s reign had been utterly dashed.32 They were also dashed in another area.


At the start of his reign, in 1199, John had secured Normandy and England without difficulty. Much more problematic were Anjou and Maine, Maine being the frontier county between Anjou and Normandy, with its great city of Le Mans where Henry II had been born. In these areas, John’s nephew, Arthur, based in his mother’s province of Brittany, had much support. He was also supported by King Philip Augustus. Yet John beat off their challenge. In May 1200, by the Treaty of Le Goulet, Philip recognized his title to all the continental possessions, and accepted that Arthur should hold Brittany from John as duke of Normandy. Ralph of Coggeshall looked forward to an age of peace in which the terrible financial burdens imposed by Richard’s wars might cease.33 Later in the year, John seemed to strengthen his continental position further. That August, his union with Isabella of Gloucester having been annulled (although he kept her lands), he married Isabella of Angoulême, thus gaining possession of her strategically placed county in south-western France. Here, however, there was a difficulty, for Isabella was already betrothed to the greatest of all the Poitevin nobles, Hugh de Lusignan, count of La Marche. Receiving no compensation from John, Hugh appealed to the court of King Philip for justice. When John failed to appear to answer the charges against him, he was sentenced to forfeit all the continental possessions. In July 1202 Philip followed this up by taking Arthur’s homage for all those possessions, barring Normandy. Philip was determined to have Normandy for himself.34

At first, there seemed little likelihood of Philip making this a reality. Arthur had set off at once for Poitou, the strategic county between Gascony and Anjou, and besieged the castle at Mirebeau, where John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, now in her seventies, was valiantly upholding her son’s cause. John acted with decision. He covered the eighty miles between Le Mans and Mirebeau in forty-eight hours, and, arriving on 1 August 1202, won a comprehensive victory, capturing Arthur and the Lusignans as well.35 It was a false dawn. In 1203 King Philip conquered Anjou and Maine. In 1204 he completed the conquest of Normandy, taking Rouen on 24 June. He then went on to secure much of Poitou. John retained two great and grim castles between Tours and Poitiers, namely Chinon, defended by Hubert de Burgh, and Loches, by Gerard d’Athée, both men who were named in Magna Carta. But in 1205 these castles too, deprived of help, were captured, despite a long and determined defence. Further south, with John’s authority weakened by the death of Eleanor of Aquitaine in April 1204, King Alfonso VIII of Castile invaded Gascony. He had married Eleanor, a daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (so John’s sister), and maintained that Gascony should come to him as her dowry on Eleanor of Aquitaine’s death. It was not until 1206 that John was able to launch an expedition with the aim of reversing his losses. He managed to expel Alfonso’s forces from Gascony, and then got as far north as Angers, before retreating in the face of King Philip’s army. In October 1206 a truce between John and Philip left the latter in control of Poitiers, and all his conquests north of the Loire, so Anjou, Maine and Normandy.

In just a few years, the Angevin empire had been destroyed, thus transforming the European balance of power. Most crucial of all was the loss of Normandy itself. In terms of resources, it was by far the most valuable of the continental possessions, with revenues much the same as England’s. Its loss was not entirely John’s fault. At the level of the knightly society, the ties between England and Normandy had long been weak. In the twelfth century, of the seventy leading families in Warwickshire and Leicestershire, only seven held lands in Normandy, and all but one had lost them by 1200.36 Defending the continental possessions was also going to be far more difficult for John than for Henry II. Philip Augustus (r. 1180–1223) had a ruthlessness and political ability that his easy-going father, Louis VII (r. 1137–80), completely lacked. His supreme aim was the destruction of the Angevin empire. Henry II’s resources had dwarfed those of the French kings. By the early 1200s that was no longer the case, for French revenues had beenincreasing very fast. In terms of their total resources, the two kings John and Philip were now just about evenly matched. While, moreover, Philip’s money came from a compact royal demesne adjoining the Norman frontier (Rouen is only eighty-five miles from Paris), much of John’s had to be transported from England across the Channel.37 John had also inherited Norman defences far weaker than they had been in 1189. During Richard’s captivity, Philip had made advances in the frontier region, which Richard, for all his valour, never totally reversed. In particular, Philip held onto the mighty castle of Gisors, rebuilt by Henry II to defend the frontier along the river Epte. The French king now controlled much of the Norman county of the Vexin to the west of the river.38In order to fill the gap, Richard built his stupendous castle at Les Andelys on the Seine, which he called Château Gaillard, but this showed all too clearly that the old frontier had been lost.39

For all these problems, John should have made a much better fist of defending his empire. After all, there remained a substantial body of Anglo-Norman landholders with every interest in keeping England and Normandy together. If kingdom and duchy came under separate and warring rulers, these landholders were highly likely to lose their lands in one or the other. Of the 199 Norman tenants-in-chief in 1172, some 107, or their descendants, held lands on both sides of the Channel in 1204.40 Likewise (and the two groups overlapped) many of the greatest English barons, including the earls of Pembroke, Chester, Warenne, Arundel, Clare and Hereford had substantial interests in Normandy. John should have been able to mobilize these men to support the duchy’s defence. His failure effectively to do so was due to the speed of events, which in turn owed much to his own mistakes and conduct.

There were reasons for John’s marriage to Isabella of Angoulême, but it was a mistake, a product of arrogant over-confidence, not to conciliate and compensate Hugh de Lusignan afterwards. The same characteristics were displayed in John’s treatment of William des Roches. To William, the dominant magnate in Anjou, he owed much of his victory at Mirebeau, but he then broke his promise to take William’s advice over what to do with Arthur.41 The result was William’s defection and the unravelling of John’s hold on Anjou and Maine. This in turn undermined the loyalty of nobles in southern Normandy, who decided to throw in their lot with their neighbours in Maine and Anjou.42 Meanwhile, John’s cruel treatment of the prisoners taken at Mirebeau tarnished his reputation – and then came the disappearance of Arthur and rumours of his murder. In September 1203 Arthur’s stepfather, the ruler of Brittany, Guy de Thouars, deserted, which meant John had to divert resources to defend the Norman/Breton frontier. John also failed as a diplomat, for he was unable to maintain the alliances with the counts of Flanders and Boulogne, on which Richard had relied. John’s rule should have been most secure in central Normandy between Bayeux and Rouen, but here too he made fatal mistakes. He appointed a series of unpopular seneschals, and stationed his mercenary captain, Louvrecaire, not on the frontiers but at Falaise, where he behaved as though he was in enemy territory.43 And then finally there was John’s own personal conduct. It is surely extraordinary that when Philip began his final conquest of Normandy in the summer of 1203, John never once confronted him in the field. He made a single, half-hearted attempt to relieve the siege of Chateau Gaillard, which came to nothing. In the end he slunk out of Normandy in December 1203, like a thief in the night. He was thus not there at all when Chateau Gaillard and Rouen fell next year. John presumably calculated that he lacked the forces to put up any resistance, but this was in large part due to his own failure of nerve. The situation would have been very different under Richard.

The loss of Normandy was a watershed in John’s reign and on the road to Magna Carta. Even today, looking at where John’s charters and letters were issued before 1204 – Chateau Gaillard, Rouen, Caen, Bayeux, Le Mans, Angers, Poitiers, Chinon – one has a sense of shock at the places and the power that had been lost. John could not possibly let them go. His overriding aim became to increase his English revenues and build up the treasure needed to recover his continental possessions. The grievances he thus created were the single most important cause of the Charter. A great treasure, to buy allies and hire soldiers, was certainly necessary, for the recovery of Normandy, in particular, was always going to be problematic. King Philip was now much richer thanks to its revenues. His rule there was firmly based. He brought the duchy peace, introduced new French lords, and also provided opportunities for existing families, often of second rank.44 For his campaigns in both 1206 and 1214, John had to land far to the south at La Rochelle in Poitou. Since he had lost both Anjou and Maine to the north, he would have to advance through hostile territory merely to enter Normandy.

This raised another problem, one revealed in the demands of 1215. A significant number of barons had lost lands in Normandy in 1204. But few if any had stakes in Poitou or Anjou. If John’s campaigns were confined to those areas, as in fact they were, then those disinherited in Normandy had little to gain from them, hence the resistance to John’s campaign in 1214 and the ‘Poitevin’ scutage levied to support it. In 1215 the Unknown Charter demanded that overseas service be confined to Normandy and Brittany, so it was not to be owed for Poitou, Anjou or Gascony at all.

John also made less profit than might have been expected from the tenurial revolution consequent on the loss of Normandy. Both Philip and John quickly decided that it was impossible to serve two masters. Those Anglo-Norman landholders who remained in Normandy, subject to King Philip, thus had their lands in England confiscated by King John, and vice versa.45 Very few imitated William Marshal’s success in keeping his lordships in both the kingdom and the duchy. In his case, both kings calculated that they had more to lose than to gain from breaking with him. John, for his part, knew that to evict the Marshal from his Welsh and Irish lordships would take a major campaign, which was the last thing he wanted in 1204. Nonetheless, the Marshal’s refusal to join the 1206 expedition against King Philip showed how right John was to force the choice on everyone else. The result was that John gained a great windfall from the confiscations in England. He was careful not to use this land in any major way to compensate those who had lost their Norman estates. That, he knew, would diminish enthusiasm for the eventual campaign of recovery. Instead, he gave significant amounts to such leading servants as Geoffrey fitzPeter, Thomas and Alan Basset, William de Cantilupe and Peter de Maulay. These gifts were only held at John’s pleasure. He could revoke them at any time, as he might want to do if he was tempting Normans back into his allegiance. Nonetheless, the beneficiaries, threatened with such losses, must have had mixed feelings about Normandy’s recovery. John’s best policy might have been to retain the lands in his own hands and run them for profit, thus alleviating some measure of his financial problems. That he was unable to follow such a course suggests the weakness of his position. He needed to use the lands to consolidate his core support. In that, he set a pattern for the future. The lands of the Normans were the great bank on which kings of England drew for patronage in the thirteenth century.


In amassing his treasure, John had one great advantage over his predecessors. He could be far more hands on. Henry II had spent roughly half his reign in his continental possessions. Richard, apart from a few months in 1189 and 1194, had been entirely absent from his kingdom. John, after his return to England in December 1203, was there almost continuously for the rest of his reign, apart from campaigns in France in 1206 and 1214, in Ireland in 1210 and Wales in 1211.46 In so far as John had favourite residences in England, they were at his castles and houses in the southern half of the kingdom. In that respect he was repeating the pattern of his predecessors, going back to Anglo-Saxon times. At the top of John’s list was London, where he largely divided his time between Westminster, the Tower and (taking it over during the Interdict) the archbishop’s palace at Lambeth. Then came Winchester, Marlborough, Clarendon, on the hill above Salisbury, and Woodstock, just north of Oxford. Yet none of these locations saw John stay there for long. In his sixteen-year reign, he spent 376 days in London and only 176 at Winchester. Windsor castle saw him in residence for about a hundred days. That he had to spend two weeks there between 9 and 25 June 1215, while Magna Carta was negotiated and peace established, testified to the quite exceptional importance of the business, as it also suggests how frustrated and impatient John must have been with it.

For the most part, John’s itinerary was characterized by its ceaseless movement. In his sixteen-year reign, according to the calculations of Julie Kanter, he travelled some 79,612 miles, at an average of 12.5 miles a day. He rarely stayed anywhere long, averaging thirteen changes of location a month. Some 43 per cent of his time was spent in stays of just two or three days’ duration; only 12 per cent in stays of a week or more. Not surprisingly, as John hawked, hunted and hurried along his way, he could become separated from his slow-moving baggage wagons. Hence he was not with them in 1216 when they were lost trying to take a short cut across an estuary of the Wash.47 Although John spent the bulk of his time in the southern half of his kingdom, he knew England north of the Trent far better than any of his predecessors. He visited it in every year of his reign save the ones in which he was largely abroad. This is why Nottingham equals Windsor as his sixth most favoured residence, and also why the northerners played such a large part in the rebellion against him.48 Several of these visits were related to the affairs of the king of Scots, which also drew north John’s son, Henry III. But while Henry went straight there and back, thankful to return to his southern comforts, John took the opportunity to go on long tours of the northern counties. A life of such restless movement was unnecessary simply for the purposes of governing England. The itinerary of Henry III was far more sedentary. But that, John would bitingly have observed, was one reason why his son was so weak and poor.

John’s travelling was, as we will see, closely linked to his raising of money. In that sense it lay behind many chapters in the Charter. It was also linked to some chapters more directly. This is most obvious with chapter 17, which directed that common pleas were not to follow the court but be heard in a fixed place. Clearly for litigants to have to chase after so mobile a king must have been infuriating. The Charter also dealt with another problem created by John’s itinerary, although here not in so many words. This was the problem caused by the hawking to which the king, like many of his predecessors, was addicted.49 The place for hawking was riverbanks, where the cranes, herons and ducks that the hawks targeted were found. Indeed, the very word for hawking, in both French and Latin, derived from the word for riverbank. The king’s hawking had not been an issue under the absentee Richard. It very much was an issue under John. His near permanent presence in England and the wide areas over which he travelled exposed the country to royal hawking as never before. This was the background to chapter 47 of the Charter, which laid down that all the enclosures placed around riverbanks during John’s time were to be removed. The 1217 Charter went further and sought to restore the enclosures to their state under Henry II. The men responsible for keeping the riverbanks were also unpopular and were brought within the investigation into local government abuses commissioned by chapter 48 of the Charter.

John’s hawking also lay behind chapter 23 of the Charter limiting the obligation to build bridges at riverbanks. Bridges were a necessary adjunct of hawking because, whereas hawks themselves brought their victims back in their talons, falcons, the more prized sporting birds, knocked their prey down, making it necessary to follow with dogs to retrieve the spoil. For that, bridges were necessary. In 1214 one official was allowed 60s for the costs of making twenty bridges for the king’s hunting.50 What seems to have happened under John is that the ancient obligation to work on bridges was extended to work on the numerous temporary structures being constructed for the king’s hawking. One can imagine villagers being press-ganged to follow the king to carry out such work, much to the annoyance of their lords, hence the chapter in the Charter. The importance of the issue is seen in the way the chapter was refined at Runnymede itself. The Articles of the Barons, in chapter 11, had laid down that ‘no vill’ was to be amerced for failing to build bridges, save in places where such work was lawfully due by ancient custom. Perhaps members of the court itself, on its travels, had been amercing villages for failing in such work. In Magna Carta, chapter 23 added ‘nor man’ to ‘No vill’, thus protecting individuals as well as villages. It also dropped the reference to amercements and instead, getting to the heart of the issue, forbad enforced building of bridges altogether, save where the people were bound to it ‘from ancient times and by law’.

The issue of the riverbanks and their bridges was clearly deeply felt. It paled, however, before the grievances that arose from John’s financial policies.


John’s task in increasing his revenues was made the harder and more opprobrious by something for which he was not to blame, namely the great inflation. As we have seen, prices tripled at the start of his reign, before settling back to at least twice their former level.51 John had to run faster just to stand still. He also had to run down a bumpier track than his barons. The bulk of their income derived from land. By selling their corn surpluses they could profit from the rising market for agricultural produce. John, with a far smaller proportion of income coming from land, thanks to the alienation of royal demesne during the course of the twelfth century, could take advantage to a correspondingly smaller extent. He had to exploit his subjects instead. This was not helped by any sense that the inflation justified John’s exactions. Contemporaries were aware that prices fluctuated with the harvest, not that there was a general inflationary trend. When the Charter fixed the baronial relief at £100, it was not with any awareness that, in real terms, £100was worth half as much as twenty years before, nor that its value might be further whittled away by more inflation in the future.

In these difficult circumstances, as Nick Barratt has shown, John’s success in raising his income and getting ahead of inflation was stupendous.52 He invented no new sources of revenue. Rather, he exploited old ones to an unprecedented extent. Although a start was made in 1204, especially with the county farms (as we will see), it was from 1207 onwards that John really tightened the screw. The failure of the 1206 French campaign had shown the measure of the task and the need for enormous resources to meet it. John’s English revenues averaged £24,000 a year between 1199 and 1202, so they were less than Richard’s between 1194 and 1198 if we add in the large sums raised by the tax to pay the ransom. Coggeshall, of course, had thought Richard’s revenues utterly rapacious, but in the second half of his reign John in cash terms (and it was cash that counted in public perception) far outstripped them. If we simply take those revenues for which there is record evidence, then between 1207 and 1212 they averaged £49,000 a year, so twice as much as at the start of the reign. If we make the guess that a £40,000 tallage imposed on the Jews in 1210 produced at least £30,000 (which is not at all unlikely), then the average rises to £54,000.53 If we add in £100,000 worth of church revenues that John gained during the Interdict (itself an official figure), then the average reaches a stupendous £71,000. By 1214, John had saved up a treasure of £130,000. The income did not, of course, accrue in any average way. There was a great spike from the tax of 1207 (producing £57,000), which made the rise in ordinary revenues thereafter the more grievous. In all this, even by the £54,000 figure, John had got ahead of inflation, increasing his income in real terms compared to its level at the start of the reign. In real terms, he was making more even than Henry I in 1130, although Henry had been a king of fabled wealth, with a much higher proportion of his income flowing in effortlessly from royal land. If we include the Interdict revenues, then arguably John’s exactions, in the words of Nick Barratt, ‘represent the greatest level of exploitation seen in England since the Conquest’. Whether John was making more in real terms than Richard between 1194 and 1198, depends on the amount of money raised for the ransom. What is certain is that John’s exactions seemed even less acceptable than those of his brother. Under Richard, there was a real sense that payments towards the ransom, however burdensome, were made in a good cause. There was no good cause under John. No wonder the central thrust of Magna Carta was to restrict his revenues.54

The Charter responded exactly to the detail of John’s exactions.55 Counties were to be ‘at the ancient farms without any increment’, declared chapter 25. That meant the sheriffs would no longer have to answer for the increments above the ancient farms, worth some £713 a year, imposed by Richard in 1194.56 Chapter 25 was also designed to stop another way in which John tried to get more money from the counties. The background here was the realization that the revenue at the disposal of the sheriffs to pay the farm and increments still came to considerably more than both. One reaction would have been simply to impose additional increments, but in 1204 John tried something more ambitious. He made a considerable number of sheriffs ‘custodians’, who were to account every year for all the revenue behind the farm. As a result, between 1204 and 1212, the sheriffs owed the exchequer on average an additional £1,400 each year. The income for which the sheriff of Yorkshire accounted in 1212 was nearly double that of 1204 and treble that of 1199.57 Since the new revenue over and above the existing farms and increments was described as ‘profit’, and chapter 25 was only specific about banning increments, it has been thought that the ‘profits’ were left untouched.58 That was not the case. A sheriff who answered for profits was answering, in reality, not for any farm but for all the revenue that he received. In effect, the farm had been abolished.59 Thus when the Charter said that counties were to be held ‘at the ancient farms’, John’s profits were directly targeted. And no wonder, for they had baleful consequences for local society. Sheriffs answering for all their revenues had nothing left for their own support. John made no effort to give them salaries, as happened later. So the sheriffs made money illicitly, exploiting the ‘miserable provincials’ in ways the Charter tried to stop. They seized chattels, wood and carts, and threatened people with trial on their own unsupported allegations, without indictment by a jury, doubtless receiving bribes for letting off those accused.60

If the sheriffs were oppressive, so were the king’s judges. Their visitations of the counties produced an average of £3,680 a year for the exchequer between 1209 and 1212 as opposed to only £955 on average over each of the previous five years. When the judges came on general eyres to hear all pleas, the bulk of the money derived not from the common-law civil litigation, but from the criminal side of their jurisdiction. Here the king received the chattels of outlaws and convicted criminals, and profited from the amercements imposed on peasants and peasant communities; hence the protection over amercements offered to villeins, at the behest of their lords, in chapter 20 of the Charter. The chapter on amercements was also thinking of the special eyre staged in the autumn of 1210 with a brief to root out and punish a whole range of ‘transgressions’. The amercements were large, those of 30 to 100 marks being common.61 Whether they were imposed by the oath of ‘upright men of the neighbourhood’, as the Charter demanded, one may doubt. They surely did not meet the Charter’s criteria of matching the scale of the offence. Indeed, that the Charter used the word ‘delictum’ for ‘offence’, rather than the narrower ‘felony’ or ‘crime’, may be because it better covered the range of ‘transgressions’ punished on the 1210 eyre.62 Here John was offending an important group in society, for many of the victims were county knights who acted as jurors and local officials, the very men on whom local government depended. Wimar of Bassingbourn, for example, who was hit with an amercement of 100 marks, was a leading figure in Cambridgeshire, where he and twenty-six other knights later joined the rebellion.63

The Charter also dealt directly with the burden of the royal forest. Under chapter 47, John was immediately to deforest everything that he himself had brought within the forest’s bounds. This was not nearly as good as getting rid of Henry II’s afforestations, but was still important in some parts of the country. A Dorset jury from 1225 was to allege that John had afforested the whole of the Purbeck area around Corfe castle.64 The Charter also addressed the issue of the forest eyres. In chapter 44 only those who actually lived within the forest had to attend, unless they were connected with a plea, the point being to reduce the numbers being amerced for non-attendance.65 The forest eyres between 1207 and 1212 raised on average £1,648 a year, as opposed to averaging £487 annually in the six previous years. The total imposed between 1207 and 1210, at £8,738, was more than double that demanded between 1198 and 1201. The eyre of 1212 alone imposed penalties totalling £5,504. Here the amercements were entirely decided by the will of the king. For lower sections of society, that will might be expressed by the forest judges, but for those more important, with more to give, John could intervene directly. The abbot of Furness was thus amerced 500 marks ‘by mouth of the king’.66 The forest eyre seemed particularly oppressive in the north, where the amount owed from Yorkshire in 1212 was as much as £1,498.67 Some 300 marks of this was due from an amercement imposed on the abbot of St Albans ‘by will rather than any reason’, as he later said, this for failing to answer the summons of the judges to appear before them. Given that the abbot had no land in Yorkshire, this was precisely the abuse that the Charter sought to end.68

Even more burdensome than the royal forest were the taxes or ‘aids’ that John levied. These were paid by everyone in the country, or at least by everyone who had anything worth taxing, free and unfree alike. One tax above all made a major contribution to John’s escalating revenues after 1204, and helped provoke chapters 12 and 14 of the Charter. This was the great tax of 1207. The writ setting its collection in motion shows all too well the bureaucratic tentacles of John’s government. The tax was to be paid by ‘every layman of all England of whomsoever’s fee he may be’. No lord’s authority over his fee was thus to stand in its way. The rate was to be a thirteenth of the value of both rents and movable chattels (the latter being chiefly corn and animals), and was to be assessed by a group of ‘judges’ sent to each county. These were to write down the names of each hundred in the county, and each parish within the hundred, so that they could be sure of answering for every vill. Before the judges, and in a way they thought best suited the king’s ‘profit’, the stewards of the earls and barons were then to swear to the value of their lords’ rents and goods, while everyone one else was to swear to the value of his own. Anyone guilty of concealment or false valuation was to lose all his chattels and be thrown into prison. Having assessed the tax, the judges were to send copies of their rolls recording the results to the sheriffs, who were to collect the money. They were then to bring the rolls to the king. None of this was mere parchment talk. The great tax of 1207 produced the gigantic sum of £57,000.69

This is an official figure sent to John himself by those hearing the accounts of the tax. How it compares with the sums raised by Richard’s tax of 1193–4, the Saladin tithe of 1188 and a seventh on movable chattels that John himself raised in 1203 we do not know, for there is no record evidence. There is little sign that large sums came from John’s tax of 1203.70 The great tax of 1207, therefore, was not without precedent, but there had been nothing like it for thirteen years. No wonder the Charter insisted in chapters 12 and 14 that aids were only to be levied with the common consent of the kingdom.

The tax of 1207 hit all sections of society. The documents of 1215 also testified to how John had oppressed particular interest groups. Most important here were London and the towns. Magna Carta in chapter 12 directed that aids levied on London needed the common consent of the kingdom. The Articles of the Barons had gone further and subjected to common consent tallages as well as aids, and those levied not just on London but other ‘cities’ with liberties. The Charter, in chapter 13, protected both the liberties of London and those of ‘all other cities and boroughs, and vills and ports’. That the towns should want protection was not surprising given the large sums of money John had taken from them in the form of tallages, amercements and fines. Some of the fines were made voluntarily in order to secure privileges. Others were not. The men of the Cinque Ports had to offer 1,000 marks to recover the king’s benevolence.71 The burdens became particularly heavy after 1204. In 1208 London’s various debts were brought together in a lump sum of £1,500, which was paid off in three years. Then in 1211, London gave 2,000 marks as a gift to the king, as well as another £1,000 to clear off old debts. In 1214 came a tallage of 2,000 marks.72 London, of course, became the great seat of the rebellion against John. In the north, Lincoln and Carlisle were equally rebel bases, the former occupied by the barons, the latter by the king of Scots, Alexander II. Both towns had suffered severely from John’s exactions. From Lincoln, John after 1207 demanded some 2,750 marks in tallages, amercements and fines for his benevolence.

John also levied very heavy tallages on the Jews. In 1207 he demanded a tenth of all the debts that were owed them.73 Then in 1210 he imposed tallage of £44,000 on them.74 When payment was not immediate, the Jews were arrested and their assets seized. Roger of Wendover tells the story of Isaac the Jew of Norwich having a tooth knocked out each day until (with seven down) he agreed to pay 10,000 marks. He certainly promised to pay 10,000 marks, at a mark a day, to be released from prison.75 These pressures did not merely impact on the Jews themselves. They also impacted on their Christian debtors. It was from the latter that the Jews had to get the money to pay the king. If they failed, then the king, as he did in 1210, could take the debts into his own hands, and collect them for himself. In 1207 every Jew had to send in a list of his debtors, so John henceforth had a total view of the Jewish portfolio and his potential income from it. Just how many debts eventually came into his hands we do not know, but the numbers were certainly large. Here again John was delving down into the county society of knights and free tenants. A surviving roll of 1213, recording payments to the king from debts owed the Jews, has receipts from 71 individuals in Lincolnshire and 164 in Norfolk and Suffolk. The victims, like those in other counties, had been made to compound for their debts and were paying them off in instalments. Although the payments seem quite modest, on a knightly or less than knightly income they were still significant. The Lincolnshire knight and future rebel Peter of Beckering had to pay £2.76 Those owing Jewish debts to the king also included some of the greatest men in the land. Gilbert de Gant, for example, a leader of the rebellion in Lincolnshire, owed 1,200 marks, which in 1211 he was told to pay off in two years. On failing to keep the terms, he forfeited a 300-mark pardon and the debt went back up to 1,500 marks.77

What made this all the worse is that John apparently abolished the protection that tenants-in-chief had once enjoyed against interest on Jewish debts accruing during their minorities. This protection is implied in a charter that Richard I issued in 1190, confirming one of his father’s. It does not reoccur in the charter that John granted the Jews in 1201.78 There was, of course, no question of John paying interest or capital on Jewish debts owed by minors in his custody. But whereas before, that had just left the minor, on coming of age, to clear any debt as owed by his father, now he would have to pay all the interest which had accumulated as well. The Jewish assets from which the king might hope to profit were thus commensurately increased. This was why the Unknown Charter, in its chapter 11, followed by the Articles of the Barons and Magna Carta, sought to restore the situation to what it had been under King Richard, when it stated that no interest should accrue during a minority.79

The Charter also sought to deal with another grievance. In the past, when a debt owed the Jews was taken by the king, he expected to be paid all the interest which had accumulated down to that point.80 When, therefore, one sees a Jewish debt in the pipe rolls, the amount may well be both capital (‘the catallum’) and interest, although this is very rarely stated. In one case, an exchequer memorandum shows what this could involve. So Simon of Kyme’s debt of £1,272 was £853 in capital and £419 in interest.81 The aim of chapter 10 of the Charter was to limit the king, when he took possession of a debt, simply to the ‘catallum’. To be sure, in one interpretation of the chapter, the king’s concession is merely seen as applying to the narrow case of debt taken into his hands during a minority.82 This is because the stipulation that the king should only take the ‘catallum’ follows on immediately from the same chapter’s demand that interest on Jewish debts should not accumulate during minorities. Yet it is pretty clear that the concession was understood as applying to all Jewish debts in royal hands. Thus in 1212, eager to be conciliatory in a moment of crisis, John had ordered the sheriffs to summon before him all those who owed him Jewish debts. He wished, he said, to give them relief by henceforth only demanding the ‘catallum’. In other words he would now forgo the interest.83 How far this concession was ever implemented we do not know, but it seems almost certain that the aim of Magna Carta was to enforce it. The radicalism of the Charter’s chapter on the Jews has, therefore, been underestimated. It would have meant (as one can see from the case of Simon of Kyme) a very great reduction in the value of the Jewish debts in the king’s hands. Not surprisingly, the concession was left out of later versions of the Charter. Also removed with it was the less contentious demand that Jewish debts should not accumulate interest in minorities. Later, King Henry III renewed this concession. He never renewed the concession limiting himself just to the ‘catallum’.

These exactions made John’s government deeply unpopular with many sections of society. It was, however, the king’s tenants-in-chief who bore the heaviest burdens. They put their concerns right at the start of the Charter in the chapters that dealt with John’s exploitation of his tenurial rights. Under chapter 2, the relief of earls and barons was to be £100. John had charged Nicholas de Stuteville 10,000 marks. Under chapter 3, no relief was to be paid when a ward came of age and inherited his lands. John de Lacy, constable of Chester, had been in wardship yet in 1213 still had to agree to a fine of 7,000 marks to gain his inheritance and secure various other concessions.84 These are but the most spectacular examples of exactions that in general were way above the limits envisaged in the Charter. The same fine roll that has John de Lacy’s offer has five fines of 500 marks to enter inheritances, and one (linked to other concessions) of 2,000 marks. John’s conduct was equally at odds with the Charter’s stipulation that £5 should be the relief for a knight’s fee. Thus in 1207 he charged the Lincolnshire knight and future rebel William of Well 50 marks to inherit a single fee, although an inquiry had shown that its annual value was only £7 10s.85 Knights holding from honours in the hands of the crown were particularly vulnerable, as chapter 43 of the Charter suggests. Thomas Huscarl, another future rebel, had to offer 100 marks to inherit the three fees that his father held from the honour of Wallingford.86

John also made large amounts of money from wardships, either selling them off or running them through his own officials, hence the way chapters 4 and 5 of the Charter laid down detailed regulations to prevent the wardships being laid waste. It was such exploitation that raised no less than £1,319 from John de Lacy’s lands from just one year in the king’s hands in 1211–12. Cattle were sold off, manors were tallaged and an increment imposed above their farms.87 Similar tallages were imposed during the minority of Walter de Beauchamp of Worcester. Later, John sold this wardship to the marcher baron Roger de Mortimer for £2,000, only in 1214 to threaten to take it away if he did not keep to the terms. The Charter recognized the danger that those, such as Mortimer, who had bought wardships would lay them waste in order to pay off the king and make money for themselves. It thus added to the Articles of the Barons a whole new section, regulating the conduct of such guardians. Walter de Beauchamp would certainly have welcomed the new stipulations. While still underage, he went with John to Poitou in 1214. Fearful of what was happening to his estates, he secured an order telling Mortimer not to commit waste.88

The regulations on wardships in the Charter were related to those governing John’s treatment of the widows of his tenants-in-chief. One can see why these were necessary. In 1212 Hawisia, countess of Aumale, had to offer 5,000 marks, paying £1,000 at once, to have her inheritance, her dower and the right to stay single, all things she would have got free under Magna Carta.89 This was but the most exorbitant example of payments that under John were routine and heavier than before. In Richard’s reign there were sixty-eight fines from widows of tenants-in-chief for permission to stay single or marry whom they wished. The average value was £114. In John’s reign there were 149 fines with an average value of £185. Although John sometimes paid lip service to the principle of consent, the pressures he brought to bear on widows are clear. In 1208, he stipulated that if Avelina, widow of Osbert de Longchamp, did not wish to marry Walter of Tew (a knight of the royal household), Walter was anyway to have her inheritance. In the end, Avelina had to offer 500 marks, 100 marks more than Walter, to escape the marriage.90

Another area where John pressed down on his tenants-in-chief was that of scutage, the payment in place of military service. The Unknown Charter sought to limit it to one mark per knight’s fee. If more was wanted it had to be taken by the ‘counsel’ of the barons. Magna Carta went beyond this and achieved a blanket control over scutage. Henceforth, under chapters 12 and 14, both its incidence and its rate were to be made subject to the common counsel of the kingdom. The Charter’s demands were completely understandable. Henry II had levied eight scutages in thirty-four years; Richard had levied three in ten years; John levied eleven in sixteen years and at higher rates than before. Henry II never levied a scutage at more than 26s 8d a fee. Two of John’s scutages, in 1210 and in 1214, were at 40s. Alongside his scutages, John also demanded fines from his tenants-in-chief to avoid serving personally on the campaigns.91 And he made money in other ways. Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, one of the twenty-five barons of the security clause, paid no less than £893 between 1210 and 1212 for the privilege of paying scutage for his lifetime on only the 60 fees that he acknowledged rather than on 120 fees as John was demanding.92

When it came to the actual payment of their debts, barons, as the Dialogus de Scaccario explains, enjoyed special privileges. The sheriff informed them of the amount due, but did not collect it. Instead, a baron, or his steward, could answer directly at the exchequer. At the start of his reign, John was already tightening up the procedures here. If stewards failed to answer for the debts of their lords, they were to be imprisoned, and the money owed was to be raised from the lord’s chattels.93 Later in the reign, the screws were tightened in another way. The exchequer put a lot of work into amalgamating into one lump sum the debts owed by an individual, which had hitherto been scattered through various county accounts in the pipe rolls. It thus became easier to see the total position, and act upon it. Money from these grouped debts brought in £7,830 in 1209–10, ten times more than in 1205.94 When the debts of the earl of Clare (one of the twenty-five barons of the security clause) were brought together in 1208, they totalled £1,229. He was then pardoned £229 and told to pay off the balance in three years. If he failed he would lose the pardon.95 Another great rebel, Peter de Brus, had to liquidate his debts at £400 a year.96 John’s changing attitude to baronial debt is seen in the 2,000 marks owed by William de Mowbray. Since 1201 it had more or less slept on the pipe rolls. Then, in 1208–9, he was told to pay off the debt at £100 a year and had to find sureties (many of them later rebels) guaranteeing that he would do so. For the next two years he more than kept the terms.97

These pressures squeezed under-tenants as well as tenants-in-chief. Indeed scutage could hit the former more heavily than the latter. Although not always easy to collect, a baron, if he paid scutage, had the right to recoup it from his undertenants. If he campaigned personally, as many did, and was thus exempt, he could take a scutage from the tenants who did not accompany him. When it came to his debts, a baron might be allowed to levy an aid on his tenants to help pay them. A large debt, like Mowbray’s, also fanned out its burdens through the system of sureties.98 The long lists of such guarantors are a striking feature of John’s fine rolls. No wonder chapter 9 of the Charter sought to protect them. The same chapter sought to regulate the processes of distraint. The records of the exchequer show just how routine this was, with the clerks just putting the letter ‘D’ against the debts that were to be subject to it.99 One may be sure the sheriffs were far from observing the orderly process, set out in the Charter, by which they were to distrain on the chattels and then the lands of the principal debtor, before turning to the assets of the sureties. There was certainly nothing orderly about the way John pounced on the chattels of deceased tenants-in-chief, on the pretext that they had owed him money, a practice which chapter 26 of the Charter tried to prevent.100 On Roger de St John’s death, leaving a minor as his heir, he owed nothing at all to the crown, but the sheriff still seized £35 of his chattels.101 When Gilbert Basset, lord of Bicester, died, although his exchequer debts were trivial, John made £365 by seizing his money and selling his chattels.102

However much John depended on his ministers, he was very active in raising his own money. One reason why he travelled so frenetically and extensively was to seek out those who might give money voluntarily for favours, or involuntarily for forgiveness. The resulting bonanza is recorded in the fine rolls. In 1199–1200, at the start of his reign, John went on a great tour of the kingdom, taking in the north, and in the process he extracted fines worth some £41,000. This total was never approached again, but the annual sums offered thereafter were still substantial: in 1204–5, £18,000; in 1207–8, £22,000.103 Given that John’s revenue at the start of his reign averaged some £24,000 a year, one can see just how significant these fines were. The money did not come in at once, and the fines of 1199–1200 provided a revenue stream for years to come. John was very involved in the process of collection. The exchequer’s records show him being consulted again and again about the treatment of individual debts.104 He could draw them in simply to make money. He could postpone or pardon them as a form of favour. He could foreclose on them as a form of punishment. They were monarchy’s greatest asset as a source both of revenue and of political control. They were also its greatest danger. The rebellion of 1215 was ‘a rebellion of the king’s debtors’.105


We saw in the last chapter how the development of the common-law legal procedures were a threat to baronial courts and jurisdictions. There was nothing the barons could do about that when it came to the two most popular of those actions, novel disseisin and mort d’ancestor. On the contrary, they were made more available in the Charter. But the barons did do something about another threat, namely that posed by the writ ‘precipe’. Chapter 34 of the Charter banned the issue of the writ if it might cause a free man to ‘lose his court’. The beneficiaries here – free men – theoretically covered a large group, but the essence of the chapter (as a later comment on it said) was to protect the courts of ‘magnates’.106 In the form found in Glanvill the writ ‘precipe’ was addressed to the sheriff, and told him to ‘command’ – ‘precipe’ – A to return land to B, which B complained A was withholding from him. If A did not, then he was to be summoned before the king or his judges to justify his inaction. The expectation was that A would not comply, so this was a way of moving the case into the king’s court. The lord’s court was thus bypassed in cases where it would otherwise have been the forum, so where A and B held from the same lord, or where A was the lord himself. It is difficult to believe that the chapter in Magna Carta was simply there to spare lords the bother of resorting to the procedure (which did exist) for the recovery of their courts in such circumstances. Rather, it suggests a much deeper resentment at the way the writ had been used under John to encroach on lordly jurisdiction. When Bracton said that while actions of right could be brought in the king’s court, ‘it ought not to happen against the will of lords, as used to be done by precipe’, it was referring back to the situation before 1215. Around forty writs of precipe were purchased from the king in the pipe roll of 1203–4, some of them covering issues other than the right to land. Large numbers were also purchased in 1213–4.107

In the development of the common law there was, of course, a great opportunity for kingship. If the new procedures threatened the barons, they delighted the knights and free tenants. By expanding the common law and making it more available, John could win such groups to his cause and undermine his baronial opponents. Yet, in a crucial period of his reign, instead of playing this strongest card, John threw it away. Between 1209 and 1214 he virtually shut down both the judicial bench at Westminster and the eyres in the counties, apart that is from the punitive eyre in the autumn of 1210.108 Probably John was worried about rival centres of authority during the Interdict and wanted everything under his control. He thus decided that common pleas were now to follow his person and be heard by the court coram rege. However much John tried to ease the path of litigants, the condemnation in chapter 17 of Magna Carta is sonorous and decisive. It tells us all we need to know about the unpopularity of the policy. Common pleas henceforth were not to follow the king’s court but were to be heard in a fixed place. This meant they were to be heard either before the bench or before the king’s justices in the localities. The latter, under chapter 18, were to visit each county four times a year to hear the assizes, with four knights of each county elected in the county court. John recognized the importance of knights and free men. In 1213 he summoned four knights from each county to come before him at Oxford.109 But he had failed to conciliate such groups by offering them his justice. Had he done so consistently over his reign, he might well have fended off the rebellion of 1215.


In the minds of John’s subjects, his financial exactions were intimately linked to another failure as king, namely his manipulation, sale and denial of justice.110 ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice’, John promised in chapter 40, the shortest and most emphatic in the Charter. John’s fine and pipe rolls have numerous offers of money to secure ‘justice’, ‘judgement’ and other favours in law cases. Some of these, smallish in size, were for no more than hurrying things along, and were pretty innocuous. They were little different from the routine offers of a mark or two for the writ ‘pone’, which gave a ‘place’ for the hearing of a case before the king, the justices of the bench at Westminster or the justices in the localities. There were thirty-three such offers on the fine roll of 1207–8. But other fines were for much larger sums and effectively were bribes.111 Justice seemed to depend not on what was just but on what one could pay. Robert of Berkeley offered 100 marks, in an unspecified case, ‘to have his reasonable judgement by his peers’, and Maurice de Gant 100 marks for the king to ‘help him to have his right in those things which he claims’.112 Gilbert de Gant followed up the purchase of a writ to begin his action against Agnes de Rupe, with an offer of 100 marks for ‘judgement’ in the case. John was very ready to accept competing offers. The great debt of William de Mowbray had itself arisen from a fine of 2,000 marks ‘to be treated justly according to the custom of England’ in a lawsuit being brought against him by William de Stuteville. Mowbray needed to bid high because Stuteville had himself offered £2,000 for, among other things, ‘right’ in the case.113 The Anonymous of Béthune described Mowbray as ‘most valiant’ but ‘as small as a dwarf’. His small frame must have seethed with indignation at his treatment by King John. In the event, Mowbray was forced into an unfavourable settlement and still had, as we have seen, to pay the money.114 It was equally possible to give money simply to stop a case and thus in effect deny justice to one’s opponent. Gerard de Furnivall promised a cool £1,000 to end the lawsuit that Nigel de Luvetot was bringing against him.115 One could also promise a win bonus. In 1199 William de Briouze, seeking to make good claims to Totnes in Devon, offered ‘£100 if he lost, 700 marks if he won’.116

The grievances of barons over the administration of justice were related to a fundamental difference between the treatment of their cases and the treatment of the cases of the general run of the free population. The litigation of the latter, according to the forms of the common law, went through, for the most part, quickly and cheaply. The king had scant interest in the general run of cases, for they had no political bearing. Here, if he interfered, which was rarely, he might well be influenced by abstract considerations of justice and even of ‘pity’.117 Nor, on the whole, did he exploit such cases for profit. The routine writs initiating the procedures cost 6d. The amercements (unlike those on the punitive eyre of 1210) were usually of reasonable size. It was quite different for barons. The earl of Clare had to give the king £100 for a writ of mort d’ancestor.118 Even worse, when barons were litigating against each other over land held in chief from the king, the venue had to be the court that followed the king, the court coram rege. This was presided over by professional judges. When common-law business came before them, they could give judgements in the normal way, following the verdict of local juries, although getting such juries before the itinerant court was always a struggle. In important cases between tenants-in-chief, by contrast, it seems probable (although evidence here is sparse) that the king himself and any others he summoned would be present, at least at key sessions. The king’s aim, in such cases, might simply be to drag them out. Hence the need to make offers to secure justice and judgement, and the way in which chapter 40 forbad the deferral of justice. If there was a conclusion, it might take the form of a settlement, and not necessarily a fair one. If there was a judgement, the court might give it, perhaps after the verdict of a jury from the neighbourhood of the land in dispute, or perhaps having itself weighed the case so that verdict and judgement were effectively rolled into one.

Cases between barons, therefore, were directly subject to the will of the king. Although a writ became available during John’s reign (‘precipe in capite’), which enabled such litigation to be commenced, it certainly did not then run through according to the set forms of the common law.119 Justice before the king was inseparable from politics, patronage and profit. It was subject to all kinds of delays and manipulations. Even when, as could happen, litigation coram rege seems to have been decided according to law, there was usually a political subtext. It was surely to discipline a baron with whom he was increasingly at odds that Robert fitzWalter, in a case involving rights over Binham priory, was condemned to pay damages to St Albans abbey. Sometimes, in the litigationcoram rege, John’s hand is very clear. In a dispute over possession of Caldbeck in Cumberland, he accepted offers of £136 from Alexander of Caldbeck and £306 from Robert de Courtenay. Alexander knew he was beaten, and told the judges that he was no longer seeking a jury to decide the case, ‘because it did not please the king that he should have it’. That was the end of the matter. If John could stop cases, he could also start them. In 1212, in order to bring pressure to bear on Geoffrey fitzPeter and his son Geoffrey de Mandeville, he encouraged Geoffrey de Say to began an action for their Mandeville inheritance. Just how directly John was involved here is shown by his personally providing the court with the names of Say’s attorneys.

When chapter 40 of the Charter said that the king was not to sell, deny or delay justice, it was thinking above all of how he had treated his tenants-in-chief. When chapter 39 said that no one was to be deprived of property or otherwise punished ‘save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’, the implication was that judgement by peers should be the proper procedure in the court coram rege. Robert of Berkeley was making the same point in his fine to have ‘his reasonable judgement by his peers’. His aim was both to ensure there was judgement and to prevent its being given by a court packed with household knights and ministers, as nearly happened to William Marshal on one occasion.120 The desired link between the court coram rege and judgement by peers was also shown in chapter 25 of the Articles of the Barons, which stipulated that those disseised unjustly by Henry and Richard should receive ‘right’, ‘by judgement of their peers in the court of the king’. Likewise under Magna Carta, chapter 59, King Alexander (as a baron of England) was to receive judgement by his peers in the king’s court when it came to deciding the merits of John’s claims against him.

A complicating factor in cases where barons were seeking justice was that they often stemmed from, or were related to, acts of injustice, or perceived injustice, by the king himself. Thus Maurice de Gant’s fine was also to have justice concerning ‘his rights’, which were in the king’s hands.121 One type of right that John denied concerned earldoms. He refused to accept that they were necessarily hereditary. Even men he acknowledged as earls were sometimes denied the traditional annual payment associated with their office (known as ‘the third penny’) from the revenues of the counties from which they took their title. That payment was not worth much, but it nonetheless carried prestige. John gave it to Saer de Quincy for Hampshire, when making him earl of Winchester, but not to Earl David for Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. An inquiry of 1205 into whether David ought to have the third penny led to nothing. It was only in 1215 itself, in a bid to retain his support, that John gave way to David on the issue.122 Even worse off were the de Vere earls of Oxford, or earls as they thought they should be. Aubrey de Vere had entered his inheritance in 1194. It was another ten years before he was recognized as earl of Oxford, this after offering John 200 marks for the favour. The offer was also in order to have the third penny of the county, but the third penny never properly materialized. On Aubrey’s death in 1214, his brother Robert had to offer the king 1,000 marks to enter the inheritance, but this did not include the earldom. It was only at Runnymede that the earldom and the third penny were conceded. Equally aggrieved was Geoffrey de Mandeville, son of Geoffrey fitzPeter, John’s chief justiciar and earl of Essex. After his father’s death in 1213, Geoffrey complained that John had neither invested him with the earldom nor given him the third penny of the county.123

In all this one needs to be fair to John. Henry II and Richard had been sticky over earldoms and had equally accepted offers of money for justice. Under John, however, thanks to his presence in the kingdom, legal actions before the court coram rege played a part in baronial life that they had never done under Richard, when there had been no such court in England. If this made the king’s justice more accessible, it also subjected litigation all the more to the royal will. To be fair again, cases between great men, quite apart from their political ramifications, could be highly complex. In tangled webs of family history and royal intervention, stretching back over generations, it was often difficult to see where right did actually lie. There was also an element of hypocrisy about the offers of money. Those making them wanted not justice but victory, yet when victory was not obtained, they complained of injustice. John’s problem was that he sacrificed his reputation as a righteous judge without any commensurate political benefit. His manipulation of justice had created far more enemies than friends. His division of the Percy inheritance, fair or unfair, and its accompanying litigation, won him the loyalty of William de Percy, but this was far outweighed by the alienation of William’s uncle, the great Yorkshire baron Richard de Percy, who was to play a leading part in the rebellion and become a member of Magna Carta’s twenty-five.124 Worse still, John’s intervention in lawsuits often failed to secure the loyalty of either party. William de Mowbray and Nicholas de Stuteville (William de Stuteville’s heir), Gerard de Furnivall and Nigel de Luvetot, Geoffrey de Say and Geoffrey de Mandeville all joined the rebels. Robert fizWalter’s treatment in his action against St Albans was one factor in his rebellion, yet at St Albans the king was regarded much like rat poison.


Offers of money for right and justice at least implied there were standards of conduct that the king acknowledged. But there were other areas, as the Charter indicated, where John’s rule seemed to move entirely to the motions of his will. One of these, deeply resented, was the taking of hostages. Under chapter 49, John was to restore all hostages taken as ‘security for peace or faithful service’. The taking of hostages was an old practice, but under John it became almost a system of government – government by hostage. In 1208, fearful that the pope would absolve his subjects from their allegiance, John, according to Roger of Wendover, demanded hostages from all those he suspected of disloyalty.125 He took a fresh round of hostages after the plot against him of 1212. One of those targeted, Earl David, was summoned to a council in 1214 ‘as you love your hostages and whatever you hold of the king’.126 The sensitivity and seriousness of the issue is seen in the space devoted to it in the History of William Marshal. It described in detail how John successively demanded as hostages the Marshal’s eldest son, his second son and then five knights, including John of Earley, several of whom were harshly treated in captivity.127

Another feature of John’s arbitrary rule was the exaction of fines to assuage his anger and recover his good will. In the 1207–8 fine roll, the total offered under this heading was £5,580. This came from twelve individual fines, which had hit barons, churchmen, towns and local society. The men of Cornwall offered 200 marks; the disgraced sheriff of Hampshire, Roger fitzAdam, offered 1,000 marks, with over 700 local men acting as his pledges.128 The amounts actually paid in to the exchequer from such fines ‘rose dramatically’ in the second half of the reign, totalling in 1209, £2,252, in 1210, £3,414 and in 1211, £2,731.129 To be fair, such fines were not unprovoked. Usually the offences were unspecified, but the victims had obviously done things to incur the king’s wrath, and kings had to be good punishers. The 1,200-mark fine of Roger de Cressy, later a leading rebel in East Anglia, was for marrying an heiress without the king’s permission.130 Whether, however, the amounts involved were reasonable or reasonably imposed was another matter. The Charter had such penalties in mind when it laid down that John was to forgive all fines made with him ‘unjustly and against the law of the land’.

There was a close link between these fines and chapter 21 on amercements. When it came to amercements, earls and barons were particularly subject to the king’s will. Their litigation against each other had to take place in the court coram rege, where of course the king could in practice impose whatever amercements he liked. If, on the other hand, a baron was convicted of an offence before the king’s judges in the counties, then the custom before 1215 was for the amercement to be imposed by the chief officials of theexchequer.131 Given that these included such royal henchmen as Peter des Roches and William Brewer, such amercements were essentially determined by the will of the king. Some baronial amercements were hefty. The great northern rebels Eustace de Vescy and Robert de Ros suffered ones of 300 marks; the earl of Clare’s amercement for a disseisin was 500 marks.132 It is perfectly true that such amercements were often pardoned in whole or in part by the king. Some from the start were reasonable in size. But the threat of arbitrary punishment was always there; hence the need to offer fines for the king’s benevolence to escape such punishment. One can see this happening in the case of Ruald fitzAlan, the constable of Richmond in Yorkshire. He gave 200 marks to escape the amercement coming his way for refusing to cooperate with the 1207 tax.133 It was this threat which the Charter sought to remove when it said that earls and barons should be amerced by their peers, which meant amerced by themselves. That this was the same as being amerced by ‘the barons’ of the exchequer, as the chief officials there were called, would have been fiercely denied.

Fines for the king’s grace were also prompted by acts of arbitrary disseisin, or dispossession. Thus the Gloucestershire baron Robert of Berkeley had to offer 2,000 marks ‘to have his lands and his castle of which he was disseised because of the benevolence of the king’, ‘benevolence’ here, of course, meaning lack of benevolence.134 Like the chapter on amercements, chapter 39 of the Charter, forbidding disseisin save by judgement of peers, or otherwise by the law of the land, was thus intended to remove the threat behind such fines for the king’s grace. It was also dealing with one of the most fundamental characteristics of John’s rule. As Henry Summerson writes, ‘disseisin had become a well-nigh automatic reaction on the part of the king and his agents to any misdeed or suspicious act which came to their attention’.135 In 1204 John issued orders for the seizure of the lands of Ranulf, earl of Chester, suspecting him of dealings with the Welsh ruler Gwenwynwyn of Powys. At the same time the king disseised the northerner Roger de Montbegon (one of Magna Carta’s twenty-five barons in the security clause) for failing to come to court. Next year it was the turn of another northerner, also a member of the twenty-five, Robert de Ros.136 In 1207 John’s first move against Ruald fitzAlan was to seize Richmond castle. In the fine roll of 1207–8 there are thirteen fines made to recover land seized into the king’s hands, probably by similar acts of will. Occasionally, John even admitted his lawless conduct. In 1213 he ordered Geoffrey de Lucy to be restored Newington in Kent if disseised of it ‘simply by our will’ rather than by ‘the judgement of our court’. Ten years later a jury stated that Geoffrey had indeed been disseised of all his lands ‘because the king was angry with him’.137

Sometimes disseisin was the consequence of indebtedness. When Nicholas de Stuteville had to offer 10,000 marks so he could succeed to the lands of his brother, John retained the castles of Knaresborough and Boroughbridge as security for payment. Given the impossibility of paying such a sum, possession of the castles had been John’s object in the first place. The Stutevilles regarded this as an act of arbitrary disseisin.138 John de Lacy, having agreed to pay 7,000 marks for his inheritance, must have regarded John’s retention of Pontefract and Donington castles in the same light. Equally blatant was the way John confiscated the honour of Trowbridge from Henry de Bohun, earl of Hereford, on a cleverly arranged legal technicality, and ignored his efforts to recover it. John then allowed William Longespee, earl of Salisbury, who had hitherto made little progress in his lawsuit for the honour, to simply take it over. Henry’s son later described this as disseisin ‘by will and without judgement’.139 It was precisely such disseisins of lands, castles, liberties and rights, made ‘without lawful judgement of peers’, that John promised to correct under chapter 52 of the Charter. Under its terms nearly half the twenty-five barons of Magna Carta’s security clause recovered lands and rights, including Bohun, who regained Trowbridge.140

Great barons were not the only victims of arbitrary disseisin. Knights who held from honours in the king’s hands were equally vulnerable, as they were also when it came to relief, scutage and military service.141 William fitzEllis, a tenant of the honour of Wallingford, had been amerced 20 marks for swearing a false oath on a jury.142 This was not his only grievance. At Runnymede itself he was restored to the manor of Oakley, having complained that John had disseised him ‘by will without judgement’.143 The fall of a lord often meant trouble for his dependants and followers. When John deprived Earl David of Godmanchester in 1212, he disseised David’s tenants in the manor.144 Likewise, when John turned on Roger de Cressy, he seized the lands of his associate, the knight William fitzRoscelin. William protested his innocence, but still had to offer 60 marks and a good hawk to get his lands back.145 How the king’s will penetrated into the county courts is shown in a Somerset case from 1204. There the sheriff was informed secretly of the king’s order to arrest and imprison a clerk present in the court. When the sheriff tried to do so, he was resisted by the county knights on the grounds that there should be no arrest ‘without judgement’.146

Arbitrary disseisin was hardly invented by King John. The Articles of the Barons and Magna Carta were also concerned with the disseisins of Henry II and King Richard. The Charter adjourned their consideration until John completed or abandoned his prospective crusade.147 It was John’s own disseisins that cried out for immediate remedy, and remedied they were to be under chapter 52, while chapter 39 sought to prevent such actions in the future. These two chapters were among the most important in the Charter. They sought to end the king’s arbitrary rule.


John’s government was not merely unpopular for what it did. It was also unpopular because of the men who did it. John’s agents, or at least some of them, were loathed because of their ruthless conduct. They were also envied because of their rewards. Yet such men often stood in fear of the king, and felt they had been poorly treated, receiving less than their just deserts.

The lay counsellors whom John listed at the start of the Charter were not very different from the kinds of men employed by his predecessors, under whom, indeed, many had begun their careers. Of the laymen listed, there were four earls, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, William Longespee, earl of Salisbury (an illegitimate son of Henry II), William de Warenne, earl of Surrey (although usually styled, as in the Charter, earl of Warenne), and William d’Aubigné, earl of Arundel. There then followed, after Alan of Galloway, constable of Scotland, eleven men, many of them from knightly backgrounds. Several had begun their careers as household knights. Several came from families with long traditions of royal service: Warin fitzGerold, first of the eleven, had followed his brother and father in the hereditary position of chamberlain of the exchequer; Hugh de Neville, John’s chief forester, was the grandson of Henry II’s chief forester, the odious Alan;148 Hubert de Burgh and Thomas and Alan Basset, like William Marshal, were younger sons who had started out with their fortunes to make. Ties of family were evident within the group. Thomas and Alan Basset were brothers, so were Peter and Matthew fitzHerbert. John Marshal was the illegitimate son of William’s older brother. There were also ties of faction. William Marshal was close not just to John Marshal, but also to the Bassets.149 If only we knew more about the sleeping arrangements in the halls and chambers used by the courtiers, we would probably see such ties mapped out in the sharing of space and beds. None of this worried John. He took such groupings for granted and manipulated them to his advantage, placating or punishing a great minister through the treatment of his men.

The Charter shows John’s counsellors at court, but they equally acted on the king’s behalf in the localities as castellans and sheriffs. Indeed, of those named at the start of the Charter, the earls of Pembroke and Salisbury, Hubert de Burgh, Peter and Matthew fitzHerbert, Thomas Basset, Robert of Ropsley, John Marshal and John fitzHugh had all been sheriffs, sometimes for long periods and in clusters of counties. Such men did not run their counties personally. They employed under-sheriffs to do that. But they wielded great local power, partly because of their direct line to the king, partly because they were usually allowed to keep the money that they could raise above the farm. They thus had plenty of resources to garrison royal castles and hire troops to sort someone out. The lay counsellors whom John names at the start of the Charter, however, were not in general among his most hated officials. Only four of them appeared in Roger of Wendover’s list, thirty-two strong, of the king’s evil ministers: the earl of Salisbury, Hugh de Neville (not surprisingly since he is named as chief forester) and bringing up the rear, Thomas Basset and Peter fitzHerbert (a marcher baron through his father’s marriage).150 Salisbury, Basset and fitzHerbert would have been indignant at their inclusion. All were praised in theHistory of William Marshal. FitzHerbert demonstrated the best chivalric standards when, in a tense episode at court, he refused to sit next to ‘the traitor who has failed his lord’, referring here to a knight who had let down William Marshal. Thomas Basset, from an old local family, took several Oxfordshire knights into his service during his long stint as sheriff of the county.151 The Marshal’s own absence from Wendover’s list suggests that others took him at his own valuation, or at least knew of his quarrels with John.152Another of the king’s counsellors at the start of the Charter, Philip d’Aubigné, was later to win fame as a crusader.153

The picture of relative respectability is not very different if we glance at John’s judges.154 The same men can be found at different times sitting in the court at Westminster (the bench), the court coram rege, and the courts on eyre. Seventeen feature with sufficient frequency to be regarded in some way as professional judges. Only two appear in Wendover’s list, Geoffrey fitzPeter, who as chief justiciar frequently presided at the bench and coram rege, and William Brewer. Both feature not so much for being judges as for their more general roles in John’s government. Brewer was a baron of the exchequer and a highly unpopular sheriff of Somerset and Dorset. When the men of the two counties offered money to have a local man as sheriff, they added ‘except William Brewer’. Later, in the minority of Henry III, Brewer was to argue that Magna Carta was invalid as having been extracted from the king by force.155 The majority of the judges achieved nothing like this prominence or unpopularity. They were mostly laymen, from knightly backgrounds, who had learnt their law in local administration, or occasionally as pleaders and attorneys in the courts. Several had entered the king’s service through connections with great ministers like fitzPeter or Hubert Walter. The judges were not particularlyclose to John and received limited rewards. Some, as we will see, joined the rebels. They were certainly out to make as much money as possible for the king from the criminal pleas, but their treatment of civil pleas, when great men were not involved, may well have been according to the rules and standards found in Glanvill. It was John himself who was responsible for the manipulation and sale of justice.

What then was wrong with John’s ministers? In the list of his episcopal counsellors at the start of the Charter, one name stands out, like a lighthouse flashing danger: the name of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester. Peter came from the Touraine, and was probably related to the Anjevin magnate, William des Roches, whom John cast off with such disastrous results in 1202.156 Des Roches began his known career under King Richard, and went straight on into John’s service, in 1205, being made bishop of Winchester. John knew his man:

The warrior of Winchester

Presides at the exchequer

Indefatigable at accounting

Indolent at the scripture

Revolving the king’s roll.

Thus ran one lampoon.157 This was unfair. Des Roches was an enthusiastic founder of religious houses, but he was also at the heart of John’s financial policies, and was the one bishop to remain at the king’s side during the Interdict. Magna Carta did not explicitly demand his removal from the justiciarship, but his removal was soon to follow.

Des Roches was also intimately connected with the one group of ministers whom the Charter, in its chapter 50, did dismiss, laying down indeed that they were henceforth to hold no bailiwicks in England.158 These were the kinsmen of Gerard d’Athée, of whom no fewer than eight were named, the most prominent (both featuring with Gerard on Wendover’s list) being Engelard de Cigogné and Philip Marc.159 Gerard himself (who was dead by 1215) was, like des Roches, from the Touraine. (Athée-sur-Cher and Cigogné are both within fifteen miles of Tours.) After his capture at Loches, John ransomed Gerard (using 1,000 marks from the fine of the Cinque Ports) and brought him to England.160 There he can be found at court (glimpsed going into John’s chamber in the History of the Marshal), but his pre-eminent role, like that of his kinsmen, was in the localities. When the Charter said that Gerard’s crew were to be dismissed ‘from their bailiwicks’, it was thinking above all of their sheriffdoms, castles and other custodies. In the Welsh marches, Gerard played a key role in bringing down William de Briouze. With his hands full there, in 1208 he passed on the custody of Nottingham castle and the sheriffdom of Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire to Philip Marc. He passed on Bristol castle and the sheriffdoms of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire to Engelard de Cigogné. When the king’s judges visited Gloucestershire in 1221, they discovered that Gerard and Engelard had heard pleas of the crown (forbidden by Magna Carta) and had pocketed around 385 marks in a whole series of extortions.161 The exactions of the clerk Matthew de Cigogné from various religious houses ‘through the violence and multiple oppression of Engelard de Cigogné, sheriff of Gloucestershire, his brother’, called forth a protest in 1213 from Archbishop Langton himself.162 None of this mattered much to John. Engelard and Gio de Cigogné (another brother, this one named in the Charter) had arrested and seized the chattels of two Gloucestershire knights because they ‘had spoken ill of King John’.163 That was why they were in office.

The contempt in which Gerard’s family were held is seen in the Charter’s demand for them to be dismissed ‘and all their following’, the word here for ‘following’ – ‘sequela’ – being often used for the families of peasants.164 Such contempt is equally seen in the way neither the Articles of the Barons nor the Charter were bothered by the precise names of the lesser members of the group and seem indeed to have named one man twice over.165 The presence of such officials explains very well the desire in the counties to have local men as sheriffs. It explains too the demand in the Charter’s chapter 45 that sheriffs should know and mean to observe the law of the kingdom, or as the Articles put it more potently, the law of the land. No one could say Gerard and his lot knew that.166

Perhaps because they were foreign, and complete outsiders, only Gerard’s ‘following’ were actually dismissed in the Charter, but there were others hardly less unpopular. Wendover listed two of John’s great agents in the north, Philip of Oldcoates, from 1212 the sheriff of Northumberland, and Brian de Lisle, who held Knaresborough, Boroughbridge and the Peak. Wendover also named the knights Robert and Henry of Braybrook, a father and son team, who were in succession sheriffs of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire-Buckinghamshire. Neither was particularly close to the king, but they raised large sums of money from their counties as profits for the exchequer. It was to men like them, rather than courtier sheriffs, that John turned to execute his profits policy. As sheriffs, they might be less effective in standing up to great barons, and governing a county in times of storm, than Philip Marc or Engelard de Cigogné (who were allowed to keep the profits), but they were perfectly able to raise the sums from the general run of the population on which the profits depended.

John’s men were thus unpopular for what they did. They were also envied for what they received. The king had a great deal to give, as the Charter showed. There were the wardships, and marriages of heirs, heiresses and widows, dealt with between chapters 4 and 8. Among those named at the start of the Charter, both William Marshal and William Longespee owed their earldoms and estates to marriages to great heiresses. At a lesser level, Hugh de Neville gained an heiress from King Richard, as did Robert of Ropsley from John.167 ‘No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband,’ said chapter 8 of the Charter. Well yes, but Warin fitzGerold and Hubert de Burgh had both profited from marrying widows, who were also heiresses.

Aside from wardships and marriages, the king could give patronage from land that had come into his hands, such as the honours in chapter 43 of the Charter. Alan Basset thus obtained Mapledurwell in Hampshire and what became Berwick Bassett in Wiltshire, manors forfeited by Adam de Port for treason back in 1171.168 Servants could also be fed both from the lands of the Normans, as we have seen, and from the royal demesne manors mentioned in chapter 25. Despite its depletion over the previous century, John was still prepared to make grants from the royal demesne in hereditary right, although usually in return for a money rent. It was on such terms that John gave High Wycombe to Alan Basset and Headington to Thomas Basset, placing these trusties astride the strategic road between London and Oxford.

While not accepting that they were necessarily hereditary, John could be generous when it came to earldoms. At the start of his reign he recognized the claims of William Marshal, William de Ferrers and Henry de Bohun to respectively the earldoms of Pembroke, Derby and Hereford. In a new creation, in 1207 he made Saer de Quincy earl of Winchester. There was also more to royal favour than just outright gifts. It could ease a man’s passage in lawsuits, and in many other areas. ‘It is just that we do better for those who are with us than those who are against us,’ John remarked in one letter.169 With his cynical political intelligence, he understood very well the need for the carrot as well as the stick. There was never, however, too much carrot. John acted in the spirit of his grandmother, the Empress Matilda, whose counsel for training men was the same as for training hawks: keep them hungry.170 Patronage had to be earned. John gave his household knights robes and their maintenance at court, but not regular salaries.171 Those starting off, like Godfrey of Crowcombe, had to serve in hope of reward, and work their passage towards grants of lands, usually at first held not in hereditary right but at the king’s pleasure.172

With his great barons too, John kept things back, even from those for a while in his favour. He did not acknowledge Saer de Quincy’s claim to the castle of Mountsorrel nor William Longespee’s to the castle of Salisbury. When becoming earl of Derby, William de Ferrers had to resign claims to cherished parts of the Peverel inheritance. Henry de Bohun, on becoming earl of Hereford, had to resign claims to the inheritance of Miles of Gloucester.173 In some cases John had done enough. The patronage received by the earls of Pembroke, Chester and Derby was at least a factor in their remaining loyal, although with Derby it was a close-run thing.174 On the other hand, John’s treatment of the earls of Salisbury, Winchester and Hereford (in Hereford’s case culminating in the confiscation of Trowbridge) were among the reasons for their rebellion. There were other barons, of course, such as William de Mowbray, who had seen none of John’s favour. They were simply harried to pay debts, and denied, as they thought, right and justice. It was easy, moreover, to feel appalled at some of those who did receive John’s patronage. Take the case of Peter de Maulay. He came from the border country between Poitou and the Touraine, and was another of Peter des Roches’s protégés featuring on Wendover’s list.175 The terms in which he is described by the Anonymous of Béthune show baronial astonishment at his trajectory:

This Peter de Maulay had been an usher of the king; but then his career grew so much that he became a knight and constable of Corfe, and so powerful that he fought against the earl of Salisbury.176

In fact, Maulay became far more than a mere knight. His marriage to a great baronial heiress established him as lord of Doncaster in Yorkshire. His sureties in 1214 for the massive 7,000 marks that he offered in return included not one of the northern barons who were later to join the rebellion.177 This was just the kind of marriage that the Charter forbad when it said, in chapter 6, that heirs should be ‘married without disparagement’. It was not merely outsiders who were offended by Maulay’s rise. John also gave him, from the lands confiscated in England from Normans who had taken the French allegiance, the strategic manor of Upavon in Wiltshire in the heart of Basset and Marshal territory, thus characteristically creating divisions between his own men.

John did not merely set his own men against each other. He also made quite sure they stood in fear of himself. If they stepped out of line, or failed in some way, they could expect heavy punishment. Again there were precedents for this under Richard and earlier kings, but that did not make such penalties any the less resented. They help explain why even some of John’s closest servants turned against him. A case in point was Hugh de Neville, who ultimately rebelled in 1216. John’s probable seduction of his wife was not Hugh’s only grievance. In 1212 he had to offer 6,000 marks to recover the king’s benevolence, having allowed two prisoners to escape, and having failed to account properly for his administration of the royal forest.178 John’s heavy hand could also fall on his household officials. So Philip de Lucy offered 1,000 marks to recover the king’s benevolence, after failing in his duties as clerk of the chamber.179 The threatened punishments were not only financial. In 1212, when Peter de Maulay was so mad as to disobey a royal order (especially grievous from someone John thought was his creature), his sureties undertook that, if he misbehaved again, they would hand over his body for any punishment which John wished to inflict. Eight of the sureties (seven leading ministers, including Hugh de Neville, and the son of an earl) also agreed that they would subject themselves to a whipping. All had to issue charters to that effect. John wanted it on record.180 If there was any truth in the later rumour that Maulay was involved with the murder of John’s nephew Arthur, he knew what punishment to expect.181

Ultimately, John’s regime collapsed because it had too narrow a base. Its enemies among barons and knights had come to far outnumber its friends. It had ceased to command any kind of general consent. The demand in chapters 12 and 14 of the Charter that John levy scutages and aids with the common consent of the kingdom could have applied to his rule as a whole. As it was, the way John levied the great tax of 1207 foreshadowed the lack of consent that would bring him down. Aware that the tax could not be justified on the grounds later allowed in Magna Carta (to ransom his body, to knight his eldest son or marry off his eldest daughter on one occasion), John claimed it had been agreed by ‘the common counsel and assent of our council at Oxford’. But what did that mean? It might be no more (as was to be said of Edward I in 1297) than people standing around nodding assent in the king’s chamber.182 Later, perhaps sensing the inadequacy of the formula, John claimed the tax had been agreed by ‘the archbishop [of York], the bishops, abbots, priors and magnates of our kingdom’. The claim was specious since the archbishop of York actually resisted the tax. At most, around thirty days’ notice was given for the council at Oxford where the tax was imposed, not the forty days demanded by Magna Carta. The council itself lasted only a day and a half. None of this suggests it was well attended or was the forum for much debate or agreement. Probably the consenting group was composed of little more than the king’s ministers.183 It is easy, then, to understand why the Charter gave exact instructions about how the tax-granting assemblies should be convened. Even the stipulation that the ‘cause’ of the assembly should be expressed in the writ of summons was relevant to 1207, when John had sprung on the outsiders present the claim that the tax was needed to defend the kingdom and recover his rights, although there was no imminent threat of invasion and the eventual campaign of recovery was years away. Later taxes of this kind were usually accompanied by major concessions from the government. Indeed, the next great tax, that of 1225, was conceded in return for the definitive issue of Magna Carta. In 1207 John offered nothing in return. The whole procedure in 1207 showed what was wrong with John’s rule. It took far too much and it gave far too little.


Magna Carta was not exclusively an English document. It had important chapters dealing with the grievances of the Welsh rulers and the king of Scots, Alexander II. While Ireland only featured in John’s titles at the start, it was central to his quarrels with some of the greatest baronial families. All this was related to John’s domination of the British Isles. The Crowland chronicler, writing of the situation in 1211, declared that there was no one in Ireland, Scotland or Wales who did not obey the king of England, something achieved by none of his predecessors.184 In respect of Scotland, a striking new discovery has indeed revealed just how far obedience was expected to go. None of this was at odds with John’s primary aim after 1204 of recovering his continental possessions. It was vital to prevent disloyalty and disturbance in Britain and Ireland disrupting those continental plans.

There was also more to it than that. John knew the British Isles better than any of his predecessors. He had been lord of Ireland since 1177, and understood how his authority and revenues there might be increased. As for Wales, John’s first marriage in 1189 had made him lord of Glamorgan and he retained the lordship until 1214, despite the marriage’s annulment in 1199. After the loss of Normandy in 1204, he visited Wales or the Welsh marches in every year down to 1211. He wished to sharpen his authority over theWelsh rulers and expand the areas under his direct control, both at their expense and, if they stood out of line, that of the great marcher barons, at times playing off one against the other. In Scotland, John remembered the overlordship of the kingdom that his father, Henry II, had established by the Treaty of Falaise in 1174, following William the Lion’s capture during the great rebellion. In 1189 King Richard, intent on raising money for his crusade, had allowed King William to buy back Scotland’s independence, but John was far from regarding that as the last word. Secondary ambition it may have been, but he very much aspired to be ruler of Britain and Ireland.


When it came to the Welsh chapters in Magna Carta, John was not the only king being attacked. The Articles of the Barons sought redress for Welshmen disseised, without judgement of their peers, by both Henry II and Richard of land in England, Wales or the March. In the Charter itself, however, treatment of these disseisins was postponed until John returned from or abandoned his prospective crusade. It was only his own disseisins that were to be dealt with.185 John was also, under the Charter, to return all the hostages ‘from Wales’ and the charters (containing the details of unpalatable submissions) that had been given him as ‘security of peace’. The kind of thing the Welsh rulers complained of is exemplified by John’s treatment of Gwenwynwyn ab Owain, the ruler of southern Powys. In 1208 Gwenwynwyn had attacked Peter fitzHerbert’s lordship in Brecon. In revenge, John seized his lands and placed him under arrest until he handed over twenty hostages. Unless he came up with the first twelve within eight days, the king was to be ‘able to do with his body as he wills’.186 This was no idle threat. When John arrived at Nottingham in 1212, he had twenty-eight boys, Welsh hostages, hanged before he tasted food.187 The chivalric rules that acted as some restraint on John in England (where he mistreated hostages but did not kill them) had far less purchase in Wales.188

The only Welsh ruler actually named in Magna Carta was the greatest of them all, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. Under chapter 58 the king was immediately to release his son, and deliver his hostages and charters, along with all other hostages and charters taken from the Welsh. Early in John’s reign, seeing off rivals from within his family, Llywelyn had established his mastery over the whole of Gwynedd from the Dee to the Dyfi. He titled himself ‘prince of North Wales’, a title John accepted. In 1205 Llywelyn was allowed to marry John’s illegitimate daughter, Joan. Good relations did not last. John was furious when Llywelyn scavenged away some of the territories of Gwenwynwyn. In 1211 John invaded Gwynedd, penetrating as far west as Bangor. There, with Joan interceding with her father, Llywelyn came to terms. To have John’s grace and benevolence, he surrendered for ever the eastern half of Gwynedd between the Dee and the Conwy. If he did not have an heir by Joan (as seemed likely, for they were childless), then, on Llywelyn’s death, the king was to have all his remaining lands. Meanwhile, Llywelyn was to surrender his illegitimate son, Gruffudd, and deliver as many hostages as John wished. These terms were all embodied in a charter that Llywelyn was forced to issue.189One can see very well why its return was demanded under chapter 58 of the Charter. At best the treaty truncated Gwynedd, at worst, if Llywelyn and Joan were childless, it would bring Gwynedd to an end. When it came to Scotland, John was equally ambitious, although here his aim became not to end the kingdom but to subject it to his overlordship.


In the first phase of his reign, John had left King William the Lion largely alone, contemptuously brushing aside his long-standing claims to Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland. In 1209 the situation changed. The initial dispute seems to have been over the security of the border, where William, to John’s anger, pulled down a castle recently built at Tweedmouth. This brought John north in April of that year. He was already, according to one Scottish chronicle, making ‘unheard of demands … inconsistent with the liberties of the Scottish kingdom’.190 Probably he was already seeking Scotland’s subjection. When his demands were rejected, John returned south, while negotiations continued. There was then a major escalation of the crisis. John heard that William was trying to use the marriage of one of his daughters to seal an alliance with Philip Augustus.191 In July he set off again for the northern border. According to a contemporary Scottish narrative, John had with him around 13,000 Welsh foot soldiers, 1,500 knights from England, and 7,000 crossbowmen and Brabantine mercenaries. The numbers are impressionistic but show John had mustered an overwhelming force. King William, old, sick and unprepared, was in no condition to resist. In August 1209 he agreed to the Treaty of Norham.

Just what the Treaty of Norham contained has long been debated by historians. The problem is that two of the main accounts, although derived from contemporary sources, are filtered through much later Scottish chronicles. Fortunately much of the mystery can now be solved. I have discovered a letter of John himself setting out the main features of the treaty. This survives as a copy in one of the many cartularies of the Benedictine abbey of St Augustine at Canterbury. This particular cartulary probably dates from the mid 1320s. The hand has copied the letter with much other material from John’s reign, some of it concerning the affairs of the abbey, some of general political interest. Since the letter is addressed to ‘all faithful men in God’, and thus was intended as a general proclamation, there is no problem about its reaching St Augustine’s. That it is genuine there can, I think, be no doubt. The Latin text and a translation are given in Appendix I.192

In the letter, John indicates that King William himself is to remain in his existing state of homage. This was the homage that he had done to John in 1200, and was almost certainly just for his lands and rights in England, so for the lordship of Tyndale, and the earldom of Huntingdon which was held from him by his younger brother David.193 With William’s son, however, the eleven-year-old Alexander, it was quite different. Alexander, the letter said, ‘has done us homage as William, king of Scotland, did homage to the lord Henry, king of England, our father’. Everyone knew what that meant. It referred to the great ceremony at York in 1175, following the 1174 Treaty of Falaise, when King William had done homage to Henry II ‘for all his tenements and namely for Scotland’. His homage was followed by that of the chief men of Scotland. All this was in fulfilment of the Treaty of Falaise, which had been forced on King William, following his capture during the great rebellion against Henry the year before.194 Technically, of course, Alexander could not in 1209 have done homage for the kingdom, since it was still held by his father. Presumably some form of words was found to get round this. Perhaps Alexander did homage for Scotland as his father’s heir. Whatever the precise arrangement, the implication was completely clear. Once Alexander succeeded, he would then do homage for the kingdom in a great ceremony replicating that at York in 1175.

The shattering nature of this concession is reflected in the way Alexander’s homage was treated in Scottish sources. The only completely contemporary source, the Melrose chronicle, written between 1211 and 1214, ignores the homage altogether, but says that the settlement was ‘against the wishes of the Scots’.195 If the Scottish narrative specifying the size of John’s armies gave the full facts about the homage, they were too much for the patriotic Walter Bower, writing in the fifteenth century, through whose chronicle the narrative has been filtered to us. Bower here abandons the narrative, and prefers the account in another chronicle, the Gesta Annalia. This is based on contemporary sources, but was probably doctored around 1285.196 It actually makes out that the homage was advantageous to Scottish independence. William thus resigned his English lands and rights to Alexander, who did homage for them to John, this as part of an agreement that henceforth it was the heir to the Scottish throne who would do homage to the king of England. In other words, the king of Scotland himself would no longer owe homage to the king of England at all. That John agreed to anything like that in 1209 is inconceivable.

The homage was not the only humiliating feature of the 1209 agreement. The letter, here broadly in agreement with the chronicle sources, explains that William had handed over to John his two daughters, Margaret, his first-born, and Isabella. Margaret was to be married to John’s eldest son, Henry, once he reached the age of nine or ten, or before. (He was currently not yet two.) Isabella was then to be married a year or two later, in such a way as to give honour to both John and the king of Scotland. John, therefore, had scotched any plans to use the marriages of the two daughters to make alliances with the king of France or anyone else. There then followed the only things in the letter advantageous to the Scottish royal house. There was a pledge of mutual assistance, and a promise from John to help Alexander secure the throne on his father’s death. He would help him ‘as his man’, meaning as someone who owed homage for the kingdom. Within this context, William and Alexander were to retain all their liberties and dignities and their claims to the three northern counties. At least they had not been made to resign the latter, although equally they had made no progress towards their realization.

Some further provisions in the treaty, for which there is documentary evidence, were left unmentioned in John’s letter. John agreed not to build a castle at Tweedmouth, so that at least was a Scottish gain.197 On the other hand, William had to hand over around thirteen hostages, and promise to pay 15,000 marks for John’s benevolence. In 1189 only 10,000 marks had been needed to recover Scotland’s independence. This time the money was essentially to buy off invasion and conquest.198

In 1212 John strengthened his hold over Scotland yet further, helped by the fact that William and Alexander were now facing internal revolt.199 In February he met William again at Norham, and the agreements of 1209 were probably reaffirmed. In addition, William conceded that within six years John could marry Alexander, ‘as his liege man’, to whomever John wished, provided that Alexander was not disparaged.200 The concession was completely at odds with any idea of Scottish independence. John’s overlordship of the kingdom could not have been more clearly demonstrated. Next month, Alexander, now fourteen, came south and was knighted by John in London. He returned with Brabantine mercenaries to help put down the revolt of Guthred, son of Donald mac William.201 William himself was now sixty-nine and ailing. John’s great day when Alexander would succeed and do homage for the kingdom was approaching. To make sure of it, John started to build up a party in Scotland. He gave a pension to Robert de Londres, an illegitimate son of King William, who had a high position at the Scottish court.202 He also granted Alan of Galloway, constable of Scotland, a great fief in Ulster.203 His main considerations here were Irish, but Alan’s power would also help in Scotland in the crucial period after William’s death.

This new account of Scottish politics has direct relevance to the Scottish chapter in Magna Carta. The precise meaning of chapter 59 will be discussed later, but it covered the return of Alexander’s sisters and the hostages, and thus reacted directly to the way they had been handed over in the Treaty of Norham in 1209.204 Here, and when it came to the question of Alexander’s rights and liberties, it laid down that he was to be treated in the same way as ‘our other barons of England’. For Alexander this made a crucial point.The only relationship between himself and King John was as ‘a baron of England’. He was not in any way a subject king. As far as he was concerned, the 1209 treaty was dead.205


John’s policies in Ireland also helped shape the events that led to Magna Carta. Nowhere did he demonstrate more clearly the frightening power of his monarchy and his ability to break even the greatest baronial families.

Ireland, like Wales, was ideally suited to a master of manipulation such as John. He could play off the native rulers in the west (nominally in his allegiance) against the baronial lords in Munster, Leinster, Meath and Ulster. He could deal with men from each group both directly and through his justiciar based in Dublin, who controlled the areas subject immediately to royal rule. In the first part of the reign, the justiciar was Meiler fitzHenry, the great enemy of William Marshal. John’s policies towards both the native rulers and the baronial lords often depended on his fortunes elsewhere in his empire. He cosseted or caned them as it suited his wider purpose, while always seeking to increase his income. In 1203 John thus ordered the justiciar to take over the best ports and villages in Connacht, and invest the revenues in building castles, founding new villages and doing everything possible for royal ‘profit’.206 It was likewise with the aim of making money that John in 1207 instituted the first Irish coinage. He also built new castles at Dublin and Athlone, established the procedures of the English common law and achieved a large and lasting expansion in the areas under direct royal control.

At the heart of John’s dealings with the baronial lords in Ireland were his relations with William de Briouze.207 William was lord of Briouze in Normandy, Bramber in Sussex, and Radnor and other lands in the marches of Wales. Very close to John at the start of his reign, Briouze was rewarded in 1202 with a grant of ‘the honour of Limerick’ in northern Munster. His presence there, John hoped, would help control an area contested with the native rulers. Characteristically, however, John kept something back, namely the city of Limerick itself, allowing Briouze at most to act there as royal custodian. Control of the city, therefore, became a great bone of contention between Briouze and the justiciar, Meiler fitzHenry. Another was created in 1206 when Meiler began to assert royal control over parts of Munster, in the process encroaching on Briouze’s lordship. With relations deteriorating, John opened up a new line of attack, one that also taught a general lesson to his barons about the need to pay their debts.208 Briouze had promised 5,000 marks for the grant of Limerick, which he was supposed to pay off at 1,000 marks a year. By 1207, disappointed over Limerick city, and thinking perhaps that John was not serious, he had cleared no more than 700 marks.209 John, however, was now very serious indeed. In 1208 he started to compel payment by distraining on Briouze’s chattels. When Briouze resisted, all his lands and castles in England and Wales (where Gerard d’Athée was the agent) were seized into the king’s hands. Briouze fled to Ireland, with his wife, Matilda, and William, his eldest son.

In Ireland, Briouze was harboured by William Marshal, lord of Leinster, and the brothers Walter and Hugh de Lacy, respectively lords of Meath and Ulster. Walter was Briouze’s son-in-law, and they were close collaborators. Since John had ordered Marshal and the Lacys to hand Briouze over, he could not possibly let this defiance pass. In 1208 an expedition to Ireland had already been on the agenda, after Marshal and the Lacys had worsted Meiler fitzHenry. In 1210 John finally went there, taking a great army. By the time he sailed, Briouze had left Ireland, and was little more than a fugitive. The expedition was now about disciplining his Irish supporters. William Marshal wisely submitted, and retained his lands, but Walter and Hugh de Lacy were expelled from Meath and Ulster. John was much less successful in his dealings with the native kings, but he had demonstrated his power over the baronial lords in stunning fashion.210 The corollary was also a massive increase in John’s power in Wales, where Walter de Lacy’s Ludlow and all the Briouze lordships came into his hands.

William de Briouze had left Matilda and their son William in Ireland. They had then gone to Scotland, only to be captured there and brought to the king. Matilda de St Valery, as she styled herself, using her family name, was easily the most famous woman of her age. John’s own account of his quarrel with her husband shows that William and Matilda were very much a team, and gives a vivid picture of her courage and resourcefulness. Gerald of Wales praised Matilda’s household management and her acquisition of property.The Anonymous of Béthune recorded her boast that she had 12,000 milking cows and so much cheese that it would support a besieged garrison of 100 men for a month, and still leave some to throw from the battlements. Matilda would know because in the 1190s she had defended the Briouze castle of Painscastle from an attack by the Welsh, whereafter it was always called ‘The castle of Matilda’. John himself called her Matilda de Hay, probably because she also commanded at the Briouze castle at Hay-on-Wye. According to Roger of Wendover, Matilda refused to hand over her sons to John as hostages, remarking that she knew what John did to boys in his custody, a reference, of course, to his murder of Arthur. The story may be apocryphal but it catches her spirit.211 According to the Anonymous of Béthune, Matilda was ‘a beautiful lady, most wise, most worthy and most energetic. She was never absent from any of her husband’s councils. She carried on warfare against the Welsh in which she conquered a good deal.’212

John’s destruction of this celebrated woman and her son through starvation was a hideous crime. Its impact on baronial opinion can be gauged from the horrific and piteous account in the Anonymous of Béthune.213 It was not as though William junior was himself unknown. He was already of full age, active in running the family estates and married to a daughter of the earl of Clare.214 He was ‘one of us’. The murders seemed more terrible than that of Arthur, who was a figure remote from the English baronage. They brought John’s violence and cruelty close to home.

After his return from Ireland, but before Matilda’s murder, John issued a long account of his quarrel with the Briouzes. It is an extraordinary document, and cannot be entirely specious, for it was witnessed and thus in a sense vouched for by many earls and barons who were later to rebel, including William de Briouze junior’s father-in-law, the earl of Clare.215 Plainly, John felt he had some explaining to do, a measure of the anxiety and criticism provoked by his conduct. Yet the document is as much a warning as an excuse. One purpose is to demonstrate the utter ruin awaiting those who cross the king. William de Briouze himself ends up as an outlaw, and thus liable to be killed on sight. (In the event he died in exile in France in 1211.) Matilda, at the last, is forced to promise 50,000 marks simply for the life and limbs of herself and her family. When the king’s ministers come to her in prison to demand the first instalment, all that she has is a pathetic £16 and a few pieces of gold. The implication is that her life is now forfeit. And how had all this come about? Because Briouze failed to pay his debts. The need for baronial debtors (of whom Clare was one) to pay up was made chillingly clear.216

While issuing this warning, John is at pains to show that he has acted perfectly lawfully. William de Briouze has been outlawed according to ‘the custom of England’.217 Matilda’s agreement with John has been confirmed by earls and barons in attendance. Briouze has been distrained to pay his debts according ‘to the custom of the kingdom and the law of the exchequer’. John’s opponents were thus set a challenge. What were the standards by which the king could be judged and brought to account?

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