Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-Eight


John Softsword

Between 1203 and 1213, John of England loses his Frankish lands and makes too many enemies

THE LIONHEART WAS DEAD, and his brother John sat on the English throne.

The years since his coronation had not been good ones. As soon as John inherited the rule of England, Philip ceased to be his ally. Philip’s intention had always been to reduce the power of the English crown; John, the thorn in Richard’s side, was a welcome friend to the French king, but King John of England was his enemy.

John’s older brother Geoffrey, dying before his father in 1186, had left only two daughters; but his wife Constance had given birth to a son named Arthur seven months later. As soon as Richard was dead, Philip insisted that Arthur, not John, was rightfully king of England. He welcomed Constance and the twelve-year-old Arthur to his court in Paris. The dukes of Anjou, Maine, and Tours—all English-held lands—joined him in rejecting John’s claims.1

Three years of struggle followed. There were multiple battles, complicated negotiations, and at least two temporary truces. John used every weapon at his disposal, including marriage; he had divorced his first wife for failure to bear him an heir in 1199, and in 1200 he set his sights on the young daughter of the Count of Angoulême. Isabella of Angoulême—perhaps twelve or even younger—was already betrothed to the son of the Count of Marche, a marriage that would have created a strong, French-loyal enclave right in the middle of the land John wanted for himself. “Seeing that John, king of England, had a fancy for her,” says Roger of Hoveden, “her father . . . gave her in marriage to John, king of England.” This earned John the fury of the Count of Marche, but prevented the count’s son from gaining Angoulême for himself.2

Nothing worked. By April of 1203, John had lost almost every English possession in Western Francia. And then, at the very end of July, he had a piece of luck.

In Poitiers, John’s men took nearly two hundred French knights captive. Among them was Arthur himself. This was a blow to Philip’s cause; Roger of Wendover says that, getting word of the capture, he retreated “in vexation” back to Paris. But John had a talent for turning gold into mud. He sent Arthur to Rouen, with orders that he be guarded. “But shortly afterwards,” Roger of Wendover adds, “the said Arthur suddenly disappeared. . . . John was suspected by all of having slain him with his own hand; for which reason many turned their affections from the king from that time forward . . . and entertained the deepest enmity against him.”3

Nothing was ever known for sure about the boy’s death. Certainly Philip, who had used Arthur against John just as he had used John against Richard, made no effort to find him. But the disappearance, joined with John’s complete inability either to finish the sieges he had begun or to relieve castles under French attack, spelled disaster for the English king. His English allies were losing enthusiasm both for the fight and for their king, and Gervase of Canterbury tells us that the French had begun to call him, mockingly, Johannem Mollegladium: John Softsword.4

Late in 1203, John deserted Normandy—his last remaining possession in Western Francia—and retreated back across the English Channel. Richard had recovered almost all of the lands in Western Francia that had belonged to his father; John had lost them again.5

FOR THE NEXT EIGHT YEARS, the French and English kings circled each other in a hostile holding pattern.

John, left only with England, Ireland, and his mother’s ancestral lands in the Duchy of Aquitaine, devoted himself to refilling his war-depleted treasury. At his coronation, he had accepted numerous bribes and payments from men who already held royal office and hoped to keep it under the new regime. The royal financial records known as the Chancellor’s Roll document scores of “presents” to the king, not only from officials but from towns and cities as well, accompanied with messages hoping for “goodwill,” “peace,” and “loving treatment.”6

And he had taken full advantage of the royal custom, ongoing since the days of Henry, of collecting a fee called scutage from the English barons. Instead of going to war, a baron could buy the right to stay at home with a cash payment. Since John’s reign had begun with war, he had already leveled a demand of scutage every single year since 1199.7

Neither of these methods had created much goodwill towards John, and the heavy scutage in particular had set his barons on edge. With the war over, he dared not continue to collect the fees. Instead, early in 1207 he called the bishops and abbots of England to a council in London and informed them that all of the priests and parsons in England would be required to pay taxes on the revenue from all church-held land. The bishops and abbots refused, indignantly: “The English Church,” they announced, “could by no means submit to a demand which had never been heard of in all previous ages.”8


28.1 John’s Losses and Philip’s Gains

Undaunted, John used the consecration of the new Archbishop of Canterbury in June as an excuse to seize church property. Pope Innocent III had chosen, to fill the empty post, the English churchman Stephen Langton, who had been teaching in Paris for years and had just been made a cardinal in Rome. Innocent had not asked for John’s approval, and John flew into a convenient rage: He knew nothing of Langton, he told the pope, except that the man had “dwelt much among his enemies,” and he was incensed that Innocent had not bothered to ask for his consent to the appointment. “He added,” says Roger of Wendover, “that he would stand up for the rights of his crown, if necessary, even to death.” He then refused to allow Langton to enter England, and confiscated all of Canterbury’s estates—and their revenue—for himself.9

Innocent at once put the entire country under interdict, which did not bother John in the slightest. Instead, he confiscated more church property, under the excuse that the clergy who held them only did so on condition that they perform their job, which they obviously could not do under current conditions.10

The interdict dragged on, and the people of England suffered. “All church services ceased,” writes Roger of Wendover; “. . . the bodies of the dead too were carried out of cities and towns, and buried in roads and ditches without prayers or the attendance of priests.”11

Meanwhile, John went on refilling the royal coffers. His ongoing quarrel with Philip gave him another way to raise revenue: confiscation of the lands of those English nobles he suspected of divided loyalties. One such was Simon de Montfort, who inherited the English title Earl of Leicester from his uncle, but who was himself born near Paris, son of the Count of Montfort-l’Amaury. Under the excuse that de Montfort was bound to be a vassal of the king of France, John allowed him to inherit the title, but in late 1207, took the lands for himself; and de Montfort joined the growing rank of Englishmen who hated their king.

Over the next five years, John socked away an astonishing amount of tax money, confiscated treasure, and church funds. In 1210, he followed Philip’s example and ordered all the Jews in England imprisoned, “in order to do [his] will with their money.” Those who resisted were brutalized; a rabbi in Bristol, refusing to pay up, had one tooth knocked out by John’s men every morning for a week before he gave up and agreed to hand over his savings. “The corn of the clergy was every where locked up . . . for the benefit of the revenue,” Roger of Wendover tells us, and everywhere barons were forced to pay the king fines for trespasses as small as putting a fish weir into a river without John’s express permission. Resentment built, and built, and built. By 1213, it had hit a fever height and the king knew it.

He did not reform his financial policies, though. Instead, he “began to suspect everyone,” says the contemporary Barnwell Chronicle, “and went everywhere armed, with armed men.”12


If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!