Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-Five


From Bouvines to Magna Carta

Between 1213 and 1217, John of England fails to regain his French lands, forfeits control of England, and loses his life

AT THE BEGINNING OF 1213, Innocent III decided that the interdict on England was clearly not going to resolve the quarrel over Stephen Langton’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Once again, he reached for his weapon.

“Being deeply grieved,” writes Roger of Wendover, “he decreed that John king of England should be deposed from the throne of that kingdom.” And then he went one step further.

[He] wrote to the most potent Philip, king of the French, ordering him, in remission of all his faults, to undertake this business, and declaring that, after he had expelled the English king . . . he and his successors should hold possession of the kingdom of England for ever. Besides this, he wrote to all the noble knights, and other warlike men throughout the different countries, ordering them to assume the sign of the cross and to follow the king of the French as their leader, to dethrone the English king, and thus to revenge the insult which had been cast on the universal church.

Anyone who provided either money or his own sword to help overthrow John, promised Innocent, would receive the benefits of crusade, exactly “like those who went to visit the Lord’s sepulchre.”1

The ideal of crusade had become so diffused that it had lost any form or definition. Now crusade could be declared against a Christian king who held to the Nicene Creed: a king who ruled an ancient part of Christendom and was himself the son and brother of Crusaders.

Philip was not one to turn down such an opportunity. He immediately put his oldest son Louis—now twenty-five—at the head of an invasion force, promising him the crown of England should the war succeed (and also extracting from him a series of oaths promising that he would govern England only under his father’s direction). A number of the Western Frankish nobles joined him, with the notable exception of the Count of Flanders, who had fallen out with Philip and refused to be part of the campaign.

At this, John (not unlike Raymond of Toulouse, four years earlier) decided that it was time to get right with God. In May, before Philip could launch his fleet from the French coast, John was “roused to repentance.” He met with the pope’s legate in London, agreed to Stephen Langton’s appointment, and publicly acknowledged the pope as his spiritual head (accompanied, to sweeten the deal, with a thousand pounds of silver as tribute to Rome). The legate then went straight to Paris and forbade Philip to attack his newly restored brother in Christ.2

Philip was greatly put out. He had, he complained, already spent sixty thousand pounds putting his invasion force together, in obedience to the pope’s command, and he had been counting on “the remission of his sins.” But both the legate and Innocent III were unmoved. If Philip attacked John, he would now find himself on the wrong side of crusade.

Fortunately for John, Philip found another object of wrath: the Count of Flanders, who had broken his vassal’s oaths by refusing to attack England. French ships and soldiers had already assembled for crusade; Philip decided to use them to firm up his control over Flanders. He ordered the fleet to sail out of the mouth of the Seine and turn east, making its way along the coast to the Flanders coastline, while he invaded from the south of the county.

The count, “much alarmed at this attack,” immediately sent word to his two most natural allies: John of England, who was Philip’s enemy; and the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV.

Otto, who had struggled with Philip of Germany for the right to be called emperor, had finally gained the title when his rival was murdered in 1208, by a distant half-drunk cousin who had some personal grievance with him. (The cousin was then decapitated, so a full explanation was never gotten.) He was crowned in 1209 and promptly fell out both with Philip of France, his rival for power on the continent, and with Innocent III, who excommunicated him the year after his coronation, when Otto refused to hand over the control of Italian lands to the papacy.3

John, meanwhile, could not turn down the chance to recover Normandy from France. He too agreed to join the fight. Tens of thousands of soldiers*—German, Flemish, Dutch, Frankish, and English—assembled at Valenciennes, under the personal command of Otto IV. John himself, no battlefield general, stayed in Poitou, but sent his bastard brother William Longsword to command the English archers.

Philip II of France, grateful now that he was not in Languedoc fighting heretics, called his own royal forces to muster at Tournai. With him stood another pretender to the German throne: Frederick, king of Sicily, who hoped to seize both the German throne and the title of emperor.

On July 27, 1214, as Philip was leading his troops towards Lille—intending to find advantageous territory on which to fight—the English and German allies intercepted the French army on the river plain near the bridge of Bouvines. It was Sunday, a day on which Christian kings were not supposed to wage war, and Otto IV was inclined to delay the inevitable battle. It seemed to him, says Roger of Wendover, “improper . . . to profane such a day by slaughter and the effusion of human blood.” But after consultation with the English barons, he decided to seize the opportunity.4

Seeing that the enemy was preparing to fight, Philip drew up his own troops, their backs to the river, and ordered the bridge itself at the rear broken down so that, should they decide to flee, they would be able to do so only through the opposing line. Even more usefully, he assured them that the war against the excommunicated Otto and his allies fell firmly into the category of crusade. He took steps to play this drama out: first arming himself, and then taking the time to celebrate Mass at a nearby chapel with his own barons. When they emerged from the chapel, they carried with them theoriflamme, the red silk banner that represented the presence of Saint Denis, patron saint of France, and thus of divine favor.5

In the blinding heat of the July afternoon, the French began the fight with a cavalry charge against the Flemish mounted knights. Violent fighting followed, but ultimately the greater experience (and better equipment) of the French soldiers began to pay off. The English and German allies were slowly driven back, until the lines broke. The English baron Hugues de Boves, who had insisted on the Sunday engagements, fled with his men. Several Flemish dukes followed him. Otto IV continued to fight, remounting three times after his horses were killed beneath him. But soon it became clear that the battle was lost, and he fled, leaving his imperial banner behind him.

Young Frederick drove Otto back to his family lands and claimed his title; he was crowned Frederick II, king of the Germans (although not yet emperor), in Aachen on July 25. The Count of Flanders and William Longsword, both taken prisoner during the battle, were hauled to Paris. Philip agreed to exchange William for a French nobleman taken captive by the English, but the Count of Flanders was not so lucky. He was imprisoned in the Louvre, where he remained for the next twelve years.6

When news of the defeat reached John, he exclaimed, “Since I became reconciled to God, woe is me; nothing has gone prosperously with me!”


35.1 The World of the Magna Carta

ON SEPTEMBER 18, at the great castle of Chinon in the Loire river valley, John and Philip agreed to a five-year truce that confirmed Philip’s control over all the lands lost in 1206. After the humiliating treaty was signed, John retreated over the English Channel. He would never leave England again.

But his homecoming was not a happy one.

“About this time,” says Roger of Wendover, “the earls and barons of England assembled at St. Edmonds . . . [and] after they had discoursed together secretly for a time, there was placed before them the charter of king Henry the First. . . . [A]nd finally it was unanimously agreed that, after Christmas, they should all go together to the king and demand the confirmation of the aforesaid liberties to them.” Henry I’s Charter of Liberties, used to shore up support for his claim to the throne, had listed fourteen rights of church and barons that the king pledged not to violate. But more importantly, it began, “All the evil customs by which the realm of England was unjustly oppressed will I take away, which evil customs I partly set down here.”

This made the Charter an instrument by which the barons could keep on enumerating evil customs. And chief among those was John’s continuing taxation. He had demanded yet another scutage to pay for the failed campaign in Western Francia; most of the barons had refused to pay it, but the demand still hovered over them.7

When John arrived back in England, he furiously insisted that the scutage be paid at once. At this, the boldest of the English barons gathered and demanded that John affirm the Charter or prepare for war.

John stalled, sending Stephen Langton to negotiate with the barons, promising to hear them as long as they would write out exactly what they meant by “evil customs.” In January of 1215, three months after his return to England, he met the leaders of the opposition and received the twelve-item list they had appended to the Charter of Liberties. First on the list was a demand that the king concede his right to “take a man without judgment.” Eight was a provision limiting scutage to “one mark of silver” per baron (John’s most recent demand had been for three), an amount that could be raised only with the consent of the barons themselves.8

No taxation without consent, limitation of the king’s power to seize and punish: it was, as the contemporary Chronicle of Melrose remarks, “a new state of things . . . in England; such a strange affair as had never been heard.” The Chronicle is incredulous: “The body wished to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king,” it marvels. But John had pushed his barons too far, and the defeat at Bouvines had weakened him just enough for them to push back.9

For five months, John put his noblemen off with promises and additional requests for clarification. The twelve-item list grew to forty-nine.* By the last week of April 1215, it had become clear that the king was not going to yield. On May 3, the chief barons of England renounced their allegiance to the crown of England. Two weeks later, a group of the rebels seized London on Sunday morning, while most of the population was busy attending Mass, and installed one of their own as the new acting mayor of the city. “They then . . . sent letters throughout England,” says Roger of Wendover, “to those earls, barons, and knights, who appeared to be still faithful to the king . . . and advised them . . . to stand firm and fight against the king for their rights and for peace. . . . [T]he greatest part of these, on receiving the message of the barons, set out to London and joined them, abandoning the king entirely.”10

With the party of the barons growing daily, John decided to negotiate. He was short on money, suffering from a severe attack of gout, and had no intention of keeping to any promise made under duress in any case. He sent word to the rebel barons by way of William Marshal, now close to seventy and in his forty-fifth year of service to the English throne, that he would meet them at a time and place of their choosing.

They chose a field lying between Staines and Windsor: Runnymede, a water meadow on the Thames. On June 15, the “whole nobility of England . . . in numbers not to be computed” assembled on one side of the field; John, carried on a litter because of the severity of his gout, and his few remaining supporters on the other. “At length,” Roger of Wendover writes, “king John, seeing that he was inferior in strength to the barons, without raising any difficulty, granted the underwritten laws and liberties, and confirmed them by his charter.”11

The Magna Carta, the Great Charter confirmed by John at Runnymede, bears the date June 15, 1215; but in fact John and the barons negotiated with each other for most of the week, amending and adding to the articles before the charter was finally sworn out. In its final form, the Magna Carta provided the barons with multiple layers of protection against the king’s whimsy; it protected their goods, their lands, and their inheritances against John’s arbitrary decrees; it rested the final decision over fines and scutages in the “common counsel of our realm,” a gathering of churchmen, earls, and barons (known, since William the Conqueror, as the Curia Regis, and now invested with additional powers). “No one,” read Article 39,

shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.12

To make sure that the charter was observed, the Magna Carta also appointed a committee of twenty-five barons who had the power to confiscate royal castles, lands, and possessions, should John refuse to abide by its terms.*

This was a massive shift in authority, but John signed it; in large part, because he’d already laid plans in place to get out of it. Before coming to Runnymede, he had written to Innocent III, pointing out that should the barons deprive John of kingly authority, they would also be depriving Innocent III—the papal overlord of England, to whom John had sworn loyalty as a vassal—of his spiritual authority. Innocent III, ever mindful of his own power, reacted as John had hoped. On August 24, he announced that the Magna Carta was annulled. “On behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” he wrote to England, “. . . and by our own authority . . . we utterly reject and condemn this settlement, and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it.”13

John, who had spent five perfectly happy years living under papal condemnation, at once piously decided to obey God rather than man. He had retreated, after Runnymede, to the Isle of Wight. Armed with papal permission, he emerged to gather an army of foreign soldiers: mercenaries, men from Aquitaine, papal loyalists. The run-up to the Magna Carta had been bloodless; even the capture of London had been achieved without battle. Now war began.14

The Magna Carta had not been intended to establish a democracy; and from the beginning of the fighting, the barons hoped not to do away with the king but to find a better one. They now decided, Roger of Wendover writes, “to choose some powerful man as king, by whose means they could be restored to their possessions and former liberties; and . . . they unanimously determined to appoint Louis, son of Philip the French king, as their ruler, and to raise him to the throne of England.”15

Philip, once again seizing the chance to do his enemy a disservice, agreed to this plan. On May 21, 1216, Louis—aged twenty-nine, married to Princess Blanche of Castile—landed in England. “As soon as Louis arrived in England,” the Chronicle of Melrose records, “William Longsword, brother of the king of England, and many others, deserted the king and passed over to Louis.” He marched to London unopposed; John, realizing that few of his French soldiers would fight against their own prince, had retreated to Canterbury. The barons welcomed Louis to the city, and proclaimed him king of England there.16

In the next months, Louis fought his way through the south of England, laying siege to both Dover and Windsor, driving John back towards the Welsh border. Both armies were given to “rapine and robbery, and . . . the destruction of property,” and anarchy once again swallowed the countryside. Like the war between Stephen and Matilda, the Barons’ War seemed poised to drag on indefinitely. But in early October, John came down with a fever after a difficult journey. “His sickness was increased by his pernicious gluttony,” Roger of Wendover writes, “for that night he surfeited himself with peaches and drinking new cider.” Like Stephen, seventy-five years before, John had come down with dysentery. He died on October 18, 1216, aged forty-nine; he had been king of England for eighteen and a half years.17

Prince Louis now assumed that England would fall complete into his hands. But with John gone, William Marshal—regent for John’s nine-year-old son, Henry—swore that young Henry would cleave to the Magna Carta. Meanwhile, the barons had been rethinking their plan. Louis’s French troops had not made themselves popular. They had treated the barons with arrogant disdain, and Louis himself had been quick to claim for his own personal possession the castles and lands he had seized in his war against John. Slowly, the barons began to trickle back over to the house of Plantagenet.

By the following summer, it had become clear to Louis that his hopes of an English crown were doomed. In September, he gave up and went home (“in lasting ignominy,” Roger of Wendover says). The ignominy was, possibly, made more bearable by the terms of his departure; to hasten him on his way, William Marshal handed over ten thousand silver marks from the royal treasury.18


*Historians differ over the size of the armies that fought at Bouvines; estimates range from 20,000 to 80,000 or more.

*The original twelve-item list is usually known as “The Unknown Charter,” while the forty-nine items are known as “The Articles of the Barons.”

*Magna Carta is one of the most exhaustively studied documents in Western literature and cannot be treated thoroughly in a history of this breadth. J. C. Holt’s Magna Carta (Cambridge University Press, 1965) is the best starting place for the general reader; the Unknown Charter, the Articles of the Barons, and the Magna Carta can all be read in full in English Historical Documents, vol. 3, 1189–1327, ed. Harry Rothwell (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1975); 1215: The Year of Magna Carta, by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham (Touchstone, 2005), gives a detailed account of the events surrounding Runnymede. An extensive bibliography of the best-regarded studies can be found in Michael Van Cleave Alexander, Three Crises in Early English History (University Press of America, 1998), pp. 114–120.

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