Post-classical history



KING JOHN DIED IN THE TOILS; BUT HE DIED AT BAY. THE MISGOVERNMENT of his reign had brought against him what seemed to be an overwhelming combination. He was at war with the English barons who had forced him to grant the Charter. They had invited Louis, son of the implacable Philip, King of France, into the country to be their liege lord, and with him came foreign troops and hardy adventurers. The insurgent barons north of the Humber had the support of Alexander, King of Scots; in the West the rebellion was sustained by Llewellyn, the powerful Prince of North Wales. The towns were mainly against the King; London was vehemently hostile. The Cinque Ports were in enemy hands. Winchester, Worcester, and Carlisle, separated by the great distances of those times, were united in opposition to the Crown.

On the other hand, the recreant King had sacrificed the status of the realm to purchase the unswerving aid of the Papacy. A strong body of mercenaries, the only regular troops in the kingdom, were in John’s pay. Some of the greatest warrior-nobles, the venerable William the Marshal, and the famous, romantic Ranulf, Earl of Chester, with a strong following of the aristocracy, adhered to his cause. The mass of the people, bewildered by this new quarrel of their masters, on the whole inclined to the King against the barons, and certainly against the invading foreigners. Their part was only to suffer at the hands of both sides. Thus the forces were evenly balanced; everything threatened a long, stubborn civil war and a return to the anarchy of Stephen and Maud. John himself, after a lifetime of subtleties and double-dealing, of illegal devices and sharp, unexpected twists of religious policy, showed himself possessed, in the last months of his life, of a warlike energy and resource which astonished friend and foe. It was at this moment that he died of dysentery, aggravated by fatigue and too much food and drink. Shakespeare has limned his final agony:

And none of you will bid the winter come

To thrust his icy fingers in my maw. . . .

I beg cold comfort, and you are so strait

And so ungrateful, you deny me that.

The death of the King in this convulsion of strife changed the conditions of the conflict without ending it. The rival interests and factions that were afoot had many purposes beyond the better government of England. Louis was in the Island, and fighting. Many had plighted him their faith, already once forsworn. The rebel lords were deeply involved with their Scottish and Welsh allies; none was in the humour for peace. Yet the sole reason and justification for revolt died with John. Henry, a child of nine, was the undoubted heir to all the rights and loyalties of his grandfather’s wide empire. He was the rightful King of England. Upon what grounds could the oppressions of the father be visited upon his innocent son? A page of history had been violently turned; the new parchment was blank and clear. All parties were profoundly sensible of these considerations. Nevertheless John for the moment was missed by those whose lives and fortunes were devoted to the national cause. William the Marshal acted with honesty and decision. Had he failed in his duty to the Crown the strong centralised monarchy which Henry II had created, and upon which the growing civilisation of the realm depended, might have degenerated into a heptarchy of feudal princes, or even worse. The Papal Legate, sure of the unchanging policy of Rome, aided William the Marshal. The boy King was crowned at Gloucester and began his reign of fifty-six years on October 28, 1216. He was anointed by the Legate, and in default of the diadem which John had lost in crossing the Wash a plain gold circlet was placed upon his brow. This was to prove no inadequate symbol of his rule.

William the Marshal, aged seventy, reluctantly undertook what we should now call the Regency. He joined to himself the Earl of Chester, who might well have been his rival but did not press his claims, and Hubert de Burgh, John’s faithful servant. The wisdom and the weakness of the new Government were alike revealed in the reissue of the Charter, which had been too rashly quashed by the Pope in 1215. The religious character of the King’s party had become predominant. The Royalists wore white crosses, the Church preached a virtual Crusade, and the chiefs of the opposing faction were excommunicated. “At a time,” said Henry in after-years to Bishop Grosseteste, “when we were orphan and minor, when our subjects were not only alienated from us, but were organised against us, it was our mother, the Roman Church, which brought this realm once more under our authority, which consecrated us King, crowned us and placed us on the throne.”

It was a reign of turmoil and distress and yet the forces of progress moved doggedly forward. Redhot iron was smitten on the anvil, and the hammer-blows forged a metal more tense than had yet been seen. In this period the common people, with their Anglo-Saxon tradition of ancient rights and law running back to remote antiquity, lay suffering under the armoured feet of the nobility and of the royal mercenaries, reinforced in the main by the power of the Church. But the people’s masters were disunited; not only did their jealousies and ambitions and their taste for war keep them at variance, but several rending fissures were opening among them. They were divided into parties; they were cross-cut obliquely by a strong nationalism. It is an age of impulse and experiment, not controlled by any general political theory.


The confusion and monotony of the barons’ warfare, against each other, or against the King, sometimes with the Church, more often against the Church, have repelled many readers of history. But the fact is that King Henry III survived all his troubles and left England enjoying a prosperity and peace unknown when he was a child. The cruel war and anarchy lay only upon the surface; underneath, unformulated and largely unrealised by the hard-pressed actors, coursed all the tides which were to flow in Europe five hundred years later; and almost all the capital decisions which are demanded of the modern world were rife in this medieval society. From out of the conflict there rise the figures of heroes, both warriors and statesmen, from whose tribulations we are separated by long ages, but whose work and outlook unite them to us, as if we read their acts and words in the morning newspaper.

We must examine some of these figures at close quarters. Stephen Langton, the great Archbishop, was the indomitable, unwearying, builder of the rights of Englishmen against royal, baronial, and even ecclesiastical pretensions. He stood against King John; he stood against the Pope. Both cast upon him at times their utmost displeasure, short of taking his life. Here is a man who worked for the unity of Christendom through the Catholic Church; but also for the interests of England against the Papacy. Here is a faithful servant of the Crown, but at the same time a champion of the Charter, and all it meant, and still means. A commanding central figure, practical, resourceful, shifting from side to side as evils forced him, but quite unchanging and unchangeable in his broad, wise, brave, workaday, liberal purpose. Here was, if not an architect of our Constitution, at least a punctual and unfailing Clerk of the Works.

The second personality which emerges from the restless scene is Hubert de Burgh. Shakespeare, whose magic finger touches in succession most of the peaks of English history and lights them with the sunrise so that all can see them standing out above the mountainous disorder, has brought Hubert to our ken. Here is a soldier and a politician, armed with the practical wisdom which familiarity with courts and camps, with high authorities, ecclesiastical and armoured, may infuse into a man’s conduct, and even nature. John’s Justiciar, identified with the crimes and the follies of the reign, was yet known to all men as their constant resolute opponent. Under the Marshal, who was himself a star of European chivalry, Hubert was an outstanding leader of resistance to the rebellion against the monarchy. At the same time, above the warring factions, he was a solid champion of the rights of England. The Island should not be ravaged by greedy nobles, nor pillaged by foreign adventurers, nor mutilated unduly even for the high interests of the Papacy, which so often were the interests of Christendom itself.

The rebellion of the barons was quelled by fights on land and sea. At Lincoln the King’s party had gained a fantastic but none the less decisive victory. In the streets of Lincoln, during a whole day, we are told that four hundred royal knights jostled and belaboured six hundred of the baronial party. Only three were killed in the combat. Contemporary opinion declined to accord the name of battle to this brawl. It was called “the Fair of Lincoln.” It is difficult to form a picture of what happened. One must suppose that the knights had upon the average at least eight or ten stalwart retainers each, and that the almost invulnerable, chain-mailed monsters waddled about in the throng, chasing away or cutting down the unarmoured folk, and welting each other when they met, hard, but perhaps not too hard. On this basis there were intricate manœuvres and stratagems, turnings of flanks, takings in rear, entry through privy ports by local treachery, odd confrontations; all kinds of devices. But in the upshot the Royalists outwitted and out-walloped the insurgents. Accidents will happen in the best regulated faction fights, and one of the leading rebel barons, Thomas, Count of Perche, had the misfortune to be killed by a sword-thrust which penetrated his visor and sank deep into his brain. But for almost all the rest of the armoured crew it was a joyous adventure. The vengeance of the victors was wreaked mainly upon their rivals’ retainers and upon the civil population, who were plundered and slaughtered on a considerable scale.

“The Fair of Lincoln” gave the infant Henry III a victory on land, and de Burgh’s sea-victory off Dover against French reinforcements for Louis cut the revolt from its Continental root. Negotiations proceeded continually amid the broils. They were strenuously disputed, and meanwhile each side devastated the estates of the opposing party, to the intense misery of their inhabitants. Hubert, supported by Archbishop Langton and the Papal Legate, never lost his hold upon the Charter, although this was the nominal bond of union of their opponents. There were unavoidable stresses between the devout English Royalists and the interests of the universal Church, as interpreted by the Pope. These stresses did not however take a physical form. Compromises were reached, not only between Crown and barons, but in the ecclesiastical sphere, between England and Rome.

After a year of fighting, Louis of France was compelled to leave the country in 1217, his hopes utterly dashed. The Great Charter was now re-issued for the second time in order to show that the Government meant its word. In 1219 the old victorious Marshal died, and Hubert ruled the land for twelve years. He was a stern ruler. When Fawkes de Breauté, who had been the chief mercenary of John and William the Marshal during all these recent tumults, grew overmighty and attempted to disturb the new-found peace of the land, Hubert determined to expel him. On taking Fawkes’s stronghold of Bedford Castle in 1224, after two months’ siege, Hubert hanged in front of its walls the twenty-four surviving knights who had commanded the garrison. In the following year, as a sign of pacification, the Great Charter was again re-issued in what was substantially its final form. Thus it became an unchallenged part of English law and tradition. But for the turbulent years of Henry III’s minority, it might have mouldered in the archives of history as a merely partisan document.

No long administration is immune from mistakes and every statesman must from time to time make concessions to wrong-headed superior powers. But Hubert throughout his tenure stood for the policy of doing the least possible to recover the King’s French domains. This he carried out not only by counsel, but by paralysing action, and by organising ignominious flight before the enemy when battle seemed otherwise unavoidable. He hampered the preparation for fresh war; he stood firm against the incursions of foreign favourites and adventurers. He resisted the Papacy in its efforts to draw money at all costs out of England for its large European schemes. He maintained order, and as the King grew up he restrained the Court party which was forming about him from making inroads upon the Charter. His was entirely the English point of view.

At last in 1229 he had exhausted his goodwill and fortune and fate was upon him. The King, now twenty-two years of age, crowned and acting, arrived at Portsmouth with a large army raised by the utmost exercise of his feudal power to defend those estates in France which after the loss of Normandy still pertained to the English Crown. Hubert could not control this, but the transporting of the expedition lay apparently in his department. The King found no ships, or few, awaiting him; no supplies, no money, for his oversea venture. He flew into a rage. Although usually mild, affable, scholarly and artistic, he drew his sword and rushed upon the Justiciar, reproaching him with having betrayed his trust and being bribed by France. It certainly was a very unpleasant and awkward situation, the Army wishing to fight abroad, and the Navy and the Treasury unable or unwilling to carry them thither. The quarrel was smoothed down; the King recovered his temper; the expedition sailed in the following year and Hubert retained his place. But not for long. In 1232 he was driven from power by a small palace clique. Threatened in his life, he took sanctuary at Brentwood. He was dragged from this asylum, but the common, humble blacksmith who was ordered to put the fetters on him declared he would die any death rather than do so; and he is said to have used the words which historians have deemed to be the true monument of Hubert de Burgh: “Is he not that most faithful Hubert who so often saved England from the devastation of foreigners and restored England to England?”


During John’s reign one of the most cruel tragedies of world history had run its course in Southern France. In the domains of Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, there had grown up during several generations a heresy, sombre and austere in theory, but genial in practice. The Albigenses, or Cathares, “the Purified,” as they were called, dismissed altogether from the human mind the resurrection of the body, Purgatory, and Hell. In their view life on earth in the flesh was the work of Satan. The material phase would soon pass and the soul, freed from its accursed encumbrance, would be resumed in eternal bliss into the Godhead. The “Perfects” of this cult practised chastity and abstinence, and professed in principle a sincere wish for death; but the mass of the population, relieved from the oppression of supernatural terror, developed, we are assured, in the delicious climate of those regions, easy morals and merry character. The thrilling sensation of being raised above the vicissitudes of this world and at the same time freed from the menaces of the next produced a great happiness in these regions, in which all classes joined, and from it sprang culture of manners and fervour of conviction.

This casting off of all spiritual chains was, naturally, unwelcome to the Papacy. The whole moral scheme of the Western world was based, albeit precariously, upon Original Sin, Redemption by Grace, and a Hell of infinite torment and duration, which could only be avoided through the ministrations of the clergy. It was some time before the Papacy realised the deadlines and the magnitude of the novel sin which was spreading in what we now call Southern France. Once the gravity of the challenge was understood it superseded even the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre from the infidel. In 1209 a Crusade for a different purpose was set on foot, and all temporal forces at the disposal of Rome were directed upon the Albigenses, under the leadership of Philip of France. At this time the burning of heretics and other undesirables, which had been practised sporadically in France, received the formal sanction of law. The process of blotting out the new heresy by the most atrocious cruelties which the human mind can conceive occupied nearly a generation. The heretics, led by the “Perfects,” fought like tigers, regarding death as a final release from the curse of the body. But the work was thoroughly done. The Albigensian heresy was burned out at the stake. Only poor, hungry folk in the forests and mountains, which happily abound in these parts, still harboured those doubts about approaching damnation upon which so much of the discipline and responsibility of human beings and the authority and upkeep of the Church depended.

Of all the leaders in this Crusade none surpassed a certain Simon de Montfort, “a minor lord of the Paris region.” He rose to commanding control in this war, and was acclaimed the effective leader. He was made Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne “at the instance of the barons of God’s army, the legates and the priests present.” This capable, merciless man accomplished the bloody task, and when he fell at the siege of Toulouse he left behind him a son who bore his name, succeeded to his high station among the nobility of the age, and became associated with an idea which has made him for ever famous.


De Burgh’s conduct had been far from blameless, but his fall had been deliberately engineered by men whose object was not to reform administration but to gain power. The leader of this intrigue was his former rival Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester. Des Roches himself kept in the background, but at the Christmas Council of 1232 nearly every post of consequence in the administration was conferred upon his friends, most of them, like him, Poitevins. More was involved in the defeat of de Burgh than the triumph of des Roches and his party. De Burgh was the last of the great Justiciars who had wielded plenary and at times almost sovereign power. Henceforward the Household offices like the Wardrobe, largely dependent upon the royal will and favour, began to overshadow the great “national” offices, like the Justiciarship, filled by the baronial magnates. As they came to be occupied increasingly by foreign intruders, Poitevins, Savoyards, Provençals, the national feeling of the baronage became violently hostile. Under the leadership of Richard the Marshal, a second son of the great William, the barons began to growl against the foreigners. Des Roches retorted that the King had need of foreigners to protect him against the treachery of his natural subjects; and large numbers of Poitevin and Breton mercenaries were brought over to sustain this view. But the struggle was short. In alliance with Prince Llewellyn the young Marshal drove the King among the Welsh marches, sacked Shrewsbury, and harried des Roches’s lands. In the spring of 1234 Henry was forced to accept terms, and, although the Marshal was killed in April, the new Archbishop, Edmund Rich, insisted on the fulfilment of the treaty. The Poitevin officials were dismissed, des Roches found it convenient to go on a journey to Italy, and de Burgh was honourably restored to his lands and possessions.

The Poitevins were the first of the long succession of foreign favourites whom Henry III gathered round him in the middle years of his reign. Hatred of the aliens, who dominated the King, monopo lised the offices, and made scandalous profits out of a country to whose national interests they were completely indifferent, became the theme of baronial opposition. The King’s affection was reserved for those who flattered his vanity and ministered to his caprices. He developed a love for extravagant splendour, and naturally preferred to his morose barons the brilliant adventurers of Poitou and Provence. The culture of medieval Provence, the home of the troubadours and the creed of chivalry, fascinated Henry. In 1236 he married Eleanor, the daughter of Raymond of Provence. With Eleanor came her numerous and needy kinsmen, chief among them her four uncles. A new wave of foreigners descended upon the profitable wardships, marriages, escheats, and benefices, which the disgusted baronage regarded as their own. The King delighted to shower gifts upon his charming relations, and the responsibility for all the evils of his reign was laid upon their shoulders. It is the irony of history that not the least unpopular was this same Simon de Montfort, son of the repressor of the Albigenses.

An even more copious source of discontent in England was the influence of the Papacy over the grateful and pious King. Pope Gregory IX, at desperate grips with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, made ever greater demands for money, and his Legate, Otto, took an interest in English Church Reform. Otto’s demand in 1240 for one-fifth of the clergy’s rents and movables raised a storm. The rectors of Berkshire published a manifesto denying the right of Rome to tax the English Church, and urging that the Pope, like other bishops, should “live of his own.” Nevertheless, early in 1241 Otto returned to Rome with a great treasure; and the Pope rewarded the loyalty of the Italian clergy by granting them the next three hundred vacant English benefices. The election of Innocent IV in 1243 led to renewed demands. In that year the Papal envoy forbade bishops in England to appoint to benefices until the long list of Papal nominees had been exhausted. Robert Grosseteste, scholar, scientist, and saint, a former Master of the Oxford Schools and since 1235 Bishop of Lincoln, led the English clergy in evasion or refusal of Papal demands. He became their champion. Although he still believed that the Pope was absolute, he heralded the attacks which Wyclif was more than a century later to make upon the exactions and corruption of the Roman Court.

The Church, writhing under Papal exaction, and the baronage, offended by Court encroachments, were united in hatred of foreigners. A crisis came in 1244, when a baronial commission was appointed to fix the terms of a money grant to the King. The barons insisted that the Justiciar, Chancellor, and Treasurer, besides certain judges, should be elected by the Great Council, on which they were strongly represented. Four of the King’s Council were to be similarly elected, with power to summon the Great Council. The King turned in his distress to the already mulcted Church, but his appeal was rejected through the influence of Grosseteste. In 1247 the voracious Poitevins encouraged the King in despotic ideas of government. To their appetites were now added those of the King’s three half-brothers, the Lusignans, the sons of John’s Queen, Isabella, by her second marriage. Henry adopted a new tone. “Servants do not judge their master,” he said in 1248. “Vassals do not judge their prince or bind him by conditions. They should put themselves at his disposal and be submissive to his will.” Such language procured no money; and money was the pinch. Henry was forced to sell plate and jewels and give new privileges or new grants of old rights to those who would buy them. Salaries were unpaid, forced gifts extracted; the forest courts were exploited and extortion condoned. In 1252 the King, on the pretext of a Crusade, demanded a tithe of ecclesiastical rents and property for three years. On Grosseteste’s advice the clergy refused this grant, because the King would not on his part confirm Magna Carta. Next year Grosseteste died, indomitable to the last against both Papal and royal exactions.

Meanwhile Henry had secretly accepted greater Continental obligations. The death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick in 1250 revived at Rome the old plan of uniting Sicily, over which he had ruled, to the Papal dominions. In 1254 Henry III accepted the Papal offer of the Sicilian Crown for his younger son Edmund. This was a foolish step, and the conditions attached to the gift raised it to the very height of folly. The English King was to provide an army, and he stood surety for a mass of Papal debts amounting to the vast sum in those days of about £90,000. When the King’s acceptance of the Papal offer became known a storm of indignation broke over his head. Both the Great Council and the clergy refused financial aid. As if this were not enough, at the Imperial election of 1257 the King’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, offered himself as Emperor, and Henry spent lavishly to secure his election. The final stroke was the King’s complete failure to check the successes of Llewellyn, who in 1256 had swept the English out of Wales and intrigued to overthrow the English faction in Scotland. Despised, discredited, and frightened, without money or men, the King faced an angered and powerful opposition.


In the last years of Grosseteste’s life he had come to hope great things of his friend, Simon de Montfort. Simon had married the King’s sister and had inherited the Earldom of Leicester. He had been governor of the English lands in Gascony for four years. Strong and energetic, he had aroused the jealousy and opposition of the King’s favourites; and as a result of their intrigues he had been brought to trial in 1252. The commission acquitted him; but in return for a sum of money from the King he unwillingly agreed to vacate his office. Friendship between him and the King was at an end; on the one side was contempt, on the other suspicion. In this way, from an unexpected quarter, appeared the leader whom the baronial and national opposition had long lacked.

There were many greater notables in England, and his relationship to the King was aspersed by the charge that he had seduced his bride before he married her. None the less there he stood with five resolute sons, an alien leader, who was to become the brain and driving force of the English aristocracy. Behind him gradually ranged themselves most of the great feudal chiefs, the whole strength of London as a corporate entity, all the lower clergy, and the goodwill of the nation. A letter of a Court official, written in July 1258, has been preserved. The King, so it says, had yielded to what he felt was overwhelming pressure. A commission for reform of government was set up; it was agreed that “public offices should only be occupied by the English,” and that “the emissaries of Rome and the foreign merchants and bankers should be reduced to their proper station.” Grants of land to foreigners, the position of the King’s Household, the custody of the fortresses, were all called in question. “The barons,” writes our civil servant, “have a great and difficult task which cannot be carried out easily or quickly. They are proceeding . . . ferociter. May the results be good!”

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