Post-classical history

The Reign of King John, 1199–1216

On the night of 10 April 1199 Hubert Walter was roused from his sleep in Rouen priory by the news of Richard’s death. There were, as he at once observed, two possible candidates for the succession: Richard’s youngest brother, John, and Richard’s nephew, Arthur. But Arthur, twelve years old, allied to the king of France and brought up in Brittany (to which he was heir through his mother Constance), had few connections with the great Anglo-Norman barons, as one of them, William Marshal (who had flung on his clothes and gone to waken Hubert), pointed out. Thus John’s accession in the north went without a hitch. On 25 April he was invested at Rouen with the duchy of Normandy; on 27 May he was crowned king of England at Westminster. It was the start of one of the most disastrous and momentous reigns in history. John was to lose Normandy and Anjou, concede Magna Carta, and die in the midst of a civil war. By then a French prince controlled more than half of England, the king of Scotland was established in Carlisle, and Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of Gwynedd was dominant in Wales, a dominance he retained till his death in 1240.

On his accession John was thirty-three years old, slightly built (though later he grew corpulent), and five foot six and a half inches tall. His body, entombed in Worcester cathedral, is the first of an English king to survive. He had behaved irresponsibly in Ireland in 1185 and had rebelled against his father and his brother. Yet the picture of John as an evil, godless tyrant for whom hell was too good, as the chronicler Matthew Paris put it, was essentially the product of the reign itself and later legend. John had fought loyally and successfully for Richard between 1194 and 1199. In 1199 the jury was still out.

After his coronation John hurried back across the Channel, and with the help of his mother, Queen Eleanor, now well into her seventies, beat back Arthur’s challenge in Maine and Anjou. Under the Treaty of Le Goulet in May 1200, King Philip accepted John’s succession to all the Angevin dominions, a major concession since it meant abandoning Arthur and with him the longstanding Capetian ambition to break up the dominions. Arthur was to have only Brittany and to hold it from John as duke of Normandy, not from Philip as king of France. John on his part, however, forswore alliances with both his nephew Otto, recently crowned emperor, and the count of Flanders. He also accepted the loss of the Evreçin, which Philip had overrun on Richard’s death. So another deep hole was dug in Normandy’s frontier. In England John was lampooned in some circles as ‘softsword’, yet he was also praised as a peacemaker who understood far better than Richard the burdens imposed by the seven years’ war since 1193. When in November 1200 John settled a quarrel with the Cistercians, Ralph of Coggeshall, a monk of the order, erased previous criticisms from his chronicle and wrote of a wise and pious king, touched by the hand of God. Coggeshall’s tune was soon to change. Within four years of the Le Goulet treaty the whole edifice of John’s continental empire had come crashing to the ground. At one level that was very much the result of his character and the mistakes he made.

In August 1200, having divorced his first wife, John married Isabella, daughter and sole heir of the count of Angoulême. Strategically, in knitting together his southern dominions the match was a masterstroke. But instead of compensating Hugh de Lusignan, the great Poitevin noble to whom Isabella had been engaged, John tried to bully him into submission. Hugh appealed for justice to the king of France, and thus gave Philip his chance. His court in the spring of 1202 sentenced John to forfeit all his continental fiefs. In the ensuing war, John at first triumphed. At Mirebeau in July 1202 he captured Arthur, the Lusignans and all his Poitevin enemies. But he then made another great mistake by antagonizing the great Angevin magnate, William des Roches, the main architect of his success. By the spring of 1203 the defection of William with his allies had given King Philip both Maine and Anjou.

Normandy, however, was the real prize, its revenues greater than the rest of the continental possessions put together. Here the north-east, centre and south-west of the duchy, as Daniel Power has shown, came under different pressures. The south-eastern frontiers had never been threatened by the king of France, but the nobles there (like Robert, count of Sées and Alençon) had close connections with their fellows in Maine and Anjou and were influenced by their conduct. In January 1203 Count Robert breakfasted with John in the morning and defected to Philip in the afternoon, thus prising away the south of the duchy and blocking John’s route onwards into Maine. By this time the cruel treatment of the prisoners taken at Mirebeau and ugly rumours about Arthur’s fate were staining John’s reputation. John took no heed. On 3 April 1203, in a drunken rage, he murdered Arthur at Rouen. Richard had starved to death one of John’s partisans, but to murder a great prince in this manner was shocking and unprecedented. Had not Henry I kept his brother Robert all those years in prison? The immediate consequences were again in the south-west, on the frontier with Brittany. Arthur’s mother Constance, and her husband, Guy de Thouars, joined Philip and played a large part in disrupting John’s hold on eastern Normandy.

It was in the north-east that King Philip could bring most pressure, thanks to his acquisition of the Amienois, his alliance with the count of Ponthieu (married to Richard’s discarded Alice), and his possession of Evreux, Gisors and the Norman Vexin. The Norman nobility in these areas, like Hugh de Gournay and the count of Meulan, often held land across the frontiers from the king of France or his vassals, and had no alternative but to flow with the tide. In these circumstances supreme importance attached to maintaining Richard’s northern alliances. But John lacked Richard’s prestige and was unable to outbid Philip. As a result, in 1201 the warrior count of Boulogne followed the count of Flanders (who was soon to be absent on crusade) into Philip’s camp. The Emperor Otto’s own troubles in Germany ruled out any succour from that quarter. Philip was free to attack.

Angevin rule was most secure in central Normandy between Caen and Rouen, but it was precisely this area and its towns that had borne the brunt of Richard’s mounting exactions. John made matters worse. In August 1202 he appointed a low-born and aggressive seneschal, William le Gros, to run the duchy; he then stationed his mercenaries, under Louvrecaire, not on the frontiers but at Falaise, where they offended Anglo-Norman barons, like the earl of Leicester, and pillaged ‘as though they were in an enemy country’ (so the Life of William Marshal recorded). ‘For such things was he hated and betrayed by the barons of the land,’ commented a Caen burgess.

Philip began his invasion in the summer of 1203 and in August laid siege to Château Gaillard. John made only one attempt to relieve it. Everywhere, as Ralph of Coggeshall observed, he suspected betrayal. He had betrayed his father and his brother and expected the same conduct from everyone else. In the end he was right, but partly because his suspicions, so openly displayed, became self-fulfilling. ‘He who trusts no one is distrusted by all the world,’ commented The Life of William Marshal. In the end John’s nerve cracked. In December 1203 he slunk back to England, a fugitive in his own land. How different it would have been with Richard! John’s aim was to gather resources to return. But he was too late. On 6 March, as he arranged to send his dogs back to Normandy, Château Gaillard fell. On 24 June Rouen surrendered. Normandy was Philip’s.

There was more to come. The death of Eleanor of Aquitaine on 1 April 1204 shook John’s hold on Poitou and the Touraine. In August 1204 Philip held court in Poitiers, and next year took the great fortresses of Loches and Chinon, the latter long defended by an English hero, Hubert de Burgh. Further south King Alfonso VIII of Castile overran part of Gascony, determined to make good the promise of its possession after Eleanor’s death, made to him – or so he claimed – on his marriage to Henry II’s daughter. It was not till 1206 that John at last launched an expedition to reverse his losses. He landed at La Rochelle in Poitou, evicted Alfonso’s garrisons from Gascony, and then marched north to Angers only to retreat in the face of Philip’s army. A truce in October left Philip in control of all the country north of the Loire, as well as Poitiers, and with the allegiance of the Lusignans to the south.

The expedition of 1206 showed the measure of John’s task. It was one thing (with limited interference from Philip) to dabble in the shifting allegiances of the barons south of the Loire, and win back the Gascon towns. Indeed he had never lost Bordeaux and Bayonne. It was quite another to recover Normandy. He had neither ports nor, having lost Anjou and Maine, contiguous frontiers from which to invade. Philip held Normandy in a vice, becoming 70 per cent richer thanks to its abundant revenues. He cleared out those he distrusted, comparing them to soiled toilet tissue, and installed his own men in the key castles. Learning from John’s mistake, he left Anjou and Maine under William des Roches, but further south he retained Saumur, Chinon, Tours and Poitiers. Just to get near Normandy, John had to advance through hostile territory.

Mean in triumph where Richard had been generous, despairing in disaster where Richard had been supremely confident, an unremarkable fighting knight where Richard had been a legend, John inspired fear and loathing, Richard fear and respect. These were the differences between the loss and retention of the empire. Yet there was also more to it than that. King Philip was a far more formidable opponent in 1200 than he had been in the 1180s. That was partly because of his seizure of Gisors and the Norman Vexin. It was also (though more arguably) because Capetian revenues had been increasing faster than those of the Angevins. The revenue of England had remained comparatively static under Richard; and if Richard in the 1190s had on occasion tripled his revenue from Normandy in comparison with the level in 1180, this was by resorting to loans and tallages that were difficult to sustain. The Capetian increases, on the other hand, were soundly based on administrative reforms and the acquisition of new territory, notably Artois and the Amienois. By the 1200s the resources King Philip had for the war in Normandy were almost certainly larger than those of John. In the financial year 1202/3 (for which a set of accounts survives) ‘ordinary’ Capetian revenue was some £42,000, while ‘extraordinary’ levies brought in another £10,000: total, £52,000. These sums enabled Philip to sustain, throughout the year, over 2,300 troops of whom 500 were mounted knights and sergeants, a formidable force. If the loans and tallages found in the Norman pipe roll for 1198 were indeed still in place, then the duchy’s annual revenues on the eve of the war totalled some £24,000. The revenue from England between 1199 and 1202 (including an estimate for an ‘extraordinary’ tax in 1200) averaged almost exactly the same, John having notably failed to expand it in this period. The total for England and Normandy was £48,000 and to it should be added perhaps a thousand or so pounds apiece from Maine, Anjou, Aquitaine and Ireland. But if the combined Angevin total was much the same as the Capetian, it could not be transferred to Normandy by the flick of a switch. Indeed, the revenues from Maine, Anjou and Aquitaine were probably absorbed locally. Only Normandy and England really entered the equation, and the treasure of England had to be transported across the Channel, whereas Capetian resources came from a compact, lucrative royal demesne, adjoining the Norman frontier. The Capetians also had one other advantage. Their revenue rivalled that of the Angevins but provoked far less political discontent, largely because a much higher proportion came in easily and uncontentiously from land. ‘The French kings got rich without strain,’ in R. W. Southern’s classic phrase. Whereas a sense of community and national identity in England developed in opposition to the crown, in France it was exactly the reverse. There was no chance that John’s cause would be helped by any kind of Capetian political collapse.

In this period of intensive warfare, John, like Richard, faced the problem of how to mobilize his full military potential. At the heart of royal armies were the household knights. At any one time, John had over a hundred of them supported by money and (more often) by grants of wardships, marriages and escheats. If their numbers seem smaller than the several hundreds sometimes ascribed to Henry I, the comparison may be misleading. John’s knights could well have been more heavily equipped. We also know of their numbers from record sources as opposed simply to the statements of chroniclers. Closely linked to the household contingent were the fluctuating mercenary forces under such experts as Mercadier and Louvrecair. And then each individual tenant-in-chief, lay and ecclesiastical, had to provide the king with knights in return for the tenure of their fees. Such feudal service, however, was supposed to last only for forty days, long enough for a foray into Wales or Scotland, but useless for long periods of campaigning on the continent. Indeed some claimed it was not owed for service on the continent at all. There was also the question of just how many knights feudal service could raise. According to the survey of 1166, which perhaps reflects the quotas imposed by the Conqueror, the grand total of knights the tenants-in-chief owed the king was around 5,000. Record evidence from John’s reign, however, shows both that his armies were much smaller (he took 800 knights to Ireland in 1210) and that his tenants-in-chief mustered contingents which were only a fraction of their 1166 quotas. Gilbert de Gant went to Ireland with six knights, not the sixty-eight he supposedly owed. The 1166 quotas seem chiefly relevant for the levying of scutage. Had he not campaigned, Gant would certainly have paid on the full sixty-eight knights. (The rate in 1210 was £2 per knight.) To what extent all this represents a dramatic decline in the military obligations of the baronage, and if so when and why it took place, is difficult to say given the lack of hard evidence for the actual size of earlier contingents. There is also once again the question of different levels of equipment. However, that kings from Henry II onwards felt feudal military service was unsatisfactory is clear. To have replaced it altogether with scutage would have weakened their authority, even if the paid forces on whom to spend the money were available. So they attempted reform. Richard and Hubert Walter demanded that the tenants-in-chief as a whole provide 300 knights to serve abroad for a year. John, for his part, kept armies in the field by giving knights ‘prests’, that is loans of money (often left unpaid), which apparently they felt were more dignified than wages.

It was not easy, therefore, to exploit the military potential of England, and much depended on the general supportiveness of its barons and knights, something itself connected with how far they had a stake of their own in Normandy. Among the county knights at the heart of English local society, that stake was very limited. In the twelfth century only seven of the seventy leading families in Warwickshire and Leicestershire held land in the duchy. There were equally numerous Norman landholders with no base in England: of the thirty-eight Normans known to have deserted John in 1203, only eight had English lands which he could confiscate. Cross-Channel ties had weakened over the century. Few new Norman families were established in England after the immediate post-Conquest period. The number of individuals holding land in both England and Normandy diminished as families split property between branches on either side of the Channel. By 1200 all but one of the seven Warwickshire and Leicestershire families mentioned above had lost their continental possessions. This is not, however, the whole story, for even in 1200 there remained significant numbers of barons who did hold land in both the kingdom and the duchy. Indeed acts of royal patronage could recreate such families: the marriage Richard arranged for William Marshal made him lord of Longueville in Normandy as well as Chepstow in Wales and Leinster in Ireland. Of the 199 Norman tenants-in-chief in 1172, 107 (or their descendants) held lands on both sides of the Channel in 1204. Likewise (and the groups overlapped) some of the greatest members of the English nobility held substantial lands in Normandy: for example the earls of Chester, Leicester, Warenne, Clare, Hereford, Arundel and Pembroke (William Marshal), together with William de Mowbray and Robert de Ros. If these men did not fight with more vigour, it was partly because of John’s flaws of character. It was also because until the last moment they hoped for some arrangement whereby they could indeed serve two masters, holding their lands in England from John and those in Normandy from Philip. William Marshal secured such a concession. His subsequent refusal to go on the 1206 campaign shows how right John was to force a choice on everyone else. If barons did homage to King Philip, then they forfeited their English lands and Philip naturally responded with equivalent seizures in Normandy.

The Capetian conquest of Normandy was a turning-point in European history. It made the Capetian kings dominant in western Europe, and ended the cross-Channel Anglo-Norman state. True, even in political terms England did not cease to be part of the ‘community of Europe’. It was not till 1259 that John’s son formally resigned his claims to Normandy and Anjou, and even then he retained Gascony. Yet the days of the absentee kings were over. Gascony, lacking revenues and great ducal palaces, had never attracted more than infrequent visits before 1204, nor did it afterwards even when its revenues increased. From 1204, in terms of their itineraries kings of England for the first time since 1066 were just that. The fact that John returned to England in 1206 after just six months across the Channel was symptomatic. The mutual seizures of property had also helped to bring the cross-Channel nobility to an end. Henceforth the high aristocracy would be born and hold lands only in England. They could become as English as everyone else. The consequences of these changes for the political structure of Britain would be profound.

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At the start of his reign John had continued to keep Geoffrey fitz Peter in office as justiciar while recalling Hubert Walter to the colours as chancellor. From any role at the centre, however, one person was absent: the queen John had acquired at such cost, Isabella of Angoulême. Since she was only about twelve on her marriage that was inevitable. Subsequently John used her to beget heirs, two sons (the eldest the future Henry III, born in 1207) and three daughters. But despite her magnificent coronation in 1200, he used her for little else. He treated Angoulême as his own and granted Isabella no land in England for her support. Her dower (much of it formerly held by Eleanor of Aquitaine) she was to receive only on his death. Isabella was therefore totally dependent on John’s supplies of money and played no discernible part in the politics and government of the reign, despite being, as later evidence shows, a passionate and highly political woman.

Under the fitz Peter/Hubert Walter partnership England enjoyed a ‘tranquil peace’, according to Gervase of Canterbury, during which Hubert introduced significant changes to the practices of the chancery. Hitherto it had kept only one annual roll, a record of ‘fines’, that is the money offered to the king for concessions and favours. Now it opened three more rolls to record charters, writs patent, and writs close (see above, p. 199). With another roll, hived off from the close rolls in 1226, to record writs dealing with the expenditure of money, these chancery rolls became a permanent feature of English royal government, transforming the materials available to later historians. The record they provided of concessions and orders meant the king could potentially rule his agents and subjects with novel precision.

This ‘tranquil’ period came to an end with the loss of Normandy in 1204, a watershed on the road to Magna Carta. John now spent more time in England than any king since 1066, excepting only Stephen. For ‘ten furious years’ (J. C. Holt) he lashed his court round the country, rarely staying for more than a week in one place. His aim was to amass the treasure to win Normandy back. His need for money was accentuated by the rapid inflation which occurred around the start of his reign (see above, p. 35), with prices more than doubling. A mercenary knight had to be paid 8d. a day under Henry II and 2s. a day under John, a threefold increase, though possibly one influenced by the need for heavier equipment. Income derived from selling agricultural produce on the market rose with the prices and was thus protected, but a far smaller proportion of royal than baronial revenue came in that way. Instead, with the depletion of the royal demesne under Stephen and Richard, kings relied increasingly on other sources of income, sources which bore down directly on individuals, and were far more unpopular than land, whose exploitation only harmed the peasantry.

John’s revenues have been investigated by Nick Barratt. Between 1199 and 1202, they averaged around £24,000 a year, much the same as the best figures attained by Richard I and Henry II, and much the same indeed as Henry I’s revenue in 1130. Between 1207 and 1212, the average was some £49,000 a year, double the earlier sum. If we make the reasonable assumption that two-thirds of a £44,000 tallage levied on the Jews in 1210 were paid, then the average becomes some £54,000. In real terms, allowing for the inflation, John’s revenue between 1207 and 1212 (including the Jewish tallage) was running at roughly 25 per cent a year more than that of Henry I in 1130. And Henry I, of course, was a king of fabled wealth. Probably the years after 1207 saw the greatest level of financial exploitation since the Conquest. None of this takes account of the revenue John got from the church during the Interdict: some £100,000, more than half of which he probably never returned. No wonder that by 1214 John had a treasure of some £130,000.

The new financial policies were signalled in 1204 when John appointed new sheriffs who, building on the precedent of 1194, were expected to raise substantial additional sums above the ‘ancient’ farms of their counties (see above, pp. 155, 260). As a result, between 1207 and 1212 they owed on average an extra £1,400 per annum to the exchequer. Having less money for themselves, they recouped their losses through a series of illicit extortions. John also exploited the royal forest, mounting forest eyres in 1207 and 1212 which imposed amercements totalling some £11,350, the most oppressive since those of Henry II in the 1170s. In 1210 he demanded a £44,000 tallage from the Jews. A Bristol Jew, according to one story, had a tooth knocked out each day until he paid up. The more normal penalty was the seizure of Jewish assets, with the result that Christian borrowers ended up owing their money to the king. One way or another, pressure on the Jews put pressure on everyone who owed them money, from barons down to peasants. John’s most lucrative measure, however, was the great tax (or ‘aid’) he levied in 1207, with the common consent of the realm, or so he said. The demand was for 13 per cent of the value of everyone’s rents and movable property, largely corn and animals. There were precedents for such taxation, notably in the aid for Richard’s ransom, but this is the first for which the take is known: a stupendous £60,000, which dwarfed the £2–3,000 raised by scutage. Not surprisingly the tax pointed the way forward for the whole future of English royal finance.

These financial policies affected not just magnates and the church but knights, freemen and peasants, ‘the miserable provincials’ as the Barnwell annalist called them. But there were also exactions which were borne more directly by the baronage, at least in the first instance. John expanded Richard’s policy of charging baronial widows large sums for staying single or marrying whom they wished: there were 149 such fines in the reign, averaging £185, as against sixty-eight averaging £114 between 1189 and 1199. The barons were likewise put under pressure by the increasing incidence of scutage: the product of John’s campaigns both on the continent and in the British Isles. Henry II had levied eight scutages in thirty-four years, Richard three in ten years; John levied eleven in sixteen years, and at higher rates than before. John also, like Richard, demanded large sums for ‘justice’ and succession to inheritances. Between 1199 and 1208 magnate indebtedness to the crown increased by 380 per cent. The rebellion of 1215, as J. C. Holt has remarked, was indeed a rebellion of the king’s debtors.

While John took too much from his subjects in money, he gave back too little in the form of justice. The new procedures for civil litigation, introduced by Henry II, had proved highly popular with the gentry and free tenants (see above, p. 240). By developing them the king could win the support of those sections of society and outflank the great barons. John certainly showed an interest in the routine of justice, yet instead of playing his strongest card he threw it away. Fearful of rival centres of authority during the Interdict, and distrustful of his justiciar, Geoffrey fitz Peter, between 1209 and 1214 he virtually closed down both the common bench at Westminster and the judicial eyres in the counties. Instead, even routine assizes had to be heard by judges who were with the king; impossibly inconvenient for litigants, given John’s hectic peregrinations around the country. Barons litigating against each other, meanwhile, continued to be subject to the venal and arbitrary processes determined by the king, rather than the routine procedures of the common law (see above, p. 241).

Sale and denial of justice, as well as financial extortion and arbitrary disseisin, are all illustrated by the interlocking histories of two Yorkshire baronial families, those of Stuteville and Mowbray. The Stuteville lands, forfeited in 1106, had been given by Henry I to his protégé, Nigel d’Aubigny, whose descendants took the name of Mowbray after the centre of their Norman estates. The Stutevilles had subsequently worked their way back into royal favour, and in 1200 William de Stuteville began a legal action to recover his inheritance, offering John £2,000 to receive ‘right’ in the case. William de Mowbray countered by offering £1,333 ‘to be treated justly according to the custom of England’. In the event a compromise was arranged in 1201, and Mowbray was not made to pay the money immediately. In 1209 he still owed £1,200. But then, as John tightened the financial screw, matters changed. By 1212 Mowbray had been forced to reduce his obligations by £560, only then to be saddled with another £400 thanks to his Jewish debts being taken into the king’s hands. Mowbray’s small frame (he was as small as a dwarf) must have seethed with resentment. No wonder he was a leading rebel in 1215. Meanwhile, William de Stuteville had died. His lands had come into royal wardship and been ruthlessly exploited by the king’s agent, Brian de Lisle. Eventually in 1205 William’s brother, Nicholas de Stuteville, succeeded him, but his payment to enter his inheritance was not the £100 widely claimed as the reasonable figure for a barony but an exorbitant £6,666 (10,000 marks). This time John did not want the money. He wanted the Stuteville castle of Knaresborough and retained it as security for payment. This was regarded by the Stutevilles as arbitrary disseisin ‘by will of the king’. No wonder Nicholas joined the rebels.

The Stuteville–Mowbray story reveals another failing of John’s rule, namely the narrowing circle of ‘ins’ and the widening circle of ‘outs’. In the end, John lost the Stutevilles as well as the Mowbrays. To be sure, with his cynical political intelligence the king understood well enough the need for the carrot as well as the stick. At the start of his reign he gave William de Ferrers some of the Peverel inheritance and recognized him as earl of Derby (see above, p. 224); henceforth Ferrers remained ‘on side’. So did Ferrers’s brother-in-law, Ranulf, earl of Chester, after he received the honour of Richmond in 1205. Yet in other cases it all went wrong. John, for example, brought Henry de Bohun in by making him earl of Hereford but then cast him out by seizing Trowbridge, another alleged act of dispossession ‘by will’. The growing number of hostages taken from his barons and of fines to recover royal favour were a measure of John’s mounting isolation and distrust.

As John’s baronial supporters fell away, so it seemed that those who took their place were parvenus and foreigners. At first this was least apparent at the centre. Hubert Walter had died in 1205 but Geoffrey fitz Peter, self-made but courteous and acceptable, whom John created earl of Essex, remained as justiciar until his death in 1213. In the localities it was different. There a set of aggressive royal agents became entrenched in office. Some were not merely ‘new men’ but also aliens like Engelard de Cigogné, sheriff of Gloucester, from Touraine, and all the more ruthless for their lack of English ties. All kings needed ‘new men’ in their service, but it was a great mistake to give the impression, as John had also done in Normandy, that such creatures alone had his trust.

Resentment against John’s style of government was particularly strong in the north. The financial burdens born by northerners like William de Mowbray and Nicholas de Stuteville created wide circles of antagonism. Mowbray’s pledges in 1209 for the repayment of his debts included Eustace de Vesci, Robert de Ros and Roger de Montbegon, all great northern barons and leading rebels in 1215. The royal forest in the north was extensive: the eyres of 1207 and 1212 each demanded more than £1,200 from Yorkshire. Pressure also came from revenue demanded above the county farms; the income for which the sheriff of Yorkshire accounted in 1212 was roughly twice that of 1204 and treble that of 1199. The north was also the home of some of John’s most ruthless agents: Brian de Lisle (whose origins are totally obscure) took over at Knaresborough; Philip Mark (from Touraine) became sheriff of Nottingham. Then in 1214 another Tourangeau, Peter de Mauley (rumoured to be Arthur’s murderer), was established at Doncaster through marriage. Of course, such tensions were not unique to the north, but they seemed more novel since the northern counties had only gradually, from Henry II’s reign onwards, felt the full force of royal government. John indeed came north in every year of his reign bar four – far more frequently than any of his predecessors. The face he showed was minatory. The leading part played by ‘the Northerners’ in the ultimate rebellion was the result.

While John drove forward the government of England, he also plunged into a great quarrel with the papacy. Hubert Walter’s death in July 1205 was followed by a dispute over the election of his successor, with the monks of Canterbury, or a party among them, choosing their sub-prior and then being forced by John to plump instead for John de Grey, an effective bishop of Norwich and a trusted royal agent, later to be justiciar of Ireland. Next year Pope Innocent III quashed both elections, summoned a delegation of the monks of Canterbury to Rome and made them elect Stephen Langton. Langton was an Englishman from a modest Lincolnshire family (Langton is near Wragby). He had spent twenty years in the Schools of Paris, becoming a master both in arts and theology. His lectures on the Bible, disputations and sermons had given him a towering reputation. In 1206 Innocent summoned this academic superstar to join the cardinals at Rome and was impressed by the purity of his life and the wisdom of his counsel. John saw things differently. University professors did not swim into his orbit very often and he did not know this one. The old custom that the king should at least influence the election and consent to its outcome had been flouted. Langton might be English by birth but he had spent twenty years in the Capetian capital. What a contrast to Hubert Walter, steeped in Angevin service before his election and continuing in harness thereafter! There would be no help like that from Langton. His appointment spelt one thing: trouble.

John refused to accept him. His predecessors would have done the same. The result was that in March 1208 an Interdict was imposed on England and in November 1209 John was excommunicated. Under the terms of the Interdict no church services and offices were to be permitted save the baptism of infants and the confession of the dying. The laity were left without the Mass, and without burial in consecrated ground. ‘O 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 celebrations of saints days, the bodies of the dead not given to burial according to Christian rites, of whom the stink infected the air and the horrible sight filled with horror the minds of the living’: these were the comments of Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall on the much shorter Interdict in France in 1200. His feelings about the English Interdict were so extreme that after John’s settlement with the pope he excised them from his chronicle.

John, however, was made of sterner stuff. Although he founded the Cistercian abbey at Beaulieu, he was not a pious man: his household accounts are full of offerings to the poor to atone for hunting on feast days or eating meat on Fridays. ‘How fat that stag has grown without ever attending Mass,’ ran one reported joke. In any case, the Interdict did nothing to affect the basic processes of government. Indeed the church revenues, seized during its course, made a major contribution to John’s great mulct of the kingdom.

And yet John found himself under increasing pressure to reach a settlement. The bishops, forced to choose between king and pope, chose the pope. Once John de Grey had gone off to be justiciar of Ireland in 1208, only one bishop, the Tourangeau Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, remained by the king. Even those who were former chancery clerks and exchequer officials recognized Langton and went into exile. There could be no more striking testimony to the growth of papal authority over the previous hundred years. Innocent was also lucky in that he could exploit both John’s unpopularity in England and his conflict with the king of France. His hints that John might be deposed fell on fertile soil, and John became increasingly nervous, travelling with a large retinue. In 1211 he at last indicated that he would accept Langton, but he still haggled over the amount of compensation due to the church.

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After 1204, John had one overriding ambition: to recover his lost continental empire. Yet his involvement in Britain was of an unparalleled intensity, partly because he was now confined there. Like Henry and Richard, he was determined to neutralize any threat from Scotland and also, far more actively than they, to increase his lands and revenues in Ireland and Wales. Baronial politics too assumed a British, rather than Anglo-Norman, mould. When William Marshal and William de Braose fell from favour they did not go to Normandy but to Ireland.

At the start of his reign John had brushed aside King William’s renewed claim to the northern counties and thereafter tensions remained not far below the surface. In 1209 they exploded. John suddenly heard of a scheme for one of William’s daughters to marry none other than King Philip of France. He immediately marched north and imposed the exigent Treaty of Norham on the Scottish king in August 1209. Under its terms, John received both William’s daughters into his custody and agreed to marry one to his eldest son and the other to an English noble. In return for these unpalatable favours, William was made to promise £10,000, of which at least £6,700 was paid. He now no longer had the resources, either diplomatic or financial, to cause John trouble. His situation soon deteriorated further. In 1211 Guthred, son of the Donald Mac William killed in 1187, arrived from Ireland and gained support both in Ross and Moray. William, faltering with age, began to fear for the very succession of his son Alexander, born in August 1198. His fears were shared by Alexander’s mother, Ermengarde de Beaumont, the French noblewoman Henry II had married to William in 1187. It was thus Ermengarde, a striking image of a Scottish queen in politics, who helped early in 1212 to negotiate the agreement which brought John to the rescue. With some vague talk of Northumberland as her marriage portion, the latter betrothed his infant daughter Joan to Alexander, made him a knight, and sent him back to Scotland with a force of Brabantine mercenaries. With these, Alexander soon put down Guthred’s revolt, Guthred himself being caught and hanged. To the Barnwell annalist it looked as though the Scottish kingdom itself had been formally entrusted to John’s care.

* * *

John’s involvement in Scotland was not merely to prevent a French alliance. It was also related to the state of affairs in Ireland. John had been effectively ‘lord of Ireland’ since his visit in 1185. He enjoyed the status, and retained the title after becoming king. Ireland provided both sources of patronage and money. Year after year a thousand pounds or so were shipped across the sea to swell his English treasure. John’s primary policy, in parallel with that in England, was to make those revenues larger, which could be done by gaining more land and exploiting it more effectively. In 1203 he therefore ordered his justiciar to take over the best ports and villages in Connacht, and invest the revenues in building castles, founding more villages and doing everything possible for royal ‘profit’. It was likewise with the aim of making money that John in 1207 instituted the first Irish coinage. His lordship did indeed mark a decisive period in Ireland’s history. He achieved a large and lasting expansion in the areas under direct royal control, annexed (temporarily) two of the great settler lordships, and established the procedures of English common law.

The political conditions in Ireland facilitated John’s forward policies. There was not merely conflict between Irish kings and English lords. The kingly families in the west – the MacCarthys of Desmond, the O’Briens of Thomond, and the O’Connors of Connacht – competed against each other and were themselves divided into rival and often warring segments. The great English lords – the justiciar Meiler fitz Henry, Walter de Lacy in Meath, John de Courcy in Ulster, William Marshal in Leinster (through his marriage to the daughter of Richard fitz Gilbert) – likewise presented no united front. All this was grist to John’s manipulative mill. He had no fixed policy towards either the native Irish or the settler lords, and he cosseted or caned them as seemed expedient. This is not to say he saw them in the same light. John had pulled the beards of the Irish rulers when he arrived in 1185, and always regarded them as objects of ridicule. He could maltreat them, moreover, without repercussions outside Ireland, whereas with settler lords he had always to remember the wider stage. Yet just for that reason John could tolerate the independence of the former more readily than he could the latter.

In the 1190s John had made major advances at the expense of both English lords and native kings. In the north his men had pushed Walter de Lacy out of Drogheda, which then (with its castle) developed into a royal base, though one Walter always aspired to recover. In the southwest, the death of Donnell O’Brien, king of Munster in 1194, and the quarrels between his sons, enabled John to gain Limerick. Occupying a highly strategic position at the mouth of the Shannon, it opened up a whole new field of royal power. John’s other major gain arose from exploiting the contest for the succession to Connacht, playing off his protégé, William de Burgh, against competing members of the O’Connor family. In 1205 John, discarding William, conceded to Cathal Crovderg two-thirds of Connacht for the customary tribute, and a third (the best) in hereditary right as a barony. Here was a striking example of a native ruler attaining his ends by accommodation. By going baronial, Cathal hoped to ensure the succession of his son Aedh, and also to guarantee his lands from further English attack. In return, after various exchanges, John eventually acquired two cantrefs near Athlone. There in 1210 a great castle was erected above the Shannon. Right in the centre of Ireland, between Meath and Connacht, this long remained a pivotal royal base. John’s guarantees were never worth very much, however. On the same day in 1215, he issued one charter granting Connacht to Cathal Crovderg and another to Cathal’s rival Richard de Burgh, William’s son!

William de Burgh merely fell from favour in the early 1200s. John de Courcy, the conqueror of Ulster, lost everything. In 1201 the chronicler Roger of Howden had placed him in a list of European rulers alongside the pope and the kings of England, France and Germany; not bad for a near landless younger son, but too much for King John. He backed the Lacys in a war which ended with de Courcy’s defeat and capture. In 1205 John granted Ulster to Hugh de Lacy. These tensions paled before John’s quarrel with William de Braose, which became one of the defining events of the reign. Lord of Bramber in Sussex and wide lordships in Wales, Braose had started as one of John’s leading henchmen and been rewarded in 1201 (despite William de Burgh’s presence in the area) with a grant of the honour of Limerick. John, however, retained the chief prize, the town of Limerick itself. It was needed, so John’s justiciar Meiler fitz Henry insisted, to control the king’s lands in Cork and Connacht. So possession of Limerick town became a great bone of contention, and there was yet another. Braose had promised to pay £3,333 at £666 a year for his grant. By 1207 he had managed a mere £468. As trust disintegrated, John began to regret the early favour he had shown Braose including in Wales a hereditary grant of the lordship of Gower. John eventually seized chattels in Wales to enforce payment of the debt. The result was a violent conflict which culminated, during the winter of 1208/9, in Braose’s flight to Ireland. There he was welcomed by his son-in-law Walter de Lacy and William Marshal, who had retreated to his Leinster lordship (where he busily developed the port of New Ross) after falling from grace for refusing to join the Poitevin expedition of 1206. In effect, the great barons of Ireland were in rebellion against the king.

In 1209 John marched north to ensure the rebels received no help from Scotland (the occasion for the Treaty of Norham) and then, in the summer of 1210, crossed to Ireland. He came to terms with some of the native kings, but made the mistake of laughing when he saw Cathal Crovderg riding bareback. He then caused further offence by demanding hostages and tribute from both Cathal and Aedh O’Neil, king of Cenel Eoghain in the north, who thereafter remained a thorn in the side of royal government. John, however, could afford to be careless. Flush with money, he had brought over 1,000 foot soldiers and at least 800 knights, probably the largest army ever seen in Ireland, all supported by payments out of the chamber. William de Braose, having returned to Wales, had already tried to submit before John’s crossing, but John was determined to show his power. He chased Braose’s wife Matilda, together with Walter and Hugh de Lacy, out of Ireland.

Matilda was captured in Galloway and sent to John. She was already celebrated for her efficient household management, her defence of Painscastle in the 1190s (thereafter renamed Castle Matilda), and her fiery refusal to surrender her sons as hostages – ‘Arthur’s fate reveals what happens to boys in John’s custody,’ she declared. John’s own account of the quarrel shows he regarded husband and wife very much as a team. Once in John’s hands, Matilda was made to offer £33,333 merely for the life and limbs of herself and her family. Wretched but courageous, she insisted on seeing her husband, who came under safe conduct and then fled to France (where he died in 1211), leaving Matilda to her fate. When the king’s ministers came to her in prison and demanded the first payment of the monstrous sum, they found but £16 and a few pieces of gold. She and her eldest son (married to a daughter of Richard de Clare, earl of Hertford, and already acting as lord of Brecon) were starved to death in the dungeons of Windsor Castle. Stories of the pathetic attitudes in which their bodies were found were soon on every baronial lip. Here again was a shocking and unprecedented crime.

John’s expedition, however, had been a triumph. Both in Wales and Ireland the Braose lordships were in his hands. So in Ireland were the Lacys’ Meath and Ulster. In 1212, to control the latter and secure contingents of Galloway’s violent soldiery, he granted Ulster (abortively, in the end) to Galloway’s lord, Alan fitz Roland. During his 1210 visit, John had also taken major steps to settle the whole governmental structure of Ireland. He wanted to monitor and exploit Ireland yet had no desire to go there, as he once confessed to Gerald of Wales. He relied on sending letters (usually in great batches after the advent of messengers) and summoning the justiciar, head of the government, to court. From 1208 until his death in 1214 the post was held by the ultra-loyal John de Grey, bishop of Norwich, an accomplished administrator who had no personal axe to grind in Ireland – unlike his predecessor, Meiler fitz Henry. Grey built the castle at Athlone and did much to develop law and government. As justiciar he presided over the exchequer which was based in Dublin castle, built in 1204 to control the city and store treasure. The pipe rolls of the Irish exchequer are lost, but a partial copy of that for 1212 suggests procedure was similar to that in England. It shows that the king’s lands were grouped under three sheriffs, for Dublin and Drogheda, for Munster (embracing Limerick and Tipperary), and for Waterford and Cork. The Lacy lordships of Meath and Ulster in John’s hands were under stewards.

In 1210 John, in a charter which built on initiatives in 1204 and 1207, laid down that English laws and customs were henceforth to be observed in Ireland. The pleas of the crown, which included cases of serious crime, were reserved for hearing by the justiciar or by judges sent to the localities. The justiciar was also empowered to issue the same writs to initiate civil litigation as existed in England. Later in 1210 a register of those writs was sent to Ireland. The English common law had arrived. It operated first and foremost for the English within the king’s own lands. But John was more ambitious than that. In 1208 he clamped down on the Marshal’s Leinster and de Lacy’s Meath by reserving for himself in both the hearing of the pleas of the crown. In Meath he also reserved for himself the issuing of the common law writs. In fact in the thirteenth century, in both Meath (restored to Walter de Lacy in 1215) and Leinster, these restrictions were not upheld. But at least lordship law was the king’s law of England, not marcher law as to some extent it was within the great lordships of Wales.

John was equally keen to extend his authority within the native kingdoms. His proclamation about the pleas of the crown in 1207 had been ‘to everyone of the whole of Ireland’ and such pleas were reserved in the grant of Connacht to Cathal Crovderg in 1215. The implication is that the Irish in the native kingdoms were to be subject to such pleas, as they probably were (although contemporary evidence is non-existent) within the royal lands. Yet John was realistic. As he put it in 1207, his authority ran ‘through all our land and power of Ireland’. In practice his power within the native kingdoms was negligible. They escaped the ‘blessings’ of English law. So, when it came to civil litigation, did the native Irish even within the royal lands. Perhaps that was partly by choice. They preferred their own customs, which royal government made no effort to eliminate. Later they were denied the choice, being deemed unfree and thus excluded. It might have been different had John’s aggressive rule continued to subject both the lordships and the native kingdoms to royal ‘power’.

* * *

In Wales, as in Ireland, John exploited chances to increase his territories at the expense of both the native rulers and the English barons. He knew Wales better than any of his predecessors. Having obtained Glamorgan through his first marriage in 1189, he retained it, despite his divorce, until 1214. He imposed his authority on the native rulers with a new sharpness and precision, thus foreshadowing tensions which exploded later in the century. Yet John never dealt with Wales, any more than Ireland, in isolation, something encapsulated in his attitude to an archbishopric of St Davids, plans for which he encouraged or discouraged depending on whether his relations with the archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, were bad or good, as Gerald of Wales who aimed to be archbishop noted dyspeptically. Again, it was as a reward for easing through his accession that John recognized the claim of William Marshal, hitherto just holding Chepstow, to the earldom and lordship of Pembroke – a major concession, since Pembroke had been in royal hands since Henry II had denied it to the Marshal’s father-in-law, Richard fitz Gilbert (see above, p. 217). Against this, John made an early gain through exploiting the divisions between descendants of the Lord Rhys in Deheubarth. In return for confirming his tenure of Emlyn in northern Dyfed, John received from Maelgwn, son of the Lord Rhys, acting ‘in hatred of Gruffudd his brother’, the cession in perpetuity of Cardigan. This ‘lock and stay of all Wales’ (as the Brut put it) which the Lord Rhys had finally wrested from the Clares in the 1160s was now for the first time in royal hands, marching with the existing base at Carmarthen. As in Ireland, however, it was rash to trust John’s bargains. In 1204 he allowed William Marshal to drive Maelgwn from Emlyn. In the north, John had similarly tried to exploit divisions among the Welsh, but by 1202 Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (the future Llywelyn the Great) had emerged as master of all Gwynedd ‘from the Dyfi to the Dee’. So John changed tack and in 1205 gave his illegitimate daughter, Joan, in marriage to Llyelyn. He thus hoped to secure the latter’s loyalty, not least as a counterweight to the earl of Chester.

The Welsh rulers submitted to John to gain his support in their fratricidal quarrels and immunity from royal and baronial aggression. The terms of their submissions were set out in a series of charters and other documents, which were themselves then copied onto the new chancery rolls. The relations between the king and the Welsh rulers, recorded in writing apparently for the first time, thus gained a novel exactitude. The Welsh themselves regarded these charters later in the century as marking a new start in their dealings with the English crown. John made it very clear that the rulers in Deheubarth, Gwynedd and Powys held their lands from him in return for homage and service ‘against all mortals’. Breach of this faith involved forfeiture. In Llywelyn’s case ‘the magnates of his land’ swore fealty too so that John was asserting authority within Gwynedd itself, an ominous precedent for the future. An agreement of 1202 with Llywelyn also gave the king in some circumstances the right to send his own officials ‘into the land of Llywelyn’ to hear law cases. The Welsh rulers were becoming trammelled up in the law and bureaucracy of England; ultimately it would strangle them.

After the loss of Normandy in 1204, John visited Wales or the March in every year down to 1211. On William de Braose’s fall in 1208 he took possession of the Braose lordships of Radnor, Elfael, Builth, Brecon, Abergavenny and Gower, gaining an altogether new power in Wales. He placed these territories under the Tourangeau, Gerard d’Athée, erstwhile castellan of Loches. Also in 1208 John imprisoned Gwenwynwyn, ruler of southern Powys, and seized his lands. Llywelyn, however, like a beast scavaging its share of the prey, managed to take the western districts of Arwystli and Cyfeiliog for himself, controlling as a result the great east–west pass through central Wales. He went on to drive Maelgwn out of Ceredigion and seize Aberystwyth. John was furious. In 1211, building on his Irish triumph, he invaded Gwynedd with an army which included both Maelgwn and Gwenwynwyn, the latter now back in favour. This was the first royal expedition to Wales since that of Henry II in 1165 and it penetrated to Bangor, further west than any of its predecessors. Llywelyn, with the wisdom he showed throughout his career, sent his wife Joan to beg for terms. They were harsh. John was to have hostages, a large tribute in cattle, and the allegiance of any of Llywelyn’s men he wished (the stipulation of 1202 once again). He was also to have in perpetuity the Four Cantrefs between the Conwy and the Dee, and to become heir to the rest of Gwynedd if Llywelyn himself had no heirs by Joan. He thus truncated Gwynedd and, in the future, might have it altogether. Meanwhile in the south John’s Norman military captain, Falkes de Bréauté, in a separate expedition from Cardiff advanced into Ceredigion, captured Aberystwyth and built a new castle there for the crown. ‘Thus in Ireland, Scotland and Wales there was no one who did not bow to the nod of the king of England, which, as is well known, was the case with none of his predecessors,’ wrote the Barnwell annalist.

* * *

John, then, seemed triumphant in Britain. He was also moving towards a settlement of the Interdict, and building up the continental allies necessary for the recovery of his empire. In May 1212 he reached an agreement both with Reginald, count of Boulogne and the Emperor Otto, the latter braced to meet the challenge in Germany of the future Emperor Frederick II. John then began to assemble a fleet at Portsmouth only to call the expedition off, probably because he had failed to reach an agreement with the count of Flanders. His fortunes were beginning to spiral inexorably downwards.

Llywelyn, after attending John’s 1212 Easter court, had made a bid for freedom. He brought, or so he claimed, ‘all the princes of Wales’ into a confederation, made an alliance with the king of France (like his grandfather Owain Gwynedd), and seized back the Four Cantrefs, determined to break his enemies’ castle-enforced ‘yoke of tyranny’. Llywelyn was joined by John’s erstwhile ally Maelgwn, who had already destroyed the royal castle at Aberystwyth, and by Gwenwynwyn of southern Powys. John, following Henry II’s precedent in 1165, in revenge killed Maelgwn’s hostage sons (two died after castration, and one, although only seven, was hanged), and then planned an expedition which would effectively have ended Welsh independence. Over 8,000 labourers were to assemble, a castle-building force double that deployed by the eventual conqueror of Wales, Edward I. But Llywelyn had not been foolhardy; he had been in league with the English barons.

On 16 August 1212 at Nottingham, John suddenly learnt of a baronial plot either to murder him or leave him to his fate during the campaign in Wales. Of the two known conspirators one was the cagey, independent Eustace de Vesci, the lord of Alnwick in Northumberland. The other was Robert fitz Walter, lord of Little Dunmow in Essex and Baynards Castle in London. Something of fitz Walter’s valour and connections can be sensed in his silver seal die, now in the British Museum. It shows him in a grim flat-topped helmet, brandishing his sword, and galloping along on a splendidly caparisoned horse, the heraldic devices proclaiming his links with both the Clares and the Quencies. Fitz Walter nursed grievances over debts and thwarted claims to Hertford castle. He also put it about that John had tried to seduce his daughter. Vesci, if a later story can be believed, resented similar attentions to his wife. Both Henry I and Henry II had been promiscuous, but never with political repercussions. In John’s case accusations that he tampered with the wives and daughters of his magnates were widespread and not always without foundation. An entry on one of the chancery rolls reveals John apparently joking with his mistress, the wife of Hugh de Neville, over what a night back with Hugh was worth; the answer, a ridiculous 200 chickens. Together with his murders such activities show why hostility to John took on such a personal hue. They do not explain Magna Carta, but they were a major factor in the rebellion which led up to it.

The depth of the 1212 crisis can be measured from John’s reaction. He called off the Welsh expedition and marched north to assert his authority, forcing fitz Walter and Vesci to flee to France. He also made a series of concessions ‘worthy of remembrance and praise’, as the Barnwell annalist puts it, abandoning revenues he was exacting above the county farms, investigating the abuses of the sheriffs and foresters, and promising to relax repayments of money owed to the Jews. Having stabilized his position, however, he did not revive his Welsh expedition because he was facing a much graver threat. By the spring of 1213, in touch with English dissidents and encouraged by papal hints of John’s imminent deposition, King Philip was preparing a great invasion to be led by Louis, his eldest son. In May John gathered a large army in Kent to meet the threat. He also realized he must now settle with the pope. On 13 May 1213 he agreed to receive back Langton, the other exiled bishops, and also Vesci and fitz Walter who had somehow joined their cause to that of the church. Two days later he made both England and Ireland fiefs to be held henceforth from the papacy. In return, he was absolved from excommunication, by Langton himself, on 20 July. The Interdict itself was finally lifted a year later, after compensation had been set in train. John had been forced to accept an archbishop he distrusted – with reason, as things turned out. Yet he probably repaid less than half the £100,000 he had extracted from the church, and now had the pope as his staunchest friend: hence ultimately the survival of his dynasty. God too conferred an immediate reward. On 30 May the earl of Salisbury and the count of Boulogne destroyed the French invasion fleet at Damme and the danger was over.

John could go on the offensive, and it was not in Wales. Having now received the allegiance of the count of Flanders, and with the diplomatic breaches so disastrous in the loss of Normandy finally repaired, John sailed in February 1214 for Poitou, without many of his barons, but with a large treasure and numerous paid knights. The strategy was to split the French forces in two. The Emperor Otto, the counts of Flanders and Boulogne, and the earl of Salisbury attacked from the north and John from the south. In June he advanced beyond Angers; only then, confronted by a large French army and deserted by his Poitevin allies, was he forced to retreat. By 9 July he was back at La Rochelle. On 27 July his northern allies were comprehensively defeated by King Philip at the battle of Bouvines. Bouvines deservedly ranks among the world’s decisive battles. In Germany it undermined Otto and set up Frederick II. In Normandy it ended the chance of Angevin recovery. In Europe it made King Philip supreme. In England it shattered John’s authority and paved the way for Magna Carta.

John had left a kingdom seething with discontent, which had mounted during his absence. This was partly due to the extraordinary man he had left behind as justiciar, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester. Peter, from the Touraine, was a skilled administrator and a military expert (he later fought at the battle of Lincoln) who had risen in John’s service and had been the only bishop not to desert him during the Interdict.

The warrior of Winchester, up at the exchequer
Sharp at accounting, slack at the scripture, ran one lampoon (in Michael Clanchy’s rendering). Regarded as an abrasive foreigner by many barons, and certainly very different from his cautious predecessors, Peter strove to raise the scutage John demanded from those who had not come on the 1214 expedition, only to find that in Yorkshire in particular resistance made that impossible. On John’s return in October 1214, ‘the Northerners’, as they are called in many sources, emerged as a distinct body, leading the resistance. They included, at this early stage, Eustace de Vesci, William de Mowbray and Roger de Montbegon (another baron heavily in debt to the crown), who had all refused to go on the 1214 campaign. They sent envoys to the pope and by early 1215 had forced John into negotiations, demanding at the very least that he confirm the Coronation Charter of Henry I. There had been, therefore, a decisive change in objectives since the plot to murder the king in 1212. The aim now was not to eliminate him but to bind him to conditions. This was not because he seemed any more trustworthy or salubrious. It was just that murder or deposition, especially when there was no obvious replacement, seemed harder to contemplate now that John, instead of being excommunicated, was a favourite son of the church.

John played for time, and postponed consideration of these matters to a council due to meet at Oxford at the end of April 1215. Yet his position continued to weaken. Offers to Llywelyn and Maelgwn did not prevent them combining with the barons. The pope remained supportive but he was distant, and Langton refused to excommunicate the dissidents. To be sure, in November 1214 John had tried to buy Langton’s support and that of the church in general by issuing a charter which promised free and speedy canonical elections to abbeys and bishoprics. But this was less momentous than it seemed. John still hoped that his candidates would be elected; he could still, under the terms of the charter, refuse his assent to elections, in which case he would retain the vacancy revenues until a successor was appointed. Langton therefore increasingly played the role, not of a supporter of the king, but of a mediator between the two sides and one largely in sympathy with baronial aims.

The opposition barons did not come to the Oxford council at the end of April. Instead they mustered in arms at Stamford in Lincolnshire and on 5 May formally defied the king. By now the original Northerners had been joined by the earls of Hereford, Norfolk and Essex, as well as the clever and charismatic Saer de Quency. John had made the latter earl of Winchester and a chief official at the exchequer, but had denied him the castle of Mountsorrel; de Quency was left an earl without a castle – almost as disastrous as a knight without a horse. Military leadership of the movement was assumed by Saer’s brother-in-arms, Robert fitz Walter, under the grandiloquent title ‘Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church’.

The war which began on 5 May was transformed within twelve days. Despite John’s charter early in the month giving them the right to have a mayor, on 17 May the Londoners let the rebels into the city. Its financial resources were now theirs; the security of its walls theirs also. (London remained the principal baronial base until the end of hostilities in 1217.) There was no way John could now bring the war to a speedy end, especially as he was also faced by the rebellion of large numbers of knights. In part that was because knightly tenants followed their lords, something very clear in the north where baronies were compact and the tie of tenure was reinforced by that of neighbourhood. But it was also because many knights were sympathetic to the rebel cause. Ralph of Coggeshall’s statement that John’s leading supporters were all deserted by their knights was an exaggeration (the loyalist earl of Derby was remarkably successful in keeping his tenants in line), but it indicates the flow of the tide. Some knights like Thomas of Moulton and Simon of Kyme, both ex-sheriffs of Lincolnshire, were as wealthy as many barons and clearly made their own decisions to rebel. So did those from areas without dominant lords, such as the counties of Northampton, Bedford, Cambridge and Huntingdon where at least seventy-eight knights were in the rebel camp. Many knights had grievances of their own; William fitz Ellis, for instance, alleged that his manor of Oakley in Buckinghamshire had been taken from him by King John ‘by will, unjustly and without judgement’. (For the fitz Ellises, see below, p. 395.) The general administration of the shires and forests had been harsh, and was the harder to bear now that knights were increasingly staffing juries, holding office and developing the view (reflected in Magna Carta) that they should control local government themselves.

For all their support there was equally no way the barons on their part could win a quick victory, or not without the hazard of a battle which might go either way. John still held his castles throughout England, many commanded by ruthless military experts. Scraping together money, he had also recruited a considerable body of foreign mercenaries. He retained the allegiance of the earls of Chester, Derby, Warenne, Salisbury and Pembroke; the last, William Marshal, had been secured by a wise grant in January 1214 of the custody of Cardigan and Carmarthen. Marshal’s adherence helped to secure the position in Ireland, and this meant that John could still draw supplies from the province. To make doubly sure, he had also patched up his quarrel with Walter de Lacy, in 1215 restoring him to Meath, a striking example of how English politics impacted on Ireland.

Stalemate produced negotiations, which took place from 27 May under cover of a truce. The baronial programme was rapidly developing. In one surviving draft, the Coronation Charter of Henry I was linked to twelve entirely fresh provisions (called by modern historians the ‘Unknown Charter’). By 10 June, when John agreed ‘The Articles of the Barons’ as a basis for a settlement, the Coronation Charter had been forgotten and the new provisions numbered forty-nine. There followed five days of intense negotiations. Runnymede, the great meadow beside the Thames, where the baronial tents were pitched and the talks held with John who rode down from Windsor castle, is still redolent of those long summer days. Finally the negotiators reached agreement and John, seizing the initiative, went ahead at once and issued the Charter, later called Magna Carta, which embodied the terms. The date was 15 June. It was left to the baronial negotiators to sell the results to the assembled barons, many of whom (especially a group of Northerners) would have liked something much more radical. As a result, it was not until 19 June that the deal was accepted and peace proclaimed: a poor omen for the future.

* * *

The restrictions placed by Magna Carta on the workings of kingship were unprecedented and profound. In sixty-two interlocking chapters, the Great Charter sought to limit the king’s ‘money-making’ operations, make his justice more equitable, reform the abuses of his local agents, and prevent him acting in an arbitrary fashion against individuals. ‘No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined… except by the lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land,’ ran chapter 39; ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice,’ ran chapter 40. Intended as fundamental bars to tyranny, these are the chapters of Magna Carta still on the Statute Book today. The Charter concluded with its ‘security clause’, setting up twenty-five barons whose task was to compel the king to keep its provisions. Henceforth he was to be subject to the law, the law Magna Carta itself laid down.

Yet the Charter’s view of kingship was far from entirely negative. It accepted the new common law legal procedures of Henry II and sought to make them more readily available. Thus chapter 17 implied that the bench of justices was to sit permanently at Westminster to hear common pleas; under chapter 18, judges were to tour the counties four times a year to hear the petty assizes. So the king was not to be reduced to a mere feudal overlord. The huge expansion of royal justice begun by Henry II’s procedures was to continue. In other areas, where the desire was to restrict kingship, the Charter was less radical than many hoped, largely because it was a negotiated document, not one dictated to John after military defeat. Whereas the ‘Unknown Charter’ had called for the reversal of the massive afforestations of Henry II, Magna Carta postponed the issue into some indefinite future. It did little about debts owed to the Jews, and apart from dismissing some foreign sheriffs and castellans, left John free to chose his local agents. Above all, John retained complete control of central government. The chancery still issued writs and charters on his sole orders. He could appoint whom he liked as his great ministers and, generally speaking, give patronage to whom he liked. These gaps in the Charter were to be the battleground of politics later in the thirteenth century.

The early clauses of the Charter benefited baronial families first and foremost since they were designed to limit the king’s ‘feudal’ rights and revenues – those which derived from the tenurial relationship between him and his tenants-in-chief. Earls and barons were now to succeed to their estates on payment of a fixed £100 relief and the king was only to take ‘reasonable issues’ from wardships. Heirs of tenants-in-chief were to be married without disparagement, that is only to their social equals, and their widows were to enter their inheritances and dowers without payment. They were also not to be forced to re-marry, a clause which had a significant impact on the position of noblewomen in the thirteenth century (see below, p. 421.) The assembly which was to give consent to taxation was to be made up of lay and ecclesiastical tenants-in-chief. Yet the Charter was far from simply a baronial document. Chapter 1 guaranteed the liberty of the church and confirmed the earlier charter which had already granted free elections. Chapter 13 confirmed the liberties of all cities and boroughs, including London, whose mayor was one of the twenty-five barons. The baronial tenants-in-chief had to pass down the concessions they received to their own tenants, and were restricted in the number of ‘aids’ (that is taxes) they could take from them. The Charter gave special prominence to the knights. Twelve from each county, elected locally, were to investigate and abolish abuses by the king’s local officials. Four knights, again locally elected, were to sit with the judges coming to the counties to hear the petty assizes: a striking testimony to both the expertise of the knights and their desire to control local government themselves. The Charter as a whole was granted ‘to all freemen’, a vast and diverse group of people, including many peasants. It was all freemen, not just barons, who were to enjoy the guarantees in chapter 39. Likewise it was all freemen who were to benefit from chapters 17 and 18, which sought to make the common law and the petty assizes more available. And then, under the terms of the security clause, everyone – apparently the free and unfree alike – would form ‘the community of the land’ bound by oath to help the twenty-five barons enforce the Charter. Up to a point, though only up to a point, the Charter did indeed reach out to the unfree. The chapters regulating amercements (20–22) were explicit in covering all ranks in society, villeins as well as earls, barons, clerks and freemen. Chapter 23 was of exclusive benefit to the peasantry, laying down that ‘no village or man’ could be forced unlawfully to build bridges. In a more general way, everyone stood to gain from the clauses which limited the exactions of the sheriffs, notably chapter 25 which freed them from having to raise money above the ‘ancient farms’ of their shires. Again, everyone was included when John promised in chapter 40 that ‘to no one will we deny right or justice’. There, however, was the rub. For it was the law itself which held the unfree in thrall, denying them access to the king’s courts. Only freemen conspicuously benefited from the promises in chapter 39, and freemen, as we have seen, were the grantees of the Charter. The barons might speak of ‘the common Charter of the realm’ but it was far more common for some than it was for others.

The Charter had been created by the financial pressure of royal government both on the barons and wider sections of society. Some of the strains were of long standing. The Coronation Charter of Henry I had itself dealt with baronial grievances over relief, wardships and marriages. In that sense Magna Carta sought to resolve the tensions which stemmed from the feudal relationships established by the Conquest. Such pressures had been limited under Henry II but they had escalated rapidly under Richard and John, thanks to the growing burden of defending and recovering the Angevin empire. As for wider sections of society, here Henry II had created (or so it was thought) the extensive and oppressive jurisdiction of the royal forests; while Richard (in 1194) exacted money in excess of the ancient farms of the counties, a policy carried further by John and banned, as mentioned, by chapter 25 of the Charter. And it was Richard and John (Richard for his ransom, John in 1207) who for the first time since the Anglo-Saxon kings raised really large sums from taxation. No wonder the Charter insisted that such taxes needed consent. It did the same for scutages, a clear reaction to the large number John had levied. Ralph of Coggeshall affirmed that the rebellion of 1215 was against the abuses of Henry and Richard, and those which John had added. Yet John’s additions were far more than a final straw. They were a large part of the burden. Under Richard the financial pips had squeaked, under John they had screamed.

Another important thrust of the Charter was to end the arbitrary way in which the king had treated individuals, his manipulation of inheritances, his denial and sale of justice, and his seizure of property ‘by will’ and without judgment: hence the importance for great men of chapters 39 and 40. Again, such grievances were often of long-standing: the Charter referred to the arbitrary disseisins of Henry II and Richard. Those of John ‘without lawful judgement of peers’ were to be redressed, if necessary by the twenty-five barons of the security clause; so were the fines and amercements which John had imposed ‘unjustly and contrary to the law of the land’. In fact over fifty restorations were made at Runnymede or soon after, twelve to members of the twenty-five: Nicholas de Stuteville was now to recover Knaresborough, and the earl of Hereford, Trowbridge; at the knightly level William fitz Ellis was to get Oakley. Closely related to the king’s behaviour in these areas was the issue of patronage. The stipulation that heirs should be married without disparagement was clearly an attack on marriages like that of the Tourangeau Peter de Maulay to the Doncaster heiress. Another clause dismissed from office the hated northern sheriff Philip Mark and his associates.

‘Instead of law there was tyrannical will,’ commented the Waverley abbey annalist on John’s rule, reflecting another background to the Charter’s reforms. Views about government had been developing. John was far more hedged round by such ideas than Henry I had been a hundred years before. Of course, some of the key ideas in 1215 were already very old, notably the call for judgement by peers; that had been mentioned as correct procedure in Henry I’s agreement with the count of Flanders back in 1101. Equally old was the idea that the king should govern lawfully and with the advice and consent of his great men. But around such basic concepts the Schoolmen of the twelfth century had created a far more elaborate system. Central to the thought of John of Salisbury in his influential Policraticus was the distinction derived from Gregory the Great and St Augustine between the just prince and the tyrant: the prince governs according to the laws for the good of his people; the tyrant tramples on the laws, oppresses his people and consults only his private will.

Such ideas became commonplace. In the 1200s they were interpolated into a compilation of older legal texts (the so-called ‘Laws of Edward the Confessor’) by a London author who quite possibly moved in the circle of the baronial leaders. ‘Right and justice,’ the tract opined, ‘ought to reign in the kingdom more than depraved will.’ The king should ‘do all things rightfully in his kingdom by judgement of the magnates of his kingdom’. Archbishop Langton fed his own ideas into the heady mix. In his lectures on Deuteronomy at Paris he had criticized the avarice of ‘modern kings’ and urged them to study the law. He believed obedience was not obligatory if a king acted wilfully and without judgement. And his general view of the congregation of clergy and people, from whom temporal authority derived and in whose interests the king should rule, reflected the way the whole ‘commune of the land’ benefited from the Charter, or at least was assembled to support it.

John’s opponents were also quite able to justify their rebellion. As we have seen, they simply issued a formal act of ‘defiance’ and renounced their homages to the king. This was a procedure that could be traced back at least to the reign of Stephen, and one which, whatever the king thought about it, allowed rebels to believe that their conduct was proper and legitimate. Nor was there any difficulty in contemplating the murder of the king, as in 1212. John of Salisbury in his Policraticus had reviewed the fate of evil rulers and stated, if in passing, that tyrannicide was justified. The idea of a charter, once murder was off the agenda, was easy to conceive. Urban communities had long been obtaining charters from the king conferring trading and governmental privileges. John himself had set a more general precedent when he issued in November 1214 the charter which conceded the church free elections. More crucial still was the Coronation Charter of Henry I. It formed the dissidents’ first known programme and the foundation on which further demands were built. It dealt not with general principles, but with the kind of detailed issues with which Magna Carta was most concerned, and was also, if not in so many words, conceded to the whole realm. There was also, if attempts at restriction failed, no difficulty about deposing the king and choosing another, for the idea persisted that the royal office was elective. Later in 1215, after the rebels had offered the throne to Louis, eldest son of the king of France, his explanation for what had happened was succinct: the barons ‘by the common counsel of the kingdom judging [John] unworthy, chose us as king and lord’.

Surrounded by a forest of such opinions, the Angevins made limited efforts to hack their way out. Henry, Richard and John, through ritual and display, sought to enhance the status of their kingship. They spent large sums on crowns, robes and great ceremonial feasts. Their language stressed the rights and dignity of the crown (see above, p. 196). Their royal seals, following the model since the Conquest, on one side showed them armed and galloping on horseback like any other noble, and sitting with orb and sceptre, crowned in majesty, on the other, utterly unique. Anointing at the coronation had poured into them the blessings of the Holy Spirit, and these gifts they sought constantly to renew and proclaim; hence Henry’s penance at Becket’s shrine and Richard’s crusade; hence the customary round of alms-giving and pilgrimages. Spiritual gifts were not solicited simply for personal salvation. Henry II endowed religious houses for the souls of his family and also ‘for the peace and stability of the kingdom of England’. But there were other factors, some of their own making, some not, which inevitably dulled these God-given qualities. Henry I’s abandonment of lay investiture meant that kings could no longer claim priestly functions. Careful with his money, Henry also scaled down the triennial crown-wearing ceremonies, while Henry II, impatient and secure, abandoned them altogether. At times Henry II deliberately dressed down and cultivated informality. Charisma, in any case, rarely survives contact with real personality, and the Angevins had to be very real. In terms of genuine piety only Richard, shimmering in his royal robes, assiduous in his attendance at Mass and indeed conducting the choir, was the true embodiment, and even his death seemed (to Ralph of Coggeshall) a just judgement of God. Henry was Becket’s murderer, and John’s later rule, if it was divinely ordained, was surely just as punishment. Up to a point, the charisma of kingship was diminished by its routinization, something reflected in the very appearance of the writs which originated the common law assizes, scrappy little things in an everyday hand with the king’s name and titles highly abbreviated and his seal, if applied at all, broken on opening. Yet these were the royal documents which people saw more often than any others.

The Angevins also did little to elevate their kingship by drawing on ideas from the revival of Roman law. The latter was certainly studied in England in the second half of the twelfth century first at Lincoln and then at Oxford. The maxims ‘the prince is free from the laws’ and ‘the will of the prince has the force of law’ were well known. However, when The Dialogue of the Exchequer observed that some of the king’s revenues came not by process of law but by his ‘arbitrary will’, it seemed embarrassed about it. Glanvill, though written by one of the king’s judges, referred to the will of the prince having the force of law, only then to observe that in England the prince was not the sole lawgiver since laws were settled ‘on the advice of the magnates’. Roman law was itself contradictory, for some passages stressed that the prince was beneath the law, and that law derived its force from ‘the will of the people’. A more solid defence of kingship was the stand on custom. Henry II constantly said he was restoring the customs of his grandfather. John often stressed he was acting in accordance with the law and custom of the realm and could fairly impugn the baronial demands of 1215 as ‘novelties’. After all, the fixed £100 relief and the ban on revenue above the county farms contradicted rather than confirmed existing practice. John could also claim that some of the arbitrary disseisins of which he stood accused moved in grey areas where right was far from clear. The trouble, of course, was that however much John said he had acted lawfully, as in his dealing with the Braoses, many disbelieved him. And something could be customary without being right. The Coronation Charter of Henry I had specifically abolished ‘evil customs’ which had oppressed the realm. The church, moreover, was able to condemn such customs as contravening its own canon law. The secular barons were in a more difficult position. They could only appeal to the ‘Laws of Edward the Confessor’ (vague and apocryphal) and Henry’s Coronation Charter (of uncertain status). But in the end, however much they pretended otherwise, they were quite able to make new law in the Charter.

The Angevins thus fought in the same forest as their opponents, indeed they had done much to plant it. John proclaimed in 1199 that he had succeeded by hereditary right, ‘divine mercy’, and ‘the unanimous assent and favour of clergy and people’, thus precisely stressing the elective element later used against him. In 1205, faced with possible invasion, he had formed ‘a commune throughout all the kingdom, which everyone from the greatest to the least from twelve years upwards should swear to observe’, an anticipation of the commune of the land formed against him to defend the Charter. ‘We do not wish that you should be treated henceforth save by law and judgement, nor that anyone shall take anything from you by will, nor that you be disseised of your free tenements unjustly and without judgement.’ So spoke John himself, not under duress in 1215, but in his proclamation to Ireland in 1207. He was, of course, doing no more than enunciating the principles on which the petty assizes of Henry II turned. The year 1215 marked the moment when the realm demanded that the king obey his own rules.

Ideas were important in shaping the Charter. So was the balance of power in English society (discussed in chapter 13), hence essentially the way it was far more than simply a baronial document. The barons did not rule in lordly isolation. Indeed, if they resented the common law sapping the jurisdiction of their private courts, the power of knightly under-tenants, among that law’s chief beneficiaries, meant they could do little about it. Conversely, it was the lack of power of the unfree which explained their exiguous entries in the Charter. Indeed, in some cases when they did appear it was potentially to the benefit of their lords who, as in the clause on amercements, might hope to preserve their men from oppression by the king so as to have more to take themselves. That the unfree featured at all, however, was not just due to baronial self-interest or idealism. It also reflected the real yet limited extent to which peasants too were part of the political community. The Charter was very much a commentary on the structure of power within England’s political society. It was the immediate facts of power which determined its fate.

* * *

For John, Magna Carta was an end, for the barons a beginning. On that difference the agreement foundered. John hoped the Charter, having brought peace and a restoration of his authority, would become a toothless symbol. It was to that end that he had seized the initiative at Runnymede, issuing the Charter on 15 June before the twenty-five barons of the security clause had been chosen, thus keeping their names out of the document. The barons, on the other hand, expected the Charter to be rigorously enforced and to lead to further reform. The barons, in the short term, got their way. The reversal of John’s arbitrary fines and disseisins commenced at once, as did the abolition of the evil practices of the local officials revealed by the twelve knightly investigators in each county. In the north it was soon open season on the royal forests. By the middle of July, John had had enough. He sent envoys to the pope asking for the condemnation of the Charter, and the resulting bull, issued on 24 August, arrived in England towards the end of September. There was little to prevent this outcome. Langton’s mediatory role was at an end. He was eventually suspended by the pope for refusing to excommunicate the barons, and left England for the papal court. Since the Charter was unsustainable, the barons turned to other remedies. At a great assembly held sometime in September, they deposed John and offered the throne to Louis, the eldest son of the king of France. Louis had the vestiges of a hereditary claim (his wife was the granddaughter of Henry II). He was uxorious, pious, and chivalric, so different from John. Most crucial of all, which was why the barons did not look to King Alexander of Scotland, he could deploy the superabundant resources of the French monarchy. The Capetian prince would oust the Angevin tyrant.

At the start of the war, the rebels held London and were strong in the eastern counties and the north, where they set up their own local administrations. But the king’s castellans held a spine of castles through the centre of England, protecting the chief bases of royal power to the west, where the barons of the Welsh March (apart from the Braoses) remained loyal. From there John could receive help from Ireland where the rebellion had no footing, thanks to William Marshal in Leinster and Walter de Lacy. There were also two royal castles of vital importance deep in rebel territory: Dover under Hubert de Burgh, and Lincoln held by the redoubtable widow Nicola de la Haye. (Her inheritance had included the castellanship of the castle.) Seizing the properties of the rebels within his reach, John built up his treasure and soon had around 800 knights in the field, many of them Flemish mercenaries. His aim was to win the war before Louis could intervene. From 13 October 1215, like a great cat hissing at some rival, he sat still besieging Rochester castle. Then, with the castle taken on 6 December, he was off in great bounds to the north to chase away not a cat, but a red fox, as John called him, King Alexander of Scotland.

Magna Carta was a British document. There were chapters, reflecting their co-operation with the barons, in favour of both Llywelyn and King Alexander, the latter having succeeded to the Scottish throne at the age of sixteen on the death of his father in December 1214. The twenty-five barons, nine of whom had Scottish connections, had also adjudged to Alexander possession of Carlisle and the three northern counties. Perhaps the moment had come for him to gain those long-coveted prizes, either as fiefs held from the English king or indeed, if opportunity offered, as part of Scottish realm. The ground seem favourable. In June 1215 an end had been put to a rising, again in Ross and Moray, led by Kenneth MacHeth and Donald MacWilliam, sons of the insurgents killed in 1186–7. Alexander was secure in Scotland. In England, the north was a major seat of the rebellion against King John, however firmly the latter retained many of his northern castles. Numerous cross-border ties of landholding and kinship, arguably more intense and influential than at any time since 1157, might also ease Alexander’s take-over. He himself was lord of Tynedale, while the leading northern rebels, Eustace de Vesci and Robert de Ros, were his half-brothers, having married illegitimate daughters of William the Lion. Above all, Carlisle was already Alexander’s, for John had unwisely made Ros constable of its castle in 1213, and had overtaxed its burgesses and alienated the canons of the cathedral by appointing a Serbian bishop. To Alexander himself, therefore, as to the sober councillors inherited from his father, it must have seemed like now or never. In October 1215, he laid siege to Norham on the Tweed border and received the homages of the barons of Northumberland. Early in the New Year some barons even from Yorkshire followed suit. But Alexander had miscalculated, because John was far from finished. With an army of around 450 knights, most of them foreign mercenaries, he marched north, recovered Carlisle, reached Berwick in mid January and went on to ravage Lothian. He then returned south via East Anglia, burning the lands of his enemies and taking their castles. But while he was triumphing in the north, his position had disintegrated in Wales.

Towards the end of 1215, with John bound for the north, Llywelyn took Carmarthen, ‘for seventy years the centre of royal power in the valley of the Tywi’ (as Sir John Lloyd put it), and then captured Cardigan, John’s great gain early in his reign. William Marshal hung on to Pembroke. But with Glamorgan now with the rebel earl of Essex (son of Geoffrey fitz Peter) through his marriage to John’s divorced wife, John’s dominance of south Wales had been utterly destroyed. West of Hereford he had nothing.

On 21 May 1216 Louis landed in Kent. He brought several great French nobles and 1,200 knights, a formidable force that John feared to face. Louis took Rochester, entered a cheering London and then seized Winchester. John was deserted by a good number of his household knights, by the earl of Salisbury (his half-brother whose wife he had seduced), and by Hugh de Neville (whose wife had offered the 200 chickens). In August, Carlisle was surrendered to Alexander who then came south to do homage to Louis for the northern counties. The next month, with Louis besieging Dover, John marched north to relieve Lincoln, where he made Nicola de la Haye sheriff of the county in recognition both of her character and local prestige. Then, returning from King’s Lynn by a short-cut across the Wellstream estuary, his baggage train was trapped by the tide, the so-called loss of his treasure in the Wash. By this time John was racked by dysentery. He reached Newark and died there during the night of 17–18 October as a great storm howled round the castle, whipping up from the flat empty valley of the Trent. Was this also the end for his dynasty?

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