OCTOBER 19, 1216. King John was dead. The storm which roared about the towers of the Bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark and tore at the windows of the room where the royal body lay was sweeping over most of England like a messenger of doom. The people of England, who had been despoiled and torn by civil war as long as John lived, were in an even more sorry plight now that he was dead.1
To make clear the difficulties of the situation into which the country had been plunged by the passing of the bad King it will be necessary to cast back and tell briefly what had been happening in the island kingdom. When the united barons forced John to sign Magna Charta at Runnymede on June 15 of the previous year that stubborn monarch had seemed reconciled to his surrender of dictatorial powers. Outwardly compliant, he had been filled, nevertheless, with rage and hate and a determination to undo everything at the first opportunity. For some time thereafter he remained in seclusion, spinning his plans and waiting for the messengers he had sent to the Continent to gain him the assistance he needed. Some of them had carried a highly colored version of Runnymede to Pope Innocent III. Others had been instructed to find mercenaries to fight in the King’s behalf and were recruiting professional soldiers at Rouen, Ghent, Cologne, Naples. The Pope, easy to convince because John had made England a fief of Rome and had been ruling, supposedly, as the representative of the Vatican, decided that Magna Charta was wrong and declared it null and void. Stephen Langton, the great Archbishop of Canterbury who had been chiefly instrumental in organizing the baronage against kingly aggression and had been the real leader of the movement, went to Rome to argue for the popular cause. Sitting in the Vatican like a wrathful god, his hands filled with thunderbolts, Innocent refused to listen to Stephen Langton and even forbade his return to England. Without the sagacious prelate to hold them together, the barons failed to present a concerted front when John came raging out of the West with his well-trained mercenaries and proceeded to spread death and desolation.
The barons then took a step which showed the depth of their desperation: they sent a deputation to Paris and offered the crown of England to Prince Louis, the heir to the throne of France, who had married Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Henry II. Philip Augustus, the King of France, was a shrewd and ambitious man who had already taken Normandy and Brittany and the Angevin possessions from John, thereby doubling the territory over which he ruled. He was a powerful king, the ruler who paved the streets of Paris and started its great markets and was responsible for its medieval grandeur. Some further explanation of this man should, however, be made. He was the bitterly resentful prince who had circumvented the old lion, Henry II, and had goaded him at Colombières when he was dying in grief and defeat; the same King of France, moreover, who had deserted Richard at the Crusades and had conspired to keep the lionhearted monarch in his German prison; a man of harsh moods and contemptuous tongue, portly and florid now, and still filled with hatred for England and her Angevin kings. Nothing would have suited Philip Augustus better than to scoop the island into the Capetian bag (the inevitable result of the proposal made by the desperate barons), but he was bound by the terms of the treaty of Chinon and did not find himself at this juncture in a good position to oppose that man of equally iron will, Innocent III. The result was that Philip Augustus openly opposed the idea while secretly conniving with his son to organize an army for the invasion.
The ports of northern France were soon filled with transports. The services of Eustace the Monk were secured to direct the naval operations, and this was considered almost a guarantee of success. Eustace, born near Boulogne of a family of the lesser nobility, had entered a monastic order at Saumur but had left the abbey to demand satisfaction from the Count of Boulogne against the murderer of his father. Failing in this, he had broken his vows permanently and had turned to piracy with a small band made up at first of his brothers and friends. They were so successful that disaffected men from all parts of the Continent began to join them, and they soon became the terror of the Channel. Merchant captains sighed with relief when they reached their destination without having sighted the sails of the dreaded Eustace on the sky line. The pirate leader grew to such stature, in fact, that kings bid against each other for his services, and he waxed fat in body and purse. At one time he served John and was rewarded well enough to set up an establishment of his own at Winchelsea. He was a rambunctious fellow, barrel-like in build, as ready to spill blood as to down a flagon of malvoisie. The news that he had thrown in his lot with the French sent a shiver along many a spine in the train of the vengeful John.
The French army landed without any serious opposition and advanced to London. The citizens of that most independent of cities, hating John and all his works, gave nevertheless no more than a guarded and watchful support to Louis. The Cinque Ports did not resist, however, and so the French gained a firm grip on the coast except for the castle at Dover, where Hubert de Burgh held out boldly. Hubert was destined to prove a continuous thorn in the side of Gallic operations.
John, when hard enough pressed, had the Angevin capacity for generalship and he proceeded to take wise measures. He scattered his forces along a line from the coast through Oxford and into the midlands to confine the invaders in the southeast corner of the country. His ablest mercenary captains were placed in command of the forts which made up this line; Engelard de Cigogni at Windsor, Falkes de Bréauté over the shires stretching northward, Peter de Maulay at Corfe Castle in Dorset. Confident that Louis would not be able to break through, John then set about the task of cutting communications between the French and the barons of the North, who were John’s most determined foes.
In this plan to check the French the King was greatly aided by a comparatively unknown knight who proceeded to make things hot for the invaders on his own account He was called William of Kensham and sometimes William of Cassingham. History is full of such men, unsung heroes who play conspicuous parts in great events but are overshadowed by the leading characters on the stage. William of Kensham organized a band of guerrilla fighters and took the Weald as his base of operations. The Weald was a dense strip of forest, high above the chalk escarpment, which ran dark and forbidding from the western portion of Kent across the whole of Sussex, a barrier of trees, mostly oak, whose roots were sunk deep in soil made up of Wealden clay, Hastings sand, gault, greensand, and chalk. A few industrious husbandmen were scattered through it, striving to turn its occasional open strips of sandy soil known as denes into farming land and pitting it with holes sunk to get at the marl they needed to fertilize the land; subsisting, without a doubt, on the very edge of starvation. A few winding roads cut through it and a number of rather turbulent rivers, but it was difficult of access. The Weald served, in fact, as an almost impenetrable curtain, cutting London off from the southwestern ports.
Little is known about this bold leader except that he was bailiff over the courts of the Seven Hundreds of the Weald, which he held at the usual fee farm of one hundred shillings a year, and so belonged to the ranks of the minor nobility. It is not known where he learned the art of guerrilla fighting, but he soon proved himself a master hand at that kind of warfare. He would issue suddenly from the Weald and demolish a party of French knights, retiring then into the dark depths of the forest, to attack the next day a castle, leaving wherever he went the bodies of Frenchmen dangling from trees. In time he came to command a force of one thousand men, mostly archers. He was a passing cloud of dust, a quick glint of metal among the trees, death riding on the wind. The dread he caused was so great that the French troops refused to venture out on the roads to the south and west, preferring to stay safe behind the walls of London. Louis could do nothing about this fast-riding, hard-hitting guerrilla captain and left him in full possession of the forest barrier.
The people of England, always looking for a hero to take to their hearts and preferring one of relatively humble birth, fixed their attention on William with all the enthusiasm they would show later for Robin Hood and Adam Gurdon and John Ball. He became Willikin to them, Willikin of the Weald.
It was while engaged in his northern operations that John died at Newark. It seemed at first that his death would make no difference. Louis declared that he had no intention of letting it interfere with his claims on the English throne. The barons supporting him swore openly that they would not accept any of the brood of the hated King as ruler of the land. Actually, however, the passing of the tyrant made an immediate change in the situation. There was now no need for foreign intervention in the civil war. The men who had ridden to Runnymede and put civilization in their debt by forcing from John that great guarantee of the rights of man, Magna Charta, were in a serious dilemma. Bound to the French prince by their oaths, they were realizing that they had sold themselves to a master as autocratic and unyielding as the dead John. The austere and humorless Louis was letting them see already that he despised them as traitors to a royal suzerain and that they would have gained nothing if their efforts placed him in John’s place. He did not hesitate to dispose of their lands and castles to the French knights he had brought over with him.
The barons knew also, as did all England, that the invitation to Louis had been based on a false premise. If John had forfeited the throne by his conduct as King and his children were to be barred from the succession, the right did not pass to Blanche, the wife of Louis. There was a candidate who had a better claim than Blanche of Castile, better moreover than John’s right had been.
In the southern part of Dorset, in what was known as the Isle of Purbeck, stood a tall chalk range, and in the middle of it there was a gap, looking as though a tooth had been yanked from the jaw of some prehistoric giant. This was called Corfe Gate, and back of it, like a sentry guarding the open space, stood a hill two hundred feet high. Perched on the summit of the hill was the formidable Corfe Castle, a natural stream forming a moat about its base, its strength so great that no man seriously considered the possibility of storming it. Corfe Castle was so strong, in fact, that John had used it always for the custody of his most important prisoners.
At the time of his death the castle in the gap held the most important prisoner ever entrusted to it, a young woman of great beauty, dark of eye and hair, haughty of temperament, but the possessor of so much charm that she was a favorite with the garrison and with the other prisoners at Corfe. She was not held in the close confinement of a single cell but was allowed such liberty as lay within the high walls. She lived in the Gloriet Tower, which had been added in John’s time, taking her meals in the Long Hall and being allowed to walk along the walls. She never failed to take advantage of the privilege thus extended to her, pacing the ramparts around the three baileys, back and forth, back and forth, from the Butavant Tower to the Plakement, from the Plakement to the Gloriet, her somber eyes fixed on the southern horizon beyond which, she knew, lay Brittany.
If the law of primogeniture had been faithfully adhered to, this young woman would have been sitting on the throne of England instead of pacing endlessly the ramparts of Corfe and sighing for her freedom. She was the Princess Eleanor, sometimes called the Fair Maid, more often the Pearl of Brittany.
Eleanor of Brittany was a tragic figure. She was the daughter of Geoffrey, the fourth son of Henry II, who had married Constance, the hereditary Duchess of Brittany. Geoffrey was the handsomest of the Plantagenets, the possessor of a figure of elegant symmetry, and a man of the most winning manners. His early death in a tournament in France had been deeply mourned. Eleanor resembled him closely, inheriting from both parents a high temper and a royal share of determination. During the early years, when it seemed certain that her younger brother, Prince Arthur, would succeed the childless Richard as King of England, she was one of the most sought after princesses in Europe. When Richard was in Palestine he offered her in marriage to Saphadin, brother of Saladin, if the Moslem leader would make the pair King and Queen of Jerusalem. Saladin’s brother, however, showed no inclination to embrace Christianity, which was a part of the bargain, and so this scheme fell to the ground. Later, when negotiating his release from a German prison, Richard promised as part of the ransom treaty to give the little princess of Brittany in marriage to the son of Leopold of Austria, his archenemy. She accompanied Richard’s mother to Germany when that indomitable lady of seventy-two made the journey from England to be sure that nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of the unshackling of her son. There is some doubt as to whether the marriage took place and was broken immediately thereafter or whether the plan was abandoned before the nuptials were solemnized. Certainly, however, the young Eleanor accompanied her grandmother back and was restored to her family in Brittany. A few years later she was offered by Richard to his rival, Philip Augustus, as a wife for the letter’s son Louis (the same prince who now sat in London and planned the conquest of England), and the idea was favorably received. It was assumed at the time, however, that Arthur of Brittany would succeed to the throne of England. When Richard decided instead that John should follow him, the French King broke off the negotiations on the ground that the alliance would not now be sufficiently important and brilliant for the heir of France.
The poor little Pearl of Brittany had seen two royal husbands slip through her hands, not to mention the dusky Saphadin, but the greatest misfortune was still to be encountered. When her brother Arthur, contending with John for the crown of England, was captured by the latter at Mirabeau and carried off into the captivity which ended with his murder, Eleanor was sent to England with the Breton knights who had been taken prisoners in the fighting around Mirabeau. With them she was imprisoned in the castle of Corfe. She must have known of the sad fate of her companions in misfortune, all but one of whom starved to death; and their fate served, no doubt, as a final proof of the malignant nature of the man who had shut her off from the world. She was still there when John died at Newark, a woman of perhaps thirty years, still beautiful, still rebellious of spirit. The news of the King’s death may have revived her hopes of release, but more likely she had long since come to realize the nature of the trap in which she was caught. The very validity of her claim to the throne made it certain that she would never be allowed her freedom. No matter who might be King of England, it would be deemed necessary, if peace were to be maintained, to keep her buried away. The secret of her whereabouts was so closely held, in fact, that the people of Brittany did not know she was at Corfe. For many years all legal enactments in Brittany were made subject to change in the event of the missing heiress being found.
She had plenty of company at Corfe. Two Scottish princesses, who were being held as hostages for the good behavior of their brother, King Alexander, were there also, and there is evidence that the trio were much together. They were treated with decent respectand were allowed to ride out on occasions, under the strictest guard, of course. It is clear from a succession of items in the royal accounts that they were provided with clothes in keeping with their rank. There is mention of bolts of fine silk and lengths of samite and yards of velvet. Eleanor was allowed robes of dark green with capes of cambric and hats trimmed with miniver. It is on record that she was given “one saddle with gilded reins and scarlet ornaments.” There is an item also of a hundred pounds of figs being ordered for the three royal captives. But fine silks and satins and all the figs in the world could not compensate the beautiful Pearl of Brittany for the freedom denied her. No youth came courting her, it being necessary above everything else that the line of Geoffrey should die out and no longer complicate the question of succession. The taste of power, so dear to all Plantagenet palates, was never on her tongue. She ate her heart out on the battlements of Corfe, from which she could see nothing but the green of Dorset meadows and distant hills on the horizon, hoping and praying for freedom, for revenge, for the chance to live a normal life.
Before John had set out on his last campaign he had sent all his children, saving Henry, the heir, to Corfe for safekeeping. Richard, the second son, who was seven years old, was there, a lad of such shrewdness that he was destined to grow into the richest prince in Europe and to buy for himself an imperial title. The two youngest daughters were there also: Isabella, who would marry the Emperor of Germany, and the baby of the family, little Princess Eleanor. Although still in her first year, Eleanor was showing signs already of having inherited some at least of the enchanting beauty of her mother, Queen Isabella. She was an engaging and willful child and a general favorite. Keep her in mind, this little Princess Eleanor: she will play an active part in the drama of the next fifty years.
But not for the Pearl of Brittany any further part in the affairs of England. She was removed soon thereafter to Bristol, and there she died in 1241. What little is known of her character leads to the conviction that she was brave and defiant of her fate to the end.
That she was alive when John died should have rendered the claim of Blanche of Castile to the throne invalid, but the point does not seem to have been raised seriously. It was generally accepted that the issue lay between Blanche’s husband as the candidate of the barons and Henry, the youthful son of John.
To complicate matters further, John had made England a fief of Home during his struggle with the barons. The new Pope, Honorius III, considered the country as under his jurisdiction. The papal legate in England, Gualo Bianchieri, would be the power behind the throne no matter what form of government was set up. He had already excommunicated Prince Louis and all who supported him. This mass banning added to the doubts of the sorely tried English barons.
When word came that the heir to the throne, John’s nine-year-old son Henry, was being brought by his mother from the doubly stockaded castle of Devizes where the King had left him, William the Marshal rode out to meet them. The latter was drawing close to the end of his days and knew it quite well, and it was in his mind that this would be his last official act. He wanted to spend the few years left him in the company of his children and his young wife, who had been the heiress of Pembroke and had made him a faithful and loving companion in spite of the disparity in their years. He was filled with a fiercely intense longing for the peace of Pembroke Castle, which looked across the waters at Milford Haven, and the easy life of his extensive Irish estates, where a gentle sun came out between showers and everything was lovely and green. The incomparable old knight had fallen into the habit of claiming eighty years. Actually he was seventy-two; a long time to spend in fighting; in the Crusades, in the continuous wars, in the five hundred tournaments which he had won without a single upset.
The desire for comfort which comes with the years had caused him to discard his armor, and he wore instead a padded and gaily colored tabard, which was especially designed for use ahorse, being split on both sides from the armpits down. It was habit perhaps which had induced him to keep under his hat of soft cloth a coif de fer, the skullcap of steel which knights wore beneath their helmets. His bearing was still martial and, when the plains were reached from which a glimpse could be had against the sky line of the bell tower of the Abbey of Malmesbury, his eyes were keen enough to catch the first sight of the royal party in the distance.
As soon as she heard of her husband’s death Queen Isabella had ridden from Exeter to Devizes to get the youthful heir. She had not been allowed any active part in public affairs while John was alive, but she was to display in every phase of her life from this point on both ambition and energy and, certainly, a taste for mischief. She was riding beside Henry when the two parties met on the plains outside Malmesbury and, despite the interest felt in the new King, it was on the lovely Isabella that each eye rested first. It was customary for ladies of high rank in France to don white for mourning, but those of royal blood were allowed a license in the matter of color and were prone to use black trimmed with yellow or ermine. It is probable, therefore, that Isabella was in black when she met the old marshal; it is certain that she was beautiful to behold, being in her early thirties and at the height of her dazzling charm. She was slender and, as she had stripped off her gloves and tucked them in her belt in the style of the moment, it could be seen that her hands were small and white.
The young prince was riding on the front of the saddle of an old retainer, Ralf of Saint-Samson. The marshal dismounted and went down on one knee.
“Welcome, sir,” piped Henry in a high, boyish voice. “I commit myself to God and to you. May God give you grace to guard us well.”
It was well spoken. Perhaps he had been rehearsed in what he was to say by his mother or his tutor, Philip d’Aubigny. More likely, however, the salutation was his own thought, for even as a boy Henry had persuasiveness and tact. He had as well the golden hair of the Plantagenets and his mother’s high coloring and he was altogether a handsome lad with one physical flaw only, a tendency in one eyelid to droop. William the Marshal was delighted with his good looks and the gentility of his manner, happy to find him so polite and so very unlike the raucous, cruel, tricky, whisker-twitching youth his father had been; a sweet prince indeed to offer the people of England.
“Sire,” said the marshal with tears streaming down his seamed and sunken cheeks, “on my soul I will do everything to serve you in good faith as long as I have the strength.”
Everyone wept at this, the young prince loudly, the old warrior with the sadness which the sight of youth can induce in the aged, the beautiful Queen with well-bred restraint, the knights in both trains, and the servants who brought up the rear.
Realizing the need for haste, they then fell into line and set out at a sharp pace for Gloucester. Most of the advisers of the late King were there when the royal party arrived. It was decided that, in spite of the difficulties which stood in the way of a proper coronation, the boy should be crowned without any delay. The difficulties were technical and yet of the kind to cause serious trouble later. Westminster Abbey was in the hands of the enemy. Stephen Langton, who alone had the right to officiate, was still in Rome, a virtual prisoner of the Vatican. The crown had been swept out to sea with all the royal regalia when the waters of the Wash had engulfed the wagons in John’s train. It was decided under the circumstances to give the crowning a preliminary character, with an eye to a more regular and properly imposing ceremony later.
First, however, the prince had to be knighted, and it was agreed that the old marshal, who had performed the service for King John, should officiate. The coronation which followed was the least pretentious of all, being held in the presence of a small group of bishops and earls instead of an assembly of all the great men of the kingdom in their finest robes and glittering jewels. Perhaps the meager nature of it had some effect on the mind of the boy King and led to the extravagances in which he indulged himself ever after. It may well have been that the memory of the anxious-faced group which shared the plain coronation banquet incited him to the great feasts of his later years; for which hundreds of cattle would be slaughtered and fast-driven carts would come from the seaports with the lampreys for which he developed an insatiable appetite and the plaice and turbot which would be properly calvered for the guests; and which moreover always drained the royal purse. Certainly Henry seemed obsessed with a desire to conduct himself on all public occasions in a most lavish manner.
The crowning was on October 28, one of the most exciting days in the history of the ancient Roman city of Gloucester. Now that John was dead, the people had turned fiercely royalist and wanted to see the French interlopers swept into the sea. They crowded into the old church which good Abbot Serlo had built, and those who could not find places inside the nave with its tall fire-blackened pillars filled the streets for a glimpse of the pretty little Plantagenet. They dissolved into joyous tears when the boy’s voice was heard repeating the words of the oath.
The ceremony was carried out, in fact, with every evidence of rejoicing. The prince, who conducted himself with rare dignity, was anointed and crowned by Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, about whom much will be told later. A plain gold circlet, supplied by the Queen Mother, was placed on the head of the third Henry in place of the proper crown, which would never be recovered from the shifting mud of the Wash. In recognition of the irregularity of the proceedings, the ceremony did not include unction or the imposition of hands. An edict was issued immediately, however, that for a month no adult should appear in public without a chaplet on the head in honor of the new King; a command which the people obeyed with enthusiasm.
A meeting of the men named in John’s will as his executors was held in the royal courts of Lancaster the day after the coronation. The company consisted of the papal legate, the marshal, a few bishops, some noblemen of high degree and position, Aymar Saint-More, the head of the Knights Templars, and Falkes de Bréauté, the ablest and most mercenary of the mercenary captains.
They were a colorful group. The costume of the day, while not spectacular, was both impressive and richly dignified: the flowing draperies, the rare imported materials (for of course men of this stamp did not attire themselves in honest English cloth but had silks and satins and velvets from abroad, sometimes interwoven with gold thread), the lavish use of precious stones. With the rediscovery of the dyeing process, which had lapsed and been forgotten during the Dark Ages, color was being restored in exciting glory. In France and Flanders men were experimenting with the yellow-flowered madder and producing cloth of great beauty, while, more important still, in Italy dyes were being imported from the East. Already a Florentine had discovered a method of extracting orchil out of lichens from Asia Minor. Because of this, the high churchmen in the party were clothed in princely purple.
The nobles were wearing tabards. Mention has already been made of this garment, which was the one fashionable development of the early part of the thirteenth century. It was a major change because it had sleeves, tight-fitting sleeves which covered the shoulders snugly. It had become a jacket to slip over loose draperies and was especially useful for riding because of the slits on each side. Tailors would continue experimenting with it both in fit and material, and it would become padded and tufted and a very foppish garment indeed, and in time would lead to the cote-hardie, that great and useful garment of the latter half of the century.
The shoes of the men who had gathered to discuss the future of England were particularly elegant. Ever since the days of William Rufus, who was sometimes known as King Cornard because of this, the long points of shoes had been filled with tow and then “turned up like a ram’s horn.” Now fretwork had been introduced and the surface of the leather was raised in squares, each section being stamped with the figures of lions, unicorns, or leopards in gold leaf.
There were two absentees of note and, because of this, the meeting was a brief one. The first was Ranulf de Blundeville, the Earl of Chester, who was on his way from the North and was expected to arrive at any moment. He had been one of the best of Henry II’s bright young men, trained in his ways and in his conception of law administration. When Henry’s son Geoffrey was killed in a tournament, the King had decided that Constance of Brittany, the widow, must not be allowed to select a second husband for herself. His choice was the young Earl of Chester. Spare, graceless, black-a-vised, the earl did not find favor with the haughty Constance, even though she finally gave in to her dominant father-in-law. She went through the marriage ceremony but, according to a story generally believed, never allowed her new spouse to set eyes on her again. Chester, caring little perhaps, went about the business of governing Brittany in the workmanlike way which Henry desired. After Constance secured a divorce he returned to England, married again, and became recognized as the leading peer of England and the last survivor of the aristocracy of the Conquest. He had become enormously wealthy and carried a great deal of weight in the kingdom.
The second absentee was Hubert de Burgh, the brave knight who had refused to let John’s assassins burn out the eyes of Prince Arthur when the latter was a prisoner at Falaise Castle. Hubert, who was now justiciar of the country, could not come because with a garrison of no more than 140 men he was holding out against the French in the stone fortress at Dover which served as the gateway of England. It was just about this time, in fact, that Louis decided he must clear this obstacle from his path as the first step in taking advantage of John’s death. He sent two English barons to discuss terms of surrender with the determined castellan. One of them was Thomas de Burgh, Hubert’s brother; and, as he came unwillingly, he was loaded with chains.
The herald who accompanied the two emissaries sounded his horn, and brave Hubert de Burgh came to the inner of the two parapets between which the drawbridge swung, followed by five archers with drawn bows.
His brother told him of John’s death and added that Louis would brook no more opposition. If it became necessary to take Dover Castle by storm he had sworn to hang every man in the garrison, including the leader, who would dangle from the top of the Keep. The Keep was eighty-three feet high, so that Hubert would have plenty of space in which to do his dangling. As a further inducement the brother added, “By your stubbornness you ruin yourself and all your family.”
The other courier then spoke up and said that Louis promised Hubert the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk if he would lower his flag at once.
None of this had any effect on the resolute justiciar. “Traitors!” he cried. “If John be dead, then he leaves sons. One more word and I’ll command my archers to shoot you down!”
This indomitable soldier was not, therefore, in a position to attend the meeting, but the spirit he displayed in his defense of Dover was putting courage in men’s hearts to resist the invaders and it was reflected in the attitude of those present.
The legate presided, but the proceedings were dominated by two men, the first of whom was the marshal. The greatest fighting man of his, or perhaps of any, age, he had a record without a stain and men looked up to him in this crisis and were ready to adopt any course he might propose. The second was Peter des Roches, the bishop who had crowned the young King. Peter des Roches was a Poitevin, a handsome and polished courtier as well as a learned churchman, who had come to England reluctantly at John’s behest and remained only for the material advantages he could obtain for himself and the members of his family. His own desire was to serve the Church in Rome and he spent a great deal of his time there. He would have carved out a great career if he had been permanentlylocated in the Eternal City, being an adroit diplomat and full of the new ideas which were sweeping over Europe, the desire for learning, the urge to create beauty which would soon lead to the Renaissance. There was a fascination about this suave churchman with his handsome eye and his exciting talk, but his manner to Englishmen was aloof and superior and the people both feared and hated him.
The purpose of the meeting was to establish a temporary government and to make plans for the ejection of the French. The legate Opened the discussion by addressing the marshal. “You have made our young lord a knight,” he said. “We all pray you now to take him into your keeping.”
It was clear that the old man was both startled and dismayed by this suggestion. He frowned and then shook his head emphatically. “I cannot,” he said. “I have reached my fourscore year. I am very tired.”
The rest of the company joined with the legate then in urging him to accept the leadership in the struggle which lay ahead. They crowded about the kindly-eyed old man, telling him he was the Ulysses to whom all turned and in whom they had complete faith. The mind of the marshal was still firmly fixed on the green meadows and peaceful lakes of his Irish estates and his longing for a few years of comfort. He persisted in his refusal and, when they still besieged him with arguments, he fell back on the excuse that nothing should be done in the absence of the Earl of Chester. “His voice must be heard first,” he urged.
Chester arrived the following day, and a second meeting was held in the King’s Hall. The discussion was opened by one Alan Basset, who declared that he saw no one fitted to lead them save the marshal or the Earl of Chester. The veteran was still unwilling to undertake the task, and when Alan Basset had finished he turned to Chester and exclaimed in a tone of entreaty: “I am feeble and broken in health. Take it upon yourself, Sir Earl of Chester, for God’s sake!”
Chester, usually sparing of words, broke into a eulogy of the marshal. “You are so prudent, so feared, so loved, and so wise,” he said. “You are one of the greatest knights in the world. I am ready to serve under you and do your behests.”
The prospect of a few years of peace still beckoned the old man and he repeated his plea to be allowed the relinquishment of all responsibility. Gualo, who was a shrewd diplomat, then took him into a smaller room with Chester and Peter des Roches. It had grown chilly, and William the Marshal was glad to draw his chair close to the small fire which burned on the hearth. The light thus provided made his eyes seem sunken and tired, and it was clear to all that he had not been using his age as an excuse, that time was running out for him.
Gualo proceeded to use his final argument. The saving of the kingdom was a sacred duty. If the marshal would take the leadership, his reward would be the remission of his sins. This was not a consideration to be lightly dismissed. William the Marshal had not been dishonest, cruel, or covetous, but he had lived a life of violence and bloodshed. There was much in the past, without a doubt, which weighed on his conscience; and, as all men knew, the end of the world was close at hand, when the banked fires would blaze up for evildoers, so that it behooved them to look to the state of their souls. The old man fell into a long and careful study, and finally sighed and said he would act. One stipulation went with his acceptance, however: the care of the young King’s person, which had been assigned to the marshal in John’s will, must be assumed by someone else until things were settled and the fighting and tumult ceased. It was decided that this responsibility would be laid on Peter des Roches, a step which undoubtedly changed the course of history. The wily Poitevin gained an ascendancy over the youthful monarch which would be used later for selfish ends.
After nightfall the marshal, now the head of the state, summoned three of his closest adherents to his own room. It was, as might have been expected, a small apartment: a hearth large enough only for a small charcoal blaze, a narrow bed, a chair, a crucifix on the wall. It would have been a bare and ascetic lodging to almost anyone else, but it was not lacking in comfort for a man who had spent most of the nights of his life in tents or under the stars. To this room came, therefore, the devoted trio: John, his nephew; John Earley, his squire; and Ralph Mustard, the castellan of Gloucester.
The marshal began at once on a discourse. “Advise me,” he said, “for by the faith I owe you I see myself entering into an ocean which has neither bottom nor shore.” His eyes filled with tears. “May God help me! They have turned over to me a helpless government, a king without a piece of gold. And as for me, I am very old.”
John Earley, who is generally believed to have written later the metrical biography L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, which is the sole source for the story of the marshal’s selection, took it on himself to answer. He pointed out that what his master had undertaken could result only in great honor. Even if all the fickle nobility deserted him and surrendered their castles to Louis, he could still take the young King to Ireland and continue the struggle from there. If, on the other hand, things went well, no man would ever have attained such honor on earth.
The marshal recovered his good spirits at this, and there was a suggestion of mounting enthusiasm in his eyes. He sprang up and began to pace about the room.
“By God’s glove!” he exclaimed. “The advice is good and true. If all should abandon us, I would carry the King on my shoulders, one leg here and one in Ireland. I would carry him from island to island and land to land, and I would not fail him ever!”
The new head of the state gathered the others about him and it was decided that, inasmuch as the war was a holy one, the royalist forces would wear the white cross of the Crusades. The legate, drawing on the wide powers allowed him by the Pope, supplemented this by putting Wales under an interdict and confirming the ban he had placed on Louis and all his adherents. The meeting was characterized by a growing sense of confidence because the small group of zealous men at Gloucester knew that soon all England would be stirring and that public opinion would be with them. If they could hold out long enough with the weakened resources they had inherited from the dead tyrant, they were certain to win. Time was on their side.
It was decided to hold a national council at Bristol on November 11 and to leave all questions of policy until then. All loyal men were summoned to appear and they came in great numbers, churchman and noble alike, to take the oath of fealty to the boy King. An unexpected arrival was Hubert de Burgh. The French wanted to transfer their activities to the midlands and had concluded a truce with him, thus making it possible for him to leave Dover. Nothing could have been more fortunate. Hubert de Burgh was still chief justiciar and one of the powers of the state. His advice and counsel were needed.
Two important steps were taken at Bristol. The first was the confirmation of Magna Charta, with some changes, the most noteworthy being omission of the clause which bound the King to lay no tax on the backs of his subjects without their consent. This had been one of the great victories of Runnymede and it might seem that the Charter lost validity without it. In all probability the omission was due to the attitude of the Vatican. Innocent III had declared the Charter null and void, but his successor, Honorius III, gave his unqualified approval to the new version, from which the conclusion might be drawn that the removal of the constitutional check had brought about a change of heart at Rome. It must be remembered also that the men at Bristol had been adherents of John, not blindly accepting everything he did but not belonging to the party of the barons. Their willingness to accept the Charter at all was evidence of the change which one year of time had wrought. The confirmation might be considered a shrewd move to make it easier for the barons ranged behind Louis to renounce his cause, but the reason went much deeper than that. In the few months of bitterness and civil war which had elapsed since Runnymede the Charter had come to be accepted by all men as necessary and, in most respects, just. They might dispute over certain clauses, but in point of principle they were agreed. Runnymede was already a victory for the ages.
Other omissions were dictated by the fact that the country was at war. The King’s party was sadly in need of funds and supplies to carry on the struggle, and so arbitrary measures, to which men submit when the fate of the nation is at stake, would have to be taken.
It must be allowed, therefore, that common sense and discretion dictated the Bristol attitude to Magna Charta. It was a time for conciliation and not for sharp measures. In the light of subsequent events it is easy to see behind the decisions the wise moderation of William the Marshal and the shrewdness of Gualo.
The second step taken was a decision on the strategy to be followed. It was generally agreed that it would not be wise to risk everything on a pitched battle with the invaders, who still had a great preponderance of strength. It was decided instead to use Fabian tactics while recruiting more adherents and accumulating strength.
Hubert de Burgh, confirmed in his post of justiciar, went back to Dover to continue his defense of that most important fort. William the Marshal, given the power of a regent with the title Rector noster et Regni nostri, set about consolidating the royalist position in the West and summoning back the recalcitrant barons. This he attempted to do by writing letters to all of them, pointing out that the death of John had changed the situation and that, with a new king committed to observe the Charter, their duty was to swear fealty and to fight under the three leopards.
While Louis spent the winter months in attacks on castles here and there, dissipating his strength in sieges, the old marshal was skillfully undermining his support and detaching man after man from the French cause.
1The previous volume in this series. The Conquerors, brought the story of English history up to the point of John’s death.