Relation to me: 22nd Great Grandfather
John Plantagenet is and was also known as John Lackland. He was King of England from April 6th of 1199 until his death in 1216. John would lose the Duchy of Normandy to King Philip II of France, which would result in the collapse of most of the Angevin Empire and also contributed to the subsequent growth in power of the Capetian Dynasty of the 13th Century. The Baronial Revolt, which was at the end of John’s reign led to the sealing of a very famous document known as the Magna Carta. The document is at times considered an early step in the evolution of the Constitution of the United Kingdom.
Lackland was the youngest of five sons born to King Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was not expected to inherit significant amounts of land at first, but following the failed rebellion of his elder brothers in 1173 and 1174, John became Henry’s favorite child. Three years later, he was appointed Lord of Ireland and was then given lands in England and on the continent. His elder brothers William, Henry and Geoffrey died when they were young. By the time Richard I became king in 1189, John was a potential heir to the throne.
He would unsuccessfully attempt a rebellion against Richard’s royal administrators while his brother was participating in the Third Crusade. However, after Richard had died in 1199, John was named King of England, coming to an agreement with Philip II of France to recognize John’s possession of the continental Angevin lands at the Peace Treaty of Le Goulet in 1200.
In 1202, when a war with France broke out again, John achieved some early victories. Two years later shortages of military resources and his treatment of Norman, Breton and Anjou nobles, would result in the collapse of his empire in Northern France. John would spend most of the decade attempting to regain the lands he had lost, raising huge revenues, reforming his armed forces and rebuilding continental alliances. His judicial reforms would have a lasting impact on the English common law system, as well as providing additional sources of revenue.
An argument with Pope Innocent III would lead to John being excommunicated in 1209, but in 1213 the dispute was finally settled by John. A year later, his attempt at defeating Philip would fail because the French were victorious over his allies at the Battle of Bouvines. When John returned to England he faced a rebellion by many of his barons, who were unhappy with his fiscal policies and his treatment of many of England’s most powerful nobles. Although both John and the barons had agreed to the Magna Carta in 1215, neither would comply with its conditions. A Civil War would break out not long after and the barons were given aide by Louis of France. The war quickly descended into a stalemate.
John would die of dysentery that he contracted while on campaign in Eastern England during the later part of 1216. The supporters of his son Henry III went on to be victorious over Louis and the rebel barons in the following year.
Chroniclers of the time were mostly critical of John’s performance as king. His reign has since been the subject of much debate and periodic revision by historians from the 16th century and on up to today. Jim Bradbury, a historian, has summarized the current historical opinion of his positive qualities, observing that today he is considered to have been a “hard-working administrator, an able man, an able general”. Nonetheless, modern historians agree that he also had many faults as a king. Historian Ralph Turner describes his faults as being “distasteful, even dangerous personality traits”, such as pettiness, spitefulness and cruelty. These negative qualities have gone on to provide extensive material for fiction writers in the Victorian era. Today, John still remains a recurring character within Western popular culture, primarily as a villain in films and stories depicting the Robin Hood legends.
John’s Early Life
John was born to Henry II, King of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine on the 24th of
December 1166. He inherited significant territories along the Atlantic seaboard, Anjou, Normandy and England, and then expanded on it by conquering Brittany. John’s father had married Eleanor and thus had tenuous claim to both Toulouse and the Angevin Empire, named after Henry’s paternal title as Count of Anjou, and more significantly its seat in Angers. The Angevin Empire, though, was inherently fragile, even though all lands within it owed their allegiance to Henry. Each part of the empire had their own histories, traditions and governmental structures. As one moved south through Anjou and Aquitaine, the extent of Henry’s power in the provinces grew considerably weaker, scarcely resembling the modern concept of an empire at all really.
Some of the traditional ties between parts of the empire, like Normandy and England, were slowly dissolving over time. It was unclear what would happen to the empire upon Henry’s death. Primogeniture was customary, which meant that the eldest son would inherit all of his father’s lands and was slowly becoming more widespread across Europe. This was less popular though among the Norman kings of England. Most would believe that Henry would divide the empire, giving each son a substantial part, and hoping his children would continue to work together as allies after his death. To complicate matters, a lot of the Angevin Empire was held by Henry, only as a vassal of the King of France of the rival line of the House of Capet. Henry had often allied himself with the Holy Roman Emperor against France, making the feudal relationship between them even more of a challenge.
Not long after John’s birth he was taken from his mother and put into the care of a wet nurse. This was a traditional practice at this time among noble families. Eleanor then left Poitiers, the capital of Aquitaine and John and his sister Joan were sent to the North to
Fontevraud Abbey. This action might have been done with the aim of steering Eleanor’s youngest son, with no obvious inheritance, towards a future ecclesiastical career. Eleanor would spend the next few years conspiring against her husband, neither of John’s parents would play a part in his very early life. John’s brothers, as well as himself had probably been assigned a magister while he was at Fontevraud. The magister was a teacher that was in charge of a child’s early education, along with the managing servants of his immediate household. John was later taught by Ranulph Glanville, a leading English administrator.
John would spend some time as a member of the household of his eldest living brother, Henry the Young King. He’d then probably had received instruction in hunting and military skills. John would grow to be around five feet five inches tall, which was relatively short for the time. He also had a “powerful, barrel-chested body” and dark hair. To his contemporaries he had looked like an inhabitant of Poitou.
Lackland would enjoy reading and built up a traveling library of books, which was unusual for the period. He had also enjoyed gambling, and in particular backgammon. John was an enthusiastic hunter, even by medieval standards and liked music, but didn’t like songs. He became a “connoisseur of jewels,” building up a large collection and becoming famous for his opulent clothes. Also, according to French chroniclers, John was famous for his fondness for bad wine. As he grew up, he’d became known for, at times, being “genial, witty, generous, and hospitable”. At other times, he could be jealous, over sensitive and prone to fits of rage, “biting and gnawing his fingers” in anger.
During John’s early years he attempted to resolve the question of his succession. Henry, the Young King, had been crowned King of England in 1170, but was not given any formal powers by his father. He was also promised Normandy and Anjou as part of his future inheritance. Richard was to be appointed the Count of Anjou with control of Aquitaine. John’s other brother Geoffrey was to become Duke of Brittany. It was at this time that John seemed to be unlikely to inherit substantial lands and was jokingly nicknamed “Lackland” by his father.
Henry II wanted to secure the Southern borders of Aquitaine and chose to betroth his youngest son to Alais, the daughter and heiress of Humbert III of Savoy. As part of his agreement, John was promised in the future to inherit Savoy, Piedmont, Maurienne and other possessions of Count Humbert. For his part in the potential marriage alliance, Henry II transferred the castles of Chinon, Loudun, and Mirebeau into John’s name. Since John was only five-years-old, his father would continue to control the castles for practical purposes. Henry, the Young King was unimpressed by this, although he had yet to be granted control of any castles in his new kingdom, these were effectively his future property and had been given away without consultation. Alais made the trip over the Alps and joined Henry II’s court, but she ended up dying before she married John. Alais’s death left him once again without an inheritance.
John’s elder brothers, backed by their mother Eleanor, arose in a revolt against Henry, their father in a short-lived rebellion from 1173 until 1174. Growing irritated with his subordinate position to Henry II and increasingly worried that John may be given additional lands and castles at his expense, Henry, the Young King, traveled to Paris and allied himself with Louis VII. Eleanor, irritated by her husband’s persistent interference in Aquitaine, encouraged Richard and Geoffrey to join their brother Henry in Paris. Henry II triumphed over the coalition of his sons, but was generous to them in a peace settlement agreed upon at Montlouis. The Young King was allowed to travel all over Europe with his own household of knights, Richard was returned Aquitaine, and Geoffrey was allowed to return to Brittany. As for Eleanor, she was the only one imprisoned for her role in the revolt.
John had spent the conflict traveling alongside his father, he was given widespread possessions across the Angevin empire as part of the Montlouis settlement. From this time on, most observers regarded John as Henry II’s favorite child, although he was furthest removed in terms of royal succession. Henry II started to find more lands for his youngest son, mostly at the expense of various nobles.
During 1175, Henry II appropriated estates of the late Earl of Cornwall, giving them to John. In 1176, Henry disinherited the sisters of Isabelle of Gloucester, contrary to the legal custom and betrothed John to the now extremely wealthy Isabelle. A year later, at the Council of Oxford, Henry dismissed William FitzAldelm as the Lord of Ireland and replaced him with the ten-year-old John. In 1183, The Young King, fought in a short war with his brother Richard over the status of England, Normandy and Aquitaine. Henry II moved on in support of Richard and Henry the Young King would die from dysentery at the end of the campaign.
With his primary heir deceased, Henry rearranged the plans for his succession. Richard was to be made the King of England, except without any actual power until the death of his father. Geoffrey would retain Brittany, John would now become the Duke of Aquitaine, replacing Richard. Henry II was furious and ordered John, with the help of Geoffrey, to march South and retake the duchy by force. The two attacked the capital of Poitiers and Richard responded by attacking Brittany. The war would end in a stalemate and tense family reconciliation in England at the end of 1184.
A year after the end of the war, John would make his first visit to Ireland, accompanied by three hundred knights and a team of administrators. Henry tried to have John officially named King of Ireland, but Pope Lucius III would not agree to this. John’s first period of rule in Ireland was not a success. Ireland had only recently been conquered by Anglo-Norman forces and tensions were still rife between Henry, the new settlers and the existing inhabitants. John had infamously offended local Irish rulers by making fun of their unfashionably long beards. He also failed to make allies among the Anglo-Norman settlers and started to lose ground militarily against the Irish, finally returning to England later on that year. John would blame the viceroy, Hugh de Lacy for the fiasco, but problems among John’s wider family would continue to grow.
His elder brother, Geoffrey, died during a tournament in 1186, leaving posthumous son, Arthur and his elder daughter Eleanor. His death brought John a little closer to the throne of England and there was growing uncertainty about what would happen after Henry died. Richard was keen to join a new crusade and remained concerned that when he was gone, Henry would appoint John, his formal successor. A year later, Richard began talks about a potential alliance with Philip II in Paris. A year after that he and Philip would fight a joint campaign against Henry. By the summer of 1189 the king made peace, promising Richard the succession. John had initially remained loyal to his father, but changed sides once it appeared that Richard would win. Henry, however, died not long after.
King Richard’s Reign (1189-1199)
When John’s elder brother, Richard, became the new king in September of 1189, he had already declared his intentions of joining the Third Crusade. Richard would go about raising the huge amount of sums that were required for the expedition through the sale of lands, titles and appointments, and attempted to ensure that he would not face a revolt while he was away from his new empire.
John was made the Count of Mortain and was married to the wealthy Isabel of Gloucester. He was thus given valuable lands in Lancaster and the counties of Cornwall, Derby, Devon, Dorset, Nottingham and Somerset, all with the aim of buying his loyalty to Richard while he was away on Crusade. Richard would retain royal control of key castles in these counties, thereby preventing John from accumulating too much military and political power, and for the time being, the king had named the four-year-old Arthur of Brittany as the heir to the throne. In return, John had promised to not visit England for the next three years, thereby, in theory, giving Richard adequate time to conduct a successful crusade and return from the Levant without having fear of John seizing power while he was away.
Richard had left political authority in England, the post of justiciar, jointly in the hands of Bishop Hugh de Puiset and William Mandeville, and also made William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, his chancellor. Mandeville immediately died, Longchamp took over as justiciar with Puiset, which had proved to be a less than satisfactory partnership. Eleanor, the queen mother, convinced Richard to allow John to go into England in his absence. The political situation in England started to rapidly deteriorated. Longchamp had refused to work with Puiset and thus became unpopular with the English nobility and clergy. John would exploit this unpopularity so as to set himself up as the alternative ruler with his own royal court, complete with his own justiciar, chancellor and other royal posts. He was also happy to be portrayed as an alternative regent, and possibly the next king.
By October of 1191, Longchamp was isolated in the Tower of London, with John in control of the city of London, thanks to the promises he made to the citizens, in return for recognition as Richard’s heir presumptive. At this point, Walter of Coutances, the Archbishop of Rouen, returned to England, having been sent by Richard to restore order. John’s position was undermined by Walter’s relative popularity and by the news that Richard had married while he was in Cyprus. This had presented the possibility that Richard would have legitimate children and heirs.
The political turmoil would continue however, and John began to explore an alliance with the French king, Philip II, who had freshly returned from Crusade. John had hoped to gain Normandy, Anjou and other lands in France that were held by Richard in exchange for allying himself with Philip. John was persuaded to not pursue an alliance by his mother though. Longchamp, who had left England after Walter’s intervention, had now returned, and argued that he had been wrongly removed as justiciar. John would intervene, squashing Longchamp’s claims in return for promises of support from the royal administration, including a reaffirmation of his position as heir to the throne.
When Richard still hadn’t returned from the crusade, John started to assert that his brother had died, or otherwise was permanently lost. Richard had in fact been captured while en-route to England by the Duke of Austria and had been handed over to Emperor Henry VI, who had held him for ransom. John quickly took this opportunity and went to Paris, where he formed an alliance with Philip, agreeing to set aside his wife, Isabella of Gloucester, and marry Philip’s sister, Alys, in exchange for Philip’s support.
Fighting had broken out in England between forces loyal to Richard and those that were being gathered together by John, whose military position was weak. John would end up agreeing to a truce. Early in 1194, the king finally would return to England. John’s remaining forces surrendered and John retreated to Normandy, where Richard had finally found him just one year later. Richard would declare that his younger brother, even though being twenty-seven years old, was merely “a child who has had evil counsellors” and forgave him. Richard did however, remove his lands with the exception of Ireland from him. For the remaining years of Richard’s reign, John would support his brother on the continent, apparently loyally. King Richard’s policy on the continent was to attempt to regain, through steady, limited campaigns, the castles that he had lost to Philip II while he was on Crusade. Richard would ally himself with the leaders of Flanders, Boulogne and the Holy Roman Empire to apply pressure on Philip from Germany.
In 1195, John successfully carried out a sudden attack and siege on Evreaux Castle and subsequently managed the defenses of Normandy against Philip. During the following year, John seized the town of Gamaches and led a raiding party within fifty miles of Paris. He would also capture the Bishop of Beauvais. Richard would withdraw his malevolentia, ill-will, towards John, restoring him to the county of Gloucestershire and also made him the Count of Mortain yet again.
The Early Reign of John (1199-1204)
After the death of King Richard on the 6th of April 1199, there were two potential claimants to the Angevin throne. John’s claim rested on being the sole surviving son of Henry II. The young Arthur I of Brittany’s claim rested on being the son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey. Richard appears to have started to recognize John as his heir presumptive in his final years, but the matter was not clear-cut. Medieval law gave little guidance as to how the competing claims should be decided.
Norman law had favored John as the only surviving son of Henry II. The Angevin law favored Arthur since he was the only son of Henry’s elder son, and the matter rapidly became an open conflict. John was supported by the bulk of English and Norman nobility and would be crowned at Westminster, backed by his mother Eleanor. Arthur was supported by the majority of Breton, Maine and Anjou nobles and had received the support of Philip II, who had remained committed to breaking up the Angevin territories on the continent. With Arthur’s army pressing up the Loire valley towards Angers and Philip’s forces moving down the valley towards Tours, John’s continental empire was in danger of being cut in two.
Warfare in Normandy at the time was shaped by the defensive potential of castles and the increasing costs of conducting campaigns. The Norman frontiers had a limited natural defense but were heavily reinforced with castles, such as Chateau Gaillard, at strategic points, built and maintained at considerable expenses. It was difficult for a commander to advance far into a fresh territory without having secured his lines of communication by capturing these fortifications, which would slow the progress of any attack.
Armies of the time could be formed from either feudal or mercenary forces. Feudal levies could only be raised for a fixed amount of time before they had to return home, which would force an end to a campaign. Mercenary forces, often called Brabancons, after the Duchy of Brabant, but actually recruited from across Northern Europe, could operate all year long and would provide a commander with more strategic options to pursue a campaign. The cost for a mercenary force was much more than the equivalent feudal forces, and as a result commanders of the time were increasingly drawing on larger numbers of mercenaries.
After his coronation, John moved to the South of France with military forces and adopted a defensive posture along Eastern and Southern Normandy borders. Both sides had paused for desultory negotiations before war was recommenced. John’s position was now stronger thanks to the confirmation that counts Baldwin IX of Flanders and Renaud of Boulogne had renewed the anti-French alliances they had previously agreed to with Richard. The powerful Anjou nobleman, William des Roches, was persuaded to switch sides from Arthur to John. Suddenly the balance had seemed to be tipping away from Philip and Arthur and to the favor of John. Neither side was keen to continuing the conflict. After a papal truce the two leaders came together for a meeting in January 1200 to negotiate possible terms for peace. From John’s perspective, what followed represented the opportunity to stabilize the control over his continental possessions and produce a lasting peace with Philip in Paris. John and Philip negotiated the Treaty of Le Goulet in May of 1200.
By the Treaty of Goulet, Philip recognized that John was the rightful heir to Richard, in respect to his French possessions, temporarily abandoning wider claims of his client Arthur. John in turn would abandon Richard’s former policy of containing Philip through alliances with Flanders and Boulogne. He would also accept Philip’s rights as the legitimate feudal overlord of John’s lands in France. John’s policy earned him the disrespectful title of “John Softsword” from some English chroniclers who contrasted his behavior with his more aggressive brother, Richard.
The new peace would only last two years. War would recommence in the aftermath of John’s decision in August of 1200 to marry Isabella of Angouleme. In order to remarry,
John had needed to first abandon Isabel, the Countess of Gloucester and his first wife. John would accomplish this by arguing that he had failed to get necessary papal permission to marry her in the first place. As a cousin, John couldn’t have legally married her without this. It remains unclear why John chose to marry Isabella of Angouleme. Contemporary chroniclers argued that he had fallen deeply in love with her and he may have been motivated by his desire for the the apparently beautiful but rather young girl. On the other hand, Angoumois lands that came with her were strategically vital to him, by marrying her, John would acquire the key land route between Poitou and Gascony, which significantly strengthened his grip on Aquitaine.
Unfortunately, Isabella had already been engaged to Hugh of Lusignan. He was an important member of the key Poitou noble family and a brother of Count Raoul of Eu, who possessed lands along the sensitive Eastern Normandy border. Just as John stood to benefit strategically from marrying her, the marriage threatened interests of the Lusignans, whose own lands currently provided a key route for royal goods and troops across Aquitaine. Rather than negotiating some form of compensation, John treated Hugh “with contempt”. This had resulted in a Lusignan uprising that was promptly crushed by John, who also intervened to suppress Raoul in Normandy.
Although John was the Count of Poitou, and therefore, rightful feudal lord over the Lusignans, they could legitimately appeal John’s actions in France to his own feudal lord, Philip. Hugh would do exactly this in 1201. Philip would summon John to attend court in Paris in 1202, citing the Le Goulet treaty to strengthen his case. John was unwilling to weaken his authority in Western France. He would argue that he didn’t have to attend Philip’s court because of his special status as Duke of Normandy, who was exempt by feudal tradition from being called to French court. Philip argued that he was summoning John, not as Duke of Normandy, but as the Count of Poitou, which carried no such special status. When John still refused to come, Philip declared John in breach of his feudal responsibilities, reassigned all of his lands that fell under the French crown to Arthur, with the exception of Normandy, which he took back for himself and began a fresh war against John.
The Loss of Normandy (1202-1204)
John initially adopted a defensive posture that was similar to that of 1199, avoiding open battle, carefully defending his key castles. His operations became more chaotic as the campaign progressed. Philip started to make steady progress in the East and John became aware in July that Arthur’s forces were threatening his mother, Eleanor, at Mirebeau Castle. Accompanied by William de Roches, his seneschal in Anjjou, he swung his mercenary army quickly south to protect her. His forces caught Arthur by surprise, capturing the entire rebel leadership at the Battle of Mirebeau. With his Southern flank beginning to weaken, Philip was forced to withdraw in the East and turned South himself to contain John’s army. John’s position in France was considerably strengthened by the victory at Mireabeau. However, his treatment of his new prisoners and of his ally, William de Roches, quickly undermined these gains. De Roches was a powerful Anjou noble, but John largely ignored him, causing a considerable offense, while the king kept the rebel leaders in such bad conditions that twenty-two of them died. At the time, most of the regional nobility were closely linked through kinship and this behavior towards the relatives was regarded as unacceptable.
William de Roches and other members of John’s regional allies in Anjou and Brittany deserted him in favor of Philip, and Brittany rose in a fresh revolt. John’s financial situation was tenuous, once factors such as comparative military costs of material and soldiers were taken into account. Philip enjoyed a considerable, though not overwhelming, advantage of resources over John. Further desertions of John’s local allies at the beginning of 1203 steadily reduced John’s freedom to maneuver in the region. He would try to convince Pope Innocent III to intervene in a conflict, but Innocent’s efforts were unsuccessful. As the situation became worse for John, he appeared to have decided to have Arthur killed, with the aim of removing his potential rival and of undermining the rebel movement in Brittany. Arthur was initially imprisoned at Falaise and was then moved to Rouen.
After this, Arthur’s fate remains uncertain, but modern historians believe that he was murdered by John. The annals of Margam Abbey suggest that “John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time in the castle of Rouen…when John was drunk he slew Arthur with his own hand and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine.” Rumors of Arthur’s death had further reduced the support for John across the region.
Arthur’s sister, Eleanor, who had also been captured at Mirebeau was kept imprisoned by John for many years, however, in relatively good conditions. In the later part of 1203, John attempted to relieve Chateau Gaillard, which, although besieged by Philip, was guarding the Eastern flank of Normandy. John would attempt a synchronized operation involving land-based and water-borne forces, which was considered by most historians today to have been imaginative in conception, but overly complex for forces of the time to have carried out successfully. John’s relief operation was blocked by Philip’s forces and he turned back to Brittany in an attempt to draw Philip away from Eastern Normandy. John would successfully devastate much of Brittany, but didn’t deflect Philip’s main thrust into the Eastern part of Normandy. Opinions vary among historians as to the military skill that was shown by John during this campaign. Most recent historians argue that his performance was passable, although not impressive.
John’s situation began to deteriorate rather rapidly. The Eastern border region of Normandy had been extensively cultivated by Philip and his predecessors for several years. The Angevin authority in the South had been undermined by Richard’s giving away of various key castles some years before. His use of routier mercenaries in the central regions had rapidly eaten away at his remaining support in the area as well, which would set the stage for a sudden collapse of Angevin power. John retreated back across the Channel in December, sending orders for the establishment of a fresh defensive line to the West of Chateau Gaillard.
In March of 1204, Gaillard fell. John’s mother died in the following month, which was not just a personal blow for him but also had threatened to unravel the widespread Angevin alliances across the far South of France. Philip moved South around the new defensive line and struck upwards at the heart of the Duchy, now facing little resistance. Come August, Philip had taken Normandy and advanced South to occupy Anjou and Poitou as well. John’s only remaining possession on the continent was now the Duchy of Aquitaine.
John as King
The nature of government under the Angevin monarchs was ill-defined and uncertain. John’s predecessors had ruled by using the principle of vis et voluntas, or “force and will,” taking executive and sometimes arbitrary decisions, often justified on the basis that a king was above the law. Both Henry II and Richard had argued that the kings possessed a quality of “divine majesty”. John would continue this trend and claimed an “almost imperial status” for himself as a ruler.
During the 12th century, there were contrary opinions expressed about the nature of kingship. Many contemporary writers believed that monarchs should rule in accordance with the custom and the law, and take counsel of leading members of the realm. There was, as yet, no model for what should happen if a king refused to do so.
Despite John’s claim to unique authority within England, he would at times justify his actions on the basis that he had taken counsel with the barons. Modern historians remain divided as to whether John had suffered from a case of “royal schizophrenia” in his approach to the government, or if his actions merely mirrored the complex model of Angevin kingship in the early 13th century.
John had inherited a sophisticated system of administration in England, with a range of royal agents that answered to the Royal Household. The Chancery would keep written records and communications, the Treasury and Exchequer dealt with the income and expenditure, respectively, and various judges were deployed to deliver justice around the kingdom. Thanks to men like Hubert Walter, this trend towards improved record keeping continued into his reign. As previous kings had, John managed a peripatetic court that traveled around the kingdom, dealing with both local and national matters as he went. He was very active in the administration of England and was involved in every aspect of the government. In part he would follow the tradition of Henry I and Henry II, but by the 13th century the volume of administrative work had greatly increased, which put much more pressure on a king who had wished to rule in this style.
Unlike his predecessors, John had spent much long periods of time in England. This had made his rule more personal than the previous kings, particularly in previously ignored areas such as the North. The administration of justice was of particular importance to John, several new processes had been introduced to English law under King Henry II, including novel disseisin and mort d’ancestor. These meant that royal courts had a more significant role in local law cases, which previously had been dealt with only by the regional or local lords.
John had also increased the professionalism of local sergeants and bailiffs and extended the system of coroners that were forced introduced by Hubert Walter in 1194. This had created a new class of borough coroners. John worked extremely hard so he could ensure this system would operate well. This was done through the judges he had appointed, fostering legal specialists and expertise and by intervening in cases himself. He would continue to try relatively minor cases, even during his military crises. Lewis Warren viewed this positively and considered that John discharge “his royal duty of providing justice…with a zeal and a tirelessness to which the English common law is greatly indebted.” However, seen more critically, John may have been motivated by the potential of royal legal process to raise fees, rather than the desire to deliver simple justice.
This legal system would only apply to free men, rather than to all of the population. Nonetheless, the changes were popular with many of the free tenants who had acquired a more reliable legal system that could bypass barons, of which such cases were often brought. John’s reforms were not as popular with the barons themselves though, especially as they had remained subject to arbitrary and frequently vindictive royal justice.
One of his principle challenges was acquiring the large sums that he needed for proposed campaigns to reclaim Normandy. Angevin kings had three main sources of income that were available to them. Most of their income came from their personal lands, also known as demesne, money that was raised through the rights as a feudal lord and revenue from taxation. Revenue from the royal demesne was inflexible and had been slowly running out since the Norman conquest. Matters were not helped when Richard sold many of the royal properties in 1189. Taxation would play a much smaller role in royal income than it had in later centuries. The English kings had widespread feudal rights of which could be used to generate income, including the scutage system. The scutage system was one in which the feudal military service was avoided by a cash payment to the king. He would derive income from the fines, court fees and sale of charters and other privileges as well.
John intensified his efforts to maximize all of the possible sources of income, to the extent that he has been described as “avaricious, miserly, extortionate and money-minded”. He would also use revenue generation as a way of exerting political control over the barons. Debts that were owed to the crown by the king’s favored supporters may be forgiven, but collection of those that were owed by enemies was more stringently enforced. The result of this was a sequence of innovative, but unpopular financial measures. John would levy scutage payments a total of eleven times in his seventeen year reign as king, compared to the eleven times in total during the reign of the preceding three monarchs. In many cases these were levied in absence of any actual military campaign, which ran opposite to the original idea that scutage was an alternative to actual military service. John had maximized his right to demand relief payments when estates and castles were inherited, at times charging enormous sums, beyond a baron’s ability to pay.
Building on the successful sale of sheriff appointments in 1194, John initiated a new round of appointments, with new incumbents making back their investment through increased fines and penalties, particularly in forests. Another innovation of Richard’s was the increased charge levied on widows who wished to remain single, this was expanded on in John’s reign. He would continue to sell charters for new towns, including the planned town of Liverpool. Charters were sold for markets across the kingdom and in Gascony as well.
The king would introduce new taxes and extended existing ones. The Jews, who had held vulnerable positions in medieval England, were protected only by the king, and were subject to huge taxes; 44,000 pounds was extracted from the community by the tallage of 1210, much of it would be passed on to Christian debtors of Jewish money-lenders. He would also create a new tax on income and movable goods in 1207, effectively a version of today’s income tax, which would produce 60,000 pounds. John would create a new set of import/export duties that were payable directly to the crown as well. He had found that these measures would enable him to raise further resources through the confiscation of lands of barons who couldn’t pay or refused to pay.
At the start of John’s reign, there was a sudden change in prices. With bad harvests and high food demand came much higher prices for grain and animals. This inflationary pressure would continue on for the rest of the 13th century. It would have long-term economic consequences on England, resulting in social pressures that were complicated by bursts of deflation and had resulted in John’s military campaigns. It was unusual during this time for a king to collect taxes in silver, which was then re-minted into new coins. These coins would ten be put in barrels and then sent to royal castles around the country so that they could be used to hire mercenaries or meet other costs. During the times when John was preparing for campaigns in Normandy for example, huge quantities of silver had to be withdrawn from the economy and stored for many months. This unintentionally would result in periods of which silver coins were simply hard to come by. Any commercial credit was difficult to acquire and deflationary pressure would be placed on the economy, which thus resulted in political unrest across the country. John would attempt to address some of these problems with the English currency in 1204 and again in 1205. He would carry out radical overhauls of coinage and improved its quality and consistency.
John’s royal household was based around several groups of followers. One of the groups was the familiares regis. The group was made up of his immediate friends and knights who had traveled around the country with him. They also had played an important role in organizing and leading military campaigns. Another group of the royal followers were the curia regis. These curiales were senior officials and agents of the king and were essentially part of his day-to-day rule. Being a part of these inner circles would bring huge advantages, as it was easier to gain favors from the king, file lawsuits, marry a wealthy heiress and have one’s debts remitted.
By the time of King Henry II, these posts were increasingly being filled by “new men,” outsiders of the normal ranks of barons. This intensified under the rule of John, with many lesser nobles arriving from the continent to take up positions at the court. Many of these men were mercenary leaders from Poitou. These men included soldiers who would become infamous throughout England for their uncivilized behavior. They would include men such as: Falkes de Breate, Geard d’Athies, Engelard de Cigonge and Philip Marc. Many of the barons perceived the king’s household as what Ralph Turner characterized as a “narrow clique enjoying royal favor at barons’ expense” staffed by men of lesser status. This trend was so that the king could rely on his own men at the expense of the barons and it would be exacerbated by the tradition of Angevin royal ira et malevolentia, meaning “anger and ill-will”, and John’s own personality.
From Henry II and on, ira et malevolentia came to describe the right of the king to express his anger and displeasure at certain barons or clergy, building on the Norman concept of malevoncia, “royal ill-will”. In the Norman times, suffering the king’s ill-will would mean that one would experience great difficulties in obtaining grants, honors or petitions. Henry II would infamously express his fury and ill-will towards Thomas Becket, this ultimately led to the death of Becket.
John would now have the additional ability to “cripple his vassals” on a significant scale, using his new economic and judicial measures, which meant the threat of royal anger would be all the more serious. He was deeply suspicious of the barons, particularly those with sufficient power and wealth to potentially challenge the king. Many barons were subjected to John’s malevolentia, including William Marshal, a famous knight and baron normally held up as a model of utter loyalty. The most famous case of his anger would go beyond anything that was considered acceptable at the time, proved to be towards William de Braose, a powerful marcher lord with lands in Ireland. William was subjected to punitive demands for money. When he refused to pay the huge sum of 40,000 marks, equivalent to 26,666 pounds at the time, his wife and one of his sons were imprisoned by John. The imprisonment would result in their deaths, William would die while in exile in 1211 and his grandsons would remain imprisoned until 1218. John’s suspicions and jealousy meant that he rarely enjoyed good relationships with even the leading loyalist barons.
John’s Personal Life
John’s personal life had greatly affected his reign as king. Contemporary chroniclers state that he was sinfully lustful and lacking in piety. It was common for kings and nobles of the time to keep mistresses, but chroniclers complained that John’s mistresses were married noblewomen, which was considered to be unacceptable. He had at least five children with his mistresses that he had during his first marriage to Isabelle of Gloucester. Two of those are known to have been noblewomen.
His behavior after his second marriage to Isabella of Angouleme is not as clear though. None of his known illegitimate children were born after he had remarried and there is no actual documentary proof of him committing adultery after that time. Although he certainly had had female friends among the court throughout the time. Specific accusations made against him during the baronial revolts are now generally considered to have been invested for the purpose of justifying the revolt. Nonetheless, most of his contemporaries seem to have held a poor opinion of his sexual behavior.
The character of his relationship with Isabella of Angouleme, his second wife, is unclear. He had married her while she was a relatively young girl, but her exact date of birth is unknown. Estimates place her age at most fifteen-years-old but more probably closer to the age of nine-years-old when they were married. Even by the standards of the time, Isabella was married while she was very young.
John didn’t provide a great deal of money for his wife’s household and also didn’t pass on very much revenue from her lands. Historian Nicholas Vincent has described John as being “downright mean” towards Isabella and concluded that their marriage was not particularly “amicable”. Other aspects of their marriage suggest a closer, more positive relationship. Chroniclers recorded that John had a “mad infatuation” with Isabella and certainly he had conjugal relations with her between at least 1207 and 1215 as they had five children during that time. In contrast to Vincent, historian William Chester Jordan concluded that the pair were a “companionable couple” whose marriage was successful by the standards of the day.
John’s lack of religious conviction has also been noted by contemporary chroniclers and later by historians, with more of them suspecting he was at best impious, or even atheistic. To be these at the time was a very serious issue. Contemporary chroniclers would catalog his various anti-religious habits in length, including his failure to take communion, blasphemous remarks, witty but scandalous jokes about the church doctrine, including those about implausibility of the Resurrection. They would also comment on the paucity of his charitable donations to the church.
Historian Frank McLynn argues that John’s early years at Fontevraud, combined with his relatively advanced education, may have turned him against the church. Other historians have been more cautious in interpreting this. Notable chroniclers also report John’s personal interest in the life of St. Wulfstan of Worcester and his friendships with several senior clerics, most especially with Hugh of Lincoln, who was later declared a saint.
Financial records show a normal royal household that would engage in the usual feasts and pious observances, albeit with many records showing his offerings to the poor to atone for routinely breaking church rules and guidance. Lewis Warren, another historian, has argued chronicler accounts were subject to considerable bias and the king was “at least conventionally devout”. He also cites his pilgrimages and interest in religious scripture and commentaries.
John’s Later Reign
During the remainder of John’s reign, he would focus on trying to retake Normandy. Available evidence suggests that he didn’t regard the loss of the Duchy as a permanent shift in Capetian power. Strategically, he would face several challenges, the first of which was England. The country had to be secured against the possibility of a French invasion. The sea routes to Bordeaux would need to be secured following the loss of the land route to Aquitaine as well. John’s remaining possessions in Aquitaine would also have to be secured after the death of his mother in April of 1204.
John’s preferred plan was to use Poitou as a base of operations. Then he would advance up the Loire Valley to threaten Paris and pin down the French forces and break Philip’s internal lines of communication before a landing maritime force in the Duchy itself. Ideally, this plan would benefit from opening a second front on Philip’s Eastern frontiers with Flanders and Boulogne. This was effectively a re-creation of Richard’s old strategy of applying pressure from Germany. All of this would require a great deal of money, as well as soldiers.
King John would spend most of 1205 securing England against a potential French invasion. As an emergency measure, John recreated a version of Henry II’s Assize of Arms of 1181, and each shire would create a structure to mobilize local levies. When the threat of invasion subsided, John would form a large military force in England that was intended for Poitou, as well as a large fleet with soldiers under his own command intended for Normandy.
To achieve this goal, John would have to reform the English feudal contribution to his campaigns. John would create a more flexible system under which only one knight out of every ten would actually be mobilized, but would be financially supported by the other nine, and that night would also serve for an indefinite amount of time. John built up a strong team of engineers for siege warfare and a substantial force of professional crossbowmen. The king was supported by a team of leading barons with military expertise, including William Longespee, William Marshal, Roger de Lacy, and until he fell from favor, marcher lord William de Braose.
John had already started to improve his Channel forces before the loss of Normandy. He would rapidly build up further maritime capabilities after it collapsed, most of the ships were placed along Cinque Ports, but Portsmouth was also enlarged. By the end of 1204, he had acquired around fifty large galleys. Another fifty-four vessels would be built between 1209 and 1212. William of Wrotham was appointed as “keeper of the galleys,” effectively John’s chief admiral. William was put in charge of fusing John’s galleys, the ships for Cinque Ports and pressed merchant vessels into a single operational fleet. John would also adopt recent improvements to ship designs, including new large transport ships called buisses and removable forecastles for use in combat. Baronial unrest in England would prevent the departure of the planned 1205 expedition, except for a smaller force under William Longespee, who deployed to Poitou.
During 1206, John had departed for Poitou himself, but was forced to divert South to counter a threat to Gascony from Alfonso VIII of Castile. Philip would move to the South to meet John, and the year’s campaigning would end in a stalemate and two-year truce would be made between the two rulers. During the truce of 1206 to 1208, John had focused on building his financial and military resources in preparation for another attempt at recapturing Normandy. He would use some of this money to pay for new alliances on Philip’s Eastern frontiers where growth in Capetian power was beginning to concern France’s neighbors.
By 1212, John had successfully concluded alliances with his nephew Otto IV, contender for the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, as well as with the counts Renaud of Boulogne and Ferdinand of Flanders. The invasion plans for 1212 were postponed because of fresh English baronial unrest about service in Poitou. A year later, Philip seized initiative and sent his elder son, Louis to invade Flanders, with the intention of next launching an invasion of England. John was then forced to postpone his own invasion plans to counter threat, launching his new fleet to attack the French harbor of Damme. The attack was successful and destroyed Philip’s vessels and any chances of an invasion of England that year. John had hoped to exploit this advantage by invading in 1213, but baronial discontent again delayed his invasion until early 1214, in what proved to be his final Continental campaign.
In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, border and political relationship between England and Scotland was disputed. The kings of Scotland were claiming parts of what is now Northern England. John’s father, Henry II, had forced William ‘the Lion’ to swear fealty to him at the Treaty of Falaise in 1174. This was rescinded by King Richard I in exchange for financial compensation in 1189, but the relationship remained uneasy. John began his reign by reasserting his sovereignty over the disputed Northern counties and refused William’s request for earldom of Northumbria, but didn’t intervene in Scotland itself and had focused on his continental problems. The two kings maintained a friendly relationship and met together in 1206 and 1207, until it had been rumored in 1209 that William was intending to ally himself with Philip II of France. John had invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, giving John control of William’s daughters and requiring a payment of 10,000 pounds. This would effectively cripple William’s power North of the border.
By 1212, John had to militarily intervene to support the Scottish king against his internal rivals. He made no efforts to reinvigorate the Treaty of Falaise though, and both William and Alexander in turn remained independent kings, who were supported by, but didn’t owe fealty to John.
John would remain the Lord of Ireland throughout his reign as king. He would also rely on the country’s resources to fight his war against Philip in mainland Europe. The conflict would continue in Ireland between the Anglo-Norman settlers and the indigenous Irish chieftains, with John manipulating both of the groups so that he could expand his wealth and power in the country. During King Richard’s rule, John had successfully increased the size of his lands in Ireland and had continued this policy as king as well.
During 1210, King John crossed over into Ireland with a large army to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Norman lords. He would reassert his control of the country and used a new charter to order compliance with the English laws and customs in Ireland. John stopped just short of trying to actively enforce the charter on the native Irish kingdoms, but historian David Carpenter suspects that he may have actually done it, had the baronial conflict in England not intervened. Simmering tensions had remained with the native Irish leaders, even after John had left for England.
Royal power in Wales was unevenly applied, with the country divided between the marcher lords along the borders, royal territories in Pembrokeshire and the more independent native Welsh lords of North Wales. John would take a closer interest in Wales and knew the country well. He had visited every year between 1204 and 1211 and also had married his illegitimate daughter, Joan, to the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great. The king would use the marcher lords and the native Welsh so he could increase his own territory and power. John struck a sequence of increasingly precise deals, backed by royal military power with the Welsh rulers. A major royal expedition to enforce these agreements would occur in 1211, after Llywelyn attempted to exploit instability that was caused by the removal of William de Braose through the Welsh uprising of 1211. King John’s invasion, striking into the Welsh heartlands, was a military success. Llywelyn had come to terms that had included an expansion of John’s power across much of Wales, but only temporarily.
A Dispute with the Pope
When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, had died on the 13th of July 1205, John had become involved in a dispute with Pope Innocent III, that would lead to the king’s excommunication. The Norman and Angevin kings had traditionally exercised a great deal of power over the church within their territories.
From the 1040s and on, successive popes put forward a reforming message that had emphasized the importance of the church being “governed more coherently and more hierarchically from the center,” and established “its own sphere of authority and jurisdiction, separate from and independent of that of the lay ruler,” in the words of historian Richard Huscroft.
After the 1140s, these principles had been largely accepted within the English church, except with an element of concern about centralized authority in Rome. These changes would bring customary rights of lay rulers, such as John over ecclesiastical appointments being brought into question. Pope Innocent was, according to Ralph Turner, another historian, an “ambitious and aggressive” religious leader, who was insistent on having his rights and responsibilities within the church. John wanted John de Gray, the Bishop of Norwich, and one of his own supporters, to be appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury after Walter had died. However, the cathedral chapter for Canterbury Cathedral had claimed the exclusive right to elect Walter’s successor, they had favored Reginald, the chapter’s sub-prior. To complicate matters even more, the bishops of the province of Canterbury also claimed the right to appoint the next Archbishop. The chapter had secretly elected Reginald and traveled to Rome to have him confirmed. The bishops challenged the appointment and the matter was taken before Pope Innocent. John had forced the Canterbury chapter to change their support to John de Gray. A messenger was then sent to Rome to inform the papacy of the new decision. Innocent disavowed both Reginald and John de Gray, instead he would appoint his own candidate, Stephen Langton. John had refused Innocent’s request that he consent to Langton’s appointment, but the pope consecrated Langton anyhow in June of 1207.
John was left angry about what he had perceived as abrogation of his customary right as the monarch to influence the election. He complained about the choice of Langton as an individual, and felt that he was overly influenced by the Capetian court in Paris, and about the process as a whole. He ended up barring Langton from entering England and also seized lands of the Archbishopric and other papal possessions. The Pope set a commission in place to try to convince John to change his mind, but he was unsuccessful.
In March of 1208, Pope Innocent then placed an interdict on England, prohibiting the clergy from conducting any religious services, with the exception of baptisms for the young and confessions and absolutions for the dying. John treated this interdict as “the equivalent of a papal declaration of war”. He responded by trying to punish the Pope personally and to drive a wedge between the English clergy that may have supported him, as well as those allying themselves firmly with the authorities in Rome. John would seize the lands of the clergy that were unwilling to conduct services, as well as those estates that were linked to Innocent himself. He had arrested the illicit concubines that had many clerics kept during the time, only releasing them after a payment of fines. He then seized the lands of members of the church who had fled from England and promised the protection for clergy that were willing to remain loyal to him. In many cases, individual institutions were able to negotiate the terms for managing their own properties and keeping produce of their estates.
By 1209, the situation had shown no signs of a resolution. Innocent would threaten excommunication of John if he didn’t accept Langton’s appointment. When this threat had failed, Innocent excommunicated King John in November of 1209. Although this was theoretically a significant blow to John’s legitimacy, it didn’t appear that John was too worried.
Two of John’s closest allies, Emperor Otto IV and Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, had already suffered the same punishment themselves. The significance of excommunication had been somewhat devauled. John had simply tightened his existing measures and accrued a significant amount of sums from the income of vacant sees and abbeys. A 1213 estimate, for example, suggested that the church had lost an estimated 100,000 marks to John, equivalent to 66,666 pounds at the time. Official figures suggest that about fourteen percent of the annual income from the English church was being gathered and given to John each year.
Pope Innocent had given some dispensations as the crisis progressed. Monastic communities were allowed to celebrate mass in private from 1209 and on. In late 1212 the Holy Viaticum for the dying was authorized. Rules on burials and lay access to churches appear to have been steadily circumvented, at least unofficially. Although the interdict was a burden to a lot of the population, it didn’t result in a rebellion against the king.
By 1213, John was increasingly worried about a threat of French invasion. Some contemporary chroniclers have suggested that in January, Philip II of France had been charged with deposing John on behalf of the papacy. Although it appears that Innocent had merely prepared secret letters in case he needed to claim credit if Philip did successfully invade England. Under a mounting political pressure, John finally managed to negotiate terms for reconciliation. The papal terms for submission were accepted in the presence of papal legate Pandulf Verraccio in May of 1213 at the Templar Church at Dover. As part of the deal, John had offered to surrender the Kingdom of England to the papacy for feudal service of 1,000 marks, equivalent to 666 pounds at the time, annually. Seven hundred marks (466 pounds) for England, three hundred marks (200 pounds) for Ireland, as well as paying back the church for revenue lost during the crisis. The agreement had been formalized in Bulla Aurea, or Golden Bull, this resolution would produce mixed responses.
Although some chroniclers felt that King John had been made a fool by the sequence of events, there was little public reaction. The Pope had benefited from the resolution of the long-standing English problem, but John probably had actually gained more, as Innocent had became a firm supporter of John for the rest of his reign, backing him in both domestic and continental policy issues. Innocent had immediately turned against Philip, calling upon him to reject plans to invade England sue for peace. John would pay only some of the money that he had owed the church, but ceased payments in late 1214, leaving about two-thirds of the sum unpaid. Pope Innocent appears to have conveniently forgotten about the debt to keep a wider and better relationship between the two.
John Fails in France
Tensions between King John and the barons had been brewing for several years, as was demonstrated in the 1212 plot against the king. Many disaffected barons came from the North of England, the faction often being labeled by contemporaries and historians as “the Northerners”. These barons rarely had any personal stake in any conflict with France, and many of them had actually owed large sums to King John and the revolt had been characterized as “a rebellion of the king’s debtors.” Many of John’s military household also joined the rebels, particularly among those that John had appointed to administrative roles across England, their local links and loyalties had outweighed their personal loyalty to the king. Tensions also grew across North Wales, where opposition to the 1211 treaty between John and Llywelyn were turning into open conflict. For some, the appointment of Peters des Roches as justiciar was an important factor, as he was thought of as an “abrasive foreigner” by many of the barons. Failure of John’s French military campaign in 1214 was probably the final straw that had precipitated the baronial uprising during John’s final years as the king. James Holt describes the path to a Civil War as “direct, short and unavoidable,” following the defeat at Bouvines.
During 1214, John started his final campaign to reclaim Normandy from Philip. He was optimistic since he had successfully built up an alliance with Emperor Otto, Renaud of Boulogne and Count Ferdinand of Flanders. He was enjoying papal favor and had successfully built up a substantial amount of money to pay for the deployment of his experienced army. Nonetheless, when John left for Poitou in February, many of the barons refused to provide military service, and mercenary knights would have to fill in the gaps. John’s plan was to split Philip’s forces by pushing towards the Northeast from Poitou towards Paris, while Otto, Renaud and Ferdinand, supported by William Longespee, marched to the Southwest from Flanders.
The first part of the campaign had gone well for John, with him out-maneuvering the forces under the command of Prince Louis and retaking the county of Anjou by the end of June. He would besiege the castle of Roche-au-Moine, a key stronghold, and forced Louis to battle against John’s larger army. The local Angevin nobles would refuse to advance with the king and being left at something of a disadvantage, John had retreated back to La Rochelle. Not long after, Philip would win a hard-fought battle at Bouvines in the North against Otto and John’s other allies, bringing an end to John’s hopes of retaking Normandy. A peace agreement was signed, in which John would return Anjou to Philip and paid the French king compensation. The truce was intended to last for six years and John arrived back in England in October.
Pre-War Tensions and the Magna Carta
Within just a few months of the king’s return, rebel barons in the North and East of England were organizing a resistance to his rule. John would hold a council in London in January of 1215 to discuss potential reforms and sponsored discussions in Oxford between his agents and rebels during the Spring.
John appears to have been playing for a time, until Pope Innocent III could send letters giving him explicit papal support. This was of particular importance for John, as it was a way of pressuring the barons, but also was a way of controlling Stephen Langton.
In the meantime, King John started to recruit a fresh mercenary force from Poitou, although some were later sent back so as to avoid giving the impression that he was escalating the conflict. John would announce his intent on becoming a crusader. This was a move of which gave him additional political protection under the church law. Letters of support would come in from the Pope in April, but by then the rebel barons had organized together and then congregated at Northampton in May, renouncing their feudal ties to John. They had also appointed Robert fitz Walter as their military leader. A self-proclaimed “Army of God” would march on to London, taking the capital as well as Lincoln and Exeter. The king’s efforts to appear moderate and conciliatory had been largely successful, but once the rebels had held London they attracted a fresh wave of defectors from John’s royalist faction. John then instructed Langton to organize peace talks with the barons and on the 15th of June 1215, he would meet their leaders at Runnymede, near Windsor Castle.
Langton’s efforts at mediation would create a charter capturing a proposed peace agreement that would come to be known as the Magna Carta, or the “Great Charter” It would go beyond just simply addressing specific baronial complaints, it formed a wider proposal for political reform, except for one that focused on the rights of free men, not serfs or unfree labor. It would promise the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, new taxation to be only with baronial consent and limitations on scutage and other feudal payments. A council of twenty-five barons would be created as well to monitor and ensure John’s future adherence to the charter. The rebel army would stand down and London would be surrendered to the king.
Neither John, nor the barons had seriously attempted to implement a peace accord and the barons had suspected that the proposed baronial council would be unacceptable to John, and that he’d challenge the legality of the charter. They would pack the baronial council with their own hardliners and would refuse to demobilize their forces or surrender London as they had agreed. Despite the king’s promises, he appealed to the Pope for help, observing that the charter had compromised the pope’s rights under the 1213 agreement that had appointed him John’s feudal lord. Innocent actually obliged and declared that the charter was “not only shameful and demeaning, but illegal and unjust”. He would excommunicate all of the rebel barons and the failure of the agreement quickly led to the First Barons’ War.
The baron rebels made the first move in the war, seizing the strategic, Rochester Castle, which was owned by Langton, and was left almost unguarded by the archbishop. John was well prepared for the conflict, having had stockpiles money to pay for mercenaries. He ensured the support of powerful marcher lords with their own feudal forces, such as William Marshal and Ranulf of Chester as well. The rebels had lacked the engineering expertise or heavy equipment that was needed to assault the network of royal castles that had cut off the Northern rebel barons from those in the South.
John’s strategy was to isolate the barons in London, protect his own supply lines to his key source of mercenaries in Flanders, prevent the French from landing in the Southeast and then win the war through slow attrition. He would put off dealing with the badly deteriorating situation in North Wales, where Llywelyn ‘the Great’ was leading a rebellion against the 1211 settlement.
The king’s campaign had started off well. In November, he had retaken Rochester Castle from William d’Aubigny in a sophisticated assault. One chronicler had stated that he had not seen “a siege so hard pressed or so strongly resisted”. The historian Reginald Brown described it as “one of the greatest operations in England up to that time.” Having regained the Southeast, John split his forces. He had sent William Longespee to retake the north side of London and East Anglia, while John himself had headed towards the North via Nottingham to attack estates of the Northern barons.
Both of these operations were successful and the majority of the remaining rebels were pinned down in London, just as John planned. In January of 1216, the king marched against Alexander II of Scotland, who had allied himself with the rebel cause. He would take back Alexander’s possessions in Northern England in a rapid campaign and then pushed up towards Edinburgh over a ten-day period.
The rebel barons would respond to this by inviting the French prince Louis to lead them. Louis had a claim to the English throne by virtue of his marriage to Blanche of Castile, the granddaughter of Henry II. Philip may have also provided him with private support, but had refused to openly support Louis, who had been excommunicated by the Pope for taking part in the war against John. As prince, Louis would bring with him naval vessels and siege engines that were essential to the rebel cause.
Once John had contained Alexander in Scotland he had marched to the South to deal with the challenge of the coming invasion. Prince Louis had intended to land in the South of England in May of 1216. John had assembled a naval force to intercept him, but unfortunately for the King, his fleet was dispersed by bad storms and Louis ended up landing unopposed in Kent. John would hesitate and decided to not attack Louis immediately, either because of the risks open battle or over his concerns about the loyalty of his own men.
Louis and the rebels would advance to the West and John retreated, spending the summer reorganizing his defense across the rest of the kingdom. John saw several members of his military household desert to become rebels, including his half-brother, William Longespee. By the end of summer, the rebels had regained the Southeast of England, as well as parts of the North.
In September of 1216, John began a fresh and vigorous attack, marching from Cotswolds. He feigned an offensive to relieve the besieged Windsor Castle, and attacked towards the East around London to Cambridge, so as to separate rebel-held areas in Lincolnshire and East Anglia. From their, he traveled to the North to relieve the rebel siege at Lincoln and then back to the East to King’s Lynn, probably to order further supplies from the continent. In King’s Lynn, John came down with dysentery, which would ultimately prove to be fatal.
Meanwhile, Alexander II had invaded Northern England again, taking Carlisle in August and then marching to the South to give homage to Prince Louis for his English possessions. John had narrowly missed intercepting Alexander along the way.
Tensions between Louis and the English barons began to rise, prompting a wave of desertions, including that of William Marshal’s son, William and William Longespee, who had both returned to John’s faction. King John returned to the West but is said to have lost a significant part of his baggage train along the way. Roger of Wendover provides the most graphic account of this by suggesting that the king’s belongings, including the Crown Jewels, were lost as he had crossed one of the tidal estuaries which had emptied into the Wash, and then were sucked in by quicksand and whirlpools. Accounts of this incident vary considerably between various chroniclers and the exact location of the incident has never been confirmed. Losses may have involved only a few of his pack-horses. Modern historians assert that by October of 1216, John had faced a “stalemate”, “a military situation uncompromised by defeat”.
John’s illness had grown worse by the time that he had reached Newark Castle and he was unable to travel any further. The king died on the night of the 18th or 19th of October 1216. Numerous and probably fictitious accounts made their rounds after his death that he had been killed by poisoned ale, poisoned plums or a “surfeit of peaches”. John’s body was escorted to the South by a company of mercenaries and he was buried in Worcester Cathedral in front of the alter of St. Wulfstan. A new sarcophagus, with an effigy, was made for him in 1232, in which his remains now rest.
In the aftermath of the king’s death, William Marshal was declared protector of the nine-year-old Henry III. The Civil War would continue until the royalist victories at the battles of Lincoln and Dover in 1217. Louis gave up his claim to the English throne and signed the Treaty of Lambeth.
The failed Magna Carta agreement was resurrected by Marshal’s administration and reissued in an edited form in 1217, as the basis for the future government. Henry III would continue his father’s attempts to reclaim Normandy and Anjou until 1259, but John’s continental losses and the growth of Capetian power in the 13th century proved to mark a “turning point in European history”
John’s first wife was released from her imprisonment in 1214, remarried twice and then died in 1217. His second wife had left England for Angouleme shortly after the king’s death. She would become a powerful regional leader, but largely abandoned her children that she had by John. The king had five legitimate children, all by Isabella: his eldest son, Henry III, had ruled as King for the majority of the 13th century; Richard became a noted European leader and ultimately the King of the Romans in the Holy Roman Empire; Joan had married Alexander II of Scotland and became his Queen Consort; Isabella married the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II; Eleanor married William Marshal’s son, also named William and had later married to the famous English rebel, Simon de Montfort.
King John had a number of illegitimate children by various mistresses. His son’s names were as follows: Richard, Oliver, John, Geoffrey, Henry, Osbert, Gifford, Eudes, Bartholomew and probably Philip. He also had three daughters: Joan, Maud, and probably Isabel. Of these, Joan became the most famous, marrying Prince Llywelyn ‘the Great’ of Wales.