Episode 19: Battle of Bouvines might have changed King John’s weakness to strength

The Battle of Bouvines would lead to Magna Carta and the invasion of England by Prince Louis of France, who very nearly succeeded in making himself king of England.

Bouvines settled once and for all the expulsion of the English from France, except for the area around Bordeaux, which became known as Gascony; but most importantly, it made France the strongest power in Europe. Magna Carta aside, it also had unforeseen ramifications in England.

Yes, the English returned to France as conquerors in the 1340s and ’50s, and again at Agincourt in 1415 and afterwards, but they were lucky in finding the numbskull John II as king in the 1350s, and the lunatic Charles VI in 1415. France was far richer with a population of perhaps 10 million, compared with England’s two and half million. By the 18th century, Britain required important European allies to defeat France. To defeat Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain required the whole of Europe as allies.

Philip II has been given the epithet ‘Augustus’ by historians, and quite right too after Bouvines. He was a Capetian king, descended from Hugh Capet, duke of France, a pretty small area centring on Paris in the Ille de France. He had been picked as king by the great nobles of the kingdom of France as some one who would give them little difficulty because his landholding, the royal domain, was so small. The last of the Carolingian kings of France, Louis V, had been deposed in 987. Louis was a descendant of the Emperor Charlemagne.

But over the next two centuries, using their feudal rights of overlordship cautiously, the Capetians gradually became stronger, absorbing lands into the royal domain. The great accretion of territory came in 1204-5, confirmed militarily in 1214 at Bouvines, when Normandy, Poitou, La Marche, Touraine, and Anjou were annexed. From this time on, these provinces were always held by members of the French royal family who were close to the throne. Philip II had no intention of letting these slip from his grasp.

John started back for England in October 1214, doubtless with a heavy heart, almost certainly knowing that he would receive a very cold welcome from the majority of barons who had stayed at home, churchmen who wanted paying off, and the people generally for such a terrible defeat.

A concourse of noblemen and clergy were meeting at St Edmunds Abbey, at Bury St Edmunds, where they were discussing the Coronation Charter of Henry I. Eventually, according to Roger of Wendover,

All there assembled in the church... and commencing from those of the highest rank, they all swore on the great altar that, if the king refused to grant these liberties and laws (in Henry I’s Charter), they themselves would withdraw from their allegiance to him, and make war on him, till he should, by a charter under his own seal, confirm to them everything they required.

They also resolved to go to the king after Christmas to confront him, meanwhile, raising troops and matériel of their own for war. The king spent only a day at Winchester for Christmas and then made haste to London, taking up residence at the New Temple. He found the barons in warlike array, demanding the liberties granted to them by King Edward the Confessor, confirmed in the Coronation Charter, and other rights for themselves, being sure to bring in the Church of England, no doubt out of piety, but probably also seeking to make clerics their allies in the forthcoming tussle.

John prevaricated and managed to get a truce from these important subjects until Easter, but - much against his will - on condition that Archbishop Stephen, the bishop of Ely, and William Marshall, earl of Pembroke, were introduced as sureties for him. Even now, reading Roger’s chronicle at this point, one feels the indignity that John must have felt to have been brought so low. Did he think to himself, ‘if only I had pursued Prince Louis north-east and won the victory at Bouvines, how different matters would now be in England?’

John departed and started sending officials around the country to drag oaths of loyalty from the nobility. He also assumed the crusader’s Cross, ‘more out of fear than devotion’, according to Roger. By becoming a pilgrim crusader, King John’s person became inviolate under Church doctrine.

Easter soon came and most of the nobility had foregathered at Stamford, south Lincolnshire, with more than 10,000 troops. Interestingly, Roger describes the leaders as a ‘pestilence.’ The archbishop of Canterbury was at their head. The king was at Oxford and the barons moved south to Brackley, Northamptonshire, still fully armed. They gave to Langton their demands, and he duly went to the king with his ‘assistant messengers’ - so described - more likely, I think, a bodyguard. Once before John, the archbishop then read out the heads of the demands, which ended with the threat that unless he acquiesced they would start to take his fortresses. The king’s response could hardly have been unexpected. He asked:

‘Why, amongst these unjust demands, did not the barons ask for my kingdom also?’

When this message was relayed to them, the nobility appointed Robert FitzWalter ‘Marshall of the army of God and the holy church’. They moved on Northampton Castle which they besieged for fifteen days without success, not having brought siege engines with them. In disarray, they moved to Bedford where they had better luck, and found the seneschal, William de Beauchamp, willing to surrender. Messengers from London soon arrived at Bedford, telling the barons secretly that London was theirs if they would come quickly. The barons moved immediately and arrived on 24 May 1215, finding the gates open. They seized control of the city.

They also took security from the citizens, presumably, money for their good behaviour and sent out around the kingdom to those earls and barons who were not of their number, advising them with threats to join them or run the risk of losing their castles and lands. These neutrals were told that the rebels would make war on them all, ‘as against open enemies, destroy their castles, burn their houses, and destroy their warrens, parks, and orchards.’

Most interestingly is a list of some of those who had not taken any side yet, which included numerous earls - the richest and most important men of the nobility - and other barons of illustrious descent, some of whom would receive earldoms in the course of the thirteenth century. Many of these heeded the demands and threats of their fellow lords and struck out to join them in London, abandoning the king.

As in all such circumstances, people act particularly in their own interests, fear being the most compelling of reasons. John had seriously undermined his own stock in the sixteen years he had been on the throne, and government was at a standstill. The courts were closed. Roger explains that, ‘the pleas of the exchequer and the sheriffs’ courts ceased to function throughout England, because there was no one to make a valuation for the king or to obey him in anything.’ John was done for.

John had little option but to agree to this baronial challenge and met his chief men at Runnymede, near Windsor Castle, where he signed Magna Carta, but that was hardly the end of the matter.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain