Episode 21: Civil war breaks out between the English baronage and King John

In this Episode, we shall speak of King John’s and his barons’ civil war between 1215 and 1217, as they fought over the living body of England. We encountered a civil war - known as the Time of Troubles (1139 to 1149) - between King Stephen and Henry I’s daughter and heir Matilda. This war ended peacefully. The later war was much more serious, firstly, because it ended in battle to the death; secondly, and much more importantly, because it brought a well-resourced French invasion that very nearly succeeded.

I do not think that I can begin this Episode with a better quote about the danger of political division than in a speech made by an American politician. To Americans, Magna Carta remains a hallowed legal document of enormous influence, and most Americans - even if they have never heard of Magna Carta - continue to exercise personal rights of freedom, first written down at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. In Britain, we are forgetting our personal rights of freedom. Here comes Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest active politician and thinker:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new - North as well as South.

The Illinois State Capitol at Springfield in 1858 was not Runnymede just under Windsor Castle in 1215. King John’s England was not a state becoming a slave state. There were many serfs, subject immediately to lords, barons, and earls - more distantly to the king and his Courts, but they would be increasingly protected by what was known as the ‘custom of the manor’ which the lord and his officials could not alter.

When the king and the aristocracy sought to turn the clock back in the next century, there was a great uprising, known as the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. And although the leader Wat Tyler was killed and many others were executed, the final bell for serfdom had been tolled, and by 1500 there were no longer any serfs left in the kingdom.

Just after the meeting between King John and the barons, the dispute about the monarchy’s powers burst out into civil war. In many ways, John was a brilliant political tactician as he was about to demonstrate immediately after Magna Carta. He was given to great moments of energy. He showed that he could be a successful warlord by putting down rebellions in the transmarine provinces of France in 1200. He was also given to great bouts of lethargy, as when he failed to defend Normandy from King Philip in 1205-6, telling his people there to do as they pleased, while he went for a cruise with his wife. He was avaricious and extremely cruel, thinking nothing of killing his own nephew, Prince Arthur of Brittany; starving to death the Braose mother and son in the dungeons of Windsor Castle; hanging a score of Welsh children in public.

It was happenings like these that gave him a terrible name around Europe. I do not buy into the modern theory that his sexual overtures to noble wives and daughters evoked baronial disgust. Despots always had women, noble or common. We know little of the barons in this personal area, but we can guess. They were barons, lords of the soil and all who dwelt on it. What they had not done to maidens at home and abroad on campaign is not worth considering. John was a fantastic adminstrator in collecting the Crown’s dues through his sheriffs and their Courts. The Exchequer records were the best ever kept to date, and John took a close personal interest.

But he was unbelievably greedy, even by the standards of his two Plantagenet predecessors, his father Henry II and his brother Richard the Lionheart. They at least had always been great warlords so the nobility stuck with them. The king’s writing office (his Chancery) accounts for John’s movements throughout his reign, the first time in such detail for an English king. We know where he was on almost any given date. His ideas could be terrible, as when he underrated Pope Innocent’s determination over Stephen Langton’s preferment to the archbishopric of Canterbury, leading to the interdict and John’s excommunication. Langton loved power. In the King’s hands from the beginning, he would have become a maleable and valuable tool. It was too late after Runnymede. Far too much water had flowed down the Thames by then.

We pick up the story again when we see John fashion the pope into his newest tool. Immediately after Runnymede, John left for the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, and lodged at Corfe Castle. We have noticed that the king had surrendered his kingdom of England and his lordship of Ireland to Innocent. He had already announced his intention - unlikely as it was to be carried out (he was in his late fifties) - to go on crusade, so he was inviolate under Church doctrine, as were all palmers, who were forgiven their sins and whose property and family were protected. Innocent had re-granted England to John as his vassal for an annual tribute as a vassal. When John complained to the pope that his rebellious nobles had coerced him into signing Magna Carta, Innocent suppressed the Charter, writing to the barons in part as follows:

... Would that in the persecution which you have rashly practised against your lord the king, you had more carefully attended to your oath of fealty, the right of the apostolic see, and the privilege granted to those who have assumed the cross; because without doubt you have not proceeded so to act... Seeing then that the agreement of whatever sort it is, which you have by violence and threats induced him to make, is not only vile and base, but also unlawful and unjust... We who are bound to provide for the spiritual as well as the temporal good of the king as well as the kingdom, by these our apostolic letters, order... you (to) renounce of your own accord an agreement of this kind, and make reparation to the king and his followers for the harm and injuries you have inflicted upon him...

What a valuable tool Innocent was becoming. The barons ignored this letter, probably with some misgivings as they were all believers in the Roman Church and its spiritual power. They may have gained some courage from the fact that Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, was advising them. The barons still held London and were living in and around the Temple, now Inns of Court known as Inner and Middle Temple, but they were naturally concerned that John would arrive and besiege them. They were relieved then when William de Albany arrived from Rutland, where he had left his castle of Belvoir with what Roger of Wendover described as ‘a sufficiency, even a superabundance of all kinds of provisions and arms.’

The most likely route that John might take to threaten the barons in London was by land and by ship from Rochester, on the Medway River and up the Thames, on whose northern bank lay the Temple, a vulnerable spot. John also had siege engines which could be brought up on the ships, and he would almost certainly have had barrels of a sort of ‘Greek Fire’ which was a common feature by this time in any important European ruler’s armoury. As a man apparently bold and tried in war, William de Albany was sent there with 140 knights (about 700 men) to block the road and the Medway. The rebels were helped by Stephen Langton, of whom Roger tells us in respect of Rochester:

That castle had a short time before being confidentially entrusted by the king to the archbishop (of Canterbury), who nevertheless, by what feelings instigated I know not, though the Lord does, delivered it up to the enemies of the king.

King John, who clearly had money and supporters locally, left Corfe Castle in September and sailed for Dover. He had already sent messengers to the transmarine territories seeking troops, and mercenary captains arrived with what Roger describes as a ‘multitude of knights and soldiers that all who saw them were struck with fear and dismay.’ They came from Poitou, Gascony, Brabant, Louvain, Flanders. Clearly, these men were professionals, including the dreaded crossbow men, whose interest lay only in the money and booty they could collect, and ‘who thirsted for nothing more than human blood,’ Roger colourfully adds.

Today, we need look no further than Syria, Zaire, and Rwanda to see the depths that mercenaries are capable of plumbing. The only change is the weapons now available. The motives remain the same: greed and blood-lust. A flotilla of ships hired by Hugh de Boves from Flanders was wrecked in a storm in the Narrow Seas, most of the paid troops being drowned. The flotilla included wives and other women, the intention, apparently, being to colonize Norfolk and Suffolk after killing the indigenous population, presumably saving some to work as slaves and house servants. Roger of Wendover writes:

All of these people came with their wives and children, with the intention of expelling and totally exterminating all the natives, and of possessing the land themselves by perpetual right; for the king had, by his charter, as was said, given their leader... the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, but the grace of God altered their purpose for the better.

A charter of that sort would have been the worst kind of publicity and John seems unlikely to have issued it. It was not in his interest to park such a group of people in the most productive counties of his kingdom for all time to come, and the give-away phrase in Roger seems to me to be, ‘and the king had by his charter, as was said...’ He would have sourced such a claim if true.

Neither Matthew Paris nor Ralph of Coggeshall mentions such a scandalous document, and they had no reason to like John for his treatment of the Church during the interdict. The baronial leaders would have seized on it to put steel into the hearts of the rebels. They knew their weakness as when they made a sham attempt to relieve William de Albany in Rochester Castle, at which the king was throwing everything with his siege engines. Roger picks up the story:

(When the barons learnt that William de Albany was holed up under siege) they had sworn on the holy gospels that they would all march to raise the siege. In order that they might seem to be doing something in accordance with their oath (they) took their march towards the town of Deptford... but although only a mild south wind was blowing in their faces, which does not generally annoy anyone, they retreated as though they had met a number of armed me... (and) turned their backs on the besieged William and his followers, and returned to their old haunt, amusing themselves with the dangerous game of dice, drinking the best of wines... and practising all their old vices.

Rochester Castle fell to the king in October after his soldiers had mined the walls, setting a fire, and bringing them down. The slaughter was appalling and the defenders were forced to eat their own warhorses. The siege had cost John a great deal of money and he ordered all the nobles to be hanged on gibbets. He was persuaded to drop this idea by Savaric de Mauleon who said:

‘My lord king, our war is not yet over; therefore you ought carefully to consider how the fortunes of war may turn; for if you now order us to hang these men, the barons, our enemies, will perhaps by a like event take me or other nobles of your army, and, following your example, hang us.’

Savaric was supported by William de Albany and his captains were, accordingly, sent to Corfe Castle and imprisoned for the duration. The rest of the survivors were ransomed, and some of the crossbow-men were hanged. Crossbows could be aimed with precision and their steel bolts were capable of penetrating plate armour and chainmail. These deadly weapons had been banned as ungodly by the Church years before - to no effect at all. Armies do not give up diabolical weapons, which is why there is no multilateral disarmament in this twenty-first century. Like the H Bomb, once the crossbow had been invented, it could not be uninvented until it was superseded by firearms.

In the next Episode, we revert to the Church politicians whose pens might as well have been dipped in poison dressed up as God’s will.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain