Episode 23: The barons invite Prince Louis of France to England and conquer

The English barons reluctantly decide to invite the French Prince Louis to become king of England, no matter that he was also heir to the throne of France and would become king of that realm when his father, Philip II, died. But a French plot also emerges, which foresees the replacement of English Lords with French Lords and the reduction of the English to slavery.

In London, at the beginning of 1216, the rebel barons took a momentous step in face of King John's marrauding mercenaries, who were laying waste their castles and lands. After much thought, irresolution, and debate in the Temple, they determined to invite Prince Louis of France to become their king. The rebels calculated - wrongly - that John's mercenaries, being mainly French or Flemish and therefore susceptible to pressure from Louis's father, King Philip Augustus, would desert their English paymaster. The mercenary captains were not about to give up such rich pickings and, besides, mercenaries in Europe could always find work, even in the pay of the king of France once everything was over in England.

When Louis finally arrived with his army, it turned out that his soldiers were not as victorious in war as the barons had hoped. An event that no one had foreseen was that towards the end this year of 1216 the desperate English king would be dead. The barons must surely have wondered about their own position when Louis eventually succeeded to the French throne, becoming king of France as well as king of England. The brighter members of the Anglo-Norman nobility may have contempated their position in 1216 as being not altogether dissimilar to that of the Saxon nobility after the Battle of Hastings. Their new French-born king might well have settled some of his French nobles on English nobles' lands, as William the Conqueror did on Saxon lands and heiresses after 1066.

To use a modern expression, the real ace in the hole for the survival of the Plantagenet dynasty was that John's heir was, crucially, his nine-year-old son whose guardian was the much respected William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. Although Earl William had stayed loyal to John, he was seen as a restraining factor on his monarch, some one whom the rebels could trust; and few of the barons probably had the stomach to make war on the new boy king. Byzantine emperors might kill junior Byzantine rivals - but English knights did not do that kind of thing, did they? And lastly, by making peace, the barons could look forward to the lifting of papal excommunications imposed on them, and being able to contemplate the possibility once again of dying and going to heaven.

But before the happy event, there is still a bit more narrative to come to finish our story.

Having taken the decision to invite Prince Louis to become their king, a delegation would have to be sent to France. This was led by Sayer de Quincy, importantly the earl of Winchester, an earldom being the highest rank of nobility at that time; and Robert FitzWalter, an eminent lord. Their retinues would have been magnificent and they brought with them letters from the barons, to which were attached their seals, asking King Philip to send his son to take the English crown.

No doubt Philip was expecting the delegation since he would have had informants among the barons and clergy in London. Louis was all for the expedition, but his father was more cautious. He wanted twenty-four hostages from the top noblemen of England and since the rebels had no other recourse, this was agreed. Preparations for an invasion of England would take time, the French also sent their own delegation to the barons at the Temple, who were received with joy as they sailed up the Thames in February 1216. During these negotiations, Stephen Langton, although restored as archbishop of Canterbury, was forbidden by the pope to cross to England until peace was achieved between John and the rebels. As their chief adviser and, indeed, comforter in these dangerous political straits, the barons must have missed him. But it seems possible that archbishop and rebels communicated by letter, though, if they did, no exchanges have survived. There was, apparently, cheering in London when the French arrived. This might well have been engendered by the distribution of money since ordinary people probably neither knew nor cared about this latest development. The war to them was very likely nothing more than one set of nobles fighting another set for the throne of England, but that would not have stopped them taking the probable bribes to welcome the French.

In Rome, Pope Innocent got his Bell, Book, and Candle out of storage again and proceeded to threaten Louis and his followers with excommunication if they set foot in England, which was a papal fief. Walo, the legate to France, appeared before the Philip, at Lyon where the Court was staying. He was used to bulls of excommunication from Rome, as we have seen, and his response to Pope Innocent's latest threats was recorded by Roger of Wendover:

'The kingdom of England never was the inheritance of Peter (St Peter, ostensibly the first pope), nor is it, nor shall it ever be. For King John, in time long past, attempted unjustly to deprive his own brother King Richard of the kingdom of England, on which he was accused of treachery, convicted of the same in that monarch's presence, and condemned by the decision of the said king, and sentence was pronounced by Hugh de Puiset, bishop of Durham; therefore, he was not a true king, and could not give away his kingdom. Besides this, had he ever been a lawful king, he afterwards forfeited his kingdom by the murder of Arthur (duke of Brittany), for which deed he was condemned in our Court.'

Unsurprisingly, King Philip neglected to mention that he had held Duke Arthur under firm house arrest, and had strongly supported John's treason against his brother: we remember his letter, on Richard's release from Germany, when he wrote to John of the Lionheart, 'the devil is loose.'

This dialogue of the deaf went on for some time, until Louis walked out of the meeting with his followers. Louis set off for Calais with his father's blessing, at which port some six hundred ships and eighty cogs were waiting for him and his army, under the command of Eustace the Monk, a notorious pirate and mercenary.

The French army landed on the Isle of Thanet in May 1216 while King John was at Dover Castle. Being uncertain of the loyalty of his French mercenaries, John did not attack this large force, but instead made for Winchester. Louis landed at Sandwich, on the Sussex coast. With no opposition between Sandwich and London, Louis made for the capital where he received the oaths of loyalty, as the new king of England, from the rebels. Simon Langton, Stephens brother, arrived from France and was made chancellor.

Louis struck north out of London, ravaging Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk in turn, arriving in King's Lynn (then just known as Lynn) and extracted a large ransom from the wealthy merchants of that port; arriving back in London with great quantities of booty and spoils. Perhaps emboldened by the French success, the rebels sallied out of the capital, ravaging what little the hapless people of East Anglia still had, having just been robbed by John's French mercenaries.

Louis then turned his attention to Dover Castle, sending for siege engines from his father, with which he battered the walls, though not garrison into submission. At about the same time, the English barons arrived at Cambrdige, taking the castle and prisoners, then proceeded through the rest of East Anglia again, taking large sums from the towns of Yarmouth, Dunwich, Colchester before, as Roger of Wendover called their London HQ, 'returning to their old haunts.' King John sent a large douceur to the French commander, the Lord of Nevers, who was besieging Windsor Castle, and the siege was lifted.

Then there was an extraordinary event, according to Roger, who tells that one of Prince Louis's supporters, the Vicomte de Melun, fell ill and called in several of the rebel English barons. I shall hand over to the chronicler:

'I grieve,' he said, 'for your desolation and ruin, because you know not the danger which hangs over you; for Louis and sixteen other French counts and barons with them have sworn that, if he subdues England and is crowned king, he will condemn to perpetual banishment all those who are now fighting with him and persecuting King John, as traitors against their lord, and will destroy the whole race of them from the kingdom; and that you may not doubt this, I, who am now lying here at the point of death declare to you at the risk of my soul, that I am one of those who have taken this oath with Louis. Therefore, I now sincerely advise you to provide for yor safety for the future, and keep secret what I have told you.'

As we might imagine, the English rebels were in consternation about this and, indeed, castles and lands captured were already being handed out by Louis to his Frenchmen. They were also deeply concerned by the daily excomunications still being read out in many churches. They considered making peace with King John, but were deeply worried that they had provoked so much anger in him against them that he would never believe that they were penitent.

In the next and last Episode, King John and a nine-year-old boy save the day for English independence in a way no one foresaw.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain