Episode 3: How King John came to the English throne in 1199

A freak crossbow shot had felled Richard the Lionheart before his time and the English nobility were already suspicious of John as he was about the ascend the throne in 1199.

On his deathbed, King Richard sent for Bertram de Gurdon, who fired the crossbow, and asked him: 'What harm have I done to you, that you have killed me?' On which he made answer: 'you slew my father and my two brothers with your own hand, and you had intended now to kill me; therefore, take any revenge on me that you may think fit, for I will readily endure the greatest torment you can devise, after having inflicted evils so many and so great upon the world.'

On this the king ordered him released, and said: 'I forgive you my death.' Richard's captain Marchads was less chivalrous and seized the man, had him flayed and then hanged. On his deathbed, Richard gave England and all his other terriroties to Prince John, and the nobles present were prevailed upon to swear allegiance to him.

The dying king also gave his brother all his castles and three-quarters of his treasury, the remaining quarter to be given to the poor. The Lionheart died on 9 April 1199, twelve days after being hit by Gurdon's crossbow bolt. John started his reign well in France.

As rulers did and still do, his late brother had arrived in Normandy with a great posse of officials, who included Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fitz-Peter, Justiciary of England, and William Marshal, Earl of Striguil, a crusader in the 1180s, a crucial player in the drama that would unfold in King John's reign.

On his brother's demise, John expedited these important men to England to hold the ring there, while he and his mother, Queen Eleanor, quashed rebellions among the Angevin and Breton barons in France.

We have two chroniclers to help us through King John's reign, one of whom, Roger of Wendover, saw King John sealing Magna Carta at Runnymead, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. His chronicle is called Flowers of History, and covers the period 1170 to 1235, and he certainly lived through much of this period, although his birth date is unknown. He died at St Albans in 1236. Wendover is in Buckinghamshire.

Matthew Paris, who was English despite his surname, lived between 1200 and 1259 and, in addition to the chronicle we are using, was a prolific writer in Latin, Anglo-Norman, and French on other events. Matthew also made his own drawings and illustrations for his chronicle - quite good they are too, and I shall be using some of them.

A third important chronicler saw little of King John's reign, but did accompany King Richard on the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, and has much to tell us about John's father, Henry II, and Richard the Lionheart.

We met him in the last Episode and he is Roger of Howden, in Yorkshire. He tells us stories of John's brilliant but highly dangerous family, given to temper tantrums, greed, mercilessness, and womanizing, as was King John. Henry II and his son, Richard, had ruled for 45 five years between them, from 1154 to 1199.

They had been sitting on a political pressure cooker, whose heat they had been turning up in the financial demands they made on England to pursue their wars in France and Richard's foolhardy participation in the Third Crusade, and then the cost to the country in raising the Lionheart's ransom. I believe that the lid on this pressure cooker would have blown, whoever succeeded to the English throne on Richard's death.

The reason it happened so catastrophically for the dynasty on John's watch is because John lost the valuable Angevin empire in France so quickly - five years later, in 1204 - and John did nothing to stop it.

Warlords - a title that perfectly sums up medieval kingship - are not forgiven for such oversights, especially as one consequence was that many English lords with lands in France had a stark choice when the French empire fell: either give up their estates on the continent and remain in England; or give up their estates in England and remain in France. That was the reality offered them by King Philip II of France.

'To preserve the peace' in 1199, as Roger of Howden put it, John's emissaries from Normandy made sure that the towns and boroughs of England all swore allegiance to the new king. Many of the aristocracy were dubious of John and had to be reminded by his officials that he was descended from Henry II and his grandmother was Matilda, daughter and heir of Henry I, and formerly Holy Roman Empress.

Still not altogether convinced, nobles and prelates, who had English castles, filled them with men, arms, and provisions, and those of their number who attracted the most suspicion were invited to meet the Archbishop, the Justiciary, and William Marshall at Northampton, a royal castle. There they were told that each of them would have their due from the king, if they would preserve their fealty to John and keep the peace.

On these terms, the suspicious aristocrats swore loyalty and faithful service to him against all men. Note that there were terms on which John was expected to deliver: to right the wrongs of his father and his brother.

Before the crowning at Westminster Abbey, London, according to Matthew Paris, Archbishop Hubert Walter sermonized on the Holy Spirit, and kings Saul and David of Israel, then added: 'John, who is here present, brother of our illustrious King Richard, lately deceased without heirs of his body, and as the said Count John is prudent, active, and indubitably noble, we have, under God's Holy Spirit, unanimously elected him for his merits and his royal blood.'

Matthew added: 'Now the Archbishop was a man of bold character and a support to the kingdom by his steadiness and incomparable wisdom, no one, therefore, dared to dispute what he said, as knowing that he had good cause for what he did. Count John and all who were present acquiesced, and unanimously elected the count, crying out, 'God save the king.' Archbishop Hubert was afterwards asked why he acted in this manner, to which he replied he knew that John would one day or other bring the kingdom into great confusion, wherefore he determined that (John) should owe his elevation to election and not to hereditary right.'

These remarks by the Archbishop tell a story about John's character which we must start to investigate. He had taken part, with his elder brother Richard, in a rebellion against their father, in which John had made his peace, but Richard had not when their father died.

John had at least once tried to take the kingdom from his gallant brother when Richard - after leaving the Holy Land - was captured by the Duke of Austria, who sold him to the Emperor Otto, who held him for an enormous ransom. Richard forgave John, probably on the intervention of their mother Eleanor, whose favourite son John was.

The many Hollywood movies that depict John opposed by Robin Hood or Ivanhoe in this light are based on that one fact if few others. But John did not get his castles back and King Richard ordered an inquiry into John's financial affairs and those of his supporters while the king was a prisoner.

He was particularly keen to see how much John and his adherents had pledged towards the ransom and how much they actually paid over. In his absence, Richard wanted to know what lands, wardships, other Crown property, and gifts had found their way into the coffers of John and his followers.

To be fair to Prince John, his brother was having assessments made of all the baronage, many of whom - as sheriffs - had milked their shrievalties for all their worth. Money was very tight and the king had a war to fight against King Philip of France, who had profited from King Richard's imprisonment by invading Plantagenet territories, tearing down castles, sacking towns, and killing Richard's supporters high and low.

Well, the old management was back and Richard was a proper medieval warlord with a track record of installing or deposing princes in Sicily, through Cyprus, to Acre and Tyre in the Levant. When he had not been fighting his father Henry II, Richard had been a useful general in the Angevin domains, and was renowned throughout Europe for his military prowess.

When Richard was free again, Philip of France immediately sent word to Prince John, 'that he must take care of himself for the devil was now let loose.'

The Norman and then the Plantagenet monarchs routinely fell out with their brothers and sons to the ultimate detriment of their dynasties.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain