Episode 8: Prince John plots against his brother who is held for ransom

Richard the Lionheart was captured trying to get back to England, through Germany, and held to ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. In England, Prince John, his brother, sought to take the throne from him.

We must now start to look a little more closely at Prince John, Count of Mortain, for whom his brother, King Richard, had done so much at the beginning of his reign in 1189. The Lionheart would be rewarded by John's treason that, had it happened in the 14th century, would have almost certainly cost the younger brother his life.

It might even have cost John his life in the 1190s were it not for the intervention of the two brothers' mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. whose favourite John was. She seemed able to twist her eldest son the king round her little finger. Because of her influence probably, John ascended the English throne and became quite the worst king to sit on it.

He was England's response to Caligula, the third Antonine emperor to rule in Rome in the 30s AD. Like Caligula, he murdered his way to the crown; stole from his barons (the English senate) without restraint through the courts, which he abused; was a hopeless military commander and lost the empire in France because he would not leave England, where he was enjoying sex with his new wife so much; and raped his way, as king, through the wives even of his own 'senators'.

He also starved some opponents, including women, to death and hanged hostage children aged ten or eleven. Caligula would have recognized him as a kindred spirit, I have no doubt. When John died in October 1216, it was not a minute too soon. Although Richard had been very generous in the grants of land he gave to John in 1189, he knew him well enough to order that he leave England for the next three years. He was talked into rescinding this injunction by Queen Eleanor.

As we have seen, the king appointed several prominent noblemen and prelates to run his affairs in England, while he campaigned in France against disobedient vassals and the king of France himself prior to the crusade. John, pulling rank as younger brother, got involved in English matters that should not have concerned him.

William de Longchamp, bishop of Ely, chancellor and legate, decided to seize Geoffrey, archbishop of York, having him torn from the altar at York Minster and taken to Dover Castle, where he was incarcerated. You will recall that Archbishop Geoffrey was John's half brother, whereupon John moved against Chancellor Longchamp. He was persuaded to free Geoffrey and the chancellor took refuge in the Tower of London.

By skulduggery, John then had the chancellor deposed and arrested by the council. Prince John forced him to swear that he John would succeed to the throne if Richard died abroad, and was made to swear fealty to him in return for his release. Fealty is very important in feudal society. It stems from the Latin word, fidelitas, meaning loyalty.

For example, if a baron wished to grant a manor to a follower, there would be certain obligations attached to the grant, and fealty - sometimes known as homage - might be made, such as paying an annual fee (known as a 'fine') to one's overlord in respect of military service relating to the grant of the manor: nothing wrong with that. But the king's chancellor and papal legate swearing fealty to Prince John, on the matter of the succession, while his elder brother the king was still alive was absolutely not on.

The chancellor made for the continent and found himself excommunicated in Normandy. An appeal to Rome elicited a papal bull excommunicating almost everyone of importance in England, including Prince John, whose power must have waxed so great that Pope Celestine's bull was completely ignored.

John even described another discordant member of the council, Walter archbishop of Rouen, as the 'Pilate of Rouen', a reference to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who had washed his hands of Jesus Christ, leading to the Crucifixion. When it came to verbal abuse, medieval insults assuredly beat the commonplace 'four-letter' words we seem to prefer today.

While Richard languished in some comfort as a prisoner of the Emperor Henry VI, John and his ally Philip II of France sought to strengthen their positions in the European court of public opinion. On his way back from the crusade, the king of France stopped in Rome where he told anyone willing to listen that he had only left the Holy Land because he had been ordered to by the Lionheart. No one believed him, but did not actually give him the lie.

John did homage to King Philip for Normandy, of which his elder brother was duke. He also ceded the Vexin to the French king. The Vexin adjoined Normandy and provided the open road to Paris - its also provided the open road from Paris to the Norman capital of Rouen. Military strategy was not one of John's strong suits.

When news of Richard's imminent release filtered into England, John put it about that his brother was, in fact, dead and demanded fealty from the barons which they refused. The loyal council fortified the south-east against invasion from the Franks and Flemings, John's temporary allies in the Low Countries: many people were hedging their bets.

John went around England with his own adherents, devastating the king's lands, but lost the castles at Tickhill, near Doncaster, and at Nottingham. In Germany, Richard had agreed to an initial ransom payment of 70,000 marks in silver which the council in England decided to attribute to a quarter of the annual Crown revenues; twenty shillings each from knights; and that year's income from the crop of wool from the Cistercian abbeys. The Cistercians were the largest producers of wool which was England's biggest export.

The money was to be transferred to the archbishop-elect of Canterbury, Hubert FitzWalter. In late 1193, as Richard's detention reached a year, a further 30,000 marks was agreed for the emperor and 20,000 for the duke of Austria. Hostages were to be given by England so that Richard could be freed before all the ransom was paid. Prince John and his ally the king of France immediately tried to bribe the emperor to hold Richard and offered him a bribe of 50,000 marks each.

When this failed to impress, they offered him 150,000 marks between them if the emperor would turn the Lionheart over to them. This did impress his imperial majesty, but his noblemen were so appalled at Henry VI's reneging on his public promise, reproving him vociferously, that Richard was freed on 4 February 1194, one year, six weeks, and three days after his capture.

As if to make amends, the emperor backed the English council by threatening to to seize all men who refused to return the lands they had stolen from the king in his absence. Richard's capture and ransoming must be one of the most unchivalrous acts of the Middle Ages. While Richard made a leisurely return, the council ordered that all of Prince John's lands be seized.

Siege engines were brought up outside his castles. The mayor of London arrested his agent with all of John's documents, including a letter from John to his baronial adherents around the country advisig them to fortify their castles against the Lionheart. John was excommunicated again. All his efforts were to no avail and John threw himself on his brother's mercy.

The queen mother Eleanor intervened once more and perhaps Richard did not want to arrive in the Next Life as a fratricide. Prince John was forgiven, but the king did not return his lands, so generously given at the start of his reign. At Nottingham, the council met under Richard's presidency and levied several enormous taxes to pay for the reconquest of lands lost in France.

These included two shillings on every carucate of land and a special scutage (or shield money) of one third. A carucate was a northern word for hide, roughly 120 acres. A L Poole calculated that in the two years from Richard's release, the colossal sum of 1,100,000 marks were shipped over from England to France. These taxes were also laid on Normandy, but its contribution was miniscule compared with that from England, and when Richard left for France in May 1194 he required a hundred ships to transport his men and equipment.

There must have been tax evasion, but on the whole many people seem to have paid up, though they were beginning to question whether service abroad in the Plantagenet empire was any of their business. One thing they could be reasonably sure of was that Richard knew how to fight, and he did retake most of his ancestors' dominions. In May 1194, Roger of Howden described the Lionheart as 'more swift than the discharge of a Balearic sling.' As Philip II had warned Prince John, the devil was loose.

As he returned from the crusade in 1193, he was captured while crossing Austria, and held to ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Prince John even did homage to the king of France Philip II for his brother’s duchy of Normandy.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain