The Woes of King John Part I


The start of 1213 had also seen the continuing relaxation of the iron grip of royal rule. On February 25, the king responded to the “frequent complaints from many people” that the sheriffs of Lincolnshire and of Yorkshire had been abusing their powers and were guilty of extortion against the men of the counties concerned. He removed from their offices the sheriffs Gilbert fitz Reinfrey in Yorkshire and Hubert de Burgh in Lincolnshire (Robert Aguillun acting as Hubert’s deputy) and put in their place local men. Robert de Percy was appointed to Yorkshire while Alexander de Pointon was appointed to Lincolnshire. The king then ordered a high-powered inquiry into the complaints led by Robert de Ros, William d’Aubigny, Simon of Kyme and Thomas of Moulton. Simon and Thomas were Lincolnshire men, and Robert and William had Yorkshire connections. All four ended up on the opposition side in 1215 and were, therefore, chosen in 1213 precisely because they were no friends of the king. It seems likely, too, that John had not yet abandoned his plans to go to the continent, which had been postponed from 1212. On March 23, John closed the ports to all shipping, from whatever nation, in preparation for using them for a crossing, and on March 25, he summoned to Portsmouth all ships capable of carrying six horses or more. The crisis of the possibility of a French invasion meant that these plans had to be delayed once again. At Soissons, on April 8, 1213, prompted in part by the pope, Philip had declared to the assembled chief men of his realm that he intended to invade England, and he asked them to follow him in his venture. Only the count of Flanders refused because of the agreement he had with John. Philip intended that his son Louis would take the crown of England should fortune smile on their plans.

Quite when John realized what Philip had in store for him is difficult to say. Perhaps a writ issued on April 12 to Engelard de Cygogné ordering him to muster all the knights of Gloucestershire and the Welshmen in his service to bring them to Winchester marks the point at which he heard of the invasion plan.31 Whatever the case, it cannot have been long afterward that John knew an army was being prepared against him because a general muster to Dover, Faversham and Ipswich was called for April 21. Meanwhile, the fleet that would carry Philip’s army had arrived at its assembly point at Boulogne by May 10.

From Boulogne, the French fleet moved along the coast to Gravelines, near Dunkirk. The army that the ships were to carry consisted of the men of Brittany, Normandy and Burgundy, as well as Aquitaine and the heartlands of the kingdom of France. It was an invasion force that would have rivalled in size that which had accompanied Duke William of Normandy to England in 1066. But first Philip had business to attend to in Flanders. In punishment for the fact that its count had refused to join his expedition, he marched his army through the county, making it as far as Bruges where he was to meet the fleet, which anchored itself at Damme, a few miles from the city, there to prepare for the crossing to England. Unable to resist the opportunity to hammer the Flemings further, Philip first laid siege to the city of Ghent, leaving his ships lightly guarded.

In England, as Philip’s plans for the invasion of England gathered momentum, frantic preparations were made to resist it. The Barnwell chronicler suggests that John even proposed that he would free those tied to the land in serfdom so that they might take up arms in defense of the realm. The Waverley annalist talks of John’s terror at the approaching army. The king needed to conclude his negotiations with the pope as soon as possible, and thus remove any shred of legitimacy from Philip’s cause. On May 13, the papal nuncio, Pandulph, sailed from Wissant to Dover and, on that very day, the letters patent in which John agreed to the terms of the peace between himself and the pope were drawn up. Two days later, on May 15, John resigned his kingdoms of England and Ireland into the hands of the pope, from whom he would now hold them in fief. The interdict itself would not be lifted for another year, while the payment for reparations for Church losses were negotiated, but John was at least safe in the knowledge that he was reconciled to Holy Church and would soon be in communion with it again.

John spent Ascension Day, May 23, 1213, in public feasting. It was an auspicious day: he was reconciled with the pope, and it was becoming clear that he had ridden out the difficulties of the previous twelve months and had the support of his kingdom. Peter the Hermit’s prophecy that John would not rule beyond Ascension Day 1213 had not come to pass (not literally, anyway, though some did note that in having handed his kingdom to the pope, John had, technically, lost it). He was alive and well, ready to meet the challenge presented by King Philip’s invasion force.

And then, as if as a signal of God’s pleasure at John’s return to the fold, an incredible victory was delivered. On May 30, while King Philip was laying siege to Ghent, the English fleet, under the command of the king’s half-brother, William, earl of Salisbury, Reginald, count of Boulogne and Hugh de Boves, caught the French fleet at anchor and captured or destroyed the better part of it. William the Breton, who as Philip’s chancellor was on the expedition and saw much of the action for himself, describes in detail the ships’ capture and the aftermath, which involved an engagement on land between the English and French forces from which the English only just escaped. The biographer of William Marshal (who was now returned from Ireland and at the king’s side) gloated that the English “towed away many of the ships containing wheat, sides of bacon, and wine . . . and never before booty on such a scale came from France to England, since the time that King Arthur conquered it.” The author went on to depict King Philip’s anger at his loss, burning the remaining ships of his fleet in a fit of pique. More realistically, William the Breton has the French king taking his revenge on the people of Flanders, before returning home loaded down with hostages and money from the men of Ghent, Ypres and Bruges, who paid heavily for the king’s peace.

The summer of 1213 was spent in reestablishing normal religious service. On May 24 and 27, safe conducts were issued for the return of the exiles, including Eustace de Vescy and Robert fitz Walter, who had been at the heart of the 1212 conspiracy and whose return to England was part of the peace agreement. On July 21, their stewards received compensation for damages caused to their masters’ properties. Throughout June, orders were issued for the restitution of church lands, and on June 3, a truce was declared with the Welsh, having been negotiated by the papal legate, Pandulph.36 Stephen Langton arrived in England on July 9, and at Winchester on July 20 he formally relieved John of the stigma of excommunication. John now entered a new relationship with the Church, by which he was to be the pope’s favored vassal. Innocent took seriously this new-found status for John and so quickly became his staunchest supporter. In the words of the modern scholar who knew more about England and the papacy than any other, “hereafter, Innocent’s attitude to King John was uniformly indulgent and favourable.” The barons were urged to support their king, Stephen Langton was admonished to “do all you believe helpful to the salvation and peace of the kingdom” and John was assured that the pope would “always do what will result in your advantage and glory.”

The financial consequences for the Church of the interdict and John’s reaction to it were profound, and a key part of the agreement was that full restitution should be made. How much that amounted to was a matter for intense negotiation at the papal curia, with John’s representatives arguing his case. But while this took place, the fact was—for ordinary men and women—that England still labored under the interdict. The archbishop of Canterbury, in a sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on August 25, stung by widespread criticism, explained why it was essential that the interdict should continue. England, he argued, was like a sick patient who, though on the road to recovery, was not yet strong enough to be “fed on beef-steak or fat goose.” These must have sounded like hollow words to those who heard them, as the archbishop himself conceded. “Do not,” he said, “blame or abuse us . . . we act not out of greed but for the honour of mother Church.” Stephen Langton had become sensitive to the charge that the Church was being unnecessarily harsh on its flock.

Poitou was never far from the agenda, and in the summer of 1213, the king made strenuous efforts to mobilize his resources to make yet another bid to return to the continent. Buoyed up by his reconciliation with the Church and victory against the French, John was determined to press ahead despite widespread disquiet. In June, he sent a high-powered delegation, including the hero of Damme, William, earl of Salisbury, to Flanders to begin negotiations for a joint campaign against King Philip. William took with him 10,000 marks as an incentive for the count. In July, the earl, John de Gray and William Brewer were sent on a legation to Emperor Otto IV, and throughout the summer and autumn months a succession of delegations were sent to Flanders and to Peter, king of Aragon.

But the expedition was again postponed. According to the Barnwell chronicler men were not best pleased at the thought of undertaking the long and arduous journey to Poitou when their purses were empty; he stated that John was persuaded by the bishops and archbishops, who were newly returned from exile, to delay his departure. That decision had been made by August 17, when the king wrote to his allies, Raymond, count of Toulouse, and Guy, count of Auvergne, promising support and succor, but apologizing that “a great storm” had delayed his plans and that he would come with his army as soon as he could. He was being disingenuous (or perhaps metaphorical): resistance to the intended Poitevin campaign had risen to such levels that he had no choice but to abandon, for the moment, his plans. But that did not mean he could not plot for the future. On August 21, 1213, John ordered that a naval force consisting of ships of the Cinque Ports and of the ships of Bristol, Wales and Ireland was to be ready to depart overseas by the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (February 2, 1214). The date of departure was set. In the meantime there was much to be done. On August 22, 1213, he issued a letter to Savaric de Mauléon notifying him that he was sending Geoffrey de Neville, the royal chamberlain, and Philip d’Aubigny to Poitou to plan with Savaric the forthcoming campaign. Geoffrey was to become John’s principal representative in the region as seneschal of Gascony. At the same time, the king issued letters of safe conduct for Savaric to come to England to discuss matters with him directly. The seneschal of Poitou, Ivo de Jallia, was also directed to come to John in England.

Just because John now enjoyed the pope’s favor and the end of the interdict was in sight, it did not mean that there was an end to vocal criticism of his rule. As yet there was no concerted opposition to him, but there was undoubtedly a general reluctance to be drawn into agreeing to go abroad on campaign, whether it be from financial exhaustion, a reluctance to follow a king who had, until July 20, been excommunicate, or a firmly held belief that service overseas was not part of the contract by which the tenants-in-chief held their lands of the king of England. If John were to go to Poitou, he needed to win the hearts and minds of his baronial elite, especially those in the north who seemed especially keen to bring their king to the negotiating table before they would consent to serve in his army. And it was this task that would dominate the late summer and autumn of 1213. The Barnwell chronicler mentions the fact that John began to “eliminate evil customs from the kingdom” by the advice of the bishops and “to restrain the activities of his sheriffs.” Roger of Wendover (perhaps with a hint of hindsight) thought that John promised to restore the good laws of King Edward (by which he meant Edward the Confessor). John was making promises to grant general reform rather than yielding specific concessions to meet particular grievances. But doing so made men think that it was possible that the king might be forced to make concessions on matters of principle.

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