The Woes of King John Part II


The French victory at the battle of Bouvines doomed John’s plan to retake Normandy in 1214 and led to the First Barons’ War.


The Angevin continental empire (orange shades) in the late 12th century.

In November 1213, the sheriffs of England were ordered to send four knights from each of their counties to assemble at Oxford on the feast of All Saints (November 1) “to speak with us concerning the affairs of the realm.” Once again the king was seeking to bring into national government representatives from the counties of England, and it marks the very first time that a meeting of a national assembly comprised the knights of the shire. It is therefore part of the prehistory of parliament. By the time that the knights summoned were ready to make the journey, John had stipulated that he wanted them to attend with their weapons of war. Presumably he wanted to know that he could count on their military backing should the need arise. At home all was now in place for the planned expedition, while abroad the diplomatic campaign continued apace. One notable victory for John was the formal renouncement by Guy, viscount of Limoges of his homage to King Philip as he declared himself for his “natural lord, John king of England” to whom he had “sworn fidelity and liege homage against all mortal men.” On December 22, 1213, at Windsor where John was celebrating Christmas, the Great Seal of England was handed over to Ralph de Neville to hold it under the supervision of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester. The justiciar, Geoffrey fitz Peter, had died on October 14 and John needed an utterly reliable man to be in charge in England while he was away. The formal appointment to the post of justiciar was issued on February 1, 1214, but that Peter was to be the ruler of England while the king was in Poitou had been decided weeks before. And John needed a trusted servant with a proven capacity to rule to remain in England, for as the approach of the day of departure came closer, it became more and more evident that the north had not been brought fully into line. As a precaution, John reversed the decision he had made in 1212 to place local men of influence in charge of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. These counties were placed in the hands of king’s men: John Marshal (also custodian of the Welsh Marches) was installed in Lincolnshire and Peter fitz Herbert was appointed to the sheriff’s post in Yorkshire. The king’s northern castles were made ready for any eventuality.

John was to be away from England for the next nine months with a large army that was organized and disciplined through the royal household. Everyone in the army was subject to one of the king’s marshals, each of whom was appointed for a particular region of John’s lands. These men undertook the responsibility for keeping the peace of the Church and maintaining the discipline of the army. Reporting to the marshals were the barons, constables of the household and knights, as well as the chief serjeants of the marshal’s household, who had a duty to identify miscreants and bring them to justice. All swore not to requisition produce for the army except by the payment of a reasonable price. John was going to Poitou not as an invader to pillage the land but as a long-absent lord returning to his grateful people. He did not want the men of Poitou to see him as a predator.

On February 15, John arrived at La Rochelle there to be received by the mayor and its citizens, and to begin what has been described as the greatest gamble of his life. Since 1212, John had faced real criticism of his rule, from within his baronial elite, from the Church and more generally from his English subjects. There was a palpable sense of disquiet, largely as a result of John’s conviction that it was his destiny to return to his continental inheritance. Since 1204, his every action had been in some way designed (or at least justified as being designed) to bring John closer to the reconquest of lands that he believed were his by right of inheritance.

His kingdoms of England and Ireland had been squeezed of resources to provide the coin stored in barrels in his castle treasuries. One scholar has estimated that John had tied up almost half the coinage then in circulation, which, if correct, would have created a desperate need for scarce cash. The goodwill of his secular and ecclesiastical elites had been stretched to the very limit. In the secular realm, John had come to see his baronage as a resource rather than a partner in rulership; for him, they were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Likewise, John’s ecclesiastical elite had been forced to face persecution on an unprecedented scale as king and pope went to war. His people had also been forced to pay, and they, too, had faced the spiritual privation brought about by the interdict. In short, all hardship, all misery, all sacrifice had been focused on this one moment: John’s return to the continent. Were it anything but triumphant, the opposition, much of which waited at home in the north of England, would be out in force.

On March 8, John wrote home from La Rochelle to inform his subjects of his safe arrival and the immediate successes of his mission. He reported that, “to the joy of his friends and the confusion of his enemies,” many people had returned to his side, that he had successfully laid siege to the castle of Mille-Ecus (lying a few miles outside La Rochelle, it was captured on March 4), after which a number of senior members of the Poitevin baronage came to his side, including Savaric de Mauléon, whom he received into his peace. This was an auspicious beginning, especially as John was also able to convey the longed-for news that the terms of the interdict were to be relaxed. The next day, March 9, John began his progress to his wife’s land of Angoulême, where he might expect to be received well. By March 21, John was at Aixe-sur-Vienne where, in a lightning attack, he took the castle. He then went on to Limoges to be welcomed by its citizens. In response to John’s arrival, according to Bernard Itier, the historian of Limoges and eyewitness to the events, the people of the city prepared to resist King Philip.54 On April 3, John was at Limoges, where he stayed for just a day before turning his attention to the Lusignans.

By the end of May, John had brought the Lusignan family to their knees, and he again sent a triumphant letter back to England. In it, he recalls how, on May 16, he had taken his army to Mervent, a castle of Geoffrey de Lusignan, and within a day captured it. Taking advantage of the speed with which Mervent had fallen, John moved rapidly to another of Geoffrey’s castles, Vouvant, a few miles away. Geoffrey and his sons were besieged in the castle, and just before John was about to breach its walls, a peace was negotiated between John and all the Lusignans. Its terms were drawn up as a final concord on May 25 at Parthenay. This was the high point of John’s Poitevin adventure, after which the campaign took a turn for the worse, which even the capture of King Philip’s first cousin, Robert, son of Robert of Dreux, at Nantes did little to alleviate.

Between June 19 and July 2, 1214, John laid siege to Roche-au-Moine on the Loire. As he sat outside the gates of the stronghold, he heard that the French king’s son, Louis, was approaching with an army. When he understood that Louis’ army was smaller than his, John planned to meet it in open battle, but soon began to suspect that he could not rely on his Poitevin allies: John was forced to retreat to Saint-Maixent in some disarray. Louis, according to one account, also turned tail, fearing that John might have the power to engage him in the open. He need not have worried. On July 15, John wrote from La Rochelle, pleading for those who had not come to Poitou with him now to come to his aid. It was a plea that was ignored.

John’s future was determined not in Poitou but in Flanders. It was the most significant moment of his life and he was not there. The arrival of Louis and his army had sent John into the south, first to La Rochelle, and then to Cognac, Niort, Saint-Jean-d’Andély and, on July 27, a Sunday, to Buteville, 400 miles from the center of action. In the sense that John had created a grand coalition against Philip, the Battle of Bouvines was a brilliant moment. The most powerful ruler in western Christendom, Emperor Otto of Brunswick, had been enlisted in John’s plans and had brought himself and his army to the field of battle. There, too, was Ferrand, count of Flanders, William “the Hairy,” count of Holland, Reginald Dammartin, count of Boulogne (though no longer commanding his county), Henry of Louvain, duke of Brabant, the mercenary captain Hugh de Boves, and finally, appointed as marshal of the English troops who had been mustered, John’s half-brother, William Longspee, earl of Salisbury. Such a coalition would make anyone quake at its approach, even Philip Augustus, king of France. Gathering up his nobles and knights as well as the citizen militias of his towns, Philip prepared to face the most significant moment in his own life.

John would not have been the first ruler (nor would he be the last) to use another power in the pursuance of his objectives. Getting someone else to make a sacrifice in order to reach one’s goal is always wiser than having to make it oneself. It was the execution of the plan, however, that brought catastrophe. On that hot Sunday in July, at around noon, the respective armies of the coalition first engaged with King Philip. Philip was at the heart of the French army, and before him was held aloft the Oriflamme, the symbolic pennant of the patron saint of France, St. Denis, blood red (legend had it) from having been dipped in the saint’s decapitated body, and which had been brought out to great success ninety years before, in 1124, the last time that a German emperor had invaded France.

Reports of the battle, one of the few from this period for which we have detailed descriptions, give testimony to the importance that was placed on its outcome. Battles on this scale were rare because the quickest and surest way to win was to neutralize the leader of the opposing army, so each leader was the focus of rather more attention than was welcome. At Bouvines, Emperor Otto was determined to press his attack unswervingly against the spot in which King Philip was directing his army. The emperor’s soldiers succeeded in dragging the French king off his horse to the ground, and only his armor saved him from death. Rescued by his troops, Philip recovered his horse and mounted it to lead his troops once again. Otto, too, survived an attack by lucky chance, but his horse was so startled that it bolted, and the emperor had the ignominy of showing his back to the enemy. It was a pivotal moment in the battle. With the retreat of Otto, and his abandonment of the imperial standard, the struggle swung in favor of the French, and it was not long before they were in possession of the field of slaughter.

The consequences of the Battle of Bouvines were profound for all who were associated with it. As the victor, King Philip, of course, emerged from the day with more prestige and in an unassailable position. It cemented his conquest of Angevin lands, especially of Normandy, and it ensured his lasting legacy as the savior of France while also immeasurably boosting his personal wealth. The impact on Ferrand of Flanders was catastrophic. Philip had long sought to make real his claim to the overlordship of Flanders, and he now held its count in his prison. At the Treaty of Paris on October 24, 1214, Countess Joanna was forced into conceding humiliating terms that resulted in the destruction or surrender of a number of key fortresses and the effective rule of Flanders from Paris. Philip even demanded that she annul her marriage to her husband and marry Peter Mauclerc, duke of Brittany, though this never actually happened. Ferrand was to be held captive for a decade, before he was eventually released in 1226 after the payment of 50,000 livres Parisian. The consequences for the emperor were even more ruinous. While he had escaped with his life and his freedom, his defeat gave impetus to his rival for the kingdom of Germany and the imperial throne, King Frederick of Sicily, Philip’s ally. Within a few weeks of Bouvines, the princes of Lower Lorraine, their confidence in Otto shattered by his defeat, submitted to Frederick, and one by one the other German provinces also fell to him; within a few months of Bouvines, Otto was restricted to Cologne, and by July 24, 1215 (when John was facing his own political crisis), Frederick was crowned king of the Germans at Aachen. Otto was to live out the remainder of his life in retirement at Brunswick.

It is not hard to imagine John’s demeanor when news of Philip’s victory was delivered to him. His plans were in tatters and he must have understood, too, that matters at home might prove difficult. On August 16, he sent back to England two of his most trusted diplomats, Thomas of Erdington and Henry de Ver, “to report to you that which we do not wish to commit to writing . . . and concerning the safety of our castles and our person.” The two had been in Rome on John’s behalf and were now heading to England to report on that business, and, presumably, to prepare for what would undoubtedly be an awkward homecoming for the king. All that was left for John to do was to secure in what way he could the lands that remained to him and to make a lasting truce with King Philip. On September 6, he obtained the release of his half-brother, captured at Bouvines, in exchange for Robert, son of Robert, count of Dreux, and then, on September 18, he agreed to a truce to last five-and-a-half years, until Easter 1220. In the court of the papal legate and in the company of five counts, two abbots and twenty-nine of the most senior members of his court, John swore to uphold the truce. The original document, sealed in white wax with John’s great seal, is still in the French royal archives.

It has been suggested that in failing to bring his forces directly to bear against King Philip, John was making a grave mistake, since Philip’s destruction was the primary objective of this Poitevin campaign. When a king loses a campaign, there is no doubt that he has made a mistake, and John lost the Poitevin campaign, but in order to understand what John was attempting to do, it is worth considering the situation from his perspective. Since the beginning of his period of rule, John’s policy in Poitou had remained unchanged: to secure the county, he needed to bring the major families of the region under his control. With hindsight, it seems clear that Normandy was the lynchpin of the empire, and that control of Normandy, and especially the Vexin, was crucial to the maintenance of Angevin rule. But for John, Poitou was the key to victory. This is the only possible explanation for the years that he devoted to securing the loyalty of the Poitevin aristocracy or suppressing those families whose loyalty he could not procure, and the only thing that can explain John’s unwillingness to go to Normandy both in 1206 and in 1214 to confront Philip directly. That he was profoundly wrong in his assessment is proved by events but that does not vitiate the fact that this was his judgment on the matter at the time he faced the decision about where to launch his own troops.


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