Episode 10: Anglo-French hostilities

Little noticed at first, in 1198, a new pope was elected in Rome, who would turn out probably to be the most powerful pope ever to occupy the papal throne. He was Innocent III. Richard was too busy to notice as he re-took territories taken from him by Philip II while a prisoner of the emperor.

In January 1198, a little known man by the name of Lothaire was elected pope within a day of the death of his predessor Celestine III. He was a deacon and had been made a cardinal of SS Sergio and Bacco, but he was not yet a priest. This was corrected on 21 February and on the following day he was consecrated as head of the Church on earth. He was 37 years old and took the name of Pope Innocent III.

He will become a leading character in our story because he would very nearly destroy John and, at the last minute, save his throne and very probably his life. By 1198, Richard I and Philip II of France would reach the depths of perfidy in their war for the domination of France.

Roger of Howden:
In the same year, the truce being ended, which the king of France and the king of England had agreed to and their direful fury immediately poured forth; and, all conferences being put an end to, each entered the kingdom of the other in hostile form and, depopulating the lands, carried off booty, took prisoners, and burned towns.

The king of France also, finding a new method of venting his rage against the people, caused the eyes to be put out of many of the subjects of the king of England whom he had made prisoners, and thus provoked the king of England, unwilling as he was, to similar acts of impiety.Philip II was trounced by King Richard at the pitched battle of Courcelles, in Upper Normandy, causing the French ruler to flee to the castle at Gisors, much of which still stands on the River Epte. A wooden bridge over the Epte collapsed as Philip and his army crossed the river.

Roger of Howden takes up the story:
Philip king of France, having assembled a large body of troops and citizens, marched forth from Mantes on his road to Courcelles. On hearing this, the king of England went forth to meet him, and fought a pitched battle with him between Courcelles and Gisors, in which the king of France, being worsted, fled to the castle of Gisors; and while he was crossing the bridge of the town of Gisors, the bridge broke down on account of the multitude of those crossing it, and the king of France fell into the river Epte, and had to drink of it, and, if he had not been speedily dragged out, would have been drowned therein.

In this battle, Richard, king of England, laid three knights prostrate with a single lance, and there were taken prisoners, many illustrious men among the knights of the king of France.

It seems likely that Prince John was with his brother - if not on campaign, at least in France. While no match for Richard on the battlefield, Philip II was unparalleled, to use Roger of Howden's expression, as a 'sower of discord' among his enemies, and let the English king know that he had a document, signed by John, in which the younger brother placed himself entirely in his hands.

Richard believed it, perhaps based on John's past behaviour, but possibly concerned, as all despots were and are, with any conspiracies against them, real or imagined. All of John's manors and estates were seized on both sides of the English Channel.

John denied the allegation vehemently and expedited two knights to Paris who demanded to be shown the document, which Philip could not produce. Like any clever plotter, King Philip would not have been at all concerned at being shown to be a liar - the temporary rift between king and brother-heir had been achieved, and may have changed Richard's mind about Arthur of Brittany's succession to the Angevin empire. Philip may have thought John an easier bird to pluck.

As we have seen, Richard had little time left in this world before he was hit by Bertram de Gurdon's crossbow bolt, and died. The starting gun had been fired, and King Philip felt confident enough to attack and take Evreux, in Haute Normandie. The heartland counties of the Plantagenet dynasty - Anjou, Maine, and Touraine - declared in favour of Arthur of Brittany.

John, with his mother Eleanor, started well in France, taking Le Mans from the rebels, and in England where the baronage were caused to accept John as the new king. We also attended John's coronation at Westminster Abbey, preceded by his inauguration as duke of Normandy.

By June 1199, John was back in Dieppe and at Rouen on the 24th, where Philip, count of Flanders, led the Plantagenet supporters and did homage to King John. Prince Arthur, whom we saw taken into protective custody by the king of France, was created duke of Brittany by him, as his feudal overlord, which must have rankled with John who, at a meeting with King Philip, refused to do homage for the duchy of Normandy.

Prince Arthur's supporters in western France were also concerned by the French king's levelling Breton castles to the ground, hardly a friendly act, which may have smoothed John's path in the reconquest of the duchy. Further good news came when one of King John's commanders, William des Roches, spirited Prince Arthur out of King Philip's less than hospitable entertainment.

Another irritant for the king of France was that the new Pope Innocent III set aside the the divorce granted to him by the French clergy, freeing him of his Danish wife, Botilda. Philip had re-married and was told to put away his adultress, or Innocent would place an interdict on the kingdom of France.

In a private vendetta, Philip, a bastard son of the late Richard the Lionheart, killed the Viscount of Limoges. To continue with the banalities of life, even of kings, at a time of war and devastation, John divorced his first wife, Hawisa, the daughter and heir of William, earl of Gloucester, and married Isobel, daughter of Ailmar, count of Angoulme, the first wife having not, in ten years, produced an heir.

In February 1201, the couple were in northern England, collecting fines from the local nobility and others for infractions of the forest laws. As you will have inferred, medieval kings are never embarrassed by demanding money. The king and queen went south to Canterbury in April where they were both crowned by Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury, on Easter Day.

The king then went to Portsmouth, where he had ordered his barons to embark for France. Some turned up and paid a scutage instead of sailing with the rest of the army, and John gave William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, and Roger de Lacy, constable of Chester, a hundred knights each, and sent them in advance of his main force. (It is thought that a knight counted as six men, the nobleman himself and five men to maintain him and who could also fight).

The king gave a hundred knights to Hubert de Burgh, his chamberlain, to guard the Western Marches, abutting Wales. In most ways, John was more an emperor than the holy Roman emperor in Germany. The English empire - for it was no longer really the Angevin empire - included England, much of south and east Wales, Ireland around Dublin, Normandy and most of northern France, and Aquitaine, more or less the whole of south-west France. John ruled over a great European power, as had his father and brother. What went wrong?

When John finally succeeded to the English throne, he found himself opposed by Prince Arthur, Duke of Brittany, whose uncle John was. Arthur threw himself into the arms of King Philip, but was captured by John’s agents and mysteriously died in John’s forbidding fortress at Falaise.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain