Episode 12: King John seems to lose interest in his empire

For no apparent reason, John loses interest in his French dominions and allows Philip II a free hand in taking towns and castles from him. On the lead of the king, many English nobles withdrew too.

King John spent Christmas 1203 with his queen at Caen, Normandy, getting up late and feasting all day, it was said. By Easter, King Philip of France had gathered a large army and was attacking English fortresses, capturing them, levelling the weaker ones, and preserving the better ones for his own use.

Messengers came constantly to the English Court with this bad news from around John's transmarine dominions. Some of them told how the French ruler tied captured governors ignominiously to horses' tails and how Philip seized John's property as duke of Normandy.

The king's response was indifference, saying, 'Let him do so; whatever he now seizes on I will one day recover.' We learn that the English nobility had been firmly on his side until this moment. Why would they not have been? King John had been a good war leader since his succession and there had been much derring-do and profitable ransoms for all.

I know it is usually unwise for people like me - eight centuries later - to try to explain such lethargy in modern psychological terms that would have had no resonance all those years ago, but I feel compelled. Roger of Wendover committed to writing the English king's behaviour, which he described as 'incorrigible' - a strong word.

He thought that John simply preferred having sex with his new wife, and had fallen under some sorcery or witchcraft. Sex very seldom interfered with the duties of despotic kingship. In fact, it was a reward. I believe that the king was having a nervous breakdown and, if so, the only explanation I can conceive of was that the murder of his nephew, Prince Arthur, duke of Brittany, was telling on him.

In common with all medieval rulers, John's relations with the Church had their ups and downs, but also like everyone else he was brought up a Christian, and had been surrounded all his life at Court by the highest and most educated of churchmen in the realm. He would have believed in the Afterlife and the possibility of exclusion from heaven, and consequent consignment to hell for his grievous crime. Perhaps he saw the destruction of his empire as a self-imposed penance, so great a price that he would be forgiven the murder of Prince Arthur.

In the 17th century, as duke of York and king, James II submitted to regular floggings by his Jesuit confessor, for his womanizing, and as king he bone-headedly sought to re-impose Roman Catholicism on Britain which cost him his throne in 1688. That was his penance. We can only speculate, but John's voracious sexual desire was not slaked by concubines; he offended the highest aristocrats by making passes at their wives or their married daughters.

Kings, like any rich and powerful man today, can have women, and the English baronage would not have objected if John had shown interest in an as yet unmarried daughter or niece. Such a liaison would have brought untold wealth and position to the family. Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's elder sister, was encouraged by her father to return Henry VIII's sexual interest.

This was good for this minor family from Hever, in Kent, who were lifted out of the mere knightage to the earldom of Wiltshire. The only time that, as prince of Wales, the future Edward VII got into serious trouble with his notorious womanizing was when he started an affair with the wife of Sir Charles Mordaunt, a member of Parliament. Normally, where the wife of a courtier was involved it was the case that the husband was not concerned or saw some advantage.

Only eighty years ago, Ernest Simpson nobly provided grounds, enabling his wife Wallis to sue successfully for divorce. This opened the way for her to marry King Edward VIII when the decree absolute came through in 1937. Unfortunately for the Simpsons, King Edward was forced to abdicate and Wallis was never even granted the cost-free title of 'Her Royal Highness' by the ex-king's younger brother and successor, George VI.

Abdication was not a concept that seems to have been known in the Middle Ages, upto the reign of King John, but putting him aside - whatever that might have meant in the early thirteenth century - or killing him seems to have been contemplated towards the end of his reign.

The first English abdication came with Edward II in 1327, and, as history would show again in that century and the next, abdication is a very bad precedent to set in an hereditary monarchy. English noblemen began to desert John by seeking permission to return to their estates to check on their affairs - that sort of excuse probably - but promising to return, which few, if any, actually did.

Hugh de Gournay surrendered the important castle of Montfort and switched his allegiance to Philip II. Robert FitzWalter and Sayer de Quincy gave up the town and castle of Ruyl, Anjou, without a fight and because everything was left intact the garrison was unharmed.

These two noblemen were sent in chains, however, to Compigne, deep inside French territory, and their families paid a very large, but unspecified, ransom. Then came the siege of Rock of Andelys, a castle built by the Lionheart.

Fortunately for King John, the castle was held by Roger de Lacy, who had been with King Richard at Acre in 1192. He resisted the French. Finally coming back to his senses, and blaming his barons for deserting him, John left for England, finding himself desititute of men and money in Normandy.

In England, he raised a tax of a seventh on all moveables, He used Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury, to collect the tax, totalling almost 15%, from all churches, including parochial priests, the vast majority of whom worked in the fields themselves to feed their families and were hardly better off than their flocks.

We hear that Geoffrey FitzPeter, the justiciary of the kingdom, collected from the laity, and neither man spared anyone in the execution of their orders. When the French king heard that John had high-tailed it back to England, Philip marched in great strength through the English king's transmarine domains at will telling citizens and governors that they had been deserted, and that they should come over to their overlord.

He was, he told people, willing to be their 'good lord', as there was no other. He begged them as friends to join him, but also warned that any who did not, he would subdue them as enemies and hang them on gibbets or flay them alive. Being flayed, meant being skinned alive, an execution still in common use under the Russian tsardom until well into the nineteenth century.

It seems that some conference was held at an unnamed place where both sides disputed the problem, but eventually, King John's Norman and other French subjects agreed that, if their ruler did not return, they would acknowledge King Philip as their new lord, whereupon the French ruler returned to his own territories.

John kept Christmas at Canterbury in 1204 as the guest of the archbishop of Canterbury, and in January made recourse to Oxford to meet his nobles there, and tax supply was granted. It seems that the baronage had not given up hope in John as a Warlord. Even the bishops and abbots agreed. A great symbolical blow was coming when, Rock de Andelys having been bombarded by siege engines lay close to ruins. The garrison was starving and after a 'sally porte' Roger de Lacy surrendered to the French king and was ransomed.

This led to a chain reaction of surrenders across John's dominions, and the king is reported to have told messengers from Normandy: (King John) intimated by the same messengers to all of them (in France), that they were to expect no assitance from him, but they were each to do what seemed best to him.

And thus, all kind of defence failing... the whole of Normandy, Tours, Anjou, Poitou, with the cities, castles, and possessions, except the cities of Rochelle, Thouars, and Niorz fell to the dominion of the king of France... (John) felt confident in the (tax) wealth he had collected, as if by that he could regain the territory he had lost.

King John’s trouble with the pope in Rome began in 1205 when Innocent rejected the king’s nominee for his own nominee, Stephen Langton, as archbishop of Canterbury, primate of England. John was back in France the next year, but made the mistake of making a peace with King Philip in the belief that the French ruler could be trusted, for which there was not a shred of evidence.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain