Episode 15: King John tries to hold onto control

Despite being a most successful king in bringing Scotland, Ireland, and Wales to peace in 1209, John committed a truly appalling murder which, like that of Arthur of Brittany in 1203, pursues him long after the grave.

John's greatest fears of Innocent's power were that he might be excommunicated by name and his subjects released from their duty to him as king.

Innocent had declared an interdict shortly before on France when Philip II divorced his Danish queen and, to Church eyes, had made a bigamous second marriage. King Philip was quick to settle the matter and to resume normal service between Rome and Paris. John was made of sterner, or perhaps more foolish, stuff.

Amidst all the church chaos in England, John sent armed units in 1209 to all the important noblemen in the kingdom, especially those who were suspected of weakness or disloyalty. They were forced to swear new oaths of fealty and, just in case, the royal officers took their children and other relations as hostages.

When they got to William de Braose, a great baron with lands in Wales and Ireland, Braose's wife Matilda - much against her husband's order - refused to hand over her eldest son, named William after his father, or her other sons, saying 'I will not deliver up my sons to your lord, King John, because he basely murdered his nephew, Arthur, whom he ought to have taken care of honourably.'

When this was reported to John, he sent a contingent of knights back to arrest the whole family, but the de Braoses had been forewarned and escaped to their estates in Ireland. In the same year, the White Monks started to hold church services again, but this was seen as gross presumption by Pope Innocent, who suspended the order in England. At about the same time, the archbishop-in-exile, Stephen Langton, prevailed on the Pope to allow divine service to be resumed once a week in all conventual churches.

John was also experiencing difficulty with the king of Scots, William the Lion, and the two rulers met at Norham, in Northumberland, William with some apprehension, apparently, knowing of John's singular cruelty, according to the record. Certain members of the English nobility had fled to Scotland and been kindly received by King William. At the conference between the two kings, this protection was to end, William would pay an indemnity of 12,000 silver marks, and give two daughters as hostages.

Welsh princes came all the way to Woodstock, Oxfordshire, at about this time to make their homage and give hostages. All of John's tenants were made to swear their duty to the king, including even boys of twelve. There had been an inducement, in that John opened up all the forests of England for use by cattle for consumption. The Forest Laws had been the most arduous of imposts, as we have seen and relief from them would have been welcome.

Despite the interdict, John was still making bishops, one in the person of his chancellor, Hugh, Archdeacon of Wells, whom he advanced to the bishopric of Lincoln. Some bishops were still refusing to publish the interdict, either out of fear or favour.

But people found out and it was openly spoken of, as when the archdeacon of Norwich was overheard discussing it, arrested, and crushed to death slowly under a cope of lead. Three priests, who were wrongly arrested at Oxford for the murder of a woman were summarily hanged by the mayor, on the orders of the king.

Consequently, about three thousand students and teachers fled the city, leaving it deserted, and went to Cambridge or Reading. At the same time, John's nephew and ally, Otto, was crowned holy Roman emperor by Pope Innocent on 4 October. The only fly in this year of 1209's ointment was that Hugh, the new bishop of Lincoln, went to France for consecration by Stephen Langton, thereby recognizing Langton's consecration by the pope. This was not the way to repay John's generosity and Hugh was deprived of the estates of the bishopric, sacked as chancellor, and never came back to England.

In his place as chancellor, the king appointed Walter de Gray, a real king's man.

In the last weeks of 1209, the second worst thing that the pope could do was done when a bull of excommunication against John was promulgated, and ordered to be read in all English churches. Unsurprisingly, there were not many takers for this dangerous task and the few remaining mitred bishops left for the continent.

The year 1210 was less happy for the king and his people than 1209 and began with an onslaught on the Jews for their money. Men and women were seized and tortured, one unnamed Bristol man being put to the knocking out of one of his molar teeth every day until he gave up 10,000 marks. He surrendered on the eighth day so saving his few remaining back teeth.

Such a vicious procedure does not bear contemplation. The next task that King John set himself was the greater pacification of Ireland, where English laws were introduced, entirely superseding ancient Irish laws, such as tanistry. He instituted manors and sheriffs, shiring counties around Dublin, for better administration.

Whatever else one might say of King John, he made England the paramount country in the British Isles by bringing the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish into line. No other English ruler would come close to this kind of control until Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, which was done with the shedding of much blood. John does not seem to have shed much at all, except in England as we shall see ever more as we follow our story.

We noted earlier, that the de Braose family had taken refuge on their lands in Ulster. The appearance of John's army caused William de Braose, who was not at home, to take off for France, but his wife and son and namesake were captured, laden with chains, and brought to Windsor Castle where they were both slowly starved to death.

One story has it that the immaciated body of Matilda, the mother, had sought to eat the face of her dead son to stay alive. It was one of those utterly unnecessary killings which people at the time would not forget. Husband William died soon after at Corbeil, France. It does seem that Lady Matilda, a proud daughter of the de St Valerie family, was the problem, according to William Dugdale.

For unknown reasons she had avenged the murder of Henry de Hereford by having numerous Welshmen murdered in Bargavenny Castle, south Wales. Of this family are still descended the marquesses of Abergavenny.

The killings of Matilda and William de Braose Junior, and Arthur Duke of Brittany are those acts of treachery and revenge which stuck to John like shit stuck to an unkempt, long-haired dog's arse, in much the same way as the murder of the duc d'Enghein by Napoleon, or the execution of Edith Cavell in 1915 by the Kaiser's troops have never been forgotten in France and Britain. John could not, and still has not, lived them down. Forgive my Anglo-Saxon slang-words.

At Christmas 1211, John was at York with his men where he decided to collect a large army at Whitchurch, just inside Shropshire, on the Welsh border. He got as far as Snowdon, destroying everything in his path and taking twenty-eight hostages.

With his enormous war chest, John was able to fill his army with mercenaries, men experienced in war, mostly foreign, who would do as bidden: little wonder then that John would soon turn down the last offer of peace with Pope Innocent. John raised 100,000 pounds in 1211 to fund his mercenary army while extracting oaths of loyalty from his barons. Two years later, Pope Innocent had excommunicated the king and deposed him, which meat that anyone could kill him without risk from the Church of being indicted for treason.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain