Episode 16: Pope Innocent deposes King John (1213)

John's death within a year is predicted, and Pope Innocent deposes the king from his throne and releases his people from their duty to him.

No pope was ever stronger, I believe, than Pope Innocent III who, by placing an interdict on the realm of England, excommunicating and finally deposing its ruler in 1213, caused King John to buckle and to surrender his kingdom to Rome.

If not quite riding high twelve months before, John appeared to be master in his own kingdom.

He had raised 100,000 pounds in 1211 from ransoms and fines. The White Monks were forced to pay 40,000 pounds. He had crushed the Welsh princes of North Wales and had hanged twenty-two boy hostages, of eleven or twelve years of age and gibbeted them.

John had rejected overtures of peace with Rome, brought by Cardinal Pandulph to a meeting at Dover, on the matter of reparation to the Church of all lost property and taxes. Against Philip II, who had taken up Innocent's command to invade England, John raised a huge army of 60,000 at Barham Down, near Canterbury, at Ipswich, and elsewhere. His sheriffs had identified the ships for a substantial navy to sink the French at sea. As Roger of Wendover wrote of 1213:

The army... including chosen knights and their followers (were) all well armed; and had been of one heart and one disposition towards the king of England, and in defence of their own country, there was not a prince under heaven against whom they could not have defended the kingdom of England. The king determined to engage his enemies at sea, to drown them before they landed, for he had a more powerful fleet than the French king, and in that he placed his chief means of defence.

On a second visit, Pandulph told John of the king of the French's arrangements at the mouth of the Seine, describing their fleet as countless, in carrying out the pope's orders of overthrowing the English monarch. They were awaiting reinforcements.

The king of France was supported by the exiled English bishops - the vast majority. John had had some difficulty in victualling such a large force, and many men were stood down. But English sea-faring and John's fleet would almost certainly have been more than enough to sink the French before they ever made land.

France was not noted for its naval prowess, or even very much for its landed military prowess at this time. The first two Plantagenets - King Henry II and Richard the Lionheart - seldom lost against French arms, and even King John enjoyed great success until he abandoned Rouen in 1205 for no apparent reason.

It must have galled him in 1213-14 that Philip II chose Rouen as his military headquarters when it might so easily have remained in King John's hands.

England, and particularly France, remained aristocratic realms. While Normans and Bretons might have owed fealty to the king of France, they also owed it to the king of England. The king of England's overlord in France was the French king, but John and his predecessors back to William the Conqueror were also kings of a neighbouring country.

When William, duke of Normandy, successfully invaded England in 1066, he actually weakened his dynasty's position in France by dividing his power. Very soon into William the Conqueror's reign, barons on one or other side of the English Channel could play off one overlord king against the other.

By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the English baronage would use the French king as the means of bringing their king under control. They may have thought that they might somehow become future English kings' hereditary government, but this is to introduce my peroration a little too soon.

What probably told with King John was another planned mission into Wales, when he was warned that, if he embarked on this campaign, there was a plot among his barons to assassinate him there, or to abandon him to his Welsh enemies. John's spy system was effective. Rome had placed his kingdom under an interdict, which had already lasted five years. The English, like everyone else in Europe, were deeply religious. King John had been excommunicated and, in 1213, Innocent had deposed him. This made him fair game to anyone with a grudge. Cardinal Pandulph told the king that if he submitted then he would recover his sovereignty and have the full support of the Holy See.

If he did nothing, then he would certainly lose his immortal soul, and might - probably would - be abandoned by his own people to his enemies. There was also the matter of Peter the Hermit's prophecy, and Ascension Day was fast approaching, by which time John's death would have been accomplished. Many people believed it as did very likely King John.

On 13 May 1213, the Monday preceding Ascension Day, a great meeting was held near Dover, attended by the king, Cardinal Pandulph, and many noblemen, and a great concourse. The king acceded to all requests of the Church, that Stephen Langton would be accepted as archbishop of Canterbury; the exiled bishops and other clerics allowed to return; the property of the Church and the money exacted returned and - amazingly - the aristocracy would make sure that this happened. Here is this important charter in part:

John king of England, to all whom these presents shall come, greeting. - By these our letters patent sealed with our seal, we wish it known that, in our presence and by our commands, these our four barons, namely, William Earl of Salisbury, our brother Reginald count of Boulogne, William Earl Warenne, and William Count of Ferrars, have sworn, on our soul, that we will in all good faith keep the subscribed peace in all things.

The archbishops and all the exiled bishops and clerics are listed as to be permitted to return without injury, and to carry out their duties normally. In return, the interdict would be lifted. Most staggering of all was John resignation of his kingdoms of England and Ireland on the eve of Ascension Day to the pope, and paying homage to his holiness immediately after.

This charter was witnessed by the nobles of the council created under the first charter. When the paperwork was received in Rome, together with 8,000 pounds sterling as a down-payment on the new goodwill between pope and king, Innocent granted the kingdoms of England and Ireland back to King John as a papal vassal.

By placing his crowns under the pope as overlord may have been demeaning to any king, but this was such a clever move by a very clever man. At the fixing of seals, John trumped all his enemies, especially the king of France.

As we shall see in the concluding episodes, Pope Innocent became John's greatest supporter since the king of England was now his man 'in body and limb and all earthly matters'. Just when the nobility might have thought they had cornered their prey, he slipped cover and ran to the best ally in Europe. The pope would even set Magna Carta aside as having been obtained under duress.

John built an alliance of himself, the German emperor Otto IV, and numerous ruling counts in the Low Countries against the king of France, which began well when the French fleet was destroyed by the English at the Battle of Damme.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain