Episode 2: Playing with monarchs

How John came to the English throne in 1199 on the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart, and pre-empted the better claim of Arthur, Duke of Brittany.

Guidomar, Viscount of Limoges, as a vassal to the English King, had sent half of a happen-chance find of gold and silver in his territory to his overlord Richard. This was by no means good enough for for the great crusader and warlord who, having given Guidomar the fief in the first place, thought that the whole hoard should be handed over to him.

When Guidomar refused, Richard marched promtly to the viscount's castle of Chalus and laid siege to it. When the defenders sent out a parley-party to surrender on terms, Richard refused and said that he would take the fortress by storm and hang everyone else who survived the attack. Hubris or arrogance or both had their price on this occasion, for the Greek goddess Nemesis was at hand. While surveying the defences of the castle, a crossbowman - Bertram de Gurdon - had a lucky shot that struck the king in the shoulder which, combined with the efforts of a terrible surgeon, led to his death twelve days later, but not before the castle was taken and Richard had had everyone in it hanged.

The story comes from Roger of Howden's Annals. The English royal family were known as the Plantagenets, a surname taken from their badge, the plantagenista - in English a sprig of yellow broom. The first of them was Henry II, whose sons were Richard the Lionheart and King John who was to seal Magna Carta. Their dominions are named the Angevin empire by historians - after Angers the capital of Anjou - and included the kingdom of England, the duchies of Normandy and Brittany, the counties of Anjou, Touraine, Maine, and many others in northern France, and the duchy of Aquitaine in south-western France.

The Plantagenets were more powerful than the king of France, their feudal superior on the south side of the Channel. Richard was killed in April 1199, aged 42. Arthur, duke of Brittany, had been nominated as the next king of England and heir to the Plantagenets' French dominions by King Richard. Arthur was the son of Geoffrey, an older brother to John, but Geoffrey had died, and Richard changed his mind shortly before his own death because the duke was born in 1187 and might be unable to manage his affairs if he succeeded to Brittany too young.

As it happened, Arthur was only 12 in 1199. Such a rich patrimony needed older and safer hands, those of his brother John, Count of Mortain and Lord of Ireland, who was born in 1167, and was 32. Richard nominated him. John was in France when his brother died and made haste to Chinon to take over his late brother's treasury there. The nobles of Brittany, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine declared for Prince Arthur because, they said, tradition was that the eldest son of the last duke should succeed. This was Geoffrey, John's elder brother. Arthur's mother Constance took the young Arthur to his feudal overlord, Philip II, king of France, for protection, a move rather in the character of 'out of the frying-pan into the fire.'

Arthur was conveyed to Paris and King Philip seized many of his lands and castles. John took an army to Le Mans, capital of Maine, and raised its castle and walls to the ground, then proceeded with haste to Beaufort, in Anjou, which fell to him in May. Next he arrived in Rouen, capital of the important province of Normandy, and had himself inaugurated as duke when a circlet of gold was placed on his head and a bejewelled broad sword put in his hands. John's only weakness in France in the late spring of 1199 was that control of the duchy of Brittany still evaded him, though he had made a good start on reducing the surrounding counties.

But John had to get over to England to secure the crown of that kingdom, which had supplied the financial means to fund the truly imperial ambitions of his father Henry II and his brother Richard the Lionheart. He left his redoubtable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, widowed queen of King Henry II, in France, who ravaged rebellious areas without mercy. Nothing was certain dynastically in this age until one physically possessed a realm or a province. To a large degree this was the fault of John's predecessors themselves. When William the Conqueror died in 1087, he bequeathed Normandy - which he evidently considered his historic centre - to his eldest son, Robert Curthose; but he left in his will the kingdom of England to his second son William Rufus, or William II. His third son Henry got nothing of moment. However, on William Rufus's mysterious death in 1100, the third son made straight for Winchester where the royal treasury was kept, seized it, then went to London and was crowned before his eldest brother Robert could lift a finger.

In fact, Robert raised forces to take Normandy from Henry and perhaps then make for England, but after a series of battles in France, Robert was captured at last in 1106 at Tinchebrai. He was kept a prisoner by his younger brother in Devizes castle, Wiltshire, for the rest of his long life. Possession was ten points of the law in those days. Kingdoms and provinces were treated as personal property throughout western Europe because personal property was what they were then.

Locally, kingdoms, like England, were ruled over by military aristocracies. When William the Conqueror invaded England, he did not set up the Welfare State. As a conqueror, he could do as he wished with England, undermining its centralized Saxon government, the only centralized government in the whole of Europe except for the Byzantine Empire, based on Constantinople. From the later decades of the ninth century, France, Italy, and Germany became pock-marked with the stone castles of military aristocrats.

They owed little more than a nominal overlordship to a king or an emperor, whose real power lay only in the actuality of those royal castles and provinces in their possession or those they could conquer. There were no castles in the Saxon kingdom of England, not even royal ones.

William the Conqueror was completely enmeshed in the semi-independence and warrings of his Norman vassals, and it took him more than fifteen years to bring them to heel. When they followed him to Hastings and the conquest of England from 1066, they were rewarded with Saxon lands and Saxon heiresses, and we know that they came with what we might call today 'flat-packs' of wooden motte and bailey castles with which to control and exploit the English.

It would not be long before they replaced these temporary structures with stone castles from which they over-awed and repressed their serfs and peasants. It was not that kings, like William I, or William II, or Henry I were weak - far from it. But they probably saw themselves not, as it has been suggested, as first among equals, but as leaders of new and related ideas that emerged in the twelfth century.

These ideas came out of France in the voices of troubadours who sang about and versified on courtly love. They spread the idea of chivalry between aristocrats, who were also knights. Tournaments were invented as a noble sport. It was in the 12th century that the chronicler, Gerald of Wales, invented King Arthur, which was picked up in France by Robert Burron, who added Camelot, Guenivere, Lancelot, and the Round Table.

By John reign, lords had begun to be represented on the battlefield, in their charters, and castle ornamentation with heraldry. Who they were, their ancestry, became important. They defended Holy Church which rewarded them by blessing their exploits, or at least turning a blind eye to their rapaciousness. This make-believe nobleness went into the sixteenth century with Castiglione and Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, but Henry VIII was the last English king to joust while Henry II, king of France, was killed at a tournament in 1558 when the whole thing fizzled out, as the Reformation and Counter-reformation led to the European wars of religion.

Of course, none of these romatic ideas was ever intended to benefit the mass of the oppressed people whose labour maintained the warrior caste. Richard the Lionheart believed in all of this and was a great and successful warlord to boot - in the Holy Land on crusade and in France. I do not think that King John believed in any of it and in a little more than than a hundred years, aristocratic alliances and their fortresses would affect the king almost mortally, as John would find out.

The Lionheart was killed by a lucky shot from a defender’s crossbow when besieging the fortress of Chalus. Although King Richard pardoned him, his captain seized the culprit and had him flayed to death.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain