Episode 24: King John dies in October 1216 and is succeeded by his son Henry

King John dies in this Episode, his son succeeds him as King Henry III, and the French are kicked out of England.

Perhaps a rarity for King John, he was greeted with joy by the people of Lynn who appear to have retained enough treasure to make presents to their desperate monarch. After ceremonies, he proceeded on his way. Roger of Wendover takes over the story:

'He then took his march towards the north, but in crossing the River Wellester (Welland), he lost all his carts, waggons, and baggage horses. together with his money, costly vessels... for the land opened in the middle of the water and caused whirlpools which sucked in everything, as well as men and horses, so that no one escaped to tell the king of the misfortune. He himself narrowly escaped, and passed the following night at a convent called Swineshead.'

At this period and for centuries afterwards, kings were peripatetic, travelling their kingdoms with enormous retinues that included their bed, carved furniture, and tapestries to be hung on walls where they were being hosted for the night. In the last episode, we found the king of France at Lyon.

As we have noted, we know where King John was for almost every day of his reign because his travels were recorded daily by his Chancery clerks. Kings had to show themselves to the people and frequently observe justice and other events - such as presentations - on their arrival. Queen Elizabeth I made royal progresses famous, and monarchs continued to do this which is why many British stately homes still have bedrooms where kings and queens are said to have slept.

John must have arrived at Swineshead in a sorry state since he had lost everything in the Wash, including the Crown Jewels, only two items of which seem to have survived: the anointing spoon and the ampulla, that contains the holy oil. Both are still used at coronations. On the same evening, he ate far too much and suffered what was called a surfeit, becoming very ill after consuming peaches and large quantities of new cider.

From Swineshead, the king rode with difficulty to Newark Priory where he was confessed and given the Eucharist by the abbot of Croxton. Roger of Wendover takes up the story:

Afterwards, he appointed his eldest son Henry his heir; and made his kingdom swear allegiance to him; he also sent letters under his own seal to all the sheriffs and castellans of the kingdom, ordering them one and all to obey his son. Being then asked by the abbot of Croxton where he would wish to be buried in case he should die, he answered "to God and St Wulstan (Worcester Cathedral) I commend my body and soul."

After this, on the night and day next (19 October), he departed this life... his body was dressed in royal robes and carried to Worcester, and he was there honourably buried in the cathedral church by the bishop of that place.'

Just before his death, messengers arrived with letters from about forty rebel barons seeking to make their peace with him. John was too ill to attend to them, but at the dying moments of his reign it looked as if peace could be obtained in England again. Taking the Roman poet Juvenal's advice to remain anonymous in writing against a powerful man, this rhyme soon appeared:

'With John's foul deeds England's whole realm is stinking,
As doth hell, too, wherein he is sinking.'

It was essental that Henry, now king, should be crowned with all speed before Prince Louis of France pre-empted him. Probably under the benign tutelage of William Marshall, the new king was taken to the nearest cathedral, which was at Gloucester. An assembly to proclaim Henry king was, one imagines, hastily convened, in the presence of the Apostolic Legate Walo, the bishop of Winchester, and Sylvester, bishop of Worcester, together with the earl of Chester, the earl of Ferrers, and Philip d'Aubigny - very important noblemen - with a great number of others.

These arranged the coronation which took place on 28 October, Henry having just turned ten years old. John had been dead only nine days, and King Henry III now stood in his place.

Prince Louis heard of John's death while still besieging Dover Castle, which siege he laid aside when the English commander refused to surrender. Hertford and Berkhampstead put up determined fights against the French sieges, and only surrendered on good terms once they had killed many of Louis' men. Rebel lords in John's prisons, like William d'Albany, were released on swearing allegiance ot King Henry III.

The abbot of St Albans refused to do homage to Prince Louis, and gave him a ransom for abbey and town. The French prince returned to London. Things were not going well for remaining rebels and their French allies.

The English barons must by now have realized that the warning given on the deathbed of the Vicomte de Melun was coming true. Louis had failed to give back those lands captured that had formerly belonged to English lords. The French treated the English 'contemptuously', the word used by Roger of Wendover.

In early 1217, fortified places held by French or rebel barons, such as Mountsorel, Leicestershire, were invested by the new king's supporters. Louis managed raise a force of six hundred knights and twenty thousands soldiers, to relieve Mountsorel, who only covered the 120 miles after sacking and pillaging everywhere in their path.

The monks of Dunstable Abbey were even stripped of their underclothes by the French. Meanwhile, the latest excommunication of Louis and his father - now coming from Pope Innocent's successor, Pope Honorius III as confirmations - demonstrated that the change of popes was making no difference to Rome's attitude to the French invaders of the papal kingdom of England.

A truce was quickly put together with King Henry's government, now under the Guardianship of William Marshall, and Louis returned to France to discuss the situation with his father.

What father and son talked about is unknown, but presumably to persevere, for Louis returned to London. The prince and his father may well have taken the view that to add a kingdom to the one they already had was an opportunity that did not come along often in history.

Back at the Temple, Louis found that his forces in Lincoln, under Gilbert de Gand, had still not taken the castle, although they had the cathedral and the town. Louis found six hundred knights and twenty thousand foot soldiers who took a leisurely approach to their march, for there was rape and pillage to be enjoyed en route. According to Roger of Wendover:

'... the soldiers of the French kingdom... the refuse and scum of that country, left nothing untouched, and their poverty and wretchedness was so great that they had not enough bodily clothing to cover their nakedness.'

The English, conversely, had found new heart and responded generously to William Marshall's call to arms at Newark. Many former rebel barons answered the call. All rested for three days before marching on Lincoln to raise the siege of the castle there. They were accompanied by the Papal Legate Walo, who, before battle was given, excommunicated every Frenchman who failed to surrender.

In face of this and the fresh forces produced by William Marshall for Henry III - 'who was a stranger to sin' as a boy king - the siege was raised. The French commander, the Count of Perche, was killed and French and remaining rebel barons evacuated the castle and fled south, where they were met by the people they had robbed on their march north. This time the local people were full of spirit and harried the invaders as they struggled back to London.

The game was up for the French and, citing another excommunication against him, Philip II refused to send any more men, money, or siege engines to his son in England. He would have to conclude whatever peace he could to escape back to France. Henry III's troops inspired confidence in the south and soon the coast was under English control by the summer of 1217. Retribution was at hand for Eustace the Monk, a naval pirate and mercenary for Prince Louis. He was caught trying to bring across the Channel French troops raised by Louis' wife, but actually raised by the French king, who was now very old and feared death with all the bulls of excomunication thrown at him by the pope.

His fleet was intercepted by Philip d'Aubiney and his shipboard crossbow men, who caused great slaughter. The prows of the English ships were peaked by iron and these rammed the French ships which sank in seconds, according to one contemorary account. The English also threw lime dust down wind towards the enemy, whose troops were consequently blinded temporarily, but long enough for a complete English victory. Eustace the Monk was caught hiding in in a disguise, in the hold of his ship, and taken to Dover, as were all French ships not sunk. These became prizes. Eustace was taken by Richard, an illegitimate son of King John's, who sliced off his head with his sword.

The new king's forces were then turned about towards London, which was invested all round, on land and the water of the Thames. Louis surrendered on terms, which included nothing that would impugn his honour and his Frenchmen would leavewithout injury. Henry would restore the castles and land of his barons, with certain exceptions, which was how the war started in the first place when his father seized them.

Peace was made at Staines, south-west of London, between Henry III and Prince Louis on 11 September 1217. Louis swore to leave England immediately and never to return in his lifetime. The excommunications against the prince and his men were revoked and he returned to London where he was given five thousand pounds to meet his immediate needs.

Shakespeare wrote a play, entitled King John, which is first noticed in 1598. Magna Carta does not get a mention, but the disappearance of Prince Arthur, the interdict, and the war between John and his barons form the scenario, Prince Arthur in particular. The play was possibly written in 1591, three years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when Queen Elizabeth morphed into Gloriana for the rest of her reign. It was a time to be patriotic and the last speech of the play is worth publishing here. It is made by Philip Fauconbridge, bastard son of Richard the Lionheart. Philip is simply referred to as the Bastard, at this time and throughout the later Middle Ages, a title of pride:

O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
This England never did (nor never shall)
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these princes are come home again,
Come all the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain