Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

King John and the Loss of Normandy

Steve Muhlberger
 The years 1199-1216, the reign of King John. were crucial ones for the history of both France and England. Ever since Henry II had united England, Normandy, Anjou and the Aquitaine under a single ruler, the two monarchies had been engaged in an unavoidable rivalry. For a long time the contest had been stalemated. Now there was a winner -- it was Philip of France, hands down.

Philip died a king who was clearly superior to any of his princes. John was the loser then, and in history. Philip is known to the French as Philip Augustus, for the imperial splendor he restored to the French kingship. It is possible to find English historians who think well of John, but they are in a distinct minority. John is remembered for frittering Normandy away and far more importantly as the king whose arbitrariness made Magna Carta necessary.

The pioneering nineteenth century constitutional historian William Stubbs summed him up this way:

the very worst of all our kings...a faithless son, a treacherous brother...polluted with every crime...false to every obligation...not devoid of natural the whole view there is no redeeming trait.
But in fact, all the unlovely traits for which John is famous were found in most medieval kings. What made John vulnerable to criticism is the fact that he lost some crucial contests and died in miserable circumstances. Had he lived a little longer and overcome his opponents, he would be known as a good, strong king like Henry I, and people would remember his love of literature and his attentiveness to the business of government, traits that he actually did possess.

We will divide our discussion of John's eventful reign into two part. This lecture will concentrate on John's struggles with Philip of France and Pope Innocent III. The next will discuss the rising against John and the writing of Magna Carta. Fortunately this can be done without distorting chronology.

John began his reign in 1199 with his title in doubt. Richard had made little provision for the succession. In 1190, when he left for the Crusade, Richard had designated his nephew Arthur, count of Brittany, the son of his dead brother Geoffrey. Geoffrey had been older than John, and so by some reckonings, Arthur had a better claim to the throne than his uncle.

But there was no fixed rule, and thus plenty of room for political maneuvering. John had spent Richard's reign building up his claim to the throne, with some success. Arthur was young, his mother was not on good terms with his father's family, and he  spent more of his time at the French court than in England. When Richard died, John was a well-established political figure with a party behind him.

On hearing the news of Richard's demise, John quickly seized the family treasure and was quickly recognized as king in England and duke in Normandy. His mother Eleanor delivered the support of Aquitaine.

In between these two blocks of territory were the lands of the house of Anjou, namely, the counties of Anjou, Maine, and Tours. Here, in the area directly bordering on Brittany, the nobles were induced to chose Arthur as their count.  Uncle and nephew began to fight.

Philip took the opportunity to interfere.  In his role as overlord of the entire Kingdom of France, Philip declared in favor of Arthur as heir to all of the Plantagenet fiefs outside of Aquitaine. He immediately mobilized his forces and went out to fight John.  But John quickly gained the support of important people in Anjou, and offered to pay Philip to  to abandon Arthur. Philip readily accepted the handsome terms John gave him: a county in Normandy, a huge "relief" or death duty, and homage for all John's French lands (an acknowlegement of Philip's overlordship). . In return Philip acknowledged that Arthur was John's vassal for whatever lands he held. Arthur, thus isolated, made his peace with John.

John ended up with all his brother's land, and Arthur had to be content with Brittany.

But the whole competition was opened up again almost immediately, when John unnecessarily alienated an important Aquitanian vassal. In 1200, John decided he would marry the 12 year old heiress to the county of Angouleme, one Isabella. Contemporary historians talk about John's infatuation with the girl, but much of her appeal must have been political. Her county was strategically placed, and her family had a pesky claim to the county of La Marche, which Henry II had bought from another owner in 1177. Before John's quick marriage to Isabella, she had been engaged to Hugh of Lusignan, another claimant to La Marche. John's marriage thus forestalled a very inconvenient alliance between two important vassal families.

But John then made a bad mistake. Rather than compensate Hugh for taking his betrothed, John attacked him and confiscated his lands. Hugh made the obvious riposte. He appealed to John's lord and his own ultimate overlord, Philip, asking for justice. Philip went through the form of summoning John to his court in Paris to answer for his offense against Hugh. John refused on various pretexts, and this gave Philip a legal justification for confiscating all of John's French fiefs. Arthur joined him and the war was on.

Once again the first victory went to John. In the summer of 1202,  Arthur besieged the Angevin castle of Mirebeau, then occupied by his grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine. John rescued her in a lightning strike reminiscent of his brother Richard. He surprised his enemies, capturing Arthur and about two hundred important knights and lords from Poitou.

But John wasted this victory, which might have been decisive, by showing  great cruelty to some of his captured foes, starving some of the less significant prisoners and loading others with chains. Worst of all was the case of Arthur, who simply disappeared. The rumor quickly went around that Arthur was dead. The Bretons were enraged and even some of John's supporters were offended. Arthur was never seen in public again and it is almost certain that John had him killed soon after Mirebeau.

The war between John and Philip continued without Arthur's presence.  John concentrated on establishing himself in Poitou, while Philip had his eye on Normandy, a province that was by itself nearly as large as his own domains around Paris.

For whatever reason, John allowed Philip to take Normandy without any serious opposition. By 1204, Philip had forced the nobles of Normandy to submit to his rule or clear out.

This was something of a turning point in English history, and French as well. Although Philip was obliged by feudal law to find another heir after a year and a day for any territory that he confiscated,  he simply kept Normandy for himself.  By doing so, he broke up the Channel state that had been a threat to the French monarchy ever since 1066. At the same time he had added to his own revenues and power. He became the heir of the strong government that Henry I, Henry II and his sons had imposed on their Norman duchy.

John  dedicated rest of his life to regaining his lost inheritance, but as before he gave priority to establishing his power in Poitou and Aquitaine (in 1206 he mounted a quite successful expedition there).  The  northern part of his inheritance  (Normandy and the Angevin domain) remained in Philip's hands.

John pinned his hopes for a further recovery on a long-term plan.  One part involved taxing England, so that the next expensive campaign could be fought properly. The second involved assembling an alliance to encircle Philip.

John's allies, whom he largely subsidized, eventually included the rulers of  Boulogne, Flanders, Brabant, Hainault, and most important of all, the Emperor Otto of Brunswick. (Germany at the time split between two would-be emperors, Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen family, backed by Philip and the Pope, Innocent III; thus the struggle of John and Philip involved them in a multifaceted European power struggle.)

There was nothing wrong with this plan.  John still had the resources to make a comeback.  But again John got himself involved in a controversy that sapped his support: a disagreement with Pope Innocent III over the election of the archbishop of Canterbury.  It was another conflict between the long-established royal right to influence if not direct episcopal elections and the ecclesiastical right to free canonical elections. John got into big trouble because he was facing a pope of great determination.

Innocent III was a distinguished canon lawyer (expert in church law) with an exalted view of the privileges and duties of the papacy. He did not hesitate to declare Holy War against those who defied his authority. Also, in contrast to most of his predecessors, he did not have to worry about any immediate attack by the emperors. In his time there were two emperors, who could be played off against each other. Thus when John openly defied him over the Canterbury election, Innocent had both the inclination and the ability to discipline the king.

The first major dose of discipline was an interdict on England, imposed in 1208. An interdict was a prohibition of any religious services being held in the country. This was a horrifying penalty, and one that must have frightened many ordinary people concerned about the good of their souls. But John was very stubborn. The next year, 1209, saw John excommunicated. Christians were forbidden to associate with him, and almost all the bishops left the country. But John merely used the excommunication as an excuse to confiscate church lands. In fact, during the interdict John campaigned successfully against the Welsh and the Scots, and even launched a major expedition to Ireland.

Eventually, however, Innocent blessed a proposed French invasion of England. Louis, Philip's son and heir, was looking for an adventure, and thought that making himself king of England would do. John had by this time alienated enough of the English baronage that he did not care to face this further threat. He gave in.

Over the winter of 1212-13, negotiations produced a settlement with the pope.  John accepted the papal candidate for Canterbury, Stephen Langton; he restored church property; and finally, he submitted personally to the pope, doing homage and admitting that he held England and Ireland as fiefs from Rome. John also agreed to pay 1000 marks a year tribute.

Once John had swallowed his pride, he gained some concrete benefits. The threat of a French invasion dissolved at once. Furthermore, John now had the wholehearted support of the church against any of his subjects who might defy him. The king's power was now seen as an extension of the pope's power.

So,  the year after his submission to Innocent, John was in an excellent position to launch his great attack on Philip of France. His allies, especially the count of Flanders and the German emperor Otto IV, were ready and willing to invade France from the north. John was prepared to invade Poitou.

At first thing went very well for John. He recovered a great part of Poitou and even won back the Lusignan clan, whose opposition had triggered the whole problem. Then John invaded Anjou. Here, however, he was caught by Prince Louis, whose army scared off the Poitevins and forced John to retreat.

The big disaster took place on the northern front. In one of the biggest open battles of the 13th century, Philip demolished the coalition army at Bouvines. Many important prisoners were taken, including an illegitimate brother of John.

The battle of Bouvines was the seal of Philip II's success.  With all his enemies in disarray, Philip was able to keep all that he had won over the previous fifteen years, a period in which he had quadrupled the size of his kingdom. The unheroic Philip had beaten the flamboyant Plantagenets, and enjoyed a power and prestige that no French king had had since the ninth century.

Bouvines also sealed John's failure. Normandy, Anjou, Poitou were all gone for his lifetime.  The significance of his defeat went well beyond the frustration of his personal ambitions. Up to 1204, there had been many families with both English and Norman possessions. The French conquest of Normandy dramatically ruptured the link between the two countries. When John did not rewin Normandy quickly, families had to make a choice between warring kings.

Normans found it easier to swear allegiance to France than than one might expect. Once they had done so, their cousins in England began to realize that they were indeed English and not French or Norman. Thus 1204 marks the beginning of a new phase in English cultural self-consciousness.

More immediately, John's repeated defeats created a crisis for the burdensome Angevin style of government built up over the previous sixty years. The king's prestige in England hit a low point. Subjects were not surprised that monarchs should demand much of them, but  the important ones, at least, expected a certain level of success from their leaders, and even some profit for themselves. In this, John had disappointed them.

Thus all the grievances that the English had against his government, and not just his but his brother's and his father's government too, came boiling up. It was Bouvines that made it necessary for John to confront his unhappy subjects, and either give them redress or fight them as rebels. It was very uncomfortable position for a medieval king to be in, and John did not meet the challenge gracefully.

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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.