When Richard the Lionheart was killed by a crossbow bolt in France in April 1199, a French chronicler, no friend of the English monarch, wrote: “God visited the kingdom of the French, for King Richard died.” Richard had been a feared and victorious enemy of France, and few believed that his younger brother and successor, John, would be a match for the formidable and experienced French king Philip II, known as Augustus.
As an archbishop presciently despaired on hearing of Richard’s death: “What hope remains to us now? There is none, for, after him, I can see nobody to defend the kingdom. The French will overrun us, and there will be no one to resist them.” When John died in 1216, more than one-third of England, including the capital, was under French rule.
John’s reign started out promisingly enough, helped by the relatively peaceful state of his lands in England and France (known as the Angevin empire, these extensive territories bisected France from Normandy to the Pyrenees). John had quickly come to peace terms with Philip of France, for which one English chronicler approvingly named him ‘Softsword’. Before long it was to take on a wholly derogatory sense.
Even when war did break out between England and France, John initially notched up a great triumph: in 1202 at Mirebeau he captured many of his leading enemies, the prize of which was his 15-year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany, a claimant to the English throne and ally of King Philip. John wrote boastfully home that he “had got the lot.”
But one of the John’s many weaknesses was his inability to capitalise on his successes. In a forerunner of Richard III and the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, John was almost certainly responsible for the murder of Arthur. He also seriously mistreated his prisoners, thereby alienating powerful marcher lords in Normandy. When Philip launched an all-out invasion of Normandy and Anjou, John found fewer allies on the ground than he would have liked. He did little to rally his forces and instead ignominiously left Normandy to return to England. By spring 1204 the duchy was back in French hands; john never stepped foot in Normandy again.
For the rest of his reign, John’s focus was on regaining the lands he had humiliatingly lost. This meant money – and lots of it. To fully exploit the resources of his land, John tightened up administrative processes and stamped authority of his government on England. John’s presence in England was both a marker of his failure (the loss of his lands in France compelled him to be a stay-at-home king) and the cause of his problems in England.
John’s onerous exactions caused huge dissent among his powerful subjects. The barons, no angels themselves, understandably resented the increasingly interfering and arbitrary nature of John’s rule. The king’s inability to handle powerful men tactfully; his notorious cruelty and lechery towards them and their families; his complete lack of trustworthiness; and, most damaging of all, the complete waste of the money painfully extracted for failed campaigns in France… all these negative aspects of his reign served only to alienate ever further those not immediately within John’s circle of beneficiaries.
John’s continental allies possibly came close to achieving his long cherished plans at the battle of Bouvines in 1214. However the clash ended in victory for Philip of France, who went on to secure the Angevin territories of Brittany and Normandy. This reversal – and John’s own flight from the French in the west of France – led to open rebellion at home and humiliation of Magna Carta in 1215.
The Charter was designed to reaffirm baronial liberties and, crucially, to limit the dictatorial inclinations of the monarchy. John quickly reneged on the settlement and civil war broke out once more. The barons who rebelled called in Prince Louis of France, Philip II’s heir, to be the new king of England. In May 1216, Louis arrived at the Isle of Thanet at the head of a large army that required perhaps as many as seven hundred ships to transport his campaign forces and equipment. He and his allies quickly took control of half of England, sitting their headquarters in London. By the summer’s end, two-thirds of baronage declared for Louis, and King Alexander of Scotland marched all the way down to Dover to pay homage to Louis as king of England.
The situation was radically transformed by John’s death from dysentery on 19th October 1216. At a stroke, the focus of discontent for so many barons was removed and English resistance became a concerted counter-attack. In 1217, Franco-baronial defeats at Lincoln and Sandwich sealed the occupiers’ fate. Louis came to terms at the treaty of Kingston in September and quit the country, leaving the throne of England to John’s son Henry III.