52 John Softsword

As a younger man, John had been given the nickname Lackland because unlike his brothers he didn't have his own appanage. At the Treaty of Le Goulet in May 1200 he acquired the name Softsword – people couldn't understand why he'd signed away Gisors, parts of Berry, £20,000 and bent his knee to Phillip. On the other hand, John probably felt he'd had a good deal. Then John caused fury with the Lusignan by stealing their bride, they appealed to Phillip and and Phillip declared John to be stripped of his lands. But at the start of the war, John gets off to a flyer.

52 John Softsword

The Treaty of Le Goulet, May 1200

The main terms of the treaty were

  • John recognised as Henry's heir
  • Phillip receives some Norman fiefs and parts of Berry and £20,000
  • John's niece Blanche of Castille and Phillip's son Louis will marry, and the dower will be the disputed Gisors
  • John will do fealty to Phillip

It looked like a reasonable deal. In fact, it made it clear that the Angevins were subservient to the French king, which previously had just been a form of words. But John, from a commanding position in September 1199 was weaker in May 1200; his allies, the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne had left of crusade and John probably felt himself lucky. 

Marrriage and the Lusignan

Arms of AngoulemeIn 1200 John rocked up at the castle of his troublesome vassal,  Arms of LusignanAymer of

Angouleme. There he met the 12 year old Isabella of Angouleme, and was so smitten that he married her the same year at Westminster. Even in those days, marriage to a 12 year old was unusual – a betrothal would have been more normal – but the Count didn't seem to object. 

Now there were perfectly good reasons for marrying the girl, quite apart from her charms. Angouleme was a powerful count, had always been a problem to the Angevins, and this brought them inside the tent. But unfortunately Isabella was already betrothed to Hugh le Brun, count of Lusignan. 

John could have made it work – but he didn't. He sent sheriff's into their lands and goaded them. The Lusignans appealed to Paris for justice from John, and took up the sword. John tried to avoid giving them the justice they deserved  and in the end, Phillip was able to wade in on the Lusignans' side. So in 1203 it was war again. 

Victory at Mirebeau

  War of 1202 -1204 - Mirebeau and the first phase

Phillip's plan in the war was not new – Athur to attack the centre of he empire along hte Loire valley, while Phillip distracted John in Normandy. 

At first all went to plan; John's army was not ready, and Eleanor of Aquitaine was forced to flee ahead of Arthur's army, taking refuge in Mirebeau. 

Hugh de Lusignan (Hugh le Brun) and Arthur beseiged Eleanor and were confident of capturing her in a few days. 

John marched the 80 miles from Rouen to Mire beau in 2 days, picking up William des Roches and completely surprising Lusignan and Arthur at Mirebeau.

It was a complete victory. Arthur, the Lusignans and all their knights were captured and imprisoned. Here's John's letter home: 

"Know that by the grace of God we are safe and well and God's mercy had worked wonderfully with us, for on Tuesday before the feast of St Peter ad Vincula, when we were on the road to Chinon, we heard that the lady our mother was closely besieged at Mirebeau, and we hurried there as fast as we could, arriving on the feast of St Peter ad Vincula. And there we captured Arthur, whom William de Briouze delivered to us, and Geoffrey de Lusignan, Hugh le Brun, Andrew de Chauvigni, the viscount of Chateleraut, Raymond Thouars, Savary de Mauleon, Hugh Bauge and all our other Poitevin enemies, and none escaped. Therefore God be paraised for our happy success"

If John had not managed to upset and lose the loyalty of William des Roches almost immediately, history could have been very different.  But he did. Arthur was sent to Rouen instead of being in des Roches's custody, and William rebelled, taking maine and Anjou with him. 

10 thoughts on “52 John Softsword

  1. Hi David,
    Just as you have your Ladybird book and 1066 And All That as key references, I too have my Ladybird, and a coffee table book called Kings And Queens of England and Scotland, by David Piper. As it happens, my Ladybird is a different one: Kings And Queens Of England Book 1 [up to Richard III]. Interestingly enough, it claims Richard Coeur de Lion was killed by a _poisoned_ arrow – a new one on me.
    I digress. In fact, I wanted to talk about the other book, as I recall you bewailing all those hideously false likenesses of the Norman and Angevin kings. By way of contrast, my coffee table book resorts to photos of the burial effigies of the kings – all the way from Henry II to Henry IV. Naively, I was thinking these effigies must be accurate representations of the contents therein. But then, maybe they’re just a reflection of how the subsequent king felt about his predecessor.
    So I thought I’d ask you for your thoughts.

  2. Hi there. I have never heard of the poisonous arrow theory – shame on Ladybird!
    Sadly, I don’t think the effigies are any more lifelike than pictures in manuscripts; they are idealised images of how a noble should look, apparently. It’s interesting though; the Fontevraud effigies are a good example; I suppose there some some differences between the two men, but not much; and they certainly don’t reflect their age at death. Sadly I think it’s not until Richard II that we get a personal image.

  3. David,
    As you were looking for book recommendations, here is one for the King John era: “1215 – The Year of Magna Carta” by Danny Danziger. It’s more a social history of the era than a political one. It even contains the text of Magna Carta, if documents are your thing.

  4. Currently reading “Lionheart & Lackland: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest by Frank McLynn
    From the blurb: “The author, known for a wide range of scholarly historical studies, here turns the tables on modern revisionist historians by showing exactly how bad a king John actually was, and in contrast how impressive Richard

  5. Frank McLynn does seem to have an amazing range of interests. I loved his “1066 – Year of the Three Battles” and found his Napoleon biography a refreshing change from the norm (each chapter in turn examining the history and then pyschoanalysis of the man – unsurprising from an author that has also written a study of Jung).

  6. Have chosen Kings Richard & John as a British Study for new 1-9 curriculum and, by jiggery, it’s so exciting!! Such a healthy departure at GCSE but it does it mean, uhoh more work, I have to revisit and re-learn, so THANK YOU Mr C, for making it so manageably pleasant!! Trying to do a chapter of Marc Morris & an old HofE podcast every day, as well as a G&P 🙂

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