58 Tyranny and Defeat

From 1213 to 1214, John seemed to have got his problems more under control, and had built an alliance that looked to be capable of taking on Philip. There was trouble in the background caused by the tyranny of his rule and relationship with his barons, but his reconciliation with the Papacy and his international alliance held it at bay. But his hopes died on the field of Bouvines.

58 Tyranny and Defeat



Reconciliation with Rome

In 1213 John was worried; he had discovered a plot led by Robert FitzWalter and Eustace de Vesci, and had to delay his attack on Wales tyo deal with it; there was a religious madman going around saying John would not live out the year, and the rumours were that the Pope was going to declare him deposed.

So he met the Papal legate. And not only did he agree to take Stephen Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he agreed to pay back 100,000 marks to the church, and to pay homage to the Pope for his lands – so England was now a papal fief. He was also later to take the cross. All of this gave John the ethusiastic support both to allow him to build an anti-French coalition, and in the coming struggle against the barons. 


John was truly incompetent where it really mattered – in managing his barons. All he wanted was to rule like his father and brother, but he was incapable of building trust with his barons. Here's brief list of why so many  barons  had grown to hate John's rule: 

  • he kept trying to drag them off into wars they didn't care about in France
  • he taxed them mercilessly – 11 scutages for example
  • He was predatory – he charged high 'reliefs' (the charge to take over your inheritance) , he fined them at the drop of a hat (you had to pay to marry who you wanted to, you had to grease the king's palm to get his 'goodwill')
  • He didn't trust the barons – he surrounded himself with foreign household knights rather than relying on the magnates for advice

Bouvines and the campaign of 1214

Battle of BouvinesJohn had assembled powerful allies against Phillip Augustus – Ferrand of Flanders, Renaud of Boulogne, Otto IVth, the Holy Roman Emperor. 

John invaded Poitou in south west France and did well – but in Anjou his Poitevin barons would go no further, and not attack the king of France; John was forced to retreat back to the coast. 

Meanwhile on July 27th, Phillip Augustus with 15,000 men was facing the allied army in northern France at Bouvines. The allied army was in the order of 25,000 men, though the French were probably stronger in cavalry. Bouvines

The traditional 3 battles of the allies were held by Renaud of Boulogne on the right, Otto in the centre, and Count Ferrand of Flanders on the allied left. Against them Philip unfurled the oriflamme, the symbol of the French king at war.

The battle started with a confused struggle of Cavalry, but on the allied left, the Flemings were defeated and put to flight, and Ferrand captured. In the centre the best infantry of Europe, the Brabanters, were pushing the French centre back. Philip counter attacked with his cavalry, only to be met by Otto and his cavalry, and in the melee Phillip himself was unhorsed. The situation was saved for France by the returning cavalry from the right wing; it was now Otto’s turn to be unhorsed, and he was barely able to escape with a few attendants to run back to Germany. The battle wasn’t over; Renaud of Boulogne organised a stand of 700 Pikemen, in the organisation that would cause the English so many problems at Bannockburn. From behind the group he and a group of knights made continuous cavalry charges, while the French cavalry were unable to break the screen of defending mercenaries. Eventually, 3,000 men at arms simply overwhelmed, and Renaud and the king’s bastard son William of Salisbury were captured

John signed a 5 year truce with Phillip, and in October 1214 returned to England to face rebellion and the road to Runnymede. 

5 thoughts on “58 Tyranny and Defeat

  1. I’m loving the podcasts. Great to hear a different angle on King John. I’m a self confessed history addict with a real passion for the plantaganets, but I’m also fascinated by William the Marshal. Having researched him extensively (and bored my family in the process!) he’d be on the top of my dinner party guests along with Richard III. I’m so looking forward to your interpretation of him!! Good cop or bad cop??? I have a question: At what stage did the upper end of the class scale start speaking English? I know that French was spoken by the upper classes(certainly around William the Marshals time)but I’m not sure when English became the prefered language. I’d love to know.

  2. Hi Benji – and thanks, I am a sucker and glutton for flattery, so keep it coming! I love maps anyway…
    And hi Tracey, really glad you are enjoying it too. I surprised myself a bit with John – I had fully intended to give him a thorough kicking. I still think he was a miserable failure, but there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye.
    The English thing is really interesting – I did do something on it a while back, but can’t remember exactly which episode. The comment that really interested me was by the historian Frank Barloe, who pointed out that normally our story is about plucky old English – it survives and makes a great comeback despite the Normans etc etc. His point that in fact given the numbers of French speakers comparative to the English speakers, it’s amazing how long it lasts. And part of the reason it survives so long was that here are so many versions of English – so if you’ll pardon the pun, French becomes a Lingua Franca, the language of law and commerce. Anyway, I think that it takes until the late 14th century for English to become the common language of the Nobility. In 1258′ the provisions of Oxford are the first official document since the conquest to be issued in English, which chimes with the radicalism of those days; there are signs in the biography of William the Marshal of a feeling of difference between the English Nobility and their French cousins; the fall of the Angevin empire accelerates the process, and the complaints under Henry III about ‘aliens’. Edward III is the first king to address parliament in English. I do a fair amount of copy writing, and it’s always interesting to see how formal French words area compared to Anglo Saxon – basically, if you want to be simple, direct and comprehensible, use Anglo Saxon, if you want to impress without saying anything, use French derived words!
    And yes, I love the story of William too; I did cover him in episodes 35 and 36. Like Alfred, he’s lucky in that so much of what comes down to us is coloured by the propaganda of his biography, but basically I think he’s a good guy; though I think he was no angel. He certainly pulls a fast one over his Noeman lands in 1205, and bears some of the responsibility, as John’s chief advisers, for the fall of Normandy in 1205. But he’s an attractive character isn’t he?
    OK enough for now!

  3. Hi
    I haven’t actually listened to this podcast yet. I wanted to thank you for putting together such an interesting series. It’s obvious you put a lot into each one. I also appreciate the notes and maps and photos too. I found this podcast series a few months ago and have been skipping around just listening to ‘favourites’. I have just downloaded the whole bunch though and am planning on spending some time listening in actual order (what a novel idea HaHa)

  4. Might be my imagination, but it seems like the audio levels are better in these recent episodes? I listen on a computer at work, with not much in the way of speakers, and I’ve had to strain to hear a few past episodes in places. But you’re sounding clear as a bell now- in fact, I could even hear birdsong behind your audiobook announcement in this episode! ‘Tis nice to know that somewhere in a green and pleasant land across the sea, the birds are singing and all is well with the world. 🙂

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