John’s comeback plan in France relied on timing as exquisite as the delivery of a comedian’s punchline, the co-ordination of 3 armies. And I am sure I have read more than once of wars lost because getting a few thousand men all in the same place at the same time is as difficult as persuading all your children to play a board game at the same time, or indeed, as herding cats. So, John was bright and early carrying the war to Philip from Poitou. But Otto the Emperor was nowhere – badly delayed. Then John got held up in a protracted siege, and when Otto finally got his act together, Philip was able to focus all his strength on him, knowing John was tied down. And at the resulting battle Bouvines in 1214, the Emperor and John’s allies were crushed in what turned out to be one of the more decisive battles in European history, ending the Angevin bid to re-establish their empire once and for all.
John probably knew he was toast back at home. Had he won, his prestige would have flown, there would have been rich pickings for his Barons and quite probably festering grievances could have been lanced of their pus, if I may mention pus in a history podcast. With defeat, John was destitute, war chest all gone, prestige was once again rock bottom, and there was nothing to hold back the English Barons in the fury of said festering grievances. It would take only a few months for their demands to reach the king. But trouble was there well before the Baron’s submitted their demands. Even barons formerly loyal were failing to pay their fines and debts – a sure sign that John was no longer supported nor feared by many. The barons were determined that his tyranny must be controlled, limits to royal power established.
During the remainder of 1214, Marshal remained by the king’s side, fruitlessly trying to persuade Barons to support the king. Marshal was 67 now and had a treasure store of prestige, respect and influence, not only as a great magnate, but as a very rare reminder of the great days of the Angevin empire back into Henry II’s days. But even he could do nothing to take john’s fat out of the fire – the barons had suffered too many indignities at John’s hands. And in January 1215 their demands arrived with the king with a call to meet to agree what would essentially be a couple of peace treaties called Magna and the Forest charter, to be sealed at 1215 – so just before lunch, as we were always taught by our extremely witty teachers. John was desperate to delay and even avoid this showdown – and Marshal managed to persuade the Barons to wait until after Easter. He achieved this by the skin of their teeth, by dint of standing personal surety that John would meet them, and not cancel again. The barons were sceptical – and rightly so. When the time came for the meeting, the Barons had an army at their backs which is you know, ominous. Marshal and Langton the ABC had been sent in John’s stead, and when they returned with the Barons’ demands, John was having none of it. So, it was time for the judicious application of force to the immoveable object; the Rebels broke camp and besieged the royal castle at Northampton to show John they meant business. At the same time, they sealed letters of defiance withdrawing their homage in traditional fashion – to demonstrate that John must negotiate or fight.
Now for John, Marshal had two principal modes; Negotiator mode in which he’d just been employed, making use of Marshal’s reputation, respect and influence. One of the key areas of dispute between Barons and John was John’s reliance on mercenaries and outsiders; it was therefore impossible for John to use many of the companions closest to him – men like Faulkes to Breaute and Peter des Roches. Marshal’s position was therefore especially crucial – though Marshal must have hoped that he’d be allowed a better run at this rather than the boss cutting him off at the knees and refusing to negotiate. And Secondly, there was the Marshal War mode, using Marshal’s domination of the southern Marches of Wales, recruitment strength and military reputation. So now, Marshal established himself in Wales. It is worth noting just what a limb Marshal was going here; the majority of Barons were revolting, including Marshal’s own son, William, a Baron in his own right. This time it was the barons who did the knee cutting – by seizing London with the help of its citizens. The capture of such a prize forced John to the negotiating table, moving to Windsor and calling Marshal and Langton to his side.
As any of you know, the Magna Carta is not a conscious attempt to create a written constitution – it is a peace treaty that in limiting the powers of the king played an accidental but exceptional and unique role in influencing later constitutional development. However, I am talking Marshal here, but the Magna Carta – so to find out more, download episode 59 of the History of England. Or educate yourself as the current parlance has it, and read a book; there are more books on MC that flies on a…well there are a lot, is all I am saying.
Marshal and Langton were very probably John’s chief negotiators in what follows, and the debate is what influence Marshal had over MC’s contents. Marshal’s first really influential biographer, Sidney Painter, a Marshal fan, gave him great credit. But d’you know, it’s really all guessing. We know Langton had some influence – by rather self interestedly shoving in clauses to protect the privileges of the church; but generally outside of that, he tried to present himself as a disinterested, honest broker. Marshal’s role is entirely ignored in the histoire which is odd. It could be argued that since the MC was quickly sidelined by John and the Pope that it was a bit embarrassing, or a thought of as a little irrelevant by poet or commissioner – but since Marshal re-issued the charter that’s difficult to maintain; he clearly felt this to be an important document, his son was one of the 25 barons named to police it. However, the poet was clear enough when he wrote of the Baron’s war that
It involved many things unworthy of record, and it might get me into trouble
Essentially stating an opinion in the histoire was too risky – Marshal may have ultimately approved of the MC, but after all it involved a rebellion against the king, and a civil war. A wise man keeps silent.
In terms of Marshal’s direct contribution to the MC, it seems to me that the strong likelihood is that it is the Barons as a group to whom credit must go; at most, Marshal may have been responsible for a bit of edge knocking off and polishing.
At Runymede in June 1215 the peace treaty was duly sealed. John’s commitment to it was as strong as Charles I’s commitment to Parliament’s negotiations in the 17th century civil war, and john thereby should earn the same title of Man of Blood. By September, John had persuaded the Pope to condemn the Charter. Clearly more interested in the money from John’s tribute than the achievement of peace the Pope happily complied.
War was therefore resumed. John scraped together enough cash to hire mercenaries, who according to the histoire ran riot
[John] sent for an army of Flemish knights and mercenaries who wanted to just loot and pillage everyday
Largely, though, John had little going for him – more Barons left his side, and John was left with little more of the major strongpoints than Windsor castle, Dover castle held for the king by the Justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, and Lincoln castle held by the redoubtable Castellan Nicola de la Hay. In November, Marshal went to France to negotiate with Philip pf France. Negotiate what you might ask? Well, somehow it had reached John’s ears that the Barons were going to try and enlist Prince Louis of France, Philip’s son, to come over to England, become their new boss and serve a redundancy notice on the old boss. Maybe William’s mission was to forestall the deal. If so, how did they know? Possibly perhaps it suggests an intriguing possibility about a source of intelligence for the John. The idea is that Marshal and his son in the Baronial camp were playing a thoroughly devious game – that William Junior joined the Baronial side purely as a spy. Afterall, the two remained in contact through the conflict, Marshal was demonstrably and clearly an affectionate father, and has form in walking a tightrope between adversaries. But it’s unknowable, any so devious that you could put a tail on it and I’d probably put it in the wild conspiracy story box. But you know, there’s an argument for it, should you happen to like conspiracy theories.…
Anyway, Marshal’s embassy bit the dust, night closed upon its eyes. Marshal returned to south Wales, where to be brutal, he wasn’t wildly successful as the Welsh overran North Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Gower. And the Baronial party had indeed been in contact with the French, and in December, Louis accepted the offer of the English crown from the barons. Now to the modern eye this looks terribly treasonous and unpatriotic; but a bit like the Scottish wars of independence a century later – is terribly easy to view the events with eyes blinded by modern nationalism. As far as the European nobility were concerned, the question was about their contract with a lord, which required consent and good governance from the lord – and in extremis, they were free to transfer their loyalty to anyone with sufficiently noble chops if their lord broke that contract. Nationalism wasn’t a powerful force, though it must be said that a tribal sense of belonging did exist particularly in society below the nobility with their French ancestry; people were well aware of a distinction between English and French.
Meanwhile Marshal was sent one last time in embassy to France in Spring 1216 – but once again he’d been given a fool’s errand and got nowhere. So in June 1216, Louis arrived with a substantial army in the south east, and more of the nobility fled to Barons’ cause. Given the extremely unpromising situation for the royal party at this stage, Marshal’s loyalty is yet more remarkable; he was no longer a lowly household knight, with little enough to lose and likely to be overlooked anyway; he was the most powerful of John’s supporters, with juicy and substantial estates to be seized and re-distributed as and when the royalists were defeated, he had a large family whose future he needed to consider. The Histoire reflects the horror of the arrival of another bunch of violent mercenaries in England, and French ones to boot:
Those wretched French braggarts were drinking by the tun and barrelful, and claiming England was theirs and that the English had no right to the lands and should clear out!
John retreated to the south west, to Corfe castle, and, frankly, wondered what on earth to do. He probably chose the south west because of the strength of Marshal’s affinity there.
Now I say there are few castles left to john, and that he had few supporters. Well there’s an interesting exception to this if you wouldn’t mind a quick digression. It came from the impenetrable forests and hills known as the Weald, which stretches across the south of Sussex and Kent. A man called William of Cassingham – whose origins we know little about – who acquired the nickname Willikin of the Weald. Willikin was outraged at Baronial disloyalty, and got together a bunch of local men, equipped them with bows and withdrew into the Weald to conduct a guerrilla war. There are definite echoes of Robin Hood, but most of Willikin’s actions were classic guerrilla stuff; they would destroy bridges on roads for example, ahead and behind detachments of French soldiers. But on occasion they were more ambitious – they attacked the French camp besieging Dover castle, for example, and wiped the French force out. John knew of Willikin’s actions, awarding him a stipend in reward; and the men of the Weald carried on fighting after John’s death – sorry, plot spoiler there. The next king, who shall for the moment remain nameless in the interest of avoiding more plot spoilers, would also see his quality, and rewarded him with the post of Warden of the 7 hundreds of the Weald, and tenements in Essex. He gave a stipend for life, and when Willikin died around 1257, the king took his wife under his protection. So there you go, a story of popular resistance.
Anyway, John suddenly decided that while Marshal defended the southern Marches he might as well make a bid for glory to retrieve the situation. So he upped sticks and set off towards the east and north East. It was an ill fated expedition – he lost most of his remaining treasure crossing the Wash, and then he fell ill at Kings Lynn. He struggled on to Newark, where it became clear he was dying, and that as the lords present gathered round his deathbed, he would need to produce a plan for what happened next; his son and heir, Henry, was just 11 years old, and would need a protector and a hand running the kingdom. Now who should that be?