England Invaded (1): A Nasty Piece of Work

King John I
King John I
King John I
King John I

By Nils Visser

Once upon a time I was searching for information with which to embellish a story on Dover Castle. As I had been blathering on about the castle's defences and crossbows, I wanted to find out more about sieges the castle may have been involved in and quickly stumbled upon the First Baron’s War, an event which witnessed a French invasion of England at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The initial plan had been to allocate about 3,000 words to this event, i.e. a single chapter which would have fit in the scope of that particular series (Archer's Quest). 12,000 words on, and that after severe editing, with no end in sight as of yet, it looked like the First Baron's War was going to hijack the whole Archer's Quest project, hence the current transformation to a serial in it's own right.

Relatively little attention has been paid to the French invasion and its partial success, even though it brought almost half of England under the control of the French Dauphin, Prince Louis, son of King Philip Augustus of France. It’s even been argued that Louis should really figure in the lists of English royalty as King Louis I of England. Which raises the interesting question: Why? Why has the record of Louis I of England been effectively erased?

An even more interesting question is why the English tend to pay so little attention to this particular period. Are they truly so lucky in a rich historical tradition that they can simply ignore a period which produced heroes and villains who would grace the pages of the history books of many other countries? Whose main characters should really be iconic household names? For the sieges of Dover fit into the larger context of a conflict that is truly remarkable for its complex political twists and turns, a range of fascinating good guys and bad guys and memorable martial encounters.

To some extent, this period has recently featured on the Silver Screen, although transformed somewhat to fit into the main narrative of the respective movies. The first film that includes this period is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, (2010). Part of the plot involves a charter loosely based on the Magna Carta and the differences between King John and the Barons with regard to the wider recognition of the rights of citizens. Moreover, the film ends with a depiction of the French invasion, albeit that the historical invasion was followed by temporary military occupation rather than immediate repulsion, and actually took place some sixteen years after the date set in the film. The second movie, Ironclad, (2011) covers one of the set-pieces of the First Baron’s War, King John’s siege of Rochester Castle, and features Prince Louis’ invasion force for a brief moment, once again not at the historically correct moment, but suitably dramatic none-the-less.

William Shakespeare wrote a little-known play about King John, called The Life and Death of King John, the last part of which was filmed in 1899(!) by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and which was also adapted for television in 1951 and 1984 .

The First Baron’s War features in documentaries as well. The siege of Rochester castle is one of the episodes of Rory McGrath's Bloody Britain (2004). Some of the characters we’ll be looking at, namely King Louis I, William Marshal and Nicola de la Haye feature in Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, an Emmy award winning BBC documentary series produced in 2004.

Let’s have a look at the events and the larger-than-life characters who played major roles in the 1216-1217 campaign for the throne of England, for the cast is truly formidable

Our main villain is John Lackland, youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, as well as younger brother of Richard the Lionheart, who preceded him as King of England (Richard I).

According to Raphael Holinshed, a 16th century historian, John was comely of stature, but of look and countenance displeasant and angry; somewhat cruel of nature, as by the writers of his time he is noted, and not so hardy as doubtful in time of peril and danger.”

Just to show how fickle history can be, Holinshed does add that “this seemeth to be an envious report uttered by those that were given to speak no good of him…,” pointing out that the clergy (i.e. the writing classes) disapproved strongly of John, who had some notable disagreements with the pope and was even excommunicated for a time.

John’s legacy certainly wasn’t helped by the Medieval chroniclers Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris. For example, the latter wrote: “John was a tyrant. He was a wicked ruler who did not behave like a king. He was greedy and took as much money as he could from his people. Hell is too good for a horrible person like him.”

Historians like J.R. Green based their opinions on these accounts, and subsequent conclusions about John mirror the image we know from various Robin Hood interpretations: “His punishments were cruel: the starvation of children, the crushing of old men under copes of lead. His court was a brothel where no woman was safe from the royal lust. He scoffed at priests. Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of King John.”

To make the mire complete, we can add that Tudor writers such as Holinshed, who appear to try to add nuance to the picture by questioning extreme negativity, are likely to desire a more favourable view of John, as it was the Catholic church that John had disagreements with, something that, by very definition, a Tudor protestant is liable to commend rather than condemn.

However, other historians have agreed with Holinshed’s question marks regarding John. William Stubbs, writing in 1873, wrote: The picture of a monster…must be rejected forever. John had the administrative ability of a great ruler but, from the moment he began to rule, rivals and traitors tried to cheat him out of his inheritance. As he wrestled with one problem, more enemies sprang upon his back.”

In 1994 Ralph Turner added: “John had potential for great success. He had intelligence, administrative ability and he was good at planning military campaigns. However, too many personality flaws held him back.Jim Bradbury stated that modern historians tend to regard John as a “hard-working administrator, an able man, an able general.” Even so, there is a general agreement that John Lackland had a lot of, as Ralph Turner puts it, “distasteful, even dangerous personality traits”, such as a spiteful tendency towards cruelty and the inability to trust others.

However, even if we strip the more vindictive imagery from John’s actions, we are left with a ruler who, seen from a modern perspective, is quite the tyrant. For example, one of Wendover’s reports that is often dismissed as gossip is as follows: “In 1209, Geoffrey, a priest, said it was not safe for priests to work for the King any longer. John heard of this and, in a fury, had Geoffrey imprisoned in chains, clad in a cope of lead, and starved. He died an agonising death.”

Paul Giamatti  plays King John in the movie Ironclad
Paul Giamatti plays King John in the movie Ironclad

Food for Thought

Prince Arthur pleading with his captors to be spared mutilation.
Prince Arthur pleading with his captors to be spared mutilation.

Lackland apologists point out that Wendover apparently had the wrong Geoffrey in mind, i.e. the man wasn’t a priest, hadn’t said that the country was no longer safe for priests and we don’t know if he died by being pressed with lead. None-the-less, what is clear is that a man called Geoffrey was put in prison by John, and died there, quite conceivably in a nasty manner. Even if Wendover got the details wrong, that doesn't subtract from the fact that something similar did happen.

If we were theatrical directors of the dramatic story of the First Baron’s War, we would consider ourselves fortunate to be handed a villain with such a cruel streak.

Sure, a historian, both aware and wary of sensation-seeking in the chronicles of history, might try to place it into context. Almost any Medieval punishment is going to seem exceedingly cruel in modern eyes, and to alleviate especial blame being attached to John, one might point at King Richard, who is generally seen as a heroic figure in England, for which reason some of his less heroic antics might emphasize that for Angevin Royals wanton cruelty was part of the job description. As examples, we might point out that Richard had London Jews beaten when they came bearing him coronation gifts (!), resulting in an excitable populace assuming Jews were legitimate targets and causing a blood bath. The beheading of 2,700 Muslim prisoners who surrendered at Acre in the Holy Land could also be constituted as excessive zeal on behalf of Richard. For a few gruesome details we could turn to the Battle of Gorre, where Richard had some of his prisoners drowned, some beheaded and eighty of them blinded. Similarly Richard’s campaign to retake Normandy from Phillip Augustus of France involved the ‘necessity’ of blinding fifteen prisoners, three of whom he sent to the French king, led by a one-eyed man. The Lionheart indeed.

However, in assembling a cast for a dramatic portrayal of the First Baron’s War, we will not seek a comparison with John’s predecessors or successors for a ranking in cruelty. John Lackland succeeds quite well in painting a self-portrait of wanton viciousness without help from his family.

When King John turned on one of the Barons who had served him well, William de Braose, de Broase fled to France where he died in exile. Unable to get his hands of the fugitive Baron John had his wife and eldest son locked up and starved them to death. John also had the hermit Peter of Wakefield dragged to a nearby town by horses and hung for making a prophesy which John didn’t quite appreciate. For good measure, he hung Peter’s son as well, just in case this fellow agreed with his father.

John’s own family wasn’t safe from him either, to judge by the tragic lives of the children of his elder brother Geoffrey. John had his cousin Eleanor the Fair Maid of Brittany, locked up when she was 15 or 16, she would spend the rest of her life in captivity. Eleanor’s brother, Arthur was a rival claimant to the Angevin crown. King Richard I, however, had passed Arthur in favour of John when he named his successor because Arthur was only twelve at the time, and under the influence of the French King Phillipe Augustus. Arthur was captured by King John in 1202, when John came to relieve Mirebeau castle where John’s own mother Eleanor of Aquitaine was being besieged by Arthur, her own grandson (the Angevins were a warm caring and loving family). Arthur was imprisoned in Rouen castle, and soon afterwards disappears from history.

There are conflicting claims as to the disappearance of Arthur. One of the more likely stories is that William of Broase had him murdered at John’s behest. Broase received lands and castles soon after Arthur’s disappearance, and the King's later displeasure with the Broase family was possibly because of William's wife's conviction that King John was responsible for the death of Arthur.

Another tale is that Hubert de Burgh was instructed to blind and castrate the 14 year-old Arthur. In one version of this tale the deed is done, and Arthur dies of shock. In another version Arthur pleads with Hubert de Burgh, who then disobeys orders and leaves Arthur in possession of his eyeballs and testicles, and either lies or confesses to King John. In a further variation King John visits, and in fury murders Arthur himself. In yet another variation, one adapted by William Shakespeare who seems unsure how to tie up the loose end called Arthur, the boy jumps off the castle walls in a desperate suicide (or escape attempt).

For conspiracy theorists the mysterious end of Arthur offers hours of speculation. For our own dramatic purposes, we shall need to include this in our tale, because cruelty against youngsters in his own family will allow us to increase the sinister aspects of John’s nature. Moreover, we shall opt for the blinding and castration order, for optimum shock, and we will have Hubert de Burgh refuse to carry out the order, because Hubert later becomes one of our heroes, and his heroic status will undoubtedly suffer if we allow him to take a sharp knife to a young lad’s privates. Perhaps we will break with all known historic facts and allow Arthur and Eleanor a tearful re-union and dramatic parting afore King John kills the boy with his own bare hands.



King John and Isabella of Angoulême
King John and Isabella of Angoulême
King John signing the Magna Carta
King John signing the Magna Carta


Back to history. One of the reasons John was very unpopular in England was his use of foreign mercenaries. This was nothing new, his father Henry II and his brother Richard I had also employed foreign mercenaries, namely because they couldn’t trust the Barons all that much, chivalric nobles were easy to bribe and switched allegiance at the drop of a hat. Common and uncouth mercenaries, however, were professional soldiers and as long as they were paid they were very reliable. However, during John’s reign these mercenaries started playing a very active role in England itself, and the behaviour of soldiers during war in these times was far from exemplary, whether they were on your side or not, if you were a civilian, and an army passed, you were in trouble. Roger of Wendover describes how the soldiers committed what we would now call war crimes, Jim Bradbury sums this up as “hanging men by the hands, by the thumbs, putting salt and vinegar in prisoner’s eyes, roasting them on tripods and gridirons.”

Wendover continues to describe the passage of John’s army through the countryside: "The whole land was covered with these limbs of the devil like locusts, who assembled to blot out everything from the face of the earth: for, running about with drawn swords and knives, they ransacked towns, houses, cemeteries, and churches, robbing everyone, sparing neither women nor children."

Though anything Wendover says is best taken with some reservations, such behaviour does fit in with what we know about the behaviour of large bodies of armed men in the Middle Ages. It would also explain the dogged collective insistence that John was a tyrant who oppressed his people.

For our dramatic purposes we now have a very suitable villain, caught red-handed in various nasty situations in which former friends and allies, family members and subjects tend to perish quite painfully. However, there’s more to add to the list. We don’t really want to contextualize the next aspect of John’s character, because by quite a lot of accounts he behaved quite moderately for a man in his position of power during his own age. However, for the purposes of sensationalist titillation we don’t want to polish over the man’s appetites, we need to go fully tabloid here because sex sells, and John liked a bit on the side, as well as having tastes which should prove suitably outrageous for a modern audience.

With regard to the latter we have his second marriage to Isabella of Angoulême in 1200. Isabella was already renowned for her beauty, and actually engaged to Hugh de Lusignan, but the wedding between Isabella and Hugh had been delayed until she was deemed old enough to marry. When King John virtually stole Isabella from under de Lusignan’s nose, she was only twelve, John, at 33, was 21 years her senior. It’s not clear whether there were political advantages to be had from the wedding, it certainly didn’t increase warm Lusignan feelings towards John, but may have slowed down the growing power of that family. It is recorded that John was besotted with his young bride, often spending whole mornings in bed with her, not appearing to run the country till after noon.

King John also had a number of mistresses, who can best be traced through records of his illegitimate children. These include one Susanna whose mother is not named and who was given a gift of clothing in 1213. Another girl called Joan, whose mother was called Clemence. Of her we have a decree by Pope Honorius II from 1226, which stated that “King John, when unmarried, fathered you by a maiden woman.” Other daughters include Maude who became Abbess of Barking; and Isabel who married Richard Fitz Ives in Cornwall, 

Then there’s a Richard called Richard de Warenne. His mother was the sister of the Earl of Surrey, and also John’s first cousin. Richard eventually became Baron of Chilham. Other bastard sons were Oliver, whose mother was named Hawise, countess of Aumale; John who became a clerk in London; Geoffrey who died in 1205 in Poitou; Henry who was knighted and fought in the Poitou in 1214; Osbert who was knighted; Eudes who went on crusade in 1240 and died in the Holy Land in 1241; Bartholomew who became a Friar; and Phillip who was given lands in Surrey.

All in all, we have in John the ideal villain, a thoroughly unpleasant character who never inspired the trust subjects should have in their ruling monarch,

As historians we have failed, of course, having started by trying to view things from various perspectives and in different contexts but ending in tabloid fashion in order to thoroughly demonize the man. However, for the purposes of presenting a heck of a good story, King John is a godsend.

One wee problem though I’m sure it’s surmountable. You see, in the context of foreign invaders being resisted on English soil, King John, our ultimate baddie, is leader of the good guys.

To be continued in the next episode of England Invaded: The French Team.


Léa Seydoux and Oscar Isaac as Isabella of Angoulême and King John in Robin Hood (2010).
Léa Seydoux and Oscar Isaac as Isabella of Angoulême and King John in Robin Hood (2010).
Sex! Whey hey.
Sex! Whey hey.
King John I
King John I

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Comments 11 comments

bob the warbow 5 years ago

Very nice one Nils. We're in Magna Charta time, and a most curious disappearance of the French invasion from English History. It has always struck me as most odd that this fact was almost completely written out of the books. And a very dubious role for the English feudal nobility- great names of leading families that spawned descendants who became national heroes and men and women of national importance- happened to be on the treacherous side of the English cause. It was the common man and the anglo-saxons that fought back the French. Really a time of heroes and forgotten legends. Can't wait to read the sequel to this chapter of Archers quest


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Nils Visser 5 years ago from The Low Countries Author

Well, thanks for giving all the juicy secrets in the next part away. Might as well skip that bit then.


bob the warbow 5 years ago

No the hell you don't Nils. There's some great stories in there and we need you to tell them. And. for those who aren't that versed in history... you gave the secrets away yourself. King John turning into the Good Guy, and England still beïng England, not France.


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Nils Visser 5 years ago from The Low Countries Author

King John turning into a good guy? Nay, he never does, but from an English perspective (i.e. not liking French buggers invading the country) he leads the good guys. The interesting thing is that the bad guy leads the good guys, and the leader of the bad guys is quite a good guy for everyone who's also had to face high expectations from a demanding father.


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Nils Visser 5 years ago from The Low Countries Author

Unless you like Cathars and object to the bad guy who leads the bad guys but seems like a good guy executing every man, woman and child in a Cathar town he took, 7000 people in total, in which case the seemingly good guy could still be considered a bad guy.


bob the warbow 5 years ago

Yep.. you're right. Pretty confusing this snakepit of `feudal'business, liaisons and alliances, and nothing compared to the modern national states and gouvernement we are used to.

And the magna charta- though proclaimed by some as the first written constitution in the western world and the predecessor of the Universal declaration of human rights- served firstly to protect and secure the financial interests and the hold to power of the baron class and the church from the power of the king. Not much to be found there for the commoner or the jews to legally protect them from abuse by those who can only be trialed by their equals. The notion of citizenship or equal rights wasn't inventend back then. But still somehow they got together on a common mission under the notion that they were all English. Interesting times. Can't wait to read the sequel.


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Nils Visser 5 years ago from The Low Countries Author

As Sellar and Yeatman parodied:

By congregating there, armed to the teeth, the Barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:

1.That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason—(except the Common People).

2.That everyone should be free—(except the Common People).

3.That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm—(except the Common People).


Frank of the Spoon 5 years ago

Argh,more tiny bits ;) You've certainly managed to captivate me as part of your audience. Can't wait for more.


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Nils Visser 5 years ago from The Low Countries Author

Hi Frank, tiny bits? Most of the work is not so much writing it as trying to cut it back to something that's somewhat readable, and these 2800+ words are actually way too many.


Doug Turner Jr. 5 years ago

Well I'm certainly glad you stopped in to talk about moths and owls earlier. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a peek at this fascinating story, of which I only know bits and pieces from Robin Hood.

I read your comment about these 2800 words being too many -- and you may be right, from a practical standpoint -- but I was hooked the whole way through. I especially like how you include the bits that don't fit nicely into our established view of history, such as the misdeeds of the Lionhearted.

I'll return for the next part on another night. Peace.


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Nils Visser 5 years ago from The Low Countries Author

Thanks Doug, that's a very encouraging piece of feedback. You'll be delighted then that the next three parts offer another 10,000 words for your perusal and there's the final fifth part still in production. ;-)

But yes, fascinating stuff. If you like Robin Hood, you're going to love Willikin of the Weald.

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