One of the problems which Historical Fiction authors face is just that – where to start a story? There is always a before and an after, and sometimes the now depends on what readers know about what went on before the story begins. Continue reading
Although King John is famous for (allegedly) losing his treasury in a boggy inlet of the English North Sea known as, The Wash – his losing credentials did not begin there.
Born in 1166, he was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He later became known as John Lackland, because he was not expected to inherit much of any note, nor was much expected of him, given his developing character. But fate intervened in his expectations.
Regent of England
In 1190 King Richard of England took the vow of the cross and set off for the Holy land on the third crusade. Together with his mother, Eleanor, they agreed to leave John in place as the governing regent of England. England’s chief Justiciar, William Longchamp, who was also the Bishop of Ely and Chancellor of England, was his mentor. Richard also nominated a young cousin, Arthur of Brittany as his successor should he not return from the crusade. Not exactly a vote of confidence in his brother Prince John.
While Richard set off for Marseilles to join his fleet sailing round from the English Channel, his mother left for Navarre to collect a bride for the bachelor king; she was also concerned that Richard might not return and leave her with John for a king.
Eleanor was now the undisputed matriarch of the Plantagenet dynasty which ruled from the Scottish borders, through Wales and Ireland and on the continental mainland from Normandy down to Aquitaine’s borders in the Pyrenees. It was no accident that she had a princess of the kingdom of Navarre in her sights; she could secure her southern border and provide a wife for Richard in one move here. So, she would collect Princess Berengaria and chase after Richard to have a wedding before aught befell the mighty King.
Fate played a card in her designs however because she didn’t catch up with her son until they arrived in the Straits of Messina. By this time it was Easter and no marriages could take place under church law.
What was John up to?
Eleanor did not tarry however; news from England told of John’s activities, which were not good. Alarmingly, he had fallen out with his mentor, Longchamp, and most of his barons. So, Eleanor high-tailed it back and left Richard and Berengaria to sort the marriage out for themselves while she went to fix the results of John’s incompetence.
The story of Richard and Berengaria will be published later this year and will be available on Amazon as usual. Take a look through this website for further information.
By now John’s indiscretions were causing alarm amongst his advisors, officials, and barons. A sexual predator, lecherous and treacherous, he was rejoicing in his position of King’s Regent holding a king’s power absolute. Eleanor failed to control him and he opened negotiations with the French king, Philip, in a presumption that Richard would not return. He was aided in this by the news that Richard had been taken prisoner when returning from Palestine and was being held for ransom by the German King/Emperor Heinrich.
John and Philip joined forces to raise money to persuade Heinrich to keep Richard prisoner – but they failed when the pope took an interest. As a result Richard did return, landing in England on 13th March 1194 with England 190,000 silver marks (several tonnes) worse off. This was more than the country’s GDP at the time.
Eleanor did her best to persuade Richard to forgive John, suggesting ‘evil councillors’ had been advising him. Richard forgave his little brother and then went to war with King Philip to recover the territories John had lost. This was a move which would be Richard’s undoing; he was struck by a crossbow bolt in an unconnected incident outside the minor castle of Chalus-Chambrol. He died of sepsis on the 6th April 1199.
The result was a triumph for John, making him king. At the same time, it was a disaster for Eleanor who had to watch her son dismantle the Angevin empire which she had been working tirelessly to preserve for the future of her dynasty.
John’s next moves were a triumph of incompetence; apart from his odious character traits, (hide your wives, daughters, and female servants if he came visiting) he believed himself to be a negotiator of distinction. Sadly, he promptly lost control of Plantagenet territories, starting with Normandy and working his way south. His mistakes were many, either accepting disadvantageous terms or losing out by military means. By 1204 he had lost the lot. He so disappointed his mother that she died in disappointment at Fontevraud Abbey on the 1st of April of that year.
Eleanor was not the only woman John would disappoint in this sad affair.
Berengaria, now the dowager Queen Consort of England, a widow, was also to be denied her rights by the odious new King of England. He held back all the money due to her as income from her dower holdings in England and elsewhere, and of her pensions due as a widowed queen. As a result, she had to enter into lengthy correspondences with John, Pope Innocent III, King Philip of France, and anyone else she thought might be able to help to try and recover her dues.
In England, which was all that John had left, the Barons, and Lords, the church and the citizens were struggling beneath John’s ever increasing demands for more money “to recover my lands in France.”
The Magna Carta
John did not succeed and many of those in England, including those who had lost their lands in France, began to plot against him. The result of that was a charter of rights, the Magna Carta. In 1215 John was compelled to sign it.
Whether he had fully understood it at the time or not, it was soon brought to his attention that it removed his rights of, ‘King Absolute’. As a result, certain powers and rights would pass down the chain to lesser officials, barons and certain citizens.
Once he understood this he repudiated the document, complained to the pope and thus began a civil war. As John had only recently recovered from excommunication by the pope, it made any support by Innocent a little less than wholehearted.
As a result of his repudiation of the Magna Carta, John was soon facing a revolt to remove him from power. This was led by a French prince when King Philip sent his son, Louis, to lead the revolt. The barons in revolt would declare Louis as King of England in Westminster on the 2nd of June 1216.
John visited Lincoln in October 1216 and travelled from there to Newark, a short distance away, where he died on the 19th of October 1216, aged 49. His son, Henry succeeded him but was only 9 years old. As a result, a council of regents was holding England together.
By 1217 England had been lost south of a line from Lincoln to Bristol and was in danger of losing the war; if Lincoln fell England would fall to the French and we’d all be speaking French.
You can find the story of the siege of Lincoln castle on the 20th of May 1217 in ‘Wars of the Magna Carta’.
Berengaria’s account will be available later in 2021, and the story of John’s successor, his son Henry III will also be available soon.
The Tomb of King John, Worcester Cathedral
King John did not live to see the end of the First Barons’ War and the fate of England. He was unfortunate to contract dysentery while at King’s Lynn. His physical state was already weak following long spells on the road, including a trip from Kent to Berwick upon Tweed. Surprisingly John’s last public appearance was in Lincoln where he met Nicholaa de la Haye and Matilda de Caux, an event which you can read about in Wars of the Magna Carta by Austin Hernon. The condition progressively worsened and was ultimately fatal. John died on October 19th, 1216 at Newark Castle, less than 20 miles from Lincoln. His final resting place is in Worcester Cathedral. If you visit, you can look at the tomb of King John.
One of the most incredible things about the tomb is the effigy. In the Medieval period it was customary for effigies to display the subject as if they were in the prime of their life. The idea was it would help people to remember them at their best. What makes John’s unique is that it is very life-like. As a result if you view it you can get a good idea of how the king looked when he passed away. Dating back to 1232, this is also the oldest royal effigy in England.
Opening the tomb
What is equally interesting about John’s tomb is that it has been opened twice over the years. This is a very rare occurrence. The first time was in 1529. The original thought was that a monk’s cowl was covering John’s head. However, the belief now is that it was his coronation cap.
The original tomb did not have the decorative box. This was a later addition from the 16th century. The box resembles those tombs belonging to Prince Arthur and Griffiths ap Ryce.
The second opening was in 1797 to allow an antiquarian study of John’s body. The headline discovery here was that John was 5 feet 6 and a half inches tall. A woven crimson damask was covering the body but sadly the years had deteriorated the embroidery. Also inside the coffin was a sword and parts of its scabbard.
Impressively King John’s coffin was Highley stone from Worcestershire. This is grey medium sandstone which is commonly used to make flagstones.
The picture above is of the tomb of King John. If you want to view it in person you can visit Worcester Cathedral.
If you also want to learn more about the First Barons’ war, pick up a copy of Wars of the Magna Carta today.