Where history happened: King John and the French invasion

Sean McGlynn discusses nine places related to an often forgotten assault on England and its much-maligned monarch in 1216...
 
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Newark Castle flanked by the river Trent. To say that King John’s death here in
When Richard the Lionheart was killed by a crossbow bolt in France in April 1199, a French chronicler, no friend of the English monarch, wrote: “God visited the kingdom of the French, for King Richard died.” Richard had been a feared and victorious enemy of France, and few believed that his younger brother and successor, John, would be a match for the formidable and experienced French king Philip II, known as Augustus. As an archbishop presciently despaired on hearing of Richard’s death: “What hope remains to us now? There is none, for, after him, I can see nobody to defend the kingdom. The French will overrun us, and there will be no one to resist them.” When John died in 1216, more than one-third of England, including the capital, was under French rule.
 
John’s reign started out promisingly enough, helped by the relatively peaceful state of his lands in England and France (known as the Angevin empire, these extensive territories bisected France from Normandy to the Pyrenees). John had quickly come to peace terms with Philip of France, for which one English chronicler approvingly named him ‘Softsword’. Before long it was to take on a wholly derogatory sense.
 
Even when war did break out between England and France, John initially notched up a great triumph: in 1202 at Mirebeau he captured many of his leading enemies, the prize of which was his 15-year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany, a claimant to the English throne and ally of King Philip. John wrote boastfully home that he “had got the lot”. 
 
But one of John’s many weaknesses was his inability to capitalise on his successes. In a forerunner of Richard III and the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, John was almost certainly responsible for the murder of Arthur. He also seriously mistreated his prisoners, thereby alienating powerful marcher lords in Normandy. When Philip launched an all-out invasion of Normandy and Anjou, John found fewer allies on the ground than he would have liked. He did little to rally his forces and instead ignominiously left Normandy to return to England. By spring 1204 the duchy was back in French hands; John never stepped foot in Normandy again.
 
For the rest of his reign, John’s focus was on regaining the lands he had humiliatingly lost. This meant money – and lots of it. To fully exploit the resources of his land, John tightened up administrative processes and stamped the authority of his government on England. John’s presence in England was both a marker of his failure (the loss of his lands in France compelled him to be a stay-at-home king) and the cause of his problems in England.
 
John’s onerous exactions caused huge dissent among his powerful subjects. The barons, no angels themselves, understandably resented the increasingly interfering and arbitrary nature of John’s rule. The king’s inability to handle powerful men tactfully; his notorious cruelty and lechery towards them and their families; his complete lack of trustworthiness; and, most damaging of all, the complete waste of the money painfully extracted for failed campaigns in France… all these negative aspects of his reign served only to alienate ever further those not immediately within John’s circle of beneficiaries. 
 
John’s continental allies possibly came close to achieving his long cherished plans at the battle of Bouvines in 1214. However the clash ended in victory for Philip of France, who went on to secure the Angevin territories of Brittany and Normandy. This reversal – and John’s own flight from the French in the west of France – led to open rebellion at home and the humiliation of Magna Carta in 1215. 
 
The charter was designed to reaffirm baronial liberties and, crucially, to limit the dictatorial inclinations of the monarchy. John quickly reneged on the settlement and civil war broke out once more. The barons who rebelled called in Prince Louis of France, Philip II’s heir, to be the new king of England. In May 1216, Louis arrived at the Isle of Thanet at the head of a large army that required perhaps as many as 700 ships to transport his campaign forces and equipment. He and his allies quickly took control of half of England, siting their headquarters in London. By the summer’s end, two-thirds of the baronage declared for Louis, and King Alexander of Scotland marched all the way down to Dover to pay homage to Louis as king of England.
 
The situation was radically transformed by John’s death from dysentery on 19 October 1216. At a stroke, the focus of discontent for so many barons was removed and the English resistance became a concerted counter-attack. In 1217, Franco-baronial defeats at Lincoln and Sandwich sealed the occupiers’ fate. Louis came to terms at the treaty of Kingston in September and quit the country, leaving the throne of England to John’s young son, Henry III.

 

Nine other places to explore...

 

1) Magna Carta memorial, Runnymede

Where one of Britain’s landmark moments is celebrated
 
In May 1215 the baronial party broke their homage to John and civil war broke out. John reluctantly met the rebels in June 1215, at Runnymede, situated on the Thames – halfway between his royal castle at Windsor and the rebel camp at Staines. Here he was forced to concede to the rebels’ demands as set out in Magna Carta. This was a charter of liberties affirming the rights of his subjects (especially the most powerful ones) in a document considered central to British constitutional history. 
 
Although much of the charter is concerned with feudal and financial matters, perhaps most famously it addresses injustice: the monarch has to agree that “to no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice” and that those accused must be tried “by the lawful judgment of his peers”. The last clause was the most revolutionary: the king’s adherence to the charter was to be overseen by a council of 25 barons acting for “the community of the realm”. John never intended to honour the agreement and was soon back at war with the barons. In 1957 the American Bar Association erected at Runnymede the memorial that stands there today, bearing the inscription: “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under the law.”
 

The Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede. (Getty)
 

2) Rochester Castle

Where a six-week siege saw the castle fall to King John
 
Rochester Castle, a powerful and strategic fortress that lies on the road between London and Dover, was handed over to the rebels in October 1215 and garrisoned by 140 men under William d’Albini (also written as Daubeney). 
 
Two days afterwards they were under close siege by King John. It was an epic confrontation, with the rebels holding out for over six weeks against the massive weight of John’s national resources. A constant bombardment battered the walls but the defenders resisted bravely as they waited for reinforcements from London to lift the siege. The support never arrived and the defenders found themselves in such dire straits that the knights had to eat their war horses. 
 
When mines brought the stone curtain wall down, the garrison rushed to the inner defences of the keep. When another tunnel brought down the south-eastern tower the garrison had no choice but to surrender. John had to be talked out of hanging the defenders en masse. The English king wasn’t to hold sway over Rochester Castle for long, for his troops were ousted by Louis of France shortly after his invasion in May 1216.
 
Visitors can see the replacement tower built shortly afterwards, its ‘newer’ rounded shape contrasting with the other three square towers.

 

3) Tower of London

Where Prince Louis made his base in the heart of the capital
 
Started by another French invader 150 years previously, William the Conqueror’s castle was a fitting headquarters for Prince Louis of France. The capital fell easily into rebel hands in May 1215. This was such a blow to John that he felt compelled to agree Magna Carta a month later. The city remained in Franco-baronial hands for more than two years, all the time representing a major humiliation for John. 
 
Militarily, it could be argued that John should have marshalled his forces to retake the capital, for it was widely acknowledged that the French could not succeed without it. Instead, John went ravaging around the country, inflicting misery on his own people. Louis’ occupation of London was never seriously threatened until September 1217, by which time he “had little trust in the burghers of London” and thus “dared not leave the city”. 
 
One of the least-known events of this little-known invasion is Louis’ plan in September 1217 to launch a death-or-glory charge from the city into the ranks of the surrounding enemy. Only the start of 11th-hour peace talks prevented this from happening.
 

The Tower of London was once the headquarters of Prince Louis of France. (Alamy)

 

4) Wolvesey Castle, Winchester

Where Prince Louis captured one of his primary objectives
 
Winchester marked the south-west frontline between royalist and French forces. It was a primary objective for Louis, who marched there in early June 1216; he was also hoping for a decisive encounter with John, but the English king withdrew, as was his custom, to safety at Corfe Castle in Dorset.
 
Louis entered the city itself unopposed but had to launch siege operations against its two castles. The main castle was towards the west; a smaller one, Wolvesey, owned by Bishop Peter des Roches, lay in the east and was garrisoned by John’s illegitimate son, Oliver. Following a bombardment, both strongholds surrendered on 24 June. The loss of Winchester marked a low point for John as it coincided with a tide of high-level desertions to Louis. 
 
In March 1217 the French found themselves subjected to withering sieges; they sortied from the castle to burn and plunder the city but surrendered at the end of the month on favourable terms that granted them a safe conduct back to London.
 
The ruins of Wolvesey Castle, also known as Old Bishop’s Palace, are still open to the public.

 

5) The Wash, East Anglia

Where King John’s treasure may, or may not, have sunk
 
In the second week of October 1216, John was at King’s Lynn, one of the five most important ports in England. On 11 October, despite being ill with dysentery, he made for Lincolnshire across the Wash, a five-mile-wide estuary. At low tide this was a well-known short-cut, and it also enabled John to avoid the roads in the rebel-dominated Fenlands.
 
Legend has it that John’s baggage train and treasure were swallowed up here, with one chronicler reporting that “the land opened up in the middle of the waves and caused whirlpools which sucked in everything, men as well as horses, so that no one escaped”. Like John, the chronicler was on uncertain ground, exaggerating events. 
 
While it is possible that there was some drama during the crossing, it was probably greatly elaborated as a cover for where the treasure really went: in the pockets of John’s entourage when he died a week later.

 

6) Newark Castle

Where King John died from dysentery
 
After having over-indulged during a feast at King’s Lynn, John fell seriously ill with what appears to have been severe dysentery. In great agony, he was hauled on a litter to Newark Castle, where he was attended by the abbot of Croxton, a monk renowned for his medical knowledge. John made his last confession to the abbot and, during a violent storm, died around midnight of 18/19 October. 
 
Medieval chroniclers did not observe the maxim that one should not speak ill of the dead, with Matthew Paris writing: “With John’s foul deeds all England is stinking, as does hell, to which he is now sinking.” The best contemporary obituary for him was simply that “in his own end he was little mourned”. John’s heart was removed by the abbot and his embalmed body buried at Worcester Cathedral. John’s death removed Louis’ greatest asset and the royalists’ greatest liability.
 

When King John breathed his last at Newark Castle in October 1216 the focus of many barons’ discontent died with him. (Getty)

 

7) Dover Castle

Where Louis’ plans to dominate England were dealt a fatal blow
 
Dover and Windsor castles were the only two strongholds in the south-east to hold out against the French during the course of the occupation, providing islands of royalist resistance throughout the 18-month invasion. Dover was besieged for nearly a year (from July 1216) – in what was to be the largest and most protracted encirclement of the invasion – with interludes arising from temporary truces. 
 
So powerful and strategically significant was this Channel fortress that it was called ‘the key to England’. Its importance is reflected in the huge resources that Louis invested in his attempts to wrest it from the royalists, applying his large stone-throwing machine ‘Evil Neighbour’ against the walls. 
 
The castle was defended by Hubert de Burgh, with his 140 knights and other soldiers. Dover’s determined resistance cost Louis serious loss of momentum and men, as many returned to the continent after they had served their time. 
 
Although bolstered by King Alexander II of Scotland’s homage to him at Dover in September 1216, Louis still could not make headway. French troops were also attacked from the outside, by a company of forest-dwelling bowmen under William of Kensham, who, it can be argued, is the original inspiration behind the popular Robin Hood legend. 
 
Louis’ failure to take Dover is considered one of the single most important factors in his ultimate failure to win England. A French siege tunnel can still be seen at the castle.
 

8) Lincoln Castle

Where a major land battle left the royalists in control
 
Lincoln witnessed the great land battle of the invasion. Representing the northern front line, the city was taken soon after the French arrived, but the castle remained defiant under the redoubtable leadership of Nichola de Haye. 
 
On 20 May 1217, the main royalist force under the command of the regent William Marshal and Peter des Roches arrived at the city to raise the siege. A group of crossbowmen under the notorious mercenary captain Falkes de Bréauté secretly made their way into the castle through a postern gate. These laid down a surprise barrage of fire on the French and baronial soldiers while the main body of troops burst through a city gate, pushing Louis’ men back. 
 
The French commander, the 22-year-old Count de Perche, tried to rally his troops in the close in front of the cathedral’s west front. But when he was killed by a dagger through the eyehole of his visor, his troops fled. The greatest number of casualties was inflicted after the battle when the city was savagely sacked. Lincoln left the royalists in the ascendant, and many of Louis’ leading men and knights now prisoner.
 
During the civil wars of the 17th century, the castle walls were lowered. The cathedral holds one of the surviving copies of Magna Carta.
 

Lincoln Castle saw off French forces in May 1217, and left the royalists in the ascendant. (Alamy)

 

9) Sandwich port, Kent

Where a great naval battle saw Louis seek peace
 
After Lincoln, Louis’ hopes rested on reinforcements from France, provided by his wife, Blanche de Castile. Another large fleet was assembled to convey these troops over the Channel – more than sufficient for Louis to redress most of his recent losses. The fleet was under the naval command of Eustace the Monk, one of this period’s most colourful characters: a cross-dressing, farting, foul-mouthed pirate. 
 
On 24 August some 40 English ships met the French convoy of around 80 vessels off the coast of Sandwich. There followed arguably the most important naval battle in England’s history. The English ships manoeuvred downwind of the French, and cast lime dust into their eyes, blinding the enemy. They then rammed, boarded and sunk French vessels. The end came when Eustace’s flagship was captured and he was beheaded on deck. 
 
The French sailors were slaughtered; according to one chronicler they were “thrown into the sea as food for the fish”. After this massive defeat, Louis sought peace terms, and left England forever. 
 
Sean McGlynn is a lecturer in history for the Open University and the University of Plymouth at Strode College.
 
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here