Authors: Sean McGlynn
Richard was adored by contemporaries for the chivalric hero he was; the judgment of historians has proved, until recently at least, to be more censorious, one damning him as ‘A bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler, and a vicious man’.
The two main charges laid against him are his over-exploitation of England’s resources to fund his ‘foreign’ wars and his wholesale neglect of his kingdom due to his absence fighting these wars on the continent, spending only a few months of his entire reign in England. The first of these charges will be discussed later in the context of Angevin military finance; the second has been comprehensively rejected by John Gillingham (though not universally accepted) who has shown the importance of Richard’s continental lands to overall Angevin strategy.
Richard’s assured judgement of character (except where his younger brother is concerned: he was extremely lenient with John’s rebellions and alliances with King Philip of France) meant that England was always left in safe hands; indeed, as J.C. Holt has written of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury and chief justiciar who governed England in Richard’s absence, the King actually benefited from ‘one of the greatest royal ministers of all time’.
A further, neglected but extremely positive aspect is suggested here. Richard’s victories abroad, brought about by his active involvement in warfare, denoted greater security for England, not less. One only has to examine John’s pitiful record on the continent – which we will soon be doing – to witness the consequences of military defeat there, when unsuccessful campaigns were invariably followed by threats of invasion. In 1216 these threats were put into operation and became frighteningly real after heavy English losses in France. It has always been Britain’s strategy to fight its wars on foreign soil, thereby preventing conflict on home territory. This strategy is widely understood in the more modern context of the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century and the world wars of the twentieth century. Thus one historian of the Napoelonic wars has written for the early nineteenth century that ‘in one sense Britain’s defences began east of the Rhine with her Continental allies. Military dependence kept drawing Britain into European affairs.’
(In fact Richard carefully nurtured alliances with German princes.) Even in the twenty-first century, the British government has justified military action as far afield as Iraq and Afghanistan as a means to ensure safety at home. This is, as one historian of the Cold War put it, ‘the age-old formula of security-through-expansion’.
The feudal nature of English medieval society does not preclude England, as many seem to think, from adhering to the wisdom of such a sensible ‘age-old’ policy in this earlier period. We can see this policy in action in the period of the Hundred Years War. Between 1377 and 1383, English strategy centred on taking and holding forts along the northern French coast to prevent further French and Castilian raids on the south coast which had culminated in an invasion of the Isle of Wight in 1377. This strategy was sold successfully to the commons, which granted the huge war funds for it, as a defensive measure. With the expiry of a truce in 1385, the French King Charles VI began preparations for an invasion of England the following year. He was in a position to do so because he had gained control of ports in Flanders from where he could assemble and launch his huge invasion fleet. This ‘presented the most serious threat that England had faced in the whole course of the war, and provoked widespread panic in southern England’.
The fleet of 1386 gathered near Damme, in exactly the same place where the French King Philip Augustus had gathered his invasion fleet in 1213. Had John been as successful as Richard in his continental wars, then Philip would not have been in a position to pose this threat then or for his son to make the threat a reality three years later in 1216. This is the overlooked vindication for Richard’s policy of fighting his wars abroad. This book will show how John’s military failures combined with his political ones to leave England exposed to invasion.
Seen in this light, it is a measure of Richard’s achievement that he did spend so much of his time fighting on the continent; likewise, it is an indication of John’s shortcomings that in 1216 he fought his last war in England and against French invaders. It may safely be assumed that the French subjects of King Philip were happier during 1216–17 when their troops were inflicting the ravages of war on the English, than in the 1190s when Richard the Lionheart took the war to them. It is likely that contemporaries understood this; hence the English offered their grateful praise for Richard’s military accomplishments, which were regarded in practical rather than merely jingoistic terms: the defence of the realm was a king’s highest duty, and Richard performed it supremely well. It is therefore not surprising that fears of a French invasion abounded in England on Richard’s death in April 1199, mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt shot from the battlements of a castle while suppressing a revolt in the Limoges. As William the Breton, no lover of the Angevin king, wrote of this event: ‘God visited the kingdom of the French, for King Richard died.’
At the close of the twelfth century, the Angevin Empire stretched from the north of England to the Pyrenees, splitting modern France in half all the way down. It was a disparate collection of lands which included the peoples of Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Anjou, Limouisin, Angoulême, Agenais and Gascony at a time of pre-nascent French identity. Some of this territory, most notably Normandy, was held from the King of France as a suzerain; some of it formed part of personal patrimony. Holt has written: ‘The Plantagenet lands were not designed as an “empire”, as a great centralised administrative structure … On the contrary, these lands were simply cobbled together.’
Yet this construction worked: with little more to unite it than a common allegiance to its (usually absent) master, it managed to be a viable, indeed healthy, entity. Under Henry’s and Richard’s dynamic itinerant rule, the natural strengths of the empire came to the fore. As ever when examining territorial struggles, it is necessary first to establish the state of the regional economies. Gillingham has demonstrated these to be of great importance; thus they aroused the predatory interest of rulers, princes and magnates. ‘Economically speaking the Angevin Empire may be described as a number of complementary regions bound together by a series of well-defined waterways,’ he writes; the Angevins ‘ruled over an immense trading zone’.
Chief among the commodities were grain, salt and wine, especially that coming from Anjou, Aquitaine, Bordeaux and Poitou. The busy traffic down along the Seine, Loire and Garonne testified to the economic viability of the empire which garnered great profits from this traffic in trade. Lucrative tolls, customs and licences added further to the Angevins’ wealth. Economic strength translated into military strength; as the anonymous chronicler of Béthune notes, King Richard was ‘extremely rich in land and resources, much more so than the King of France. He could raise a very large army from his vassals and mercenaries, for he was able to summon English, Normans, Bretons, Manceaux, Angevins and Poitevins. He also had numerous
, who inflicted much damage on the King of France.’
So here was another clear reason for Richard devoting so much of his time to the Empire: it was a source of funding for his wars and enabled him to continue his conflict on the Continent, outside his kingdom. England, too, was wealthy; but its relatively stable boundaries and greater centralisation of power, which owed much to the efforts of Henry II, meant that by and large it could confidently be left in the hands of competent administrators. The more volatile situation on the continent, with the Angevin frontier running contiguously with a hostile Capetian one (to which must be added the consideration of the more fragmented form of political life there) demanded greater attention. Although suzerains of France, the Capetians could lay claim only to personal royal lands centred on the Île-de-France, extending in a corridor from Artois in the north to Berry in the south.
Historians have drawn attention to the fact that contemporaries never addressed the Plantagenet dominions as an empire because they did not deem them as forming an institution.
However, in the Old French poem,
The Song of Dermot and the Earl
, written during the second quarter of the thirteenth century but following an earlier original, the Irish chieftain Dermot McCurrough speaks to Henry II of ‘les baruns de tun empire’.
Empire or not, the lands of the Angevin kings constituted the foremost political power of the time, and one well worth fighting for control of. Robert Bartlett believes that the danger to Capetian France from the Angevin Empire has been overestimated: ‘For the Capetian Kings of France this accumulation of territories under the Angevins was not primarily a threat to their existing position but rather a large and potentially permanent obstacle to their ever doing anything about it. If the lower reaches of both the Seine and the Loire were held by Henry II and his sons, there could be no expansion downstream from the Île-de-France.’
This containment policy by the Angevins is an important factor; however, by 1214 John’s fight to recover the Empire after its dismantlement sucked in the Holy Roman Empire as an ally and the existence of Capetian France was very much on the line. Ralph Turner believes that the Capetians held the military advantage, as Philip had a compact base in the Île de France, which made it easier for him to dispatch his forces ‘to attack Angevin-held castles in the Seine or Loire valley’. By contrast, Richard and John had ‘the disadvantage of defending a long frontier, extending from the Channel to the Pyrenees, stretching lines of communication and requiring dispersal of resources among widely scattered fortresses’.
This is a serious consideration; in the Russian civil war of the early twentieth century, a similar geo-strategic set up greatly assisted the Bolsheviks, compactly centred around Moscow, to defeat the dispersed forces of the Whites who, on the map, surrounded them. However, some of these disadvantages of the Angevins can easily be inverted into advantages: they could attack from anywhere on a long frontier, which in Normandy was close to Paris; the compact base around the French capital was threatened by a swift takeover; the wealth of areas within the empire meant that resources for war could be collected locally for regional fortresses; and the extent of the empire meant, as Bartlett hints, that it was harder for the Capetians to deliver a knock-out blow to their enemy. The events of 1204 and 1214 bear out these aspects of the strategic situation.
This informal empire was to be the arena for the climactic Angevin-Capetian clash. The years after Richard’s death experienced an almighty contest between two of Christendom’s greatest kings, the English and French monarchs, for the very existence of the Empire itself.
Whereas Richard ensured his inheritance fell to him intact through his extraordinary efforts and abilities, John could boast no such merit when his turn for the crown came; he owed his position entirely to luck and to the services of the Grim Reaper, who had obligingly gathered to him John’s three older brothers. Prince Henry, Geoffrey and Richard had all met premature ends; Richard, typically enough, struck down while in action. As the direct consequence, in 1199 John, fourth in line to the Angevin succession and 33 years of age that year, became King of England, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou and Lord of Ireland.
His position was not fully secure, and in some areas castles were victualled in preparation for and anticipation of any trouble that might have erupted. In England his ascension to the throne was broadly undisputed, but in the French provinces there was a consensus that the young Arthur, Duke of Brittany and John’s nephew through Geoffrey, had a better claim to the throne. Anjou, Maine and Touraine declared for Arthur, amid rumours that he also had the support of Archbishop Hubert Walter. The 12-year-old duke was taken under the aegis of Philip Augustus, who saw in him too good a chance to miss for trouble-making against the new King of England, just as his father had done. By a strange coincidence of history, John was with Arthur when Richard was killed. In one of his periodical bursts of energy, John made straight for Chinon to secure the Angevin treasury deposited there. Seizing the treasury was always the first action of any triumphant claimant to the throne: the financial resources thereby obtained signalled to his new subjects that they may hope for largesse in the form of gifts and patronage; but they were also made aware of the possible repercussions should they choose to resist someone who was now in a position to afford the employment of substantial mercenary forces in support of the new regime. John got off to a reasonably good start in England, gaining a measure of popular support by fixing low prices for Angevin and Poitevin wines. By the end of his reign he had created for himself one of the most controversial reputations, and possibly the worst one, of any monarch in English history.
His legacy has led to some ambiguous judgements on his abilities, and there is still no consensus on his reign, though one has begun to emerge over the last decade. Stellar and Yeatman’s humorous history of England,
1066 and All That
, published in 1930, conveyed a simplistic summary of John which held sway for a long time: he was ‘a Bad Prince’, ‘an awful King’, a ‘wicked’ monarch who ‘demonstrated his utter incompetence’ during ‘his awful reign’.
Since then a great deal of scholarly revisionism of his reign has accentuated some positive aspects of John’s monarchy, especially in the field of administrative processes. In 1902, Kate Norgate accused John of blunders in statecraft, errors in strategy, weakness, cowardice, sloth and superhuman wickedness.
Compare this to Alan Lloyd’s assessment in 1973: ‘He was himself an ingenious administrator and a shrewd strategist. When pugnacious barons dubbed him ‘Softsword’, they paid unwitting tribute to his preference for negotiation rather than violence. The inference that he was a feeble soldier is a false one.’