Authors: Sean McGlynn
It would be too much to assert that the treaty sowed the seeds of John’s overwhelming troubles during his reign; equally, it is hard to see, as many historians do, that Le Goulet was something of a triumph for John in any but the most superficial of applications. ‘Overall’, writes one recent biographer, ‘John had done well. He gained his goal by threatening force without seriously using it; and the settlement with Philip II bought him two years of peace, during which he would consolidate his power over his continental possessions. He seemed to be establishing control over his continental lands from the English Channel to the Pyrenees.’
This was certainly the impression John gave during his successful tour of his French fiefs from June to August 1200 – and the importance of impressions of power on the medieval mind should not be underestimated – but, as developments were to prove, ultimately John would have little to show for this consolidation. Instead, the treaty seemed to reveal John’s habitual flaws in the area of Clausewitzian diplomacy: as John Baldwin succinctly summarises, ‘Philip had extracted from John the major military objectives he had been unable to win from Richard.’
This brief statement captures the essence of Richard and John’s competition with Philip Augustus. The payment of the huge relief stipulated in the treaty (itself a partial rebuttal to those who believe that Richard had all but bankrupted England) draws apposite comment from Warren: ‘The significance of the relief demanded of John lies partly in the enormous sum asked, but even more in the demand itself and the agreement to pay. No one had ventured to ask it of Henry or Richard; they had simply taken possession and no one dared say them nay.’
Previously the Angevin monarchs had, in effect, ruled half of France; but now the Capetians were asserting their feudal hegemony with John playing the part of compliant vassal. As Turner points out in his study of John, it was the King’s signing of the treaty of Le Goulet, and not his subsequent military defeats, that earned him his label of ‘Softsword’.
Gervase of Canterbury, who first recorded this judgement of contemporaries on John, believed that the King was right to settle for peace.
Historians have followed Gervase’s lead, giving persuasive background reasons of war-weariness and economic concerns to explain why John was right to sign at Le Goulet.
One is tempted to add a more cynical explanation: John’s tendency was to choose negotiations before a conflict rather than after it, was perhaps a recognition that his own limited military skills could leave him in a worse bargaining position following any fighting. It may be that the collective wisdom of contemporary opinion reflected a clearer insight into the realities of the situation, perceiving as it does John’s fatal flaw in kingship: his inability to play the role of warrior-king. Whatever the argument, ultimately John was to gain nothing lasting from the treaty. Sometimes it seems that whatever action John took, he was predestined to make a mess of it, and whatever path he followed it would leave him lost and bewildered.
Despite all his achievements, there was one area in which Richard had not left his brother a strong hand: relations with the Church in Angevin territory in France, especially beyond the Norman borders. Ralph Turner’s study of Richard’s administrative kingship in his French domains reveals the limitations of the King of England’s influence. Being pious in the conventional sense, as Richard was, was not sufficient to smooth over matters of diplomacy, economics, peace and war, these being the chief practical and secular concerns of his episcopacy on the Continent.
Here Richard could not exert the leverage over episcopal elections that he could in England and thus he could not reap all the advantages that this entailed (which included those of vacancies and patronage).
Turner writes that the Angevins ‘lacked the aura of sanctity that surrounded them in England as anointed kings. On the Continent, the French monarchs as heirs to the Carolingians asserted their role as protectors of the church even within the territories of their rivals, the Plantagenets. This tradition earned the Capetian rulers the devotion of French ecclesiastics who went so far as to support their French King against the pope.’
Certainly, Philip enticed the clergy with such sweeteners as free episcopal elections so as to lure their loyalties away from the Angevins; however, when his hand strengthened, Philip dispensed with the willingness to be so accommodating.
Where free elections did occur in the Angevin territory, the results could go against Richard’s interests: in 1190 at Le Mans, the monastery of St Martin of Tours, which provided the Capetians with intelligence for the Loire valley, elected one of its number to the bishop’s chair.
Beyond Normandy, it was only in Angers that Henry II and Richard succeeded ‘in planting their own clerks, bound to them by personal attachment and committed to the cause of an Angevin empire’.
There were serious problems even in Normandy, notwithstanding the close political and ecclesiastical ties with England which constituted an Anglo-Norman realm. Here, the strains and exigencies of continuous warfare were taking their toll: pressures of financing military operations and, especially on the borders, raids and depredation, focused the minds of the war-weary clergy evermore on peace. Richard’s demands had already led to an interdict on the duchy in the mid-1190s, following a showdown with Walter of Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen (whose toponym disguises his Cornish origins). At Andely, Richard had seized the archiepiscopal manor there (together with its lucrative tolls imposed on traffic up and down the Seine) to build his mighty fortress of Château Gaillard. After representations at Rome and an interdict, Richard settled with Walter by compensating him with two other manors and the important seaport of Dieppe, a mark of just how highly Richard valued the site.
Philip Augustus also recognised Andely’s significance, as his father had before him (Louis VII had burned the town in 1167).
During the peace made between Richard and Philip at Louviers in January 1196, the French king, clearly appreciating its strategic importance, had, in the words of one chronicler, ‘demanded Andely for himself’.
But Richard would not concede it: with the vital border fortress of Gisors and most of the castles on the Epte having recently fallen into French hands, and with Vaudreuil unable to control the road on the other side of the Seine, a weak point had been opened in Rouen’s satellite defences. Richard was therefore determined that the Capetians should not obtain possession of Andely; instead, he planned to build there a superb defensive complex (with offensive capability) to safeguard the duchy’s capital. He was, quite literally, laying the foundations for the key battle of Normandy between John and Philip.
In the tense military stand-off at the turn of the century, England needed Richard, not John, to counter Philip of France. As the Archbishop of Rouen presciently lamented on hearing of Richard’s death: ‘What hope remains to us now? There is none, for, after him, I can see nobody able to defend the kingdom. The French will overrun us, and there will be no one to resist them.’
he treaty of Le Goulet should have ushered in a period of relative stability between the kingdoms of England and France. For Philip it granted space to sort out his problems with the Papacy over his bigamous marriage to Agnès of Méran; for John it meant time to consolidate his inheritance of the English crown. Both countries were in a position to benefit from the increase in trade that peace would surely bring to them; this was particularly important to John who would have wished to recoup much of the huge sum of 20,000 marks that he had agreed to pay his overlord, Philip, by terms of the treaty, in return for formal recognition of his continental fiefs. John visited these fiefs on a comprehensive tour between June and August of 1200. From Dieppe in Normandy to St Sever in Gascony, he was accompanied by his army in a formidable display of power, designed to impress upon the many rebellious factions within his empire that he possessed the means and determination to force his will upon his widespread dominions. As a further incentive to cooperation, John took hostages as guarantees of good behaviour.
Whatever success this ‘triumphal progress’
might have achieved in its tacit aims of intimidation, it was utterly nullified by one of John’s greatest political blunders: his crass insensitivity to Hugh le Brun and the Lusignans. This episode reveals how John’s acute political awareness was, as was so often the case, squandered by his hopeless inability to manage people or inspire them to place their confidence in him as their lord. Discarding his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, with an ease that must have been the envy of Philip of France, John determined to marry another Isabella, the twelve-year-old daughter and heiress of Count Ademar of Angoulême, claimant to the country of La Marche. He wed her in late August and whisked her back to England. This swiftness of events was in a large part prompted by the uncomfortable fact that Isabella had been betrothed to John’s vassal, Hugh le Brun, Count of La Marche and head of the most influential baronial family in lower Poitou. John’s action was one of a series of offences he committed against the Lusignans (he would argue these were in response to slights against him), but the elopement with Isabella proved the most instrumental in the decisive struggle that was to follow. His motives for marrying Isabella had little to do with lust – although this cannot be entirely discountenanced, as nudging contemporaries pruriently suggested – and even less to do with romance, as some chroniclers and historians have also suggested; instead they were generated by a keen grasp of geo-politics. John wished to prevent Hugh’s marriage to Isabella as the concomitant territorial control would not only have created a physical barrier to his communications between Poitiers and Bordeaux along the network of Roman roads, it would have also dangerously empowered the already refractory Angoulême lords. There was also the major consideration that the existing power structures in Aquitaine might be overthrown: John was fearful that if Hugh combined possession of the counties of Angoulême and La Marche with the lordship of Lusignan, then any shift in his allegiance away from the English crown to Philip of France would cut Aquitaine in half and make it virtually impossible to hold.
The affair might have ended favourably for John had he suitably recompensed Hugh for his loss of face; instead he fixed on a vindictive course which added insult to injury: in place of making amends he offered trial by single combat (by champions of course); worse, in the spring of 1201, he invaded the county of La Marche, seized it in his new wife’s name and attacked the Norman county of Eu, which belonged to Hugh’s brother, Ralph. Daniel Power has written of the importance of this affair: ‘John’s military inadequacies alone do not explain’ his unfolding position; ‘equally significant were his deteriorating relations with the Lusignan family since 1200.’
John had feared a strengthened Lusignan family agitating under the aegis of the Capetians; now, by his own actions, he had forced a weakened but embittered family decisively into the French camp. Hugh and Ralph appealed to King Philip against John’s shabby treatment of them. Philip, as overlord to the Duke of Aquitaine, heard this appeal with some discomfort. His relations with the Papacy over his matrimonial problems were still at a sensitive stage, despite the lifting of a papal interdict on France, and John’s display of power on inheriting his continental lands in 1200 may well have served its purpose in earning Philip’s cautious respect. Furthermore, John had added to his war chest in 1201 when he summoned his troops to Portsmouth. There the expeditionary force was equipped for a campaign that John had arguably never intended to embark upon. Instead, his purpose in gathering this army was to appropriate the soldier’s campaign funds, being the money that they had brought with them to cover their expenses while serving the host: as one chronicler succinctly puts it, ‘He took from some of them the money they would have spent in his service and let them return home.’
The money thereby collected was used to employ 200 mercenaries in Normandy: one half under the command of William Marshal, the other under Roger de Lacy – two generals who were to play such a large part in the coming wars. But Philip’s own position was improved by a settlement of differences with Rome and by the death of Count Theobald of Champagne. This latter event meant a sudden windfall for the French crown: the Count’s heir was a minor, which allowed Philip, as overlord, temporarily to add the substantial resources of this great fief to those of the royal demesne.
The two kings entered into a period of seemingly successful negotiations, culminating in John’s stay in Paris at the end of June, where he was lavishly entertained by Philip. The treaty of Le Goulet was confirmed and John promised Philip to have the Lusignan matter settled in his court as Duke of Aquitaine. John’s troops, however, continued to harass Lusignan forts and to lay waste French territory in the Touraine. The Lusignans pressed Philip to act on their behalf, and by 1202 he was prepared to do so. John’s foot-dragging over fulfilling his promise of the previous June had incited Philip to demand, somewhat ambitiously, the surrender of the most important castles in Normandy – Falaise, Arques and Château Gaillard – as security for his word. John continued to ‘make his excuses’, as Gervase of Canterbury correctly identified them,
and by April, Philip, as feudal overlord, could not be seen to be waiting any longer. Nor did he wish to do so. When, despite having pledged as security the two small satellite castles of Château Gaillard (Tillières and Boutavant), John failed to heed a summons to the French royal court to respond to the charges of injustice raised against him, he was judged,
, as a contumacious vassal and condemned to forfeit his lands held of Philip: his fiefs of Aquitaine, Poitou and Anjou were to revert to the French crown.