Authors: Sean McGlynn
The fragile agreement of Le Goulet had already been violated by both Kings: John had renewed his support for his nephew Otto of Brunswick’s claim to the imperial throne; Philip had engaged his daughter Marie to Arthur of Brittany, thereby re-establishing ties with John’s enemy. But Philip’s dramatic judgement meant all-out war. Hostilities were immediately opened by French attacks on Boutavant and Tillières, both of which were taken and razed to the ground.
John set up his campaign headquarters at Pont l’Arche in the Seine Valley where he must have rued his change of fortune. He had lost valuable allies to the Fourth Crusade, upon which the Counts of Flanders, Blois and Perche had embarked; and the Counts of Toulouse and Boulogne were transferring their allegiances to Philip.
The French King swept through the north-eastern frontier, meeting with little resistance until he reached Gournay.
Philip’s strategy had been to isolate Gournay by first taking the castles in the Forest of Lions. With this achieved Gournay had only its formidable defences to rely upon. The castle was situated in marshland and was protected by three curtain walls, wide and deep moats and the river Epte. It lay under the control of a loyal Angevin officer by the name of Brandin and both he and the garrison were offered considerable rewards by John if they maintained a successful defence. Philip, however, whose military achievements lay primarily in his skill as a castle-breaker, rose to the challenge with great ingenuity. Seeing that the castle was all but impregnable to anything but a lengthy siege, he turned, as he so often did, to his engineers. He instructed them to break the dam wall of a large weir that lay farther up the river. The result was an inundation the sheer power and volume of which so compromised Gournay’s defences the garrison was compelled to surrender. William the Breton claimed the whole area looked like a sea. Philip rebuilt the defences and by mid-July had moved to Arques, which lies on the Varenne river and which protected the vital port of Dieppe (that Richard I had given to Walter, Archbishop of Rouen, in exchange for Andely and the construction there of Château Gaillard). John hoped to raise the siege here by cutting off French supplies: he intended to do this himself by land while his ships from the Cinque Ports did likewise at sea.
In the southern theatre of war Arthur led his Bretons and Poitevin allies up the Loire valley into the strategic nerve centre of the Angevin Empire. As a rival claimant to the throne of England, the teenaged Arthur (he was born in 1187), who had been brought up in the French court with Philip’s son, Prince Louis, was an obvious weapon in Philip’s armoury. The French King had knighted him and accepted his homage for Brittany, Anjou, Poitou, Maine and Touraine – on the provision that Arthur could seize them. Philip intended to keep Normandy for himself. Philip had furnished him with money and 200 elite knights and sent him to Poitou where his forces were augmented by the Lusignans, Savary de Mauléon and other barons, including feudal contingents from Berry and Bourges. In all, Arthur may have been at the head of 1000 men when he marched on the Castle of Mirebeau at the end of July. This castle, lying between Angers and Poitiers, was at that moment offering hospitality to his grandmother, and John’s mother, the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine, now approaching her eighties but still a major player on the political scene. Despite Philip’s characteristic advice to proceed cautiously, the proud and headstrong Arthur was not inclined to miss this opportunity of bagging such a great prize. Eleanor managed to despatch an urgent letter to her son, begging him for his immediate assistance. John, already moving south, met her courier near Le Mans on 30 July. Prompted by William des Roches, the castellan of Chinon whom John had made Seneschal of Anjou following his alienation from Philip, he marched with truly remarkable speed to Mirebeau, which his troops reached within 48 hours, having covered a distance of some 80 miles.
The sources do not agree on the events at Mirebeau, but a detailed composite picture can be drawn up. The anonymous narrator of Béthune, the most complete and reliable of the sources, relates that the town of Mirebeau surrendered but the castle, to which the garrison had withdrawn, remained defiant. Arthur requested Eleanor to leave the castle; she expressed her indignant surprise at the affrontery of his actions. Arthur’s force billeted in the town and settled down for a siege, unaware of John’s rapid approach. Early in the morning of 1 August, the English king’s army under the lead of William des Roches, burst upon the besiegers. The startled look-outs sent up the cry of ‘To arms! To arms!’ Ralph of Coggleshall claims that all the town’s gates except one had been secured; the Anonymous confirms that the Poitevins had been unable to close this gate. It was presumably through this poorly defended entrance that William and his troops stormed into the town. Once in, they fought to open the other gates. The element of surprise was total and had been used to the fullest advantage by the royalist forces. Geoffrey de Lusignan, we are told, did not stir himself from his breakfast dish of pigeons; if this were true, he must have mistakenly considered his defences secure enough to deter a precipitous assault. Others were not so confident. Hugh le Brun and his brother Ralph mounted their horses and rushed to the gates where they were met by the sight of William des Roches’ men breaking through. Royalist troops cascaded along the streets of Mirebeau, converging on the town centre. In the ensuing combat, des Roches is recorded as having three horses killed beneath him. We are led to believe, somewhat improbably, that even John entered the thick of the mêlée that erupted throughout the town. The Poitevins were completely routed. No one of any consequence escaped. William the Breton, forever making excuses for the defeats suffered by the French and their allies, claims that John’s soldiers had made a cowardly and, by implication, unchivalrous night attack that offered Arthur’s forces no chance of a spirited resistance. Relying on the effects of the day’s labours and drink to put the besiegers into a deep sleep, William depicts the royalist troops creeping furtively into the town and overcoming their opponents who were still in their beds (as if this somehow places the French troops in a better light). Roger of Wendover’s account differs slightly again and should not be entirely dismissed: his
becomes contemporaneous around this time. In his version, the besiegers left the town ‘in pompous array’ to meet the oncoming Angevin troops. Both sides drew up in battle order and engaged with each other. The royalists gained the upper hand and Arthur’s force withdrew hastily to the town; but they were pursued so closely by the royalist cavalry they were unable to close the gates behind them (other references remark on an unsecured gate) and both sets of belligerents entered the town together. Although none of these sources mention it, it is possible that at the crucial stage of the battle some of Eleanor’s garrison in the castle sallied forth to aid the relief army, thereby catching the besiegers in the middle of two hostile onslaughts. Whatever the exact details, John’s decisive response to the situation at Mirebeau had earned him a great victory.
John’s swift reaction to the threat faced by his mother reveals his ability to act rapidly in a crisis. His forced march to raise the siege offers a good example of the need for a military commander to act quickly and decisively. However, this in itself was not enough: the efficacy and use of such rapid movement was equally important. John might easily have rushed headlong into an ambush; we might suppose that William des Roches provided him with good intelligence of the enemy’s disposition. Philip Augustus had once been caught by acting over-zealously in a military situation and inadvertently hurled himself into a dangerous ambush – although William the Breton unconvincingly claims that this was both understandable and excusable given Philip’s unrestrained martial vigour and eagerness for the fray.
John would also have recalled how Richard failed to lift the siege of Aumâle in 1196: his attempt to surprise the French camp after a forced march floundered because of the well-entrenched and thoroughly prepared defences of the besiegers.
Although the Omanian school of thought on medieval warfare has been discounted, we can see how its thinking may have developed when we encounter such instances of spontaneous reactions by medieval generals. The idea that soldiers, and knights in particular, had only to get a whiff of the enemy to charge headlong into battle is exaggerated; indeed, medieval commanders placed great emphasis on battle avoidance. Chroniclers, especially those favourable to the subject of their attentions, liked to stress the resoluteness of the commander who responded immediately and boldly to any danger. The real skill lay in knowing when to act quickly and when not to act at all: some military actions were undertaken with the express purpose of provoking the enemy into taking steps that were to their ultimate disadvantage (a major strategy of the 1215–17 war in England). John’s response to Mirebeau was appropriate and vindicated by the hugely successful outcome. He was well aware of the benefits that speed could bestow upon a commander. His father, Henry II, said while campaigning in France: ‘Many castles, farms and cities lie exposed to us which we can easily overrun by a forced march.’ His brother Richard, the epitome of energetic generalship, characteristically commented: ‘To those who are well prepared, delay has always been and always will be dangerous.’ John would have also remembered the great effectiveness of Philip’s speed in raising the siege of the important Castle of Vaudreuil in 1194. William the Breton was astonished by this remarkable forced march:
I am amazed
That he [Philip] could, like a giant, complete an eight day march in three;
And who could not be astounded that this king, with his troops,
Fully armed, travelling as if with wings rather than feet,
Could make so many days’ march in so short a time?
What runner or pilgrim with winged feet,
Having fulfilled a vow and wishing to return home,
Can boast of having ever similarly covered
One hundred and fifty miles in three days?
It is interesting to compare the rate of this march (150 miles in three days) with John’s (80 miles in two days); unsurprisingly, both impressed contemporary observers.
John had done well. He appreciated the urgency to raise the siege before it succeeded through storming, mining, bombardment or the arrival of reinforcements; Mirebeau would be hard to win back if the castle fell into enemy hands. As John was to find to his cost later, the loss of an important stronghold could prompt a rapid realignment of alliances and defections to the side deemed to be gaining the upper hand in the contest. John was justly elated by his victory – he did not have too many – and expressed his joy in a letter sent to England telling of his ‘happy success’ in seizing over 200 prisoners. Among the captives were Arthur himself (seized by William de Braose), Geoffrey de Lusignan, Hugh le Brun, Andrew de Chauvigny, Raymond de Thouars and Savary de Mauléon. No wonder he crowed that ‘he had got the lot’; Warren assesses that ‘not until Crécy were English arms to gain so resounding a success.’
If John had deliberately provoked the Lusignans into revolt through his marriage to Isabella, it had seemingly worked out brilliantly. The shock-waves hit King Philip at Arques, where his siege machines had been pounding the town’s defences for over a fortnight. He immediately raised camp, abandoned the investiture, and force-marched his troops to Tours, but arrived too late to salvage anything from this heavy defeat. With nothing to be done but to assimilate the new political and military situation into a new strategy, he returned to Paris. William Marshal pursued the French army, hoping to inflict telling damage during its retreat; but the French kept their discipline and withdrew in good order and did not expose any weaknesses that could be exploited by the harassment of the Angevin soldiers. This pursuit was limited, being curtailed by effective and well-executed counter-measures put into operation by Philip. As he withdrew, he left the Norman borders in flames, sparing neither churches nor monasteries. It was one of only two major victories over Philip.
At one blow John had become master of events. Arthur of Brittany and Geoffrey de Lusignan were incarcerated in the mighty fortress of Falaise; Hugh le Brun was thrown into the
of Caen Castle. Many of the other prisoners were shipped to Corfe Castle in England, where a dramatic postscript to events occurred. Amongst these prisoners was the romantic adventurer Savary de Mauléon, who led an attempted prison break-out. Having apparently made four guards drunk, he took possession of the keep, which then had to be invested by English troops. Tellingly, 22 of the prisoners starved to death rather than surrender, an indication of the harshness of the conditions of their captivity. Savary, through the mediation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter (who was sympathetic to Arthur’s cause), came to terms with John: his wife and mother were amongst the hostages he had to pledge for his future loyal service.
The one remaining possible focus of revolt, Viscount Guy de Limoges, also fell into John’s hands by September. Not only had the opposition leadership been removed; with their capture came the enormous military assets of many of their castles. But John failed miserably to capitalise on his extraordinary good fortune. With no lessons learned, once again his egregious mishandling and poisonous mistrust of his most powerful subjects had disastrous consequences. If indeed John could not resist kicking a man when he was down, nor could he retain his balance when putting the boot in; the result was usually John ending up on the floor.
It was, ultimately, John’s treatment of his most illustrious captive, Arthur of Brittany, that caused him to squander the aces in his hand. William des Roches, whose invaluable assistance at Mirebeau was given on the understanding that he would have a say in Arthur’s fate, went unheeded when he pleaded for Arthur’s release. John had, instead, moved Arthur from Falaise to Rouen, capital of Normandy. Dark rumours soon spread concerning Arthur’s fate and his suspected murder; speculation abounded in much the same way as would in the similar case of Richard III and the princes in the tower, when another English monarch stood accused of slaying his nephews, but again without conclusive evidence. A story of Ralph of Coggeshall relates how John had attempted to blind and castrate Arthur (to prevent any heirs laying claim to the throne), only to be prevented by the king’s chamberlain, Hubert de Burgh. It has been suggested that Arthur actually died from shock after being castrated. By Easter of 1203 it was widely believed that John had done away with Arthur. Two contemporary writers offer circumstantial evidence for Arthur’s murder. The Annals of Margam claim that John, drunk one night after dinner, killed his nephew with his own hands and threw his body, attached to a heavy stone, into the Seine. Though dramatic, this is a serious account: Margam Abbey had for its patron William de Braose, who was with John and party to events at this time, which may have been a reason for de Braose’s downfall. William the Breton paints an even blacker picture of John, who coldly murders Arthur after taking him out alone in a boat at night, plunging his sword into his stomach, and then rowing three miles in darkness on the Seine before dumping the corpse overboard. However, it is highly unlikely that John was possessed of enough courage to risk being alone with Arthur, or even capable of rowing three miles. But the agreement on the use of the Seine for the purpose of disposing Arthur’s body does lend some verisimilitude to this aspect of the accounts. Later assertions that Arthur had died of self-pity or in trying to escape by swimming across the Seine have done little to alleviate suspicions. Whatever the real story, it is highly probable that John did have Arthur slain; certainly, this is what the Bretons believed.