The Plantagenets Mini-Series Part II: King John & Henry III

King John

Born: 24 December 1166 in Beaumont Palace, Oxford, England
Succeeded: Richard I (his younger brother as Richard had no legitimate children. He was also Henry II’s youngest son)
Coronation: 27 May 1199
Marriage: Isabella, Countess of Gloucester (m. 1189, ann. 1199); Isabella, Countess of Angouleme (m. 1200 – John’s death)
Reigned: 27 May 1199 – 19 October 1216
Died: 19 October 1216, Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire, England
Preceded: Henry III (eldest surviving son)

John was crowned as King of England less than two months after the death of his older brother, Richard I. From the outset, it appeared that John was to be an unpopular king: according to historian Nicholas Vincent, John had been ‘spoiled by his mother, intimidated by his father and [he] had shown signs of unpleasantness from his early youth.’ When Henry II made John the overlord of Ireland at the tender age of 18, he apparently outraged the Irish kings by pulling their beards and laughing at them.

King John (r. 1199-1216)

In expected fashion, the section covering King John in the classical parody history narrative 1066 And All That is entitled ‘John: An Awful King’. Although it is a parody, it still enforces the common perception that John was indeed a bad king. But that is open to discussion!

Less than a year into his reign, John divorced his first wife to be betrothed to a southern French heiress in 1200. Isabella of Angouleme had previously been betrothed to a local baron who was so outraged that he openly rebelled against John. John’s fifteen-year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany, also joined the baron in rebellion: Arthur was John’s older brother Geoffrey’s eldest surviving son (Geoffrey had died in 1186) and many contemporaries thought that Arthur had a better claim to the throne than John as the son of an elder brother, rather than the ‘wicked uncle.’ Nevertheless, John managed to crush Arthur’s rebellion, and – in similar fashion to Richard III almost 300 years later – the king’s nephew was imprisoned and then miraculously disappeared, never to be heard of again.

Like his father and brother, John spent the majority of his reign in Plantagenet territory on the Continent until his circumstances changed in December 1203. Philip II invaded Normandy, but rather than staying to fight, John left on a ship to Portsmouth. On 6 December 1203 (which was almost 49 years to the day that Henry II landed in England as the first Plantagenet king), Philip conquered Normandy. However, the loss of Normandy was not entirely John’s fault: both Henry II and Richard I had left England for long periods of time (in fact, England had not seen as much of their king since Stephen’s reign until John came to the throne), and they had left huge financial dents in the Crown.

This is the likely reason John became an ‘English’ king – he was forced to spend his time in England building up resources to attempt to recover Normandy. He was essentially duty-bound to do this: by 1204, Philip had overrun Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and all of Poitou bar La Rochelle. As unfortunate circumstances would have it, Philip was now a much more formidable enemy than he had been in Richard I’s reign.

John was also notorious for arguing with the Church: in 1205, he clashed with Pope Innocent III over a disputed election over the see of Canterbury, and in 1208 Innocent laid an interdict on England and Wales demanding that all church services were to be suspended for six years. As David Starkey states, the papal interdict was a ‘clerical strike, in which the clergy refused to say mass, bury corpses, or marry couples.’

Papal relations went from bad to worse for John, and in 1209 he was excommunicated. Although initially John appeared unfazed (because he had confiscated the Church’s estates which eased his financial problems), it would only be a matter of four years before he was back asking for forgiveness.

In 1212, Philip II planned to cross the Channel (which also coupled with a baronial rebellion), and this was enough to scare John into realising how vulnerable he was to invasion and rebellion because of his excommunication. He agreed to make peace with the Church so that he could have a free hand to deal with his enemies. However, this was not at a cheap cost: John had agreed to surrender his kingdom (England and Ireland) to the Pope and receive it back from him as a feudal dependency. John had also promised an annual sum of 1000 marks to Innocent III and his successors in perpetuity. Henry Knighton, a fourteenth-century chronicler, wrote that John had ‘turned himself from a free man into a slave’ for this submission to the Papacy.

Nevertheless, John led an army to Poitou in 1214 – almost ten years after his territory had been lost – but he was roundly defeated at the Battle of Bouvines on 27 July 1214. The battle was a huge gamble: the English were close to winning at one point when Philip II had been thrown off his horse, but the French fought back and overwhelmed the English. John could do nothing: he was at the mercy of his subjects.

Luck appeared to be on John’s side this time, though: in order for a successful rebellion, the rebels required leadership – but there were no obvious leaders. All of John’s brothers were dead, so there was no rival brother of the king to turn to; Prince Arthur had been ‘eliminated’ roughly ten years before this, and Prince Louis (the son of Philip II) was a Capetian Prince – hardly an attractive anti-king rebel leader.

Instead, the rebels devised a new form of revolt: a programme of reform. The rebels captured London and met John at a place near Windsor called Runnymede, and presented him with a document which became known as Magna Carta. The document was (as historians John Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffiths put it) ‘a hostile commentary on some of the more objectionable features of the last 60 years of [Plantagenet] rule.’

One of the few remaining copies of Magna Carta. This one is preserved in Lincoln Cathedral.

Attempts to implement Magna Carta – which was unacceptable to John – led to further debates, revisions and quarrels. John appealed to Pope Innocent III saying that he had been forced to sign Magna Carta. Shockingly, Innocent agreed, and declared Magna Carta null and void.

Civil war broke out. Louis reached England in May 1216, and this was enough to make John sign Magna Carta. On 19 October 1216, King John died ‘unmourned and unloved’, leaving behind his nine-year-old son Prince Henry as his successor. The thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris stated that ‘Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler with the presence of John.’ This was one contemporary opinion that has survived through the ages to paint a picture of how we imagine most contemporaries felt under John’s rule.

So what legacy did John leave behind? Paris’ statement suggests that John’s reign was woeful, and this seems to be true for the most part, with regard to his atypical Plantagenet rage and personality, coupled with England’s territorial losses. Norman Davies argues that John ‘[lost the trust of his subjects] through repeated acts of tyranny, lost the Duchy of Normandy through defeat…and lost the initiative in English politics through the concessions of Magna Carta.’

Interestingly, John’s submission to Innocent III was the central issue in the history of his reign to many medieval chroniclers. There is more emphasis on this in Thomas Gray’s Scalachronica, the Eulogium Historiarum and even  in John Capgrave’s fifteenth century Chronicle of England. This highlights the importance of religion to the chroniclers of the time, and it is likely that only recently historians have begun viewing his social and domestic policies (such as his attitude, his loss in Normandy or the outbreak of civil war leading to Magna Carta) as worse than his submission to the Pope due to societal changes.

It does not help John’s cause that he came after a largely favoured, romanticised warrior king in Richard I, and a seemingly harmless king in Henry III, making him seem all the more unsuccessful, evil and selfish. However, as ever with Plantagenet kings, nothing is as easy as it seems – and this was definitely the case for Henry III.

Henry III

Born: 1 October 1207, Winchester Castle, Hampshire, England

Succeeded: John (his father)
Coronation: 28 October 1216 at Gloucester Abbey; 17 May 1220 at Westminster Abbey
Marriage: Eleanor of Provence on 14 January 1236 at Canterbury Cathedral
Reigned: 28 October 1216 – 16 November 1272
Died: 16 November 1272, Westminster, England
Preceded: Edward I (eldest son)

Henry III (r. 1216-72)

Despite being named after his grandfather, Henry III bore very few similarities to Henry II. Nicholas Vincent states that he was ‘one of those unfortunate kings famed neither for great wickedness nor for outstanding worth.’ This is a typical overview of Henry III – and a largely true one. Although he ruled England for 56 years, Henry III is still one of the most understudied Plantagenet kings, and very few biographies have appeared on him in recent years. He is mostly known for the longevity of his reign, his enthusiasm for building churches, and his infatuation with Edward the Confessor.

Henry was only nine years old when he ascended the throne upon his father’s death. In fairness to John, he had insisted with papal authority that he wanted Henry to succeed him in order to keep the Plantagenet dynasty alive. Henry was coronated immediately in Gloucester Abbey after his father’s death: it was a clear attempt to prevent the barons organising a coronation for Prince Louis in Westminster Abbey first where he might be ‘officially’ received as king.

The question of Magna Carta had not yet disappeared: it was reissued in 1217, and the idea of Parliament was born: the King as the highest member of the council by which England was governed. Even though Henry had very little say in the early years of his reign (he was a minor, so was governed by a body of representatives), his reign initially appeared to be one of success: the ageing regent William Marshal was victorious at the Battle of Lincoln on Saturday 20 May 1217 against Prince Louis’ forces, while Hubert de Burgh (the Justiciar of England) was victorious at the Battle of Sandwich where he intercepted a Capetian fleet off the coast of Dover on 24 August 1217.

However, the relations between Henry’s advisors soon soured as they all fought for personal and political gain. In particular, Hubert de Burgh and Peter des Roches (the French-born Bishop of Winchester) clashed, and in 1223 des Roches attempted to persuade Pope Honorius III to rid Henry’s minority of excessive governors: this plan backfired, and it was eventually de Burgh who edged des Roches from power. Finally, at the age of 19, Henry was declared of age and fit to rule independently.

Henry wanted to recapture Plantagenet territory that had been lost during John’s reign, but none of his advisors had any particular enthusiasm for this, as their families did not have lands in France. Amidst one of these quarrels, the now King Louis VIII of France captured La Rochelle and threatened to take Gascony in 1224. An expedition in 1225 consolidated the position in Gascony but made no attempt to recapture Poitou. After 1224, Gascony was the only territory that remained in Henry III’s hands from what Henry II, Richard I and even John had briefly held.

The 1230s were Henry’s most peaceful years, and arguably, for that reason alone, his most successful years as king. Contemporaries even wrote fairly favourably about him, including Matthew Paris, although this is debatable: Paris tells us (in parchment which was presumably not shown to Henry III) that Henry was interested in the writing of chronicles, and often asked Paris – whom Henry befriended – to show him what he had been writing. Naturally, Paris would not have shown Henry any documents which wrote critically about the Crown.

Cultural developments also came about in England, but not solely in the form of architecture: in 1235, Henry was gifted three ‘leopards’ (probably lions due to their geographical distribution and translation errors) by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. They were kept in the Tower of London and fascinated locals, who eventually had to pay to come and see them, or alternatively bring a cat or dog to feed to them. This collection of animals grew and became London’s first zoo. King Haakon IV of Norway gifted Henry ‘a magnificent white bear’ (likely a polar bear) in 1252 which swam and hunted for fish in the River Thames, and Louis IX gave him an African elephant in 1255.

However, the onset of the 1240s brought about a different tone in Henry’s reign. The construction of Westminster Cathedral had begun in 1245, and almost bankrupted Henry. It was not to be completed for another 25 years. However, due to Magna Carta, the barons began to have more of an influence in these years, and things took a turn for the worse when Henry invited his half-siblings over from France in 1247.

The Lusignans (Henry’s half-siblings and their families from his mother’s previous marriage) automatically assumed positions of political importance, much to the barons’ distaste. The barons did not appreciate that foreigners could automatically assume governmental positions, and found themselves a leader to contest this notion in the form of another one of English history’s most famous names: Simon de Montfort.

Simon de Montfort was, ironically from the barons’ perspective, a Frenchman. He had been Earl of Leicester since 1231, and Henry made him his governor of Gascony. In 1238, de Montfort married Eleanor (Henry’s youngest sister). Henry admired de Montfort, but this feeling was not mutual – de Montfort felt that Henry was dispensable while he was not: ultimately, their relationship collapsed in 1252 when Henry sacked de Montfort from his position in Gascony. This was a grave tactical error on Henry’s behalf, as de Montfort inadvertently became the ideal leader figure for the barons.

Similarly, in 1252, Pope Innocent IV offered Henry the kingdom of Sicily and Henry accepted on his son Edmund’s behalf in 1254. However, Sicily was already held by Manfred (an illegitimate son of Frederick II). Henry absurdly agreed to finance the conquest of Sicily and pay of the Pope’s debts (135,000 marks). The barons had had enough. They took governmental power out of Henry’s hands and it resulted in a far-reaching programme of reform.

Firstly, the Provisions of Oxford in October 1258 asserted the authority of the barons’ representation in the King’s government and also demonstrated the barons’ ability to press their concerns in opposition to the monarchy. The Provisions of Westminster in October 1259 also reinforced the earlier provisions, as well as furthering taxation reforms. Naturally, Henry was outraged that power had been taken out of an adult king’s hands, and England teetered on the brink of civil war. Eventually, this culminated in the period known as the Second Barons’ War (1264-67).

Simon de Montfort led the rebels against Henry. Fortunately for the rebels, de Montfort had been a crusader, and crushed Henry’s forces at the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264. Prince Edward, Henry’s eldest son, fought valiantly and won his area of the battle, but de Montfort’s forces were too well organised and defeated Henry’s army. Prince Edward escaped from captivity and raised another force over the course of a year. Fifteen months later, the two forces met again, at the Battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265. This time, Prince Edward was successful. Not only did his army defeat de Montfort’s, but de Montfort was killed, and dismembered on the battlefield.

Despite the threat of de Montfort being no more, the civil war lingered on until 1267, when the final pockets of resistance were looted out. The Statute of Marlborough passed in 1267 effectively ended the Second Barons’ War (much how the 1217 signing of Magna Carta had ended the First Barons’ War), and thus brought the civil war in England to an end as well. Some contemporaries and historians alike have compared Simon de Montfort to Thomas Becket, but that can be a whole other topic for a different podcast altogether!

Westminster Abbey – Henry III’s greatest legacy?

By 1269, Westminster Abbey had finally been completed, and was the grandest church in Western Europe. Henry had nearly bankrupted the crown, but he had a monument left to unite parliament and royalty in a magnificent church. At the heart of the Abbey was a shrine to Edward the Confessor.

Henry III died in Westminster, on 16 November 1272, aged 65. His 56 year reign had seen two civil wars, but it had also seen the building of one of the finest churches in England, the introduction of exotic animals to England, and a fairly agreeable middle ground between the King and Parliament. Although this issue was to plague monarchs for the majority of English history, Henry III should not be seen as a ‘boring’ king just because he was not a warrior or involved in massive controversies. 

His eldest son Edward succeeded him and started the Edwardian period of the Middle Ages – a period which brought about changes in warfare, politics and domestic policy that had never been seen before. Plantagenet focus shifted from France to Scotland, and a war on the northern frontiers of the Plantagenet empire erupted. More of that next time though!

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.

Further Reading

Norman Davies, Europe: A History (London: The Bodley Head, 2014)
John Gillingham & Ralph A. Griffiths, Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London: Hambledon and London, 2004)
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of England (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2012)
W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, 1066 And All That (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1930) (the edition I’ve used is the 1999 reprint)
David Starkey, Crown & Country. The Kings and Queens of England: A History (London: Harper Press, 2010)
Nicholas Vincent, A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485: The Birth of the Nation (London: Robinson, 2011)

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