This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.
In October 1216 the king of England, travelling across country with what remained of his followers, stopped for a night’s rest at the abbey of Swineshead, deep in the Lincolnshire Fens. It had been hard going and he’d lost half of his baggage train in the treacherous fenland.
The abbey was thrown into disarray by his arrival. Its residents scrambled to find accommodation and food for the king and his men, painfully aware that John brought civil war to their doorstep.
At the same time as the king demanded hospitality, Louis of France – attempting to seize John’s kingdom at the head of a determined force of rebel English barons – was laying siege to Dover Castle. The French prince had already received the submission of London and Winchester, and besieged the castles at Windsor and Lincoln. John had not faced him in battle, retreating north in the hope of regrouping his forces.
The abbot would hardly have wanted to host John, even in better times. The king had a reputation for unpredictable cruelty and malicious spite. It was widely rumoured that he had killed his nephew Arthur with his own hands – certainly the young prince, a rival claimant for the English throne, had died while in John’s keeping.
The king had a nasty habit of demanding hostages from his own nobles as a guarantee of their loyalty. In 1208 one noblewoman, Matilda de Briouze, had refused to hand over her eldest son for fear that he would meet the same fate as Arthur. Within two years the family had been destroyed. Matilda’s husband was outlawed and forced into exile, where he died. John arrested and imprisoned Matilda and her son, and starved them to death.
Sitting at dinner in Swineshead Abbey, John asked a wary monk how much a loaf of bread cost. No more than a halfpenny, he was told, and the king smiled humourlessly. “What good value,” he murmured. “But if I live, in half a year’s time this same loaf will cost as much as 20 shillings. I swear it.” The monk was aghast. John’s remark made no sense – or if it did, it meant famine and starvation, the ruin of his people. He stared at the king, and thought he would rather die than witness John’s threat come to pass.
The monk went to his abbot and was confessed of his sins. Then he went into the abbey garden and found a toad – the only source of poison he could think of. He pricked the toad with a brooch pin, and gathered the white fluid that oozed out of its skin into a cup. Then he filled the cup with strong ale and took it to the king, offering him the old English toast: “wassail!” Ever suspicious, John told the monk to drink first, and he did. Then John drank.
Bufotoxin, the poison produced by toads, can stop the heart or set it racing. It causes nausea, vomiting, seizures, pain and hallucinations – and death. There is no known antidote. The monk left the king and went directly to the abbey infirmary. In great pain, John demanded to know where he was and received the news that the monk had died. The king panicked and demanded that they bind up his swollen stomach. Hours later, he too was dead.
So goes the story of King John’s untimely death, as told in the Brut Chronicle of English history, written towards the end of the 13th century. As the pages of the Brut tell us, the king was remembered as a hated figure, a tyrant, the man who had been made to seal Magna Carta and then tried to annul it, denying the English their ancient rights of justice and the law.
But John’s sudden demise marked a turning point – a dramatic change in the course of the civil war between the rebel barons and the king’s supporters. Men who had despaired of John were willing to back the cause of his son Henry, who was nine years old. And when Prince Louis’ forces were defeated at the battle of Lincoln in 1217, Louis was paid to renounce his claim and return to France.
The rebels pledged allegiance to Henry III, and were forgiven. Magna Carta was reissued in the new king’s name and it became iconic in English politics, repeatedly reissued by Henry III and later kings, enforced by rebellious barons. It was a potent symbol of the limitations of royal power, the refusal of the English people ever to submit to tyranny.
The act of a hero
Without John’s death, everything might have been different. By killing his king, the anonymous monk released England from the clutches of a tyrant, and opened the way to a new settlement, a permanent shift in the balance of power between the king and his people. It was the act of a hero: bravely undertaken for the greater good.
But John wasn’t murdered. It’s true that he visited Swineshead Abbey on his last journey. But he was sick, with dysentery, and struggled on as far as Newark, where he died on the night of 18/19 October, after making a will and nominating a council to support the claims of his son Henry. One historian writing at the time said that John had made himself ill with his “pernicious gluttony”. Others, writing in the following decade, declared that John’s death was the inevitable judgment of God on his sins. But they all agreed on one thing: King John died of dysentery in Newark.
And yet when the vivid story of John’s murder at the hands of the Swineshead monk appeared in the chronicles, perhaps 50 years later, it was suddenly everywhere – in histories written in Latin, French and English; in popular stories, poems and songs. One learned Latin historian in the 14th century said that, while John had died at Newark, “popular rumour” believed otherwise, and then he told the whole tale in detail. Even the historian who knew it to be false couldn’t resist it – and many others simply presented it as fact.
A sumptuously illustrated manuscript created towards the end of the 13th century, now in the British Library, depicts the kings of England from Edward the Confessor to Edward I. In its picture of John (shown above), the king stares suspiciously at the poisoned cup proffered by a nervous monk.
John’s murder had become the defining event of his reign: the just punishment of a tyrant, and an act of national salvation, carried out by a patriotic subject.
The success of this story is important, and revealing. That’s because it tells us just as much about the English people’s evolving attitudes towards their kings, as it does about the death of John.
Kings were anointed with holy oil at their coronation. They were God’s representatives on Earth, placed in supreme authority to rule over their subjects. When John faced his baronial opponents he was supported by the pope, who excommunicated the rebels for resisting their rightful king.
But the rebels did not believe that they were doing wrong. They had renounced their homage to John in response to his abuses – his arbitrary exactions and punishments, his manipulation of the laws to destroy those who opposed him, his refusal to accept the counsel and advice of his greatest magnates. They had offered their allegiance to Louis, an alternative claimant – a man of royal blood, married to a granddaughter of Henry II – because of their belief in the essential nature of kingship. The rebels could not envisage England without a king. But they demanded that their king uphold law and justice.
The events of John’s reign were a beginning, the start of real resistance to abuses of kingship. There had been wars before, but they had always been openly self-interested, a matter of rival claimants’ attempts to seize power for themselves. Now, for the first time, the English went to war over an idea of what English government and kingship should be.
As the 13th century wore on, this idea of kingship – authority by consent of the people, subject to the laws enshrined in Magna Carta – became embedded in English politics. Political awareness spread far beyond the royal court and the greatest nobility: people in every town, village and parish church heard Magna Carta proclaimed, and they expected the king to uphold it.
In 1253 Henry III had been repeatedly denied grants of taxation by parliament, and he was forced to reassert his support of the charter. He and all the great men of the realm pronounced an oath that placed a sentence of excommunication on anyone who broke the terms of Magna Carta. Standing in a circle holding lit candles, they threw them to the ground, so that the flames guttered out and smoke rose from the floor, while bells were rung. “So let any who break this oath be extinguished and stink in hell,” they intoned. The king made his own promise: “So help me God, I will faithfully keep all these things inviolate, as I am a man, as I am a Christian, as I am a knight, and as I am a crowned and anointed king.” This pronouncement was read out in all the parish churches in England, so that everyone in the land could hear it.
Yet no matter how earnest Henry’s promises and pronouncements, they weren’t enough to placate his persistently rebellious barons. And when opposition to his rule finally coalesced into the Barons’ Wars of the 1260s, ordinary people – far more politically active than they were at the beginning of the century – joined the cause. As the two sides squared up in an increasingly bitter conflict, the barons’ leader, Simon de Montfort, was heralded as a saviour of the English people. And when the barons defeated the king’s forces at the battle of Lewes in 1264, a long poem celebrated their victory, describing how they had “fought for England” against Henry’s tyranny and injustice.
Martyrdom of a rebel
But the rebels’ triumph was short-lived. The following year, at the battle of Evesham, the royalists exacted revenge, slaughtering Simon de Montfort and many of his supporters on the field. Such was the enmity between the combatants that Montfort’s body was mutilated and torn apart. The king’s forces then pursued and killed as many rebels as they could. One witness wrote of the slaughter of a group who had sought sanctuary in a church, remarking that the floor was so deep in blood it flowed down into the crypt.
The horrors of 1265 lodged themselves in popular memory for a very long time. As late as the following century, poems and songs lamenting the loss of Simon de Montfort were copied into manuscripts. This had not just been a struggle between powerful noblemen. Village preachers had taken up the cause and farmers and tradesmen had joined in battle alongside their lords. A few days after Evesham, villagers of Peatling Magna, a small parish in Leicestershire, attacked the royalist baggage train, accusing the party of “treason and other heinous offences because they were against the welfare of the community of the realm and against the barons”.
De Montfort was hailed as a martyr, a man who had died in a holy cause, fighting for the English people. His death was a shocking break with custom. Not since the battle of Hastings in 1066 had any great English nobleman been killed on the field of battle. Now, powerful men were putting themselves in mortal danger, dying for “the whole community of the realm”. It was the most potent of ideas, and it changed English history.
So English politics looked very different by the time the story of John’s murder appeared in the chronicles, 60 or 70 years after his death. No longer the preserve of a tiny minority of the nobility, the institution of parliament was growing in power and reach, while public awareness of matters of governance, law and justice had penetrated to every town and village in the country, to every parish church, smithy, pub and market square. The tale of John’s poisoning must have come from those places, from ordinary people, in conversations long lost to us.
It began as a rumour, was elaborated and circulated. It gained in details and in drama – and then, finally, it reached into the written record. It was a direct contradiction of known history, but was a tale too compelling to ignore, too convincing to dismiss.
When Edward II was crowned in 1308, he was made to swear a new oath to his people: “To maintain and preserve the laws and rightful customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen.” Within two months, enraged with Edward’s promotion of his favourite, Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Lincoln led the barons of the realm in a statement of their position: “Honour and oath of allegiance are more in respect of the crown than in respect of the king’s person.” If the king should fail to honour the dignity of the crown, if he appears “not to be guided by reason”, then their duty is to the crown, not to the king. Two years later, the barons added that “unless the king granted their requests they would not have him for king”, for “with the breaker of faith, faith may be broken”.
In 1327 Edward II was deposed by parliament, with the consent of “all the people”. The medal struck to mark his young son Edward III’s coronation bore a new legend: Populi dat iura voluntas: ‘The will of the people makes the law.’ The people of England had come to believe they had the right to judge their king – just as they had created, and believed, the story that one anonymous monk had judged and executed a king more than a century before.
Laura Ashe specialises in the literature, history and culture of medieval England at the University of Oxford. Her books include Richard II: A Brittle Glory (Allen Lane, 2016).