"The whole land was covered with these limbs of the devil like locusts, who assembled to blot out everything from the face of the earth; for, running about with drawn swords and knives, they ransacked towns, houses, cemeteries, and churches, robbing everyone, sparing neither women nor children."


Thus wrote the contemporary chronicler Roger of Wendover, describing events in England during the winter of 1215–16. “These limbs of the devil” were the troops of King John, engaged in a bitter civil war at the very end of the monarch’s reign. This war witnessed the emergence of Magna Carta; the death of King John; a French invasion of England that was almost a second Norman Conquest; ‘King’ Louis I ruling one-third of England for a year; an English naval victory that ranks with the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and a major formative period in the emergence of English national identity. Oh, and it may even provide the prototype for Robin Hood. Despite all this, until now there has been no book dedicated to this dramatic course of events.

In popular perception, John is ‘Bad King John’, an impression reinforced with exuberance through decades of negative imagery on the screen. Whether in The Lion in Winter (1968), the BBC series Ivanhoe (1997), or the Robin Hood film starring Russell Crowe, John is portrayed as sly, cowardly, incompetent and completely reprehensible.

Despite some attempts at historical revisionism, the popular hostile view remains essentially correct and actually reflects the views of John’s contemporaries. William of Newburgh calls him “nature’s enemy”; the Barnwell chronicler labels him “a pillager of his own people”; Richard of Devizes depicts him as a raging madman who “emitted foam from his mouth”. Even sources from men fighting for John have little good to say of him. The Anonymous of Béthune summed John up simply and damningly with “he had too many bad qualities”.

The rebellion that began in England in 1215 was a long time in gestation, and John was its feckless father. Crowned in 1199, and momentarily victorious over his enemies at Mirebeau (western France) in 1202, John captured and almost certainly murdered his teenaged nephew, Arthur of Brittany, and alienated powerful Norman lords by the harsh mistreatment of his prisoners.

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Worse still, his defence of his continental lands was fitful and ineffective. By June 1204, the French king, Philip Augustus, had conquered Normandy. Wendover hints that John, who had beaten a precipitous retreat to England, preferred “enjoying all the pleasures of life” with his barely teenaged bride, boasting that he had plenty of money to retake all that had been lost. However, it was the collection of this money that drained baronial incomes and fostered their discontent.

The rest of John’s reign was dominated by his attempts to win back his lost lands and lost pride. To this end, he put the screws on England. Royal income rose to an all-time high as John relentlessly pursued all sources of revenue, happily capitalising on a papal interdict imposed upon his kingdom (from 1208) to exploit the wealth of the church.

More damaging was his treatment of the baronage. Infamously, in 1210 the chronicles unite in reporting that he had the wife and son of William de Briouze, a royal debtor, starved to death, probably in Windsor Castle. At court, his lecherous behaviour led to rumours and accusations that John was a serial seducer of barons’ wives and daughters. Two of the rebellion’s leaders, Robert fi tz Walter and Eustace de Vesci, offered this as a major reason for their revolt. It seemed that no one was safe from John’s arbitrary rule.

For his grand French campaign of the summer of 1214, John had exacted a record scutage. Scutage was a feudal relief by which barons paid money in lieu of military service to the crown. John had levied it so often (eleven times compared to Richard’s three) that it now resembled a regular tax. It was the last straw. John had poured his huge resources into the campaign only to meet with complete failure in the summer.

By September 1214, many barons simply refused to pay scutage. No one believed that John’s military endeavours were worth investing in, a feeling readily expressed by the king’s revealing contemporary nickname of ‘Softsword’. In John’s absence the barons had conspired to resist the king. John returned to England in October to face the greatest threat of his reign. Inconclusive talks between king and barons ran alongside military preparations. War was imminent.

By May 1215 it had broken. The rebels, under the title of ‘the Army of God’, mustered at Northampton and formally defied the king by breaking their homage and fealty. Of nearly 200 baronies in England, only some 40 declared for the rebels. However, only a similar number sided openly with the king; the majority simply stepped aside, not wishing to become embroiled in the conflict. Families were split in their loyalties: William Marshal, soon to be regent of England, stood by the king, while his eldest son opted for the rebels. John’s main advantage was his string of some 150 royal castles across the country.

The same month, the Army of God had their greatest success: they occupied the city of London, a vital power base that they held for over two years. Across the country, Lincoln, Northampton and Exeter also fell to them as they gained momentum and the political initiative.

With the tide turning against him, John agreed to meet the rebels at Runnymede here, in mid-June, he sealed Magna Carta. Among its clauses, Magna Carta calls for a guarantee to all free men of protection from illegal imprisonment and seizure of property. It also demands access to swift justice, and, anticipating parliamentary assent for taxation, scutage limitations as agreed by a new “common council” of the realm. All are indictments of John’s style of governance. The charter established a monitoring committee of 25 barons with a mandate to wage war on the king if he failed to uphold the agreement, something one historian has called “the most fantastic surrender of any English king to his subjects”

But John was only buying time and never had any intention of honouring the charter. It proved but a temporary truce. By the time the war restarted in September, much had changed. The king had the backing of the pope, who denounced Magna Carta as “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust” and now placed the rebels’ lands under interdict. Meanwhile the rebels had sought a powerful new ally of their own: Prince Louis of France, heir to the French throne.

With no disaffected royal family member with whom to join in common cause (John was the last of Henry II’s sons), Louis, later known as the Lion, was the natural choice. His wife, Blanche of Castile, was a grand-daughter of Henry II. (Louis might actually have inherited the Angevin lands legally had John died without children.) He accepted the offer of the crown of England and promised help.

This aid did not come soon enough to help the rebels besieged in Rochester Castle. Under the command of William d’Albini, they held out against the might of John’s concentrated forces for seven weeks. The Barnwell annalist declares that “living memory does not recall a siege so fiercely pressed or so staunchly resisted”. A mine brought down one tower but it was starvation that forced the defenders’ surrender. “In his anger,” says Wendover, John “ordered all the nobles to be hung”, but was persuaded against this by a military adviser who warned of reprisals.

A small advanced French force arrived in London in November, grumbling that the lack of wine meant that they had to drink English beer. Meanwhile, the rebels’ ally in Scotland, King Alexander II, went on the warpath. At the end of December, John led his army on a ravaging expedition north, causing the devastation described in the opening quote. He burned Berwick before returning south, seemingly triumphant. Ralph Coggeshall writes of John’s troops: “They made great slaughter, as they did everywhere they went”.

However London remained in rebel hands. Militarily and politically, John made a major mistake in avoiding dealing with the most serious threat. Louis was able to reinforce the London garrison and on 21 May he launched a full-scale invasion force, landing unopposed on the Isle of Thanet (in Kent). Rochester was quickly retaken, and royalist forces were pushed westwards as Louis took control of the south.

Sensing the new momentum, leading royalist barons went over to the rebel side, including one of John’s foremost generals, his half-brother William Longsword. Pockets of royalist resistance held out at Windsor, and, vitally, Dover. In the huge southern forest of the Weald, William of Kensham (‘Willikin’) led bands of archers in guerrilla attacks on the French. But Louis and the rebels swiftly established control of about one-third of England. By the end of the summer, two-thirds of the baronage had declared for Louis.

John dies, royalists rally

Alexander II was able to progress from Scotland all the way to Dover where, in September, he paid homage to Louis, king of England in all but name. Just as it seemed England might be about to undergo a second foreign conquest 150 years after the fi rst in 1066, everything changed in a moment. On 19 October, having contracted dysentery, John performed his best service to the protection of the country: he died.

This transformed the situation. The grievances against John could not be laid at the door of his unblemished heir, the nine-year-old Henry III. And so, under the protection of the elderly William Marshal as regent, the royalists rallied the English “to defend our land” against the French invaders, who had not helped their cause by their arrogant behaviour and expectations of landed spoils. Once again, the flow reversed to the royalists. A period of intermittent warfare and truces followed until the spring. On 20 May 1217, rebel and French forces were fi nally broken at the siege of Lincoln. Those who suffered in the war took their revenge on the French who attempted to flee back to London. Wendover records: Many of them, especially the foot-soldiers, were slain before they got to Louis; for the inhabitants of the towns through which they passed in their flight went to meet them with swords and clubs, and, laying ambushes for them, killed many.

Hemmed up in London, the French now relied on reinforcements from France. These were dispatched in a major fleet that was met by an English naval force off Sandwich on 24 August. Displaying their superior skills, the English, using the wind direction to blind their enemies with lime dust, annihilated the French and beheaded their commander, the mercenary Eustace the Monk, on the deck of his flagship. It was the most important English naval victory until the Spanish Armada in 1588. On hearing of this defeat, Louis, says the Dunstable annalist, went mad with grief and rage and then, “destitute of present aid and despairing of the future”, he sought peace terms. These were granted at Kingston on 12 September, marking the official ending of the war. Louis was back in France before the end of the month.

Louis’ involvement in the baronial revolt might well have led him to being crowned Louis I of England, but his luck ran out when John died. He was also hampered by the fact that he was a foreigner. Resentment of French troops in England grew throughout the course of the war – just as the barons had resented the presence of John’s foreign mercenaries.

As a result, England emerged with a strengthened sense of national identity. More importantly for its people, shocked by the impact of invasion, the rest of the century was to be relatively peaceful. The blame for the war itself can be fairly laid on John’s incompetent shoulders. Contemporaries were certainly not inclined to exculpate him, as this rhyme demonstrates: With John’s foul deeds England’s whole realm is stinking, As Hell is, too, where he is now sinking.

John’s battles with the barons, French and Scots: a timeline

June 1204: The French seize Normandy
Philip Augustus of France’s campaign to annex Normandy succeeds with the fall of Rouen. He also makes gains at John’s expense in Anjou and Poitou. John’s need to recover his landsleads to increasingly heavy taxation in England.

July 1214: John’s French campaign fails

John’s grand campaign in France collapses when his allies are defeated by Philip at Bouvines. John returns to England in October where baronial discontent has been heightened by a heavy scutage levy.

May 1215: The barons revolt against John

The barons, led by Robert fitz Walter, renounce their homage to the king. The revolt begins with military operations at Northampton. The rebels soon take London.

June 1215: John agrees to sign Magna Carta

John seals Magna Carta at Runnymede. A council of 25 barons is formed to monitor John’s adherence to the agreement.

December 1215: John ravages southern Scotland

Alexander II of Scotland invades northern England. John leads a ravaging expedition north and sacks Berwick.

21 May 1216: A French army lands in Kent

Prince Louis of France arrives in Kent with his main invasion force.

Summer 1216: The siege of Dover begins

Dover Castle was a crucial element in England’s medieval defensive network. Matthew Paris called it, “The key to England”. Prince Louis of France himself took personal charge of most of the military operations there, beginning the siege of royalist forces on in the summer of 1216. Drawing up his war engines, one of which was labelled ‘Evil Neighbour’, he unleashed a heavy bombardment against the castle’s walls, taking the north-western barbican and setting a mine. Dover was heavily garrisoned under the defiant leadership of Hubert de Burgh. The spirited defence pushed the French back, forcing them to withdraw their siege machines to a safer distance.

Louis then applied psychological pressure by taunting the defenders with food, threatening starvation “to strike terror into them”. With the defenders still defiant in October, Louis tried a new strategy: lifting the siege, he focused instead on “reducing the smaller castles throughout the country”. Following a truce, Louis restarted a short siege on 12 May 1217. But on hearing of the major defeat of his forces on 20 May at Lincoln, he left for London. Dover’s stand proved disastrous for Louis: it forced him to hold back troops from Lincoln and it provided a significant proportion of the fleet that defeated the French at Sandwich.

19 October 1216: John succumbs to dysentery

Much of John’s baggage train is lost in the Wash. John dies in Newark Castle and the nine-year-old Henry III is proclaimed king, with William Marshal acting as regent.

20 May 1217: The French are routed

French and rebel forces are decisively defeated at Lincoln by William Marshal. French troops are attacked on their way back to their stronghold in London.

24 August 1217: The English destroy a French fleet

The French fleet bringing reinforcements is comprehensively destroyed off Sandwich. Louis sues for peace.

12 September 1217: Louis leaves England

The treaty of Kingston ends the war. An amnesty is declared for the rebels. Louis is paid 10,000 marks to quit England.

Sean McGlynn is a lecturer in history for the Open University and the University of Plymouth at Strode College. He is author of By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2008)


This article was first published in the June 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine