The First of the Wicked Uncles
Ann Lyon expands on her discussion in Chapter 3 of the book on the disputed succession to the English throne between King John and his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, and the ramifications that this conflict had in his reign.
By the reign of Henry II, the king’s Great Seal, used in the execution of official royal documents, had assumed a standard form. The obverse depicted the king crowned and seated on his throne, bearing the orb and sceptre as symbols of his dominion and majesty. On the reverse, the king, armoured and bearing sword and shield, rode a charging warhorse against unseen enemies. The obverse represented the king as ruler, governor and lawgiver, the reverse the king as warrior and commander. John was a failure in both roles, but it is perhaps as a war leader that his failure is more obvious, leading finally to the alienation of his magnates and the attempt by his enemies to depose him and replace him with the son of his enemy, the King of France.
Although John was Richard I’s acknowledged heir in 1199, having been designated by Richard on his deathbed (for once, the fact of a deathbed designation is not in dispute), his rights of succession were not undisputed. The issue was the old one of whether an adult heir should have priority over a minor, but with the novel feature, at least in relation to the succession to a crown, that there was real doubt as to whether a childless ruler should be succeeded by a surviving brother, or by the son of a nearer brother, now dead. Was the true heir John, fourth son of Henry II, or Arthur, posthumous son of Henry II’s third son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany? The position was complicated further by the fact that neither candidate could argue for priority over the other on the basis of personal suitability. Arthur was a boy of 12 with no military or governmental experience and John’s excursions into the political sphere had largely ended in ignominy. Further, Philip Augustus of France, who had been at war with Richard for the past five years, saw an opportunity to profit from the situation. Arthur having been placed under his protection by his mother, Constance of Brittany, Philip raised an army in support of his claim, linked up with the Breton army led by Constance, and came close to capturing John at Le Mans before the latter slipped away, to be acclaimed first as Duke of Normandy and then as King of England.
The succession issue on the death of Richard I was unprecedented in relation to crowns since 1066, but painstaking work by JC Holt has revealed several near-contemporaneous instances where the same issue rose in relation to fiefs, both in England and on the continent. Certainly it was to the advantage of Philip Augustus to protest Arthur’s priority, but was the state of the law on Arthur’s side?
Holt has shown that the only two contemporary law books, Glanvill for England and the anonymous Tres Ancien Coutumier for Normandy, were comments on the succession issue of 1199, and did not pre-date it. In any event, the two do not come to a single conclusion, even with the benefit of observing recent events: Glanvill equivocates, while the Norman source favours Arthur. Holt reminds us that the situation was basically the same as that already seen on the deaths of Æthelred I of Wessex and Edmund of England, the question being whether the son of the deceased elder son of the common ancestor should succeed as the representative of his father’s title, or the younger son, the cadet, as being closer to the common ancestor, the only difference being that the childless Richard had originally succeeded Henry II, the common ancestor. He finds that 12th century precedents in England were firmly on the side of the representative, and sees sound reasons for this, since it avoided the danger of conflict when the representative reached adulthood, or between more remote descendants of the common ancestor, as between Edward the Elder and his cousin Aethelwold (it si not clear whether this example was known in John’s reign). 12th century literary works also favour the representative, and express a concern for the infant representative which also permeates the Tres Ancien Coutoumier, which, like many texts of the day, is couched in question-and-answer form: ‘Who shall have custody of the orphan? The mother? No. Why? Because she may take a husband and have further sons who through greed for the inheritance may kill the first-born heir, or the husband may kill his stepson to secure the inheritance for his own sons. Who then shall have custody? The relatives? No. Why not? Lest through greed for the inheritance for themselves they oppress the innocent. No. The orphan must go to the one who was connected by homage and fealty to his father. Who is that? The lord of the fee.’
From this, it would appear at first sight that Arthur was the rightful ruler, John a usurper and, in due course, the murderer of the rightful ruler. However, the position was not so simple. There was no dispute over Brittany, to which Arthur was heir via his mother. Arthur seems never to have initially laid claim to either England or Normandy, where there was at this stage no open opposition to John, although there was clearly some unease among the leading counsellors as to the legitimacy of John’s claims. Aquitaine was not disputed either, since John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was still legally its Duchess and was entitled to chose her son rather than her grandson as her associate in its government. However, although John was initially able to establish himself as Duke of Normandy without opposition, this honeymoon was not to last, and Philip Augustus was able to use his position as feudal overlord of Normandy to claim after April 1202 that the duchy had lawfully escheated to him as a result of John’s failure to appear before him to answer charges of having failed in his feudal duty towards his Poitevin vassals. A more immediate difficulty in 1199 was that the magnates of the Angevin patrimony of Anjou, Maine and Touraine were divided between John and Arthur, and the wily French king once more sought to draw full advantage from this. Further, these three counties lay between Normandy and Aquitaine, making it more difficult yet for John to exercise control over his mother’s turbulent duchy, a task which had occupied virtually all the Lionheart’s energies and very considerable military skill in the 18 years prior to his accession to England.
Most of the political history of the next five years is concerned with events on the continent, as John first forced Arthur and his mother Constance to capitulate, and agreed terms with Philip Augustus (May 1200), and then as war broke out again in 1202 and led to John’s loss of the majority of his continental lands. The question of rights of succession between John and Arthur is pivotal because it was the strife between them which led to John’s loss of his continental lands, to his low reputation as a military commander and the contempt in which he was held by men of his day, and to his financial extortions, which were designed to put him into the position to wage war against Philip Augustus in order to win back those lands. Although the suspicion that John had had Arthur murdered, or even killed him with his own hands in a fit of the famous Angevin temper, never developed into the opprobrium with which Richard III, the other ‘wicked uncle’ of English history, was viewed in some quarters, it seems to have led many magnates to the sense that John, unlike his father and brother, could not be trusted even by those loyal to him, and led indirectly to John’s increasing paranoia towards those same magnates.
Of the six kings who reigned between 1066 and 1199, only two both died and were buried in England (William Rufus and Stephen). The remaining four all met their deaths in their continental domains, and of them only Henry I ordained that his body was to be buried in the country of which he was king. From John’s loss of his continental lands in 1204 the position changes entirely. Except for Henry V, who died on campaign in France but was buried in Westminster Abbey, James II, who died in exile following his deposition, and the German-born and German-in-sentiment George I, every subsequent monarch died and was buried within his kingdom. Although continental interventions on the part of English kings were to remain a significant part of their activities, England and, more widely, the British Isles was now the main focus of their actions. No longer were kings to remain absentees for the greater part of their reigns; indeed, it has been plausibly suggested that the main reason why John attracted so much opprobrium in the later years of his reign was that he was in England and seen by his enemies as personally responsible for his unpopular policies, rather than a distant absentee whose policies were operated by his servants.
Following his loss of his continental lands, the main plank of John’s policy was his desire to regain them. For this he needed money, and therefore, like his forebears, he made the fullest use possible of the feudal incidents to which he was entitled. Scutages, levied only occasionally by his predecessors, became almost annual. Fines and amercements – the sums charged in respect of failure to perform public duties such as bringing criminals to justice, and for procedural errors made by litigants in the royal courts – became much heavier, as did aids, gifts and the sums charged for wardships and the marriages of widows. In particular, royal justice was no longer exercised in a relatively disinterested fashion, as it had begun to be under Henry II, but inconsistently, depending to some degree on the favour or disfavour in which the litigants were held by the king.
Perhaps what alienated the magnates more than any other single factor was John’s pathological suspicion. Believing, with some justification, that a major factor in the loss of his continental lands was the disloyalty of the magnates of Normandy and Poitou, he did not hesitate to ‘break’ a number of barons who had aroused his suspicions, and their families with them. He demanded hostages from them, or required them to pay large sums to regain royal goodwill, and went so far as to declare the lands of those who had incurred the greatest enmity forfeit, even though they had previously been his trusted servants. William the Marshal, who had been unswerving in his loyalty to both Henry II and Richard, and then to John himself, retired to his estates in Ireland after doing ‘liege homage on this side of the sea’ to Philip Augustus in order to retain his lands in Normandy (admittedly, this was a formula without precedent, and meant, in effect, that the Marshal was John’s man in England, Wales and Ireland, but Philip’s man when on French soil), so becoming the object of John’s paranoia, but it was John’s actions towards William de Braose and his family which seem to have had the most influence in making the magnates fear for their own security vis à vis the king.
The reasons for John’s actions towards Braose are not entirely clear. They may simply involve his fears of Braose, like the Marshal, becoming an over-mighty subject and a threat to his throne - the Marshal and Braose, between them and through their respective relations and vassals, controlled large areas of the Welsh Marches and much of Ireland. However, there is a tradition contained in chronicle accounts that John’s enmity towards Braose was engendered by fear, since Braose, reputedly, was one of the very few with knowledge of the true fate of the young Arthur, who had fallen into John’s hands in the summer of 1202 and was not seen alive after Easter 1203.
Arthur, then 15, had been taken in battle while in armed rebellion against John, indeed, while besieging his grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine in the castle of Mirebeau, north of Poitiers. Despite his youth, he was in no sense an innocent young boy, but seems in full measure to have inherited the pride and bellicosity of his father’s family (chroniclers of the day had little to say about Arthur’s personality, which is apparent rather from his actions, and there seems to have been little, if any, direct criticism of John for eliminating his nephew). He was a highly dangerous enemy to John, the more so as he had the support of Philip Augustus and seems from his earlier actions to have been unwilling to reach any settlement with John; at any rate, he had refused an offer of settlement which required him to do homage to his uncle for his duchy of Brittany. That the permanent disposal of Arthur as a threat might well have been a sound political move is not to be doubted, but it can be strongly argued that John made a tactical error with far-reaching consequences when he failed to bring Arthur before some sort of public trial.
However, Braose’s presumed knowledge of the manner of Arthur’s end cannot explain John’s rancour towards him. Holt has very recently demonstrated that there were many present at Rouen at Easter 1203, when Arthur is presumed to have met his end, though whether by misadventure or design is not clear. Those with John at this time seem to have been his most trusted counsellors, and Holt argues from the presence of certain officials who did not normally leave England, notably the justiciar, Geoffrey Fitz Peter, that John consulted with his counsellors as to what was to be done with Arthur. Whatever the decision of the counsellors, and whatever the immediate background to Arthur’s death, too many had knowledge of the young man’s fate for it to be a matter of crucial importance to John whether or not William de Braose or his wife Matilda spread rumours abroad. In any case, Arthur’s sister, Eleanor, captured along with her brother, remained the prisoner first of John and then of Henry III until her death in 1241, and her position must have led those not privy to the truth about Arthur to assume that Arthur himself, a far greater danger to the occupants of the English throne than Eleanor, must have been eliminated.
Be that as it may, in March 1208, John demanded hostages from Braose; the latter’s formidable wife, Matilda de Braose, reputedly informed the King’s enemies that she would not deliver up her sons as hostages to a king who had murdered his nephew. In April 1208, a small army of 500 infantry and 25 mounted men moved into Braose’s lands. Braose, forewarned, fled with his family to his lands in Ireland and was ordered to pay 1,000 marks to cover the costs of the expedition against him. He offered the vast sum of 40,000 marks in return for restoration of the king’s goodwill, an offer which was refused while his wife remained at liberty. John then declared Braose’s lands forfeit and in 1210 mounted an expedition to Ireland against him. Matilda de Braose fled with her sons to Scotland, but they were handed over by the Scots to John’s agents. Although she offered to ransom herself at a price of 40,000 marks, Matilda and her eldest son disappeared into one of John’s prisons, and Braose himself fled to France, where he died in 1211. Like Arthur, Matilda de Braose and her son were never seen alive again. The monastic chroniclers reported that they starved to death, some adding the gruesome detail that Matilda, driven insane by her confinement, had gnawed at the boy’s cheeks in search of sustenance (Holt suggests, more prosaically, that the gnawing, if there is any truth in the story, was the work of rats. Cannibalism is not, however, wholly implausible. Visitors to Carlisle Castle today are shown the channels left in the dungeon walls left by the tongues of prisoners whose only source of fluid was the water trickling down the walls).
At the same time as John reached a settlement with Pope Innocent III in the summer of 1213, his attempts to recover his continental lands met with final failure. The expeditions planned for 1205 and 1212 did not sail; all John achieved on the continent was the consolidation of his position in Aquitaine in the summer of 1206. A further expedition planned for 1213 had to be postponed when a majority of English barons refused to accompany the King to Poitou, claiming that the terms of their feudal tenure did not require them to serve outside the British Isles. Secure in the new-found support of the Pope, John then negotiated a military alliance with his nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV, for a campaign on two fronts against Philip Augustus for the summer of 1214, the Emperor to strike in the north from Flanders, and John with a mercenary army in the south from Poitou. But, once again, the campaign ended in failure. As on previous occasions, John had difficulty in gaining the support of his English vassals for a campaign which had little to do with them, his actions in Poitou were inconclusive, and he was forced to withdraw altogether when the Emperor and his other allies were catastrophically defeated at Bouvines in Flanders on 27 July 1214. Deprived of external allies and lacking the support of his English vassals, John was forced to agree to a truce on terms favourable to the French king.