Pro Amore Dei: Diplomatic Evidence of Social Conflict During the Reign of King John

Chapter 14
Pro Amore Dei: Diplomatic Evidence of Social Conflict During the Reign of King John

Michael Gervers and Nicole Hamonic

Charter Chronology

It is now clearly established that when William the Conqueror ascended the English throne in 1066 he introduced to the royal chancery the then-current Norman practice of issuing charters without dates. This custom continued until the reign of Richard I (1189–1199), when, for the first time, dated charters were regularly issued from the royal chancery. It was not until the early years of the reign of Edward II (1307–1327), however, that dates were commonly included in private charters. It is estimated that at least a million private charters have survived as originals, or as copies in cartularies, from that nearly 250-year period. Of these, approximately 8 percent are dated within the charter, increasingly so with the passage of time, but even at the turn of the fourteenth century the percentage remains modest.

The primary objective of the DEEDS Project at the University of Toronto is to develop a computerized methodology for dating the undated medieval charter, and more specifically for dating English examples from the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the end of the reign of Edward I in 1307. To this end, the Project is building a corpus of dated charters from the period which have been published. One hundred and fifteen printed collections containing over 58,000 entries have been searched, and over 7,000 charters have been extracted which either include dates, or to which dates have been assigned by the editor. Charters given year dates by their editors increase the ratio of dated to undated examples from 8 to approximately 12 percent. In terms of the overall makeup of the corpus, only 3 percent of the entries belong to the period before 1150. In contrast, the half century from 1151 to 1200 is represented by 16 percent, the next half century to 1250 by 37 percent, and the remaining period by 44 percent.


Figure 14.1 Numbers of charters in the DEEDS Corpus for the reign of King John

The method developed at DEEDS for attributing dates to undated charters compares the vocabulary of a given document to the vocabulary of dated counterparts in the corpus. The dates of dated charters bearing similar vocabulary are later used to compute the date estimate of the charter under examination.

DEEDS research has led increasingly to the study of words and phrases in context as a means of analyzing the diplomatic of entries in the corpus, and of identifying therein indications of major historical change. The present discussion will be devoted to a consideration of the more than 500 private charters in the corpus issued during the reign of King John of England (May 27, 1199 to October 19, 1216) (Figure 14.1). In particular, it will attempt an initial response to the question raised by C.R. Cheney in 1948: “What was the effect of the Interdict on the religious life and practices of the people of England?”1

As anyone who has read even the briefest account of English medieval history knows, John had a very troubled reign. In what follows, we will consider first John’s relations with the Church and the barons and then turn to an examination of how the political and social situation is reflected in the wording of private charters issued during his reign. This diplomatic evidence is given visual expression by the accompanying charts, all of which are based entirely on information derived from the DEEDS corpus. With the exception of Table 14.1, which is based on actual numbers, all lines charted represent frequency counts of words and phrases for each charter, relative to the total number of charters available for any given time. In order to place these words and phrases in a broader historical context, most charts reflect their occurrence from 1185 to 1241.

John and the Church

King John’s relationship with the Church, and especially with Pope Innocent III, is best known for the Interdict placed on England from 1208 to 1214, which also resulted in John’s excommunication from 1209 to 1213.2 This controversy was but one aspect of the long struggle for power between the pope and the English king. The most evident point of contention was that of lay investiture, and the Interdict of 1208 was the direct result of the dispute over the appointment of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1205.3 However, there had been confrontations between Innocent and John prior to the Canterbury election of 1205 over the prolongation of vacancies and royal appointments to ecclesiastical offices, both of which were continuations of Angevin practice. The threat of interdict was, therefore, a constant presence throughout John’s reign.4

Without John’s consent, Stephen Langton was consecrated as archbishop of Canterbury by Innocent on June 17, 1207. Consequently, John refused to accept Stephen into England, and by August 1207, Innocent first threatened an interdict.5 On January 21, 1208, John initiated negotiations for peace, as he continued to do throughout the Interdict, by indicating to the bishops chosen by Innocent to act as executors that he was ready to accept the pope’s terms, provided that his royal rights, dignities, and liberties were preserved.6 These “royal rights” included the more specific preservation of royal appointment, or at least consent, to ecclesiastical offices. The election of his candidate for archbishop of Canterbury, John de Gray, had been quashed as uncanonical by Innocent. Control of this appointment to the most important apostolic see in England was not something John was willing to lose. He and Simon Langton, brother of Stephen, probably met on or around March 12, 1208. In a letter to his barons dated March 14, John wrote that Simon had insisted that the king should place himself at his mercy in order to preserve the royal rights and dignities.7 Simon had asked John to do the unacceptable. John refused and the negotiations broke down. Aware that the Interdict would be published shortly, John then issued a mandate to his bishops stating that control of all ecclesiastical lands and materials would be seized by royal custodians from anyone who did not celebrate divine service on March 24.8

Historians well versed in the events of John’s reign have argued that the king recognized an opportunity to increase the royal revenue through the confiscation of all ecclesiastical land in the weeks after the Interdict was published.9 The monastic chroniclers and the Close Roll for 1208 support this suggestion, although there does not seem to be any evidence of fines paid to the king for land grants to ecclesiastics which took place in the weeks immediately after the Interdict was imposed, the time when the Close Roll offers most evidence of such grants.10 C.R. Cheney has repeatedly stated that one cannot argue from silence, and he was undoubtedly aware of this lack of evidence. Despite this realization, he was still reluctant to suggest that the mass land confiscation of 1208 was not lucrative for John. However, A.L. Poole proposed that the first two years of the Interdict were not extortionate, and that the royal revenue was not abnormally swollen from ecclesiastical sources.11 A renewed look at the surviving evidence, or lack thereof, strengthens the argument that John did not receive the wealth from the land confiscations of 1208 that historians have previously suggested.

A closer inspection of entries on the Close Roll for 1208 reveals that many of the recipients of land which had been taken into the king’s hand “occasione interdicti” were loyal to the king.12 In other situations, the confiscated land was granted to a royal custodian,13 or it remained in the hand of the king, as in the case of vacancies.14 However, the question of revenue from fines for these lands has still not been answered. Any evidence in the Pipe Rolls for fines due to the king in 1208 for the return of land appears to be concerned only with monastic properties in Normandy.15 In fact, the record of wealth entering the royal coffers in later years, and the reward to his royal servants of the revenues from vacant sees, demonstrates that John’s main source of income from land confiscated during the Interdict was from those bishops who fled or were exiled.16 According to the Pipe Roll for 1209, John fitz Hugh, a professional royal servant, accounted for the profits from the sale of stock from the newly-vacant bishopric of Salisbury.17 On May 17, 1209, Ralph Parmentarius accounted for the profits of Lichfield, Ely, Durham, and London.18 Accounts for London, Worcester, and York do not appear on the Pipe Roll until 1212.19 These examples demonstrate that any money entering the royal coffers was received after 1208, and came primarily from the vacant bishoprics.

John’s treatment of the monastic orders throughout the Interdict is often confusing and contradictory. When the Interdict was published in 1208, the entire Cistercian Order was apparently rewarded for its defiance of the papal mandate by the return of its lands on April 4, 1208.20 It has been suggested that this grant was a reward for the order’s initial non-compliance with the Interdict, a non-compliance which was based on the claim that its privileges made it exempt. Not only did Innocent call the Cistercians to order in August 120821 and again in February 120922 for their defiance of the Interdict, but one chronicler writes that when Innocent mitigated its severity in January 1209, allowing conventual churches to observe mass once a week, the order was excluded as punishment for its earlier disobedience.23 However, according to the Close Roll, the Cistercians were not the only order to receive back all their lands.24 As Cheney has shown, these sweeping grants to a number of monastic orders produced contradictions within the Close Roll.25 Furthermore, there is no evidence that these orders had also refused to obey the Interdict, which leads one to question whether or not the land grant to the Cistercians on April 4, 1208 was, in fact, a reward for their defiance.

Although the Benedictine Order did not recover all its possessions, some individual Benedictine monasteries are included as recipients of land grants.26 Nevertheless, in November 1209, shortly after his excommunication, John became much more violent and hostile toward the orders, starting with the Benedictines.27 It would appear that all monastic and ecclesiastical institutions suffered at the king’s hands at one time or another throughout the Interdict. However, the evidence for any of these monasteries fining for their land, specifically on account of the mass confiscations of 1208, is still lacking. As a consequence, there is reason to doubt that the said confiscations enriched the royal treasury, especially since so much land was handed back to the Church within weeks of its having been taken into the king’s hand.

Although John was unwilling to compromise the principle for which he was fighting, by 1212 the Interdict had begun to interfere seriously with his political ambitions. After his excommunication in the autumn of 1209, baronial resistance to his military campaigns overseas increased significantly, and the rumored deposition and threatened French invasion of England compelled the king to initiate final peace negotiations. John’s appeal to Innocent in 1212 resulted in the surrender of England and Ireland as papal fiefs, the raising of the excommunication in July 1213, and the removal of the Interdict in July 1214.

John and the Barons

The reasons for John’s submission to the pope in 1213 are inseparable from his relationship with both his barons and the king of France. The resistance to military service abroad and isolated petty rebellions by the English barons throughout John’s reign played a significant role in his submission to Innocent in 1213, as well as his failure to recover Normandy in 1214. The Angevin kings of England had introduced measures which caused the gradual alienation of the barons from royal administration. The increased use of sheriffs and itinerant justices put the king in direct communication with knightly landholders, undermining the barons’ old role as intermediaries between their men and the royal government.28 None of John’s great officials came from the old nobility; nor did his inner circle of royal servants. The king recognized the importance of surrounding himself with favored men who owed their positions to him. This dependence made them more easily manipulated than the old barons who had wealth, status, and power independent of the royal court.

The war of 1202–1204 with the king of France, which resulted in the loss of Normandy, had a significant impact on relations between John and his barons in England.29 The lords who held fiefs in both England and France were obliged to join either John or Philip. However, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, was able to hold his Norman lands after 1204, having done homage to Philip Augustus in 1205 with John’s permission.30 Other barons appear to have shared the same privilege towards the end of John’s reign.

In 1205, and indeed throughout the rest of his reign, John sought to undertake military campaigns to regain the lost continental lands. Such overseas voyages were expensive, and John’s methods of taxation in order to raise money were directed primarily at his barons.31 Resistance by the magnates prevented John from proceeding with the campaign of 1205, and from 1207 to 1212 his controversy with the papacy, as well as his military forays into Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, forced him temporarily to abandon his continental plans. By 1212 the English baronage had grown restless under the Interdict. Their association with an excommunicate king, who had allied himself with the excommunicate Emperor Otto IV, posed a threat to their own spiritual status. That year witnessed the beginning both of organized resistance to John’s policies and of his final crisis, which would only end with his death in October 1216.

In the summer of 1212, with his northern and western borders secure, John began to plan another expedition across the Channel. On June 1 he ordered an inquest into feudal tenures and services,32 followed by orders to his chief lords on June 15 to provide men ready to cross the sea with him.33 These actions are indicative that the baronial conspiracy which developed at this time was in response to an awareness that exaction of feudal service was imminent.34 The defection to Philip Augustus of John’s son-in-law revealed a widespread conspiracy among the Northern English baronage, which led to the flight of Robert fitz Walter to Paris, and Eustace de Vesci to Scotland.35

Shaken not only by the baronial revolt and rumors that Innocent would depose him, but also by the imminent invasion of England by Philip Augustus, John was obliged to reopen negotiations with the pope in 1212. The king also changed his policy towards his barons, which included a confusing mixture of concessions to his magnates, coinciding with demands for hostages and money as security against another uprising.36 Besides Robert fitz Walter and Eustace de Vesci, it is not easy to identify the other rebels. However, the fact that John marched north immediately after discovering the plot, and that his concessions and demands fell primarily on his northern barons, suggest that the region was the chief source of trouble for the king.37

By March 1213, John was planning another campaign into Poitou. Baronial resistance due to his excommunicate status forced him to abandon his mission once again.38 However, by the end of July the terms of John’s peace with the pope had been made official with Stephen Langton’s entrance into England. Once the agreement was published, John’s barons were ordered to stand by him against King Philip, and were threatened with excommunication if they supported the French invader.39 With the excommunication lifted, the barons required a new reason to refuse military service overseas. Claiming that they were bound by feudal oath to serve only on campaigns in England, Normandy, or Brittany, they continued into the autumn of 1213 to resist John’s Poitevin campaign. On October 28, 1213, Innocent intervened on behalf of his feudal tenant and ordered all John’s subjects to remain faithful to their king and his heirs.40 John marched north to confront his recalcitrant barons, but then on November 1 at Wallingford, he promised to restore their ancient rights.41 This pledge, in combination with the renewal of concessions throughout 1213, as in the previous year, suggests that the refusal of service by the barons in 1213, and again in 1214, had more to do with forcing concessions from the king than refusal of overseas service.42 John’s attempts at appeasement in 1213, unlike those in 1212, were directed primarily towards the magnates of the eastern counties.43

When John finally set sail for Poitou in February 1214, his army consisted largely of foreign mercenaries from the Low Countries. The rate of scutage demanded from his barons for this expedition was three marks per knight’s fee, the highest in the history of the tax.44 However, on July 27, the defeat of the allies at Bouvines ended John’s hopes of regaining his Continental lands, and set the scene for civil war in England. When the king returned to England on October 15, 1214, baronial resistance was stronger than ever. There was a widespread refusal in September 1214 to pay the scutage that was due by the barons who had refused to send military aid to Poitou. Not unexpectedly, the eastern and northern counties were predominant in this boycott. There is no account whatsoever of the scutage for Yorkshire, Lancashire, Essex, and Hertfordshire, and very little for Norfolk or Suffolk.45

Negotiations were futile, and the barons renounced their fealty to John on May 5, 1215. On May 12, the king ordered the seizure of their estates.46 The war between John and the barons had begun. At the outset, John held the winning hand. He had the support of the pope and the law, and had spent much of his time since his return to England securing allies.47 The barons captured London on May 17, at which time many of John’s allies deserted him and, having lost his advantage, the king was forced to capitulate. On Monday, June 15, 1215 the two parties met in the meadow at Runnymede. Four days later, the charter of liberties known as Magna Carta was signed.

The terms of the Charter were unsatisfactory to both John and the northern barons and civil war broke out by the end of the summer. This conflict seriously impeded Innocent’s plans for a crusade so he threatened to excommunicate anyone opposing the king.48 He then condemned the charter on August 24, 1215, arguing that it infringed upon John’s God-given rights as king. Sometime in September or October, the rebel barons sent a delegation to Philip Augustus promising the English throne to his son, Louis, if he would come to their aid.49 In response to this action, Innocent excommunicated many of the 25 barons, along with their sons, in December 1215.50

Between December 1215 and April 1216, John regained the upper hand in the civil war.51 By April, many of the 25 barons of Magna Carta had either submitted to him, or were negotiating to do so.52 John’s main concern by late spring was the threat of invasion from France. The south-east coast of England was firmly in his control, while the strength of the rebels lay primarily in their occupation of London. The arrival of the French prince in Kent on May 21, 1216 upset the fragile balance. Louis reached London by June 2 and the subsequent weeks saw the defection of John’s most powerful allies: the earls of Salisbury, Arundel, and Warren. The king’s control of the south-east coast slipped away and by the end of the summer he held only the western counties. John finally succumbed to illness on October 19, 1216, having continued to fight the rebels until days before his death. Peace with the young King Henry III was made a year later, with the re-issue of the charter of liberties in 1217.

The Evidence from Dated Private Charters

Prior to the loss of Normandy on June 21, 1204, it was not unusual for French and English barons to hold properties on both sides of the Channel. As a consequence, when these lords or their king issued charters, they not infrequently addressed them to all their men “French and English” (Francis et Anglicis, or Franc[igen]is quam Angl[ic]is) (Figure 14.2). Seventy of the 73 times the expression occurs in the DEEDS corpus are dated before June 21, 1204, the last being May 1.53 Two of the remaining three have been dated by their editor to 1214–1216, based upon the appearance of the title of Geoffrey de Mandeville as earl of Essex and Gloucester,54 while the third, issued by William, earl of Warenne, bears an internal date of 1218.55 Another charter with a similar form of address was issued, according to its rubric, in 1211 by the king’s chamberlain, Warin fitz Gerold.56 These post-1204 occurrences of the address strongly suggest that these members of England’s baronage controlled land on the Continent after the loss of Normandy. William Marshal certainly did.57 Geoffrey de Mandeville is suspected of doing homage to Philip Augustus in 1215,58 as William de Warenne did in 1216.59 Generally speaking, John’s agreement with Philip Augustus over the division of lands held by their tenants in England and France was immediately reflected in charter diplomatic; exceptions, too, would seem to have been governed by the historical record. As additional occurrences of the address to “French and English” are found postdating the loss of Normandy in 1204, historians may discover that John’s agreement with Philip over the separation of lands held by their tenants in France and England was not as seamless as has previously been thought, and either that a number of magnates were able to retain their feudal ties in both territories, despite England’s loss of control over Normandy, or that they were granted them back by doing fealty to Philip Augustus as John’s regime showed signs of collapse in 1215.


Figure 14.2 Frequency of references to French and English in forms of address