The Fall of the Angevin Empire
A damned inheritance, hopelessly over-extended and out-resourced by the kings of France? Or an effective empire thrown away by incompetence and harshness? John Gillingham weighs the blame for John's loss of the Angevin dominions.
On July 30th, 1202, King John was at Le Mans when a messenger arrived bearing desperate news. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the grand old lady of twelfth-century politics, had been trapped at Mirebeau and was on the point of falling into the hands of his enemies, headed by his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. Between Le Mans and Mirebeau in Poitou lay nearly 100 miles of twelfth-century roads. Forty-eight hours later, at dawn on August 1st, Arthur and his followers, having forced their way into the castle and driven Eleanor back into the keep, the last refuge, were enjoying a relaxed breakfast – pigeons were on the menu that day- secure in the belief that John was still far away, when their quiet meal was rudely interrupted by the sudden arrival of Eleanor's royal son. They went for their weapons and did their best to put up some show of resistance. But it was too late. The cat was already among the pigeons. By thinking and acting faster than they had imagined possible, John had turned the tables on his enemies. Now it was they who were in the trap and not one of them escaped. More than 200 knights were captured, half a dozen barons and, best of all, Arthur himself. John Lackland, once the runt of the Plantagenet litter, had defeated his enemies more decisively than ever his father or even his warrior brother, Richard the Lionheart, had been able to do. It was a magnificent victory. 'God be praised for our happy success', he wrote in exultation.
Yet within two years of the triumph at Mirebeau, the Plantagenet dynasty had suffered blows from which it was never to recover. In April 1203 john's most powerful opponent, King Philip Augustus of France, sailed down the Loire and held court in the great hall built by Henry II at Saumur. In May 1204 the Capetian king's troops swept through Normandy, taking Argentan, Falaise, Caen, Bayeux and Lisieux in a mere three weeks. On June 24th, 1204, the ducal city of Rouen surrendered. Then Philip turned south again and two months later, in August 1204, he entered Poitiers. Further south still the army of Alfonso VII, King of Castile, was overrunning Gascony. In the space of just two summers John's continental empire had collapsed like a house of cards. And in 1205 it looked as though worse was to follow as Philip Augustus laid plan to invade England and John took panic measures to defend the south and east coasts.
As it happened it was to be another eleven years before John had to face the grim reality of a Capetian army in England – for more than twelve months during 1216 and 1217 London itself was to be controlled by Philip's son Louis – and in the intervening year he managed to stem the tide and even recover some territories, in particular Gascony. But some of the losses suffered in 1203-4 had proved to be irreversible. Thus in the long history of English kingship these years mark an important turning point. Since 1066 England had been ruled by Frenchmen; first by Normans and then by the Plantagenets of Anjou. It is not surprising to find that some modern English historians have, in effect, breathed a sigh of patriotic relief when discussing the loss of Anjou and Normandy. Now at last the Plantagenets were free to become true English rulers. They could shake off the incubus of the continent, stay 'at home' and look after their 'real' subjects.
But this is not how it was. In reality John, as the French-speaking ruler of that vast assemblage of lands which historians are accustomed to call the Angevin Empire had been as much at home at Chinon, Rouen and Poitiers as at Westminster and Winchester. England gave him a royal crown and this meant that 'King of England' was always the first element in his title, but he was also 'Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou'. The loss of Anjou and Normandy did not mean that an English king had lost two outlying provinces. It meant that the Plantagenet dynasty had lost both its homeland (Anjou) and its first great acquisition (Normandy). The heart of the Angevin Empire had been torn out. This was a dynastic disaster of the first magnitude. How had it come to this? How had the victor of Mirebeau, the ruler of so many territories, succumbed so swiftly to Philip's assaults? The question is all the more puzzling because a glance at the map would seem to suggest, on the face of it, that the Angevins were far richer than their Capetian overlords.
One possible answer to the question might lie in the fact that the Capetians were indeed the overlords. As King of England John was sovereign but on the continent he was the King of France's vassal and subject to his court. There is no doubt that legally speaking the King of France always held the-upper hand. But was this necessarily decisive'? In 1152-3 the court of the King of France decreed the confiscation of Henry II's possessions. John's father, however, successfully resisted king Louis VII's attempts to execute the sentence. In 1202-4 John found himself, legally speaking, in the same position – but he tailed to resist. What was decisive, in other words, was not Capetian suzerainty but something else, perhaps the personal qualities of the kings involved, perhaps the relative strengths of their kingdoms.
Thus another possible answer to the question might be that the strength of the Angevin Empire was more apparent than real. It has indeed been suggested that by 1200 Philip Augustus was a wealthier king than John. It that were so then John's defeat was no disgrace. However the fragmentary state of the records – on both sides – means that it is not possible to calculate precisely the financial resources of either of them. The result, happily and unsurprisingly is controversy – a debate between those who believe that John was simply outgunned by a more powerful opponent and those, like myself, who believe that John threw- away a winning hand. In my view there is not much doubt that the overall resources of the Angevin Empire were a good deal greater than those at the disposal of Philip Augustus. But it may well be the case that Philip was able to concentrate his resources in the critical theatre of war more effectively than John. In other words it is not just a question of resources, but also of the way those resources were used.
John's problem was that he was unable to mobilise the huge resources of his empire and bring them to bear in the armed struggle against Philip. Why was this? Was it John's fault? Or was it because the Angevin Empire was a cumbersome political structure, administratively incoherent and over-extended when compared with the more compact Capetian kingdom? The difficulty with any explanation which puts the emphasis on the sup- posed structural weakness of the Angevin Empire is the fact that in the years immediately preceding John's accession (i.e. 1194-8) it had been the Plantagenet ruler – Richard the Lionheart – who had held the upper hand in the war against the Capetians. The most obvious explanation of the fact that a winning war turned into a losing one is the change of commander. Other explanations won't do. It cannot, for example, be argued that John inherited a kingdom exhausted by his predecessor's reckless improvidence because the financial records of John's reign demonstrate that the English taxpayer was still capable of digging deep into his pocket. Indeed the capacity of John's government to raise revenue on a considerable scale is often cited approvingly by those impressed by his record as king. Moreover historians have sometimes forgotten that the costs of war had to be borne by both sides. There is no evidence to show either that Richard had been, in financial terms, a more oppressive king than Philip, or that, by l199, his dominions were any more 'exhausted' than the Capetian kingdom.
When it comes down to it, John failed where Richard succeeded because he lacked his brother's political, diplomatic and military skills. He won the day at Mirebeau because he took his enemies by surprise – and he took them by surprise precisely because already by 1202 they had grown accustomed to his inability to act decisively or give inspiring leadership. If Mirebeau had signalled the birth of a new and dynamic John, then the end of the story would have been very different. Unfortunately for John, however, he at once reverted to type. He was almost never to be found where the action was. When the main threat was to Anjou, as it was during the autumn and winter of 1202-3, then John was to be found in Normandy. When the main threat was in the Seine valley and the east of Normandy, as it was in the spring of 1203, then John was to be found in the west. When Philip launched his final great attack on Normandy in 1204, John was in England. For John, being lord of so many territories meant there was always somewhere else to run to. There is more yet that can be learned from the story of the action at Mirebeau. Who were John's enemies that day? And why were they in armed opposition to him? At their head, of course, was his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. No one could seriously hold John responsible for the hostility between him and his nephew. In trying to rule the whole Angevin empire John was trying to hold together lands which did not yet automatically belong together. The empire was a recent creation. It had been cobbled together in a series of succession disputes, and it was quite on the cards that another succession dispute would pull it apart again. Given the norms of dynastic politics, the quarrel between John and Arthur that followed Richard's death in April 1l99 was almost certainly unavoidable. It was only natural that Arthur would accept, and John reject, the decision of the barons of Anjou to acknowledge the son of an elder brother (i.e. Arthur, son of Geoffrey) rather than a younger brother (John). In the subsequent struggle for Anjou, John owed much to the active military support of the leading barons of Poitou, conspicuous among them Hugh of Lusignan and his kindred. With their help he quickly won the upper hand and by January 1200 the Treaty of Le Goulet confirmed his position as the undisputed master of the whole Angevin Empire.
But then, only seven months later, John made what most contemporary chroniclers regarded as the decisive mistake. He divorced his first wife and married Isabella, the twelve- year-old heiress to the county of Angoulême. In view of Angoulême's wealth and strategic importance astride the vital lines of communication between Poitiers and Bordeaux – there was much to be said in favour of this marriage. The problem was that Isabella was already betrothed – and to none other than Hugh of Lusignan. The Lusignans were understandably angry at being thus deprived of the prospect of succeeding to Angoulême. Perhaps, suitably compensated, they might have become reconciled to the loss but John seems to have made little or no effort to placate them. In 1201 they rose in revolt and appealed for justice to Philip Augustus. Philip then pronounced the confiscation of all John's fiefs and awarded Poitou and Anjou to Arthur (April 1202). Thus the Lusignan revolt led directly to the re-opening of the war of Angevin succession. And although Arthur was the nominal commander of the army which laid siege to Eleanor at Mirebeau, it was the Lusignans who provided the real driving force. The events at Mirebeau, in other words, reveal John's ability to make old enemies sink their differences and unite against him.
But so long as they were defeated – as John so stunningly defeated them at Mirebeau at breakfast time on August 1st, l202 – what did that matter? If the union of all those whose loyalty was suspect only meant that they could all be dealt with by a single crushing blow, then it might even be to the king's advantage if they were encouraged to unite. John won at Mirebeau, and that surely was all that mattered. Not quite. John, after all, had not won on his own. His coup at Mirebeau had only been possible with other men's help and advice. Prominent among the men who guided John to Mirebeau and who, on August 1st, fought their way into the town with him were two powerful barons: Aimeri of Thouars and William des Roches. Yet only a few weeks later, in September 1202, they were in rebellion against John. Indeed their capture of Angers, the chief city of Anjou, in October 1202, marked the beginning of the end of the Angevin Empire. This surely is one of the most remarkable political about-turns of all time. The switch of Lusignan allegiance between 1199 and 1201 was rapid enough, one might have thought, but it was laboriously slow when compared with the shattering speed of this reversal. What on earth did Aimeri of Thouars and William de s Roches think they were doing?
First it has to be said that it was only with reluctance that the two of them had entered John's camp. But with the Lusignans against him John badly needed support in this part of the world and their friendship was there- fore well worth cultivating. Now they believed that in return for their help at Mirebeau they were entitled to a voice in the king's counsel, in particular to a say in deciding what was to be done with the prisoners taken at Mirebeau. John, however, would not share the rewards of victory with anyone and as a result he lost the precarious friendship of these two magnates almost as soon as he had obtained it.
Worse was soon to follow. John, in W.L. Warren's words, 'could not resist the temptation to kick a man when he was down'. A victory like that at Mirebeau brought massive temptations in its wake and John succumbed massively. His most serious offence was his responsibility for Arthur's death. (Arthur disappeared, probably murdered, early in April 1203.) The rumours of Arthur's fate soon induced several Norman and Angevin lords with Breton connections to renounce their allegiance to a man they suspected of murdering his nephew. But whatever may or may not have happened to Arthur, the fact is that John's treatment of all the prisoners was widely regarded as being intolerably harsh. According to the History of William the Marshal – and as a source for well-informed aristocratic opinion this biography could hardly be bettered – 'he kept his prisoners so vilely and in such evil distress that it seemed shameful and ugly to all those who were with him and who saw this cruelty'.
Since there was hardly a noble in Poitou who did not have a kinsman or friend among the knights captured at Mirebeau this meant that John managed to offend almost the entire aristocracy, including some who had hitherto steered clear of rebellion. The manner in which John exploited his victory at Mirebeau meant that only six months later he had virtually no friends anywhere in Poitou, Anjou, Maine and Touraine. The last reference to an Angevin seneschal of Anjou is dated April 16th, 1203; in this month it was Philip Augustus, not John, who cruised down the Loire and took possession of Saumur. For Philip this was a triumph which simply fell into his lap. Nearly all the work of the conquest of Anjou and northern Poitou was done for him by those whom John had driven into rebellion. Obviously John was not the first Plantagenet ruler to face revolt. Richard indeed had been fatally wounded in a war against rebels, but whereas his troubles were with the nobles of the Limousin and the Angoumois, parts of Aquitaine where ducal authority had always been weak, it was John's special talent to conjure up revolt right in the heartland of the Angevin Empire.
In diplomacy John's record was no better. Richard's successes in the war against Philip in the late 1190s had been based on the support of a number of French princes: notably the counts of Flanders, Blois, Boulogne, Perche and Toulouse. John's reasonable showing in '1199 and 1200 owed much to the fact that some of these alliances remained intact for a year or two after Richard's death. But by 1202 there had been a diplomatic revolution. The Counts of Boulogne and Toulouse were now in Philip's camp while the Counts of Flanders, Blois and Perche were on their way to the east (the Fourth Crusade). According to Philip's court historian, William the Breton, they had taken the cross once they realised that Richard's death had deprived them of aid and counsel. From John's point of view the break- down of his brother's carefully cultivated alliances was a disaster.
In the late 1190s Philip had been forced to fight on more than one front. Count Baldwin IX of Flanders, for example, had defeated Philip in 1197 and captured St Omer from him in 1198. Another of Richard's allies, Renaud of Boulogne, had, in the judgement of Philip's biographer, Rigord of St Denis, ‘inflicted great damage on the kingdom of France'. But by 1202 the boot was on the other foot. Baldwin's departure on crusade meant that the Plantagenets had lost a considerable friend – a man impressive enough to be elected as the first Emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople – and that Flanders had been neutralised. As for Renaud of Boulogne, during the conquest of Normandy he was to be one of Philip's most distinguished commanders. In the south too John's diplomacy had faltered. Everyone knew that as soon as Eleanor of Aquitaine died – and she was now more than eighty years old – Gascony would be claimed by King Alfonso VIII of Castile on the plausible grounds that it was his wife's inheritance.
For John to lose the alliance of the count of Toulouse at this juncture was a serious blow. When Eleanor died, on April 1st, 1204, Alfonso's troops were able to march into Gascony almost unopposed. On all fronts John had been outmanouevred. This meant that he was to be faced by a multitude of enemies and was forced to dissipate his resources in order to meet a wide variety of threats. Philip by contrast was able to concentrate his forces where and when he chose.
In September 1203 he chose to concentrate on the siege of Château- Gaillard, the great castle which Richard had built at phenomenal speed and enormous expense on the Rock of Andeli on the right bank of the Seine, standing guard over the approaches to Rouen. For over five months of blockade and fierce assault Château-Gaillard held firm, but eventually on March 6th, 1204, the courageous garrison was compelled to surrender. The castle had come to be seen as the key to Normandy. Its fall had a profound affect on an already low morale. Within three months it was all over. It looks as though a fault in the design of Chateau-Gâillard's inner citadel may have allowed Philip to make the final assault, but if the defence of Normandy had been competently hand- led the French King would never have been allowed to take the two outer wards and thus would never have been in a position even to approach the citadel.
What counted was the fact that throughout the autumn and winter of 1203-4 John made not the slightest effort to relieve the castle or even to harass the blockading French troops. Instead of being treated as one element in a co-ordinated defensive strategy Château-Gaillard was left to its own devices. Yet even in isolation it did its job. By holding the whole military power of the French crown at bay for more than five months it gained precious time – time which a competent commander would have put to good use. But on December 6th, 1203, John took ship to England and though he spent time talking about returning to Normandy, it never came to anything more than talk.
Doubtless John felt safer in England. By now he was convinced that the Normans were as 'treacherous' as the Poitevins and Angevins had been. In the opinion of the Barnwell Chronicler, generally regarded as the most judicious of contemporary observers, once John had been deserted by his men, he had little choice but to abandon Normandy. In the final analysis then it was his inability to inspire either affection or loyalty which counted. 'No man may ever trust him', wrote Bertrand de Born the younger, 'for his heart is soft and cowardly'. Treacherous himself, he was always on the lookout for treachery in others. Above all he feared those of his subjects who, like himself, had been born to wealth and power. His response was to turn away from his barons and rely more and more on his professional soldiers – mercenary captains like Brandin, Martin Algais, Gerard d'Athée and Louvrecaire, all of whom he appointed to high office in 1202 and 1203. 'Why', asked the biographer of William the Marshal, 'was John unable to keep the love of his people?' It was because Louvecaire maltreated them and pillaged them as though he were in an enemy's country'.
The History of William Marshal presents us with a picture – amply confirmed from other sources, record sources as well as chronicles – of an obsessively suspicious king:
When he left Rouen he had his baggage sent on ahead secretly and silently. At Bonneville he stayed the night in the castle, not in the town, for he feared a trap, believing that his barons had sworn to hand him over to the king of France... in the morning he slipped away before daybreak while everyone thought he was still asleep.
Who could feel confidence in such a king or wish to fight for him? He was believed to be capable of murdering his nephew but not of organising the defence of a beleaguered province. On that belief he foundered.
Not until the Treaty of Paris in 1259 was a Plantagenet king reluctantly prepared to accept the loss of Normandy, Anjou and Poitou. Both John and Henry III made attempts, notably in 1214, 1230 and 1242, to recover their ancestral dominions. But now they were facing an uphill struggle. The transfer of Norman resources from the Plantagenet to the Capetian treasury made an enormous difference to the balance of power. A financial account recently acquired by the Bibliothèque Nationale shows that by 1221 the ordinary income of the French crown was almost twice what it had been in 1202-3, the date of the earliest surviving set of royal accounts. This meant that the verdict of 1203-4 was, to all intents and purposes, irreversible. From now on the Plantagenets were to be English kings who occasionally visited Ireland and Gascony. But if it had not been for John they might have continued to rule the Angevin Empire. There was nothing inevitable about the emergence and survival of the separate national kingdoms of England and France.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology