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Lackland: The Loss of Normandy in 1215

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Nick Barratt argues that Normandy’s loss in the reign of King John has had a far-reaching impact on Britain.

Britons are drawn to events when their independence and freedom have been under threat, yet overwhelming odds have been defied. The Second World War brought the evacuation of the Dunkirk beaches, the Battle of Britain and D-Day. Victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo safeguarded Britain from Napoleon. The defeat of the Spanish Armada cemented the reputation of Queen Elizabeth. The dates we remember most are usually linked with triumph, or at least the aversion of disaster. In contrast one of the most important dates in English history – one which represents one of the greatest catastrophes ever to befall an English monarch – has been airbrushed from national consciousness.

Eight hundred years ago, in 1204, the political map of Western Europe was redrawn in the space of a few months when John, king of England and ruler of territories covering roughly two-thirds of modern France, was expelled from most of these continental lands by the French king, Philip Augustus. The consequences of this humiliating defeat still reverberate, particularly in relations between the English and their neighbours in the British Isles, attitudes to continental Europe, lingering concepts of British imperialism, and the significance of Magna Carta as a symbol of human rights. I believe this humbling defeat should be seen as a key turning point.

The kings of England from 1066 considered themselves first and foremost as landowners in Normandy and nominal subjects of the King of France but who, as a result of William the Conqueror’s invasion, had also acquired a royal title and access to England’s riches. The relative unimportance of England to them is illustrated by William’s division of his lands before his death in 1087; his eldest son Robert received the Duchy of Normandy, while his second son William Rufus took the secondary prize, becoming William II of England. Nevertheless, the fledgling Anglo-Norman realm was re-united under one ruler, when the Conqueror’s third son Henry I inherited England after Rufus’s death in 1100 and then defeated and imprisoned his brother Robert at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. A cross-Channel aristocracy developed, holding lands in both territories and having a vested interest in keeping them united in one ruler. The wars of Stephen’s reign (1135-54) emphasised this; he failed to win over the Norman aristocracy and thereby made the task of hanging on to England much harder. Unification was achieved under Henry II (r.1154-89), but now the Anglo-Norman realm became part of an even larger accumulation of titles.

Henry II, son of the Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, was  the nominal ruler of lands stretching from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees. He inherited England partly through conquest, partly through his mother’s birthright as daughter of Henry I; Normandy had been conquered by his father and Henry was invested as duke of Normandy some time between November 1149 and March 1150; Anjou also passed to him on Count Geoffrey’s death in 1151. Perhaps the most audacious acquisition was the strategically important duchy of Aquitaine when Henry married its heiress Eleanor in 1152. This was a gamble; not only was Eleanor eleven years older than the nineteen-year-old Henry, but also she was the repudiated wife of Louis VII, king of France. One of the grounds for the annulment was that she had failed to produce a male heir, a serious issue when dynastic continuity depended on a brood of healthy sons.

Thus, through dynastic accident and shrewd marriage, within five years Henry had gained control of unprecedented resources, often referred to as the Angevin Empire. In 1158 he added lordship of Brittany, and claimed lordship of Ireland following an invasion in 1171 and subsequent settlement by English adventurers. To secure the borders of these lands, Henry forged a complicated network of alliances, paid for by a steady flow of money from England’s treasury. Indeed a cynic might argue that money from England’s cash-rich economy  was more important to Henry than the prestige that its royal title brought.

Thus Henry was an international figure with multiple calls on his time; England was only a constituent part of this territorial jigsaw and it is not surprising that he spent most of his reign abroad. He was a French lord several times over; his place of birth was Le Mans in the province of Maine; his education was as a French nobleman, his first language was French and his leading advisers and courtiers were all French. He was naturally more concerned with affairs on the continent, and spent most of his life defending his acquisitions against external foes such as the King of France, and ambitious sons.

Henry had no intention of keeping the lands together, yet his policy of partially handing the governance of key territories to each of his sons without fully releasing control, led to bitter resentment and open warfare amongst his offspring. On Henry’s death in 1189 the vast conglomeration passed virtually intact to his son Richard, but this was down to the untimely deaths of Richard’s brothers Henry and Geoffrey. Only one brother remained – Henry’s youngest son John, unkindly described by historians as the runt of the Angevin litter, whom Henry had only entrusted with the lordship of Ireland, still a frontier land in the Angevin territories. Henry’s last few years had been spent in open warfare with Richard, who was never a favourite of his father; it was the news that John had joined Richard’s revolt in 1189 that broke the old king’s heart. Wearied by old age and treachery, Henry was forced to acknowledge Richard as his heir. His last words to his estranged son had a prophetic ring: ‘May the Lord spare me until I have taken vengeance upon you.’ Henry’s time had run out – he died a few days later on July 6th,  1189, but Richard had inherited a poisoned chalice.

Arguably, Richard I was an even more famous figure than his father, winning renown and the nickname ‘Lionheart’ as a Crusader in the Middle East and locking horns with Saladin. Whilst Richard’s fame as a warrior and general has endured, his reputation as a competent ruler has come under scrutiny, particularly in the context of the loss of Normandy, the traditional heartland of the Anglo-Norman realm. The Duchy was fundamentally destabilised during Richard’s reign on a number of levels – financial, political and structural – through the excessive militarisation of Normandy’s frontiers. Furthermore the French king Philip Augustus, 1179-1223, one of Western Europe’s most astute and opportunist monarchs, had constantly sought to exploit his position as Henry and Richard’s feudal overlord to undermine their position as Duke of Normandy. He  had often acted as catalyst in the arguments between father and son. Despite little material success in the ensuing conflicts, the effects on the duchy of Philip’s constant military, political and diplomatic barrage was further to destabilise relations between the leading barons and their Angevin princes. The ambivalence of the Norman barons can be traced back to Geoffrey of Anjou’s conquest of Normandy, which had forcibly ended many years of open enmity between the two territories. For as long as Henry II and Richard remained successful, the Norman aristocracy proved loyal, albeit grudgingly. However, during Richard’s captivity on his way back from Crusade (1193-94), Philip forged an alliance with Prince John, who handed over key castles such as Evreux to the French king, allowing Philip to seize large sections of the French-Norman frontier. Richard spent the rest of his life trying to win them back, whilst the Norman aristocracy never forgot John’s treachery.

In the face of Philip’s aggression, Richard embarked on a massive programme of fortification along a disputed section of the Norman border called the Vexin. Castle after castle was constructed to provide a strategic network, at the heart of which was Château Gaillard – literally the ‘saucy castle’. Built on Les Andelys, an island in the Seine, Château Gaillard was personally designed by Richard, who boasted that its defences were so well conceived that he could defend the castle even if its walls were made of butter. It protected strategic routes to the ducal capital of Rouen: whilst Château Gaillard stood intact, Normandy was safe.

Richard’s castle-building programme came at an enormous cost. The duchy’s finances were pushed to breaking point, and large drafts of cash from England were required to complete the construction. Norman ducal revenues were insufficient to meet even the cost of garrisoning its defences and so, to fund Richard’s seemingly never-ending wars against Philip, England was subjected to unprecedented levels of financial exaction. Worst of all, Richard fatally undermined England’s fiscal base, namely revenue from royal demesne lands, at a time when Philip Augustus was vastly expanding the French royal demesne.

On Richard’s death in 1199, the new king John faced an unenviable position – committed to unsustainable levels of expenditure in Normandy that could only be funded by huge cash injections from England, drawn largely from politically sensitive sources. Contemporary chroniclers reveal a hitherto unrecognised level of resentment directed against Richard, and in contrast, the first years of John’s reign saw praise heaped on the new king as the bringer of peace to a people wearied from heavy taxation and constant warfare. Yet within a few years, John’s reputation was in tatters.

Amongst English monarchs, perhaps only Richard III can claim to have been vilified at a level similar to John. There are so many low points of John’s reign it is difficult to know where to begin. Here was a man who was alleged to have murdered his nephew with his own bare hands; who lusted after and married a thirteen-year-old heiress,  much to the disgust of her fiancé, a key ally; who lost territories that had been in his family’s possession for centuries; whose actions in England brought the wrath of the Pope onto his God-fearing subjects during the great Interdict of 1208-14, when all church doors were locked; who managed to alienate so many leading English subjects that they declared war on him, having first attempted to tie him to written guidelines for good-government; and who was so disliked that a foreign prince – Louis, son of Philip Augustus – with no legitimate claim to the throne was preferred as a potential monarch by the rebels, who offered him the throne. Even taking into account the difficult political and financial situation bequeathed to him, John was indisputably the architect of his own misfortune.

A chain of events was set in motion by John’s marriage in 1200 to Isabella d’Angoulême, betrothed at the time to one of his leading vassals in Aquitaine, Hugh le Brun, Lord of Lusignan. The ensuing squabble quickly turned to full-scale revolt, and as supreme overlord of both John and Hugh, Philip Augustus was provided with an easy opportunity to intervene directly in Angevin affairs. His demands for John to grant justice to Hugh were ignored; and thus, as a disobedient vassal, in 1202 John was formally stripped of all lands held of Philip except Normandy. Philip handed them to Arthur, John’s nephew, and promptly embarked on raids against Normandy’s borders. In an astonishingly decisive response, John won a victory more stunning than any achieved by his father or brother, and at the castle of Mirabeau captured Arthur along with all the leading Lusignan rebels. All were imprisoned, Arthur at Falaise; but in the words of the Margam chronicler, ‘after King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time, at length, in the castle of Rouen, after dinner on the Thursday before Easter [April 3rd, 1203], when he was drunk and possessed by the devil, he slew him with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine.’ Rumours of this barbaric act, and the treatment of other noble prisoners, sealed John’s fate.

The erosion of Norman confidence in their duke had been growing during Richard’s last years, but under John, loyalty sank to a new low. Sensing this, Philip continued his assault on John’s lands throughout 1203, and quickly seized control of Anjou, Maine and large sections of Aquitaine. More significantly, he made heavy inroads into the Norman defences, seizing castle after castle. John acted like a rabbit caught in headlights and, (correctly) fearing treachery from the Norman nobles, fled the duchy on December 5th, 1203. Philip had already begun his assault on Château Gaillard in August. In one sense Richard’s boasts about the defensive capability of Château Gaillard were proved accurate; while opposition to Philip had melted away like butter, the walls of this key defence held out until March 1204. For as long as Château Gaillard held there was hope, as control of Normandy depended on its possession. However, John continued to cower in England, and by the time he had begun to make preparations for a return, it was too late. After a lengthy siege during which local residents were condemned to a horrific existence of depravation and starvation, trapped between the castle walls and the besieging army, Philip Augustus stormed the fortress on March 6th, 1204. He then mopped up resistance in the south and west of the duchy, taking the symbolically important towns of Falaise and Caen, before heading east. He reached Rouen, the ducal capital, in May; with the rest of Normandy in French hands and with no realistic hope of relief from John, resistance seemed futile and the city surrendered on June 24th, 1204. The heart had been ripped out of the Angevin Empire.

John devoted the remainder of his reign to the recovery of his lands. The next ten years were spent frantically gathering resources to mount a campaign of re-conquest. Trapped in England, he traversed his kingdom selling royal justice, privilege and office, raising heavy taxes and imposing massive financial penalties on leading magnates to secure the King’s ‘goodwill’. This was particularly odious given the arbitrary nature of the exactions; and John’s treatment of William de Braiose, who was hounded out of his lands and his wife and children starved to death in the dungeons of Windsor Castle on John’s orders, left few in doubt of the need for compliance. By 1214 John’s arbitrary exactions had secured an enormous war chest. He was risking everything on a military gamble to recover his lost lands. Succeed, and the means would justify the ends; fail, and the consequences were unthinkable.

The funds bought an impressive array of allies, including John’s nephew and Holy Roman Emperor, Otto of Brunswick. John had planned a two-pronged assault, and led the southern attack himself. Predictably, he made little headway and, deserted by his Poitevin vassals, he was forced to withdraw. Nevertheless, a momentous encounter took place on July 27th, 1214, at Bouvines in Flanders, where Philip squared up to Otto and John’s northern allies. In a pitched battle fought on a hot summer’s day, Philip’s victory was crushingly decisive; God had delivered his verdict on the battlefield, and John slunk back to England to face the consequences.

The date of the battle of Bouvines deserves to be as famous as Hastings, mainly because it decided the direction of England’s future development as a nation. First and foremost, the floodgates of political protest in England were opened, leading directly to the creation of Magna Carta in 1215. Although large sections of the document simply attempted to limit the financial exactions of the Crown, several key clauses still have significance as defining civil liberty: ‘No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed, neither will we set forth against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land’; and ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.’ These statements of justice and the rule of law are enshrined in constitutions around the world, and have been used as rallying cries against oppression. Without John’s actions after the loss of Normandy, it is entirely possible that Magna Carta would never have materialised.

Secondly, Bouvines confirmed the end of the Anglo-Norman realm. The cross-Channel aristocracy were forced to choose on which side of the fence they belonged. Thus for the first time the English nobility focused solely on the acquisition and consolidation of possessions within England. Their attention to their English estates led to greater political and social integration, as well as the development of a sense of Englishness that hitherto had been largely absent. Within forty years, John’s son Henry III found himself facing a political crisis of his own because he had surrounded himself with non-English courtiers. Although the kings of England retained some continental lands, most importantly Gascony, they were now for the first time resident rulers, with a greater role to play in England’s development.

More ominously, the severance of the Anglo-Norman reign had left John free to turn his attention to Wales and Ireland. After successful campaigns, one chronicler remarked that ‘Ireland, Scotland and Wales all bowed to his nod – a situation which, as is well known, none of his predecessors had achieved – and he would have thought himself as happy and successful as he could have wished, had he not been despoiled of his continental possessions and suffered the Church’s curse.’ Although the Angevin monarchs no longer had most of their Angevin lands, their grand dynastic visions had not diminished. John’s grandson Edward I undertook the conquest of Wales (complete with a castle-building programme of which Richard I would have been proud), and an abortive attempt to establish sovereignty over Scotland. Similarly, the gradual extension of English rule in Ireland continued. Thus the tone for English imperialism within the British Isles was set in the early years of the thirteenth century.

Finally, the events of 1204 and the battle of Bouvines had created an enmity between the kings of England and France that remained until the nineteenth century. Although Henry III recognised the loss of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1259, the terms by which he was permitted to hold on to Gascony stored up problems for future generations. The impractical nature of one sovereign having to perform homage as a vassal to another, with ties of fealty that theoretically prevented an independent foreign policy, were unworkable and was a major cause of the Hundred Years War. It was only in 1801 that the British monarchy formally relinquished its claim to the French throne.

Thus without the ineptitude of King John, no modern debate that takes in British devolution, British sovereignty and role within Europe, trial by jury, civil liberty, or even sporting rivalry with the French would be possible. We owe much to the humiliating events of 1203-4, and should celebrate this, one of the least glorious chapters in our history.

Nick Barratt has written numerous articles about the reigns of Richard I, John, Henry III and Edward I. He currently works as a historical consultant and researcher to the media.

Further reading: 
  • J. Gillingham, The Angevin Empire 2nd edition, (Arnold, 2001)
  • S.D. Church, ed., King John: New Interpretations (Boydell, 2003)
  • J. Holt, The Northerners (Oxford UP, 1961)
  • D. Bates and A. Curry, eds., England and Normandy in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 1994)


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