4 – The Barons’ War, 1215-17
The Plantagenet grip on the throne might have been strong, but that is not to say that there weren’t uprisings against them. Henry’s sons fought among themselves over his succession 1173-4, leading Henry to designate his youngest child, John as his legitimate heir. John took over in 1199 but was widely regarded as a terrible king: it had been accepted for the entire century previous that the King was to rule with the consent of the nobility and within the established conventions of the law, but the new incumbent was reticent to do so and often would bypass the Barons and make arbitrary decisions on his own. Some of these decisions were downright terrible as well.
John lived predominantly in England (most of his ancestors had remained in Normandy and France) and thus took a hands on approach to government, travelling around the country and dealing with issues as they arose. This might sound like a good thing, but John’s presence meant that royal law could supercede local law and thus his arbitrary judgements between people were ironclad. If you were a baron who lost a legal dispute on the King’s word, then the King was the cause of your defeat. Moreover, the economy of England tanked in the early period of John’s reign due to poor harvests and, needing money to pay for wars in France, John levied taxes on the barons that they could or would not pay. He was not particularly religious – a huge crime in Mediaeval England – and managed to get himself excommunicated by the Pope in 1209. John was seen as meddling, overbearing, unpious and avaricious: suffice to say, he did not endear himself to those whom he ruled.
When John was away fighting in France, the barons back home struck. They had managed to secure his agreement to the Magna Carta – arguably the first modern constitution and the basis of all English law to this day – earlier in the year, but the King refused to accept limits to his power and, just a few months after signing the agreement, war broke out. The principal leader of the barons was Robert Fitzwalter, a baron from Essex, supported by Louis, son of Philip II of France, who headed an invading force that took London. John left the city for Winchester, only for the advancing Barons to take that city too. John got out in time, but nevertheless, Louis was proclaimed King. Many barons now backed his claim, while Alexander II of Scotland, himself a major English landowner as well as monarch, gave Louis his blessing.
Louis controlled more than half of England, but got bogged down in an unsuccessful siege of the port of Dover and then failed to take Windsor Castle too. John rounded on Rochester Castle and trapped Robert Fitzwalter inside. The rebels were starved out by the end of November 1215, captured and imprisoned. It was only for the intercession of one of John’s aides that they were not all hung. John sensed that the wind had turned in his favour, but it would turn back again. He succumbed to dysentry the next year and died, leaving his son Henry to inherit the throne.
The barons, who had took such a dislike to John, had no quarrel with the 9-year-old boy king and thus turned on Louis, whom they now saw as a greater threat to their property and rights. In November 1216, the Magna Carta was announced again, but with the name of Henry III rather than his father, and signed by his regent. The armies of the barons turned on Louis and managed to chase him back to France – he would return again, but unsuccessfully. There would be a second Barons’ War in 1264, caused by famine and perceived poor governance on behalf of Henry III, but it would again fail to displace the King.
The nip and tuck between the vested interests of the Barons and the King was far from over though…