Prince John’s Gambit: The Throne at any Cost
John, Count of Mortain, Lord of Ireland, and youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine knew that the stars were finally aligning in his favor, and the impossible dreams of his youth were now within his grasp. Bold action was required, and he was confident in his ability to seize this auspicious opportunity.
It was early January 1193 when John received a letter from King Philip II of France informing him that his brother, King Richard the Lionheart, was being held captive by the Duke of Austria and his liege lord, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.
John immediately traveled to the nearest port and secretly crossed the Channel into Normandy. He might have already been imagining his future as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and ruler over the Angevin lands lying between those valuable duchies. No one would ever call him “Lackland” again.
It’s likely that John’s ambitions were buoyed by his knowledge of family history. His great-grandfather, Henry I, was the youngest son of William the Conqueror. Upon William’s death, his lands were divided between his two oldest surviving sons: William Rufus, who became King of England and Robert Curthose, who became Duke of Normandy. Henry Beauclerc, as Henry I was known before his ascension, was the original “Lackland” as the only inheritance he received was money.
Yet, only 13 years after William the Conqueror’s death, this youngest son had seized the throne of England after the sudden death of William Rufus in 1100. Six years later, Henry defeated
Robert Curthose at the Battle of Tinchebray and became Duke of Normandy. Robert Curthose would spend the rest of his life in captivity.
Did visions of Richard, his formidable older brother, imprisoned for the rest of his natural life inspire John as he rode across Normandy that cold January?
John’s story during Richard’s captivity stretches from January 1193 to the brothers’ reconciliation in May 1194. It’s a tale of persistence, audacious risk-taking, and a single-minded resolve to achieve power at any cost.
If John had succeeded, perhaps we would admire him just as Henry I is admired for his unexpected rise to power. But John’s failures and reckless schemes during these 17 months would not only determine the course of Richard’s remaining years as king, they would also play an important role in establishing John’s reputation as a deceitful, untrustworthy, and avaricious man.
When John met with the Norman barons at Alençon in January 1193, he announced that Richard would not return, and that he was likely dead. John proclaimed that he was ready to assume control of Normandy and help the barons defend against potential attacks from King Philip. These loyal liegemen of Richard flatly refused to accept John as their new lord. As long as Richard lived, they would honor their oaths of fealty to him. Undeterred, John left them and went to Paris.
King Philip had spent his reign cleverly pitting one Plantagenet against another, and he was delighted to receive John at his court. In return for Philip’s support, John vowed to annul his marriage and marry Philip’s sister. He then paid homage to Philip for Normandy and the Angevin lands, and he promised to give Philip the strategic fortress of Gisors and the Norman Vexin.
This was a stunning betrayal of his brother, and as news of John’s actions in Paris made its way back to England, many of those who might have otherwise supported John as heir were outraged.
In February, John returned to England where he captured and garrisoned the castles of Windsor and Wallingford. He then entered London and declared that Richard would never return; he even insisted that Richard was dead. John demanded the Great Council recognize him as king.
His mother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Great Council were now ruling England. They had not yet received word of Richard’s location or condition, and it was a precarious time. Since Richard had no legitimate children, only John and a nephew, Arthur of Brittany, were potential successors. Arthur’s father, Geoffrey, had been born before John, but Arthur’s youth and Breton upbringing worked against him. Eleanor preferred that John ascend to the throne should Richard die.
By early March, John’s castles at Windsor and Tickhill were under siege. It was an awkward moment for the men leading these sieges. If they pursued victory too vigorously, they might make an enemy of the future king.
On April 20, Eleanor and the Great Council began receiving dispatches from Richard, who outlined the terms of his release and offered recommendations for raising the staggering king’s ransom required for his freedom. The government could not simultaneously conduct sieges against John’s castles and raise the ransom.
Even though Windsor and Tickhill were on the verge of surrender, a six-month truce was negotiated. Eleanor took control of Windsor and Wallingford, while John kept Tickhill and Nottingham. Along with other stipulations, John was expected to help raise the ransom, and he was required to stay in England.
After this setback, John spent May and June in Dorset, pouting and plotting his next move. Historians differ on how much effort he put into raising the ransom.
In early July, news reached both England and France that the terms of Richard’s release had been renegotiated and finalized. Although Richard knew that his release was still months away, Philip believed the Lionheart could be freed at any time.
In response, a frantic King Philip sent his famous message to John: “Look to yourself, the Devil is loosed!”
Despite his pledge to remain in England, a terrified John fled across the Channel to Paris. Because he had broken the truce, John’s estates were confiscated.
John was at Philip’s side when emissaries from the Lionheart arrived, proposing a treaty with the French king. The Treaty of Mantes was signed on July 9, 1193, and it was a generous settlement intended to stop Philip from further incursions into Normandy and to avoid a possible French invasion of England.
Richard’s secondary goal was to separate Philip and John. If John renewed his oath of loyalty to his brother, his titles and lands on both sides of the Channel would be restored, and a series of castles in Normandy would be awarded to him. John promptly pledged his allegiance to Richard and set off to claim his castles. However, he was so distrusted that the castellans refused to relinquish control to John. A furious John returned to Paris, and Richard’s scheme to remove John from Philip’s influence failed.
The emperor’s December announcement that Richard would be released in January resulted in another panicked response from Philip and John. They sent a letter to Henry offering either monthly payments to keep Richard imprisoned until autumn or a lump sum matching the ransom raised by Eleanor, as long as Henry transferred custody of his prisoner to Philip.
By January 1194, John was desperate, but he was not ready to admit defeat. He made one last treaty with Philip, and its extraordinary terms must have astounded the French king. John surrendered the whole of Normandy east of the Seine except for the city of Rouen. He gave key castles in Maine, Anjou, Touraine, and Aquitaine to Philip. And perhaps the most shocking concession was his agreement to hold the remaining continental lands as a baron of the French court. This would end the long-standing tradition of the Duke of Normandy meeting the King of France as an equal.
The January treaty was so astonishing that it only raised Philip’s suspicions. Although Philip signed the treaty, the shrewd French king probably doubted that John would abide by it.
Philip and John’s offer tempted Henry VI, and he showed their letter to Richard. Although he could not renege on his promises, Henry delayed Richard’s release until February 4, 1194.
Eleanor and Richard immediately left the German court, and they landed in England on March 13. Richard soon subdued John’s remaining supporters, and John’s titles and lands were again confiscated.
On May 13, Richard and Eleanor disembarked in Normandy. By May 19, they were in Lisieux at the home of John of Alençon. It is here that a shaken and contrite John arrived, falling at his brother’s feet, shedding the required tears, and begging for mercy. Richard forgave him, but his words were casual and full of contempt. He called the 27-year-old John a “child” who had been led astray by evil advisors.
Eleanor and Richard had already determined that it was more important to separate John from Philip and bring him back into the family fold than to impose the punishment he deserved for his treason.
The following day, John returned to Evreux, a strategic castle he had been holding for Philip since January. He then demonstrated why he could not be trusted. He invited the town’s French officials to meet with him, perhaps for dinner, and he announced to them that he now held the town for Richard before ordering their slaughter.
Twelve months later, in May 1195, Richard restored the counties of Mortain and Gloucester to John, although not the castles. In September 1197, Richard formally named John as his heir. John did not return to England until after Richard’s death in 1199.
The story of John’s 17 month quest for power during Richard’s captivity shows a man willing to promise anything and risk everything, regardless of whether he could deliver. Yet, he never suffered the consequences he deserved for his actions, mostly because he was the favored choice to succeed Richard, as long as the Lionheart remained childless.
Consider these examples:
· During his initial bid to take the crown, when his castles were on the verge of surrender, he was offered a generous truce.
· He lost his titles and lands when he fled to Paris in July 1193, but the Treaty of Mantes restored them to him.
· He ceded valuable strategic castles to Philip, and Richard would spend the remainder of his life fighting to recover them. John’s penalty was to lose his lands and titles for a time, but they were eventually returned to him.
This raises the question of whether John learned any lessons from his disastrous attempt to take the throne from Richard, and how that lack of meaningful consequences for his reckless and risky gambles might have impacted his reign, particularly when dealing with a cunning foe like King Philip and aggrieved barons looking for a measure of justice.
About the authors:
J. C. Plummer graduated Summa Cum Laude from Washburn University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Anthropology. She later earned a Master of Science degree in Computer Information Science from Dartmouth College.
As an author and historian, J.C.’s goal is to provide thoughtful and entertaining storytelling that honors the past, is mindful of the present, and is optimistic for the future.
She has joined with author Olivia Longueville to co-author The Robin Hood Trilogy.
About Olivia Longueville: Olivia has always loved literature and fiction, and she is passionate about historical research, genealogy, and the arts. She has several degrees in finance & general management from London Business School (LBS) and other universities. At present, she helps her father run the family business.
Olivia’s first book was Between Two Kings, a novel set in Tudor England, which will be re-published by Penmore Press later this year.
J.C.’s social media profiles:
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From the mists of an ancient woodland, to lavish royal courts teeming with intrigue, to the exotic shores of the Holy Land—Robin Hood leads the fight in a battle between good and evil, justice and tyranny, the future and the past.
Historical figures such as King Philip II of France, Richard the Lionheart, Prince John, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are featured in the trilogy.
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Very interesting article, thank you for sharing.
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Thank you, Sharon, for sharing my article on your great blog! I’ve followed and enjoyed this blog for a long time, and it’s a thrill to see one of my articles here.
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You’re so welcome. It’s a fabulous article, I really enjoyed it. Good luck with the books! Best wishes, Sharon
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