Guest Post: Prince John’s Gambit: The Throne at any Cost

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:

Website: http://www.angevinworld.com/

Twitter: @JC_Plummer Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jennie.newbrand/

Olivia’s social media profiles:

Website: http://www.olivialongueville.com/

Twitter: @O_Longueville

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/OliviaLongueville/

The Robin Hood Trilogy:

Set in late 12th century England, France, and Outremer, this re-imagining of the Robin Hood story closely follows history while incorporating popular aspects of the Robin Hood legends.

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.

Book 1: Robin Hood’s Dawn Amazon buy links. https://bit.ly/1-RHDawn https://bit.ly/RHDawn-UK

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Book 3: Robin Hood’s Return Coming soon!

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Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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The Unfortunate Wives of Philip II of France

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Coronation of Philip II Augustus

Philip II Augustus had acceded to the throne of France in 1180, at the tender age of fifteen. He married his first wife, Isabella of Hainault the same year; she was only ten-years-old. Isabella was the daughter of Baldwin V, count of Hainault, and Margaret I, countess of Flanders. At just one year old she had been betrothed to Henry, the future count of Champagne and nephew of Adele, queen of France. However, Isabella’s father later reneged on his promises, and arranged Isabella’s marriage to Philip, the son and heir of Louis VII. Philip had been crowned junior king of France in 1179. Isabella and Philip were married on 28 April 1180 and Isabella was crowned queen exactly one month later, even though her father-in-law was still king. With Louis VII’s death Philip and Isabella acceded to the throne as sole king and queen in September of the same year.

Philip was a capricious being when it came to his wives, indeed, he attempted to repudiate Isabella when she was only fourteen. Isabella’s father had taken the side of his enemies in war against Flanders, but he cited her failure to produce an heir as his reason for putting her aside, despite her still-tender age. Unfortunately for Philip, Isabella appeared before the council at Sens, called to support his repudiation of her, barefoot and penitent. Isabella was a popular queen and the people were so taken with this act of humility that their protests forced the king to take her back.

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Isabella of Hainault

She gave birth to the desired son and heir, the future Louis VIII, three years later, in 1187. However, on 14 March 1190 she gave birth to twin boys, Robert and Philip, but died from complications the next day, aged just nineteen; the babies died three days after their mother. The Chronique rimee of Philippe Mouskes described her as “Queen Isabelle, she of noble form and lovely eyes.” Philip II left on Crusade just a few short months after Isabella’s death; however, with only one living son, he was soon looking around for a new wife.

Ingeborg was the daughter of Valdemar I the Great, king of Denmark, and Sofia of Minsk, and was the youngest of their eight surviving children. Born around 1176, it was only six years later, in 1182, that her father died. Valdemar was succeeded by Ingeborg’s older brother, Knut (or Canute) VI; and it fell to Knut to arrange Ingeborg’s future. I could not find any details of Ingeborg’s childhood, although she was probably educated to the standard expected of princesses of the time, in order to make her attractive in the international royal marriage market. A princess was expected to be able to manage a household, to sew, play music, sing, dance and much more.

Ingeborg held many political attractions for the king of France, her brother not only had a claim to the English throne, stretching back to the time of Cnut the Great, who ruled England in the eleventh century, but he also possessed an impressive navy, one which Philip would rather have with him, than against him. Such an alliance also helped France and Denmark to stand up to the expansionism of the Holy Roman Empire, under Emperor Henry VI.

On the conclusion of negotiations with Knut’s representatives, Philip sent an embassy to Denmark, to escort his bride back to France. The envoys were afforded a lavish reception at the Danish court, where the formal arrangements for the marriage were finalised. Ingeborg was provided with a dowry of 10,000 marks in gold and set out for a new life in France, accompanied by the French envoys and many Danish dignitaries, probably not expecting to ever see her homeland again. Ten years older than Ingeborg, Philip met his bride for the first time on their wedding day, 14 August 1193, in the cathedral church at Amiens. Ingeborg was crowned queen of France the next day, by the archbishop of Reims; her name changed to Isambour, to make it more acceptable to the French language, though what she thought of this, we cannot say.

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Ingeborg of Denmark

At seventeen years of age, contemporary sources extolled her excellent qualities; in addition to the obligatory courtly praise of her appearance, comparing her beauty with that of Helen of Troy, she was a model of virtue. Ingeborg was described as ‘very kind, young of age but old of wisdom’ by Étienne de Tournai, who knew her well and said that the beauty of her soul overshadowed that of her face. Remarkably, given subsequent events, even those chroniclers devoted to her Philip II, such as Guillaume le Breton, spoke of the new queen with respect.

Unfortunately, no one knows what happened on the wedding night, but poor Ingeborg had one of the shortest honeymoon periods in history; and by the end of the coronation ceremony he had such an aversion to Ingeborg that he tried to get the Danish envoys to take her home with them. Ingeborg, however, refused to go, saying that she had been crowned queen of France, and her place was now in France. Queen Ingeborg sought sanctuary in a convent in Soissons, from where she wrote an appeal to the pope, Celestine III. Three months later, Philip established a friendly ecclesiastical council in Compiègne, in an attempt to have the marriage annulled. Ingeborg was present, but, speaking no French, had little understanding of the proceedings until they were interpreted for her.

Philip claimed that Ingeborg was related to his first wife, and the marriage was therefore within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, going so far as to falsify his family tree to provide proof. As a result, the churchmen, sympathetic to their king, determined that the marriage was void.  When Ingeborg was informed of the decision, she appealed to Rome, protesting loudly “Mala Francia! Roma! Roma!” Her homeland finally took notice of Ingeborg’s plight and following a meeting with a Danish delegation, who produced their own genealogy showing that Ingeborg and Philippe had very little blood in common, the pope declared the decision by Philip’s ecclesiastical council to be invalid and ordered that Philip should take back his wife, and was not to remarry.

Thwarted by Ingeborg’s stubbornness, Philip decided to force her to acquiesce, by making Ingeborg’s life as uncomfortable as possible. She was placed under house arrest; first at an abbey near Lille, then at the monastery of Saint Maur des Fossés and at various other convents afterwards, her treatment becoming gradually harsher the longer she refused to give in. For seven years, the French court saw nothing of her; Étienne de Tournai reported, to the archbishop of Reims, that “she spent all her days in prayer, reading, work; solemn practices fill her every moment”.

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Ingeborg’s psalter

Ingeborg would spend twenty years, incarcerated in various castles and abbeys, contesting any annulment. The longer her imprisonment, the more desperate her situation became; Ingeborg was forced to sell or pawn most of her possessions, even down to her clothing, in order to sustain herself. She later described herself, in a letter to the pope, Celestine III, as “…discarded like a dried and diseased branch; here I am, deprived of all help and consolation.”

As the consanguinity argument was not working for Philip, in pursuit of his divorce, and with his counsellors already having an eye on a new bride for the king, another argument was advanced; that of non-consummation. Ingeborg, however, remained steadfast, insisting that she and Philip had slept together on their wedding night. The pope again took Ingeborg’s side. Philip disregarded the pope’s decree to return to Ingeborg and took a new wife, Agnes of Merania, a German princess, in 1196. They had two children together, Philip and Marie, illegitimate due to their father’s bigamous marriage with their mother. However, in 1198, the new pope, Innocent III, asserted his authority by declaring the marriage invalid, he announced that Philip was still married to Ingeborg and ordered the king to return to his true wife.

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Agnes of Merania

Philip responded by making Ingeborg’s imprisonment even harsher. Following vigorous correspondence between Paris and the papacy Innocent responded with his most powerful weapon; excommunication. On 15 January 1200, the whole of France was put under interdict, all churches were closed. There were to be no church services or offices; no sacraments were to be performed, save for the baptism of new-borns and the last rites of the dying, until Philip acquiesced to the pope’s demands and, at least, renounced Agnes, even if he didn’t return to Ingeborg. Indeed, Philip’s own son, Louis, had to hold his wedding to Blanche of Castile, daughter of Eleanor of Castile, in Normandy due to the interdict.

Towards the end of the year Philip finally gave in. Poor Agnes was stripped of her status as Philip’s wife and exiled from court; she died in July 1201, heartbroken. Her two children by Philip were legitimised by the pope shortly afterwards. For Ingeborg, however, nothing changed. Philip refused to take her back and appealed again for an annulment, this time claiming that she had bewitched him on their wedding night. The appeal, again, was refused and Ingeborg was only released – finally – in 1213. Philippe’s change of heart was not out of any sense of guilt, affection or justice, but more for practicality. With King John’s barons risen against him, the situation in England was ripe to be exploited, and Philip needed peace with Denmark in order to concentrate his attentions on the greater prize; the English throne.

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Seal of Philip II Augusts

Ingeborg had been a prisoner in France for twenty years. Now, because of political expediency, she was not only free, but reinstated as queen, accorded the respect and dignity she had had a right to since her wedding day in 1193. However, her husband never returned to her bed; it was for outward appearances only. His son, Louis, now had his own son and heir, and so there was no need for Philip to be with Ingeborg, physically, in order to secure the succession. On his deathbed, in 1223, Philip II Augustus asked his son to treat Ingeborg well; while in his will, he left her 10,000 livres. The new king, Louis VIII, and his son, Louis IX, would both treat Ingeborg kindly and accord her all the respect due to her rank as dowager queen of France. Such an action was politically preferable to Louis; by recognising Ingeborg as legitimate queen of France he emphasised that Agnes had not been, and that, therefore, her children, especially Louis’s half-brother, Philip, had no right to the throne (despite his legitimisation by the pope).

After Philip’s death Ingeborg paid for masses to be said for his soul, whether out of duty, or as a sign of forgiveness, we’ll never know. A dignified and pious widow, she then retired to the priory of St Jean de l’Île, Corbeil. She died in 1238, surviving her husband by more than fourteen years and was buried in a church in Corbeil, having spent twenty of her forty-five years, as queen, a prisoner of her husband.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Géraud, Hercule, Ingeburge de Danemark, reine de France, 1193-1236. Mémoire de feu Hercule Géraud, couronné par l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres dans sa séance du 11 août 1844. [Première partie.] Article; Étienne de Tournai, quoted in Géraud, Hercule, Ingeburge de Danemark, reine de France, 1193-1236. Mémoire de feu Hercule Géraud, couronné par l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres dans sa séance du 11 août 1844. [Première partie.] Article; Anna Belfrage Weep, Ingeborg, weep, (article) annabelfrage.wordpress.com; Goubert, Pierre The Course of French History; histoirefrance.net; historyofroyalwomen.com.

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly