In the bitter 13th Century struggle between King John and the upstart English barons, the Magna Carta was far from the last word.
Vengeance has been called the true sport of kings, and few monarchs have taken it as seriously as England’s King John. While not nearly the warrior his older brother Richard the Lionheart had been, John proved himself more than adept at exacting revenge for injuries real and imagined.
Among the former were insults hurled at the monarch by the same barons who in June 1215 had forced their sovereign to sign one of history’s great documents, the Magna Carta, which limited John’s royal powers and protected the barons’ privileges as freemen. John’s signature would have ended the longstanding strife between king and barons, had either side possessed the good sense to make some small measure of accommodation toward the other. Unfortunately, that is not the way of over-proud men. No sooner was the “Great Charter” signed than the barons turned to drink and, in their drunkenness, loudly proclaimed John a “disgrace,” “a worthless man and a king contemptible to his people,” “a slave” and “the scum of the people,” according to 13th century English chronicler Roger of Wendover.
Upon hearing of these insults, John flew into an impressive rage, “gnashing his teeth, scowling with his eyes, and gnawing at the limbs of trees.” Once he calmed down, he shifted his energies to the business of vengeance. And serious business it would be.
John’s first concern was to ensure the safety of what he still possessed. He sent royal writs to the mercenaries guarding his castles, ordering them to secretly provision their strongholds and prepare for war. He then snuck off to the Isle of Wight, accompanied by the seven nobles who remained faithful to him. There, John gathered forces for a campaign that would break the power of England’s barons.
For two months, John busied himself with amassing funds and buying the loyalty of the southern ports’ garrisons. Even as he tackled these tasks, his emissaries were making their way to Rome to seek papal support, while his military commanders were dispatched to France to gather a mercenary army. In the first of these tasks, John’s cause was greatly assisted by his having ended a long conflict with Pope Innocent III two years before. As part of the deal he made with Innocent, John agreed to become the pope’s vassal, thereby transforming Innocent from bitterest foe to closest ally. That process also made England a part of Innocent’s papal holdings.
So when Innocent learned of the baron’s revolt and the Magna Carta, he saw the latter as a challenge to his papal prerogatives and reportedly exclaimed, “Are the barons of England removing from the throne a king who is under the protection of the apostolic see? By St. Peter, we cannot pass over this insult without punishing it!” He then condemned and forever annulled what he called the “shaming and demeaning document,” and composed a letter to the barons, ordering them to desist from their revolt or face excommunication. Soon after, when John refused to meet the barons for a peace conference, England’s bishops, whose sympathies lay with the barons, used the exact wording of the papal bull to excommunicate all “disturbers of the peace.” As the barons saw themselves as peacemakers and the king as the true disturber of the peace, the dreaded papal anathema and excommunication had little immediate effect.
With the pope’s blessing in hand and a formidable mercenary army now at his back, John was ready to march by late September 1215. The barons, on the other hand, had spent the months since the signing of the Magna Carta waiting in London in a state of indolence. Not until John’s war plans became obvious did they rouse themselves to action and besiege the royal strongholds at Oxford and Northampton. In early October, the barons advanced into Kent to engage the king, who was in Canterbury at the head of a small reconnoitering force. Realizing he was only a few miles from the full might of the barons’ army, John beat a hasty retreat to Dover, where his mercenaries awaited their orders. Ironically, the barons—upon hearing a rumor that the king was advancing from Canterbury—withdrew despite their superior numbers.
To delay King John’s advance while they concentrated their force for a decisive battle, the rebellious barons convinced Reginald of Cornhill, then securing Rochester Castle for Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, to turn over the fortress to them. One of England’s most formidable fortresses, Rochester stood athwart the route from Dover to London. Whoever held it would dominate most of Kent and control London’s communications to the south and the sea.
The site of a timber fortification since Roman times, Rochester took form as a castle proper when the Normans built stone walls in the late 11th century. Henry I presented the castle to Archbishop of Canterbury William de Corbeil in 1127 and charged him with building its great keep, a formidable tower within the castle.
By the 13th century, Rochester Castle was considered virtually impregnable. Attackers faced three lines of defense; the walls around the town of Rochester itself, then the castle’s solid curtain walls and, finally, the formidable keep, with six levels and four towers. By any measure, taking the castle by force was a daunting challenge. Ironically, just before the Barons’ War, John had improved the castle’s defenses, an act he surely regretted now that he faced the task of storming the very walls he had reinforced.
To hold Rochester Castle against John’s attack, the barons picked a force of 140 knights led by veteran warrior William d’Aubigny. When d’Aubigny and his men arrived in Rochester, they expected to find the fortress well stocked and ready for war but instead found it completely unprepared to withstand a siege. Many of the knights thought to abandon the mission but were held to their duty by the exhortations of d’Aubigny, who simultaneously shamed them and appealed to their martial vigor. In a burst of activity, the small band of warriors stockpiled all available supplies within the town. But within three days of their arrival, John and his army appeared at the walls of Rochester.
And what an army it had become. Joined by knights from Poitou and Gascony loyal to the House of Anjou (which ruled much of northern France) and to John, by opportunistic warriors who coveted the lands of England’s barons and by battalions of mercenary crossbowmen who, in the words of Roger of Wendover, “thirsted for nothing more than human blood,” the royal army was so immense that one contemporary chronicler asserted, “All who beheld it were struck with fear and dismay.” Once he learned that d’Aubigny and his followers had occupied Rochester, John ordered his murderous throng to attack.
For the townspeople manning Rochester’s walls, the sight of John’s fearsome professionals was too much, and they fled the battlements. John’s knights burst through the town gates and in a short, vicious fight pushed d’Aubigny’s troops across the castle drawbridge and into the stronghold. If some chroniclers are to be believed, the defenders fought only to cut their way through John’s men and beat a hasty retreat to London. But they failed miserably and were now trapped within the keep, facing one of the greatest castle breakers of the Middle Ages.
Despite recent attempts to rehabilitate his reputation, neither history nor literature speak well of King John. Most historians have agreed with English medievalist William Stubbs, who in 1875 labeled John “the very worst of all our kings…a faithless son, a treacherous brother…polluted with every crime…false to every obligation. …In the whole view, there is no redeeming trait.” Indeed, the monarch gained the nickname “John Softsword” after losing Normandy to the French, supposedly because he would not leave the bed of his young bride.
In truth, Normandy and the rest of the Angevin Empire’s once extensive possessions in France could not have resisted the resurgent power of the French monarchy. Even Richard the Lionheart, against whom John’s supposed military failings are often measured, was hard-pressed to hold what his father, Henry II, had gained. Still, it was John who lost an empire, and with it his military reputation.
In reality, John had an enviable war record: In 1202, for example, the king marched his army 80 miles in 48 hours to rescue his aging mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was besieged in Mirabeau Castle. He routed the unsuspecting besiegers, freed his mother and captured almost all of the enemy nobles. John was equally effective at assaulting strongholds, as he proved in 1206 when he took the supposedly impregnable fortress of Montauban. In short, few of John’s contemporaries would have underestimated him as a combat commander. Indeed, throughout 1215 the barons showed a marked reluctance to face the king in battle.
For some historians, John’s failures resulted from his inability to win a peace: He could not resist kicking his opponents when they were down, thus his many enemies never forgave him for his slights and insults and pounced at any opportunity for revenge. No matter how many armies John defeated or how many castles he broke, his arrogance, inability to compromise and maladroit diplomatic efforts ensured he would have more enemies and fewer allies.
The barons in London seemed paralyzed with consternation at John’s rapid response to their seizure of Rochester. They had sworn to rush to d’Aubigny’s aid, were he attacked, but two weeks passed before they took any action. On October 26, Robert Fitzwalter led 700 knights to lift the siege. They had only reached Dartford—less than 20 miles from London—when they learned John was marching to confront them. Contemptuous chroniclers noted that although Fitzwalter’s warriors faced little more than a mild south wind, they retreated to London to amuse themselves with gambling, drinking and “practicing all other vices.”
On the first day of his siege of Rochester, an emboldened John set up his headquarters on nearby Boley Hill and ordered the erection of five great siege engines. He also ordered the destruction of the bridge over the Medway River, isolating the castle from any support from London. Finally, John sent orders for every smith in Canterbury to work nonstop making pickaxes and send them immediately to Rochester.
Day and night, John pressed his attack on the castle. As his siege engines rained large stones upon the defenders, the king’s archers and crossbowmen maintained an unceasing barrage of missiles. Through it all, John ordered continual assaults on the walls. D’Aubigny and his men repulsed every attack with courageous determination. Despairing of ever receiving the king’s mercy and “endeavoring to delay their own destruction,” they “made no small slaughter amongst their assailants,” according to Roger of Wendover’s account of the siege. For several weeks, d’Aubigny’s exhausted band of men “hurled stone for stone and weapon for weapon from the walls and ramparts upon the enemy.”
Ultimately, however, John’s forces breached the castle walls, either with the siege engines or by mining. “The soldiers of the king now rushed to the breach in the wall,” wrote Roger of Wendover, “and by constant fierce assaults, they forced the besieged to abandon the castle, although not without great loss on their own side.” The defenders then fell back into the castle keep, pressed by John’s men. Some attackers managed to force their way into the keep, but D’Aubigny’s fierce counterattack slew many of the king’s men and “compelled the rest to quit.” By this time, hunger—an enemy as deadly as King John’s army—was taking its toll on the defenders. They had been living on the rotting meat of their slaughtered warhorses for a week. Now even that was gone.
But John did not have the patience to let starvation do his work. He set his miners to work undercutting the foundations of the keep. On November 25, the miners reported they had tunneled beneath the 13-foot-thick stone walls, bracing the passages with wooden supports. John then sent a royal writ to Hubert de Burgh, his chief minister, ordering him to “send to us with all speed by day and night 40 of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating to bring fire beneath the tower,” according to the Barnwell chronicler. The miners used the pig fat to fire the tunnel supports. (Today, a monument at Rochester memorializes the 40 pigs that made the ultimate sacrifice for the king.)
The subterranean blaze brought the intended result, collapsing the southeast corner of the keep, and John’s soldiers swarmed into the breach. D’Aubigny led a countercharge and pushed the king’s men to retreat, but fresh assaults followed one upon the other, and John’s men were at last able to force back the defenders. Even then, a quirk in the keep’s construction brought d’Aubigny’s men temporary respite: A wall bisecting the keep restricted the assault force to one half of the stronghold, while the defenders took refuge behind a wall as stout as those the miners had spent weeks undermining.
By then, though, starvation was doing King John’s work for him. Perhaps still hoping for succor from the barons holed up in London, d’Aubigny decided on a desperate move: He ordered that all men unfit due to hunger or wounds be expelled from the castle. But if d’Aubigny was counting on the king’s mercy, he had misjudged his adversary’s temper. Incensed by the continuing resistance, John ordered the hands and feet of many of the outcasts cut off. His food gone, d’Aubigny held a council of his knights. Despite what John had done to their expelled brethren, they voted to surrender, deciding it would, in Roger of Wendover’s words, “be a disgrace to them to die of hunger when they could not be conquered in battle.”
On November 30, two months into the siege, the surviving defenders marched out of the castle. Considering the delay the castle’s resistance had imposed on his plans, the number of his troops slain and the cost of the siege, John found it hard to contain his fury. He ordered gallows prepared and swore he would hang every captive. In the end, he allowed himself—however reluctantly—to be dissuaded by one his loyal knights, Savaric de Mauleon, who told John, “My lord king, our war is not yet over, therefore you ought carefully to consider how the fortunes of war may turn; for if you now order us to hang these men, the barons, our enemies, will perhaps by a like event take me or other nobles of your army and, following your example, hang us; therefore, do not let this happen, for in such a case, no one will fight in your cause.”
John contented himself with imprisoning the leading knights and handing over the men at arms to his soldiers for ransom. The only defenders hanged were the mercenary crossbowmen, whom John’s men generally despised for the carnage they had caused.
With Rochester Castle and his line of communication to the port of Dover now secure, King John unleashed a revenge-driven campaign of terror intended to bring the barons to their knees. Considering London too well fortified to be taken in a winter siege that might wreck his own army, John marched on Northampton. As Roger of Wendover related:
[John,] spreading his troops abroad, burnt the houses and buildings of the barons, robbing them of their goods and cattle, and thus destroying everything that came in his way, he presented a miserable spectacle to all who beheld it. And if the day did not satisfy the malice of the king for the destruction of property, he ordered his incendiaries to set fire to the hedges and towns on his march, that he might refresh his sight with the damage done to his enemies and by robbery might support the wicked agents of his iniquity.
As John expanded his depredations, the despondent barons, in 1216, invited Prince Louis, son of King Philip II of France, to bring an army to England and claim the throne. Louis accepted the offer and landed in England on May 21, 1216. Within a week he was in London, receiving the homage of the barons. John, distrusting the loyalty of his own French mercenaries in battle against their prince, retreated west as a reinvigorated baronial army took the offensive. The tides of war had turned against the despised monarch when he succumbed to dysentery in October 1216.
For further reading, James Lacey recommends: John Lackland, by Kate Norgate, and Flowers of History, by Roger of Wendover.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.