Talk Report: 2017-02-08

Report on Sean Mcglynn talk: King John, Magna Carta and the Forgotten Invasion of England

Nearly all of us can pronounce the date when the Magna Carta was sealed by King John. “1215!” we shout triumphantly. But are many people aware that just after this - and before King John’s death in 2017 - nearly a third of England and Wales fell under French control? On Wednesday 8th February U3A members heard a talk given by Dr Sean Mcglynn and learned about King John and this frighteningly successful invasion by the French.
Sean is a widely published author who, in partnership with Plymouth University. teaches for the Heritage and Archaeology Degree at Strode College. In his informative lecture we heard that John really was a Bad King – unreliable, devious, a philanderer and cowardly: in short “a rotter”! In medieval times kings were honoured for their role as defender of their people, as priest and judge, yet John failed most of the time in all of these roles. He was described by contemporaries as cruel and wicked, one writing that” Foul as Hell is, Hell is defiled by the presence of John.”
England was sovereign over great swathes of France, running all down the Atlantic seaboard when in 1199 John inherited the English throne after the death of his popular elder brother Richard. But when war broke out with France three years later in 1202 John proved to be an indeterminate leader of his troops, resulting in the loss of much English lands in northern France. His weakness as a leader earned him the disrespectful title of "John Softsword" from contemporary English chroniclers. Short of money to pay for the wars, John resorted to doubling the taxes required from the English nobles and it was this, combined with his persistent cruelty towards not only his enemies but his family, that lead to his increasing unpopularity. We were given many examples of this cruelty: subduing a revolt in Wales John hung 28 hostages, the youngest aged seven, and it was generally believed - probably correctly - that he murdered his nephew Arthur. A potential rival to the throne, Arthur was aged only 16. If he could do this to his family, what might he do to others? The barons felt increasingly unsafe and John in turn was increasingly suspicious of the barons.
War with France continued for the ensuing years, but it was in 1214, in a great pitched battle at Bouvines in Northern France, that the French under King Philip Augustus finally defeated a huge army of German, Flemish and English soldiers. This lead to the loss of Brittany and Normandy and the total disaffection of the English nobility. Yet more money was demanded from them and within months of John's return to England, rebel barons in the north and east of England were organising resistance to his rule. Amassing a large band of followers the army marched on London and once they had taken the capital John was forced to organise peace talks with the rebel barons. Magna Carta, or "Great Charter" was sealed June 2015 by King John at Runnymede near Windsor Castle on the bank of the River Thames.
Having temporarily satisfied the barons John predictably proceeded in his old ways and this led rapidly to yet more war. The King had built up funds from taxes to pay for mercenaries and he had the support of the powerful lords of the Welsh borders who had their own feudal forces. It was when the tide was turning against them that the rebel barons turned to King Philip Augustus of France to join them. Philip willingly sent his son Prince Louis to lead the combined armies.
John assembled a naval force to intercept Louis as he crossed the Channel but his fleet was dispersed by bad storms and Louis was able to land unopposed in Kent in May 1216. John hesitated, decided not to attack Louis immediately and retreated which gave Louis and the rebel barons the opportunity to advance westwards. King John saw several of his military household desert to the rebels, including his half-brother, William Longspear and by the end of the summer the French army together with the rebels had regained the south-east of England and parts of the north.
The unloved king had fought battles with the French, the Scottish and the Welsh, but it was his treatment of his own peoples that finally brought him down. There were few loyal to his cause to rush to his aid as the French prince lead the Barons on to victory. John spent 2017 ranging around the country trying to defend his kingdom, but he contracted dysentery when in East Anglia and it was from this that he eventually died in Newark Castle on the night of 18th/19th October. His body was escorted south by a company of mercenaries and he was buried in Worcester Cathedral. It was a sad end to a misguided king’s life.

It was only after John’s death and under the leadership of William Marshall, protector od John’s son nine-year old Henry III, that the rebelling nobles and the French army were finally overcome. The failed Magna Carta agreement was resuscitated by Marshal's administration and reissued in 1217 as a basis for future government
Sean’s lecture was illustrated throughout with maps and with relevant images of the personalities and many battles. Some of these were contemporary and others were vividly realistic illustrations done much more recently; both brought home the appalling violence of those times. Sean had given us an animated and fascinating insight into a period of history about which many of us knew little and he was thanked enthusiastically for his talk.