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Accession of John


Accession of John, surnamed Sans-terre, or Lackland, a.d. 1199 - Disaffection of the people of England - Insurrections on the Continent - Philip declares war - Career and Death of Prince Arthur - Invasion of Normandy by the Bretons and the French - Conquest of Normandy and the English Continental Provinces - John's Quarrel with the Pope - Interdict of the Kingdom and Excommunication of the King - Submission of John.
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When the news of the death of Richard I. was conveyed to his brother John, he immediately took measures for obtaining possession of the throne. This degenerate son of the house of Plantagenet recovered his courage when he had only a child to oppose his ambitious schemes - for the young Arthur, whom Richard had appointed his heir, was not yet twelve years old. John, v/ho knew well how little popularity he possessed in England, sent to secure the services of the foreign mercenaries who had been in the army of Richard, offering them a greatly increased rate of pay, and promising to their leaders profitable appointments. Being then in Normandy, he dispatched William Mareschall and Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose adherence he had obtained, into England, to further his claims, and prepare the way for his coming. Meanwhile, he presented himself before the castle of Chinon, and demanded possession of his brother's treasure, which was there deposited. No opposition was made to him in that neighbourhood, and the Governor of Chinon, as well as those of other strongholds, opened their gates at his bidding. Not so the Lords of Touraine, Anjou, and Maine, who joined the Bretons in supporting the claims of their young prince Arthur, and raised the standard of revolt. John caused himself to be inaugurated, at Rouen as Duke of Normandy, and having wreaked his vengeance on the citizens of Mans, for having refused him their allegiance, he crossed the Channel, and lauded at Shoreham on the 25th of May, a.d. 1199, six weeks after his brother's death.

When Hubert of Canterbury and William Mareschall arrived in England, they caused proclamation to be made throughout the kingdom, calling upon all the earls, barons, and owners of land to render fealty to John, Duke of Normandy, son of King Henry, son of the Empress Matilda. But the character of John was well known to the English barons, and few of them were disposed to yield to the authority of a tyrant whose cruelty had hitherto been measured only by his power. They retired to their castles and fortified towns, preparing them for defence and laying up stores of provisions. The more turbulent and reckless characters among the people took advantage of the moment when the arm of power was relaxed, and made predatory excursions through the country. Those who had the means armed themselves in defence of their property, and thus continual conflicts were taking place among different classes of the population, and the land appeared to be rapidly approaching a condition of civil war. Whatever may have been the motives which first induced Hubert to espouse the cause of John, it will scarcely be denied that the archbishop was justified in putting an end to this state of things, by any means in his power. It has been already stated that Hubert Walter was a man of very high abilities, and these he no w exerted to the utmost, and with a remarkable success. Having summoned a council of the barons and prelates at Nottingham, he used all his eloquence to overcome the disaffection of the assembly, while to arguments were added secret gifts and lavish promises in the name of John. These inducements prevailed, and the barons there present took the oath of allegiance.

Immediately after the landing of John, he proceeded to the church of St. Peter, at Westminster, there to prefer formally his claim to the crown. He carried with him a document, which purported to be a will signed by Richard on his death-bed, in which no allusion was made to the claims of Arthur, but John was appointed unreservedly as the successor to the throne. There seems as little reason to suppose that Richard would have made such a will, as to doubt that John was capable of forging it; but whether the instrument was true or not, it had no influence upon the events which followed. The Archbishop Hubert was well aware that, according to the laws of primogeniture, Arthur, as the only son of an elder brother, had an undoubted right to the succession; the prelate, therefore, in addressing the people assembled in the church, assumed that the monarchy was entirely elective, and that no man could be entitled to the crown unless he were chosen by the nation. He asserted that John had already been so chosen at the council held at Nottingham, and that there was no one of the family of the dead king better fitted to assume the regal dignity. He declared that John possessed those meritorious qualities which had belonged to King Richard - a statement which it would have been difficult to prove - and that for these reasons, as well as for having the same lineage, he was elected king. Whatever may have been the real temper of the assembly, no opposition was made to these statements, and the English crown was conferred upon the most) vicious and worthless prince who ever wore it.

The new king began his reign amidst the disaffection, if not the hatred, of the people, while he was menaced on every side by the attacks of enemies from without. In the north, William the Lion, King of Scotland, was preparing to invade his territories; while on the Continent, all his vassals, except those of Normandy, were in insurrection, and the French king, his former ally, had declared war against him. The aspect of affairs was highly favourable to the designs of Philip, who, to farther his own ends, declared himself in favour of the cause of the young Arthur. John, having sent an army under the command of William de Stuteville to oppose the Scottish king, passed over into Normandy. Negotiations were then entered into by Philip, who demanded that all the Continental provinces subject to England, with the exception of Normandy, should be given up to Arthur, and that a large portion of Normandy should be resigned to the French crown. Such terms could not be accepted, and the war continued.

The young prince, whose claims to the English throne gave rise to so much of bloodshed and revolution, appeared to have been marked for misfortune from his birth. He was a posthumous child, his father, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, second son of Henry II., having been killed in a tournament several months before Arthur came into the world. The Bretons, who were perpetually struggling for independence against the overwhelming force of France on the one hand and of England on the other, hailed the birth of their native prince with enthusiastic joy, and when his grandfather desired to give him the name of Henry, they one and all insisted that he should be called Arthur - a name which was held in as much honour by them as among their kindred, the Britons of Wales. The latter people, who held tenaciously by their ancient traditions, handed down by the bards from generation to generation, believed firmly that they were destined once more to possess the whole island of Britain. The confidence they expressed in this wild hope, opposed as it was to all probability, caused them to be regarded both in England and France as having the gift of prophecy. The songs of their ancient poets, imaginative and obscure, were supposed to possess a hidden meaning which was traced in the political events occurring many years afterwards. Hence arose the strange stories related of Myrdhin, a Cambrian bard of the seventh century, who, after a lapse of five hundred years, had become celebrated under the name of the enchanter Merlin. To this source, also, is to be attributed the extraordinary fame of King Arthur, of whose existence no authentic records remain, but to whom the glowing imaginations of the Welsh poets attributed superhuman valour and virtues. The writings of that people, when translated into the languages of the Continent, were read with avidity. The troubadours of Provence completed the picture drawn by the Welsh, and from the shadowy outline furnished by tradition, produced that vigorous portraiture of a perfect knight which became celebrated throughout Europe. The Welsh placed the most entire confidence in the prediction of Merlin, that King Arthur would return to them and restore their ancient glory; and this belief was shared by the Bretons of the Continent. These were the reasons which induced the latter people to call their young chief by the name of Arthur; and as the child grew in strength and beauty, they hoped to see the day when their independence should be restored through him, and he should rule them without the control of French or English.

While the Bretons were fighting against Richard I., Constance, the mother of Arthur, relinquished their support, and carried her son first to the court of Richard and then to that of the King of France. When John ascended the throne, Arthur was placed under the protection of Philip, to whom the boy-prince was made to surrender the independence of Brittany, Maine, and Anjou, by acknowledging him as feudal suzerain of those provinces. Constance was a woman of little virtue, and seems to have cared more about the prosecution of her own intrigues than the welfare and safety of her child. The Bretons, headed by William of Desroches, firmly maintained the attitude they had assumed; while John, with his army of mercenaries, advanced upon their lands, spreading ruin and devastation around him - burning the villages, and selling the inhabitants as slaves. Philip marched a body of troops to the assistance of Desroches, took possession of several towns of Brittany, and seized some castles on the frontiers belonging to the English. No sooner had he done so, however, than he dismantled or razed to the ground these fortifications, with the view of depriving the country of its defences, and thus leaving it open to the attacks which he himself proposed to make upon it. When young Arthur, who had declared himself his vassal, ventured a remonstrance against these proceedings, the king replied, "Am I not free to do what I please in my own territories?" Arthur then perceived the mistake he had made in placing his cause in the hands of this rapacious monarch. Assisted by Desroches, the young prince and his mother quitted the French court, and not knowing where to seek a refuge, gave themselves up to John, who, with his customary hypocrisy, received his nephew with smiles and caresses, and at the same time gave orders for his imprisonment. Arthur was apprised of the intended treachery, and having succeeded in effecting his escape, he returned once more to Philip.

The King of France - who well knew the strength which his arms derived from his apparent support of the boy's claims - welcomed him back without anger, and, by way of securing him for the future, conferred upon him the honour of knighthood, and even promised him the hand of his daughter Mary in marriage. This friendly attitude, however, did not exist long. Philip soon perceived that it was impossible to retain possession of his new territories, so long as he was opposed by the inhabitants themselves on the one hand, and the arms of the King of England on the other. He therefore determined to arrange a peace with John, and for that purpose he completely sacrificed the interests of the young prince, to whom he had so lately promised an alliance with himself. By a treaty concluded in the following year (a.d. 1200) between the two kings, it was agreed that John should retain possession of all the provinces held by his father, and Arthur was compelled to do homage to his uncle for Anjou, Brittany, and Maine. In return for these concessions Philip obtained the peace he desired, together with the possession of several towns, and a sum of 30,000 marks. There was also a secret clause, or promise, attached to the treaty, by which, in case the King of England died without issue, the French king should succeed to the whole of his Continental dominions.

In spite of the act which thus deprived young Arthur of his inheritance, he remained at the French court, where Philip retained him, to be brought forward in case of any new cause of offence on the part of John. It was not long before such an occurrence took place. With the exception of Normandy, the only province under the Anglo-Norman rule which refrained from open rebellion against John was that of Aquitaine, or Guienne. Peace had been maintained there chiefly by the influence of the Queen Eleanor, who was the representative of the ancient lords of the province, and to whose person the people had always shown great attachment. In the summer of the year 1200 John made a progress through this part of his dominions, and, by the pomp and parade with which he appeared, made a favourable impression upon the lively and impressible children of the south. On this occasion John, who was a tolerably good actor, exerted all his powers to obtain popularity, and strove to hide his naturally tyrannical and vindictive temper under a smiling face and affable manner. It appears that he was only partially successful. He had not sufficient patience or self-control to continue long this kind of deceit, and on some trifling provocation his real character would display itself. He was already married, and had been so for ten years, to Avisa, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester, a gentle and amiable woman; but John was as remarkable for licentiousness as for cruelty, and his passions were under no restraint, except from his fears. At the time of his visit to Aquitaine, he saw a lady whose beauty was celebrated throughout the French provinces, and who immediately attracted his lawless admiration. This was Isabella, the daughter of the Count of Angouleme, and lately married to Hugh de Brun, Count of La Marche. Regardless of the ties by which both she and himself were bound, John seized possession of her person and took her to Angouleme, where the ceremony of marriage was performed between them by the Archbishop of Bordeaux. A few months later he returned to England, carrying with him his new wife, who was crowned at Westminster by the Archbishop of Canterbury. John himself was re-crowned on that occasion. He then gave himself up to indolence and luxury, not knowing or caring how the kingdom was governed; heeding little the disaffection of his people at home, or the indignation which his tyranny had excited throughout France.

The Count of La Marche was a young and powerful chief, who was not likely to endure without resistance the grievous wrong he had suffered. The barons, his neighbours, made his cause their own; and when he raised the standard of rebellion they armed their retainers in his service. John, apprised of the storm which was gathering in the south, summoned his lords to attend him with their troops. Many of them at once refused, and said openly that they would not unsheathe their swords in such a paltry and dishonourable war. There were some high-minded men among the Anglo-Norman barons; but the majority of them were not apt to be so scrupulous, and their refusal was dictated by no other reason than their hatred to the king. They afterwards proposed to accompany him on condition of all their rights and liberties being restored. John's rage on this occasion gave him energy; and for a time he asserted his authority by compelling the barons to pay the tax of scutage, and to give hostages in place of their personal service. He then crossed over into Normandy, accompanied by Isabella, and proceeded to Paris, where he was received by Philip - a much abler hypocrite - with great show of courtesy. The French king had already entered into an alliance with the Count of La Marche, and was at that moment engaged in organising a formidable insurrection in Brittany. A part of Aquitaine still remained quiet under the influence of Eleanor; and through this district John passed in state after he had quitted Paris. He, however, did not go for the purpose of fighting, and soon marched back again, having produced no other effect than to inspire the insurgents with contempt for so aimless a demonstration.

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Pictures for Accession of John

Great Seal of King John
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Richard Coeur-de-Lion receiving his death-wound
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The Death of Prince Arthur
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King John
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John kneeling before the Pope's Legate
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