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Accession of John page 2


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In the year 1202 the struggle at length commenced which was destined to give a fatal blow to the Plantagenet power in France. It has been considered probable that had the successors of Henry II. possessed the abilities which distinguished that monarch, they would ultimately have extended their authority over the whole of France; but if we regard the relative geographical positions of the two countries, and the turbulent and warlike character of the Gallic tribes, it will appear unlikely that such a condition of affairs could have been, long maintained, and that, on the contrary, it was almost a matter of certainty that the French provinces would, sooner or later, become separated from the English crown; but that separation took place at a much earlier period than it otherwise would have done, in consequence of the indolence and pusillanimity of John. Philip, who had waited only to arrange certain, differences in which he had been engaged with the Pope, now openly declared himself in favour of the claims of Arthur, and of the cause of the men of Aquitaine. He proclaimed the young prince Count of Brittany, Anjou, and Poitou, and gave him 200 knights, with whom he directed him to march and take possession of those provinces, and to conquer the towns of Poitou, which were in the hands of the English king. Arthur entered into a treaty, by which he resigned to Philip all the Norman territory of which the king had become possessed, or might obtain during the expedition which lie was preparing to take into that province. Arthur then raised his standard, and appealed for aid to the Bretons, who promptly responded to the call by joining in alliance with the Poitevins, and sending their prince 500 knights and 400 foot. These, with 100 men-at-arms from Touraine and Poitou, and the small body of French troops, was all the force at his command. It did not suit the purpose of Philip to place too much power in the hands of the boy, to whom he never meant to resign any portion of those territories for which Arthur believed himself to be fighting.

Arthur was now an orphan, his mother Constance having died during his stay at the French court; he was in his fifteenth year, and therefore, though possessing all the valour of his race, he was necessarily deficient in knowledge of the art of war, and of experience in the field. Nevertheless, the boy-leader rode gallantly at the head of his little army, and led them against the town of Mirebeau, in which his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wag then shut up. His advisers may probably have reminded him that Eleanor had always been the enemy of his mother, and that could he take her prisoner, it would be an important step towards bringing the king, his uncle, to terms. Whether Arthur was or was not aware that his grandmother was within the town, the circumstance proved fatal to the success of the expedition. The town surrendered without much resistance, but not before Eleanor had thrown herself into the castle, which was very strong, and there this Amazon of eighty maintained a vigorous defence against the attacks of the prince, whose troops had occupied the town, The Breton army remained in apparent security, when John, who on this occasion displayed an extraordinary degree of activity, suddenly appeared before the gates of Mirebeau. The troops of Arthur, though taken by surprise, made a gallant resistance, and it was only by means of treachery that, on the night of the 31st of July, John obtained possession of the town. The prince was taken while asleep, and the other leaders of the insurrection were made prisoners without the opportunity of resistance. Among these were the unhappy Count of La Marche, Isabella's husband; the Viscounts of Thouarg, Limoges, and Lusignan, and nearly 200 other nobles and knights of fame. King John now showed to its full extent the hideous malignity of his nature. He caused his gallant prisoners to be loaded with chains, tied together in open carts drawn by bullocks, and thus to be conveyed to dungeons in Normandy and England. But the deprivation of light, liberty, and hope, was not punishment sufficient to satisfy his cruelty, and he caused them to be subjected to the lingering horrors of starvation. It is related that twenty-two noblemen were starved to death in Corfe Castle, where they had been confined.

Of the fate of the young Prince Arthur, no authentic details have been recorded. That his youth and innocence did not save him from the bloody hands of John, is certain, but of the manner in which he came by his death we can only form an idea by comparing the different stories which are current on the subject among the old chroniclers. Arthur was conveyed by his uncle to the castle of Falaise, whence he was removed to that of Rouen. There he disappeared, and there ends the narrative of sober fact, the rest bringing us into the region of conjecture and probability. The Normans, who remained loyal to the English king, spread a report that Arthur died of sickness in the castle of Rouen, or was killed in attempting to make his escape; this statement may be at once rejected as a mere invention, and not a very ingenious one. The account given by some of the French chroniclers is to the following effect: - John having visited his nephew at Falaise, desired him to put confidence in his uncle. Arthur rejected his advances, and said indignantly, "Give me my inheritance, the kingdom of England." The king then sent him to Rouen, strongly guarded, and not long afterwards he suddenly disappeared. It was suspected by all men that John had murdered his nephew with his own hands, and he became the object of the deepest hatred. The monks of Margan relate that John killed the prince in a fit of drunkenness, and caused his body to be thrown into the Seine, with stones tied at his feet, but that notwithstanding these, it was cast on the bank, and was buried at the abbey of Bee secretly, for fear of the tyrant.

The story current among the Bretons was nearly similar, with the difference of a change of scene. They related that John having feigned to be reconciled to his nephew, took him from the castle of Rouen, and caused him to ride in his company in the direction of Cherbourg, keeping near to the sea coast. Towards nightfall one evening, when the prince had ridden with his perfidious uncle in advance of their escort, they arrived at the top of a high cliff overlooking the sea, and John suddenly seized the boy round the waist and threw him over the cliff. Another account, more circumstantial, and which has been generally received as likely to be the correct one, is given by Ralph, Abbot of Coggleshall. The story is as follows: - The king's councillors having represented to him that the Bretons would continue their rebellion so long as the Prince Arthur was in a condition to assume the sovereignty, suggested that the eyes of the boy should be put out, and so render him unfit for government. Some ruffians in the king's service were sent to the dungeon at Falaise to execute this cruel deed, but the tears and prayers of the youth, and his helpless condition, moved even their hearts to pity, and Hubert de Burgh, the warden of the castle, took advantage of their hesitation to forward an earnest appeal for mercy to the king. The only result of the petition was the removal of the prince from Falaise to Rouen. On the 3rd of April, a.d. 1203, he was roused from his sleep, and desired to descend to the foot of the tower, beside which flowed the placid waters of the Seine. At the bottom of the steps he saw a boat, in which was seated the king, his uncle, attended by an esquire named Peter de Maulac. The boy shrank back in terror, anticipating the fate which awaited him, and fell on his knees before his uncle, making a last appeal for mercy. But John, whose heart was harder than those of the vilest wretches in his pay, gave the sign, and the murder was committed. Some relate that the esquire hesitated to obey the sign, and that John himself seized his nephew by the hair, ran him through the body, and threw him into the water. Other writers, however, assert that De Maulac was the actual murderer, and this statement is confirmed by the fact that soon afterwards John gave him the hand of a rich heiress in marriage, as the reward of his services.

However near the truth these different statements may have been, it is certain that the rumour of the murder was spread throughout Brittany during the same month of April. The indignation of the people was universal; they had believed their future destiny to be connected with that of their prince, and they professed the greatest attachment to the French king, as the enemy of his murderer. The elder sister of Arthur, the maid of Brittany - whose lot was scarcely more fortunate than that of her brother - was con -lined in a monastery at Bristol, where she remained for forty years; but the people declared Alice, daughter of Constance by her last husband, and half-sister of Arthur, to be their duchess, and appointed her father, Guy of Thouars, as their regent or governor. The barons of the province then appeared before Philip, to whom, as their feudal suzerain, they complained of the murder of their prince. Philip eagerly availed himself of the appeal, and cited John, as his vassal for the duchy of Normandy, to appear before the court of the barons of France, to whom the name of peers was now first given. The accused monarch did not appear, and was condemned by the court to the forfeiture of all the lands which he held of the kingdom of France, possession of which was to be taken by arms.

No sooner did Philip appear with his forces on the frontier of Poitou, than the inhabitants rose to join his standard, and when he returned to attack Normandy, he found he was anticipated by the Bretons, who had occupied the whole of that portion of the duchy which bordered on their territories. They took by assault the strong castle of Mount St. Michael, seized upon Avranches, and burned the villages which lay between that city and Caen. These successes gave new strength to the expedition of the French king, who, joined by the people of Anjou and Maine, took Andelys, Evreux, Domfrent, and Lisieux, and then joined the Breton army at Caen. While this formidable confederacy menaced him on every side, John was passing his days in voluptuous indolence, or in the sports of the field. When his courtiers brought him intelligence of new successes on the part of his enemies, he expressed his contempt of the rabble of Bretons and of anything they could do; but when, in the month of December, the insurgents appeared iu the neighbourhood of Rouen, he suddenly became aware of his danger, and fled over into England.

On his arrival, he demanded the aid of the barons to raise an army for his service, but the call was responded to with the utmost apathy. It would appear that the Anglo-Norman lords no longer possessed the great estates they had formerly held in Normandy; for had such been the case, it is not probable that their hatred to the king would have induced them to disregard their own interests. After in vain attempting to raise a sufficient force to oppose the French king, John appealed to Rome (a.d. 1204), and Pope Innocent sent two legates into France for the purpose of negotiating a peace. Philip, however, who had everything to gain by prolonging the war, refused to listen to the entreaties of the legates, and their mission ended without success.

When John fled from Normandy, there remained in his possession throughout the duchy only the town of Rouen and the fortresses of Chateau-Gaillard and Verneuil. The people of Rouen held out until they were reduced to the last extremity by famine, when, having concluded a truce of thirty days with the French king, they sent to John praying for succour. The messengers found the king playing at chess, and while they told their deplorable tale, he remained seated at his game and gave them no answer. When the game was over, he told them that he had no means of succouring them, and that they must do the best they could. This was the only recognition he made of the heroic struggle of the citizens on his behalf. Rouen surrendered, the two castles soon afterwards followed its example, and the conquest of Normandy was complete. This duchy was then finally restored to the French crown, after having been separated from it for 292 years. Within the same year, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Poitou, and Brittany also fell under the authority of Philip, and John retained only a few castles in those provinces and the territory of Aquitaine, which remained nominally under his rule.

The Bretons soon discovered that, so far from having recovered their independence, they had changed the tyranny of a weak arm for that of a strong one. Disgusted with the supremacy of the King of France, they made efforts which proved fruitless to renew their alliance with John, and then, with a sort of suicidal ferocity, they aided their new sovereign to destroy the independence of their neighbours. In the year 1206, John landed an army at La Rochelle, whence he proceeded to the Loire, taking the castle of Montauban, and burning the town of Angers. His energy, however, did not last long, and for several months he gave himself up to feasting and debauchery. Aroused once more, he passed on to the town of Nantes, to which he laid siege; but on the approach of Philip with an army, he raised the siege, and proposed to negotiate with the French king. During the negotiations John ran away to England, covered with disgrace. By the intervention of the Pope, a truce for two years was then arranged between the two kings.

Degraded as he was in the eyes of all honourable men, John retained his arrogance, and governed his kingdom with greater tyranny than ever. In the following year (a.d. 1207) he defied the authority of that power concentred in the Holy See, which was now so formidable throughout Europe, and which he, of all men, was least fitted to resist. The ground of the quarrel was the right of the crown to the appointment of bishops. The Pope had canonically appointed Stephen Langton to the see of Canterbury, and the monks of Canterbury refused to submit to any other archbishop. John, however, was determined that his favourite, John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich, should receive the appointment, and he sent two knights with a body of soldiers to Canterbury, to drive the rebellious monks oat of the country. Once more those walls which had witnessed the murder of Becket were profaned by a deed of violence; the monks were compelled to quit their monastery and take refuge in Flanders, where they were received into the religious houses. Innocent, who was a man of great ability, sent a temperate letter to the king, demanding redress for this outrage, but John returned an insolent reply, and set the Pontiff at defiance. Soon afterwards the Bishops of London, Ely, and Worcester received directions from Rome to wait upon the king, and in case they were still unable to obtain redress for the injury, to threaten him with an interdict upon the whole kingdom. John heard the threat with transports of rage, and swore that if the bishops dared to lay his states under an interdict, he would seize upon their property, and drive them and their clergy penniless to Rome; that if any Roman priests dared to appear in the country, he would cut off their noses and tear out their eyes, and so make them a witness of his vengeance before the nations. Undeterred by these savage menaces, the bishops proclaimed the interdict on the 23rd of March, a.d. 1208, and then fled across the Channel. The effect of an interdict has already been described; and in the present instance it was carried out to the fullest extent by the unanimous concurrence of the clergy. During this time the country lay as it were in mourning, the churches were closed, the pictures of the saints covered with black cloth, and their relics laid on ashes in the aisles; the priests refused their offices with the exception of administering the rite of baptism to infants and the sacrament to the dying; and the command of Rome suspended all public prayers to Heaven. At the end of the year Innocent proceeded to further measures, and issued against John the sentence of excommunication.

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Pictures for Accession of John page 2

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

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