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Accession of John page 3

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The king now became alarmed at his position. He saw the spirit of disaffection increasing among his barons; he had made enemies of the clergy, and he was hated by the people. Abroad, the aspect of affairs was no less menacing. He knew that the Pope would follow up the sentence of excommunication by proclaiming his dethronement, and declaring him unworthy to rule in a Christian land; and he perceived that Philip was making ready to invade England, armed with the authority of the Holy See. Wherever he looked he saw none but enemies, and it was evident that his downfall would be attended with a general rejoicing throughout Europe. It is related by Matthew Paris that at this moment of danger John applied for succour to the Emir al Nassir, the powerful chief of the Moslems of Spain. It was even reported that he had offered to embrace the religion of Mahomet, and to become a vassal of the Emir, in return for the assistance he demanded. Improbable and disgraceful as such an offer would have been, there is no doubt that John was capable of making it; but if he did so, it was not accepted, and the king was compelled to give up the attempt to obtain assistance from abroad.

For the purpose of raising an army, John determined to obtain money by any and every means in his power, and in the spring of the year 1210, he commenced a series of exactions compared to which those of his predecessors had been moderate. He employed the most lawless means of forcing their hoards from his subjects, and especially from the Jews, who, as the richest, were invariably the first to Buffer on such occasions. He declared that his object was to drive the French king from Normandy; but as soon as he had raised an army, he crossed over into Ireland, where the English nobles had thrown off his authority. He landed on the 6th of June, and on his arrival at Dublin many of the native chiefs came to offer him their homage. With their assistance he inarched through the country, destroying the castles of the insurgent barons, who were totally unprepared for resistance, and within a few weeks he had reduced them to submission. He then established English laws in the island, appointing officers to see them duly executed; he also directed that the same coins of money should be used in the two countries - a measure by which the interests of commerce were greatly promoted. Having appointed John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich, to the government of the island, he returned to England. This conquest, in which he encountered no opposition, encouraged him to make a descent upon Wales in the following year (1211). For this purpose more money was required, and he obtained it by measures more flagitious, if possible, than before. He summoned before him all the heads of religious establishments, abbots and abbesses, and compelled them to deliver up the property of the Church into his hands. Having exhausted this source of supply, he again attacked the Jews, visiting them with imprisonment and the torture to force a compliance with his demands. As an instance of the manner in which the unhappy people were dealt with, the following story is related by the chroniclers. There lived at Bristol a very wealthy Jew, who, by the king's command, was thrown into a dungeon until he should consent to pay 10,000 marks for his liberty. As the Jew preferred rather to be incarcerated than to pay such a sum, the king's patience was soon exhausted, and he gave orders that each day one of the prisoner's teeth should be pulled out of his head until he was reduced to submission (Holinshed.). For seven days the victim endured this torture, but when on the next day the executioner came to pluck out the eighth tooth, the pain which he had suffered overcame the Jew's fortitude, and he consented to pay the money. This command of John, which was mild and merciful compared with his treatment of other of his captives, displays, however, an ingenuity in torture which could only have occurred to a mind thoroughly cruel and malignant.

Having now raised a great army, the king entered Wales and penetrated as far as Snowdon, The people could make no resistance against the force brought against them, and they were compelled to pay to him a tribute of cattle, and to give twenty-eight hostages, the sons of their chiefs, as security for their fidelity. But the efforts made by John to destroy their independence proved altogether fruitless. Their strength now, as in former years, lay in their mountain fastnesses; the spirit of freedom has her seat among mountains in every age and country. Within a year after the king's return to England, the Welsh were again up in arms. As soon as the news was brought to John he hanged the unhappy youths who were in his hands as hostages, and he was preparing for another descent upon Wales, when he learnt that a conspiracy was forming against him among the English barons. He then immediately relinquished his intention, and shut himself up for fifteen days in Nottingham Castle, where he seems to have stayed in something like an extremity of fear. His acts at this time were dictated entirely by impulses, now of cruelty, now of cowardice, and cannot be accounted for by any rational rule of conduct. Suddenly he recovered his courage, quitted Nottingham, and marched to Chester, once more declaring that he would exterminate the Welsh; then as suddenly he retraced his steps and returned to London. It would appear that he lived in continual dread of his life, suffering no one to approach him but his immediate attendants and favourites, whose fidelity he secured by his gold, and keeping himself surrounded by large bodies of foreign mercenaries. Hated as he knew himself to be, he made no attempt to change his tyrannical conduct or to conciliate the regard of the people, but, on the contrary, each day witnessed some new act of cruelty, which rendered him still more obnoxious to his subjects.

At length Pope Innocent listened to the prayers of the English exiles, and solemnly proclaimed the deposition of the English king, as an enemy to the Church of Christ, and called upon all Christian princes to take up arms against him, and to join in hurling him from the throne. Stephen Langton, the banished Archbishop of Canterbury, with other prelates, appeared with the Pope's letters at the French court, and there called together a solemn council, and informed the king and lords of France that the Pope gave his sanction to the invasion of England. Innocent promised to Philip the remission of his sins provided he accepted and fulfilled the solemn commission with which he was charged. Philip had other inducements to do so, which were sufficiently strong, and he at once collected an army on the coast of Normandy, and caused a fleet of 1,700 vessels to be made ready at Boulogne and other ports to convey them across the Channel.

Aroused by the imminence of the danger, John appealed to his subjects to resist the foreign invader, and collected all the vessels in the kingdom which were capable of being used as transports. Then, under the influence of one of his fits of energy, he acted with boldness and determination; and before the French fleet had quitted Normandy, the English vessels crossed the Channel and swept along the coast. The superiority already attained by the English sailors was clearly shown on this occasion, and was soon to be still more decisively manifested. A French squadron at the mouth of the Seine was destroyed by the English, who also burned the town of Dieppe, and returned triumphantly, the fleet at Boulogne not having ventured to leave the harbour.

While success thus crowned the arms of John on the sea, he possessed on shore a numerous army of stout English yeomen who had joined his standard, and who, whatever might be their feelings towards him personally, would doubtless have fought well to save their country from a, foreign yoke. But John's courage seldom endured beyond the first moments of excitement, and when he found time to calculate risks and chances, he consulted his own safety by any means in his power. He took no measures for following up his successes, and it was evident that in spite of Iris haughty defiance of the power of Rome, he would now be glad to escape from his dangerous position by humbling himself before it. Pandulph, the legate of the Pope, who fully understood the character of John, obtained permission to land in England, and presented himself in the royal presence. He laid before the king the impolicy of his course of action, the danger he incurred from the French king, whose formidable preparations he described, and the probability of a general rebellion among the English barons. The facts were undeniable, and urged as they were with all the skill and eloquence of an able diplomatist, they produced the greatest alarm in the breast of the tyrant. This feeling was increased by the prediction of a hermit named Peter, who asserted that before Ascension Day, which was three days distant, the king would have ceased to reign. Irreligious as he was, John was by no means free from superstition, and he seems to have attached more weight to the words of the friar, which he believed foretold his death, than to the arguments of the legate. After some hesitation, his fears prevailed, and he agreed to sign an agreement or treaty with the Pope, by which he bound himself to fulfil all those demands of the Church whose refusals had caused his excommunication; to restore the monks of Canterbury to their lands; to receive into favour all the exiled clergy, especially Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and that he should make satisfaction to both clergy and laity for any injuries they had sustained in consequence of the interdict, paying down a sum of 8,000 as a first instalment of such indemnity.

Pandulph agreed, in the Pope's name, that, on the performance of these conditions, the interdict should be removed from the country, and that the servants of the Church, including the exiled bishops, should swear fidelity to the king. Four of the chief barons of the kingdom bore witness to this compact, which was solemnly concluded. By this agreement John suffered no peculiar indignity, but it was immediately followed by a proceeding in the highest degree disgraceful, and which can only be accounted for by the subtle art with which the legate worked upon the fears of the pusillanimous monarch. On the 15th of May, a.d. 1213, John proceeded at an early hour in the morning to the church of the Templars at Dover, and there, in the presence of the bishops and nobles of the realm, he knelt down before Pandulph, placed his crown in his hands, and took the oath of fealty to the Pope. At the same time he gave into the hands of the legate a document which set forth that he, the King of England, Lord of Ireland, in atonement for his sins against God and the Church, did of his own free will, and with the consent of the barons, surrender into the hands of Pope Innocent and his successors for ever, the kingdom of England and lordship of Ireland, to hold them henceforth as fiefs of the Holy See, John and his successors paying for them a yearly tribute of 700 marks for England, and 300 marks for Ireland.

On the following day, which was the Feast of the Ascension, John awoke with something of the feeling of a criminal whose hour of execution has arrived. The words of the hermit Peter caused him to tremble even more than the thunders of Rome; and he watched the long hours till sunset, anticipating the stroke which was to end his hateful existence. When the time of the prediction had passed away, and he found himself still alive, he caused Peter and his son to be dragged at the tails of horses to the gibbet, where they were executed as a punishment for the terror they had caused him. But it was commonly said among the people that the monk had told no lie; and that John had ceased to be a king when he laid his crown at the feet of a foreign priest.

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