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The Reign of John

The Reign of John - The cause of John espoused by the Pope - The first English Naval Victory - The Battle of Bouvines - Magna Charta - Treachery of John - Prince Louis invited to England - Devastation of the Northern Counties - Death of John.
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The Holy See, having secured a humble and subservient vassal in the King of England, now espoused his cause, and undertook to defend him against his enemies. Pandulph returned to France, and forbade Philip to prosecute the war, or to invade a kingdom which was under the protection of the Church. Philip thought proper to argue the matter on religious grounds, and said that he had expended large sums of money upon this expedition, for the purpose of obtaining, according to the promise of the Pontiff, the remission of his sins. The legate seems to have cared little about this circumstance, and simply repeated his prohibition. Philip then continued his march towards the coast, prepared to defy the authority of the Holy See, and to continue the expedition, now no longer for the remission of his sins, but avowedly for more worldly ends. His design, however, was frustrated by the disaffection of his vassals, to whom the command of the Pope served as a sufficient justification of rebellion. The Earl of Flanders withdrew his forces from the expedition, declaring that he would not engage in such an unjust war. Philip immediately followed him into Flanders, intending to punish his rebellion by seizing upon the whole province. Several towns and fortresses fell into the French king's hands, who passed on, and laid siege to the strong city of Ghent. The Earl of Flanders then applied to John for assistance, which it was manifestly to his interest to grant, and which, therefore, was not refused.

The English fleet set sail from the harbour of Portsmouth; 500 vessels, having on board 700 knights and a large force of infantry, under the command of William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, a son of fair Rosamond, and William, Earl of Holland. They bore down upon the coast of Flanders, and approached the port of Damme, in which the French fleet, three times more numerous, was lying at anchor. Many of the French troops and sailors were then absent from the ships, engaged in predatory excursions throughout the country. As the English neared the coast, they saw a number of vessels lying outside the harbour, which, capacious as it was, would not contain them all. Shallops, or fishing-boats, were then sent in to reconnoitre, and returned with the news that the fleet had been left without sufficient hands to defend it. No time was lost. The "tall ships" along the coast were attacked, and captured with little difficulty. The smaller vessels, which, when the tide went down, were left upon the beach, where plundered and set on fire, the men on board escaping to the shore. The English then approached the harbour, for the purpose of attacking the fleet within it; but here a delay took place, in consequence of the difficulty of bringing a large force to bear in so confined a space.

The period of inaction, however, did net last long, and the fleet, on the preparation of which Philip had exhausted his resources, and which was the first naval armament ever put to sea by the French kings of the Capetian line, was destined to be annihilated. "Those Frenchmen that were gone abroad into the country, perceiving that the enemies were come, by the running away of their marines, returned with all speed to their ships to aid their fellows, and so made valiant resistance for a time; till the Englishmen, getting on land and ranging themselves on either side of the haven, beat the Frenchmen so on the sides, and the ships grappling together in front, that they fought as it had been in a pitched field, till that, finally, the Frenchmen were not able to sustain the force of the Englishmen, but were constrained, after long fight and great slaughter, to yield themselves prisoners." Thus, in the first naval engagement between the two nations, the superiority of the English sailors was placed beyond a doubt. In the clumsy barks of the thirteenth century there was exhibited little of that science which guides the stately clipper of the nineteenth, but there was no lack of seamanship; the same stout arms manned the ropes - the same stout hearts opposed the foe. As the noise of the battle gradually died away, and the smoke of the burning vessels, curling up from the waters wound itself about the hills and disappeared, the shattered gear of the English ships was seen to bear aloft the flag whose name is victory. Then did Europe bend in unwilling submission, while the islanders assumed for ever the empire of the seas. Since then, the centuries have rolled away, each bearing its load of change, decay, and death. Our fathers have done the work set apart for them, and are at rest; but their blood, their hearts, are ours, and their flag we bear aloft over every sea, unconquered now as then. To the remotest shores it carries knowledge, commerce, the arts of life, the hope of heaven; and, though not without stain, it has seldom failed to oppose force to wrong, and to uphold the cause of justice. Blow high, blow low, it passes on its way unscathed; and storm of wind or rage of man beats vainly against the flag which, with its kindred banner of America, bears within its folds the future of the world.

When the conquerors had returned thanks to Heaven for their victory, they sent 300 of the prizes to England; these were richly laden with stores for the French army - corn, oil, wine, and other provisions. Others of the ships, which were on shore, were burnt within the harbour. A portion of the fleet, which lay higher up, protected by the town, still remained uninjured; and the English, having landed, were joined by the Earl of Flanders, and proceeded to attack the place. Meanwhile, the French king had learnt the destruction of his fleet, and, having raised the siege of Ghent, was advancing with the utmost rapidity. The English and the Flemings made a gallant defence in the engagement which soon afterwards took place; but the force opposed to them was overwhelming, and they were compelled to retreat to their ships, with a loss which is stated by the French to have been 2,000 men. But the English had no intention of relinquishing the contest, and, from the shores of the Isle of Walcheren, they watched their opportunity for renewing the attack. Philip perceived that the unskilfulness of his seamen left no hope of preserving the remainder of his ships, and he therefore set- fire to them himself, that they might not fall into the enemy's hands. It was evident that the project of invading England must now be abandoned, the French king having no means of transporting his troops across the Channel. He even found it impossible to maintain them in Flanders, and was compelled to make a hasty retreat into his own territories, with scarcely an effort to maintain possession of the towns he had taken.

Elated by the success of his arms, John assumed all his old arrogance of demeanour, and showed little disposition to fulfil the terms of the treaty into which he had entered with the Pope. He now determined to invade France, and for this purpose he summoned the barons of the kingdom to attend him at Portsmouth with their troops. They obeyed the command; but when, in warlike array, they appeared before the king, they refused to set sail unless the exiled bishops were immediately recalled, according to his promise. John was compelled to submit, and Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, with the Bishops of London, Ely, Lincoln, Bath, and Hereford, were restored to their benefices. The monks of Canterbury also returned in peace to their cloister. The king and the archbishop met each other at Winchester, where they exchanged a kiss of amity, and Langton gave the king absolution for the injuries done to himself and his colleagues; John once more taking an oath to execute justice, and to preserve his fealty to the Pope But Stephen Langton, one of the ablest men who ever had filled the archiepiscopal chair, was not likely to place much confidence in the promises of the king; and John evidently regarded the archbishop with bitter hatred, as the cause of a11 his troubles.

Leaving directions for the barons to follow him with all speed, John embarked a body of troops in a few ships, and reached the island of Jersey. The barons, however, were little disposed to follow their pusillanimous king; and the scheme for securing their liberties, which, in a vague and indefinite form, had long held possession of their minds, now began to assume strength and consistency. They excused themselves from following the king, by the assertion that their term of feudal service was expired; and, profiting by his absence, proceeded to hold a great council at St. Albans, at which decrees were issued in the form of royal proclamations, reviving old and mild laws, and threatening with death such of the king's officers as should exceed their provisions. Meanwhile, John, having looked in vain for the appearance of the barons, returned from Jersey in a transport of rage, and, collecting his army of mercenaries, marched towards the north, burning up and devastating the lands of the rebellious nobles. At Northampton, he was met by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who openly censured these acts of violence, and told him that, according to his oath, his vassals ought to be tried by their peers, and not crushed by arms. "Mind you your church," the king replied, "and leave me to govern the state." He then continued his march to Nottingham; but here, Langton, who joined the courage of the soldier to the wisdom of the priest, again presented himself in the royal presence, and this time with more determined carriage. He calmly told the king that if such a course of action was continued, he would excommunicate all the ministers and officers of the crown who obeyed the royal will. John seldom maintained his ground against a determined opponent, and he now gave way once more, and, as a matter of form, summoned the barons to meet him, or his justices. Having thus stopped the tyrannous career of the king, the brave archbishop proceeded to London, where, on the 25th of August, he called a second council of the barons, and read to them the provisions of the charter granted by Henry I. on his accession. In that assembly of feudal lords he delivered an address advocating the principles of liberty and justice; and, having induced the council to adopt as the basis of their exertions the charter of Henry I., he caused them to swear fidelity to each other, and to the cause in which they were embarked. A month later, the Cardinal Nicholas, a new legate of the Pope, arrived in England, for the purpose of receiving the indemnity which had been promised by John, and of removing the interdict from the kingdom. Once more John appeared on his knees, renewing his oath of fealty to Innocent, and doing homage to his legate. He paid the sum of 15,000 marks to the bishops, and undertook to give them 40,000 more. The interdict was then removed, the churches lost their funereal appearance, and once more the bells rang out their daily call to prayer. The cause of liberty has never been long maintained by the Church of Rome; and as soon as the submission of John was thus completely assured, she relinquished her support of the barons, and commanded her bishops to give their unreserved allegiance to the king. The nobles, however, still relied upon the strength of their cause, although unblessed by the Pope, and Stephen Langton remained firmly at their head, as one who dared do right though all the world forbade it.

The following year (1214) was rendered memorable by the battle of Bouvines, in which the French gained a complete victory over English, Flemish, and German troops. A powerful confederacy, in which John took a prominent part, had been formed against the French king. Ferrand, Earl of Flanders, Reynaud, Earl of Boulogne, and Otho, Emperor of Germany, determined, in conjunction with John, to invade France simultaneously, and to divide that kingdom among them. The partition was already made: Ferrand was to receive Paris, with the Isle of France, Reynaud the country of Vermandois, John the territory beyond the Loire, and Otho all the remaining provinces. The English king dispatched a body of troops, commanded by William Long-sword, Earl of Salisbury, to Valenciennes, which had been appointed the head-quarters of the confederates; he then proceeded to Poitou, whence he led his army into Brittany. Philip, who was thus menaced on both sides, sent his son Louis to oppose the troops of John, and to prevent his advance. This was not difficult, and the cowardice or indecision of the English king kept him in a state of inactivity, while his allies were being utterly routed. Philip, whose forces were inferior in number to those of his enemies, gave them battle at Bouvines, a village between Lisle and Tournay, and after a sanguinary conflict the Earl of Salisbury, the Earl of Flanders, and the Earl of Boulogne were taken prisoners, together with great numbers of nobles and knights of inferior rank. The Bishop of Beauvais, whose martial spirit was untamed by his long imprisonment, appeared again in the field on this occasion, and he it was who took prisoner the gallant William Longsword. The bishop, however, no longer used a sword, but carried in its stead a formidable club, with which he laid about him, having satisfied himself, by some curious logical process, that in doing so he was acting in accordance with the canon of the Church, which forbade her priests to shed blood. He was not the only bishop who distinguished himself on that day as a warrior. Guerin of Senlis appeared among the French troops, like Odo of Bayeux among the soldiers of the Conqueror, bearing a wand, or staff of authority, with which he waved them on to victory. The battle of Bouvines, which was fought on the 27th of July, a.d. 1214, is one of the few which this history will have to record as having given an undoubted lustre to the French arms.

A few months later John made proposals for a truce, which he obtained for five years, on condition of restoring all the towns and fortresses which he had taken during the expedition. He then made a disgraceful retreat to England, where, with the true spirit of a coward, he vented upon his unoffending subjects that rage which he dared not display towards his foes He disregarded all the vows he had taken, and let loose his foreign mercenaries over the country, who oppressed and robbed the people in every direction, unrestrained by law, and secure of the king's favour. But his career of tyranny was now drawing to a close. Each day which was marked by new acts of oppression cemented more closely the league among the barons, who only waited an opportunity of assembling together for the purpose of arranging a combined movement. Such an opportunity presented itself at the feast of St. Edmund, on the 20th of November, when pilgrims of all ranks, from every part of the country, proceeded to St. Edmondsbury to offer their devotions at the shrine of the saint. Mingling with the crowd of worshippers, the champions of freedom advanced one by one in order of seniority to the high altar, on which they placed their swords, and swore that if the king refused to admit the rights they demanded from him, they would one and all abandon their allegiance, renounce their vows of fealty, and compel him by force of arms to sign a charter granting their just requests. Having agreed to assemble at the court for this purpose in the approaching festival o! Christmas, they separated.

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