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The Reign of John page 3

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When the vast assembly had dispersed, and the defeated tyrant found himself again in Windsor Castle, attended only by some of the foreign adventurers who still hung about his person, he gave vent to all the suppressed passion. of his soul. In transports of impotent rage, he uttered fearful curses against the deed which had been done, and against those who had forced him to do it; he rolled his eyes and gnashed his teeth like one insane, and restlessly strode about his chamber gnawing sticks and stones. Sq say the chroniclers, and the account may readily be believed: a depraved heart, hardened by a long course of crime and cruelty, would probably display itself in an outburst of passion in colours such as these. His attendants, the slaves of his gold, who saw their career of robbery and injustice suddenly cut short, incited the king to vengeance for the humiliation he had sustained, and counselled him to resist the charter, and to take measures for the recovery of his power. John, released from his immediate fears, listened to their advice, and sent two of them to the Continent to carry out the schemes they proposed. One of them took his way to Rome to appeal to the Pope for prompt and efficient aid; the other proceeded to Flanders, Gascony, and among the former Continental vassals of the king, to hire fresh bodies of mercenaries and to bring them over to England. Meanwhile the king entered secretly into communication with all the governors of castles who were foreigners, ordering them to lay up stores of provisions, and keep themselves prepared for defence, "doing this without noise and with caution, for fear of alarming the barons."

The barons did not yet know what hard and unremitting effort the struggle for liberty demands. They looked upon the work as done, when, in fact, it was only beginning; and on their departure from Runny-mead they appointed a grand tournament to be held on the 2nd of July at Stamford, in celebration of their joy. No sooner did he hear of them intention, than John threw to the winds the oaths he had taken, and formed a plot to take possession of London during the absence of the nobles. The scheme, however, was communicated to them, and the tournament wag arranged to take place nearer the capital. The king now proceeded to Winchester, when some deputies from the barons presently demanded an interview with him. They required an explanation of the line of conduct, ambiguous if not treacherous, which he had adopted since the signing of the charter. John met them with the hollow smile which he was accustomed to put on at such times, and assured them that their suspicions were unfounded, and that he was prepared to fulfil all that he had promised. The barons withdrew, little satisfied by these assertions, and the king took his way to the Isle of Wight, where he remained for three weeks. Here he refused all companionship but that of the fishermen and sailors of the place, whose manners he adopted, with the view of making himself popular among them. To a certain extent he seems to have succeeded; and during the struggle which soon afterwards took place, the English sailors proved generally true to his cause.

In July, John was at Oxford; but after a stay of a few days he again turned to the south, and proceeded to Dover, where he remained, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the mercenaries whom he expected from the Continent. During the month of September, the barons learnt that troops were landing in small bodies, with little noise, but in a manner which indicated a well-organised confederacy. William d'Albiney was then sent with a picked force of men-at-arms to seize upon the royal castle at Rochester. Having done so, he found it extremely ill-furnished with stores or means of defence; and in this condition it was besieged by John, who had quitted Dover with an army of robbers and ruffians of every dye, from various parts of the Continent. Each day brought them new reinforcements across the Channel, and their numbers so greatly increased that when the barons quitted London to the relief of Rochester, they were compelled to turn back before the superior force opposed to them. It seemed as though the elements themselves could alone check this invasion of banditti. A certain Hugh de Boves, one of their leaders, had embarked from Calais with a vast force of his irregular troops, when a storm arose, against which the unskilful mariners were quite helpless, and the whole of the ships, with those on board, were destroyed. John heard of this loss with another burst of rage, but he still pressed on the siege of Rochester, and succeeded in preventing all succour from reaching it. D'Albiney maintained the defence for eight weeks with unshaken determination, and it was not until the outer wall of the castle had been beaten down, and the garrison reduced to the last extremity by famine, that he threw open the gates. John immediately ordered the brave commander to be hung with all his men; but Savaric de Manlion, the leader of one of the foreign bands, opposed this command, because he feared the acts of retaliation which it would certainly provoke on the part of the English. The tyrant, shorn of his power on all sides, was compelled to submit his barbarous will to the decision of the foreign chief. The prisoners of inferior rank were butchered by the king's orders, but the knights were spared, and were sent for imprisonment to the strong castles of Corfe and Nottingham.

The Pope now responded to the application of John by declaring himself against the English nation, and issuing sentence of excommunication against the barons. He asserted that they were worse than Saracens, for daring to rebel against a vassal of the Holy See, a religious monarch who had taken up the cross. This decision of the Pope, together with the success at Rochester, gave John new courage, and he marched northward to St. Albans, accompanied by the immense force which, composed of many races, and presenting striking contrasts of appearance and accoutrements, possessed one common attribute of unredeemed ferocity. The citizens of London, who were among the first to join in the struggle for right, were also among the bravest to maintain it, and as the foreign hordes swept by the city, showed an undaunted front, which deterred the king from attacking them. From St. Albans he passed on towards Nottingham, encouraging his soldiers to seize their pay from the wretched inhabitants of the country. The northern counties had long been the chief seat of disaffection, and now Alexander, the young King of Scotland, who had concluded an alliance with the English barons, crossed the borders with an army, and laid siege to the castle of Norham. John saw the means of vengeance in his hands, and he determined to use them to the utmost. A few days after the feast of Christmas, when the ground was covered with snow, he marched from Nottingham into Yorkshire, laying waste the country, and meeting with no opposition. True to the instincts of his base and malignant character, he became more ruthless in proportion to the helplessness of his victims. Every house and village on the road was destroyed, the king himself giving the example, and setting fire with his own hands in the morning to the roof which had sheltered him during the night. The fury of the savage horde did not end there. The inhabitants, driven from their homes, were plundered of everything they possessed, and often butchered upon their own hearthstones. Others, less happy, were subjected to torture to make them give up their hidden stores of money. Such tortures are described by the chroniclers, as only to read of may well cause our blood to run cold with horror, and excite at once our wonder and our fear at the depths of depravity to which human nature may sink. In the castle of Heidelberg, in Germany, there is a large picture which is usually concealed from the eyes of the visitor by a curtain. It represents with terrible fidelity a mode of torture which still existed during the Middle Ages: that of flaying alive. The victim is one of the early Christian martyrs. He stands bound hand and foot to a, post, and two ruffian are engaged in stripping the skin from his arms. The head of the martyr is thrown back, as in his agony he looks upward. Behind and above him appears the figure of an angel; the face, when viewed from immediately below, is perfectly calm, but if the spectator steps a few paces backwards, and to the right, ifc assumes an expression of the deepest pity. In his right hand the angel holds a pen, to which he points, as though to tell the dying man that his name is written in Heaven. It is only by means of such representations as these that we can bring clearly before our minds the deeds of horror which darken the records of the Middle Ages, so unnatural do they appear, and happily so opposed to the feelings and habits of modern times.

The expedition of John to the north, like that of William the Conqueror through the same district, was one long course of rapine and cruelty; castles and towns were burned to the ground, and the path of the king was marked by a trail of blood among blackened heaps of ruins. The young King of Scots retired before the vast force brought against him, and John pushed his way to Edinburgh. Here he found himself in danger of attack, and, as was usual with him in such cases, he at once turned back, and re-crossed the border. Among the towns burnt up by the king during this expedition were Alnwick, Morpeth, Mitford, Roxburg, Berwick, Haddington, and Dunbar. A division of his forces had been left in the south to oppose the barons, and keep in check the citizens of London; and this division, reinforced by fresh arrivals from the Continent, made predatory incursions through the southern counties, marking their course with equal ferocity. The only distinction between their conduct and that of the king, appears to have been that the castles which fell into their hands were occupied by some one of their number, instead of being destroyed.

Meanwhile, further measures had been taken by the Church against the insurgent barons. The Abbot of Abingdon, with other ecclesiastics, in obedience to the tyrant and the Pope who supported him, fulminated a second sentence of excommunication, in which Robert Fitz-Walter, the chief of the confederacy, with many others of the most powerful nobles, were mentioned by name, and an interdict was placed upon the city of London. The measure was not without its effect upon certain classes of the country people, but the courage and intelligence of the citizens of London rose superior to the thunder of Rome. In those days the spiritual thraldom of Europe was complete, and knowledge confined almost exclusively to the clergy; but the men of Saxon race possessed a strong sense of justice, and their very instincts told them to despise a power which supported cruelty and oppression in the name of God. In defiance of the interdict they dared still to offer their prayers to Heaven, and to keep the solemn festival of Christmas; the churches remained open, and the bells still rang out the note of freedom.

But dangers were thickening on every side around them. The barons saw themselves hemmed by increasing hordes of foreigners, and at the same time had reason to fear the effect of the excommunication upon the villains, who were, probably, the most numerous class of the population. It does not appear that there was among the nobles any man of sufficient influence or military genius to break through the obstacles by which they were surrounded. Many councils were held and schemes proposed, only to be laid aside as unfeasible. At length the barons determined to offer the English throne to Prince Louis, the eldest son of Philip of France. Such a step scarcely admits of excuse under any circumstances^ but the barons, unable of themselves to wrest the power from John, might not improbably consider that any change would be to their advantage, and that it would be better for the country to be under the rule even of the son of their ancient enemy, than to submit to a tyrant who had lost every attribute of manhood.

Louis had married Blanche of Castile, who was the niece of John, and thus he might pretend to some shadow of a title to the crown. The barons also considered that, if he landed in England, many of the foreign mercenaries, who were subjects of France, would be detached from the cause of John, and would join the standard of their prince. When the proposal was carried to the court of France, it was received by the king and his son with that degree of exultation which might have been anticipated. Louis was anxious to sail for England immediately; but Philip, with more wisdom and caution, demanded that twenty-four hostages, the flower of the English nobility, should first be sent to Paris, in assurance of the fidelity of the barons. A French fleet then sailed up the river Thames, and arrived at London in February (a.d. 1216), conveying a small army, which formed the first detachment of the French forces. The commander informed the barons that the Prince Louis would arrive in person at the approaching feast of Easter.

The Pope - true to the cause he had embraced - no sooner heard of these preparations, than he sent a new legate into England, who, as he passed through France, boldly remonstrated with the king and his son upon the course they were pursuing. Once more England was called the patrimony of St. Peter, and Philip was asked how he dared to attack it, and was threatened with immediate excommunication in case he persisted in doing so. Louis immediately set up a claim to the English throne in right of his wife; and, leaving the legate in astonishment at this new view of the matter, he escaped from farther argument and took his way to Calais. Having collected a great army, well furnished with stores, he embarked them on board 680 vessels, and set sail from Calais at the appointed time. The English sailors of the Cinque Ports, on whom the efforts of John to secure their good will had not been thrown away, lay in wait for an opportunity of inflicting damage on the invaders, and a storm having arisen by which the French fleet became scattered, they took advantage of the circumstance and cut off and captured some of the ships. The rest of the fleet arrived safely at Sandwich, where Louis landed on the 30th of May.

John had arrived at Dover with a large army; but so far from attempting to prevent the landing of the French, he made a rapid retreat at the news of their approach. His own unhappy subjects, however, were not in a position to oppose him; them he could attack and slaughter in safety, and accordingly, wheresoever his army passed, the same cruelties were practised, the same ravages committed as before. He went to Guildford, whence he proceeded to Bristol by way of Winchester. Meanwhile, Louis led his forces to Rochester Castle, which he besieged and captured, and then passed on to London. The French prince entered the capital on the 2nd of June, a.d. 1216, and was received with the greatest demonstrations of joy by rich and poor, Norman and Saxon. A magnificent procession was formed to accompany him to St. Paul's Church, and there, after he had offered up his prayers, the barons of the kingdom and the citizens paid him the vows of homage. He then placed his hand upon a copy of the Evangelists, and swore to restore to the country its just and righteous laws, and to each man the lands or property of which he had been despoiled.

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