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The Reign of John page 4

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One of the first acts of Louis was to issue a manifesto, which was addressed to the King of Scotland and to all the owners of land throughout the country who were not then present in London. The result of this proclamation soon made itself apparent. Any jealousy towards a foreign prince was entirely subdued by the deep hatred with which all classes of the people regarded their king. The force of an idea was not then so great as in more recent times; the confederacy of the barons, notwithstanding the high and just cause for which they fought, was weak, because it was without a powerful and recognised head. No sooner had the people a living man round whom to rally, instead of a collection of names, than they at once flocked to join his standard. Of the few nobles who had accompanied John on his marauding expeditions, nearly all quitted him at once and took their way to London; all the people of the northern counties rose up among the ruins of their homes, and cried aloud for vengeance; the King of Scotland prepared an army to march once more to the south; and the foreign mercenaries, with the exception of the Gascons and, Poitevins, renounced their adhesion to the tyrant, and either quitted the country or joined the forces of Louis and the barons. Dangers thickened about the king on every side, and his abject spirit was sustained only by the consolations which Gualo, the Pope's legate, poured into his ear. The legate assured him of the constant support of the Pope, and exhorted him to courage, since it was impossible that any harm could happen to a prince who was under the protection of Holy Church. But now the news arrived that Pope Innocent, whose efforts alone had sustained the tyrant in his power, was dead, and a considerable time elapsed before his successor was appointed.

Louis marched his forces to Dover, and laid siege to the castle, which was in the hands of Hubert de Burgh, a man whose character stands so high in history, that we are at a loss to understand how he should have retained his allegiance to John. He, however, proved his loyalty by maintaining a most gallant defence, and effectually repelled all the attacks of the besiegers. Mention is made of a formidable engine of war, called a malvoisin, or bad neighbour, which was sent by Philip to be used by his son at the siege of Dover. Neither this engine nor the bravery of the attacking troops availed anything against the strong walls of the castle and the obstinate defence of the garrison; and, after a siege which lasted several weeks, Louis was compelled to desist from the attack, and he determined to reduce the place by famine. Meanwhile, a number of the barons had laid siege to Windsor Castle, which also made a vigorous defence. The king availed himself of the moment when they were thus occupied to advance upon their estates, where he let loose the greedy adventurers who still remained in his pay. The barons then raised the siege to attack the king, who made a hasty retreat. Having succeeded in eluding their pursuit, he reached the town of Stamford. The barons made no attempt to molest him there, but turned and took their way to Dover, where they joined the forces of Louis.

Dover Castle still held out, and the prince pertinaciously maintained his position before it, thus losing three months of valuable time, which, had it been well employed, would doubtless have placed him in possession of the throne. In such a ease, inactivity necessarily produced discontent, and other causes of complaint soon presented themselves to the English barons. Louis, who showed himself as deficient in policy as in military skill, began to treat the, English with disrespect, and made grants of land and titles in England to his own countrymen. At the same time an event occurred, or was believed to have occurred - and in either case the result was the same - which was calculated to destroy at once the bonds of alliance which existed between the barons and the French prince. One of the followers of Louis, named the Viscount de Melun, being seized with illness at London, and finding himself at the point of death, earnestly desired to see those English nobles who remained in the city. When they approached his bedside, he informed them that the prince, with sixteen of his principal barons, had sworn that when the kingdom should be conquered and Louis crowned, all the English who had joined his standard should be banished for ever, as traitors not to be trusted, and their offspring exterminated or reduced to poverty. "Doubt not my words," De Melun said, with his dying breath; "I, who lie here about to die, was one of the conspirators." Whether this extraordinary scene did or did not take place, the report greatly increased the discontent among the barons. Several of them quitted the standard of Louis, and those who remained appear to have done so merely as the alternative of again tendering their support to John.

While such was the condition of affairs in the French camp, it is evident that there was nothing to oppose the king in his lawless course of vengeance. He advanced with his troops to Lincoln, and having made himself master of the town, he established his head-quarters there, and rallied around him fugitive bands of his mercenaries. His chief support was derived from the adherence of the seamen of the country, who appear to have remained firm in their resistance to the French invasion. Many ships laden with stores were captured by them on their way from the Continent, and thus the army of Louis found itself frequently deprived of supplies. In the month of October the king set out on another predatory excursion, which was destined to be his last. Leaving Lincoln, he passed through the district of Croyland, burning up the farmhouses attached to the abbey of that name. Then, proceeding eastwards, he went to Lynn and Wisbeach, whence he reached the Cross Keys, a place on the south side of the Wash. At low water the sands of this estuary are dry, so as to admit of a passage across for horses and vehicles; but it is liable to a sudden influx of the tide. For some reason which does not very clearly appear, John determined to cross the Wash at the Cross Keys, and in doing so he narrowly escaped the fate of Pharaoh. When his troops had nearly reached the opposite shore, they heard the roar of the rising tide. The king, alarmed, hastened his steps, and succeeded in reaching dry ground; but on looking back, he saw all the carriages and sumpter-horses which carried his stores and treasure overwhelmed by the waters. The waves dashed and leaped over them, and presently, carriages, horses, and men, all disappeared in the whirlpool caused by the confluence of the tide, and of the current of the river Welland.

Giving vent to his rage by curses and complaints, John took his way gloomily to the Abbey of Cistercians at Swines-head, where he remained for the night. At supper he ate to excess of peaches, or pears, and drank great quantities of new cider. A story was current, some fifty years later, that he was poisoned by the monks, but no allusion is made to it in the accounts of his contemporaries; and it is equally probable that his death resulted from excess, acting upon a body already fevered by excitement. He was attacked during the night by severe illness, and on mounting his horse early the next morning, he found himself unable to sit upright. A horse-litter was then procured, in which he was conveyed to the neighbouring castle of Sleaford. A burning fever, attended with acute pains, had seized upon him; and it was with great difficulty that, on the following day, he was carried to the castle of Newark on the Trent. The shadow of coming death now appeared upon his face, and he desired that a confessor might be sent for. The abbey of Croxton was not far distant, and on receiving the message, the abbot attended to witness the last moments of the king, and to offer him such consolation as he had to bestow. The chroniclers describe the wretched tyrant as dying in an extremity of agony and remorse. He appointed his eldest son Henry as his successor, and a letter was written under his direction to Honorius III., the newly-elected Pope, entreating protection for his children, He caused his attendants to swear fealty to Henry, and sent orders to the sheriffs and other royal officers throughout the kingdom to render the prince their obedience. In his last moments, the abbot asked where he desired that his body should be buried, and John replied, "I commit my soul to God, and my body to St. Wulstan." He died on the 18th of October, a.d. 1216, in the forty-ninth year of his age, having reigned seventeen years. His body was conveyed to the cathedral church of Worcester, of which St. Wulstan was the patron saint, and was there buried.

The character of John has been shown only too clearly in the records of those miserable years during which he occupied the throne. It is unquestionable that the very circumstances which entailed so much misery upon the people under his rule were ultimately of the greatest benefit to the country, and that the cowardice and tyranny of John produced results of far more importance to the welfare of the English nation than the high military talent and abilities of his predecessors. Yet, however highly we may estimate the national blessings which have followed in the train of Magna Charta, we cannot be blind to the fact that, like every other triumph of freedom, it was bought with tears and blood. John, whose character had always been treacherous and cruel, became savage and brutal to an unprecedented degree after this charter had been wrung from him; and we look in vain for any redeeming feature in his conduct. His vices, in themselves sufficiently execrable, are partially hidden from our view by the greater prominence of his crimes, and of these the dark catalogue extends through every year in which he held the reins of power.

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