The First Barons' War

The reasons for King John's unpopularity

King John lost all the territories in France and Normandy when the French barons rose up against his misrule and forced the English out. In England, demands for higher taxes to fight the French had made the King unpopular and in October of 1214 King John returned from Normandy to face more opposition. Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had recently died. It was Hubert Walter who had limited the King's excesses but now that the Archbishop was dead the King was free to do as he pleased.

The Great Charter

Unhappy with the way King John was running the country, Stephen Langton the new Archbishop of Canterbury and many barons of England drew up a new charter for the King to sign. Henry I, John's great-grandfather, had introduced a charter when he became king promising fairer laws for all English citizens but the promises made in Henry's charter were now being ignored by King John. It was hoped that the King would agree to sign the charter and abide by its promises. In early 1215 the King promised to meet the barons but kept delaying the meeting.

The Great Charter or Magna Carter

King John could not delay the meeting any longer. The barons forced the King to meet them at Runnymede on the river Thames where, on the 15th of June 1215, the two sides met. Present was Archbishop Stephen Langton and William Marshall. King John agreed to the conditions in the Great Charter (or Magna Carta) and signed the document. John also agreed to the barons' demand that a committee of twenty four or twenty five barons would oversee the decisions he made. Although John signed the document he was soon to find a way to absolve himself from its commitments. Several copies of the document were made and sent to places of safety around the country.

The Pope absolves the Great Charter

King John approached the Pope and got the pontiff's agreement that the document was invalid because the king had been forced to sign it. The Pope excommunicated the barons also served an Interdict on London, forbidding burials to take place.

Prince Louis of France offered the English throne

As King John had no intention to abide by the rules of the Great Charter the barons had little choice but to fight the King. The rebel barons sent messengers to France and offered Prince Louis, the son of Philippe II King of France, the English throne if he helped them to remove King John from power. In response King John began to confiscate the barons' lands and properties. A civil war broke out in England. From September of 1215 until March of 1216, King John and his army marched across the east of England where the rebel barons were in control. In January of 1216 King John had reached as far north as Berwick-upon-Tweed where he captured the town and set it on fire.

In early 1216 an advance force of French soldiers arrived in England. Prince Louis arrived in England in May and began to advance across the country taking major cities such as Winchester. King John used his castle at Corfe on the south coast as his headquarters during this time.

Death of King John

In September of 1216 King John was on the offensive again marching east into rebel-held land. While crossing the River Ouse which fed into the Wash estuary King John's baggage train was caught in quicksand and destroyed by the incoming tide. John's supplies and treasures were washed away. The remnants of the King's forces reached Swineshead Abbey where they spent the night. It was here that John either ate too much or could possibly have been poisoned. The next day King John rode to Newark feeling unwell and after reaching the castle he died.

Based on map from Atlas of British History, G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville


1214 Oct 15 John returns from France
   Upset by demands for higher taxes and less control over affairs in England, the Barons met John on his return with a charter from the time of Henry I which they wanted John to agree to and abide by.
Nov 20 Charter of Liberties
   A group of barons, after finding a copy of King Henry I's Charter of Liberties, swore an oath at the altar of t. Edmunds at Bury St. Edmunds to force King John to acknowledge thier rights.
1215 Jan John meets the Barons in London
   Promising the Barons safe passage, John met them in London to discuss their demands. John postponed any answer until Easter.
May 17 London falls to the Rebels
   The gates to London were opened by a supporter of the rebellious Barons and the houses of Jews were targeted for ransacking and burning. The rebels called for those Barons still on the side of John to join them. The Tower of London held by John's supporters was too well defended to fall into the hands of the rebels.
May 27 A truce is sought
   Stephen Langton and William Marshall attempted to get the Barons and John to meet and find a settlement to the civil war.
Jun 15 John's Great Charter (the Magna Carta)
   A large number of barons, led by Stephen Langton the archbishop of Canterbury, meet King John on an island in the Thames at Runnymede. They forced the king to sign the 'Great Charter' or Magna Carta that would limit the power of the monarchy. The barons insisted that the old feudal contract should be reinstated and that the king should abide by the laws that the rest of the population did. The feudal contract allowed the barons to run their own lands, renting it from the king but paying rent by supplying knights rather than money. This feudal system had been set up by William the Conqueror.
Aug 24 The Magna Carta is annulled
   Pope Innocent III annulled the Magna Carta freeing King John from its limitations. The Pope annulled the charter on the grounds that the King only signed it because he was forced to and that the document was illegal. The Pope was prepared to support John against the rebel barons because he wanted him to take a key role in a new crusade.
Sep 13 King John appeals to the Pope
   In a letter dated 13 September 1215, King John sought help from Pope Innocent III in his fight against the barons. In the letter, written while the King stayed at Dover Castle, John stated that he believed the defence of England was ultimately the responsibility of God and the Pope. Pope Innocent III agreed and declared that the Magna Carta should be annulled.
Oct - 1217 Baron's war
   After the Magna Carta was annulled and it was clear that John was not going to agree to the terms of the charter the civil war between King John and the rebel barons started. The barons offered the English crown to Prince Louis, the son of King Philippe II of France and invited him to invade England. John confiscated the rebel barons' lands and gave them to his own supporters. King John besieged Rochester Castle where a garrison of men had been left by the barons. The garrison was starved out and the castle fell to the King.
1216 Jan King John attacks Berwick
   King John attacked Berwick and forced the Scots to leave. He also raided the lowlands.
Feb King John puts down revolt
   King John put down a revolt in East Anglia. The Barons and the French kept hold of London.
Feb Small French fleet land in London
   A small French army landed in London. Their commander informed the rebel barons that Prince Louis would soon arrive from France.
May 18 A storm hits John's fleet
   John's fleet of ships was badly damaged by storms as they prepare to defend against an invasion from France. This left the way open for Prince Louis to sail to England a few days later.
May 21 Prince Louis of France claims English Throne
   Invited by the barons opposed to king John, Prince Louis of France landed in England to claim the English Throne. Louis captured Rochester Castle after a short siege.
Jun - Oct Prince Louis advances across England
   Prince Louis advanced on Winchester and captured the city and its castle. Elsewhere, Windsor Castle and Dover Castle were besieged by the rebel barons. Both castles were defended and held out against the sieges. King John used Corfe Castle in the south-west as his base of operations while he planned his campaign against the rebel barons and Prince Louis.
Oct 19 King John dies
   King John died at Newark. This was shortly after he lost his baggage train in the Wash estuary as the tide returned. There was supposed to be a large amount of treasure in the baggage train at the time and it has never been found.
Oct 28 King Henry III Crowned
   King John's eldest son Henry was crowned King Henry III at the abbey church of Gloucester by Peter des Roches the Bishop of Winchester. The Earl of Pembroke, Earl Marshal of England (William Marshal), was declared Regent.
1217 Portchester castle captured
   Prince Louis captured and almost destroyed the castle at Portchester.
Apr Siege of Mountsorrel Castle
   Royalists besieged the French controlled Mountsorrel Castle in Lincolnshire. When Louis sent reinforcements to assist those in the castle the royalists moved away to Nottingham. The French army then made the mistake of moving on to Lincoln where the royalists had held out against previous attacks.
May 20 Battle of Lincoln
   Henry III's supporters defeated the forces belonging to Prince Louis and the rebel barons that were besieging the castle at Lincoln.
Aug 24 Battle off Sandwich
   A fleet of French ships were defeated off the coast near Sandwich by Hubert de Burgh. The French fleet was commanded by Eustace the Monk, a pirate and mercenary who fought for both the French and English when it suited his needs. The French fleet were bringing more men and supplies to assist Prince Louis in his quest to take the English throne. The ship Eustace was on was captured and the monk was executed.
Sep 12 Treaty of Kingston
   The defeat of the French fleet left Prince Louis without much hope of taking the English throne. William Marshall blockaded London from the sea and land and at Lambeth Louis accepted peace terms. Louis waived his claim to the throne of England and should have restored Normandy to Henry but did not. Louis was paid 10,000 marks to ensure he left the country as soon as possible. William Marshall pardoned all those who had supported Louis.

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