Assassination Attempt on King John’s Life
There actually was an assassination plot on King John in 1212. Robert fitzWalter and other baronial rebels really were behind it, and they really did flee for their lives, and were let back into the realm only after John patched things up with the Church, as a condition of lifting his excommunication.
King John’s Illegitimate Royal Daughter
I totally made this up!
The Keeper of the Heirs
There has never been a ‘Keeper of the Heirs,’ but wardships and heiresses and minor heirs were certainly one of the Crown’s greatest resources. Kings sold the ‘rights’ to them as part of the complex and shifting network of patronage, fealty, and cold-hard business dealings.
There were Keepers of many other things in medieval and early modern England: of the (king’s) Body; the Privy Seal; and by far the most important, Keeper of the Wardrobe. ‘Keepers’ were vital and prominent positions in the king’s government. I thought to plug what was clearly a hole in the administrative functioning of medieval kings, and give John a Keeper of the Heirs.
On King John’s Methods of Subduing Opposition: Starvation and Murder
King John is accused of having murdered his noble nephew, Prince Arthur of Brittany. In the story, it’s hinted that Jamie’s father, the old earl Everoot, had some damning information about this which is what lead to his death.
There is no proof of this rumor about the king, but most people, contemporaries of John’s and historians nowadays, believe it to be true. John had his father’s eruptive Angevin temper, and people had learned to be wary of it. He was also mercurial and violent and feared endlessly for his throne. The idea of him killing someone in a fit of rage is not inconceivable.
The idea of John starving Mouldin’s family to death was modeled on actual events, surrounding William de Briouze (de Braose).
De Briouze was an up-and-coming household knight who served John in many roles, one of which was gaoler. It was rumored that de Briouze was the sole witness to John’s murder of the young prince of Brittany. The rumor was borne out several years later, when John was out, idiotically demanding hostages from his most loyal men. When he demanded one of de Briouze, his wife said she would never turn one of her sons over to a man who would murder his own nephew.
John really did not appreciate this.
Citing unpaid debts to the Crown, John unleashed on the de Briouze family. Attempts at reconciliation were rebuffed. John hounded de Briouze across the length of England and all the way to Ireland, then to the Continent. When he couldn’t capture de Briouze, he turned on his wife and son, held them prisoner and eventually starved them to death.
It is this situation to which Jamie refers, beside the fire with Eva, when he thinks, “A girl who had done what not even powerful barons fleeing into the wilds of Ireland could do: escape the wrath of King John. With a child in tow.”
He means de Briouze/de Braose.
There are loads of articles and books and analyses on Magna Carta, so I won’t go into much here, except to say that at the time, it was not intended to be some great document espousing personal liberty. It was motivated in great part by money, and forwarded by great, generally wealthy men as a way to restrict an unpredictable king’s growing, intrusive, capricious, and quite often predatory powers.
Magna Carta was not entirely unprecedented: coronation charters often laid out what the tenants-in-chief could expect from their sovereign. But Magna Carta went further.
It was based on what has become known as the Unknown Charter, which begins with Old King Henry I’s coronation charter, but goes on to list a series of additional clauses, including the ones the king hated the most. No one knows who wrote the Unknown Charter, nor how it was found & ended up on the rebels desk, but it was a powerful document, with precedent behind it, and almost all its clauses were put into Magna Carta.
In Defiant, I decided Father Peter was the instrument of delivering it to the rebels. Well, Father Peter and Jamie.
Here’s a beautiful picture of the document itself: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-unknown-charter
The Unknown Charter, and Magna Carta which flowed from it, was highly specific, unlike previous coronation charters. It had terms restricting the king’s rights to a host of things–including selling justice & inflicting high and onerous taxes on his subjects, two of the biggest money-makers for the Crown. It also promised a jury of equals to all free men. This meant knights and merchants, not just barons. This was groundbreaking.
But most onerous of all, Magna Carta had a ‘security clause,’ which permitted the barons to form a committee of twenty-five men who would watch the king—watch him—to ensure he honored the terms of the charter. Talk about groundbreaking. This was earth shattering. Moreover, if at least four of the men on the security committee agreed the king had not honored the terms, they had the legal right to take action against him.
You can't even imagine the revolutionary nature of this clause. It was de facto permission to try the king. To subject the king to his vassals' judgment. If needed, permission to rebel.
Well, this would never stand.
It–and the wars that followed–accelerated the full-on breakage of the age-old threads of homage and fealty (a lesser promise than homage) that had bound man to lord for ages. This notwithstanding that there had always been language in such vows about providing ‘lawful' service, and the expectation that the lord would refrain from making unjust demands on his men. Nope, that was nothing to this. This “security clause' elevated those vague phrases to very specific terms.
In the end, what Magna Carta did was subject the king to an earthly power higher than himself. Squabbles with the Church aside, this was unheard of in the Christian West.
John despised this clause. The Pope despised it. Any king of the era would have hated it.
Originally called ’the articles of the barons’ it did not come to be called Magna Carta (the Great Charter) until a few years later.
On the War that Followed the Signing of the Charter and Men's Loyalty to the King
The peace of Magna Carta lasted approximately three months. As Jamie predicted, there was double-dealing and a lack of will on both sides from the start, and the war was in full swing by the time the harvest ended in 1215.
Throughout the winter, the rebels besieged, the king marched and sent his routiers harrying the countryside, and soon, Prince Philip of France came sailing over with his troops. England was ripe for conquest.
Even so, some stayed loyal to their oaths to King John.
W. L. Warren describes this turbulent period in his excellent book, aptly titled King John.
I love Warren’s account of the outbreak of the war and arrival of the French prince, the way he described how a few men still held true to their oaths to the king, when they had every reason to turn on him:
“Up and down the country castles were held for him by determined men who owed everything to John. Engelard de Cigogné hurled defiance at rebel besiegers from the walls of Windsor. Hugh Balliol held out at Barnard Castle against the Scots, and Phillip Oldcoates in Durham. Hubert de Burgh, now justiciar, sat tight in Dover against all that Louis could do against him from July to October. Odd sparks of loyalty fired local resistance movements: the citizens of the Cinque Ports had been obliged to take an oath to Louis, but their vessels harried French shipping; William of Kensham, operating under the name of ‘Willikin of the Weald’, organized a band of loyalists that preyed on Frenchmen in Suffolk and Kent. The west midlands were held securely for the king . . . by the vassals of two elder statesmen, William Marshal and Ranulph of Chester. They had served his father, and despite the insults they had suffered, would not desert the son.” (W. L. Warren, King John [University of California Press, 1961, 1978], pp. 252–53.)
There’s something so heartbreakingly noble about that passage.
Yes, a lot of the men who stayed loyal to King John were well-paid to do so. But in the end, money has never bought loyalty, especially not when things look bleak. While King John and his mercenaries are a hard bunch to love, I found myself sympathizing with the deep personal and moral complexities of serving an anointed king to whom you had pledged a oath, but for whom you had little respect.
I placed Jamie among these men: loyal when it was inconvenient; steadfast when everything sensible counseled flight; fundamentally flawed, yet bound by deeper ties of oath and fealty while the world was unraveling around them.
I know some readers have a hard time reading about heroes and heroines who bow before a king or queen who has wronged them or their family in the past. But that was a fundamental truth of the middle ages. Finding a way to walk that tightrope, to let go of the past while still honoring it, to balance honor and morals and practical considerations, to protect the people you must protect, to face forward into a complicated, messy, dangerous future and, somehow, find a way through…well, I think there can be great dignity in that.
In the case of England and King John, though, it was not loyalty that saved the realm, but death.
King John died in October of 1216, following a ‘surfeit of lamprey eels.’ John’s young son Henry was crowned soon after (the day Jamie & Eva’s son was born), and the councilors who comprised his regency government reissued magna carta, albeit in modified form.
John’s son, Henry III, ruled for fifty-six years, an impressive run for any monarch. He was not a terribly potent king, and had his own Barons’ War to contend with. It was a brutal, dramatic war, won in the end by King John’s grandson, Prince Edward, one day to become King Edward I (of Braveheart fame), known to history as the Hammer of the Scots.