John I (1199-1216)
Often portrayed as the villain in Hollywood film, John struggled for his entire reign. The legacy left to him by father and brother was one of almost constant war and manouvering. Henry II had ruled more land in
France than the French king. He had been a powerful man in the Western European political scene and he had a justified reputation as a warlord. Richard I, John's elder brother has also been a consummate soldier,
winning a reputation in the "holy land" as well as nearer home. But Richard had increased the emnity between the "English" Angevins and their close rivals. When he died, fighting in France, he left John short of
money and with a war to fund or lose. John tried to govern England and to restore some balance to the treasury. However, his methods did not win approval from all his barons. In 1215, he was to be forced to make an
uneasy peace with the Magna Carta being issued to underwrite the limits of crown power. In additon, his supremacy was further undermined by a long running dispute with Pope Innocent III over his right to appoint the
Archbishop of Cantebury.
In 1209, the pope excommunicates John, making him a legitimate target for anyone who expresses loyalty to Rome. In 1212, a plot is uncovered, to assassinate John. A year later, in 1213, John is forced to back down and accepts Stephen Langton as Archbishop. It was Langton who presided at Runymeade in 1215 when John, facing rebel barons and with London backing them, makes a peace in an effort to bring the realm some sort of peace and order. Two clauses, originally numbered 39 and 40, are of particular note. They state that no free man may be imprisoned or punished without prior judgement by the law of the land; and that justice will not be denied, delayed or sold.
John, dissatisfied with being forced to acquiesce to the Magna Carta, turns to Pope Innocent III, now his ally. In August of 1215, the pope annuls the terms of the Magna Carta as illegal. The war with his barons
flares up, all over again. In October 1216, perhaps tired and ill from his endless troubles, John reputedly succumbs to illness caused "by a surfeit of lamprey" and the crown passes to his nine year-old son, Henry.
Henry III (1216-1272)
Henry's reign begins with a minority that leaves the barons in control. Unlike some periods of history when effective interregnums lead to increased violence and civil war, this pause seemed to serve the crown. With
Langton playing a lead political role, diplomacy prevails and the Magna Carta is amended and enshrined in English Law.
Against a backdrop of prosperity and growth, Henry comes of age and starts to demand more control than his barons are prepared to release. Parliament becomes a battleground between King and nobility as they try to
use officialdom who they elect, to ensure that the smal print of the Magna Carta is upheld and the king is kept in his place. Henry was not prepared to accept this situation. However, short of money and unready to
show his hand, he negotiates through parliaments until in 1246, he agrees to the Provisions of Oxford that will further limit the powers of the crown.
But Henry's intention appears to have been to buy himself time and funds. In the Parliament of 1258, he accepts the terms of the provisions, namely "The king is to rule according to the advice of a privy council
of fifteen. All officers of state must swear to obey king and council jointly. As a gesture of good faith, the king is to deliver tenty-one royal castles into the hands of constables who can only be dismissed from
their charge with the consent of the council."
In 1261, however, he rejects the provisions, supported by the Pope, who grants a papal bull declaring the terms invalid. The Baron's War commences. To the surprise of some, Louis IX of France comes down firmly on
Henry's side and declares, publically, that the provisions are an offence to the king's rights. The monarchs of Europe are increasingly aware that their powers are under threat. The "divine right" to rule will be
disputed down to the execution of Charles I.
Leading the barons is their spokesman, Simon De Montfort, brother-in-law to the king. Earl of Leicester and a hugely ambitious man. In 1264, De Montfort defeats the larger royal army at Lewes and captures the king and his heir, Edward. It looks like the barons have won. With De Montfort effectively running things, Parliament is called in 1265. The barons are even less inclined to accept De Montfort as substitute for the crown. Contriving Edward's escape, royalists form up behind the young prince who already has a growing reputation as a soldier in the mould of his great grandfather. In 1265, Edward confirms this potential when he defeats and kills De Montfort at Evesham. The Barons War is at an end. Edward restores his father's rule but there is no doubt in the final years of the reign who really holds the power in England.
Edward I 1272 - 1307
Edward was a warrior king who seems to have thrived on war and political conflict. He appears to have been dominating, so much so that far from producing a son in his mould, he was to be disappointed in a son who was
neither warrior or consummate statesman and furthermore, homosexual according to all accounts. Edward was married until 1290, to Eleanor, his bride from his 15th year and in his grief at her loss, he erected
the many "Eleanor crosses" in her memory. They had 15, possibly 16 children together so it was a firm union. Edward did marry, again and had three children with Marguerite of France who, at 17, was 43 years his
junior. Clearly a man of large appetites,
He fought in the Holy Lands crusading to reprieve Acre which he was credited with although the truce agreed was against his advice, Edward preferring a military solution. While in the east, he was wounded by a mamluk
assassin and decided to return home to rest and to be crowned, officially (1274).
He then embarked on his Welsh wars culminating in the building of the famed concentric castles. Edward was also responsible for building up the Tower of London including Traitors Gate. Edward claimed victory in Wales 1284, creating the Prince Of Wales as a position for the English heir from 1301. From 1286 until 1305, he was embroiled in Scotland where he fought a war to bring Scotland under the English throne. Close to success, having seen Wallace executed and the Scots defeated at Falkirk, he prepared to take on Robert Bruce but died before he could commence the new campaign. Without his leadership, the English throne was unable to prosecute the war as effectively and were to suffer defeat during his son's reign.
Edward also had his issues with other groups. Largely in an effort to bolster his debt, he issued an edict against the Jews in 1279 and over 300 were to die in the Tower. In 1290, he expelled them from England. The
Jewish folk were to stay away from English shores until Oliver Cromwell invited them to return during the interregnum.
Oddly, in 1774, when Edward's funeral casket was opened, his 474 year old remains were perfectly preserved. He was measured as 6ft 2ins, a giant of a man for his time, hence his nickname "Longshanks".
Edward II 1307 to 1327
An unpopular king, Edward II spent too
much time and favour on his lower born favourites, particularly Gaveston and then the Despensers. Gaveston having been removed and brutally executed while Edward was in France was not enough of a warning and, after losing to the Scots at Bannockburn, Edward proceeded to fall out with a good number of his barons, his wife and many other dignitaries and churchmen. Ultimately, he was deposed by his wife and her ally and lover, Mortimer. The kings favourites were caught and executed (Hugh, the younger Despenser was brutally treated and dealt with as a common thief) Edward II was murdered in Berkley Castle, some short time later and Edward III's minority commenced. On his accession, Edward III, far from lavishing on Mortimer or his allies, had the former lord protector arrested and executed for treason and murder of the king. His mother went intoexile and the reign of one of England's strongest kings began. Having been trained for war and governance by the lords around himduring the troubled times, Edward was more like his paternal grandfather than his ill advised father.
Edward III 1327-1377
Edward was the antithesis of his father. A powerful man with a love for tactics and war, he was considered a throwback to his grandfather.Within ten years of his accession, he was at war with France, taking the major
role in what we know today as "The Hundred Years War". His son who died before Edwar did was the famed Black Prince, a man of small stature but immense on the field of war, where he was considered one of Western
Europe's finest captains. In 1346, he was in France on a campaign that saw the English defeat the mighty French army at Crecy and seize Calais in the following year. In 1348, the Black Death ravaged Europe, creating
labour shortages in England and other feudal lands with the result that there was a rise in the power of the serf classes whose value had suddenly increased, in particular those with specialist skills. Meanwhile,
Edward's campaigns went on but despite capturing John I of France, it was clear that Edward was not going to become ruler of France and so, in 1360, the Treaty of Bretigny recognised the English owned territory but
in return, Edward renounced his claim to the French throne. Parliament developed further during Edward's reign, perhaps because of his absence and the costs of the war which resulted in a need for taxation. While
Parliament complained about the king's advisors and office holders, they never blamed troubles on the monarch who remained popular throughout his reign. Nevertheless, the houses ground so by the time of the
king's death, they were largely setting the measures in place for tax and general legislation. A divide between the landed classes and the peasantry was growing, exacerbated by Parliament and with the new found
value of the latter, it was inevitable that there would be difficulties. The result was seen in Richard II's reign when the Peasants Revolt brought matters to a head.
Richard II 1377-1399
Richard II was a contrasting character to his warlike father and grandfather. He was ths second son of the Black Prince. His father and elder brother having died before his grandfather, he came to the throne in
minority (he was 10) when Edward III died. Never expected to take the throne, he was less versed in the art of war than his forebears although he did not lack in boldness. At the age of just 14, he rode to meet Wat
Tyler and the leaders of the peasants revolt and personally led the army at Norsey Wood where the rebellion was finally put down. Richard regarded himself as a man of culture and finery, a true monarch who
ruled by divine right and often remained aloof from his court. He was very particular about fine foods and beverages, comissioning what became the first cookery book out of his extensive kitchens. He was similarly
particular about the manners of men and women at his table and laid down a whole series of rules for feasting and general etiquette. Richard's reign was troubled by the clash between his established nobles and
Richard's favourites. Just as Edward II, he failed to judge the strength of feeling and, after re-establishing control, persecuted those who had opposed him in such manner that, when he left the country for Ireland,
he was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke and the faction that had centred around Henry. The heir presumptive, the Earl of March, Edmund Mortimer was discounted for the politically more powerful House of Lancaster. On his
return from Ireland, Richard II was imprisoned and ultimately murdered. His marriage to a seven year old French princess had precluded an heir.
Henry IV 1399-1413
Henry's reign was not a peaceful one although he clung on to power with tenacity. The nobility, partly stirred up by their triumph in replacing one king and partly offended by not being given more largesse by Henry,
rebelled against his rule, arguing the case for Mortimer. Henry's response was to brutally put down the rebellion with the help of his two sons, Henry of Monmouth (Henry V) and Thomas of Lancaster. The future Henry
V gained much of the power in te realm from about 1410. Henry's reign was in some senses, an interim one of less note. Having avenged the seizure of his father's lands (John of Gaunt) by Richard through deposing the
king and putting his own line on the throne, the nephew of the Black Prince died from a long and disfiguring illness, never fufilling his intention of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands.