This article is an edited transcript of The Unknown Invasion of England with Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 21 May 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
By the end of the summer of 1215 Magna Carta, the charter that was created in an attempt to make peace between King John and a group of rebel barons, was as good as dead. It had been quashed by the pope and John had never had any interest in sticking to it.
So the barons came up with a much simpler solution – get rid of John.
By September 1215 they were at war with the king of England.
Being at war with his own subjects, John found himself trying to get foreign mercenaries from the continent, while the barons had found an alternative candidate in Louis, the son of the king of France. Both sides were looking to the continent for support.
Consequently, the south-east of England became the crucial theatre for the conflict.
The war started with a spectacular siege of Rochester Castle in Kent, the tallest castle tower and secular building in Europe.
Round One went to John, who broke Rochester Castle – which had previously been captured by baronial forces – in a seven-week siege, famously collapsing the tower.
It was one of the few sieges that saw room-to-room fighting in the keep and must be regarded as one of the most spectacular medieval sieges.
Most sieges tended to end with a negotiated surrender or starvation, but Rochester was the scene of a truly spectacular conclusion. John’s men collapsed a quarter of the tower but because the tower had an internal cross wall, the baronial troops fought on for a short time using it as a second or final line of defence.
The Barnwell chronicler remarked:
“Our age has not known a siege so hard pressed nor so strongly resisted”.
But in the end, when the keep was broached, that was it, the game was up. The baronial forces ultimately surrendered.
It was looking quite glum for the barons by the end of 1215, but in May 1216, when Louis landed on English shores, the advantage moved to the barons.
Louis landed at Sandwich in Kent, where John was waiting to confront him. But, true to form, John, who had a reputation for fleeing, watched Louis land, thought about fighting him and then ran away.
He fled to Winchester, leaving Louis free to occupy all of south-eastern England.
Louis took Kent and Canterbury before arriving in London, where he was received by cheering crowds because the barons had held London since May 1215.
The French prince was acclaimed as a king, but never crowned.
Was Louis the king of England?
There are examples in history of uncrowned English kings, but in this period coronation was necessary before you could really claim the throne.
There was a window before the Norman conquest when all you needed was acclamation.
People could get together and acclaim the new king, get them to swear an oath and then they could just be crowned whenever they liked.
If you take Edward the Confessor, the penultimate king of Anglo-Saxon England, he was sworn in in June 1042, but not crowned until Easter 1043.
The Normans, however, had a different take on it – you only became king when the holy oil, the chrism, was poured on your head during a coronation service.
Richard the Lionheart is a good example, being the first king for whom we have an accurate coronation description. The chronicler refers to him as the duke up to the moment of his anointing.
What that means, of course, is that there was potential for a period of lawlessness between one monarch’s death and the next monarch’s coronation.
When Henry III died in 1272, his son, Edward I, was out of the country on crusade. It was decided that the country couldn’t wait for months and years without a king. So, before Edward went on crusade, his rule was proclaimed – it would start immediately when Henry died.
Consequently, after 200 years the possibility of an uncrowned king returned to England. But you couldn’t be an uncrowned king in 1216.