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  • Title: Historical Notes on the reign of King John
  • Author: Michael Best
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    Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Michael Best
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    Historical Notes on the reign of King John

    Arthur of Brittany

    Rival claims to the throne

    Arthur's short life (1187-1203) was governed by the competing forces of ambitious figures around him. Ignoring the requests of his father's family, his mother Constance insisted on naming him after the legendary King Arthur; as the gesture intended, he became a powerful symbol of nationalist pride for the Bretons, who had claimed the mythical King for their own. Arthur's uncle Richard named him successor to the throne of England at the age of four, and later attempted to become his guardian; however, the protective Bretons had hidden him away, preferring to raise him under their own influence. As he lay dying, however, Richard named his brother John as his successor, rather than Arthur.

    At the time, no decisive custom existed for determining the succession to the throne, and John's designation as heir by Richard was not perceived as conclusive; acceptance by a majority of influential barons and other officers was essential. Because of this ambiguous procedure, John and the twelve-year-old Arthur (through his mother's influence) became engaged in a struggle for the throne. While John secured the royal treasury at Chinon and visited the tombs of his father and brother at Fontevrault, Arthur and Constance seized Angiers and Arthur paid homage to Philip Augustus. John found support in the dukedom of Normandy, which supported him as the best alternative to a Breton ruler. As the new duke of Normandy, John destroyed the city of Le Mans (capital of the territory of Maine) for harboring his enemies, and immediately departed for England.

    A truce broken

    The support of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, was a decisive factor in John's succession; as an experienced and influential statesman, Marshal persuaded the archbishop of Canterbury to accept John as successor, and together with Geoffrey FitzPeter, earl of Essex and chief justiciar, they prevailed upon the English barons to swear an oath of fealty; throughout England, a general lack of enthusiasm for John was tempered by distrust of his young and foreign-born nephew. John was crowned on 25 May 1199, but soon returned to the continent to contend with Arthur and his supporters. After an initial struggle with Philip, a truce was arranged in which John cultivated alliances; afterwards, Philip demanded possession of part of Normandy for himself and the right to several territories held by the Plantagenets for Arthur. John's refused, and joined battle with Philip. In due course peace was negotiated between John, Arthur, and Constance at Le Mans on 22 September 1199; John and Philip concluded the peace treaty of Le Goulet the following May.

    In the summer of 1202, irritated with John and wishing to break the feudal ties between France and England, Philip Augustus knighted Arthur and bestowed upon him all of John's territories except for Normandy, which Philip himself attempted to conquer. During the resulting war, while John was in Normandy, Arthur attempted to capture Eleanor of Aquitaine, trapping her in the castle at Mirebeau. John immediately set off for the castle, where he quickly won an impressive victory, rescuing his mother and capturing Arthur.

    Arthur's death

    30The exact circumstances of Arthur's death are still unknown. He was certainly kept prisoner at Falaise under Hubert de Burgh, but how he died is uncertain. Many theories of his death were documented, most of which claimed that John either murdered his nephew himself or ordered him to be killed. Ralph of Coggeshall supplied the story taken up by Shakespeare that Hubert de Burgh was ordered to blind and castrate Arthur, but instead chose to announce that he was dead. An equally colorful story was described in a poem by William the Breton, who claimed that John ran his nephew through with a sword during a solitary boat ride on the Seine . Perhaps the most convincing story is recorded in the annals of the Cistercian abbey of Margam. This detailed account claims that John had kept Arthur in the castle of Rouen and murdered him in a drunken rage one evening, tying a heavy stone to his body and throwing it into the Seine. According to this story, the body was found in a fisherman's net and buried secretly, out of fear of John; the date of the murder is given as 3 April 1203 (see Lloyd 128-9 and Warren 82-3). Whatever the case, Arthur's disappearance had a profound influence on John's reputation. Although most English were disposed to blame Arthur both for rebelling and attempting to capture his own grandmother, the Bretons were incensed against John, and Philip used the disappearance as political leverage against him.

    Constance of Brittany

    Constance (1161-1201) was the heiress of Conan IV, duke of the Bretons. For dynastic reasons, she was secured as a bride for Geoffrey Plantagenet while they were both children; her father arranged the marriage in order to secure connections with Henry II, who claimed to be overlord of Brittany, and to obtain his help in controlling rebellious vassals. Constance and Geoffrey had two children: a daughter, Eleanor, and a son, Arthur, who was born after his father's death. Shakespeare's report of Constance's death was created for dramatic effect, since she later married twice: first to Ranulf of Chester, with whom she quarreled (the marriage was anulled); secondly to Guy of Thouars. Following the death of Richard I on 6 April 1199, Constance was active in trying to secure the English crown for Arthur. Their rival John was visiting them when he heard of Richard's death, whereupon he left hurriedly, possibly more out of fear of Constance and her barons than of her twelve-year-old son. Accompanied by a Breton army, Arthur and Constance seized Angers and assembled a host of barons from Anjou, Touraine, and Maine who were willing to accept Arthur as successor. They were soon joined by Philip Augustus of France, to whom Arthur did homage. Meanwhile, William Marshal, Hubert Walter, and Geoffrey Fitzpeter convinced the English barons to swear an oath of fealty to John, who was then crowned on 26 May. In August 1201, she died, apparently fully reconciled to John, who oversaw the execution of her will.See Holinshed's account of Constance's marriages.

    Blanche of Castile

    Blanche (1188-1252) was the daughter of John's older sister Eleanor (not his mother Eleanor) and Alphonso VIII of Spain; thus she had indirect claims to the monarchies of both England and Spain. Married young to Lois in order to confirm the treaty of Le Goulet in 1200, Blanche was as vigorous in politics and the bearing of children as her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Louis invaded England, she did her best to summon the assistance that her father-in-law, Philip Augustus, was unwilling to provide. She traveled to Calais, where she raised two fleets and an army under Robert of Courtenay; but most of the aid failed to arrive. With Lois, she reigned as queen of France from Louis's ascent in 1223 to his death three years later; his will left her in charge of government and the kingdom while their eldest surviving son was in his minority. She took immediate steps to crown Louis XI at the young age of twelve and acted as regent until he was old enough to reign alone. She also acted as regent during Louis IX's crusades, caring for his three children, successfully increasing the territories of France, and negotiating tirelessly to create alliances, often by marriages similar to her own with Louis VIII.

    Blanche ensured that her children were well educated and pious. Two of them in fact went on to become saints. Her daughter Isabelle founded a Franciscan house for young women in Longchamp (associated with the Sisters of Saint Clare, to whom Isabel in Measure for Measure is to become dedicated at the beginning of the play); she also endowed a convent, of which she became the Abbess. Her son, Louis IX was also canonized for his life of commitment to the crusades.