King John attacks a castle, BL Royal MS 16 G VI f.373v
We begin this account of the year leading up to the issue of Magna Carta, with King John riding high in June 1214. Having waited nearly eight years to launch a campaign to reconquer his ancestral lands in France, John had at last assembled the requisite army and, in February 1214, crossed from England to La Rochelle. His campaign went well. In March and April, he had reimposed his authority over the region between the rivers Loire and Garonne, asserting his lordship over the lands of his wife (Isabella of Angoulême) on the Charente, and his late mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) in Limoges and the high country of the Creuse. In April, he had gone south, to Saintes and the Saintonge, reaching as far south as La Réole on the Garonne. His priority thereafter was to reassert his authority over the regions east of La Rochelle. This was a traditional centre of Plantagenet revenue collection and demesne estates. It was also a region where John's long-term rivals, the Lusignan family, had stepped in to the vacuum created by John's expulsion from France after 1204. Looking eastwards from La Rochelle towards Poitou, Poitiers was the only major city that remained under French control. The Lusignans themselves harbored grievances that stretched back to John's earliest years as King, to his marriage to Isabella of Angoulême (once promised as a Lusignan bride) and to the capture and imprisonment of members of the Lusignan clan following John's defeat of his rebellious nephew, Arthur of Brittany, at the siege of Mirebeau in 1202. Here again, all went well. Lusignan castles in the Vendée, at Mervent and Vouvant, were besieged and captured in May 1214. By early June, the King was ready to press home his attack against the real centres of French royal influence, north of the Loire. In early June, he lay siege to the strategic fortress of Nantes, on the estuary of the Loire. Although Nantes itself remained impregnable, he took valuable prisoners, and by 17 June, exactly 800 years ago this week, had taken repossession of the city of Angers, further up the Loire, the ancestral home of his family, the Angevin/Plantagenet dynasty. From Angers, on 19 June, he set out to besiege the fortress of La Roche-aux-Moins. It is there that we join him at the start of one of the most significant years in English history.