Visit The Magna Carta Project website for more on Magna Carta and King John.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Review: 'The Greatest Knight: William Marshal' (BBC 2), presented by Dr Thomas Asbridge

Dr Thomas Asbridge
Following hot on the heels of the first instalment of Robert Bartlett’s BBC series on the Plantagenets comes another BBC production, ‘The Greatest Knight: William Marshal’, a documentary presented by Thomas Asbridge. Marshall, Asbridge tells us at the outset, is a ‘forgotten hero of our history’. While this assertion is sure to have induced puzzlement among students of the Middle Ages, it may be interpreted as a sign that Asbridge’s efforts are targeted at a general audience.
Much of what was covered in last night’s documentary is well-trodden ground, in some cases quite literally so, given that several of the locations visited by Asbridge, including the tomb of Henry II at Fontevraud, the hall of the ducal palace in Poitiers, and the castle of Le Mans, all featured in the first episode of Bartlett’s Plantagenets series. The chronological scope of Asbridge’s documentary – from the middle of the twelfth century during the reign of King Stephen down to the Magna Carta crisis – is also the same as Bartlett’s first episode. More striking, however, is the proximity between Asbridge’s documentary and Saul David’s 2008 Timewatch special on William Marshal. The 2014 and 2008 productions share a title (‘The Greatest Knight’). Like David, Asbridge took a New York cab to the Morgan Library in order to consult the manuscript containing the History of William Marshall. Asbridge spoke to the same curator (one William Voelkle) featured in the Timewatch episode, and even highlighted a passage in the History to which David had drawn attention (that wherein the young Marshall is described as lazy and greedy). In terms of presenting style, Asbridge is more of a Bartlett than a David. Whereas David’s documentary featured ‘talking head’ interjections from prominent scholars including David Crouch and David Carpenter, Asbridge, like Bartlett, generally eschews that approach. The difference between the presenting styles of Asbridge and David are manifest in other ways. David sought to try and see the world through Marshal’s eyes by donning armour and taking part in a joust. Asbridge in contrast, limited himself to a careful twirl of one of the Wallace Collection’s oldest swords. To do so, he had to don blue surgical gloves, and contend with a curator hawkishly watching over him.

Given the familiarity of the subject matter of this documentary, then, did Asbridge succeed in putting his own stamp on proceedings? In one important respect, he did. He accomplished this by placing the History of William Marshall (‘a priceless window into the Medieval world’) at the very heart of his enquiry. When introducing the History near the outset, Asbridge pointed out that historians must interpret this text as a literary construction written to project a carefully tailored image of its subject. He acknowledges that the historical Marshall and the characterisation of him in the History are not necessarily one and the same. (The extent to which the latter can be disaggregated from the former is a matter that often vexes modern scholars). In conversation with the Morgan Library’s curator, Asbridge even adduces some of the salient details regarding the circumstances of the History’s provenance and reception. This is an approach which exhibits a high level of trust in the audience’s critical ability. It is not typical of a primetime documentary intended for airing on the BBC, and is all the more admirable for it.
The hour unfolded with Asbridge tracing the course of Marshal’s life, pointing out certain moments wherein he appears to have acted out of a desire to conform to the contemporary martial ethos which governed knightly behaviour – or, as Asbridge called it, chivalry. While academics might take issue over what ‘chivalry’ consisted of in the age of William Marhsall, and the extent to which it actually did have a bearing on the thoughtworld of the warriors of that period, it would have overcomplicated matters to have done so in this context. Asbridge’s interest focussed chiefly on Marshal’s role in the high politics of his age. The choice to open and close the documentary at Westminster was deliberate; for Asbridge, the ‘greatest revelation of William Marshal’s life’ were the attempts by men of his ilk to limit royal power, which played a part, his argument went, in the development of the system of governance under which we in Britain presently live. There is perhaps no audience better qualified than those who read this blog to discuss how that claim squares with Marshal’s vigorous attempts to shore up royal authority over the rebellious barons of England during the first years of Henry III’s minority after John’s death in 1216.

Sunday 23 March 2014

23 March 1208: an interdict is laid on England

Church bells were silent until
(BL, Royal 14 C VIII, f.94)
On 23 March 1208, English bishops under orders from Pope Innocent III laid a general interdict on England and Wales. The sacraments were forbidden to the entire kingdom: no-one was allowed to attend Mass, receive extreme unction or bury their deceased relatives in consecrated ground with religious ceremony. Only the baptism of infants and the confession of the dying were permitted. This state lasted for over six years, until the interdict was lifted, on 2 July 1214.

The pope resorted to this drastic measure because King John had refused to accept the pope’s candidate for the post of archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Langton was a famed scholar of the Bible, who had spent some years at the schools of Paris studying theology. Innocent, who had also studied at Paris, had known Langton for twenty years and the two shared an attachment to St Thomas Becket. When a dispute arose between King John and the monks of Canterbury, in 1206, about who should succeed to the most senior Church office in England, Innocent took the opportunity to establish his own candidate in the see. But a university professor, who had been living abroad for years in the kingdom of John’s rival, was not the sort of archbishop that the king of England had in mind, nor was John impressed by how the pope had undermined the royal right to influence the election. John refused to budge, forcing Innocent’s hand.

What impact did the interdict have on the people of England? The account of Ralph of Coggeshall, the Cistercian chronicler who recorded the results of an interdict placed on France in 1200, suggests that the effects would have been deeply felt:
‘O what a horrible and miserable spectacle it was to see in every city the sealed doors of the churches, Christians shut out from entry as though they were dogs, the cessation of divine office, the withholding of the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord, the people no longer flocking to the famous celebrations of saints days, the bodies of the dead not given to burial according to Christian rites, of whom the stink infected the air and the horrible sight filled with horror the minds of the living’
Indeed, Ralph’s response to the interdict laid on England was so extreme that, after John’s settlement with the pope, he removed it from his chronicle.

The punishment did little, though, to sway King John. With senior churchmen forced into exile, the king was able to take the profits from Church lands. John pocketed the tidy sum of £100,000 – less than half of which he was ever to pay back. In the end, it was the threat of rebellion at home and invasion from France that forced John to bow to the pope and accept Langton as archbishop of Canterbury.  And the interdict had done nothing to soften John’s reputation for impiety, nor to discourage the king’s subjects from joking, ‘How far that stag has grown without ever attending Mass!’ 

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Review: The Plantagenets (Episode 1. The Devil's Brood)

Professor Robert Bartlett
This post is contributed by Dr Kathryn Dutton, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Manchester

An enduring dynasty of fifteen English kings descended from a malevolent demon countess of Anjou: this was the opening, complete with menacing crows and interior shots of Gothic churches, to Prof. Robert Bartlett’s first episode of The Plantagenets, dedicated to the ‘Devil’s Brood’ of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons. Bartlett took us swiftly from the marriage of the Empress Matilda to Count Geoffrey of Anjou – the first ‘Plantagenet’ – in 1128, to Magna Carta and the death of King John in 1216. Along the way, Bartlett set out what made the early Plantagenets distinctive: on one hand, the rapid construction in the 1150s of an ‘Empire’ stretching from northern England to southern France, the resuscitation of English fortunes after the ‘Anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign, and the legal reforms of Henry II, which laid the foundations for the Common Law; on the other, he told a dramatic story of discord and conflict between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, evoked the sorry image of a humiliated and hair-shirted Henry II being flogged by the English clergy after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, and outlined the reigns of first an absent king, Richard Lionheart, and then a failed king, John. The hour closed with Bartlett walking away from the camera, down an exposed dirt track in the marshy wilds of the Wash, where King John famously lost men, horses and treasure just days before his death.

Bartlett’s style (and that of his production team) is familiar from his previous BBC series Inside the Medieval Mind and The Normans, and the substance of what he presented will be equally of no surprise to historians. Yet the subject matter is inherently engaging, and what made the programme particularly attractive was its varied and well-chosen locations, which included not only obvious though spectacular suspects (Canterbury Cathedral, Fontevraud) but also sites which lent the story further drama and unexpected humanity (the shrine to Saint Radegonde carved into the rock beneath Chinon, for example, with its fresco of members of the dynasty). The choice of many of these locations reflected Bartlett’s success in characterising the Plantagenets as, in essence, foreigners. Yet while the story was well told and the production lavish, something rankled. Bartlett stuck fast to a narrative which, while scholarly, was tangibly traditional. Women like the Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine were ‘enraged princesses’ and schemers; although shorthand and character portraits are necessary in an overview like this, Bartlett’s account does not compare favourably with other recent BBC programmes which touch upon these themes, such as Helen Castor’s She-Wolves (the first episode of which looked at Matilda and Eleanor) or Michael Wood’s King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, both of which dug deeper into the motivations of both women and men, the latter through the use of an outstanding group of talking heads, including Jinty Nelson and Ryan Lavelle.

Such shortcomings make sense: in this episode, nearly a century of history was condensed into a single hour. Yet while this is a standard account of the early Plantagenets – one which will be familiar to any undergraduate student who has studied the dynasty – Bartlett and the BBC (no doubt prompted by the discovery of the body of Richard III, the ‘last Plantagenet’, in a Leicester car park in 2013) should be applauded for bringing the history of such a dynamic group of rulers to the attention of a public battered by the much better-known history of the Plantagenets’ successors, the Tudors. Enthusiasts have much to look forward to in the next programme, and can be assured that while the account given might at time lack the cutting edge of the newest research developments, it will be accurate, perceptive and engaging.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

An Un-Christian King? King John and the Lenten Fast

Temptation of Christ (England, early 13thC), BL, Arundel 157
With the season of Lent now in its second week, many people will be struggling to stick to their good intentions of avoiding a favourite treat for the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In our modern, largely secular world such resolutions often have little to do with religion. But for medieval Christians, Lent was a time of penitence and preparation for Easter, during which all healthy adults were expected to perform serious feats of fasting, including abstinence from all meat and other animal products. The season of Lent- still significant today, but at the heart of the medieval devotional calendar- therefore seems like an ideal time to examine the piety of an individual who has often been accused of being insufficiently pious, or even completely un-Christian: King John.

One oft-cited piece of evidence for John’s impiety comes from the Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis, a hagiographical account of the life of St Hugh, bishop of Lincoln (d.1200) which includes lengthy accounts of the saint’s encounters with the Plantagenet monarchs. Hugh’s meetings with John were apparently rather tense occasions, and matters came to a head at Easter 1200. First John hesitated over the customary offering at the altar on Easter Sunday:
His chamberlain placed in his palm the twelve gold pieces which are the customary oblation of kings. Surrounded by a large crowd of nobles, he stood in front of the bishop, gazing on the coins and playing with them, and delayed making his offering for so long a period, that everyone gaped at him in amazement. At last, the bishop, annoyed at such behaviour at this particular time and place, said, ‘Why do you look at them so intently?’ John answered, ‘I am looking at these gold pieces and thinking that if I had had them a few days ago I would have pocketed them, but now you can take them.’
Then the bishop began to preach, but the king was unimpressed by both the theme of the sermon and its length, and ‘sent someone three times to implore him earnestly to wind up his sermon and celebrate mass.’ Hugh ignored these impertinent requests, and continued with his (otherwise well-received) homily.
The prince, however, rejecting both foods (I mean- the word and the sacrament), was eager to fill his belly with meat, and cared not at all for the emptiness of his mind. Neither on Easter Day, nor the subsequent feast of the Ascension, did he receive the sacraments. His intimates declared that he had never done so since attaining to the years of discretion.
In this version of events, John is certainly not a pious man. But can we take Adam of Eynsham’s account at face value?

The circumstances in which the Magna Vita was composed make it a rather problematic source. Adam was writing towards the end of John’s reign, and clearly struggled to reconcile his knowledge of John’s behaviour in Hugh’s lifetime (i.e. during the years 1199-1200) with his opinion of the king as shaped by subsequent events. In order to do so, he invested Hugh with the power to foresee John’s subsequent descent into disastrous tyranny, and added scurrilous tales of un-Christian conduct.

By re-reading the text with this background in mind, it is possible to find hints that John was not as hostile to the celebration of Easter as Adam tried to suggest. Not only is John present at the Easter Mass, he also makes an offering and listens to the sermon- albeit reluctantly. He is eager to eat because he has observed ‘a prolonged fast’- hardly the action of an irreligious man. In such circumstances, all but the most devout Christians will surely sympathise with John’s reluctance to listen to a very long sermon!

In order to gain a less jaundiced view of John’s piety, we therefore need to consider the fragments of evidence which can be found elsewhere in the surviving sources for his reign. Given the centrality of Lent and Easter in the Christian calendar, the king’s attitude to this season might reasonably be expected to be representative of his religious beliefs, with three key behaviours being of particular interest: the observance of the Lenten fast, the giving of alms on Maundy Thursday, and the taking of communion on Easter Sunday.

John’s critics have pointed out that the king repeatedly failed to observe the conventional fast days- a serious lapse indeed in an age which considered the violation of the Friday fast as a clear rejection of the Christian faith. Two of John’s misae rolls (which record royal wardrobe expenditure) survive, those for 1209-10 and 1212-13. These record frequent payments for the feeding of large numbers of paupers in order to compensate for the king’s lapses. John’s failure to fast on Good Friday 1209 was a particularly grave offence, and thus 46s 10½ d was spent on feeding 500 paupers. Whether this expenditure signals genuine contrition or a rather cynical approach to spiritual affairs is impossible to say. But the lack of any payments for breaking the Lenten fast during 1210, 1212 or 1213, in combination with Eynsham’s evidence that John fasted in 1200, surely suggests that his decision to partake of fish and wine on Good Friday 1209 was something of an exceptional occurrence.

Nor was John’s Lenten almsgiving limited to penitential offerings; he also gave alms on Maundy Thursday. In 1210, John gave 13d, along with a set of clothing, to thirteen paupers. Then, on Maundy Thursday 1212, thirteen paupers each received thirteen pence. Arnold Kellet even suggested that the 1210 Maundy was the first example of a king carrying out what had conventionally been an ecclesiastical activity, although there is some evidence that members of the royal family (including Queen Matilda of Scotland and her mother, St Margaret) carried out Maundy-like ceremonies prior in the early twelfth century. Hence John may simply have been acting traditionally, rather than innovating. Either way, there is no evidence that he engaged in the most spiritual aspect of the Maundy ceremony, the foot-washing, a degrading act which was relished by both Henry III and Louis IX.

The question of whether John took communion at Easter, and thus spent Lent preparing himself to do so, is a tricky one, and can be tackled only through circumstantial evidence. Adam of Eynsham’s claim that the king never took communion is of extremely doubtful credibility, not least because John is known to have attended mass on several occasions. Gerald of Wales, for example, recorded that he once found the king at mass; John remained until the end of the service, and refused to discuss business until it was completed. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that John was an early enthusiast for the practice of confession: he confessed to Hubert Walter in 1202, and subsequently retained a pair of Cistercian abbots as his personal confessors. Since confession was usually a prelude to communion, this evidence seems suggestive. Indeed, there is no good reason to suppose that John deviated from the conventional practice of confessing and doing penance during Lent, in preparation for the Easter communion- although a cynic might suggest that John’s enthusiasm for confession stemmed not from his piety, but from his many sins.   

In their quest to prove that John was a bad king and a bad man, numerous commentators (both medieval and modern) have eagerly claimed that he was also a bad Christian. Yet whilst his religious activities pale into insignificance when considered alongside those of his son, the comparison is not an entirely fair one, since Henry III was surely one of the most pious individuals ever to sit on the English throne. Taken together, the fragments of evidence for John’s Lenten devotions seem to suggest that he was at least conventionally pious- a mediocre Christian, maybe, but a Christian nonetheless.
Further reading on royal piety in 13th C. England:
A. Kellett, ‘King John in Knaresborough: The First Known Royal Maundy’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 62 (1990), 69-90 
N. Vincent, ‘The pilgrimages of the Angevin kings of England, 1154-1272’ in C. Morris and P. Roberts (ed.), Pilgrimage: The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 12-45
N. Vincent, ‘King Henry III and the Blessed Virgin Mary’, Studies in Church History, 39 (2006), 126-14
M. Prestwich, ‘The Piety of Edward I’ in W. M. Ormrod (ed.), England in the Thirteenth Century (Grantham: Harlaxton College, 1985), pp. 120-8