From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
[When Richard I died] There was another claimant to the throne in the person of the twelve year old Arthur of Brittany, the posthumous son of Geoffrey, a brother who had come between Richard and John. Both England and Normandy, not without hesitation, acknowledged John's claim; and in England he was formally elected, Hubert Walter became chancellor, and while he lived co-operated with the justiciar Geoffrey FitzPeter. But Arthur's mother, Constance, claimed for him Anjou and Maine, as well as Brittany, encouraged by Philip of France.
Aquitaine in the meantime indubitably belonged to the old queen-mother Eleanor, whose marriage with Henry II while he was still only Count of Anjou had associated it with the Angevin dominion, John stirred up a host of enemies by divorcing his wife Isabella of Gloucester, whose name is commonly given as Hadwisa, on a plea of consanguinity, and. marrying another Isabel, of Angouleme, in spite of her being betrothed to Hugo of Lusignan.
Out of these embroilments Philip of France meant to get his own advantage by giving his support wherever there was most to be gained, though always professedly acting in accordance with feudal law.
The Lusignans formed a party; revolts spread among John's French vassals of various sorts intervened as suzerain and mediator; trickery was answered by trickery; and when Philip thought himself strong enough he summoned John to appear before him to answer charges brought against him in his capacity as Duke of Aquitaine. John refused to appear and Philip declared his fiefs forfeited.
Normandy Philip meant to keep for himself; for the rest of the Angevin dominion he recognised the rights of Arthur. Arthur attacked Aquitaine and besieged the queen mother. For once John exerted the military ability which he really possessed, swooped upon Arthur by a brilliantly rapid march, and captured him with all his company.
He had the game in his own hands, and lost it by murdering Arthur as every one believed, and treating cithers of his captives with a brutality which alienated numbers who would otherwise have supported him.
Philip flung himself against Normandy, and John's English barons refused to fight for him. By the midsummer of 1204 Normandy was irrevocably lost. By the end of the year Gascony, which was bound to England by trade interests, was all that was left to John of the Angevin inheritance except a part of Poitou.
While John was losing Normandy and most of his other territories, matters went tolerably smoothly in England itself under the government of Geoffrey FitzPeter and Hubert Walter, John insisted upon exactions which were excessive and of doubtful legality. But the justiciar made politic concessions, sometimes to powerful barons, sometimes to a section of the clergy, and sometimes to the towns.
The charters and trading rights granted to the last served for a long time to keep them royalist, when the baronage had already been goaded into an attitude of open opposition to the Crown, The obstinate refusal of the baronage to follow John from France made the success of his cause impossible there, though probably in any case he would have compassed his own ruin.
In 1205 the death of Hubert Walter opened the second phase of King John's reign, the struggle with the papacy. For John it was unfortunate that the most powerful and the most uncompromising of all the Popes Innocent III, now occupied the papal throne. The king's nominee for the archbishopric vacated by Hubert Walter's death was John de Grey, Bishop of Lincoln.
The actual right of election lay with the Chapter of Canterbury; but the bishops of the province had in practice claimed to participate and the king had in practice an effective power of control. The Chapter did not want John de Grey, but some of them at least would have preferred to avoid a quarrel with the king and the bishops.
A hot-headed section however, held a secret and irregular election, chose their sub-prior and hurried him off to Rome to obtain papal confirmation of the election. The facts leaked out while he was on his journey. The other party in the Chapter hastened to make their peace with the king by electing John de Grey in conjunction with the bishops.
De Grey went off to Rome to procure his own confirmation. Innocent took the view that both the elections were highly irregular, and he invited the king to send to Rome a commission of the Canterbury Chapter with authority to make a new election.
When the commission arrived, Innocent, having set aside the two previous elections invited them to adopt a nominee of his own, Cardinal Stephen Langton. The commission obeyed; and now every one concerned except Stephen Langton himself, including the Pope, had behaved irregularly, though there was no question of Langton's fitness for the office, and Innocent had believed that the appointment would be acceptable to the king.
John wanted his own creature and flung defiance at the Pope; the Pope retorted by taking the high ground of his supreme authority as the successor of St. Peter. John seized the Canterbury estates, and the monks withdrew or were driven into exile.
The Pope threatened an interdict. John offered submission with a saving clause; Innocent would listen to no saving clause.- John proclaimed that if the interdict were issued he would forfeit the estates of every ecclesiastic who obeyed it. Innocent pronounced the interdict, and the clergy obeyed it. Practically the king and the king's officers on the one side declared war on the clergy, while the clergy on the other side closed the churches.
Stephen Langton, now accepted as Archbishop of Canterbury, and Geoffrey FitzPeter, were anxious to turn the new situation to account by efforts to restore the kingdom to its normal condition, and to remedy the abuses which had increased and multiplied while the quarrel with the papacy was in progress. But John had other views.
Philip of France had protested loudly that he would not give up at the Pope's dictation the project of deposing John in favour of his own son, which he had taken in hand by the Pope's desire. But immediately after the reconciliation an English fleet had fallen upon the French ships, destroyed large numbers of them, and captured some hundreds with quantities of stores.
For anything like invasion Philip was temporarily paralysed. Nevertheless, John's first desire was to pursue a vindictive policy. Continental powers, including the Emperor Otto, were ready to join in an alliance for the overthrow of the French king.
The English baronage, however, would have nothing to say to a renewal of the French war. They mistrusted John as a soldier; they knew that he had before collected vast sums of money, ostensibly for military; purposes, which were thrown away in extravagance and mismanagement. John raged, but in the face of their stolidity be was helpless.
Resolved to vent his wrath upon some one, he started for the North, intending to exact penalties from the northern barons for their recalcitrance. Stephen Langton followed him, with threats even of renewing the excommunication if he persisted.
An assembly was called at St. Albans by Geoffrey FitzPeter, where the proposal was perhaps made that the charter of Henry I should be laid before John for ratification. Constitutional resistance to unconstitutional action was taking shape. And then the old justiciar, who, like Hubert Walter, had in some sense stood between the Crown and the barons,' died.
Both those men had been loyal supporters of the Crown, but had exercised a restraining influence on John himself while endeavouring to conciliate the interests which it was most dangerous to outrage.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.