by Michele Turfler
When King John of England and King Philip II of France met in January 1200 to negotiate terms, things had not been going well for John.
John ‘Lackland’, youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, had grown into a treacherous and suspicious man whose political acumen and military abilities continually fell short of his predecessors. He possessed Henry II’s passion for justice, restless energy, and keen administrative skills yet none of his father’s military prowess or his brother Richard’s innate ability to inspire loyalty and confidence. Years of family infighting over the distribution of the Angevin inheritance, failed military excursions into Ireland, and encouraging unscrupulous dealings with the French king had created an extensive track record of betrayal, cruelty, and vindictiveness.
John’s brother, the celebrated military leader King Richard, had died in early April 1199 while besieging a rebellious vassal at the castle of Chalus-Chabrol in Aquitaine. Richard’s untimely death without a designated heir created a huge dilemma for the nobles who possessed lands on both sides of the Channel. They were suddenly forced to decide between two less than ideal the candidates—Richard’s 31-year-old younger brother with a proven history of disloyalty and deceit or his 12-year-old nephew, Arthur, son of his elder brother Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany.
The barons in England, Normandy, and Poitou chose to support John while the counts of Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and Brittany, following the custom of primogeniture, preferred Arthur as the son of the elder brother. Unhappy after the years of heavy taxation, the barons appealed to Philip, also known as Philip Augustus, to help them shake off the burden of Plantagenet rule. The Capetian king happily took advantage of the succession crisis by supporting Arthur as the rightful heir to the vitally important border counties of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. These counties, in addition to a strategically important strip of land between Normandy and France known as Norman Vexin, were the nucleus of the Angevin Empire. Controlling this vital region was instrumental to the flow of communication and access to Normandy in the north or Poitou and Aquitaine in the south. Ownership disputes over land and castles in this region had been one of the major cause of the Angevin/Capetian feud since 1145.
Less than a month after his coronation at Westminster Abbey in May 1199, John returned to Normandy with a massive army, ready to resume the fight for Angevin lands on the continent. By late summer, he had confirmed the delicate alliances which Richard had established before his death, including the counts of Flanders and Blois. John’s forces were stronger than ever yet he was unable to pin down Philip’s army.
He then enjoyed an extraordinary stroke of luck. William des Roches was a successful knight and loyal friend who had fought along side John’s father and brother. Now seneschal of Anjou and defender of the key city of Le Mans, des Roches had come to regret his recent decision to back Arthur’s claim. So, in September 1199 William decided to switch sides. But, he didn’t just defect; he brought Arthur and his mother Constance with him. In one fell swoop, John had chased away his enemy and captured his nemesis. Unfortunately, John’s success was fleeting. Within hours of their submission, Arthur and his mother slipped away in the middle of the night, eventually finding safety at King Philip’s court.
As if the monumental loss of Arthur wasn’t enough, the start of the Fourth Crusade in November 1199 heralded a further decline in John’s fortunes. A great many of his allies who had sworn their allegiance a few months earlier, began to abandoned him in favor of taking the cross. His campaign had crumbled. No longer in a position to negotiate, he agreed to Philip’s terms during their meeting in January 1200.
Five months later, on May 22, 1200, King John of England and King Philip II of France added their seals to the Treaty of Le Goulet.
John agreed to cede the entire Norman Vexin and Evreux, another vital county bordering France and Normandy. John also consented to renounce his alliances with Flanders, Boulogne, and Burgundy, promising not to assist anyone acting against Philip.
In return, the Capetian king promised to stop supporting Arthur’s claim as well as encourage Arthur to do likewise.
Philip also agreed to acknowledge John as Richard’s rightful heir to Anjou, Touraine, and Maine with one noteworthy caveat; the king of England would have to pay homage to Philip Augustus for them, an act of feudal subservience which his father and brother had avoided whenever possible. In one final act of ignominy, John agreed to pay a relief of 20,000 marks, thereby formally recognizing France as his overlord.
Only Richard’s massive fortress Chateau Gaillard and the duchy of Aquitaine, which was his by rights through his mother, Eleanor, remained in English hands. The Treaty of Le Goulet was confirmed with the marriage of John’s niece, Blanche of Castile, the 16-year-old daughter of his sister Eleanor and her husband Alfonso XII, and Philip’s son, Prince Louis.
The Angevin succession dispute had finally been resolved. John was now recognized as Richard’s heir, Arthur was no longer a threat, and after years of struggle and burdensome taxation in both England and on the continent, he and the king of France were finally at peace. Yet not everyone was thrilled with the Treaty of Le Goulet. John was criticized for negotiating with Philip and for giving up on a war most believed his brother and father had been winning, earning him the nickname ‘Softsword’.
Before long, King John was stirring up more trouble. His selfish and defiant theft of, and subsequent marriage to, the already-betrothed Isabella of Angouleme on August 24, 1200 pushed her humiliated fiancé into open rebellion. Hugh Lusignan, the powerful count of La Marche, turned to Philip of France for help, demanding to face King John in court. Once again, Philip had outmaneuvered his opponent and gotten exactly what he wanted. Following years of excuses and delays, the reckless promises John made to Philip Augustus in the Treaty of Le Goulet came back to haunt him. As a vassal of the French crown, his refusal to appear in court gave Philip Augustus legal justification to invade Normandy and confiscate all of John’s continental lands.
By 1214, John was out of luck. A series of disasters which further damaged his reputation, including rumors that he murdered his nephew and his appalling treatment of hostages, left King John politically isolated and vulnerable. His hopes of rebuilding the Angevin Empire were crushed once and for all after a decisive French victory at the Battle of Bouvines.
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