English Channel, 1213AD.
John gnawed his knuckles when things upset him, and as he was easily upset, his knuckles were frequently his victims. His busy head was frequently preoccupied with kingly issues of status, money and power. If only his barons, Archbishop Langton and Pope Innocent III would simply do as he wished. After all, who was King?
Far away in Rome, papal politics were not dissimilar but often focussed on the need for John to do as the Pope, Innocent III wished. After all, who was Pope?
As a cardinal Stephen was familiar with how the papacy functioned. He would sometimes remark to Simon that in Rome:
‘Everything happens because of money, sex, status and power.’
Year after year the brothers tried to get Stephen back to England. They negotiated with men of money, status and power. The king and the papacy fielded their best representatives for these negotiations but they always failed. Only men had an input, females were not allowed or even considered.
Sex, that other powerful agent of change, did on the other hand permit a woman. The story of that woman made everything start to happen, slowly at first, like the first grudging motions of a large millstone powered by rushing water.
Because of that woman the two brothers were at last able to board the French ship Juliana bound for the port of Dover in England. There was a moderate breeze from the south west which would mean a lot of tacking but visibility was good and there was some sunshine. The ship was carrying a mixed cargo but predominantly barrels of wine which were much sought after by the English. At times Stephen had believed this voyage would never take place. Now the two brothers were standing near the bow of the ship, watching as last minute provisions were loaded.
‘I think that breeze is going to drop,’ said Stephen, ‘which is a nuisance, the journey will take longer.’
‘No,’ said Simon, stretching the short word into a long one. He turned to face the wind. ‘It is going to rain. Don’t forget you haven’t been on a ship for years.’
‘What’s that got to do with anything? I can see the weather,’ said Stephen slightly irritated.
‘Well I’ve been back and forward across this channel frequently, usually at your behest. In the end you get a feel for things,’ Simon said assuredly.
‘I think we should stay on deck for the journey,’ said Stephen changing the subject, ‘so we won’t be overheard. It wouldn’t surprise me if John had a spy on board.’
‘Me neither,’ said Simon. ‘The deck it is, at least until it rains,’ he added after a pause.
The fact that the brothers were now able to antagonise each other on board ship as well as on dry land was all achieved by the power of sex, in the shape of a girl. This particular girl was beautiful, very beautiful, by name of Matilda; her face was symmetrical, mathematically exact, perfectly proportioned without the slightest blemish, incapable of improvement. Her family, the FitzWalters were related to Margaret De Braose, the mother starved to death with her grown up son. They were also related to the brothers Stephen and Simon.
It doesn’t always pay to be too beautiful and perhaps the dark beauty of Matilda with her full lips which parted in a smile of lovely white teeth was in some ways too much. Her brown eyes seemed to sparkle even in the dimmest of light and a glimpse of her undulating body took residence in many a mind. It pleased him, when she was in King John’s presence and he stared at her for long periods.
As John made not the slightest attempt to disguise his interest in young Matilda, everyone was aware of his unremitting gaze. On one occasion when he passed down a corridor, he beckoned her to him and spoke seductively into her ear:
‘I could send your husband away to Bordeaux and we could be together.’
She made a very definite response to this proposition for she started retching and making noises as if vomiting; nothing actually fell from her mouth onto the floor. Her response may have been literally sick with fear or desperately manufactured to be off putting; it was not what the king had been hoping for and he swiftly moved off consumed with displeasure. John however was determined to have her and would not be swayed by any difficulties, such as her being married already. Why should one of his subjects have a better looking wife than he possessed? There were plenty of other women that the Earl, her husband could have, Matilda should be mistress to the king, as was his God given right.
A few weeks later, the king made an unannounced visit to Castle Baynard, her father’s residence, where Matilda was visiting. He demanded to speak with her alone, to ascertain if she would be a suitable hostage to attend his Queen. Young Matilda’s husband Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, was strikingly good looking, very likeable, a man who everybody loved. He was taken by surprise but he earnestly protested to the king:
‘You can’t take my wife as a hostage, my lord. I am not happy about that at all.’
Nevertheless the king insisted on an interview, saying it might not be necessary to take her at all, because she may not be required. All he wanted to do was talk to her about the Queen’s personal needs.’
He took the wretched woman by the arm and ushered her out of the main hall towards a side room. She looked back pleadingly to her husband.
‘Can’t you come to?’ she managed to exclaim, before the king pulled her into the room, causing her long dark hair to bob out behind her and jerk from one side to the other. The door shut fast behind them.
Little more than a minute had passed when Matilda’s father, Robert, entered the hall. He was a huge barrel chested man, so broad he couldn’t put his arms straight down by his side. He demanded where they were and when directed, he at once burst into the room, followed by his fretful son in law, Geoffrey. Robert saw the king on top of his struggling daughter, attempting to overcome her resistance.
‘You pig,’ Robert roared and seizing the king from his prone position by the scruff of the neck and the belt around his waist; with great force, he thrust the king headlong into a wall.
There was a tapestry hanging, depicting people sat on cushioned chairs. But the tapestry offered little real protection to the flying monarch. The side of John’s head hit the wall hard. He bounced off the wall and fell to the floor in a heap. Nevertheless sensing the danger he was in, he rose to his feet. No one had ever spoken to him like this before and no-one had dared to physically manhandle him. He had however, left himself vulnerable, without his men for he had dismissed them. Now, he was alone faced with two angry barons who wanted to kill him. The only question was: would they actually do it?
Initially it was strangely silent as the eyes of the king and those of his barons met in a glare of hatred. The momentary silence was broken by Matilda rushing out of the room in sobs of tears, the residue of the king’s flesh under her fingernails.
John, scratched and bruised, called out for his men, but then seconds later he decided to escape the danger and staggered out of the room. He was gone before anyone could respond to his cries for assistance. Within a handful of minutes the king and his men were riding away from Castle Baynard. John rode bent over, holding the reigns tightly down on the horse’s neck. In their haste to leave, he and his men had left some of their valuable possessions behind, not least the king’s dignity. Matilda was kept well away from the king after that, indeed she fervently hoped to never lay eyes on him again. But if FitzWalter and De Mandeville thought that was that, they were soon disabused. John was neither a forgiving man, nor a man ever to be thwarted for long. He was about to demonstrate his status and power.
A few weeks later, he announced he was going stag hunting in Savenake Forest near Marlborough, Wiltshire and he invited the two barons to attend. When summonsed, Robert and Geoffrey were very suspicious believing they were riding into a trap, but they equally considered that they couldn’t decline the king’s invitation. They took a party of six knights and the men attending them were capable fighting men themselves.
When the barons were being allocated their quarters, a servant picked a quarrel with Geoffrey and produced a long blade. Geoffrey however was not surprised being already on his guard; seizing his sword he made short work of killing the man. It was clearly a ploy, poorly conceived and with even worse execution; it had gone disastrously wrong. The commotion caused everyone to come running. There was a great deal of jostling and shouting. Eventually the king arrived, splendidly dressed befitting his status, in time to hear Geoffrey saying:
‘He attacked me; I was defending myself. See! He has a knife.’
The dead man did indeed have a clean knife by his side, which next to its owner’s blood-stained corpse now looked quite innocuous.
John now spoke, as if delivering a regal judgement. He seemed completely unsurprised by the tragedy, ‘If you have unjustly killed a man in our service it will be the gibbet for you.’
Hardly had the words left the king’s lips than Robert FitzWalter exploded with wrath:
‘You would hang my son-in-law? By God’s body you will not. You will see two thousand laced helms in your land before you hang him.’
John was shocked by this affront to his dignity and angrily advanced towards Robert. ‘Are you saying he should not face the royal court for his offence?’
‘Not at all,’ Robert replied. ‘I will produce him at the royal court for all scurrilous charges against him to be dismissed. Until then, my Lord we will take our leave of you and prepare for our next meeting’
With that said Robert FitzWalter, Geoffrey de Mandeville and their men retrieved their possessions and returned back up the road they had so recently travelled. They knew full well that, if the king could procure Geoffrey’s death, be it by murder, hanging or otherwise, the king would have Matilda at his mercy. A widow could not marry who she liked, she needed the king’s permission; it was plain to see how things would work out.
Robert at this point, thought of becoming part of the increasing number of refugees fleeing to Stephen Langton in France. The exodus of John’s enemies was no longer limited to just English, there were also Welsh princes and a few dispossessed Irish. The Welsh were greatly hampered in resisting John’s incursions into Wales by the fact that they were dispersed, in small rival principalities. Nevertheless from time to time the Welsh princes united sufficiently to revolt and launch swift raids on the English border lands.
Further Welsh incursions now took place, diverting John’s attention from the trial of the Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville. Honouring his undertaking to the king, Robert FitzWalter did produce his son-in-law for trial. He also produced fifty fully armed knights at the hearing to help make up the Sheriff’s mind. This must have proved helpful to the Sheriff, for he swiftly dismissed the charges and everyone returned home.
By the time of this happy resolution John had already marched north, to quell the Welsh revolt. With his millions of pennies he had large numbers of mercenaries and expensive equipment a few miles from the border. He was poised for conquest yet he retreated inland to a further muster at Nottingham Castle, some distance from the border. This was where he kept his Welsh hostages, far away from any sudden rescue bids. His opponents, the princes, had reasoned that they could revolt and then from a position of strength negotiate to swap hostages for peace.
John enraged by the Welsh duplicity demonstrated to them his status as their lord. He contemptuously ordered the sons of those princes to be hung from the castle walls until they were dead. There were twenty eight of them, dealt with one by one. The youths with nooses around their necks were thrown over the castle walls, paying the price for their fathers’ rebellion and John’s revenge. Most struggled for a short while, before becoming limp, their bodies left hanging there. Visible from a great distance, all could see the power of John displayed, he had the power of life and death. The youngest of the hostages was a boy called Hugh, who would never see his thirteenth birthday. With the messy business concluded, John was at last able to sit down, enjoy his food and drink wine, like any monarch might reasonably expect to do.
John now heard of the most awful thing that anyone could imagine and it made his cold blood run colder still. He was informed that there was a plot to kill him.
The plan was that when he went into battle against the fathers of his hostages, there would be a sudden retreat, abandoning him to be overwhelmed by the Welsh. This treacherous plot was said to be supported by many barons in the king’s army. The fermenter of the scheme was reported to be none other than Robert FitzWalter, the father of Matilda, his intended sexual conquest.
Forced to abandon his campaign in Wales because he couldn’t trust his own army, he now had no handle of control on the Welsh as he had eliminated his hostages. There were moments when he wished them alive again so that he could use the threat of death hanging over them. Far more seriously, John was now terrified for his own life. Robert FitzWalter had fled to France so he was no longer a present threat. However he had strengthened Stephen’s group of exiles poised for a return. There were also plenty of other barons still in England who wished the king ill. He had almost as many enemies as barons; any one of them could prove deceitful and treacherously slay him. He could only place his trust in his expensive mercenaries who were certainly loyal but only as long as there were pennies to pay them.
When he looked at his army of barons he could see the faces of traitors everywhere, they could turn on him in an instant. Suddenly he was unable to fight in battle fearing retribution with every step he took. What looked like an army might be a mob of assassins. John now had nowhere to turn, he couldn’t control the Welsh, he couldn’t confront his barons and his revenue raising demands would be resisted. He reconciled himself to the reality that he now needed backing from the church. He would have to make peace and allow Stephen Langton into England to be Archbishop of Canterbury. If the interdict was over and he was absolved it would be more difficult for the barons to withhold taxes. He had also heard from his spies that Simon Langton had been to the court of King Philip of France. The last thing John wanted now was the French to invade and try and topple him from the throne.
John now demanded hostages from any barons suspected of involvement in the plot. At the same time he strove to appear conciliatory; he made promises, was forgiving and reasonable, trying to placate everybody. Hostages from baronial families were no longer held by the king but guarded by friends of the barons – John was losing control.
With everything now going from bad to worse John marched back to London. His money had been wasted, his status diminished and his power challenged by the traitor FitzWalter. John consoled himself with the other powerful motivator; soon he would be able to enjoy sex with his traitorous baron’s daughter Matilda.
It had better be worth it.