King John and Dover

 King John Window in the Council Chamber, Maison Dieu. Alan Sencicle.

King John Window in the Council Chamber, Maison Dieu. Alan Sencicle.

King John (1199-1216) is particularly remembered as being forced to sign the Magna Carta by the Barons of England on the 15 June 1215. In reality, the King did not sign it but attached his seal which confirmed his endorsement.  Yet in Dover, until the late Victorian local historians bent to the prevailing national view, the King was held in high esteem. Indeed,  21 March 2013 was the date celebrated as this was the anniversary of John summoning his forces to Dover and three days later paying homage to the Pope’s Legate in or near the town. For centuries this was a seen as a positive significant event that put Dover firmly on the map of the nation’s history. Shortly after John died, Hubert de Burgh (1160-1243) carried out his wishes for which Dover was given the accolade, ‘Key to the Gate of England.

John was the youngest of five sons of the strong willed Henry II (1154–1189) and his equally formidable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (circa 1122–1204). Henry started the building of the magnificent Dover Castle to impress visitors to his court that England was the power base for the Angevin Empire that Henry had pulled together. Besides England, his empire included the eastern half of Ireland and much of the western part of France.

As was the custom in those days, it was expected that on Henry’s death the empire would be divided between his sons. However, as the youngest, John was not expected to inherit much. Indeed, his father jokingly called him ‘Lackland’.

Henry II - Worcester Cathedral Cloisters

Henry II – Worcester Cathedral Cloisters

John was born on Christmas Eve 1166 by which time his eldest brother, William (1153-1156), was dead. The second eldest, Henry the Younger (1155-1183) was the heir apparent and was given the titular title King of England in 1170. John, his brother Richard (1157-1199) and their mother, Eleanor, were unhappy over this and they organised a revolt against Henry in 1183. During the campaign, Henry the Younger contracted dysentery and died.

The third brother in line, Geoffrey (1158-1186) was fond of jousting and died in 1186 following a tournament. Thus, when Henry II died in 1189 only Richard and John remained of the legitimate sons, along with a grandson, Arthur (1187-1203), son of Geoffrey.

Dover Castle

Dover Castle

Richard, as the eldest ascended the throne, but he had previously declared his intention of joining the Third Crusade to which he still felt committed. On 1 December 1189, he signed a new Charter for Dover and two weeks later embarked for the Holy Land. His army consisted of 4,000 men-at-arms, 4,000 foot-soldiers, and a fleet of 100 ships, which he paid for by selling official posts to the highest bidders. The most senior civil post was that of Chancellor, who would also act as Regent while the King was away. William Longchamp (d 1197), from Normandy, whose sister, Richeut, had married the Captain of Dover Castle, paid £3,000 for the privilege. Longchamp was also appointed Bishop of Ely and the Pope’s legate.

The country’s leading Barons resented Longchamp’s appointment, which enabled John to successfully mount a challenge. In Dover, Longchamp had already raised a great deal of hostility with regard to the treatment of Henry II’s illegitimate son, Geoffrey Plantagenet (circa 1152-1212), Archbishop of York. When the Archbishop arrived in the town from France, Longchamp’s brother-in-law ordered his arrest. Geoffrey sought asylum in Dover Priory but Longchamp’s men dragged him to Dover Castle. Soon after John gained power, Geoffrey returned to France and Longchamp tried to escape to France dressed as woman.

While waiting for a ship on Dover beach, Longchamp was approached by a fisherman who tried to have his way with Longchamp; that is, until he realised Longchamp was a man! The fisherman’s yells attracted a large crowd and when it was realised that it was Longchamp, he was dragged through the town in the same way as Geoffrey had been. Their stories are told in this author’s book, Haunted Dover.

Richard, in the meantime, was earning the accolade ‘Lionheart in the Crusade, but just before Christmas 1192 the King was captured near Vienna and held hostage by Leopold V, Duke of Austria. Longchamp negotiated a ransom payment of 100,000 marks and Richard was freed on 4 February 1194. The pair returned to England through Sandwich, but Longchamp never regained any of his previous powers and died in France in 1197.

Hit by a crossbow arrow Richard died on 6 April 1199, John ascended the throne with the support of his mother, Eleanor, although Arthur laid claim. For much of Richard’s reign disputes over the Angevin Empire had drained the coffers, the main protagonist being Philip II of France (1180-1223). John made a compact with Philip in 1200, which brought two years of peace and although much maligned even today, John (1199-1216) still faced formidable opposition from the religious and baronial establishments in England. The latter were divided into two separate factions, one side did recognise John as King by England and Normandy but a rival fraction supported the claim of his nephew Arthur. To aid his cause, Arthur held his grandmother hostage but John’s forces rescued Eleanor. He also took Arthur prisoner but in the meantime lost Normandy to France.

Hubert de Burg - Kingsford Window, Stone Hall, Maison Dieu. Alan Sencicle.

Hubert de Burg – Kingsford Window, Stone Hall, Maison Dieu. Alan Sencicle.

Under the guard of Hubert de Burgh and then Sir William de Braose (1140/1150-1211) Arthur disappeared about April 1203 believed murdered. According to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), de Burgh had his eyes burnt out. At about the time of Arthur’s disappearance, de Burgh was appointed Constable of Dover Castle, a post he held until 1232, except for occasional short periods. In 1203, de Burgh, with John’s blessing, founded the Maison Dieu as a hospital for pilgrims from the Continent. An increasing number were making their way to Thomas Becket’s (circa 1118-1170) shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.  Of note, John’s father, Henry II, was the cause of Becket’s death. 

The Barons were united in one respect, they wanted full autonomy over their individual estates, castles and armies but John, in order to try and augment the country’s depleted coffers, increased taxation. In response, they called on  Philip of France to invade England in the belief that he would give them the autonomy they desired. John called for the help of the Cinque Ports Fleet and they took their role seriously, for not only did they sink many French ships and pillaged French towns on the pretext that the percentage of the bounty given to the King helped to increase England’s defences. This was used to finish the work that his father had started on the fortifications of  Dovers Castle by completing the Keep, most of the bailey and some of the curtain wall. Regardless of the share of booty that the Portsmen were giving to John, the Castle and other fortifications required more money and John was obliged to raise of taxes. Of note, as a by-product, helped to increase Dover’s wealth.

Maison Dieu - 1830

Maison Dieu – 1830

Eleanor, John’s main ally, died in April 1204 and the following year the Archbishop of Canterbury died. Traditionally, the King made the appointments but successive popes had increasingly exerted their power for that right. Nonetheless, John appointed one of his supporters, the Bishop of Norwich, while Pope Innocent III’s (1198-1216) stated preference was Stephen Langton (1150-1228), whom he consecrated in June 1207. John refused to accept the appointment resulting in an altercation. This came to a head in November 1209 and John was excommunicated. .

Following the excommunication it was expected by the Pope, Philip of France and John’s enemies among the English Barons that his subjects would rise up and overthrow John, but this did not happen. The Pope, who officially supported Philip’s activities that included the invasion of England, recognised that a compromise would be diplomatic and so relaxed many of the strictures he had imposed. These included allowing monastic communities to celebrate mass in private and at burials. In return, in November 1212 John informed Innocent III that he would accept the Pope’s terms that he had previously refused.

 Cinque Port ship- c13th Century

Cinque Port ship- c13th Century

During this time John had been building up his maritime resources appointing William of Wrotham (d 1217) Keeper of the Galleys in 1209. Wrotham brought together the Cinque Ports Fleet with pressed merchant vessels to effectively create a Royal Navy. Changes in ship design were instigated including removable forecastles during combat. To pay for these and other expenses, John introduced judicial reforms. These had a lasting, positive, impact on the English common law system but, at the time, caused a great deal of ill feeling by the country’s powerful Barons.

Towards the end of 1212, John set up camp with 60,000 men on Barham Downs. Then, on 21 March 1213, he summoned his Barons and Military tenants to the Maison Dieu and three days later he met Pandulph (d 1226), the papal legate and a known ecclesiastical politician, at the Templar Church, probably in Temple Ewell.

A second meeting with Pandulph was arranged and this took place on the eve of Ascension Day 1213. There, John paid homage to the Pope and issued a Charter, witnessed by several leading Barons. In it, the King stated that he acknowledged Innocent III as his overlord for the whole kingdoms of England and Ireland and promised to pay a tribute of 1,000 marks a year. A small price to pay to win the Pope’s allegiance if Philip of France decided to invade.

Round Church, Braddon, Western Heights. Dover Museum

Round Church, Braddon, Western Heights. Dover Museum

Although recent researchers discount the Round Chapel at Braddon on Western Heights as the venue, according to the Charter, the location was ‘apud domum militum Templi juxta Doveram.’ This was interpreted by the antiquarian, William Lambarde (1536–1601) and subsequent historians as the Templar Church on Dover’s Western Heights. Albeit, it was more likely to have been the Templars’ House at Temple Ewell.

In the meantime, Philip’s son, Dauphin Louis (1187-1226 later Louis VIII 1223-1226), invaded Flanders. This was a precursor to invading England and the Dauphin claiming the throne – he was married to a granddaughter of Henry II. John responded with his new navy and the French were routed at the Battle of Damme (30-31 May 1213). Philip and Louis withdrew.

Faversham Magna Carta. AS 2015

Faversham Magna Carta. AS 2015

However, unrest, particularly in the north of England and Wales led to a revolt against John in 1212. Although put down, discontent continued. On the Continent, at the battle of Bouvines on 27 July 1214, John was defeated; this acted as a catalyst for the Barons to rebel. A peace treaty was agreed by John attaching his seal to the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. At the same time, de Burgh was appointed the Chief Justicular of England. In 1630, a copy of the Magna Carta was found at the Castle that was attributed as de Burgh’s copy.

Neither John or the Barons kept their promises and civil war broke out with the Barons inviting Louis to take the throne. A storm had wrecked the Cinque Ports Fleet so John was forced to watch as the usurper landed at Dover on 14 May 1216, virtually unopposed. The King left for Winchester leaving de Burgh and 140 men to defend the now well-fortified Dover Castle.

Louis and his army marched to London, where the Barons welcomed him and most of Southern England fell to Louis, but Dover people remained resolute. The Dauphin returned, taking the Mayor – Solomon de Dovre – and some Jurats hostage and burning the town knowing that once he had taken Dover Castle, the country was his.

 Kings Gate with the North Ramparts behind, from the Keep, Dover Castle

Kings Gate with the North Ramparts behind, from the Keep, Dover Castle

The French soldiers camped in the area of today’s Laureston Place, known as Uphill and a siege ensued. Almost starving, de Burgh and his men still held out fighting off the Dauphin’s men they tried to undermine the Castle’s North Rampart Walls in order to gain entry, but failed. Famously, de Burgh was reported as saying: ‘I will not surrender; as long as I draw breath I will never resign to French aliens this Castle, which is the very key to the gate of England!’ Louis called a truce on 19 October 1216, when, so the story goes, John de Pencester – after whom Pencester Gardens were named – arrived with reinforcements. However, King John, had contracted dysentery, died during the night of 18-19 October and was buried in Worcester Cathedral.

Tomb of King John, Worcester Cathedral

Tomb of King John, Worcester Cathedral

The French, with a massive contingent of re-enforcements set sail to invade England. Secretly leaving the Castle in the hands of his deputy, de Burgh joined the Portsmen and set sail with the Cinque Ports Fleet to take the armada on. At the Battle of Dover on 24 August 1217 the Cinque Ports Fleet, under the command of Hubert de Burgh, routed the French Navy and prevented the invasion of England! Throughout all of John’s troubles, Dover and de Burgh remained loyal to him and to his successor, the infant Henry III (1216-1272). In return, they left Dover with a heritage to be proud of. Yet local historians, like the national ones, vilify King John?!

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 21 & 28 March 2013
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About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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