First Barons' War

Last updated

First Barons' War
John of England vs Louis VIII of France.jpg
King John of England (left) in battle with the French under Prince Louis VIII of France (right)

English victory

Royal Arms of England (1198-1340).svg Kingdom of England
Commanders and leaders

The First Barons' War (1215–1217) was a civil war in the Kingdom of England in which a group of rebellious major landowners (commonly referred to as barons) led by Robert Fitzwalter waged war against King John of England. The conflict resulted from King John's disastrous wars against King Philip II of France, which led to the collapse of the Angevin Empire, and John's subsequent refusal to accept and abide the "Magna Carta", which he had sealed on 15 June 1215.


The rebellious barons, faced with an uncompromising king, turned to King Philip's son, Prince Louis, who, in 1216, then sailed to England with an army despite his father's disapproval, as well as the Pope's, who subsequently excommunicated him. Louis captured Winchester and soon controlled over half of the English kingdom. [1] He was proclaimed "King of England" in London by the barons, although never actually crowned.

Louis' ambitions of ruling England faced a major setback in October 1216 when King John's death led to the rebellious barons deserting him in favour of John's nine-year-old son, Henry III of England and the war dragged on. Louis' army was finally beaten at the Battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1217. And, after a fleet assembled by his wife, Blanche of Castile, attempting to bring him French reinforcements was defeated off the coast of Sandwich on 24 August 1217, he was forced to make peace on English terms. He signed the Treaty of Lambeth and surrendered the few remaining castles he held. The effect of the treaty was that Prince Louis agreed he had never been the legitimate king of England. This formalised the end of the civil war and the departure of the French from England. [2]


King John in June 1215 was forced to put his seal to "The Articles of the Barons" by a group of powerful barons who could no longer stand John's failed leadership and despotic rule. The king's Great Seal was attached to it on 15 June 1215. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on 19 July 1215. A formal document to record the agreement was created by the royal chancery on 15 July: this was the original Magna Carta . "The law of the land" is one of the great watchwords of Magna Carta, standing in opposition to the king's mere will.

The Magna Carta of 1215 contained clauses which in theory noticeably reduced the power of the king, such as clause 61, the "security clause". This clause allowed a group of 25 barons to override the king at any time by way of force, [3] [4] a medieval legal process called distraint that was normal in feudal relationships but had never been applied to a king. After a few months of half-hearted attempts to negotiate in the summer of 1215, open warfare broke out between the rebel barons and the king and his supporters.

Course of events

French intervention

The war began over Magna Carta but quickly turned into a dynastic war for the throne of England. The rebel barons, faced with a powerful king, turned to Louis, son and heir apparent of King Philip II of France and grandson-in-law of King Henry II of England. The Norman invasion had occurred only 149 years before, and the relationship between England and France was not so simply adversarial as it later became. The contemporary document called the annals of Waverley sees no contradiction in stating that Louis was invited to invade in order to "prevent the realm being pillaged by aliens."

At first, in November 1215, Louis simply sent the barons a contingent of knights to protect London. However, even at that stage he also agreed to an open invasion, despite discouragement from his father and from Pope Innocent III. This came in May 1216, when watchmen on the coast of Thanet detected sails on the horizon, and on the next day, the King of England and his armies saw Louis's troops disembark on the coast of Kent.

John decided to escape to the Saxon capital of Winchester, and so Louis had little resistance on his march to London. He entered London, also with little resistance, and was openly received by the rebel barons and citizens of London and proclaimed (though not crowned) king at St Paul's Cathedral. Many nobles gathered to give homage to him, including Alexander II of Scotland, who held fiefs in England.

Many of John's supporters, sensing a tide of change, moved to support the barons. Gerald of Wales remarked: "The madness of slavery is over, the time of liberty has been granted, English necks are free from the yoke."

In pursuit of John, Louis led his army south from London on 6 June, arriving the following day in Reigate where he found the castle abandoned. He moved onwards to Guildford Castle on 8 June, which surrendered immediately. Farnham Castle initially closed its gates, but then it too surrendered as the French started to lay siege. He only met resistance when he reached Winchester Castle on 14 June – it fell after a ten-day siege. Louis' campaign continued and by July about a third of England was under his control. [5]

First siege of Dover

In the meantime, the King of France taunted his son for trying to conquer England without first seizing its key port: Dover. The royal castles at Canterbury and Rochester, their towns, and indeed, most of Kent had already fallen to Louis but when he did move on to Dover Castle on 25 July it was prepared. Its constable, Hubert de Burgh, had a well-supplied garrison of men.[ citation needed ]

The first siege began on 19 July, with Louis taking the high ground to the north of the castle. His men successfully undermined the barbican and attempted to topple the castle gate, but De Burgh's men managed to repel the invaders, blocking the breach in the walls with giant timbers. (After the siege the weak northern gate was blocked and tunnels were built in that area, to St John's Tower, and the new Constable's Gate and Fitzwilliam's Gate.) In the meantime Louis's occupation of Kent was being undermined by a guerrilla force of Wealden archers raised and led by William of Cassingham.

After three months spent besieging the castle, and with a large part of his forces diverted by the siege, Louis called a truce on 14 October and soon after returned to London.

Sieges of Windsor and Rochester

Apart from Dover, the only castle to hold out against Louis was that at Windsor, where 60 loyalist knights survived a two-month siege, despite severe damage to the structure of its lower ward (immediately repaired in 1216 by Henry III, who further strengthened the defences with the construction of the western curtain wall, much of which survives today). This is possibly due to its having been already besieged by the barons in 1189, less than 30 years earlier.

In 1206, John had spent £115 [lower-alpha 1] on repairs to Rochester Castle, and he had even preemptively held it during the year of the negotiations leading up to Magna Carta , but the Charter's terms had forced him to hand it back into the custody of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in May 1215. The rebel barons had then sent troops under William d'Aubigny to the castle, to whom its constable Reginald de Cornhill opened the castle's gates. Thus, during October 1215 on his marching from Dover to London, John found Rochester in his way and on 11 October began besieging it in person.

The round tower (centre) and two square towers (left and right) of Rochester Castle. Rochester Castle, Kent - - 1582414.jpg
The round tower (centre) and two square towers (left and right) of Rochester Castle.

The rebels were expecting reinforcements from London but John sent fire ships out to burn their route in, the city's bridge over the Medway. Robert Fitzwalter rode out to stop the king, fighting his way onto the bridge but eventually being beaten back into the castle. John also sacked the cathedral, took anything of value and stabled his horses in it, all as a slight to Langton. Orders were then sent to the men of Canterbury.

Five siege engines were then erected and work carried out to undermine the curtain wall. By one of these means the king's forces entered and held the bailey in early November, and began attempting the same tactics against the keep, including undermining the south-east tower. The mine-roof was supported by wooden props, which were then set alight using pig-fat. On 25 November 1215 John had sent a writ to the justiciars saying "Send to us with all speed by day and night, forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating so that we may bring fire beneath the castle". [6] The fire thus created caused one entire corner of the keep to collapse. The rebels withdrew behind the keep's cross-wall but still managed to hold out. A few were allowed to leave the castle but on John's orders had their hands and feet lopped off as an example.

Winter was now setting in, and the castle was taken on 30 November by starvation and not by force. John set up a memorial to the pigs and a gallows with the intention of hanging the whole garrison, but one of his captains (Savari de Mauléon) persuaded him not to hang the rebels since hanging those who had surrendered would set a precedent if John ever surrendered – only one man was actually hanged (a young bowman who had previously been in John's service). The remainder of the rebel barons were taken away and imprisoned at various royal-held castles, such as Corfe Castle. Of the siege, the Barnwell chronicler wrote "No one alive can remember a siege so fiercely pressed and so manfully resisted" and that, after it, "There were few who would put their trust in castles".

Death of King John

On 18 October 1216, John contracted dysentery, which would ultimately prove fatal. [7] [8] He died at Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire, and with him the main reason for the fighting. Louis now seemed much more of a threat to baronial interests than John's nine-year-old son, Prince Henry.

John had killed Prince Arthur son of his late elder brother Geoffrey during the struggles for the throne, with Princess Eleanor sister of Arthur imprisoned. In his will, John ordered Eleanor never be released; despite being an adult, with her claim ignored she remained in prison.

Pierre des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and a number of barons rushed to have the young Henry be crowned as King of England. London was held by Louis (it was his seat of government) and therefore could not be used for this coronation so, on 28 October 1216, they brought the boy from the castle at Devizes to Gloucester Abbey in front of a small attendance presided over by a Papal Legate, Guala Bicchieri (d. 1227, Bishop of Vercelli, papal legate in England 1216–18). They crowned Henry with a necklace of gold.

On 12 November 1216 Magna Carta was reissued in Henry's name with some of the clauses omitted, including clause 61. The revised charter was sealed by the young king's regent William Marshal. A great deal of the country was loyal to Prince Louis, with the southwest of England and the Midlands favouring Henry. Marshal was highly respected and he asked the barons not to blame the child Henry for his father's sins. The prevailing sentiment, helped by self-interest, disliked the idea of depriving a boy of his inheritance. Marshal also promised that he and the other regents would rule by Magna Carta. Furthermore, he managed to get support from the Pope, who had already excommunicated Louis.

Louis' losses

The Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. BitvaLincoln1217.jpg
The Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217.

William Marshal slowly managed to get most barons to switch sides from Louis to Henry and attack Louis. The two opposing sides fought for about a year. On 6 December 1216 Louis took Hertford Castle but allowed the defending knights to leave with their horses and weapons. He then took Berkhamsted Castle in late December, again allowing the royal garrison to withdraw honourably with their horses and weapons.

By early 1217, Louis decided to return to France for reinforcements. He had to fight his way to the south coast through loyalist resistance in Kent and Sussex, losing part of his force in an ambush at Lewes, with the remainder pursued to Winchelsea and were only saved from starvation by the arrival of a French fleet.

Since the truce had been arranged with Dover, the Dover garrison had repeatedly disrupted Louis's communication with France, and so Louis sailed back to Dover to begin a second siege. The French camp set up outside Dover Castle in anticipation of the new siege was attacked and burned by William of Cassingham just as the fleet carrying the reinforcements arrived. Louis was forced to land at Sandwich and march to Dover, where he began a second siege in earnest on 12 May 1217. This new siege diverted so much of Louis's forces that Marshal and Falkes de Breauté were able to attack and heavily defeat pro-Louis barons at Lincoln Castle on 15 May or 20 May 1217, in what became known as the Second Battle of Lincoln.

Marshal prepared for a siege against London next. In the meantime, Louis suffered two more heavy defeats, this time at sea, at the Battle of Dover and Battle of Sandwich in the Straits of Dover, this time at the hands of William's ally and Dover's constable Hubert de Burgh. Louis' new reinforcement convoy, under Eustace the Monk, was destroyed, making it nearly impossible for Louis to continue fighting.


After a year and a half of war, most of the rebellious barons had defected. [9] As a result of this and the defeat of the French in 1217, Louis was forced to negotiate. A few of Henry's supporters held out for unconditional surrender, but the Earl of Pembroke successfully argued for the more moderate terms.

At the Treaty of Lambeth which was signed on 11 September 1217, Louis had to give up his claim to be the King of England and agreed he had never been the legitimate king. The principal provisions of the treaties were an amnesty for English rebels, nevertheless the barons who had joined Louis were made to pay the French prince 10,000 marks to expedite his withdrawal. Louis surrendered the few remaining castles that he had held, and exhorted to his allies; Scottish and Welsh troops under Alexander II and Llywelyn the Great respectively to lay down their arms. Louis also undertook not to attack England again. [10]


See also

Related Research Articles

Magna Carta English charter of rights, first agreed in 1215

Magna Carta Libertatum, commonly called Magna Carta, is a royal charter of rights agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. First drafted by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton to make peace between the unpopular king and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. Neither side stood behind their commitments, and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons' War.

Louis VIII of France King of France from 1223 to 1226

Louis VIII, nicknamed The Lion, was King of France from 1223 to 1226. From 1216 to 1217, he invaded and claimed the Kingdom of England. Louis participated in the Albigensian Crusade in southern France, driving it to its successful and deadly conclusion. He was the only surviving son of King Philip II of France by his first wife, Isabelle of Hainaut, from whom he inherited the County of Artois.

Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent

Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent was an English nobleman who served as Chief Justiciar of England and Ireland during the reigns of King John and of his infant son and successor King Henry III and, as a consequence, was one of the most influential and powerful men in English politics.

Roger Bigod, 2nd Earl of Norfolk

Roger Bigod was the son of Hugh Bigod, 1st Earl of Norfolk and his first wife, Juliana de Vere. Although his father died 1176 or 1177, Roger did not succeed to the earldom of Norfolk until 1189 for his claim had been disputed by his stepmother for her sons by Earl Hugh in the reign of Henry II. Richard I confirmed him in his earldom and other honours, and also sent him as an ambassador to France in the same year. Roger inherited his father's office as royal steward. He took part in the negotiations for the release of Richard from prison, and after the king's return to England became a justiciar.

Reginald de Braose

Reginald de Braose was one of the sons of William de Braose, 4th Lord of Bramber and Matilda, also known as Maud de St. Valery and Lady de la Haie. Her other children included William and Giles.

Robert de Ros (died 1227)

Sir Robert de Ros was an Anglo-Norman feudal baron, soldier and administrator who was one of the twenty-five barons appointed under clause 61 of the 1215 Magna Carta agreement to monitor its observance by King John of England.

William Marshal, 2nd Earl of Pembroke

William Marshal, 2nd Earl of Pembroke was a medieval English nobleman and was one of Magna Carta sureties. He fought during the First Barons' War and was present at the Battle of Lincoln (1217) alongside his father William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, who led the English troops in that battle. He commissioned the first biography of a medieval knight to be written, called L'Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, in honour of his father.

Robert Fitzwalter

Robert Fitzwalter was the leader of the baronial opposition against King John, and one of the twenty-five sureties of Magna Carta. He was feudal baron of Little Dunmow, Essex and constable of Baynard's Castle, in London, to which was annexed the hereditary office of castellain and chief banneret of the City of London. Part of the official aristocracy created by Henry I and Henry II, he served John in the wars in Normandy, in which he was taken prisoner by King Philip II of France and forced to pay a heavy ransom.

William dAubigny (rebel)

William d'Aubigny or D'Aubeney or d'Albini, Lord of Belvoir was a prominent member of the baronial rebellions against King John of England.

Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester

Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester and 1st Earl of Lincoln (1170–1232), known in some references as the 4th Earl of Chester, was one of the "old school" of Anglo-Norman barons whose loyalty to the Angevin dynasty was consistent but contingent on the receipt of lucrative favours. He has been described as "almost the last relic of the great feudal aristocracy of the Conquest".

Falkes de Breauté Anglo-Norman soldier (died 1226)

Sir Falkes de Bréauté was an Anglo-Norman soldier who earned high office by loyally serving first King John and later King Henry III in the First Barons' War. He played a key role in the Battle of Lincoln Fair in 1217. He attempted to rival Hubert de Burgh, and as a result fell from power in 1224. His "heraldic device" is now popularly said to have been a griffin, although his coat of arms as depicted by Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora was Gules, a cinquefoil argent.

Battle of Lincoln (1217) Battle during the First Barons War

The Second Battle of Lincoln occurred at Lincoln Castle on Saturday 20 May 1217, during the First Barons' War, between the forces of the future Louis VIII of France and those of King Henry III of England. Louis's forces were attacked by a relief force under the command of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. Thomas, the Comte du Perche, commanding the French troops, was killed and Louis was expelled from his base in the southeast of England. The looting that took place afterwards is known as the "Lincoln Fair". The citizens of Lincoln were loyal to Louis so Henry's forces sacked the city.

Nicola de la Haie

Nicola de la Haie, of Swaton in Lincolnshire, was an English landowner and administrator who inherited from her father not only lands in both England and Normandy but also the post of hereditary constable of Lincoln Castle. On her own, she twice defended the castle against prolonged sieges. After the death of her second husband in 1214, she continued to hold the castle until she retired on grounds of old age in 1226.

Eustace de Vesci

Eustace de Vesci (1169–1216) was an English lord of Alnwick Castle, and a Magna Carta surety. He also held lands in Sprouston, Roxburghshire, Scotland as brother in-law to King Alexander II of Scotland. Eustace was a leader during the Barons' War in 1215 and was killed while undertaking a siege of Barnard Castle in 1216.

Robert de Vere, 3rd Earl of Oxford

Robert de Vere, hereditary Master Chamberlain of England, was son of Aubrey de Vere, 1st Earl of Oxford, and Agnes of Essex. He succeeded his brother as the third Earl of Oxford, and was one of the twenty-five guarantors of Magna Carta.

Events from the 1210s in England.

<i>Ironclad</i> (film) 2011 film

Ironclad is a 2011 British action adventure war film directed by Jonathan English. Written by English and Erick Kastel, based on a screenplay by Stephen McDool, the cast includes James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Kate Mara, Paul Giamatti, Vladimir Kulich, Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng, Derek Jacobi, and Charles Dance. The film chronicles the siege of Rochester Castle by King John in 1215. The film was shot entirely in Wales in 2009 and produced on a budget of $25 million.

Hugh de Neville 13th century Anglo-Norman sheriff and forester

Hugh de Neville was the Chief Forester under the kings Richard I, John and Henry III of England; he was the sheriff for a number of counties. Related to a number of other royal officials as well as a bishop, Neville was a member of Prince Richard's household. After Richard became king in 1189, Neville continued in his service and accompanied him on the Third Crusade. Neville remained in the royal service following Richard's death in 1199 and the accession of King John to the throne, becoming one of the new king's favourites and often gambling with him. He was named in Magna Carta as one of John's principal advisers, and considered by a medieval chronicler to be one of King John's "evil counsellors". He deserted John after the French invasion of England in 1216 but returned to pledge his loyalty to John's son Henry III after the latter's accession to the throne later that year. Neville's royal service continued until his death in 1234, though by then he was a less significant figure than he had been at the height of his powers.

Magna Carta of Chester, or Cheshire, was a charter of rights issued in 1215 in the style of Magna Carta. The charter is primarily concerned with the relationship between the Earl of Chester and his barons, though the final clause states that the barons must allow similar concessions to their own tenants.

Geoffrey de Neville was an English nobleman who served as King's Chamberlain and Seneschal of Gascony and Périgord.



  1. equivalent to £163,223in 2019 money.


  1. Harding 1993, p. 10.
  2. Arlidge & Judge 2014, p. 19.
  3. Turner 2009, p. 189.
  4. Danziger & Gillingham 2004, pp. 261–62.
  5. Morgan, Gavin (10 June 2016). "When Guildford Castle Fell to the Invading French 800 Years Ago This Week". The Guildford Dragon. Retrieved 16 July 2019.
  6. Contemporary source quoted in Salter (2000).
  7. Fryde et al. 1986, p. 37.
  8. Warren 1991, pp. 254–5.
  9. "Kingston, treaty of" A Dictionary of British History. Ed. John Cannon. Oxford University Press, 2009
  10. Tout, T.F (2018). The History of England from the Accession of Henry III to the Death of Edward III (1216-1377). BoD. p. 16. ISBN   9783732633340.


Siege of Dover