Louis of England – history’s forgotten King of England

In August of 1216, the King of Scotland rode down the entire length of England to pay homage to a new English king at Dover.

The Scottish monarch bent his knee to a warrior prince who was the pride and hope of his dynasty.

His name was Louis and he was the eldest son of the King of France.

Louis is overlooked in most lists of English monarchs. But he was, at this point in time, in control of two-thirds of the country and had the support of the majority of its barons.

At Lincoln, he had a chance to win a great victory and secure his claim to the throne.

This is a rich story with a cast that includes a septuagenarian warrior, a fighting monk, a nine-year old boy king and a fearsome Châtelaine who defied a whole army.

But most of all, it is about a battle that could have gone either way.

What if … the Battle of Lincoln had gone the other way and the King of France’s eldest son had secured the English throne?

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John: An Awful King

In 1187, Henry II of England controlled more of France than the King of France.

Conversely, within a generation, the King of France’s eldest son, Prince Louis, would lead an invasion of England that would see him control up to two-thirds of that country.

What had happened to reverse the fortunes of the Anglo-Norman Plantagenets and the French Capetians so decisively?

A simple answer is that King Richard died and was succeeded by his younger brother, John.

Bad King John.

The chapter dealing with John in 1066 And All That is titled ‘John: An Awful King’.

Is there truth behind the satire?

John is most frequently encountered today in the role of Robin Hood’s chief antagonist or as the monarch forced to sign the Magna Carta.

On screen, he is variously depicted as vain, cowardly, effete and weak.  

Chroniclers were far less kind in their descriptions.

William of Newburgh called him ‘nature’s enemy’ whilst the Barnwell chronicler said he was ‘a pillager of his own people’.

The Minstrel of Reims describes him as ‘evil and cruel’ and wrote that he was the ‘worst king who was ever born since the time of Herod’.

For John’s medieval contemporary Matthew Paris, this didn’t go far enough. In his account, he has the Barons of England exclaim:

‘Woe unto you, John, last of kings, detested one of the chiefs of England, disgrace to the English nobility’.

Historians debate just how bad John actually was. Some even point to what could be seen as redeeming qualities.

But John was certainly capricious and cruel.

As he teetered on the brink of calamity in 1212, he oversaw the execution of 28 Welsh boys at Nottingham.

The youths had been held as hostages following an uprising in the Principality the previous year.

After learning of a fresh Welsh uprising, John rode to Nottingham to supervise his revenge. He watched the boys taken away from their play, screaming and pleading. They were hanged in a row along the castle walls.

And his cruelty was not reserved for foreign enemies. The de Braose family were, for many years, amongst the favourites at King John’s court.

That was until Matilda de Braose incurred John’s wrath and enmity by openly referring to his alleged crimes. For that, he caused her to be starved to death in the dungeon of Corfe Castle along with William, her eldest son.

Even his closest family were not safe. He was widely thought to have ordered the murder of his nephew, Arthur of Britanny. Many believed John had actually stabbed Arthur himself.

John was also reviled for his military failings. He was obsessed with recovering Angevin lands that had been lost in France. His hopes had been dashed in the slaughter of the Battle of Bouvines.

Being evil did not disqualify you from the throne in medieval Europe. But losing battles was another matter.

Many of his English barons revolted and the country was plunged into civil war.

There was a brief reconciliation on the granting of the Magna Carta in 1215.

John’s repudiation of the Great Charter saw the conflict flare back into life, burning more fiercely than before. The chronicler Roger of Wendover describes England during this desperate time:

‘The whole land was covered with these limbs of the devil like locusts, who assembled to blot out everything from the face of the earth; for, running about with drawn swords and knives, they ransacked towns, houses, cemeteries, and churches, robbing everyone, sparing neither women nor children.’

Brimful of evil qualities

John was so hated that many English barons decided to encourage a claim to the throne made by Prince Louis, the eldest son of the King of France.

Louis arrived in England in May 1216 and immediately started his campaign to oust his despised rival.

There was a rich irony in this. John had bankrupted himself and the kingdom as part of his obsession with recovering his lost lands in France.

Now, he barely clung onto a third of England whilst the French invader held sway over the rest.

The odds seemed to be heavily in Louis’s favour.

Surviving records indicate that 97 baronies supported Louis whilst only 36 had remained loyal to John. Louis also had support from the Welsh and Scots. He held London and could be resupplied from France.

Then, in November 1216, John died of dysentery at Newark Castle.

The chronicler Matthew Paris wrote a succinct and damning epithet: ‘foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John.’

Another contemporary wrote that the dead king had been: ‘brimful of evil qualities’.

John left behind a kingdom wracked by civil war and a crown that was heavily in debt and reviled by many English barons.

He also left behind his nine-year old son, Henry.

With such odds stacked against him, how did Henry even survive into 1217?

Henry did have a much stronger claim to the throne. He was a direct descendant through the male line of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Louis’s claim came through his wife, Blanche of Castile, who was Henry II’s granddaughter.

Henry had also been crowned, albeit in a decidedly atypical ceremony.

Normally, English monarchs are crowned at Westminster Abbey in a coronation officiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and that was traditionally held on a Sunday. Henry was hastily crowned on a Friday in Gloucester Cathedral by the Papal Legate.

Nonetheless, Henry was the anointed King of England.

Henry was also supported by the Church. His father had turned England into a Papal fief to gain support in Rome. He had been able to declare a ‘just and holy war’. Louis, by contrast, had been excommunicated.

Henry also had some important supporters and castles. The legendary commander William Marshal was behind the king. Henry’s allies held key castles at Newark, Lincoln, Dover and Nottingham.

On 20 May 1217, two armies met in Lincoln. Forces loyal to King Henry held the castle. The city itself was full of men pledged to Prince Louis of France.

This clash of arms was a dangerous gamble for Henry. The stakes were high. If he won, he would hold on to the crown. If he lost, he would lose his throne and probably his life.

Historia de regibus Angliae

What if … Prince Louis’s forces had won the Battle of Lincoln? This section imagines this future that never was.

After months of painstaking work, he was nearing the end of his labours.

With a few scratches of the quill, his manuscript was finally complete. The monk sat back and looked at the pages of vellum that set out his chronicle.

He had spent years on the Historia de regibus Angliae. But not even he could have imagined that this history of English monarchs would end with the King of France’s eldest son sat firmly on the throne of England.

And he could never have imagined that he would witness the battle that ended the Plantagenets.

He looked around. It was late and he was alone in the scriptorium. The flickering candles cast strange shadows on the walls. His mind wandered in the stillness.

The cathedral cloisters were quiet now, but in 1217 they had been at the noisy centre of England’s civil war.

The monk had arrived at Lincoln as a boy. Henry and Eleanor ruled then. Good wine came to Lincoln, direct from Aquitaine, a sign of English prosperity and a product of the extensive Plantagenet lands.

How things had changed.

Once, Kings of England made war across the South Sea. Then came John and war came to England. King Louis arrived, invited by many of John’s barons. Conflict stalked the land and, whilst nobles and knights clashed, the poor suffered even more than usual.

Soon enough, John died. Was it the shock of being usurped? Or had the devil come to reclaim one of his own? It was now a fight between Louis and John’s nine-year old son Henry.

The decisive battle has been fought in his own city. He had seen the clash from the top of one of the Cathedral’s towers.

The packed streets of the City were crowded with men, cobblestones splashed with blood and slippery. The Cathedral Green became a battlefield, with men so pressed against each other that they could barely raise an arm to strike.

He saw a man’s head split open by a fierce axe blow. Brains and blood burst out. That was the point at which he had seen enough to make him sick.

But the worst was yet to come to for Henry’s supporters and especially their commander, William Marshal. The venerable fighter had reached his three score years and ten, and the Lord God decided he would last no longer.

Marshal pushed his troops towards the French. Thomas du Perche stood at the centre of his host, recognisable to all with his bright red and white shield and surcoat.

The French were falling back, their soldiers falling to the deadly arrows raining from the Castle’s crossbowmen.  

Then, just as victory seemed certain, Marshal surged towards du Perche.

Right outside the front of the Cathedral, the future of England was decided in a fight to the death.

An arrow sped towards du Perche, but was interrupted by Marshal’s advance. It ripped open the Marshal’s horse, spilling its guts to the floor. Marshal was thrown to the ground in front of the French.

Soon, the English troops were melting back towards the castle and then out of the city.    

But his history was no place to dwell on John or Henry. The Bishop wanted to present the new King with the volume to mark his rightful place in the line of English monarchs.

And that is how he had found himself in Westminster seven months after the battle.

The Bishop had ordered the monk to join his retinue for London. Lincoln’s prelate had supported Louis from the beginning and he wanted his scribe to make that very clear in his account.

He had found a precarious perch high up in one of the Abbey’s upper chapels. From here, he could see the high altar and most of the nave.

Louis had found the church to be somewhat simple compared to the splendour of Reims. He had promised to rebuild the abbey on a grand scale but, until then, he had to be satisfied with decorating for his coronation.

The abbey was hung with lengths of scarlet velvet and cloth of gold. A particularly fine carpet had been placed in front of the altar. Clearly, there was no shortage of coin in the French treasury.

Beneath him, barons and bishops filled the church. No one wanted to miss the coronation and be thought of as opposing the new king.

Finally, Louis was led by Cardinal Langton and Archbishop Langton. The brothers had risen high on opposition to John and now controlled Canterbury and York. The choir had swelled into a chorus of Firmetur manus tua.

Louis’s rich blue robes were trimmed with ermine and decorated with the golden fleur de lis of his dynasty. He was the King of England but intended to rule France in time as well.

The small procession reached the high altar and all three made a lengthy show of prostrating before the cross. He now understood why such costly carpet had been laid at that spot – the king had to show humility but wouldn’t tolerate too much discomfort.

Louis then took the oath, promising to preserve the Church and people in true peace, forbid rapacity and to bring justice and mercy in his judgments. After so many years of war, it seemed like an impossible dream that there could now be peace.

Cardinal Langton now turned to the congregation and asked them if they were willing to submit to Louis as their prince and ruler and to obey his command. There was an enthusiastic response and cries of vivat rex! Was it too keen an acclamation? There must have been plenty in the crowd below who had supported Henry and who were now desperate to show loyalty to the new regime.

Louis was now surrounded by the bishops of England. Cardinal Langton anointed the king, gently touching his hands, head and body.

Prelates stepped forward to invest Louis with the sword, armils and mantle.

Cardinal Langton once again took centre stage to place the crown on Louis’s head. The coronation ring, sceptre and rod were now delivered and the king, loaded with his golden regalia, was blessed.

The choir sang the Te Deum as Louis was finally led to his throne. He had ruled England but now, finally, he was their anointed king.

The horses of the barons were mown down and killed like pigs

Louis was never crowned King of England.

William Marshal did not die in the Battle of Lincoln.

Instead, it was Thomas du Perche, the commander of Louis’s forces, who was slain in front of the Cathedral.

The battle was pivotal, but it was King John’s son, Henry, who would emerge victorious rather than Prince Louis.

English forces had gathered to the west of Lincoln in May 1217. Three things combined to bring victory to Henry’s army.

The first was du Perche’s relative inexperience. He overestimated the size of the English force and decided not to meet them in battle on open ground to the west of the city. As a result, French forces were trapped within the city walls.

Secondly, Lincoln Castle was held for Henry by Nicola de la Haye. This gave the English forces valuable intelligence on the conditions within the city. Once the attack started, English crossbowmen on the ramparts were able to pick off men and horses. Roger of Wendover wrote that:

‘By means of the crossbowmen, by whose skill the horses of the barons were mown down and killed like pigs, the party of the barons was greatly weakened’.

Finally, there is the role of fortune. Battles in the middle ages were notoriously dangerous and unpredictable. Henry rolled the dice and won. It could easily have gone the other way.

Many of them were slain before they got to Louis

Louis lost a half of his forces at Lincoln.

The tide had turned against the French. Many of Louis’s supporters attempted to flee back to London. The chronicler Wendover recorded that:

‘Many of  them, especially the foot-soldiers, were slain before they got to Louis; for the inhabitants of  the towns through which they passed in their flight went to meet them with swords and clubs, and, laying ambushes for them, killed many’.

Did Henry’s victory at Lincoln seal the fate of Louis’s English adventure?

Or, put another way, what would have happened if Louis’s forces had won the battle?

There seems little doubt that the Battle of Lincoln was a pivotal moment in the conflict. It wasn’t the only factor that decided who would sit on the throne of England. But Louis’s defeat made it very unlikely that he would take the crown.

Louis’s only lifeline was to secure reinforcements, supplies and money from France. His defeat at the Battle of Sandwich on 24 August 1217 severed this lifeline, making it only a matter of time before he had to sue for peace.

Louis was forced to make peace on English terms.

On 12 September 1217, he left England for good.

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One thought on “Louis of England – history’s forgotten King of England

  • Steve

    You have John’s 9-year-old son as “William” when he was, of course, Henry (III)!

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