The Magna Carta Project

The Rebel Seizure of London, 17 May 1215

May 2015, by Professor Nicholas Vincent

Tower of London

Detail of a miniature showing London, with the Tower of London, from a late fifteenth century manuscript, BL Royal 16 F II f.73

On Sunday 17 May 1215, the city of London was seized in an apparently bloodless coup by the barons recently decamped from Northampton. Below, we supply translations of the three principal chronicle sources for this event. The earliest narratives are those by the Crowland chronicler ('Walter of Coventry') and Ralph of Coggeshall. Coggeshall's basic outline was then followed by Roger of Wendover, who nonetheless, like his successor and continuator Matthew Paris, contributed many elements entirely of his own.1 Certain themes are shared between all three accounts. Thus, all three agree that there was collusion beforehand between barons and Londoners. All refer to the majority of the city's population being in church when the seizure took place. All three refer to the barons' new style as 'the army of God', and to the watch now placed by the barons upon the city walls.

The Crowland chronicle specifies a baronial force of 500 knights, and claims that it gained access via one of the city gates against which a ladder or scaffolding steps (gradus) had been placed for the wall's repair. The vanguard then allowed the rest of the army in by another gate, all of this being unknown either to the King's men or to the 'greater and better part of the citizenry'.

Coggeshall implies that the imminent arrival of the earl of Salisbury may have hastened the seizure, and reports a general attack upon Jewish property, including the robbing of stones from the houses of the Jews to rebuild the city walls.2 His reference to this as a 'holy work' ('expeditio religiosa') is no doubt ironic.3 He notes that the Tower of London was bravely defended by its small royalist garrison.4 The news of the seizure of London, he suggests, added to the stampede of defections to the rebel cause even by knights of those earls (Warenne, Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Derby and Salisbury) who remained loyal to the King. Finally, he reports the impression that this made upon the King of France, who now wrote to the rebels, promising his assistance, supplying siege machines and offering a loan, but as yet refraining from direct military intervention: a sign of timidity on King Philip's part that inspired acrimony amongst the barons. Also worthy of remark is Coggeshall's description of four very strong armies being established in England ('ordinarentur per Angliam quatuor fortissimi exercitus'). This may be simple factual reportage. Alternatively, it could contain echoes of the Roman or Judean tetrarchies, suggesting the imminent dissolution of a kingdom whose unification had been a common theme amongst previous historians including Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry of Huntingdon

Roger of Wendover who, from St Albans, was in a position to know, reports the route march of the barons from Bedford via Ware, a borough newly enfranchised under the baronial commander Saher de Quincy, earl of Winchester (whose main base of operations at Brackley had served as the rebels' first meeting place).5  From Ware, travelling by night, the baronial army reached London, which they entered via an open gate, an event that Wendover misdates to Monday 24th rather than Sunday 17 May. Matthew Paris identifies the gate specifically as Aldgate, a site long associated with Robert fitz Walter and his family, since it was here that the Fitz Walters, as hereditary standard bearers of the city, were accustomed to receive London's flag, otherwise entrusted to the safe keeping of the canons of Holy Trinity Priory.6 The decision to travel by night and to approach London from the east, rather than the north, implies caution as to the state of the royalist defences. Aldgate was the entrance to the city closest to the Tower, and hence perhaps both the least expected and the most lightly guarded.7 The open gate, Wendover implies, was the consequence of connivance amongst the richer citizens, with the poor merely standing by powerless to contradict.

With their victory secure, according to Wendover, the barons wrote to all who until now had remained loyal to the King, threatening them with warfare and the destruction of their property unless they would join the rebel cause.  Wendover then lists the principal royalists and claims that many of them answered the baronial summons (a report that is grossly exaggerated). He claims, more plausibly, that the work of the Exchequer at Westminster was brought to an end and that the King now had great difficulty in collecting his rents.8 To this Matthew Paris adds a highly implausible story of the King forging letters in the name of the bishops, inviting foreigners to invade England and to put down the rebels as if they were apostates. The fraud having been exposed, the King was all the more scorned. The Crowland chronicler (who applies to the rebels the same terms used by St Luke to describe the Jews clamouring for the crucifixion of Christ) is the writer here who is most favourable to the King. Matthew Paris is easily the least favourable.



1. The Crowland Chronicler's Account of the Seizure of London in May 1215.

Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols. (London, 1872-73), ii, 220.


Igitur qui conuenerant animo obfirmato regem inter se in plurimis accusabant, et accusatum condemnabant, dicentes eum non deberi pro rege haberi de cetero, et inualescebant voces eorum. Factaque est contra eum coniuratio valida. Constitutis autem ducibus exercitus quos vocabant marescallos exercitus Dei, post tempus aliquod versus Londonias profecti sunt milites quasi quingenti. Dominica aitaquea, dum adhuc diuinorum celebrationi populus intenderet, quidem, consciis ex ciuibus nonnullis, ceteros precedentes, per gradus quosdam pro muris emendandis factos, murum ascenderunt, et aperientes portam unam et alteram suos admiserunt, ignorantibus qui intus erant regalibus quibusdam et ciuium, ut dicitur, parte maiore et saniore. Quid multa? Captis qui resistere conabantur, alii ei confoederati sunt, dataque est ciuitas in manus eorum, positis custodiis per muros.

Therefore, those who had come together at first with uncertain spirit, raised their many complaints against the King, and having accused him, condemned him, saying that they should no longer have him for King 'and so their voices prevailed' (Luke 23:23). And so a true conspiracy arose against him. Having appointed leaders of the army whom they called 'marshals of the army of God', after a certain time around five hundred knights set out for London. On Sunday (17 May), therefore, whilst the people were busy with their religious services, certain of these knights, with the knowledge of not a few of the citizens, going ahead of the others, scaled the wall by means of steps that had been made for the wall's repair. Opening one gate, they let their men in through another. This they did unbeknownst to the King's men who were within the city, or to the greater and better part of the citizenry, so it was said. What more? Having taken all potential resisters captive, they were joined by all others, so that the city was delivered into their hands, with guards being placed on its walls.



2. Ralph of Coggeshall's Account of these Events.

Radulphi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. J. Stevenson (Rolls ser., 1875), 171-2.


Anno MCCXV. Obiit magister Eustachius Elyensis episcopus. Rex Iohannes ad iter Hierosolymitanum cruce signatur. Barones Anglie regem suum diffidant et ei homagia sua resignant, occupata Norhantona, quedam castella regis inuadunt, predas ex prediis eius viriliter diripiunt. Inde, pactis confoederationibus per internuncios cum ciuibus Londonie, et bcomite Saresberie adueniente Londonib, xvi. kalendas Iunii, die Dominica mane, dispositis agminibus ad ciuitatem accedunt, et ciuibus ad officium diuinum occupatis, sine contradictione irruptionem faciunt. Ingressi vero, regios fautores quos inuenerunt ceperunt, et eorum bona diripuerunt. Iudeorum domos inuaserunt, apothecas et scrinia confregerunt, et exhaustas multo tempore in hac expeditione religiosa, crumenas abunde refarcierunt. Inde Robertus filius Walteri, marescallus exercitus Domini et sancte ecclesie, et Gaufridus de Mandauille, comes Estsexie et Glowecestrie, instaurandis muris ciuitatis ex lapideis domibus Iudeorum quotidie vigilanter intendunt. Turrem tamen Londonie non acceperunt, paucis licet intus viriliter resistentibus. Cumque per regnum longe lateque percrebuisset quod barones regiam metropolim occupassent, omnes, exceptis comitibus Warenne, Arundelli, Cestrie, Penbroc, Ferrariis et Saresberie, et baronibus Willelmo Briwere aliisque paucis quorum tamen tam comitum quam baronum milites omnes in partem baronum transierant, ceteri inquam omnes de die in diem cateruatim in exercitum Dei transierunt, donec ordinarentur per Angliam quatuor fortissimi exercitus, tantusque terror regem obsideret ut iam extra Windleshoram nusquam progredi auderet. His ita se habentibus, rex Francorum barones per literas de constantia hortatur et unamini concordia et virili instantia, promittens eis suppetias quantum, saluis treugis que inter ipsum et regem Iohannem erant, eis subministratre poterat. Spondet quoque quod neminem de omni potestate sua permittet venire in auxilium regis contra barones. Machinas etiam suas bellicas per Eustachium Monachum eis transmisit et, si opus haberent, multam copiam thesaurorum suorum eis commodare disposuit, sed et de strenuis bellatoribus suis in succursum baronum libens transfretare dissimularet. Quibus cognitis, et regem timiditas et barones obtinuit animositas.

In the year 1215 died master Eustace, bishop of Ely. King John took the cross to go to Jerusalem. The barons diffidated the King and repudiated their homages. Occupying Northampton, they attacked various of the King's castles, boldly seizing as their prey those things that the King himself had preyed upon. With alliances sworn with the citizens of London via go-betweens, and with the earl of Salisbury approaching the city, on Sunday morning, 17 May, having prepared their manoeuvres, the barons came to London and seized it without opposition, the citizens being busy at Mass. Having entered, the barons captured all of the King's supporters whom they found, depriving them of their goods. They broke into the houses of the Jews, rifling store-houses and strong boxes, and having spent much time in this holy work, abundantly restuffed their own empty purses. Robert fitz Walter, Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex and Gloucester, vigilantly and daily reinforced the city walls with stones taken from the houses of the Jews. They could not, however, take the Tower of London, defended against them by a small but brave garrison. As soon as it became known, far and wide, that the barons had seized the royal metropolis, all, save only the earls of Warenne, Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Ferrers and Salisbury, and amongst the barons only William Brewer and a few others, whose knights nonetheless (both those of the earls and the barons) defected to the baronial party; all, I say, day by day and in droves defected to the army of God, so that four extremely strong armies were established in England and the King was seized with such terror that he now dared travel no further than Windsor. With things proceeding in this way, the King of France sent letters assuring the barons of his constancy, solidarity and immediate assistance, promising them as much support as he could supply, saving only the truces that existed between him and King John. The King of France granted that he would allow no-one under his authority to go to the assistance of King John against the barons. He also sent siege engines to the barons, via Eustace the Monk, and if they needed it, promised to lend them copious treasure. But as for sending them the willing support of strong warriors, he prevaricated. These things becoming known, the King's timidity inspired rancour amongst the barons.



3. The Account by Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris.

Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. H.O. Coxe (4 vols., London, 1842), iii, 299-301, with significant additions by Matthew Paris (Matthaei Parisiensis , Monachi Sancti Albani, Chronica Majora, ed. H.R. Luard, 7 vols. (Rolls Ser., 1872–83), ii, 587-8) added below within brackets <>.


Ut ciuitas cLondoniensisc reddita sit baronibus. Cumque dictus exercitus ad castrum de Bedefordt peruenisset, a Willelmo de Bello Campo reuerenter suscepti sunt. Venerunt itaque ad eos ibidem nuntii ab urbe Londoniarum secretius eis indicantes quod, si vellent, urbis ingressum habere cum festinatione illuc venirent. At barones desiderato exhilarati nuntio castra protinus mouentes ad Wares usque peruenerunt. Deinde nocte tota iter agentes, summo diluculo ad ciuitatem venerunt, atque ianuas urbis reperientes apertas, nono kalendas Iunii, Dominica videlicet ante Ascensionem Domini proxima, dum ciues missarum interessent dmysteriisd, Londoniensium ciuitatem sine eomnie tumultu intrauerunt. Fauebant enim baronibus diuites ciuitatis, et ideo pauperes fobmurmuraref metuebant. At barones, ciuitatem ingressi <per portam de Alegat>, ianitores suos ad singulas urbis portas statuerunt, omnia deinceps in ea pro libitu suo disponentes. gAt baronesg, a ciuibus iamdictis accepta securitate, miserunt literas ad comites, barones et milites illos per Angliam qui regi adhuc, licet ficte, adherere videbantur, exhortantes eos cum comminatione ut, sicut omnium rerum suarum et possessionum indemnitatem diligebant, regem periurum hac baronibus rebellem relinquentesh simul cum eis pro libertatibus et pace regi immobiles starent et efficaciter decertarent. Quod si hoc facere contempsissent, ipsi in omnes illos, quasi in hostes publicos, arma dirigerent et vexilla, castraque eorum subuertere, domos et edificia comburere, viuaria, parcos et pomeria destruere ilaborarenti. Hec autem in parte nomina eorum sunt qui nondum jiuraueruntj libertates predictas: Willelmus Mareschallus, comes de Penbroc, Ranulphus comes Cestrensis, Willelmus comes Saresbiriensis, Willelmus comes Warenne, Willelmus comes Albemarlensis, H(enricus) comes Cornubie, W(illelmus) de Albeneio, Robertus de Veteriponte, Petrus filius Huberti, Berienus de Insula, G(alfridus) de Luci, G(erardus) de Furniual, Thomas Basset, Henricus de Braibroc, Iohannes de Bassingeburne, Willelmus de Cantelu, Henricus de Cornhulle, Iohannes filius Hugonis, Hugo de Neuilla, Philippus de Albeneio, Iohannes Mareschallus, Willelmus Briwerre. Hi omnes, cum mandatum baronum accepissent, maxima pars eorum Londonias profecti, confoederati sunt magnatibus supradictis, regem penitus relinquentes. Cessauerunt placita scaccarii et vicecomitatuum per Angliam, quia nullus inuentus est qui regi censum daret vel in aliquo obediret.  <Temporibus quoque sub eisdem rex, occultum odium versus barones facie pallians, sub serena et ultionis excogitans, fecit adulterari, id est vulgariter contrafacere, omnia sigilla episcoporum, et scripsit vice eorum omnibus nationibus quod Anglici omnes erant apostate, toti mundo detestabiles. Et quicunque vellet eos quasi apostatas hostiliter impetere, rex eorum et pape assensu et auctoritate, conferret eis terras et omnes eorum possessiones. Quod cum audissent extere nationes, noluerunt fidem talibus adhibere, quia constabat Anglos omnium Christianorum esse preelectos et comperta veritate, talia facinora et commenta detestabantur, et sic cecidit rex in laqueos quos tetendit>.

That the city of London was delivered to the barons: When the aforesaid army came to the castle of Bedford, it was respectfully received by William de Beauchamp. And there came to them there messengers from the city of the Londoners, secretly informing them that, if they wished, they could come quickly to the city and enter it. The barons, buoyed up by this longed-for news, moved their camp forwards to Ware. Then, travelling throughout the night, they came to the city at dawn and, finding the city gates open, on 24 May (sic), the Sunday before the feast of the Ascension, with the citizens busy at Mass, entered the city of the Londoners without any disturbance. For the rich of the city favoured the barons, and therefore the poor feared to object. Having entered the city <via Aldgate>, the barons placed their own doorkeepers at each of the city gates, thereafter doing as they liked with all within. Having taken security from the citizens, the barons then sent letters to those earls, barons and knights throughout England who until now, albeit falsely, were seen to adhere to the King, exhorting them with a curse that, just as they valued their goods and property, they should abandon the King as an oath-breaker and rebel against the barons, standing thereafter with them steadfast for liberties and peace against the King, whom they would effectively abandon. Should they refuse to do this, the barons, treating them as public enemies, would raise their banners against them and attack them in arms, seizing their castles, burning their houses and buildings, and labouring to destroy their ponds, parks and orchards. These are the names of those who had not yet sworn to uphold the aforesaid liberties: William Marshal earl of Pembroke, Ranulph earl of Chester, William earl of Salisbury, William earl Warenne, William earl Aumale, H(enry) earl of Cornwall, W(illiam) de Aubigny (earl of Arundel), Robert de Vieuxpont, Peter fitz Herbert, Brian de Lisle, Geoffrey de Lucy, Gerard de Furnival, Thomas Basset, Henry of Braybrooke, John of Bassingbourne, William de Cantiloupe, Henry of Cornhill, John fitz Hugh, Hugh de Neville, Philip d'Aubigny, John Marshal, William Brewer. Of these men, a large number now set out for London as soon as they received the barons' mandate, joining with the aforesaid magnates, and almost entirely abandoning the King. Throughout England, the pleas of the Exchequer and of sheriffs ceased, because nobody could be found prepared to pay rent to the King or obey him in any way. <At this time, concealing his hatred against the barons beneath a smooth countenance, and plotting his revenge, the King ensured that all of the seals of the bishops were copied, or 'counterfeited' as it is commonly called, writing in their name to all other nations that the people of England were now apostates, detestable throughout the world and that the King, with the Pope's authority and assent, would confer their lands and possessions upon whoever wished to attack them as apostates. When foreigners learned of this, they refused to believe it, since it was well known that the English were pre-eminent amongst all Christian peoples. Thus, with the truth discovered, the authors and distributors of this falsehood came to be loathed, and the King became entangled in the snares that he himself had laid>.


aAs noted by Stubbs, one of the principal manuscripts here has a marginal note ('defectus littere et sententie') implying that it was itself copied from a ms. with a lacuna at this point binserted in the margin of one ms. of Coggeshall, not in the other principal ms. cLondoniensis W(endover), Londoninarum P(aris) dmysteriis W, solenniis P eomni W, aliquo P fobmurmurare W, obloqui P gAt barones W, Et P hdeserentes et sibi fideliter adherentes ilaborauerunt W, non omitterunt P jiurauerant P


For the apparent reliance by Wendover upon Coggeshall's materials, perhaps at second or third hand, see F. M. Powicke, 'Roger of Wendover and the Coggeshall Chronicle', English Historical Review, xxi (1906), 286-96


For the earl of Salisbury's projected role in London's defence, referred to in letters of 16 and 17 May, see King John’s Diary and Itinerary for 10-16 May and 17-23 May 1215, citing RLP, 136b-7.


For the use of irony in accounts of other anti-Jewish riots, see N. Vincent, ‘William of Newburgh, Josephus and the New Titus’, Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narrative and Contexts, ed. S. Rees Jones and S. Watson (Woodbridge, 2013), 57-90.


For an earthen wall ('murum luteum') made between the Tower and the city, perhaps in the aftermath of rebel action, more likely in the earlier preparations that year, see Pipe Roll 17 John, 33.


For Ware, originally part of the earldom of Leicester estate, its hall used as the retirement home of the countess Petronilla (d.1212), widow of Robert III earl of Leicester, see David Crouch, 'The Battle of the Countesses: The Division of the Honour of Leicester, March-December 1207', Rulership and Rebellion in the Anglo-Norman World, c.1066-c.1216, ed. P. Dalton and D. Luscombe (Farnham, 2015), 179, 185; VCH Hertfordshire, iii, 382-6; RLC, i, 117b-18.


Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis, ed. Riley, 3 vols. (London, 1860-2), ii part 1 (Liber Custumarum), pp.lxxix, 149; C. N. L. Brooke and G. Keir, London 800-1216: The Shaping of a City (London, 1975), 216, and King John’s Diary and Itinerary 17-23 May 1215.


For a useful map here, see Brooke, London, 174-5.


For the fate of Westminster at this time, see N. C. Vincent, Peter des Roches: An Alien in English Politics, 1205-1238 (Cambridge, 1996), 116-17.

Referenced in

The rebels seize London (The Itinerary of King John)

John negotiates with the Pope and archbishop Langton (The Itinerary of King John)

John negotiates with the Pope and archbishop Langton (The Itinerary of King John)

Feature of the Month