In early July 1214, King John abandoned his siege of La Roche-aux-Moins, retreating hastily from the forces of Prince Louis. So great was the panic, the French chroniclers report, that not only was John forced to abandon his own tents and supplies but a large number of his troops perished in crossing the river.1 In hindsight, this was to become one of the great turning points of the reign, and in consequence, of English history. In May 1222, founding a new Augustinian abbey of Notre-Dame de la Victoire near Senlis to commemorate his triumphs, Philip Augustus dedicated the new foundation not only to his own victory at Bouvines in late July 1214, but to his son's at La Roche-aux-Moins three weeks earlier.2 According to Matthew Paris, writing in the 1230s, the French took more encouragement from John's defeat at La Roche than from that of his allies at Bouvines, since they now realized that in Louis, they had a prince prepared to lead them in battle.3
From La Rochelle after 9 July, now reunited with his treasure and the rump of his administration, the King issued a great flurry of letters, demanding action in France, England and Ireland. Amidst the routine, and without any mention of the King's recent setbacks, we find letters that speak of John's disquiet. By far the most evocative survives on the chancery Patent Roll, apparently sent from La Rochelle immediately after the King's safe return there on 9 July. This opens as a standard royal newsletter, intended to quieten rumour and to assure his subjects of the King's continued prosperity. Reading between the lines however, a number of anxieties emerge. Firstly, there was clearly an unspoken fear that the defeat at La Roche-aux-Moins might now breed panic. Secondly, there was concern, and even anger ('rancour/indignation') that large numbers of English barons had failed to send service to the King in Poitou. The redrafting of the final clauses of this letter (where 'rancour of soul' has been transfored into 'indignation', and complete remission into a mere possibility of forgiveness), all suggest less than confident dealing between King and barons.
It is worth noting that the opening to this letter is very similar to that sent by John in August 1202 reporting the capture of Arthur of Brittany, preserved in the chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall. The Coggeshall letter opens: Sciatis nos gratia Dei sanos esse et incolumes et gratiam Dei mirabiliter nobiscum operasse.4 Another letter, preserved on the Patent Roll, dated at Falaise on 16 April 1203,5 offering credence to a royal messenger travelling to John's mother, the archbishop of Bordeaux and others of the King's friends in southern France, reports that 'the grace of God stands better with us than (our messenger) can possibly tell you' (gratia Dei melius stat nobis quam ille vob(is) dicere possit). It has been suggested, by Powicke and others, that these letters of April 1203 contain a coded reference to John's killing of Arthur of Brittany, whose final disappearance occurred at about this time, quite possibly at Falaise. However, taken in the context of other references to 'the grace of God' in royal newsletters, it may simply offer a standard expression of the King's well-being.
B = TNA/PRO C 66/12 (Patent Roll 16 John) m.15. C = PRO/TNA C 66/13 (Patent Roll 16 John) m.9, duplicate apparently copied from B, without the corrections now silently dropped. The whole of this copy written in one or more hands but at speed and from B.
Pd (from B) RLP, 118b.
Rex comitibus, baron(ibus), militibus et omnibus fidelibus suis per regnum Angl(ie) constitutis salutem. Sciatis quod sani sumus et incolumes cunctaque gratia Dei apud nos prospera sunt et iocunda. Grates autem vob(is) referimus multiplices qui milites vestros nobiscum misistis in seruicium nostrum ad iura nostra tuenda et conquirenda, et rogamus attentissime vos qui nobiscum non transfretastis quatinus sicut honorem nostrum diligitis sine dilatione ad nos veniatis in auxilium terre nostre conquirende except(is) illis qui de consilio venerabil(um) patrum nostrorum domini P(etri) Wint' episcopi iustic(iarii) nostri, I(ohannis) Norwic' episcopi et magistri R(icardi) de Marisc' et W. Briwerr' et aliorum fidelium nostrorum qui in Angl(ia) moram sunt facturi, tant(um) in(de) facientes ut ad perpetuas vob(is) inde grates teneamur. Si quis vero vestrum estimauerit quod ('rancorem animi versus' crossed out) indignationem erga eum habuimus per aduentum suum ('ad nos rancor ille penitus ei remittetur' crossed out) poterit emendari. Et in huius rei t(estimonium) etc. Teste ut supra.
The King sends greetings to all his earls, barons, knights and other faithful men throughout the realm of England. Know that we are in good health and uninjured, and that the grace and joy of God prosper amongst us. We send repeated thanks to those of you who have dispatched your knights to us to serve in upholding and winning our rights, and we ask most attentively, just as you value our honour, that those of you who have not crossed over with us, come to us without delay to bring assistance to the winning of our land, all save for those who with the counsel of our venerable fathers P(eter) bishop of Winchester, our justiciar, J(ohn) bishop of Norwich, Master Richard Marsh and William Brewer, are to remain behind in England. You should act here so that we are bound in permanent gratitude towards you. Should any of you suspect that we harbour ('rancour in our soul' crossed out) indignation against him, through coming to us he may repair this ('will have such rancour entirely remitted' crossed out). (La Rochelle, c.9 July 1214)
C. Petit-Dutaillis, Étude sur la vie et le règne de Louis VIII (1187-1226) (Paris 1894), 48-50.
Petit-Dutaillis, Louis VIII, 52.
Matthaei Parisiensis Historia Anglorum, ed. F.Madden, 3 vols. (London 1866-69), ii, 150.
Radulphi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. J. Stevenson (Rolls ser., 1875), 137, best cited from the copy preserved in BL ms. Royal 13 A xii fo.80v.