The Magna Carta Project

The Outbreak of War

by Professor Nicholas Vincent

26 April 1215 - 2 May 1215


26-27 Apr 1215

Clarendon (Wiltshire)

RLC, i, 197, 203b

27-28 Apr 1215

Corfe (Dorset)

RLP, 134-4b; RLC, i, 197

The letters in RLP, 132, dated at Nottingham on 29 April must in reality date from 29 March.

28-29 Apr 1215

Clarendon (Wiltshire)

RLC, i, 197b

29-30 Apr 1215


RLP, 134b; RLC, i, 197b

30 Apr - 2 May 1215

Wallingford , Oxfordshire, England

RLP, 134b; RLC, i, 198, 203b-4

2 May 1215

Reading (Berkshire)

RLP, 134b; RLC, i, 204

Seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter

Seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter, leader of the baronial army, British Museum

In the present week, the tide at last turned from uneasy peace to almost certain war. For a detailed assessment of the chronology here, readers are recommended to turn to the feature 'Dating the Outbreak of Civil War'. War itself was not certainly declared by the barons until 3 May. Even so, having met at Stamford, by Monday 27 April the barons were at Brackley, in arms and openly demanding that the King make good his promises to respect their laws and liberties. Despite the preparation of castles and siege defences across the midlands, there are signs that the rebellion, when it came, took John unawares. The King himself, ignoring the arrangements previously made for a meeting with the barons at Northampton around 26 April, had left London on Thursday 23 April, travelling via Alton to Clarendon in Wiltshire. His intention may have been to pacify the south west. Certainly, from Clarendon on 27 April he issued instructions replacing William de Harcourt, the former sheriff of Dorset and Somerset, with Ralph of Bray.1 At Corfe, the following day, he received the former sheriff's prisoners deposited for safe keeping in Corfe Castle, including hostages of the King of Scots.2

If ever there was a castle in England that corresponded to the Gothic image of Otrantoesque menace, then Corfe was it: a combination of stronghold, state prison and treasury. The castellan of Corfe, Peter de Maulay, was not only a Frenchman, from the Loire, but was rumoured the butcher of the King's nephew, Arthur of Brittany.3 It was therefore all the more sinister that on 29 April Peter was entrusted with the care of the King's youngest son, Richard, sent to Corfe under the protection of Ralph de Raleigh, with his school master, Roger of Acaster (probably a native of Acaster within Maulay's Yorkshire lordship of Mulgrave), and two trumpeters, presumably to proclaim the boy's importance along the way.4 Richard was to grow up not only under the shadow of war and murder, but in the south west of England, close to those parts that he was later to rule as earl of Cornwall. On 30 April, the garrison of Corfe was joined by nine serjeants, many of them with foreign-sounding names. Peter de Maulay was promised that if he accounted for the 100 marks lately given to him to supply the castle, then more money would be forthcoming.5

Already, by the time the King reached Corfe, it was apparent that the gatherings at Stamford and Brackley demanded a response. The reality here seems to first to have dawned when the King reached Clarendon on Sunday 26 April. It was on this day that John issued instructions for a general arrest of all shipping in English ports, from as far north as Newcastle and Durham, all the way round the English coast to Cornwall. All English ships that had set out for foreign parts were to be recalled to port as soon as possible.6 This was a clear sign that the King not only feared the barons' intentions, but was determined that they receive no support from outside the realm. As ever, the nightmare haunting him was that, having seized Normandy and Anjou in 1204, the King of France would now extend his vendetta across the Channel to lay claim to the throne of England. Almost immediately, the arrest orders provoked petitions from ship-owners and passengers requesting exemption, some of them answered in letters copied into the chancery rolls.7 More significantly, on the same day that the arrest was ordered, the King dispatched his almoner Roger and Henry bishop of Emley (previously, as abbot of Cistercian Bindon, a close associate of the court) as envoys to Philip Augustus. They presumably carried messages informing Philip of events in England and asking that he lend no aid to the discontented barons.8

From Clarendon, the King had perhaps intended to make for Cirencester, to which, for Monday 27 April, he had summoned a large body of Marcher barons, including Walter de Lacy, John of Monmouth, Hugh de Mortimer and Walter of Clifford, assembled first at Gloucester but told on 30 April to move eastwards with horses and arms.9 Either Wales or the south-west might have been the original goal for this expedition. Alternatively, it may have been intended as a riposte to the barons (whom the King had been expected to meet at Northampton on 26 April), with the potential to turn eastwards towards Oxford and the Thames. In the event, after his brief visit to Corfe on Monday and Tuesday 27-28 April, the King headed northwards again, reaching Clarendon on Tuesday evening, Marlborugh (where the Queen was perhaps now kept) on the Wednesday, and Wallingford on the following day. There he remained from Thursday to Saturday, before travelling on to Reading. From Wallingford, on 2 May, he sent out yet another demand to local knights that they discharge their duty of castle guard and come to Wallingford's defence.10 Letters to the Pope and cardinals, authorized at Wallingford by Peter des Roches, made no mention of insurrection, but sought instead to delay any decision over the union of the see of Bath and Glastonbury until the King should return from his projected crusade.11

St Nicholas' College, Wallingford Castle

St Nicholas' College, Wallingford Castle

The Queen's affairs make an oblique appearance on the records during this week. Isabella of Angoulême, John's Queen, had a widespread kinship network in France, including a half-brother by this time established as count of Joigny in northern Burgundy. According to rumour, so close was Isabella to Peter of Joigny that they were suspected of incest (a suspicion, rather surprisingly, that finds at least some documentary support).12 Despite being a subject of the kings of France, Peter had joined John's expedition to Poitou in April, witnessing royal charters as late as September.13 From Wallingford, on 2 May, the King now wrote to him, apparently in response to messages from Peter that the King would only answer if Peter himself came to England. On the same day, King Philip of France was asked to license Peter's travelling to England under safe conducts from King John, a licence that was in due course granted.14 Setting aside any more romantic notions, the likelihood here is that Peter was offering shelter to Queen Isabella, his half-sister, at a time of real danger. No such offer was accepted, although Peter did indeed cross to England. There he received an annual pension of £200 from King John. He did not return to France until March 1217.15

Others who were licensed to cross to England at this time included the count of Guînes, monks of Lire and Pontigny, and representatives of the Manceau baron, Pain de Sourches.16 The King also ensured the payment of a small annual pension owing to the widowed countess of Meulan, herself a daughter of the King's great-uncle, Reginald earl of Cornwall, married fifty years before to the last representative of the Beaumont line of counts.17 There was a potent reminder here of the events of 1204, in which the Beaumont lordship had been engulfed in the French conquest of Normandy.18 For those with eyes to see, there were links this week to other events much earlier in John's already far from glorious career. Walter de Lacy, summoned in arms to support the King, was a son of Hugh de Lacy, justiciar of Ireland, whose squabbles with John, in the 1180s, had first branded the future King untrustworthy and potentially vicious.19 Richard de Canville, summoned to the defence of Wallingford, was the son and heir of that Gerard de Canville whose alliance with John, in the 1190s, had been the catalyst to rebellion against King Richard I and the sieges of Lincoln, Nottingham and Tickhill. Far from springing to the King's support in 1215, Richard de Canville joined the rebels.20

Elsewhere, this week, Oxford and Norwich castles were put under defence. The mayor and men of Oxford, indeed, were told to assist the constable, Ralph de Normanville, with arms, foodstuffs, stones, wood, 'and with your own bodies, if necessary'.21 As the clearest sign of panic yet to grip the royal camp, arrangements were made for the mayor and men of London to take brushwood and make stakes for the protection of their city.22 Even John's capital, it now seemed, might succumb to the breaking storm.


RLP, 134b.


RLP, 134b. On 27 April, William de Harcourt and Reginald de Vautort both received respite of debts: RLC, i, 197.


As noted above,  Diary and Itinerary 1-7 February.


RLC, i, 197b, with a respite of Peter de Maulay's debts in Yorkshire issued on the same day. For Roger of Acaster, see N. C. Vincent, ‘Richard, first earl of Cornwall and king of Germany (1209–1272)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004; online edn., Jan 2008) [, accessed 27 April 2015].


RLC, i, 197b: 'et nos tunc plures denar(ios) habere faciemus'.


RLC, i, 197, entered again on the dorse, at p.203b.


Beginning within a matter of days: RLC, i, 197b (three small ships and a ship under the protection of the count of Holland, at Southampton), 198 (Geoffrey chaplain, and other men of John de Harcourt).


Foedera, Conventiones, Litterae etc., or Rymer’s Foedera, 1066-1383, ed. A. Clarke et al., vol. 1, part i (London, 1816), 120 (misplaced), from the dorse of the Close Roll (RLC, i, 203b), and for the passage of the envoys, from Dover, RLC, i, 197.


RLP, 134b (a summons for Monday 27 April, although only issued on the following Thursday, 30 April), and see the instructions to Engelard de Cigogné, RLC, i, 197b.


RLP, 134b.


RLC, i, 203b-4, and cf. the orders of 27 April to take the manor of Congresbury from bishop Jocelin, back under royal management: RLC, i, 197-7b. In November 1213, Congresbury had been committed to the keeping of Fawkes de Breauté, in order to pay for the defense of the King's castles in Wales: RLC, i, 139b.


Nicholas Vincent, 'Isabella of Angoulême: John's Jezebel', King John: New Interpretations, ed. S.D. Church (Woodbridge, 1999), 165-219, esp, pp.175-7, 202-3.


RC, 200b, 201; RLP, 113, 115


RLP, 134b, and cf. RLC, i, 203b; Les Registres de Philippe Auguste, ed. J.W. Baldwin, M. Nortier and others (Paris, 1992), 412-13 nos 47-8.


Patent Rolls 1216-25, 46; RLC, i, 345b.


RLC, i, 203b.


RLC, i, 197.


For the fate of the Meulan estate, Norman Charters from English Sources: Archives, Antiquaries and the Rediscovery of the Anglo-Norman Past, ed. N. Vincent, Pipe Roll Society n.s. lix (2013), 150-4 nos 39-40, esp. pp.152-3.


M. T. Flanagan, ‘Lacy, Hugh de (d. 1186)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) [, accessed 27 April 2015].


For the summons to Richard, RLP, 134b. For Gerard and his son Richard as rebels, B. Golding, ‘Canville , Gerard de (d. 1214)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography(Oxford, 2004; online edn., Oct 2006) [, accessed 27 April 2015].


RLC, i, 198: 'et de corporibus vestris si opus fuerit'.


RLC, i, 198.

King John's Diary & Itinerary