King John vs Barons: 1-1 in Espionage Cup semifinals

The Magna Carta season is upon us and everyone who’s known King John of England ‘personally’ (via narrative chronicles and government records, that is) find themselves revisiting the years 1214-17 and ‘reliving’ the ups and down of king and barons in one of the most pivotal moments of British history. This year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the drafting, sealing and granting of Magna Carta, that pomme de discorde of 13th-century cider-drinking monarch and aristocracy.

More and more people are likely to learn this year about the ‘Baronial War’, the ‘Road to Runnymede’, the ‘Security Clause’, disseisins, pipe rolls and reliefs, and many other exotic concepts that have traditionally acted as conversational stoppers every time a medievalist was asked by a non-medievalist, ‘What are you working on?’.

I was looking today at one of the most valuable narratives written in the reign of king John. It is a chronicle written by a Cistercian abbot named Ralph at the monastery of Coggeshall in Essex. Ralph’s chronicle is fascinating and would make a good read for anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Ralph is very well-informed when it comes to reporting on the events on either side of 1215. His prose is detailed and well-constructed. He gets my attention on different details and aspects of the conflict every time I go back to him, and this time was no different.

Ralph has something exciting to say about the war between king John and his rebelled barons, and it has to do with sabotage and deception. Very few have noticed the information war that was being carried out by both sides and which complemented the traditional I’ll-take-your-castle-you-take-mine warfare. Ralph has two examples of this.

As the English barons were promising the English crown to prince Louis, the French king’s son, John began a ruse de guerre which proved almost successful. Ralph wrote that John addressed letters to king Philip of France but faked the seals (aka messed up the handwriting and signatures) so that the letters would seem to be sent by the English barons to the French king. In them, he assured Philip that the had made peace with the barons and that an invasion was no longer sustainable. This ‘stropha fraudulosa’ (fraudulent artifice) almost paid dividends, since when Philip read the letters, he suspected treason and, one may guess, almost broke negotiations with the barons. The ploy failed when Saer de Quincy, the earl of Winchester, convinced Philip that ‘litterae illae mendosae erant’ (those letters were false). Persuaded as he was, Philip demanded hostages from the barons, and the way Ralph put it suggests that his confidence in the barons was shaken, just as John had intended. Other occasions presented themselves. With London in the hands of the barons, John played his trick on some of them too, hoping that it would prevent others from joining the rebellion.

That was not all. If it had been, then at least on the basis of Ralph’s story, John alone would have graduated from the college of medieval deception. But the barons returned the favour. Towards autumn 1216, John was travelling up and down the country like bad news, which in the middle ages always led to a deficit of information about where the king was and was doing. No doubt the barons exploited this crack in John’s reputation (as they had done on many previous occasions, cough seducer/slayer of barons’ wives, cough). They spread the ‘fallax fama’ (fallacious rumour) of his death and secret burial at Reading. John was not dead, but was going to die in less than a year. We learn from another source that when he died, the rumour of his death did not circulate immediately, not even to Dover, where the besieged garrison obtained a 6-month truce, clearly hoping that John would come and relieve them.

This may not be much to show that the civil war was revolutionary in any significant way, but it shows that both parties were ready to make use of methods that were not conventional in the High Middle Ages. Kings and nobles had used many kinds of tactical tricks, but to falsify documents in order to sabotage your enemy’s standing with their allies, and to fake your enemy’s death in order to undermine support, that was the way of the future. 13th century England was set on it.

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