"Why, in May 1215, did the barons rebel against King John?"
King John is one of the kings of England whom history has judged to have been a poor and unsuccessful king. In personality he is remembered as a cruel tyrant and his reign saw colossal military failures on the continent. However, the most famous element of his reign is the rebellion of the barons in 1215, a rebellion of some of the leading men of the kingdom against their king that was to lead to the Magna Carta, an important step towards Britain’s transformation into a constitutional monarchy.
From Magna Carta, we can see that one of the prime concerns of the barons who rebelled against King John was the fear of arbitrary government. For many years the Angevin governmental system had been becoming more and more arbitrary and centralised. While they doubtless saw the need for strong government to prevent chaos, the barons saw that as the administration became more professional, the government was demanding fewer men from the nobility and more with new administrative skills. A new class of administrators grew up, gradually supplanting the aristocracy in offices at the royal court and the localities. The government doubtless preferred these new men because they were totally dependant on royal favour, rather than having their own means, but this meant that the baronage was deprived of the influence and wealth that came with office. This change in the nature of the crown’s appointees extended to the military, where changes in warfare meant traditional cavalry were needed less than professional soldiers, skilled with the crossbow and siege technology.
The creation of a caste of professional administrators and soldiers threatened the place of the barons as the chief deputies of the king, and their role in the running of the kingdom changed to an increasingly financial one - John demanded increasing amounts from the barons while their access to the advantages of government was reduced. John was also making increasing demands for their military service, something the barons showed increasing resentment to. Here was the essential difference between the crown and the baronage - the crown felt its aristocracy owed service for the wealth and privilege it possessed; the aristocracy felt its wealth and ancestry entitled it to the rewards of office, something it saw was being denied.
The reasons that the majority of the barons had for disliking the governmental style of John go beyond feeling shut out of profitable offices and consulted less frequently than they once were. They resented the foreign men, sometimes mercenaries, appointed by John to administrative posts. They resented his use of the debts many of them were in to control them and ensure their obedience. Many claimed that John ruled unjustly, not using judgement but arbitrary action to settle problems. Yet many of these worries had been brought against kings in the past and rebellion had not followed. This is partly because a rebellion needs a leadership, a group embittered enough to take up arms, with personal reasons for opposing the rule of the anointed king, and it was the formation of such a group that brought a full scale rebellion.
All kings face some discontent and opposition. This is generally caused because there is great competition for royal patronage, something which is limited, and therefore there will be many who are disappointed and feel unjustly treated. Such discontent is best fought by enlisting the support of the more powerful magnates, who will be respected and feared by the lesser magnates; playing one baron off against the other and keeping the peace and stability. However, this is not something that John did well. Few magnates came into his court and achieved influence, and his extremely harsh treatment of William de Braose, an early favourite, was enough to make any baron somewhat mistrustful of him. Indeed, much of the relations between John and his magnates are characterised by mutual mistrust. John’s naturally suspicious character meant none could be certain they were in his favour. Chroniclers tell how he seemed to hate all men of wealth and power, through simple jealousy. By the end of his reign he had broken so many promises that he was no longer trusted, another factor meaning he lost the active support of men who could have maintained his position.
There were also aspects to John’s personality which inspired a certain personal opposition from many barons. Charges of lustfulness were often brought against him, and is known to have had many mistresses and bastards. Several leading rebel barons cite John’s lust towards their wives or relations as prime reasons for their opposition. Alongside this is a great capacity for cruelty, such as his ordering the murder of his nephew Arthur and the death by starvation of Matilda de Briouse and her son. Also, in 1212 he ordered the execution of 28 sons of Welsh chieftains, hostages from their parents; something considered far too barbaric even in those days.
If the changes in the nature of royal government and role of the aristocracy provided the general discontent for rebellion and the personality of the king with its embittered and driven leadership, the campaign to recapture his lost territories on the continent in 1214 provided the timing for a rebellion. His call to arms had been met with a mixture of resentment and apathy by many barons, who felt that they were not required to fight on the continent, and those who refused to go had been fined, causing even greater resentment. The government of the kingdom had been left in the unpopular hands of the justicar Peter des Roches, resented because of his harsh rule and because he was a foreigner. This may have all been overcome had the campaign been successful, but it was heavily defeated by the French king and John returned demoralised and weakened. He was not completely ruined but his defeat meant that he seemed a great deal less formidable than if he had been successful, and when he returned he faced opposition which was considerable more bold, if not more numerous. Just before his arrival in the country the rebels met at an abbey and swore that if the king would not grant their demands, based on Henry I’s charter of liberties, they would wage war on him. In the resulting confrontation and civil war only a minority of the barons actually rebelled, but most of the rest would not either stand for their king, remaining neutral.
While this rebellion is a very important event in English history, it is important to put it into its proper context. It can be seen as part of a struggle between the King and his aristocracy for control of the wealth and power in the kingdom that had been fought for centuries. The reign of King Stephen, over half a century previously, was a time when the aristocracy took much of this as the royal government was in disarray, but the Angevin kings who followed Stephen did much to push the boundary back, taking much autonomy from the aristocracy and increasing their financial dominance. This was bound to cause reaction from the baronage, but John’s predecessors had managed to keep peace, at least partly because of their strong characters and military success. John was in many ways more able than his father and bother - he was an active king and an intelligent man, and his military ambitions came very close to success, but since he continued the expansion of royal power he was bound to face the same danger of rebellion, and he did not have many of the factors which helped his predecessors. His character did not inspire loyalty and even incited some to oppose his for personal reasons, even including revenge. He did not have military success to overawe or buy the magnates with. The pressures and complaints he faced had been seen in the reigns of his brother, his father - even back to Henry I, but his personality and military failings meant that the pressure could not be held off and the royal authority was finally rebelled against.