King John and Rouen: Royal itineration, kingship, and the Norman ‘capital’, c. 1199 – c. 1204
By Paul Webster
Cardiff Historical Papers (2008)
Introduction: On Sunday 25 April 1199, before he became king of England, John was acclaimed Duke of Normandy in Rouen Cathedral and invested with a coronet of golden roses. The Life of St Hugh of Lincoln, written with the considerable benefit of hindsight later in the reign, claimed that John was ‘little absorbed by the rite’, adding that he carelessly dropped the ducal lance placed ‘reverently in his hand’ by the archbishop of Rouen, Walter of Coutances. Those present declared that ‘this was a bad portent’, later manifested in the loss of Normandy and other parts of John’s continental inheritance, circumstances the author of the Life attributes to the king’s lack of faith in God. This passage encapsulates the stereotypical view of John, portraying a ruler unconcerned with his duchy, and unimpressed by the ceremonial of inauguration in its foremost religious building, Rouen Cathedral, in the regional, indeed ducal, capital. Such views are undoubtedly what commentators on John’s reign, down to the present day, have consistently preferred to believe. This article will argue that the duke’s relationship with Rouen calls such negativity into question.
In considering King John and Rouen, this study will take the reign of the last duke as the focal point for discussion of the importance of Rouen at the end of Angevin rule in Normandy. It will pose two questions. Firstly, how often was John at Rouen between his acclamation as duke and the fall of the city to King Philip Augustus of France on 24 June 1204, the event regarded as marking the so‐called ‘loss of Normandy’? To summarise the answer, of the regions of the Angevin Empire, John was usually to be found in Normandy, with Rouen occupying a place of paramount importance. Secondly, what did King John do for Rouen? Here, analysis of royal documents referring to the city and its inhabitants reveals that Rouen’s office‐holders and merchants were key figures in the implementation of government orders on the ground, an involvement that was not without reward. In addition, John demonstrated his awareness of the significance of the Norman ducal capital not only through his regular presence in the city, but also through his largesse to Rouen’s churches and churchmen.
In order to answer the question of how often King John was at Rouen, it is worthwhile to begin with a survey of the royal itinerary as a whole. Normandy emerges as the hub of the Angevin Empire. John Gillingham cites figures suggesting that Henry II based himself in his French territories for roughly 63% of his time, with just over two‐thirds of this spent in Normandy. Similarly, after his return from crusade and captivity, Richard I passed a total of over three years in Normandy, one year in Anjou, eight months in Aquitaine, and less than two months in England. In the early years of John’s reign, Normandy continued to be the axis around which Angevin itinerant rule was based, so much so that Gillingham, hardly John’s greatest fan, concludes that ‘so far as his itinerary is concerned’, John ‘was a typical Angevin ruler’ who ‘became an English king only by default and against his will’.