By Trevor Foulds
Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, Vol. 95 (1991)
Introduction: The last years of King Henry II’s reign were troubled by fierce family squabbles between him and his sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John. In order to try and secure a peaceful succession to the ramshackle edifice commonly termed the Angevin empire, Henry had proposed that young Henry would have Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Normandy and England, but in practice he was given no real power in these lands. Richard received Aquitaine in which he had real power. Geoffrey was married to Constance, the only daughter of the Duke of Brittany over whom Henry II claimed lordship; Geoffrey successfully imposed himself on the somewhat reluctant Bretons. As yet, John had nothing. John was made lord of Ireland in 1185 but his personal rule was so disastrous that he ignominiously scuttled back to England a failure six months later having wasted his resources. Death upset everything. Young Henry died of dysentry in 1183. Henry tried to affect a re-distribution of land to provide John with something by proposing that Richard release Aquitaine to John. Richard refused. Henry countered by refusing formally to recognise Richard as his heir. Richard was aggrieved, felt insecure and prepared for war. The situation was explosive and ripe for exploitation. The young king of France, Philip II, Henry II’s overlord for his continental possessions, gradually revealed the ambition which had remained concealed for some years: the ultimate dismemberment of the Angevin empire. It would take some years but here was the start. Devious and deceitful, he played one son off against the other and the sons against their father. Geoffrey was fatally wounded in a tournament and died in 1186. His son, Arthur, was born posthumously. Richard was keen to go on crusade but since Henry refused formally to recognise him as his heir he remained unsure of obtaining the crown of England. So Richard and Philip made war on Henry II. Henry was ill and they hounded him even to his death-bed. On seeing his son John’s name at the head of a list of his enemies, Henry’s will to live left him and he died almost alone at Chinon on 6th July 1189 at only 56 years of age.
When Richard became king in July 1189 he carried out Henry II’s expressed but unfulfilled intentions regarding John. John was made Count of Mortain, which placed him amongst the higher ranks of the Norman barons, but did not provide him with much income. This Richard resolved by marrying John to the great heiress, Isabella of Gloucester. She brought with her the Earldom of Gloucester, which made John one of the greatest barons in England and gave him a substantial income. However, there was to be more. The Pipe Roll of 1189 reveals that John had been granted the honors of Peveril, Tickhill and Lancaster, two manors in Suffolk, land in Northamptonshire, the profits of Sherwood Forest and the Forest of Andover in Wiltshire. The grant of the honors of Peveril and Lancaster included the honorial castles, whereas the castles of Tickhill and Gloucester were reserved to the king as was Orford Castle in one of the Suffolk manors. Further honors were also given: Marlborough and Ludgershall with the castles, Eye and Wallingford possibly without the castles. Before the end of the year he received the counties of Nottingham, Derby, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall with the vill of Nottingham and its honor, but not Nottingham Castle. John still held Ireland but after the disastrous earlier episode he no longer ruled Ireland personally. Richard’s grants to John virtually created a kingdom within a kingdom and it was hoped that this would satisfy John and keep him quiet when Richard left on crusade. This form of government might have worked had the personalities involved in the delicate balancing act done their share of the balancing, but it was not to be. Since Richard was unmarried when he left on crusade, from which he might not return, and his subsequent marriage to Berengaria of Navarre failed to produce an heir, John was the only adult heir of Richard, as Arthur, son of their brother Geoffrey, was a mere child. Neither the government left behind by Richard nor Queen Eleanor herself, John’s mother, could afford to unduly upset John, a situation he fully exploited.