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date: 25 February 2021

King John's evil counsellorsfree

(act. 1208–1214)
  • Nicholas Vincent

King John's evil counsellors (act. 1208–1214), were a group of thirty-two courtiers first defined by the chronicler Roger of Wendover, who describes them in his chronicle entry for 1211 not just as 'evil', but in the superlative, as 'most wicked counsellors' (consiliarios iniquissimos), accusing them of assisting King John during the time of the papal interdict on England (1208–14) and of urging him 'not towards reason but towards (arbitrary) will'.

The abettors of iniquity

Wendover's list, compiled at least ten years after the events described, and later copied and corrected in the 1230s by Matthew Paris, Wendover's successor as chronicler at the abbey of St Albans, begins with the names of three earls, William Longespée, third earl of Salisbury, the king's half-brother, Aubrey (IV) de Vere, second earl of Oxford (d. 1214), and Geoffrey fitz Peter, fourth earl of Essex and royal justiciar, and three bishops, Philip of Poitou, bishop of Durham, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, and John de Gray, bishop of Norwich. There then follow the names of three leading royal officials: Richard Marsh, described as king's chancellor, Hugh de Neville, the chief forester, and William of Wrotham, keeper of the sea ports and in effect treasurer of the king's navy. Thereafter follow the names of twenty-three laymen, all of them barons or knights, for the most part set out in pairs: Robert de Vieuxpont and his brother Ivo (d. after 1236); Brian de Lisle and Geoffrey de Lucy (d. c.1234); Hugh de Balliol (d. 1228) and Bernard his brother (d. c.1212); William (I) de Cantilupe and his son William (II) de Cantilupe; the elder William's uncle Fulk de Cantilupe and Henry of Cornhill [see under Cornhill, Gervase of], described here as sheriff of Kent; Henry of Braybrooke and his father Robert (d. 1211); Philip of Oldcoates and John of Bassingbourn (d. 1237); Philip Mark (d. c.1231), constable (and sheriff) of Nottingham; Peter (I) de Maulay and Robert de Gaugy (d. c.1219); Girard d'Athée and his nephew Engelard de Cigogné (d. 1244); Falkes de Bréauté and William Brewer; Peter fitz Herbert (d. 1235) and Thomas Basset.

Wendover's list of 1211 is not without errors. Matthew Paris, improving upon it a generation later, replaced the name of Henry of Cornhill with that of Reginald of Cornhill [see under Cornhill, Gervase of], to be identified either as Henry's brother and successor as sheriff of Kent, or this Reginald's son, Reginald the younger, who became sheriff in turn after his father and uncle. Both Wendover and Paris included Philip of Poitou, bishop of Durham, in their lists, despite the fact that he died in 1208, long detached from court and only a month after the interdict took effect. Even more significant than the mistakes are the omissions from Wendover's list. The chronicler himself admitted that there were many others he might have named. Royal charter lists from the period show that at least two earls, Saer de Quincy (d. 1219), earl of Winchester, and Ranulf (III), earl of Chester (1170–1232), remained prominent at court during the interdict. Especially telling is the omission of Hubert de Burgh (c.1170–1243), former royal chamberlain and from 1215 justiciar of England, who clearly enjoyed the closest trust of King John. This is presumably because Hubert was subsequently credited with good rather than evil deeds. The list needs, in fact, to be seen as a product of the mid-1220s, when Hubert was Henry III's chief minister. It was compiled with the intention of indicting courtiers like Peter des Roches and Falkes de Bréauté, whose reputations were by this time so tarnished that they could readily be charged with having played an evil role under King John. None the less, despite its peculiarities and omissions, it remains a useful, and for the most part reliable, catalogue of some, if by no means all, of the principal figures at court about 1210.

Status and experience

Of the thirty-two men named, five were clerks (the three bishops, Richard Marsh, and William of Wrotham) as opposed to twenty-seven laymen. Six were aliens, from Touraine or Poitou (Philip of Poitou, Peter des Roches, Philip Mark, Peter de Maulay, Girard d'Athée, and Engelard de Cigogné), and a further two (Falkes de Bréauté and Robert de Gaugy) were Normans who possessed no property in England before their promotion by King John. None the less, and despite the impression conveyed by the chroniclers that John's regime was entirely in the hands of ‘alien’ ministers, the majority of those named in Wendover's list were English or Anglo-Norman. If the three bishops are included, the majority were also barons, often of substantial landholding. Relatively few of these men are to be regarded as having been ‘raised from the dust’, in the sense that they had possessed little or no land by inheritance from their fathers, the only exceptions here being the aliens Philip Mark, Girard d'Athée, Engelard de Cigogné, Falkes de Bréauté, and possibly Robert de Gaugy, and the clerks Richard Marsh and William of Wrotham. Even so, others in the list, most notably the earls William Longespée (a royal bastard) and Geoffrey fitz Peter (son of a minor forest official), and the likes of William Brewer, Robert de Vieuxpont, or Robert of Braybrooke, were all raised from relative obscurity to great wealth as a result of their manipulation of the advantages conferred upon court servants. At least five of the thirty-two men—William, earl of Salisbury, William Brewer, John de Gray, Fulk and William (I) de Cantilupe—had served in John's household from at least the 1190s, before John's accession as king. One other point of coherence within the group, apart from their possession of the king's trust, appears to have been their age: most of them were born in the 1160s or 1170s, and thus were contemporaries of John, himself born in 1167. This is an interesting feature of John's inner circle and sets his court apart from that of his father, Henry II (1133–1189), where there was a much more diverse mingling of generations. The baronial opponents of the king have often been characterized as northerners, and it would be tempting to see the thirty-two men of Wendover's list as a balancing group of southerners loyal to the king. Certainly several of them, including William Brewer, Geoffrey fitz Peter, and William Longespée, held their principal estates in the southern counties of England. Yet even more striking is the way in which a dozen or so of these men were deliberately planted in the north as loyal agents of the king. Besides Philip of Poitou and Richard Marsh, successive bishops of Durham, Peter de Maulay was granted the northern lordships of Mulgrave and Doncaster, Philip of Oldcoates obtained the castle of Mitford in Northumberland, Robert de Vieuxpont was given the lordship of Westmorland, to which he had a claim through his mother, and was later made sheriff of Cumberland, Brian de Lisle was granted custody of the Stuteville lands and castles at Knaresborough and Boroughbridge, and Peter fitz Herbert, although a Hampshire baron, was promoted as sheriff of Yorkshire. Even Peter des Roches, the Tourangeau bishop of Winchester, was canvassed in 1214 for promotion as archbishop of York. The king's intention here was clearly to pacify the north through the deliberate importation of his southern friends.

Strained loyalties

As mutual friends of the king, various of these men are to be found acting in association with one another. For example in 1212, when an apparently light-hearted series of guarantees was extracted from courtiers for the future good conduct of Peter de Maulay, no less than thirteen of the thirty-two courtiers are to be found among the group who stood as Peter's pledges. The king's friendship, however, was a fickle and potentially dangerous phenomenon. During the course of John's reign very few even of his most intimate associates escaped entirely from royal anger, and from the extortionate fines by which such anger was expressed. Periods of disgrace, and large fines for the king's mercy, attended the careers of Robert de Vieuxpont (fined 4000 marks in 1208), Hugh de Neville (fined 6000 marks in 1210), Reginald of Cornhill (who offered 10,000 marks in the same year to have the lands and office as sheriff of Kent previously held by his father), William Brewer (in 1209 temporarily deprived of the office of sheriff), and Henry of Braybrooke (removed as sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1214). Rumours circulated that in 1214 the king had sought to cuckold William, earl of Salisbury, when the earl was a prisoner of the French. More recently historians have speculated both that the king enjoyed an illicit affair with the wife of Hugh de Neville, and that he effectively disgraced the justiciar, Geoffrey fitz Peter, during the last few years of Geoffrey's life.

As a result, although by 1215 these thirty-two courtiers controlled an extraordinary number of royal castles, and exercised authority from Kent to Northumberland, not all of them were steadfast in their attachment to the king. Geoffrey fitz Peter and Aubrey de Vere were both dead by 1215, but Geoffrey's son, Geoffrey de Mandeville, and Aubrey's brother, Robert de Vere, third earl of Oxford, were both numbered among the twenty-five barons pledged to defend Magna Carta against infringements by John. The preamble to Magna Carta named Peter des Roches, William, earl of Salisbury, Peter fitz Herbert, Hugh de Neville, and Thomas Basset among those loyalists from whom the king had sought counsel. None the less, even before John's death in 1216, three of these five men—Earl William, Peter fitz Herbert, and Hugh de Neville—had defected to the rebel cause. They were joined in rebellion by at least a further six of Wendover's group of thirty-two: Geoffrey de Lucy, John of Bassingbourn, Ivo de Vieuxpont, Reginald of Cornhill (accused of surrendering Rochester Castle to the rebels), Henry of Braybrooke, and, perhaps most remarkably of all, William of Wrotham, whose entire career and fortune had been built upon loyal service to the king. Allowing for the fact that by 1215 only twenty-five of the original thirty-two counsellors named by Wendover were still alive or active, this total of at least nine rebels represents a very high rate of defection, surely an indication of the degree to which John failed to inspire loyalty or trust, even among those considered his closest familiars.

Later careers and reputations

In the longer term, once peace was restored during the early years of the reign of Henry III, very few of the rebels were to be utterly disgraced. Reginald of Cornhill was imprisoned for several years, during which time he is said to have paid a ransom of at least £1200 to his former associate Peter de Maulay, but even he was later employed as a justice of assize. William of Wrotham disappears without trace after his rebellion, presumed dead. Several of the former rebels, including Ivo de Vieuxpont and John of Bassingbourn, never regained office or the degree of royal favour that they had enjoyed before 1215. Others, however, like Earl William and Hugh de Neville, returned to very much the same positions that they had occupied before the civil war, albeit in Neville's case after a hiatus of nearly a decade. Much more significant was the impact of civil war upon those of John's former counsellors who remained loyal: the likes of Robert de Gaugy, who defended Newark Castle, Philip of Oldcoates in Northumberland, Peter de Maulay at Corfe, or Philip Mark at Nottingham. In the aftermath of their successful prosecution of civil war these men became so entrenched in their local offices and their exploitation of the opportunities for self-enrichment that such office afforded that, having begun as the king's most loyal servants, they themselves became a threat to the effectiveness of royal government. The first to be uprooted was Robert de Gaugy, removed from Newark Castle in 1218 after nearly a year in which he had resisted demands that the castle be restored to its owner, the bishop of Lincoln. Gaugy's fellow constables faced similar demands in due course, in the case of Peter de Maulay accompanied by accusations that he was a traitor in the pocket of the French. The last to be uprooted was Falkes de Bréauté, whose removal in 1224 brought England once again close to the brink of civil war. In some cases the veterans of John's reign clubbed together for mutual support, as for example in the case of those, led by the earl of Chester and by Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, who attempted to resist the resumption of royal castles late in 1223. In other cases the disputes of Henry III's minority were themselves exacerbated by personal rivalries between the former servants of King John, for instance that between Henry of Braybrooke and Falkes de Bréauté, which played no small part in Falkes's downfall. Even after Henry III had in theory taken up the reins of power, the personalities and personal enmities of his father's reign continued to cast a shadow over English politics.

In the reissue of Magna Carta of 1225 seven of Wendover's thirty-two counsellors (Peter des Roches, William, earl of Salisbury, Robert de Vieuxpont, William Brewer, Peter fitz Herbert, Peter de Maulay, and Brian de Lisle) were still sufficiently prominent to merit inclusion in the charter's witness list. Even as late as 1232, when Peter des Roches initiated a regime intended to restore not only the personalities but something of the style of King John's government, there were various of John's ‘evil counsellors’ still active, including Peter de Maulay and Engelard de Cigogné, who once again rose high in favour at court. A break with the politics of the past was only effected after 1234, when des Roches fell from power and a new generation began to emerge onto the political scene. Even then, Peter de Maulay lived until 1241, Engelard de Cigogné to 1244. William de Cantilupe the younger, perhaps the last survivor of the group (the dates of the deaths of Ivo de Vieuxpont and Reginald of Cornhill remain uncertain), died as late as 1251, thirty-five years after the demise of King John.

As for the evil reputation that these men bequeathed to posterity, at least some of it was justified. Most acted harshly in their exercise of royal office; few showed any sympathy for the spirit of consent in royal government embodied in baronial manifestos like Magna Carta. William Brewer, indeed, famously declared, as late as 1223, that the liberties of Magna Carta 'should not rightfully be observed, since they were extorted by violence'. From Philip Mark's exploitation of his office as constable and sheriff of Nottingham it is possible to trace a direct line to the fictitious character of the sheriff of Nottingham portrayed in the Robin Hood legends. Henry of Braybrooke, although subsequently presented as the innocent victim of his fellow courtier Falkes de Bréauté, had risen to great wealth through the exploitation of Jewish debt, in effect as a Christian usurer. Even William, earl of Salisbury, although generally spared the odium that attached to such low-born alien constables as Girard d'Athée or Falkes de Bréauté, had been involved in the arrest of the exchequer clerk Geoffrey of Norwich, subsequently said to have been tortured to death by King John under a weight of iron. Such rumours were exaggerated, no doubt, but there was undoubtedly a dark side to John's court to which many of these men contributed. With Wendover's and Paris's account of English history serving as the mainstay of historical narrative from Holinshed onwards, and with the acceptance by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers of the ‘black legend’ of King John, it is hardly surprising that Wendover's list of ‘evil’ courtiers was used to lend spice to such accounts as those by William Stubbs, in which John was branded as the very worst of England's kings. Despite half-hearted attempts at rehabilitation in the twentieth century, the modern consensus appears to be that, although exaggerated, the sinister fame of John and his courtiers was by no means unmerited.

Sources

  • TNA: PRO, chancery records
  • Rogeri de Wendover chronica, sive, Flores historiarum, ed. H. O. Coxe, EHS, 4–5 (1841–4)
  • J. C. Holt, The northerners, 2nd edn (1992)
  • D. A. Carpenter, The minority of Henry III (1990)
  • J. C. Holt, ‘Philip Mark and the shrievalty of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the early thirteenth century’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 56 (1952), 8–24
  • N. Vincent, ‘Who's who in Magna Carta clause 50?’, Le médiéviste et la monographie familiale: sources, méthodes et problématiques, ed. M. Aurell (2004), 235–64
  • N. Vincent, ‘Jean, comte de Mortain: le futur roi et ses domaines en Normandie, 1183–1199’, 1204: la Normandie entre Plantagenêts et Capétiens, ed. A.-M. Flambard Héricher and V. Gazeau (2007), 37–59
, PRSoc. (1884–) [pipe rolls]
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
English Historical Society