Blood Cries Afar: The Magna Carta War and the Invasion of England 1215-1217

Blood Cries Afar: The Magna Carta War and the Invasion of England 1215-1217

by Sean McGlynn


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Blood Cries Afar: The Magna Carta War and the Invasion of England 1215-1217 by Sean McGlynn

Exactly 150 years after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, history came extremely close to repeating itself when another army set sail from the Continent with the intention of imposing foreign rule on England. This time the invasion force was under the command of Louis the Lion, son and heir of the powerful French king Philip Augustus. Taking advantage of the turmoil created in England by the civil war over Magna Carta and by King John’s disastrous rule, Prince Louis and his army of French soldiers and mercenaries allied with the barons of the English rebel forces. The prize was England itself.The invasion was one of the most dramatic episodes of British history. This specially updated edition of Blood Cries Afar contains new material on the importance of the Magna Carta and the conflict that surrounded its birth. It tells a dramatic and violent but overlooked story, with a broad appeal to those interested in the history of England and France, and war in an age of kings, knights, castles, battles and brutality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750963916
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sean McGlynn is the author of By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare and is a regular contributor to history magazines and academic journals such as BBC History, English Historical Review, and History Today.

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Blood Cries Afar

The Magna Carta War and the Invasion of England 1215â"1217

By Sean McGlynn

The History Press

Copyright © 2015 Sean McGlynn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9251-3


Enemies: The Angevin-Capetian Struggle

Henry II

When, at the age of 21, the young Henry Plantagenet ascended the throne of England in December 1154, he established a new royal dynasty, the fame of which ensured its name would echo through the ages. His sons, the 'Devil's brood', included two of England's most legendary kings, resulting in a succession of three remarkable monarchs from 1154 to 1216. Henry ushered in an age of constitutional and legal changes against a turbulent background of political intrigue, diplomatic manoeuvring and, above all, war. But, first and foremost, he founded the Angevin Empire.

Son of the Empress Matilda, heiress of England, and Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and grandson of King Henry I of England and Fulk of Anjou, King of Jerusalem, Henry was clearly born for great things; but even his natural ambitions must have been pleasantly exceeded by the relative ease with which he became King of England. One contemporary chronicler wrote: 'It is astonishing how such great good fortune came to him so fast and so suddenly.' The struggle for the throne of England which had plunged the nation into the anarchy of King Stephen's reign was ended by the treaty of Winchester in 1153. By the terms of this treaty Stephen recognised Henry as his heir, jure hereditario. Stephen, worn out by the incessant strife of his reign and shattered by the sudden death of his eldest son Eustace, whom he had groomed to succeed him, relinquished any further serious dynastic ambitions for his own house and acquiesced to the demands of the Church, which sought peace for both sides, and to the barely tempered demands of his Angevin competitors. The treaty left Henry as the first undisputed heir and successor to the throne of England in over a century. What Henry had only partially achieved by military force, fate had finished for him.

By the time of his Christmas coronation in 1154, Henry was already a hugely powerful figure on the European stage: Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and, through his inspired marriage to the divorced wife of King Louis VII of France, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou. This match with Eleanor of Aquitaine had doubled his continental dominions and halved those of King Louis at a stroke. It was an irony of the French king's dissolved marriage that Eleanor had borne him only two daughters – a serious, if blameless, failing in any queen – but went on to provide her new husband with no less than four sons. However, despite this temporary blip for the French crown, the Capetian dynasty, founded in 987 and from which Louis was the eighth monarch, was notably fortunate in its long unbroken line of direct and relatively undisputed male successions; Louis later went on to produce a son with a new bride. But Henry had married not only into power – he had also married into considerable trouble. For as much as Eleanor was bored by her unadventurous and unsatisfying life with Louis – she had complained that she had been married to a monk, not a king – it would seem that Henry was more than a match for this extraordinary woman; the result was a clash of two overbearing, ambitious and egotistical personalities. The marriage, even though a royal one, was not big enough to contain them. Henry, eleven years younger than Eleanor, took a series of mistresses, the most famous being Rosamund Clifford; Eleanor herself stood accused of infidelities during her marriage to Louis. Henry was a powerfully built, robust and energetic man who engaged upon an almost frenetically active involvement in the governance of his lands. Eleanor, despite her allegedly amorous appetite, struck an elegant figure as queen and patroness of the arts. In a manner reminiscent of the Empress Livia in Augustine Rome, she channelled her own ambitions through her male offspring; Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John. These she turned against her husband, so much so that Henry compared himself to a picture in which an old eagle was being relentlessly harried and pecked by four eaglets.

For two decades Henry's reign was clearly a fruitful one. He re-established order and royal authority in England, leaving himself free to consolidate his continental interests; by 1173 he had accomplished this by becoming overlord of the neighbouring territories of the Vexin, Brittany and Toulouse, a tribute to his formidable diplomatic skills. All were of strategic importance and would prove to be so in the years of war that were to follow. He began the subjugation of Ireland and forged close links with Henry, Duke of Saxony, and also with Navarre and Lombardy. The Constitution and Assizes of Clarendon in the mid 1160s added renown to his political authority and, notwithstanding the controversy over Archbishop Thomas Becket's death in 1170, 1173 saw Henry esteemed as perhaps the pre-eminent ruler in western Christendom. It was at this moment he faced the greatest challenges to his authority, all of which emanated from within his own family. Motivated by King Louis of France, who never failed to meddle in and ferment Angevin familial discord, and by their mother Eleanor, Henry's sons allied themselves with disaffected barons and the King of Scotland in a military strike at the crown. However, a lack of synchronisation and coordination by the rebels doomed their revolt and permitted Henry to deal with and overcome one threat at a time. Henry was magnanimous in victory to his eaglets, but unforgiving of Eleanor: for the rest of Henry's reign, she remained in effective imprisonment.

In 1183 trouble brewed up again. In an acute manifestation of sibling rivalry the young Henry, who held Normandy, Maine and Anjou, allied with his brother Geoffrey, who held Brittany, against Richard, Duke of Aquitaine and their father. The two eldest sons were aided in their task by the new King of France, the eighteen-year-old Philip II. This dangerous instability threatened the Angevin power structure but was removed by the unexpected death from dysentery of the young Henry. Richard thereby became heir to the throne of England and inherited the elder brother's continental lands. Henry II wished to provide for John, his youngest and most favoured son, by giving him Richard's duchy of Aquitaine. Richard would have none of this: his many talents were already well established and he successfully countered all moves against him. In 1186 Henry was threatened by Geoffrey, again spurred on by King Philip of France; once again the premature death of a son – Geoffrey was killed in a tournament accident – saved Henry's position from greater danger. But the last years of Henry's reign witnessed no alleviation of his troubles. The scent of a new order was in the air and the old King found it increasingly difficult to shake off the hereditary hounds. His initially cordial relations with Philip of France broke down into open warfare. At first he was assisted by Richard against the French king, but then opposed by him. Inexplicably, Henry continued to favour John at the expense of Richard, his most gifted son. Prompted by fears for his inheritance and by Philip's sly encouragement, Richard joined forces with the French King in a well-organised military campaign against Henry over a battle-ground that was thus prepared for the conflicts of John's reign. Henry lost Le Mans and Touraine, and hence the struggle. In July 1189 he succumbed to the humiliating terms of Richard and Philip. Two days after signing his defeat, sick in heart and body, Henry died.

Richard I

True to the ever-changing nature of medieval alliances, when Richard became King of England the familiar pattern of Angevin-Capetian rivalry was renewed afresh, barely restrained even by their combined leadership of the Third Crusade (1190–2). Whatever King Philip had learned from the military genius of Richard in the Holy Land, he could not put it to effective use against him back in Europe, for Richard usually bettered the French King at war. Philip had returned home early from the crusade, making much of an illness that was afflicting him (arnoldia), but in reality his purpose was to lay claim to his inheritance of the county of Flanders, using the opportunity to make gains on Richard's continental territories in the English king's absence; he was not overly deferential to the protection afforded by the Papacy to crusader's lands. This was about the only time that Philip made any real sustained headway against Richard; and what progress he did make was often in collusion with John, Richard's treacherous younger brother. On his return, Richard soon made good any losses he had incurred while in the Holy Land or while incarcerated by Henry VI of Germany.

Richard was adored by contemporaries for the chivalric hero he was; the judgement of historians has proved, until recently at least, to be more censorious, one damning him as 'A bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler, and a vicious man'. The two main charges laid against him are his over-exploitation of England's resources to fund his 'foreign' wars and his wholesale neglect of his kingdom due to his absence fighting these wars on the continent, spending only a few months of his entire reign in England. The first of these charges will be discussed later in the context of Angevin military finance; the second has been comprehensively rejected by John Gillingham (though not universally accepted) who has shown the importance of Richard's continental lands to overall Angevin strategy. Richard's assured judgement of character (except where his younger brother is concerned: he was extremely lenient with John's rebellions and alliances with King Philip of France) meant that England was always left in safe hands; indeed, as J.C. Holt has written of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury and chief justiciar who governed England in Richard's absence, the King actually benefited from 'one of the greatest royal ministers of all time'.

A further, neglected but extremely positive aspect is suggested here. Richard's victories abroad, brought about by his active involvement in warfare, denoted greater security for England, not less. One only has to examine John's pitiful record on the continent – which we will soon be doing – to witness the consequences of military defeat there, when unsuccessful campaigns were invariably followed by threats of invasion. In 1216 these threats were put into operation and became frighteningly real after heavy English losses in France. It has always been Britain's strategy to fight its wars on foreign soil, thereby preventing conflict on home territory. This strategy is widely understood in the more modern context of the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century and the world wars of the twentieth century. Thus one historian of the Napoelonic wars has written for the early nineteenth century that 'in one sense Britain's defences began east of the Rhine with her Continental allies. Military dependence kept drawing Britain into European affairs.' (In fact Richard carefully nurtured alliances with German princes.) Even in the twenty-first century, the British government has justified military action as far afield as Iraq and Afghanistan as a means to ensure safety at home. This is, as one historian of the Cold War put it, 'the age-old formula of security-through-expansion'. The feudal nature of English medieval society does not preclude England, as many seem to think, from adhering to the wisdom of such a sensible 'age-old' policy in this earlier period. We can see this policy in action in the period of the Hundred Years War. Between 1377 and 1383, English strategy centred on taking and holding forts along the northern French coast to prevent further French and Castilian raids on the south coast which had culminated in an invasion of the Isle of Wight in 1377. This strategy was sold successfully to the commons, which granted the huge war funds for it, as a defensive measure. With the expiry of a truce in 1385, the French King Charles VI began preparations for an invasion of England the following year. He was in a position to do so because he had gained control of ports in Flanders from where he could assemble and launch his huge invasion fleet. This 'presented the most serious threat that England had faced in the whole course of the war, and provoked widespread panic in southern England'. The fleet of 1386 gathered near Damme, in exactly the same place where the French King Philip Augustus had gathered his invasion fleet in 1213. Had John been as successful as Richard in his continental wars, then Philip would not have been in a position to pose this threat then or for his son to make the threat a reality three years later in 1216. This is the overlooked vindication for Richard's policy of fighting his wars abroad. This book will show how John's military failures combined with his political ones to leave England exposed to invasion.

Seen in this light, it is a measure of Richard's achievement that he did spend so much of his time fighting on the continent; likewise, it is an indication of John's shortcomings that in 1216 he fought his last war in England and against French invaders. It may safely be assumed that the French subjects of King Philip were happier during 1216–17 when their troops were inflicting the ravages of war on the English, than in the 1190s when Richard the Lionheart took the war to them. It is likely that contemporaries understood this; hence the English offered their grateful praise for Richard's military accomplishments, which were regarded in practical rather than merely jingoistic terms: the defence of the realm was a king's highest duty, and Richard performed it supremely well. It is therefore not surprising that fears of a French invasion abounded in England on Richard's death in April 1199, mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt shot from the battlements of a castle while suppressing a revolt in the Limoges. As William the Breton, no lover of the Angevin king, wrote of this event: 'God visited the kingdom of the French, for King Richard died.'

The Angevin Empire

At the close of the twelfth century, the Angevin Empire stretched from the north of England to the Pyrenees, splitting modern France in half all the way down. It was a disparate collection of lands which included the peoples of Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Anjou, Limouisin, Angoulême, Agenais and Gascony at a time of pre-nascent French identity. Some of this territory, most notably Normandy, was held from the King of France as a suzerain; some of it formed part of personal patrimony. Holt has written: 'The Plantagenet lands were not designed as an "empire", as a great centralised administrative structure ... On the contrary, these lands were simply cobbled together.' Yet this construction worked: with little more to unite it than a common allegiance to its (usually absent) master, it managed to be a viable, indeed healthy, entity. Under Henry's and Richard's dynamic itinerant rule, the natural strengths of the empire came to the fore. As ever when examining territorial struggles, it is necessary first to establish the state of the regional economies. Gillingham has demonstrated these to be of great importance; thus they aroused the predatory interest of rulers, princes and magnates. 'Economically speaking the Angevin Empire may be described as a number of complementary regions bound together by a series of well-defined waterways,' he writes; the Angevins 'ruled over an immense trading zone'. Chief among the commodities were grain, salt and wine, especially that coming from Anjou, Aquitaine, Bordeaux and Poitou. The busy traffic down along the Seine, Loire and Garonne testified to the economic viability of the empire which garnered great profits from this traffic in trade. Lucrative tolls, customs and licences added further to the Angevins' wealth. Economic strength translated into military strength; as the anonymous chronicler of Béthune notes, King Richard was 'extremely rich in land and resources, much more so than the King of France. He could raise a very large army from his vassals and mercenaries, for he was able to summon English, Normans, Bretons, Manceaux, Angevins and Poitevins. He also had numerous routiers, who inflicted much damage on the King of France.' So here was another clear reason for Richard devoting so much of his time to the Empire: it was a source of funding for his wars and enabled him to continue his conflict on the Continent, outside his kingdom. England, too, was wealthy; but its relatively stable boundaries and greater centralisation of power, which owed much to the efforts of Henry II, meant that by and large it could confidently be left in the hands of competent administrators. The more volatile situation on the continent, with the Angevin frontier running contiguously with a hostile Capetian one (to which must be added the consideration of the more fragmented form of political life there) demanded greater attention. Although suzerains of France, the Capetians could lay claim only to personal royal lands centred on the Île-de-France, extending in a corridor from Artois in the north to Berry in the south.


Excerpted from Blood Cries Afar by Sean McGlynn. Copyright © 2015 Sean McGlynn. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


Warfare and Medieval History,
1 Enemies: The Angevin-Capetian Struggle,
2 The Conquest of Normandy, 1200–1204,
3 War, Politics and the First Invasion Attempt, 1205–1213,
4 The Battle of Bouvines, 1214,
5 Magna Carta, Civil War and the Countdown to Invasion, 1215,
6 The Invasion of England, 1216,
7 The Battle for England, 1216–1217,
8 The Last Campaign, 1217,
Appendix 1 King John and the Historians: Turning in Circles,
Appendix 2 The Robin Hood Legend,
Appendix 3 William of Kensham: Resistance Fighter,
Appendix 4 The Legacy of Magna Carta,
Appendix 5 Magna Carta Translation,

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