The King replied by confiscating the lands of the clergy who observed the interdict, by subjecting them in spite of their privileges to the royal courts, and often by leaving outrages on them unpunished. "Let him go," said John, when a Welshman was brought before him for the murder of a priest, "he has killed my enemy!" A year passed before the Pope proceeded to the further sentence of excommunication. John was now formally cut off from the pale of the Church; but the new sentence was met with the same defiance as the old. Five of the bishops fled over sea, and secret disaffection was spreading widely, but there was no public avoidance of the excommunicated King. An Archdeacon of Norwich who withdrew from his service was crushed to death under a cope of lead, and the hint was sufficient to prevent either prelate or noble from following his example. Though the King stood alone, with nobles estranged from him and the Church against him, his strength seemed utterly unbroken. From the first moment of his rule John had defied the baronage. The promise to satisfy their demand for redress of wrongs in the past reign, a promise made at his election, remained unfulfilled; when the demand was repeated he answered it by seizing their castles and taking their children as hostages for their loyalty.
The cost of his fruitless threats of war had been met by heavy and repeated taxation. The quarrel with the Church and fear of their revolt only deepened his oppression of the nobles. He drove De Braose, one of the most powerful of the Lords Marchers, to die in exile, while his wife and grandchildren were believed to have been starved to death in the royal prisons. On the nobles who still clung panic-stricken to the court of the excommunicate king John heaped outrages worse than death. Illegal exactions, the seizure of their castles, the preference shown to foreigners, were small provocations compared with his attacks on the honour of their wives and daughters. But the baronage still submitted; and the King's vigour was seen by the rapidity with which he crushed a rising of the nobles in Ireland, and foiled an outbreak of the Welsh. Hated as he was the land remained still. Only one weapon now remained in Innocent's hands. An excommunicate king had ceased to be a Christian, or to have claims on the obedience of Christian subjects. As spiritual heads of Christendom, the Popes had ere now asserted their right to remove such a ruler from his throne and to give it to a worthier than he; and this right Innocent at last felt himself driven to exercise.
He issued a bull of deposition against John, proclaimed a crusade against him, and committed the execution of his sentence to Philip of France.
John met it with the same scorn as before. His insolent disdain suffered the Roman legate, Cardinal Pandulf, to proclaim his deposition to his face at Northampton. An enormous army gathered at his call on Barham Down; and the English fleet dispelled all danger of invasion by crossing the Channel, by capturing a number of French ships, and by burning Dieppe.
But it was not in England only that the King showed his strength and activity. Vile as he was, John possessed in a high degree the political ability of his race, and in the diplomatic efforts with which he met the danger from France he showed himself his father's equal. The barons of Poitou were roused to attack Philip from the south. John bought the aid of the Count of Flanders on his northern border. The German King, Otto, pledged himself to bring the knighthood of Germany to support an invasion of France. But at the moment of his success in diplomacy John suddenly gave way. It was in fact the revelation of a danger at home which shook him from his attitude of contemptuous defiance. The bull of deposition gave fresh energy to every enemy. The Scotch King was in correspondence with Innocent. The Welsh princes who had just been forced to submission broke out again in war. John hanged their hostages, and called his host to muster for a fresh inroad into Wales, but the army met only to become a fresh source of danger. Powerless to resist openly, the baronage had plunged almost to a man into secret conspiracies; many promised aid to Philip on his landing.
John, in the midst of hidden enemies, was only saved by the haste with which he disbanded his army and took refuge in Nottingham Castle. His daring self-confidence, the skill of his diplomacy, could no longer hide from him the utter loneliness of his position. At war with Rome, with France, with Scotland, Ireland and Wales, at war with the Church, he saw himself disarmed by this sudden revelation of treason in the one force left at his disposal. With characteristic suddenness he gave way. He endeavoured by remission of fines to win back his people. He negotiated eagerly with the Pope, consented to receive the Archbishop, and promised to repay the money he had extorted from the Church. The shameless ingenuity of the King's temper was seen in his immediate resolve to make Rome his ally, to turn its spiritual thunder against his foes, to use it in breaking up the confederacy it had formed against him. His quick versatile temper saw the momentary gain to be won. On the 15th of May 1213 he knelt before the legate Pandulf, surrendered his kingdom to the Roman See, took it back again as a tributary vassal, swore fealty and did liege homage to the Pope.
In after times men believed that England thrilled at the news with a sense of national shame such as she had never felt before. "He has become the Pope's man," the whole country was said to have murmured; " he has forfeited the very name of King; from a free man he has degraded himself into a serf." But we see little trace of such a feeling in the contemporary accounts of the time. As a political measure indeed the success of John's submission was complete. The French army at once broke up in impotent rage, and when Philip turned against the enemy whom John had raised up for him in Flanders, five hundred English ships under the Earl of Salisbury fell upon the fleet which accompanied his army along the coast and utterly destroyed it. The league which John had so long matured at last disclosed itself. The King himself landed in Poitou, rallied its nobles round him, crossed the Loire in triumph, and won back Angers, the home of his race. At the same time Otto, reinforcing his German army by the knighthood of Flanders and Boulogne as well as by a body of English troops, threatened France from the north. For the moment Philip seemed lost, and yet on the fortunes of Philip hung the fortunes of English freedom.
But in this crisis of her fate France was true to herself and her King; the townsmen marched from every borough to Philip's rescue, priests led their flocks to battle with the Church banners flying at their head. The two armies met near the bridge of Bouvines, between Lille and Tournay, and from the first the day went against the allies. The Flemish were the first to fly; then the Germans in the centre were overwhelmed by the numbers of the French; last of all the English on the right were broken by a fierce onset of the Bishop of Beauvais, who charged mace in hand and struck the Earl of Salisbury to the ground. The news of this complete overthrow reached John in the midst of his triumphs in the South, and scattered his hopes to the winds. He was at once deserted by the Poitevin nobles, and a hasty retreat alone enabled him to return, baffled and humiliated, to his island kingdom.
It is to the victory of Bouvines that England owes her Great Charter. From the hour of his submission to the Papacy, John's vengeance on the barons had only been delayed till he should return a conqueror from the fields of France. A sense of their danger nerved the baronage to resistance; they refused to follow the King on his foreign campaign till the excommunication were removed, and when it was removed they still refused, on the plea that they were not bound to serve in wars without the realm. Furious as he was at this new attitude of resistance, the time had not yet come for vengeance, and John sailed for Poitou with the dream of a great victory which should lay-Philip and the barons alike at his feet. He returned from his defeat to find the nobles no longer banded together in secret conspiracies, but openly united in a definite claim of liberty and law. The leader in this great change was the new Archbishop whom Innocent had set on the throne of Canterbury. From the moment of his landing in England, Stephen Langton had assumed the constitutional position of the Primate as champion of the old English customs and law against the personal despotism of the kings.
As Anselm had withstood William the Red, as Theobald had rescued England from the lawlessness of Stephen, so Langton prepared to withstand and rescue his country from the tyranny of John. He had already forced him to swear to observe the laws of the Confessor, a phrase in which the whole of the national liberties were summed up. When the baronage refused to sail to Poitou, he compelled the King to deal with them not by arms but by process of law. Far however from being satisfied with resistance such as this to isolated acts of tyranny, it was the Archbishop's aim to restore on a formal basis the older freedom of the realm. The pledges of Henry the First had long been forgotten when the Justiciar, Geoffrey Fitz-Peter, brought them to light at a Council held at S. Albans. There in the King's name the Justiciar promised good government for the time to come, and forbade all royal officers to practise extortion as they prized life and limb. The King's peace was pledged to those who had opposed him in the past; and observance of the laws of Henry the First was enjoined upon all within the realm. Langton saw the vast importance of such a precedent.
In a fresh meeting of the barons at S. Paul's he produced the Charter of Henry the First, and it was at once welcomed as a base for the needed reforms. All hope however hung on the fortunes of the French campaign; the victory at Bouvines gave strength to John's opponents, and after the King's landing the barons secretly met at S. Edmundsbury, and swore to demand from him, if needful by force of arms, the restoration of their liberties by Charter under the King's seal. Early in January in the year 1215 they presented themselves in arms before the King, and preferred their claim. The few months that followed showed John the uselessness of resistance; nobles and Churchmen were alike arrayed against him, and the commissioners whom he sent to plead his cause at the shire-courts brought back the news that no man would help him against the Charter. At Easter the barons again gathered in arms at Brackley, and renewed their claim. "Why do they not ask for my kingdom?" cried John in a burst of passion; but the whole country rose as one man at his refusal.
London threw open her gates to the forces of the barons, now organised under Robert Fitz-Walter as "Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church." The example of the capital was followed by Exeter and Lincoln; promises of aid came from Scotland and Wales; the northern barons marched hastily to join their comrades in London. There was a moment when John found himself with seven knights at his back, and before him a nation in arms. He had summoned mercenaries and appealed to his liege lord, the Pope; but summons and appeal were alike too late. Nursing wrath in his heart the tyrant bowed to necessity, and called he barons to a conference at Runnymede.