As a kid in Primary school, way back in the 1980’s, I dutifully learned my Kings and Queens of England by rote.
I still recall them, thirty-odd years later, like a Game of Thrones family tree recital:
William Conqueror, the First of His Name
Henry Bolingbroke, the Fifth of His Name
Henry Six Wives, the Eighth of His Name…
It always started with William, no matter that there were Kings of England before him. They sort of lurked there, in the mists of time, various Haralds and Edwards, but there wasn’t a lot of substance to them.
I guess it’s true, the winners do get to write the history books.
A fascination with the reign of King John in adulthood — it’s a Robin Hood thing, stay with me here — led me to discover that England briefly had a King Louis on the throne.
No-one in history class ever mentioned him.
Despite being a favourite of his father, King John was the black sheep of the Plantagenet family. He tried to steal the throne from his brother, the Lionheart, when Richard was imprisoned abroad whilst away crusading.
Rumours abounded that John had his nephew Arthur — a potential heir to the English throne — murdered.
He made himself hugely unpopular with the Church and, as many of the chronicles of the day were kept by monks, the bad press stuck.
He had also managed to get excommunicated by the Pope. Not a good look for a King whose motto was ‘Dieu et mon droit’ — God and my right.
Despite successes on the home front in Ireland, John lost campaigns in France as well as lands that had belonged to the English crown, including Normandy, where many ruling families in England had family ties dating back to William the Conqueror.
He was unpopular with his Barons, the ruling class of England. These were powerful men from powerful families. They owned vast tracts of land that they ran as mini kingdoms in their own right and any King of England needed them on side to govern successfully.
As it does today, economics and taxation played a part in exacerbating the ill will of the powerful — but then, as now, wars have to be paid for.
John’s use of hostages to keep powerful families in their place backfired when the wife and a son of a powerful Earl died of starvation in captivity. Some of the Barons had had enough. They marched from their strongholds and soon held London and other major English towns.
To try to bring peace between King John and the rebel Barons, the Archbishop of Canterbury drafted a charter, the Magna Carta, in 1215 which they signed at Runneymede. Neither side stuck to the terms of the charter, John tried to have it rescinded and the rebel Barons invited Louis, son of the French King, to take the throne of England.
John had a range of powerful forces aligning against him and the country descended into civil war.
So, that’s a potted history so far. Who the hell is this Louis chap?
Louis was the son and heir of King Philippe II of France. He was also a direct descendant of William the Conqueror and married to John’s niece. In Medieval times, royal blood made for a pretty good claim to a throne.
But more than that, he was everything that John was not.
John may or may not have been evil personified, as historians today still debate, but he was capricious and cruel. Louis, on the other hand, was regarded as ‘honest, just, moral and a man of his word’.
Louis had proven his prowess in battle and even defeated John previously in 1214, during the Siege of Roche-au-Moine.
He had the wealth and resources of France behind him. He built a fleet, equipped it and set sail for England with a well-trained army. He arrived in England on 21st May 1216 and over half of the Barons offered him their support.
John fled to the west of the country and Louis marched in triumph to London where he was proclaimed King. Within months two-thirds of the nobility and half of the country were under his control. Louis earned himself the epitaph of The Lion, a name that would stick with him throughout the rest of his life.
Things were going so well.
And then John went and did the only thing left that could possibly have outfoxed his nemesis.
It wasn’t intentional. At least not on John’s part. He had been ill for a while and was suffering from dysentery but there were rumours that he had been poisoned.
With John’s death, Louis’ support melted away.
With five natural children, John had an heir and plenty of spares. The cause of the rebellion — John himself — was gone and his eldest son, only nine years old, was sure to prove more biddable on the throne than Louis the Lion. The remaining loyalists hastily proclaimed the boy king as Henry III and the rebels had no reason left to fight.
Louis fought on for a while but he was no longer the conquering saviour. Instead, he was a foreign prince, usurping a young King’s rightful throne. His father withdrew his treasury support and, seventeen months after landing on English shores, Louis went home.
In 1223, he became Louis VIII of France and kept his title of Louis Le Lion, which he had gained by winning the English throne. After a brief but not unnotable reign, he died of dysentery himself in 1226 and was succeeded by his son Louis IX.
Maybe, one day, he will be given his rightful place in the rollcall of English monarchs.