CHAPTER XXI. THE GREAT CHARTER
By August John was rapidly preparing for a renewal of the war. He sent out orders to get the royal castles ready for defence. His emissaries were collecting troops in Flanders and Aquitaine. Philip Augustus's Count of Britanny, Peter of Dreux, was offered the honour of Richmond, which former counts had held, if he would come to John's aid with a body of knights. Money does not seem to have been lacking through the struggle that followed, and John's efforts to collect mercenary troops were abundantly successful. Dover was appointed as the gathering-place of his army, both as a convenient landing-place for those coming from abroad and for strategic reasons. As it became evident that the charter had not brought the conflict to an end, the barons were obliged to consider what their next step should be. In clause 61 of the charter in regard to coercing the king, they had bound themselves not to depose him, but the arrangements made in that clause were never put into operation, nor could they be. There was only one way of dealing with a king who obstinately insisted on his rights, as he regarded them, against the law, and that was by deposition. The leaders of the barons now decided that this step was necessary, and an effort was made to unite all barons in taking it, but those who had been with the king before refused, and some members of the baronial party itself were not willing to go so far, nor were the clergy. The pope was making his position perfectly plain. Before the meeting at Runnymede he had ordered the excommunication of the disturbers of the king and kingdom; and when this sentence was published later, the barons might pretend that the king was the worst disturber of the kingdom, but they really knew what the pope intended. In September the Bishop of Winchester and Pandulf, representing the pope, suspended Archbishop Langton because of his refusal to enforce the papal sentences. By the end of the month the news reached England of Innocent's bull against the charter itself, declaring it null and void, and forbidding the king to observe it or the barons to require it to be kept under penalty of excommunication. Doubtless John expected this from the pope, and if his own view of the charter were correct, Innocent's action would be entirely within his rights. No vassal had a right to enter into any agreement which would diminish the value of his fief, and John had done this if the rights that he was exercising in 1213 were really his. It was apparently about this time that the insurgent barons determined to transfer their allegiance to Louis of France. We are told that they selected him because, if he were king of England, most of John's mercenaries would leave his service since they were vassals of France; but Louis was really the only one available who could be thought to represent in any way the old dynasty, and it would certainly be remembered that he had been proposed for the place in 1213. Negotiations were begun to induce him to accept, but in the meantime John had secured a sufficient force to take the offensive, and was beginning to push the war with unusual spirit and vigour. A part of his force he sent to relieve Northampton and Oxford, besieged by the barons, and he himself with the rest set out to take Rochester castle which was held against him. Repulsed at first, he succeeded in a second attempt to destroy the bridge across the Medway to cut off communication with London, and began a regular siege which he pressed fiercely. The garrison was not large, but they defended themselves with great courage, having reason to fear the consequences of yielding, and prolonged the siege for seven weeks. Even after the keep had been in part taken by undermining the wall they maintained themselves in what was left until they were starved into surrender. It was only the threat that his mercenaries would leave him for fear of reprisals that kept John from hanging his prisoners. During this siege the barons in London had remained in a strange inactivity, making only one half-hearted attempt to save their friends, seemingly afraid to meet the king in the field, and accused of preferring the selfish security and luxury of the capital. This was their conduct during the whole of the winter while their strongholds were captured and their lands devastated in all parts of England by the forces of their enemy, for John continued his campaign. Soon after the capture of Rochester he marched through Windsor to the north of London and, leaving a part of his army under the Earl of Salisbury to watch the barons and to lay waste their lands in that part of the country, he passed himself through the midlands to the north, destroying everything belonging to his enemies that he could find and not always distinguishing carefully between friends and foes. England had not for generations suffered such a harrying as it received that winter. So great was the terror created by the cruelties practised that garrisons of the barons' castles, it is said, fled on the news of the king's approach, leaving the castles undefended to fall into his hands. The march extended as far as Scotland. Berwick was taken and burnt, and the parts of the country about were laid waste in revenge for the favour which King Alexander had shown the barons. In March, 1216, John returned to the neighbourhood of London, leaving a new track of devastation further to the east, and bringing with him a great store of plunder.