Richard's queen, Berengaria of Navarre, had borne him no children. At the moment of his premature death his nearest kinsmen were his worthless brother John, and the boy Arthur of Brittany, the heir of Geoffrey, the third son of Henry II. On his death-bed the king had designated John as his successor, holding apparently that a bad ruler who was at least a grown man was preferable to a child. John's claim prevailed both in Normandy and in England, though in each, as we are told, there were those who considered it a doubtful point whether an elder brother's son had not a better right than a younger brother. But the ministers recognized John, and the baronage and nation acquiesced, though with little enthusiasm. In the lands farther south, however, matters went otherwise. The dowager duchess Constance of Brittany raised her son's claim, ,and sent an army into Anjou, and all down the Loire many of the nobles adhered to his cause. The king of France announced that he should support them, and allowed Arthur to do him homage for Anjou, Maine and Touraine. There would have been trouble in Aquitaine also, if the aged Queen Eleanor had not asserted her own primary and indefeasible right to her ancestral duchy, and then declared that she transferred it to her best loved son John. Most of her subjects accepted her decision, and Arthur's faction made no head in this quarter.
It seemed for a space as if the new king would succeed in retaining the whole of his brother's inheritance, for King Philip very meanly allowed himself to be bought off by the cession of the county of Evreux, and, when his troops were withdrawn, the Angevin rebels were beaten down, and the duchess of Brittany had to ask for peace for her son. But it had not long been granted, when John proceeded to throw away his advantage by acts of reckless impolicy. Though cunning, he was destitute alike of foresight and of self-control; he could never discern the way in which his conduct would be judged by other men, because he lacked even the rudiments of a conscience. Ere he had been many months on the throne he divorced his wife, Isabella of Gloucester, alleging that their marriage had been illegal because they were within the prohibited degrees. This act offended the English barons, but in choosing a new queen John gave much greater offence abroad; he carried off Isabella of Angoulme from her affianced husband, Hugh of Lusignan, the son of the count of La Marche, his greatest vassal in northern Aquitaine, and married her despite the precontract. This seems to have been an amorous freak, not the result of any deep-laid policy. Roused by the insult the Lusignans took arms, and a great part of the barons of Poitou joined them. They appealed for aid to Philip of France, who judged it opportune to intervene once more.
He summoned John to appear before him as suzerain, to answer the complaints of his Poitevin subjects, and when he failed to plead declared war on him and declared his dominions escheated to the French crown for non-fulfilment of his feudal allegiance. He enlisted Arthur of Brittany in his cause by recognizing him once more as the rightful owner of all John's continental fiefs save Normandy, which he intended to take for himself. Philip then entered Normandy, while Arthur led a Breton force into Anjou and Poitou to aid the Lusignans.
The fortune of war at first turned in favour of the English king. He surprised his nephew while he was besieging the castle of Mirebeau in Poitou, where the old Queen Eleanor was residing. The young duke and most of his chief supporters were taken prisoners (August 1, 1202). Instead of using his advantage aright, John put Arthur in secret confinement, and after some months caused him to be murdered. He is said also to have starved to death twenty-two knights of Poitou who had been among his captives. The assassination of his nearest kinsman, a mere boy of sixteen, was as unwise as it was cruel. It estranged from the king the hearts of all his French subjects, who were already sufficiently disgusted by many minor acts of brutality, as well as by incessant arbitrary taxation and by the reckless ravages in which John's mercenary troops had been indulging.
The French armies met with little or no resistance when they invaded Normandy, Anjou and la Poitou. John sat inert at Rouen, pretending to take his misfortunes lightly, and boasting that what was easily lost could be as easily won back. Meanwhile Philip Augustus conquered all western Normandy, without having to fight a battle. The great castle of Chateau Gaillard, which guards the Lower Seine, was the only place which made a strenuous resistance. It was finally taken. by assault, despite of the efforts of the gallant castellan, Roger de Lacy, constable of Chester, who had made head against the besiegers for six months (September 1203-
March 1204) without receiving any assistance from his master.
John finally absconded to England in December 1203; he failed to return with an army of relief, as he had promised, and before the summer of 1204 was over, Caen, Bayeux and Rouen, the last places that held out for him, had been forced to open their gates. The Norman barons had refused to strike a blow for John, and the cities had shown but a very passive and precarious loyalty to him. He had made himself so well hated by his cruelty and vices that the Normans, forgetting their old hatred of France, had acquiesced in the conquest.
Two ties alone had for the last century held the duchy to the English connection: the one was that many Norman baronial families held lands on this side of the Channel; the second was the national pride which looked upon England as a conquered appendage of Normandy. But the first had grown weaker as the custom arose of dividing family estates between brothers, on the principle that one should take the Norman, the other the English parts of a paternal heritage. By John's time there were comparatively few landholders whose interests were fairly divided between the duchy and the kingdom. Such as survived had now to choose between losing the one or the other section of their lands; those whose holding was mainly Norman adhered to Philip; those who had more land in England sacrificed their transmarine estates. For each of the two kings declared the property of the barons who did not support him confiscated to the crown. As to the old Norman theory that England was conquered land, it had gradually ceased to exist as an operative force, under kings who, like Henry II or Richard I, were neither Norman nor English in feeling, but Angevin. John did not, and could not, appeal as a Norman prince to Norman patriotism.
The successes of Philip Augustus did not cease with the conquest of Normandy. His armies pushed forward in the south; Anjou, Touraine and nearly all Poitou submitted to him. Only Guienne and southern Aquitaine held out for King John, partly because they preferred a weak and distant master to such a strenuous and grasping prince as King Philip, partly because they were far more alien in blood and language to their French neighbours than were Normans or Angevins. The Gascons were practically a separate nationality, and the house of Capet had no ancient connection with them. The kings of England were yet to reign at Bordeaux and Bayonne for two hundred and fifty years. But the connection with Gascony meant little compared with the now vanished connection with Normandy. Henry I or Henry II could run over to his continental dominions in a day or two days; Dieppe and Harfleur were close to Portsmouth and Hastings. It was a different thing for John and his successors to undertake the long voyage to Bordeaux, around the stormy headlands of Brittany and across the Bay of Biscay. Visits to their continental dominions had to be few and far between; they were long, costly and dangerous when a French fleet, a thing never seen before Philip Augustus conquered Normandy, might be roaming in the Channel. The kings of England became perforce much more home-keeping sovereigns after 1204.
It was certainly not a boon for England that her present sovereign was destined to remain within her borders for the greater part of his remaining years. To know John well was to loathe him, as every contemporary chronicle bears witness. The two years that followed the loss of Normandy were a time of growing discontent and incessant disputes about taxation. The king kept collecting scutages and tallages, yet barons and towns complained that nothing seemed to be done with the money he collected. At last, however, in 1206, the king did make an expedition to Poitou, and recovered some of its southern borders. Yet, with his usual inconsequence, he did not follow up his success, but made a two years truce with Philip of France on the basis of uti possidetis which left Normandy and all the territories on and about the Loire in the hands of the conqueror.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.