Dan Jones

When treason was the last resort

One hundred and fifty years after Anglo-Saxon England was invaded by the Normans, Anglo-Norman England was invaded by the French. On 21 May 1216 King Philip Augustus’ eldest son, Louis the Lion, landed at Stonor on the Isle of Thanet, kissed a crucifix, planted it in the ground and began an 18-month war for the English crown. He had been invited to England by a group of barons who wished to replace King John as punishment for repudiating the terms of Magna Carta. The war Louis waged, although ultimately unsuccessful, was a damned near thing.

Sean McGlynn’s new book calls this England’s ‘forgotten invasion’, although in recent years Hollywood has been trying to remind people about it. The climax to Ridley Scott’s recent Robin Hood movie had Russell Crowe mugging about on Dover beach, fighting off the French hordes; Jonathan English’s rather better Ironclad was set around the violent siege of Rochester castle the autumn before Louis’s arrival.

So it is not entirely forgotten. But 1216 is certainly neglected, given the fact that John was the only post-Conquest medieval king besides Stephen to suffer the ignominy of a full foreign invasion. (Edward II, Richard II and Richard III were overthrown by invading armies, but these were all led by returning natives.)

McGlynn’s book attempts to right the historical wrong. Again, however, the title misleads. It is only on page 153 (of 241 pages of text) that Louis’s invasion actually begins. The first two-thirds of the book are a military history of John’s reign, beginning with Philip Augustus’s successful campaign to conquer Normandy between 1200 and 1204, then skipping ahead to John’s unsuccessful campaign to retake the duchy, which culminated in the monstrous battle of Bouvines in 1214.

That’s not to say this is a bad book.

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