The birth of Prince Louis Arthur Charles of Cambridge last week provided another example of the skill and finesse of the modern British Royal Family in their balancing act between tradition and modernity. Everyone eagerly speculated upon the new Prince’s name and potential regal antecedents for the parents’ choice.
The names eventually chosen for Britain’s newest Prince reflect those of his father, grandfather and great-great-great-uncle. And although the likelihood of Louis ever becoming King is very slim, there was once almost a King Louis of England – arguably one of England’s least well-known Monarchs. Were he ever to inherit the crown, Prince Louis could well make a case to be crowned as King Louis II….
The reasons behind this take us back over 800 years to the chaotic civil war that brought England Magna Carta, and the first stirrings of the constitutional monarchy, which would do so much to define our nation, and continue to have an impact on our national culture today. This is, in brief, the story of Britain’s first royal Louis, England’s forgotten monarch.
Uniquely for a king of England, our story begins in Paris, where on 5th September 1187, Queen Isabella gave birth to her first child, Prince Louis (future Louis VIII of France). The key detail being that Isabella was the Queen of France, not England, her husband was King Philip Augustus, that most gifted and tenacious of Frances medieval kings, warrior, crusader; he was and sworn enemy of King Richard the Lionheart of England. This Prince Louis was destined to be King of France – not England – and the events which led to his disputed reign contain some of the medieval world’s finest dynastic and geopolitical drama.
The dynasty Prince Louis was born into was that of the Capetians, who had ruled France for 200 years. Their great rival for control of Western Europe was the Plantagenet family, who in 1187 reigned over not only England and Ireland, but also the entire Western half of modern-day France, based upon the original duchies of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. Under Kings Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, the Plantagenets were able to dominate the region and retain their vast territories, while the French king, Philip Augustus – despite constant mischief making on the borders and intriguing against them – was unable to expand his own direct rule much further than Paris and central France.
All of this changed with the accession of King John to the English throne in 1199, when King Philip of France was able to achieve a decisive dominance because of John’s mismanagement of his resources and his powerful nobles, the barons. Through a mixture of arrogance, duplicity, greed and the suspected murder of his nephew, John succeeded in turning so many of his leading subjects against him. By the time war with France came in 1202, he quickly lost all of his continental possessions bar Bordeaux and the far south. For the first time in hundreds of years, a king sitting in Paris controlled the channel coast opposite England, and could invade if he wished.
King John also managed to get into a argument with the Pope over the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury, which dragged on for four years and saw him excommunicated for his truculence. By the time this issue was finally settled in 1213, John had to pledge England and Ireland to the Pope as a fief (think rented land), which he then received back, provided he remain loyal to the Pope in all matters – this will be very important to the story.
Unfortunately, John’s barons would not be so easily mollified, and after years of disagreements, and another failed campaign against France, the barons, with strong support from London, forced John into signing that must famous of documents: Magna Carta (‘the great charter’) on 15th June 1216.
While it has assumed enormous significance in subsequent centuries, Magna Carta was at the time essentially a peace treaty, designed to put the King firmly under the control of barons to prevent any future abuse of power. Needless to say it lasted barely two months: a Monarch as headstrong and personally ruthless as John was never likely to accept such an agreement for long. Nothing in John’s character and previous history had given the barons much reason to hope John would stick to the agreement, and there was little trust on either side.
By August 1215, King John had already written to his overlord the Pope begging for permission to ditch the agreement, while the barons kept their army in the field close to London, ostensibly for tournaments, but also because they clearly did not trust John to keep his side of the bargain.
Open hostilities recommenced with the end of the harvest; the Pope, flattered to be asked to intervene and jealous of John’s prerogatives as overlord of England, sanctioned the English King, and excommunicated the barons; despite a chronic lack of funds, they did control London and the eastern half of the country, bar a handful of crucial royal castles such as Dover. However, facing the censure of the Pope, as well as John’s still-formidable army, the barons looked for their own champion, which is where King Louis of England reenters our story.
The obvious course of help was King Philip; while he refused to come over the Channel himself, he permitted his son and heir, Louis, to cross the channel with an expeditionary force, with a view to seizing the English throne for the Capetian dynasty.
It is important to note that this invitation of a foreign ruler to defend the rights of English subjects would not have seemed as odd to the people of England then as it would now: the nobility were still French-speaking and many held lands in France. The Norman conquest had occurred only 150 years before, and the French dynasty had only recently conquered the Plantagenets continental possessions. To many people, the next logical move of the French dynasty would have been to secure England, and end the rivalry once and for all.
Louis was at this time 29, and having already gained significant military experience in the previous French war; his prowess in battle earned him the nickname of ‘the lion’, representing an attractive alternative to John. He was also married to the intelligent and ambitious Blanche of Castile, who – crucially – was the niece of King John. This connection made him a strong alternative claimant to the throne, as well as a determined partner. He and Blanche already had two sons (Philip and Louis) and the plan may have been for one to inherit England and the other France in the fullness of time.
It took time to assemble an army and fleet, during which time John managed to recapture much of the north and confine the barons to London and the south-east, but by May 1216, all was ready, and Prince Louis crossed the channel. King John, as so often in his reign, lost his nerve and fled to Winchester rather than contest the French Prince’s landing, and so on 2nd June 1216, Louis entered London to wild acclaim, cheered by the barons and commoners alike as a protector and liberator of high military and personal repute. The one snag was the lack of any senior churchman to crown him: none would risk the wrath of the Pope by officially rejecting John. However, after being acclaimed King Louis of England in St Paul’s Cathedral, in his eyes at least, and those of his supporters, Louis was the rightful monarch of England – the rest of which he instantly set out to conquer.
At first, Louis experienced great success and carried almost all of southern England before him, with a flood of defections to him from John’s remaining supporters. The King of Scotland, and The Prince of Wales recognised him as the true king of England and sent troops south in support – even John’s own half brother deserted him! Over the summer all went well, and John beat a hasty retreat northward via the Wash, where he lost the Crown Jewels in the process. Louis’ one significant failure was his inability to take Dover and the channel ports, something his father reproved him for, and which undermined his communications with France.
This aside, when John died unexpectedly on 19th October 1216, Louis was in clear control of the power centres of southern and eastern England. Despite significant hold-outs, Louis looked well on his way to consolidating his reign.
However the death of John changed everything: now Louis did not face the ruthless, hardened tyrant of John, but the innocent (and crucially for the barons, effectively powerless) nine-year-old Henry III, John’s eldest surviving son. King John had left his son in the capable hands of a regent, William Marshall, who, with the enthusiastic support of the Pope, began the fight back against Louis and Blanche. While Henry III lacked London, he did not lack for willing churchmen, and was crowned in Gloucester cathedral in opposition to Louis.
For a year, the two sides continued to fight, siege followed counter-siege, battle followed battle, and despite his own personal bravery and capturing even more castles in central England, King Louis was never able to defeat William Marshall or gather the men and money necessary to end the war. William issued various declarations stating Henry III would rule by consent, and reissued Magna Carta in an effort to reinforce this message. He also did his best to stoke resentment against the French invaders, and chroniclers or the time recorded that French ‘arrogance’ and ‘foreign’ nature was a decisive factor in turning some barons away from Louis and back towards the Plantagenets. It should be noted that most commanders on both sides spoke only French.
The decisive battle was fought without Louis, who was attacking the city of Winchester, fending off the attempt. Louis’ main English army was besieging Lincoln, one of the last hold outs of the east coast. William Marshall was able to race to the castle’s defence, besiege the attacking army in the town, and unite his forces faster than Louis could. The battle of Lincoln, fought on 20th May 1217, was a decisive defeat to the French Royal, and dealt a hard blow to Louis’ hopes of retaining the English throne; much of his northern support disappeared.
Throughout the war, Louis had been unable to gather significant reinforcements from France, due to his lack of a good port in Kent. After the defeat at Lincoln, Louis regrouped and again besieged Dover castle, while William Marshall aimed his army at London.
Fortunately for Louis, the redoubtable Blanche had managed to recruit a sizeable force in France, which meant the French invader still had a powerful fleet and formidable army in Kent with which to capture Dover and defend London. However, on 24th August 1217, Louis’ remaining forces were tricked into chasing the English fleet off Sandwich, which then turned and enveloped Louis’ fleet, destroying it.
His last significant force destroyed, Louis was forced to pursue peace, which was signed on 11th September 1217 in Lambeth. Louis agreed to leave England and renounced his, and his son’s, claim to the throne. He had reigned over a significant part of the country as ‘King Louis I’ for just over 14 months.
While his story with regards to England ends there, Louis was of course able to return to France safely, and in 1223 he succeeded his father as Louis VIII. As King of France, he was a shrewd and successful ruler.
After his premature death in 1226, aged 39, his wife Blanche acted as regent for their son Louis IX, and who went on to become France’s greatest medieval king. This was their second son, who may well have been intended to rule England has things gone differently…
King Louis is not often acknowledged in official regnal lists: the confusion of the period, his lack of a coronation and the fact he was in many ways a foreign invader – however eagerly many Englishmen may have desired his victory at first – has relegated him to a mere footnote in history. However, it is worth remembering that little Prince Louis of Cambridge has older ruling namesakes, far older than those he was named after. While Louis may not have reigned for long, and the latest royal Louis will most likely never reign at all, this remains a fascinating ‘what if’ episode of our islands history, which should not be forgotten.