King Louis of England?

It is a little-known fact that in the early thirteenth century England was invaded by the French, and that Louis, son and heir of the French king Philip Augustus, was declared king. This light-hearted piece about him first appeared on the Young Historian blog.


The King of England nobody has ever heard of

Here’s a quick question for you while we warm up for this blogpost: think of a medieval English king.

Have you done it? Are you thinking of one king in particular? Then I can tell you that you will generally now fall into one of four groups …

First are those who have misunderstood what I meant by ‘medieval’ – if you’re in this group then you’ve probably picked Henry VIII. The second and possibly largest group is made up of those who have chosen one of the ‘big five’, the famous medieval kings that most people have heard of even if they’re not specialists. If you’re one of them, you’re thinking of William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart,  John, Henry V or Richard III.

The third group is made up of Anglo-Saxon diehards; you’ll have chosen Alfred the Great, Athelstan, Edward the Confessor or anyone whose name begins with Æ. And finally come those who have their own interests in the Middle Ages and their own pet kings, who will have gone for someone more obscure. William Rufus, maybe? Or perhaps Stephen, Edward II or Henry IV.

Hands up if you picked King Louis.

Louis VIII

What’s that? Nobody? Right, pay attention there at the back. Once described by Terry Jones in his Medieval Lives TV series as ‘the king of England nobody has ever heard of’, Louis ruled from May 1216 until September 1217. But how did this happen? How did England reach the point where a French prince could take the throne?

Rewind to 1215, when King John was not a popular man. Forced by his long-suffering barons to sign Magna Carta, he immediately reneged on his word and tried to have the document rescinded. His forces attacked and harried the lands of the signatories. Having failed to control John, the barons took a logical but unprecedented step and decided to overthrow him. But they were no republicans: England had to have a king. Who should it be? John’s son Henry was eight years old, and the other obvious heir, John’s nephew Arthur, had disappeared in mysterious circumstances some years before, widely rumoured to have been murdered at John’s order.

The barons needed a strong man, an experienced man, a man of royal blood; they looked across the Channel and found one.

Louis had been born in 1187, the eldest son and heir of the French king Philip Augustus; in 1200 he married Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine via their daughter Eleanor and her husband Alfonso VII of Castile. King Philip had been in various stages of conflict with Henry II and his sons for much of Louis’s life, and once Louis reached his majority he joined his father in campaigns against King John. Father and son made large gains against the hapless English king, conquering Normandy and other territories which were geographically in France but which had been under English control for many years.

By 1215 Louis had earned himself a reputation as a brilliant warrior, his skills honed not only in fighting the English but also in his crusade against the Albigensian heretics in the south of France. He was known, moreover, to be honest, just, moral, a man of his word – all the things which John wasn’t.

When the barons looked for a new king, they needed someone with royal blood: they couldn’t just elect a king from among themselves. However, the preferred candidate didn’t need to be strictly the next heir; primogeniture was still a somewhat murky concept at the time, so someone related to the previous king and strong enough to claim and keep the throne would be a better prospect than someone nearer by blood but considered weaker (as had been proven by the baronial acceptance some years before of King Stephen, who was the previous king’s nephew but by no means his nearest heir).

Louis was married to John’s niece and so could claim a blood connection to the throne in right of his wife; he had the resources to mount a campaign, the men to run it and the skills to win it. And he had plenty of motive for wanting a kingdom of his own: in 1216 he was an active man of 28 with no prospect of becoming king in France for many years, thanks to his father’s robust health, so conquering a realm of his own must have seemed an attractive prospect. He built and equipped a fleet, sailed from France and arrived on English shores on 21 May 1216.

To start with everything went smoothly: about half the barons came over to him straight away, and castles and towns surrendered to him without resistance. John fled to the west of England rather than fight him. Louis marched in triumph to London where he was proclaimed king, and he sent out letters to all the remaining barons that they should come to pay him homage. Within months he had about two thirds of the barons and more than half of the country under his control.

But then in October 1216 John did the one and only thing which could conceivably have helped his cause: he died unexpectedly.

You would think that this would have been Louis’s definitive moment of triumph; now that his enemy was dead, surely those who had still been clinging to John would realise that there was nothing left to fight for and would make their way to him? But in fact the opposite happened. John had left five children, two of them sons including the eldest, Henry, who was nine years old. The remaining royalists hastily had him crowned as Henry III and declared their allegiance to him.

This left the other barons with a dilemma. Ostensibly they had overthrown John because of all the laws he had broken and the wrongs he had done – they could hardly level the same accusations against a young boy. And Louis, man of principle as he was, was turning out to be less controllable than they had hoped, and probably wouldn’t allow them the free rein they craved to further their own interests.

Louis swiftly found himself being recast in popular opinion – no longer was he the conquering hero here to save the barons from the cruel John, but a foreign bully attacking a little boy. The desertions began.

Louis wasn’t one to give up easily, and he held out for quite some time afterwards. But King Philip, over in France, wouldn’t send any more money or troops, so Louis had to make do with his own dwindling forces. In May 1217 he had to split his army in half in order to fight both at Dover and further north, but this didn’t leave him with enough men to function properly in either area. He couldn’t take Dover castle, and his northern forces were soundly defeated at Lincoln, many of his nobles captured and many of the English among them defecting back to Henry and his regent William Marshal.

Meanwhile in France Louis’s wife Blanche wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer from the king, and she had raised further troops who set sail for England in August 1217. But they were intercepted by an English fleet, defeated in a naval battle off Sandwich on 24 August, and never reached Louis. He bowed to the inevitable, sealed a treaty in September, and withdrew.

Louis’s short reign has often been overlooked in the history books, whose smooth succession of the dates of the reigns of kings runs straight from John to Henry III. But it was a pivotal period in English history and one of the great ‘what-ifs’ of all time. Would he have ruled England as a separate realm, or would it have been subsumed into France? What would have happened in the future? What about the Hundred Years’ War? It’s fascinating to speculate on all the possibilities.

Defeated politically but not in battle, and with his reputation intact, Louis went back to France, where he was involved in a number of further military campaigns before succeeding to the throne in 1223 as Louis VIII. He then took some measure of revenge on the English by conquering much of what remained of their territory in France, before turning his attention to the Albigensians once more. By then he was almost invincible in military terms, but he contracted dysentery – a common disease among soldiers billeted in unsanitary conditions – and died in November 1226, at the age of 39.

Louis was succeeded in France by his 12-year-old son Louis IX, who went on to become one of France’s great kings. Indeed, sandwiched as his short reign was between those of his famous father and his even more famous son, Louis VIII might well be termed the little-known king of France, as well as the unknown king of England.