At first glance, there are certainly similarities: a violent dispute over who should be wearing the English crown, and an invasion launched from France by a man who would be king.

The main difference, and the reason for 1217’s relative obscurity, is that the earlier invasion was successful – a new king, William the Conqueror, sat on the English throne, and history was rewritten. But this was not the case a century and a half later, when the incursion of the putative Louis I of England was fought off. And the word ‘fought’ is very much the operative one, because it was a series of military engagements that stemmed and then turned a tide that had been very much in Louis’s favour.

The catalyst for all these events was the disastrous reign of King John. So hopeless was he that the nobility of England ended up being split in half, with the ‘rebels’ wanting to control his excesses and the ‘royalists’ claiming that it didn’t matter how bad things got, because John was the anointed king, his accession was approved by God, and that was that. The concept of hereditary monarchy meant that you got what you were given, and you put up with it accordingly.

The rebels briefly gained the upper hand when they forced John to agree to the terms of Magna Carta, but he reneged on it almost immediately, leading them to the conclusion that if they couldn’t control their king, they would have to overthrow him.

This was perhaps not a unique occurrence in English history, as more than one king has been unpopular, but the solution that the rebel barons came up with was unprecedented: a delegation sailed to France and offered the English throne to the Capetian Louis, son and heir of King Philip Augustus of France. And this is why the conflict ceased to be a civil war, with internal factions of royalists and rebels vying for control, and became one of defence against foreign invasion, with the English seeking to hold off the French even as they developed a real sense of national identity.

At first everything went swimmingly for Louis, who landed unopposed, marched to London and was proclaimed king by a cheering throng. But then a coalition comprising some very mismatched individuals began to organise armed resistance, and it was their deeds, almost forgotten by history, that saved England. One of their leaders, William Marshal, has gained a fair degree of fame over the centuries, but who now could name Hubert de Burgh, Nicola de la Haye, Philip d’Albini or William of Cassingham?

Between them, these defenders of England appealed to a new and growing sense of national identity, and fought with distinction in some wildly varying situations. The stubborn defence of Dover castle for many months meant that the French never had the all-important south-east of England under their full control, while Lincoln held out against a besieging force long enough for a relieving army to come to the rescue. A pitched battle in the streets of the city resulted in a major victory for the English royalists and a setback for the French, compounded by a triumph in a battle at sea – something highly unusual at the time – off Sandwich. And all of this was supported by an intensive campaign of guerrilla activity.


So, how do we know about all of this? The answer lies in the words of the many contemporaries, from both sides of the conflict, who documented what they saw and heard. Some of them wrote their own accounts, while others related their experiences for others to set down in ink and parchment.

As is always the case when there are multiple accounts of the same event or set of events, there are many discrepancies that need to be sifted through and carefully examined, in order to build up the composite picture that tells the whole story. Sometimes a difference between texts is for an easily identifiable reason, such as a writer choosing to focus on the battle he’d seen in person, while not having much to say about one that happened hundreds of miles away. Sometimes the inconsistencies are more personal: a French writer’s hero is an English chronicler’s villain, and vice versa. And, of course, those who told their tales in hindsight, when the war was won, might have fallen prey to the all-too-human tendency to inflate their own heroic contributions, while those who had less of a voice were forgotten.

It is the task of the historian to analyse all this – and, my goodness, it can be a lot of fun. Trying to sort out the motivations of a man who might simultaneously be described in the sources as a hero, fighting and killing an opponent in single combat, and a coward who stabbed his foe in the back? Working out exactly where a trebuchet was situated, by cross-referencing the accounts of the missiles it threw and the damage it caused? Reconstructing the course of a battle from the accounts of five people who all saw different parts of it? It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to take all of this and attempt to wrangle it into a coherent story.

This privilege also extends to getting to know – as far as is possible at such a distance – the actual individuals who feature in the story. Because, regardless of the source or bias of each of the accounts of this war, both French and English, it is the same names that come up over and over again.

The brave individuals who feature in 1217 were by no means a homogenous group. They were men and women, nobles and commoners, secular and clerical – and without them the history of England would have been very different. So, whenever you are reminded of the year 1066 and its household names, do also spare a thought for the heroes of the early thirteenth century, and for the equally pivotal year of 1217.