Thursday, 11 June 2015

Selling England by the pound

In yesterday's post I mentioned the story about King John's alleged diplomatic mission to the Emir of Morocco. But did King John once try to subordinate England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco? Did he even agree to convert? To place England under Sharia Law?

This is one of those 'hardy perennials' that continually comes up when King John is discussed. Those who hate John use it as another stick to beat him with, an example of how far he was prepared to go. Muslims like to cite it as an example of John's open and tolerant nature (yeah, right) - his brother Richard, after all, nearly married off his sister to Saladin's brother - while swivel-eyed EDL types view it as a terrible portent of what could happen today. But is there any truth to it at all?

There is a single source for the story, which is worth examining in some detail. It is allocated to the year 1213 in Matthew Paris' continuation of the great chronicle (Chronica Majora) of St Albans Abbey. One of the monks at the abbey, Paris took over as custodian of the chronicle from his predecessor Roger of Wendover in 1236, and so most of the chronicle up to that point was Roger's work (in which the story does not appear), but Matthew did interpolate some events, like the one we are discussing, into his own copy. He tells us why in his own account. But he begins with explaining that John - pressed militarily by the French and diplomatically by the Pope, excommunicated, and with his domestic support draining away, looked further afield for allies;

"He [King John] therefore immediately sent secret messengers, namely, the knights Thomas Hardington and Ralph fitzNicholas, and Robert of London, a clerk, to the emir Murmelius the great king of Africa, Morocco and Spain, who was commonly called Miramumelimis, to tell him that he would voluntarily give up himself and his kingdom, and if he pleased he would hold it as tributary from him, and that he would also abandon the Christian faith, which he considered false, and would faithfully adhere to the law of Mahomet."

The story is quite a long one, but briefly, the leader of the emissaries, Thomas, gives a glowing portrait of England, which "abounds with all kind of wealth, in agriculture, pastures and woods, and from it also every kind of metal may be obtained," etc etc. The Emir wonders why anyone would give up such a land, sends the knights away, and then talks to the priest, Robert "who was a small, dark man, with one arm longer than the other, and having fingers all misshapen, namely two sticking together, and with a face like a Jew." He commands Robert to tell him on his word as a Christian what kind of man King John is. Robert reluctantly admits that John is "a tyrant rather than a king, a destroyer rather than a governor, an oppressor of his own people and a friend to strangers, a lion to his own subjects, a lamb to foreigners and those who fought against him," and so on. The messengers are sent away, but the Emir rewards Robert's truthfulness with gifts of gold and silver.

Paris then explains that Robert had been given charge of the abbey of St Albans during the Papal interdict, and then, "without consulting, yea even against the will of the temporary abbott John de Cell, a most religious and learned man, seized on everything which was then in the church and the convent at pleasure, and appropriated it to his own use," and that he "cheated the abbey of more than a thousand marks." He did get on with some of the monks, however, including "Laurence, a clerk, and Master Walter, a monk and painter, and them he kept as his familiars, to whom he showed his jewels and other secret presents fromt he Emir, and related what had passed between them, in the hearing of Matthew, who has written and related these events."
[All quotations from Matthew Paris - Chronica Majora]

So basically the story comes directly from Paris himself, who says he heard it directly from one of the emissaries, Robert of London. This apparently cast iron attribution has meant that the story - however strange it may sound on first hearing - has nevertheless persisted. And there are other details which are a kind of corroboration, too, including the identity of the emissaries. 'Thomas Hardington' is actually Sir Thomas of Erdington, a knight from Staffordshire whose talent for diplomacy and administration had seen him rise first to the post of Sherrif of Staffordshire and Shropshire, and then from about 1206 as a part of John's court and household, and ultimately a travelling royal diplomat. Thomas was given charge of being John's emissary to the Papal court in Rome, to where he travelled on at least half a dozen occasions. He negotiated the details of John's re-submission to Papal authority, and in 1215 pleaded John's case at the Lateran Council. He is also known to have conducted diplomatic missions to Prince Llewellyn of Powys, and to have been responsible for seizing the Shropshire castles and lands of William de Braose after the latter's fall from grace. He is a key John henchman, and is also cited more than once as being especially eloquent - let's face it, being Royal envoy to the snakepit of the Papal court was not a job for an amateur. He is exactly the kind of person who one would expect to find leading an English diplomatic mission to a foreign potentate.

These diplomatic missions also often consisted of trios, as Paris described - two knights, or a knight and a commoner (usually one with special knowledge or connections, or perhaps facility with languages, like 'Peter the Saracen'), and the third would always be a priest. The same pattern is repeated in Paris' story. Ralph fitzNicholas was another royal household knight (and years later Sheriff of Nottingham, oddly enough), while Robert of London, the cleric described as being on this mission, was another John henchman and very much the kind of man that John got to do his dirty work. He was given the job, after the death of Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1205, of going to Canterbury and seizing the Archbishop's jewelled clothes and regalia for the King. And just as Paris describes, when Pope Innocent placed England under interdict and John decided to seize the wealth of the churches and monasteries for himself, Robert of London got the job of taking over St Albans Abbey and - crucially - its revenues for the King - one of the richest and most powerful abbeys in the country. He took over in March 1208, but made himself such a nuisance with his exactions that within a few months the Abbot had paid the vast sum of 1,100 marks to be rid of him.

So the story seems to be checking out. The key participants all existed, including 'Miramurmelinus', who seems to have been the Almohad Emir Mohammed al-Nasir al-Muminin (the latter is actually a title meaning "Commander of the Faithful', and equivalent to 'Caliph' - the present King of Morocco still claims this honour). But when did it take place? Paris says it was in 1213, but in the Chronica he later contradicts himself by saying that it occurred before al-Nasir's climactic battle with the Spanish kingdoms at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This seems reasonable - an alliance with al-Nasir before the battle would be with a strong ruler, not the beaten force he was in 1213. It's possible that Paris just made an error of recollection and put the story in the wrong year. Nevill Barbour examined the story in 1960 and proposed that a reference in the 14th century Arab history Rawd al Qirtas to an emissary from the "King of Bayonne" to al-Nasir in early 1212 could well be the same event, as Bayonne was the capital of the English lands in southern France, and John might have been seeking allies against the King of Castille, who was threatening English possessions in France.

But here we start to run into trouble. Ralph fitzNicholas is mainly attested under Henry III, and lived until 1266, but his date of birth is not known. He was seemingly old enough to be made Sheriff of Nottingham in 1217 when Philip Mark was removed, but must have been quite young then. Thomas of Erdington was dead by 1217, King John in 1216 and Mohammed al-Nasir in 1215. Abbot John de Cell died in 1214. Robert of London is not heard of again after about 1210 (although he may have gone into retirement). But if we accept 1214 as the latest date for the story, we then have to ask: when did Matthew Paris hear it from Robert of London? We know that Robert of London was in charge of St Albans Abbey briefly in 1208, and according to Paris this was when he overheard the story, but also by his own account Matthew Paris did not take holy orders until 1217. It is believed he was born in about 1200, and entirely possible that he could be a few years older than that, and it's quite likely he may have been brought up at the monastery before he became a monk, so he could well have been a young boy, perhaps serving Robert of London and his cronies with food or wine and overhearing their conversation. But if so, that would place the supposed trip prior to 1208, when the interdict was still in its early days, and rule out Barbour's carefully reasoned cross-correlation - the only independent verification we possibly might have of the story.

It's difficult to reconcile these various dates, and this leaves us with several possibilities; firstly, that Paris is misremembering - he was writing later than 1236, so he may have misremembered names, dates and places of events that happened at least 25 years earlier - we know he already contradicts himself once over the date in the Chronica itself. Secondly, Robert of London might just have been making stuff up - spinning a tall tale by the fireside to overawe a bunch of monks who didn't get out much, and showing off a few silver baubles he had picked up from who knows where as 'evidence'. Thirdly, Paris might have invented the whole tale as a satire on John's relationship with the Pope. Paris did after all hate King John, remembering perhaps the disruption of the interdict and Robert of London's tenure of St Albans. It was Paris who also wrote, lest we forget; "Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." Confronted with the basic implausibility of some elements of the tale - John's willingness to convert to Islam, for example - plenty of historians have decided that it's just another of Paris' malicious digs and dismissed it as fiction.

So where does that leave us? Unfortunately none the wiser. The story cannot be true in its entirety because some elements of it contradict other elements, and this means we have to look askance at its inherent implausibility. I offered three possibilities above, but I actually like to believe that it's a combination of all three; Robert of London was - at the very least - exaggerating, Paris was misremembering, and then probably added a few jibes of his own out of his and his fellow monks' abiding dislike of John's memory. In answer to the question at the start of this post - did King John once try to sell England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco - the answer is: "almost certainly not", but the idea of a diplomatic mission to the Emir of Andalus is not at all implausible, and Erdington, fitzNicholas and Robert of London are certainly the kind of people that the King would have chosen to undertake it.

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