The Magna Carta Project

The King Takes the Cross

March 2015, by Professor Nicholas Vincent

Detail of a miniature of Philip Augustus and Henry II taking the cross, BL Royal 16 G VI f.344v (France, second quarter of fourteenth century)

Detail of a miniature of Philip Augustus and Henry II taking the cross, BL Royal 16 G VI f.344v (France, second quarter of fourteenth century)

As noted in the diary for the week beginning 1 March, the King's taking of the cross, at London, on Ash Wednesday, 4 March, was widely noticed by the chroniclers. Three of these notices are translated below, chosen either because they are the most detailed (Crowland and Canterbury), or because they were subsequently the most influential (and misleading: Roger of Wendover/Matthew Paris, where the event itself is misdated by a whole month). As elsewhere in his chronicle, there are vague indications here that Wendover was reworking materials first set out in the Crowland (alias Barnwell) chronicle. Amongst modern commentators, most are agreed that the King's crusading vows were politically motivated. As Christopher Tyerman puts it, quoting Christopher Cheney, John's vow was 'a master stroke of diplomacy':

'The King's motives were almost entirely secular. As a crucesignatus he could hope to enjoy active papal support against barons who now stood in danger of excommunication if they persisted in hindering John's alleged crusading purpose. His vow also won him access to the temporal as well as spiritual privileges of a crucesignatus; these could prove extremely useful to a king at bay ... (T)he king probably intended to hide behind his cross, to claim the customary crusader's delay in answering the baronial charges, to which he had promised an answer by Easter'1

Simon Lloyd does not dissent from this opinion, although willing to allow that the King, in the aftermath, made genuine efforts to prepare a ship for his sailing to the East.2 

Even the Pope seems to have shared in this scepticism, at least to judge from the opening of the letters, apparently sent in April 1215, by which Innocent III acknowledged John's vows. The scriptural passage chosen as introit here ('He who desireth not the death of a sinner but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live') is taken from the form of general absolution addressed by a priest to the confessions of the penitent: appropriate enough to dealings with a King who had previously attracted the Pope's most withering criticism. The letter proceeds to praise the King, for his granting of liberty (libertas) and peace to the English Church, for his liberal and free (liberaliter et libenter) subjection of England to the apostolic see, and for his taking of the Cross: 'so that with a strong hand you may go to free (liberare) the land which He has purchased with his own blood'. The deliberate congeries here, of libertas, liberaliter and liberare, tell us something significant of contemporary interpretations of 'liberty'. The King, meanwhile, was promised not only papal assistance but glory and honour, since

'Although there is an almost countless host of crusaders manfully girding themselves to succour the Holy Land, all will look to you as a leader pre-eminent. And so the praise of your name will be spread more widely, and He in whose hands are kings and kingdoms in reward for your devotion will on earth secure and confirm the throne of your kingdom to you and your heirs, and in heaven the righteous judge will give you a crown of glory that fadeth not away (1 Peter 5:4)'3

Of even greater significance in political terms, the Pope's letters of 7 July 1215 demanding excommunication of the principal rebels specifically cited their impiety in rebelling against a crusader King 'who would succour the Holy Land'. This, Innocent proclaimed, made the rebels 'worse than Saracens' (peiores proculdubio Saracenis). 'Even if the King were slack', the Pope proclaimed, 'or lukewarm about the crusade, we would not leave such wickedness unrebuked, for by God's grace we know how to punish, and we are able to punish such shameless presumption'. As a result, the Pope pronounced excommunication against those who threatened 'the subversion of the whole business of the crucified one', justifying this support for the King in rhetorical terms very much as defence of the Crusade.4 These letters were themselves the Pope's response to a long petition addressed to him on 29 May, in which the King had reported on the disobedience of his baronial opponents and had repeatedly stressed his own privileges and status as a crusader.5

At Runnymede, in June 1215, the King's crusading vows were specifically cited in clauses 52, 53 and 57 of Magna Carta. Promising the restoration of unjust disseisins and the reform of forest law, the King nonetheless pleaded his right to delay pending 'the common term of crusaders', until such time as he should return from crusade, or postpone (remanserimus) his pilgrimage. Crusader rhetoric continued to surface thereafter in letters both of Innocent III and his successor, Honorius III. The King's recruitment of mercenaries, for example, in Flanders and in Gascony, was supported by papal letters offering remission of sins to those who joined the King's party, in effect as warriors in a holy cause, fighting against rebels themselves. As Innocent III repeated in letters of January 1216, the rebels against the King were 'worse than Saracens ... renegades working to fulfil the pagans' hopes by hindering such a magnificent crusade' (peiores in hac parte Sarracenis .... dum implere contendunt desiderium paganorum impediendo tam grande subsidium terre sancte).6 Meanwhile, it was the threat to the crusade, and in particular news that the city of Acre had been besieged by the Saracens, that is said to have prompted Innocent III, in January 1216, to appoint a papal legate to England. 7 This man, cardinal Guala Bicchieri, was in due course to prove a leading party both to the preaching of the royalist cause as a crusade and to the reissues of Magna Carta in November 1216 and again in November 1217.


1. The Crowland/Barnwell chronicler, in Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols. (Rolls Ser., 1872-73), ii, 219.

In capite Ieiunii rex Londoniis a Willelmo episcopo Londoniensi cruce signatus est, et cum eo vel post eum plures ex familiaribus suis, ipso ad hoc ut ferunt nonnullos instigante, et cruces albas qualis sua erat, sicut et fratris sui vel patris offerente.  Quasi enim ex antiqua consuetudine inoleuit, ut Angli albis crucibus signentur, sicut Franci rubeis.  Sinistre hoc interpretabantur alii, dicentes eum non intuitu pietatis aut amore Christi hoc fecisse, sed ut eos a proposito fraudaret.  Audientes autem quod in subsidium exteros quosdam vocasset, conuenerunt apud ....... non exspectato die eis prefixo.  Et cum per internuncios duriuscule eis rex respondisset, condixerunt ut iam non ultra ciuiliter cum illo agerent.  Reuersique cum festinatione ad sua, castella munire, auxilium querere, equos et arma coeperunt parare.

The King was signed with the cross at London, on Ash Wednesday (4 March 1215) by William bishop of London, and with him, or after him, many of his associates, very much at his prompting, donning white crosses, like the King's, or like that of his brother or father. It was the ancient custom that the English be signed with white crosses, just as the French were signed with red. Others interpreted this in a sinister fashion, saying that the King did this not from piety or love of Christ, but so that he might deflect them from their intention. Hearing that the King had summoned foreigners to his assistance, they convened at ...., not waiting for the term originally set. And when the King, acting through envoys, replied to them harshly, they agreed that they could now no longer deal with him politely. Returning speedily to their homes, they began to munition their castles, to seek aid and to prepare horses and arms.


2. Roger of Wendover, in Matthaei Parisiensis , Monachi Sancti Albani, Chronica Majora, ed. H.R. Luard, 7 vols. (Rolls Ser., 1872–83), ii, 584-5, the words in brackets <> added by Paris.

In die Purificationis beate Marie crucem Domini suscepit, timore potius quam deuotione, <in dubiis pro meliori parte interpretandum est, ut scilicet crucis protectione tutior efficeretur>.

On the day of the Purification of the Blessed (Virgin) Mary (2 February 1215), he took the cross of the Lord, more out of fear than out of devotion <and this was taken for a doubtful thing by the better part, that he would be rendered stronger by the protection of the cross>


3. Canterbury Annals, in The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed. W. Stubbs 2 vols. (Rolls Ser., 1880), ii, 109.

Iohannes rex Anglie signatus est cruce ante discordiam inter ipsum et barones suos, nonas Martii.  Cruce quoque signati sunt venerabiles et illustres viri comes Cestrie, comes Ferires, comes Wintonie, constabularius Cestrie et plures tam nobiles quam plebei.

King John of England was signed with the cross before the discord between him and his barons, on 4 March (1215). Also signed with the cross were the worthy and illustrious men, the earl of Chester, the earl Ferrers, the earl of Winchester, the constable of Chester, and others both noblemen and commoners.


C. Tyerman, England and the Crusades, 1095-1588 (Chicago, 1988), 134.


S. D. Lloyd, 'Political Crusades in England c.1215-17 and c.1264-5', Crusade and Settlement: Papers read at the first conference of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East and presented to R.C. Smail, ed. P.W. Edbury (Cardiff, 1985), 113-16.


Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England (1198-1216), ed. C.R. Cheney and W. H. Semple (London, 1953), 203-4 no.78 (The Letters of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) concerning England and Wales: a calendar with an appendix of texts, ed. C. R. Cheney and M. G. Cheney (Oxford, 1967), no.1010), also in Diplomatic Documents Preserved in the Public Record Office, ed. P. Chaplais (London,1964), no.20, from what appears to be a copy enclosed with letters close (TNA SC 1/1 no.14), whence S. Lloyd, English Society and the Crusade 1216-1307 (Oxford, 1988), 201.


F. M. Powicke, 'The Bull "Miramur plurimum" and a Letter to Archbishop Stephen Langton, 5 September 1215', English Historical Review, xliv (1929), 87-93, the text of the letters themselves (Canterbury Cathedral Archives Chartae Antiquae M247) now re-edited in English Episcopal Acta IX: Winchester 1205-1238, ed. N. Vincent (Oxford, 1994), 82-6 no.100, and for the papal letter, cf. Selected Letters of Innocent III, ed. Cheney and Semple, 207-9 no.80 (Calendar of Letters of Innocent III concerning England, ed. Cheney and Cheney, no.1016), whence noted by Tyerman, England and the Crusades, 136.


Foedera, Conventiones, Litterae etc., or Rymer’s Foedera, 1066-1383, ed. A. Clarke et al., vol. 1, part i (London, 1816), 129: 'crucesignati eramus et petebamus beneficium priuilegii crucesignatorum, ne turbaretur terra nostra, ne consumeretur in malos usus quod in subsidium terre sancte expendere proposueramus .... Verum quia crucesignati fuimus, volentes in omnibus cum humilitate et mansuetudine procedere .... Nos tamen pro seruitio Dei et succursu terre sancte in tantum nos humiliauimus ', warning that the King might not be able to set out with his fellow crusaders, reporting the arrival at court of William, a papal familiar and member of the Pope's chamber, bringing the Pope's letters on the King's pilgrimage, apparently those recorded above n.3.


Radulphi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. J. Stevenson (Rolls Ser., 1875), 174; Selected Letters of Innocent III, ed. Cheney and Semple, 226-7 no.87 (Calendar of Letters of Innocent III concerning England, ed. Cheney and Cheney, no.1049, to the archbishop of Bourges and his suffragans, 30 January 1216), and cf. M. Bouquet, Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de France, xix (Paris, 1877), 611-12, letters of Honorius III, 16 September 1216, addressed to the archbishop of Bordeaux and his suffragans, ordering him to enjoin 'the King's faithful men, in remission of sins, that they set out for England to supply manful aid to (the King), ordering stern measures against 'those who spurn ecclesiastical censure, just as such people are disturbers of the business of the Crucified one, who do not cease from troubling the aforesaid King signed with the cross'.


Diplomatic Documents, ed. Chaplais, no.21, and cf. The Letters and Charters of the Legate Guala Bicchieri, Papal Legate in England, 1216-1218, ed. N. Vincent (Woodbridge, 1996), p. xxxviii-xxxix.

Referenced in

Dating the Outbreak of Civil War (Features of the Month)

Papal Letters of 19 March (Features of the Month)

John takes the cross, on Ash Wednesday (The Itinerary of King John)

John takes the cross, on Ash Wednesday (The Itinerary of King John)

John takes the cross, on Ash Wednesday (The Itinerary of King John)

John prepares for trouble in the North (The Itinerary of King John)

John prepares for trouble in the North (The Itinerary of King John)

Feature of the Month