The Magna Carta Project

King John Forgets his Password

October 2014, by Professor Nicholas Vincent

The King's 'Diary' for the week beginning 26 October raises questions over the potentially 'hidden' meaning of various routine royal letters, and in particular over whether a letter to Thierry the Teuton, sent on 30 October 1214, contains a coded reference to the Queen, Isabella of Angoulême. For evidence that the King was indeed familiar with the use of double-meaning and 'passwords', we can cite a letter dispatched in August 1202, shortly after the capture of Arthur of Brittany and his fellow French rebels at the siege of Mirebeau. Large numbers of French barons and knights were swept up in John's net. One of the more important of them, Geoffrey de Lusignan, was dispatched for safe keeping in the dungeons of Falaise. To restrict access to him, and to serve as a 'countersign' (i.e. as a password), the King decreed that only a select group of three courtiers were licensed to deal with the affair. The problem, as with the modern tendency to forget 'passwords', was that the King had since forgotten precisely which three courtiers he had nominated. Hence the rather embarrassed tone of his letters of 26 August, in which the King instructs Geoffrey's gaolors to allow Thomas, clerk of the royal chamber, to supervise access to Geoffrey, even though Thomas was not necessarily one of the three courtiers who had initially been specified. As a further reminder of the darker side of John's court, the letter ends with an instruction that, should Geoffrey de Lusginan prove co-operative, 'he be released from fetters, and be put in the place where the ring-chains are'. Ring chains, fetters, and the mysterious disappearance of state prisoners, most notably of the King's nephew, Arthur of Brittany, all of these should remind us that King John was famed not just for cunning and duplicity but for the most bloodthirsty brutality. So striking are the terms of this letter that its nineteenth-century editor, Thomas Duffus Hardy, included a translation amongst the introductory matter to his edition of the Patent Rolls, published in 1835. The translation that follows is adapted from that first offered by Hardy.

King John's letter to Hubert de Burgh and Peter of Stokes, TNA C 66/2 m.9

King John's letter to Hubert de Burgh and Peter of Stokes, TNA C 66/2 m.9

B = TNA/PRO C 66/2 (Patent Roll 4 John) m.9.

Pd (from B with English translation) RLP, pp.xii, 17b.

Rex etc H(uberto) de Burgo cam(erario) et P(etro) de Stok' etc.  Mandamus vob(is) quod permittatis Will(elmum) Baudud clericum loqui cum G(alfrido) de Leziniac' per T(homam) de camera clericum nostrum hiis intersignis quod vob(is) iniunximus quod nichil in(de) crederetis nisi id vob(is) per unum ex tribus de hospicio nostro quos vob(is) nominauimus significassemus.  Et credimus quod idem Thom(as) sit unus ex ill(is) tribus et licet ipse non sit unus ex ill(is), nichilominus tamen volumus quod per ipsum cum predicto G(alfrido) loquatur predictus W(illelmus) clericus ad presens.  Et quia non bene recolimus qui illi iii. fuerunt, nos in(de) certificetis, ut vob(is) super h(oc) alias certius mandata nostra facere possimus.  Volumus enim precise quod iste eum videat et cum eo loquatur.  Et in huius rei etc.  Et si conuentionem factam inter nos et vic(ecomitem) Toarc' cuius transcriptum vob(is) mittimus omni sequi voluerit predictus G(alfridus), volumus quod ponatur extra boias et ponatur in partibus boiorum annulorum.  T(este) me ipso apud Chin' xxvi. die Aug(usti).

The King etc to Hubert de Burgh his chamberlain and Peter de Stokes etc. We command you to allow William Baudud clerk to speak with Geoffrey de Lusignan through Thomas the clerk of our chamber, by this countersign, namely that we enjoined you to believe nothing whatsoever, unless we should signify it to you by one of those three persons of our household whom we named to you, and we believe the same Thomas to be one of these three, and should he not be one of them, we nevertheless desire that through him the aforesaid William Baudud the clerk may for the present speak to the said Geoffrey. And because we do not well recollect who those three were, inform us thereupon that another time we may with more certainty give you our commands, for we truly wish that he may see him and converse with him.  And in testimony etc. And if the aforesaid Geoffrey be willing to follow, in all things, the agreement made between us and the vicomte de Thouars, a transcript of which we send to you, then we wish that he be released from fetters, and be put in the place where the ring-chains are. Witness ourself at Chinon, on the 26th day of August.

Feature of the Month