The loss of his empire presented King John with a problem – well several to be honest. However to pare them right down they could be viewed thus: John’s barons expected him to trounce the French as big brother Richard was wont to do; he needed money to do this but his revenue had been slashed on account of him loosing vast tracts of land. In order to trounce the French John needed money to pay his army but he no longer had the wherewithal to raise the revenues. Therefore John had to get creative in his taxation.
One of John’s wheezes was inheritance tax. Technically England was a feudal society which meant that all the land belonged to the king and thus when a baron died the land reverted to the crown – except of course that wasn’t the way it worked in real life. John, however, decided that actually that was exactly how it worked. Take John de Lacy for example. He expected to inherit his father’s Honour of Pontefract in 1213 – which he did ultimately do but not until he’d coughed up to the tune of 7,000 marks – and let’s not forget that John had been using the estate for himself during de Lacy’s minority.
At least John was an adult male. If you were a woman or a minor then things became even more fraught. John paid special attention to so-called feudal custodies. if the king was at the top of the feudal pyramid he was effectively responsible for widows and orphans – particularly if they came with a juicy price tag. He claimed the right to dispose of them in marriage and to grant their custody where he saw fit- not necessarily to their family but to the person who would pay most to get their hands on the person of the heiress and her estates. A wealthy widow or young heiress became an excellent way of rewarding his loyal servants not to mention filling the royal coffers. An heiress was also an excellent way of providing for illegitimate Plantagenet sprigs. William Longsword, John’s half-brother, was famously married to the Countess of Salisbury.
John’s own son, Richard, was married off to Roese de Dover bringing him Chilham Castle. Her story is typical of what could befall an heiress. Her father was Fulbert de Dover who held the Barony of Chilham. When Fulbert died, Roese was too young to marry so the custody of the castle and its estates along with Roese reverted to the crown. John decided to marry her off to his own son – Richard FitzJohn. This meant that the estates and the family name were passed, along with the bride, to the king’s son. It is probable that Roese’s age upon marriage was about thirteen. We know that Roese or Rohese had children – there were at least two daughters- Isabel who married into the Berkeley family and Lorette who married a Marmion. How Rohese felt about the Barony of Chilham passing into Richard Fitzjohn’s hands or even her own marriage to him is not recorded.
What we do know is that rights of wardship and marriage were so valuable, according to to Turner, that justices were given instructions to keep their eyes out for stray widows and heiresses. Turner goes on to look at the accounts. During the reign of Henry II the average levy on an heiresses wedding was 101 marks. By the time of King John the value had more than tripled. Peter de Maulay paid 7,000 marks to marry Isabella of Thornham who was the heiress to the Barony of Mulgrave. This fine was huge and what makes it even more remarkable is that according to Ralph of Coggeshall it was Maulay who had killed John’s nephew Arthur of Brittany – under which circumstances you’d have thought John would have offered a cut-price bride.
It wasn’t always hopeful grooms who made the highest bid. Sometimes widows paid a fine to the king to avoid remarriage. The Countess of Aumale is one such example. In fact, John realised that he was on to such a good thing that he also started fining male heirs who were wards of the crown when they got married which was a new practice as up until that point feudal custom hadn’t fined males – so at least you could argue that King John offered equal opportunities to heirs and heiresses alike! It was undoubtedly true that wardship was a lucrative income for the crown. Fryde goes so far as to describe the fines John imposed as ‘extortionate.’
No wonder then that wardship is mentioned in Magna Carta. As well as issues about caring for the estates of minors rather than milking them dry clause six states that “heirs shall be married without disparagement” – i.e. no marrying heirs off to their social inferiors. The same clause also states that the family of the ward to be married off should be notified once the deal is done. Clause seven of Magna Carta deals with widows stating that they were to have their dower and their inheritance without the king taxing it and furthermore in clause eight no widow was to be married off against her will…all of which rather suggests that one way or another King John rather overdid income from feudal custodies.
Fryde, Natalie. Why Magna Carta: Angevin England Revisited.
Turner, Ralph: (1994) King John, England’s Evil King. Longman