John's safety, however, was secured in a more practical way when his bastard brother, William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, made a descent on the port of Damme and burnt or sunk a whole squadron of the French transports. After this John's spirits rose, and he talked of crossing the seas himself to recover Normandy and Anjou. But he soon found that his subjects were not inclined to follow him; they were resigned to the loss of the Angevin heritage, whose union with England brought no profit to them, however much it might interest their king. The barons expressed their wish for a peace with France, and when summoned to produce their feudal contingents pleaded poverty, and raised a rather shallow theory to the effect that their services could not be asked for wars beyond seas against which there were conclusive precedents in the reigns of Henry I and Henry II. But any plea can be raised against an unpopular king John found himself obliged to turn back, since hardly a man save his mercenaries had rallied to his standard at Portsmouth. In great anger and indignation he marched off towards the north, with his hired soldiery, swearing to punish the barons who had taken the lead in the strike which had defeated his purpose.
But the outbreak of war was to be deferred for a space. Archbishop Langton, who on assuming possession of his see had shown at once that he was a patriotic English statesman, and not the mere delegate of the pope, besought his master to hold back, and, when he refused, threatened to renew the excommunication which had so lately been removed. The old justiciar Geoffrey Fitz-Peter, now on his death-bed, had also refused to pronounce sentence on the defaulters. John hesitated, and meanwhile his enemies began to organize their resistance.
A great landmark in the constitutional history of England was reached when Langton assembled the leading barons, rehearsed to them the charter issued by Henry I on his accession, and pointed out to them the rights and liberties therein promised by the crown to the barons. For the future they agreed to take this document as their programme of demands. It was the first of the many occasions in English history when the demand for reform took the shape of a reference back to old precedents, and now (as on all subsequent occasions) the party which opposed the crown read back into the ancient grants which they quoted a good deal more than had been actually conceded in them. To Langton and the barons the charter of Henry I seemed to cover all the customs and practices which had grown up under the rule of the bureaucracy which had served Henry II and Richard I. A correct historical perspective could hardly be expected from men whose constitutional knowledge only ran back as far as the memory of themselves and their fathers. The Great Charter of 1215 was a commentary on, rather than a reproduction of, the old accession pledges of Henry I.
Meanwhile John, leaving his barons to discuss and formulate their grievances, pushed on with a great scheme of foreign alliances, by which he hoped to crush Philip of France, even though the aid of the feudal levies of England was denied him. He leagued himself with his nephew the emperor Otto IV (his sister's son), and the counts of Flanders and Boulogne, with many other princes of the Netherlands. Their plan was that John should land in Poitou and distract the attention of the French by a raid up the Loire, while the emperor and his vassals should secretly mobilize a great army in Brabant and make a sudden dash at Paris. The scheme was not destitute of practical ability, and if it had been duly carried out would have placed France in such a crisis of danger as she has seldom known.
It was not John's fault that the campaign failed. He sent the Earl of Salisbury with some of his mercenaries to join the confederates in Flanders, while he sailed with the main body of them to La Rochelle, whence he marched northwards devastating the land before him. Philip came out to meet him with the whole levy of France (April 1214), and Paris would have been left exposed if Otto and his Netherland vassals had struck promptly. But the emperor was late, and by the time that he was approaching the French frontier Philip Augustus had discovered that John's invasion was but a feint, executed by an army too weak to do much harm. Leaving a small containing force on the Loire in face of the English king, Philip hurried to the north with his main army, and on the 27th of July 1214 inflicted a crushing defeat on the emperor, and his allies at Bouvines near Lille. This was the greatest victory of the French medieval monarchy. It broke up the Anglo-German alliance, and gave the conqueror undisturbed possession of all that he had won from the Angevin house and his other enemies.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.