Like many stories, Matilda's bracelet is a mixture of fact and fantasy. King John's reign was a time of unrest and rebellion and the King came into conflict with many people.
These people included the Kings William and Alexander of Scotland, the King of France, the Pope and his barons.
In 1206, King John refused to agree to Pope Innocent III's choice of Archbishop of Canterbury, after his own choice had been rejected. Because the king still challenged the Pope, in 1207 he was excommunicated (not allowed to be a member of the church) and an 'interdict' was issued by the Pope.
Because of the interdict, the churches closed and their bells fell silent. With the church doors locked, services could not take place. The dead had to be buried in fields instead of in holy ground. People could not marry in church and baptisms had to be carried out in church porches.
King John's excommunication also let off the barons from their oath of loyalty to him. Because they might rebel against him at any time, King John acted quickly against anyone who looked as though they might be disloyal. We know from the Medieval Chronicles that Robert FitzWalter, the 3rd Lord of Dunmow Castle, was accused of plotting to kill King John during a rebellion in 1212. The rebellion was quickly quashed. FitzWalter was outlawed and fled to France.
Eventually in 1213, the Pope told King Philip of France that he could invade England and King John finally agreed to the Pope's terms including his choice of Archbishop. Robert FitzWalter returned home and, with the other Barons, he made peace with King John.
This did not last long, however. It was found that FitzWalter was still plotting against the King and urging for the government to be reformed. Because of this, his home in London, the Castle of Baynard, was almost entirely destroyed.
What of Magna Carta and the Events that followed?
Taxes, during King John's reign, were very high and became ever higher.
In 1214, King John left England to fight a war in France. To make sure the army had enough supplies, the king's Regent of the time, Peter de Roches, raised a very big tax on the barons. The war was lost and, as in the story, on the Kings' return, Robert FitzWalter called a meeting at Bury St Edmunds Abbey, where it was agreed that the King must agree to the laws and freedoms granted to the barons in the charter of Henry 1st, or they would declare war on him.
Robert FitzWalter led the Baron's army under the title "Marshal of the Army of God and the Holy Church." In the end, the King was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15th June 1215. Several copies of the Magna Carta documents still exist.
Magna Carta means 'great charter'. To abide by Magna Carta, the King had to agree to certain laws and accept that his will was not above the law. It was not the first written document that put limits on the power of a king, but it was the first that was backed up by a council (of 25 barons) to try and make sure the king obeyed. It included a paragraph that said 'no free man shall be seized, imprisoned, disposed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way 'except by the lawful judgment of his peers.'
John did not sign the document willingly and never intended to keep to it. In September 1215, just a few months after signing the charter, King John sent a message to the Pope asking him to annul the charter. The Pope agreed and excommunicated the barons that had signed it.
As the fighting started again, FitzWalter slipped off to France and offered Prince Louis, the English throne. Both Scottish and French armies invaded England. After fighting off the Scottish forces, King John's army changed direction to East Anglia, intending to quash the baron's rebellion. As his troops crossed the river Ouse on 11th October, they were caught by the rising tide and the Crown Jewels sank into the Wash. Just a few days later, on 19th October, King John died at Newark.
At the time of his death, the French flag flew over East Anglia. However, a French King did not rule England, as no bishop would crown Prince Louis and many of the barons, who had rebelled against King John, now gave their support to his nine-year-old son Henry.
Was King John's reign really that bad?
When John became King on the death of his brother Richard, in 1199, the treasury (money for running the kingdom) was nearly empty. His answer was to raise money through taxes and his reign was one of harsh laws and heavy taxes.
At the start of his reign, while he was away from England, he left Geoffrey FitzPeter in control as 'Regent'. He was a harsh man and did not worry about demanding heavy taxes and gave the local sheriffs a free hand to collect these by any means. He became very unpopular.
Like most Kings of the time, John was ruthless. It was also claimed that King John killed his nephew, Arthur, in 1206, to make sure of the future of the throne. However, history may not have been very fair to King John. At this time the historians, or chroniclers, were mainly monks. These monks would have been in sympathy with the parties that King John was arguing with - that is the church and the rich estate owners (barons).
King John's reign was far from all bad for the country. Many towns such as Cambridge, Ipswich, King's Lynn and Norwich grew rich, as they were given 'charters' and encouraged to govern themselves. The towns benefited from changes in the way taxes were paid and could get income from taxing market traders entering the town.
R. Turner 1994 argued that John "...had intelligence, administrative ability and he was good at planning military campaigns. However, too many personality flaws held him back". Unfortunately for King John, no king of the time could have run the country successfully without the support of the powerful Barons and Noblemen.
What of Matilda's supposed murder and her links with Robin Hood?
Robin and Marion
The monk, Matthew Paris, writing in his diary some years later in the 13th century, mentions the murder of Matilda. He records that in 1234/5, Robert FitzWalter died and that "By his first wife, FitzWalter had, with other children, a daughter, Matilda the Fair, called 'Maid Marion,' said to have been poisoned by King John."
Matilda, his daughter, may indeed have been beautiful but very little is known of her life and death. After the rebellion of 1212, when FitzWalter and his family fled to France, it seems that he made his actions seem good, by saying the king was after his daughter and was plotting to kill his son-in-law.
King John was not a pleasant man, but many historians do not believe FitzWalter's story. Robert FitzWalter had a shady past. He had surrendered Vaudreuil in France to the French king, in 1203, under suspicious circumstances. So, whether what he did was because of King John's interest in his daughter or came from a wish for more power is difficult to say.
The character of Maid Marion, like Friar Tuck, is not in the early ballads of Robin Hood. The character of Maid Marion probably came from an early French Pastoral romance 'The shepherd and shepherdess Robin and Marion'. Parts of this story and the Robin Hood stories probably merged and Maid Marion became Robin Hood's true love in the later versions of the legend.
It is in Anthony Munday's Elizabethan "Huntingdon" plays, written in the 17th century, that Marian becomes an alias employed by Matilda FitzWalter. A popular romance at the time was the legend of King John pursuing Matilda, daughter of Robert FitzWalter. Robin Hood or Robin of Loxley, if such a person existed, was not a well-known nobleman but most likely a wronged landowner, fighting to regain his family seat.
Dunmow Priory in Essex is said to be the resting-place of Robin Hood's Maid Marian. All that remains of Dunmow Priory is the present church of Dunmow, the south aisle of what was, once, a much larger building. However the story lives on, along with the many other tales of Robin Hood; and King John's jewels and royal regalia remain a treasure trove still to be found.