king john

The Importance of Meeting Places; indicating status

Meeting places are often forgotten in regard to modern diplomacy, primarily as the details of what is being negotiated overshadow the environment in which it is being negotiated. This is not to say that they are forgotten altogether. The most famous example is probably the train carriage in which the French surrender in World War II was signed. It was no coincidence that this was the exact same carriage in which the armistice of November 11th was signed twenty-two years earlier. This was clearly a humiliation for France, and established Germany as the superior power for the remainder of the war. However, what is the importance of meeting places in the Medieval age? This is what this article will attempt to find out.

In 911 AD Charles the Simple, King of the Franks, met with a Viking leader named Rollo to make peace. Although we know little of Rollo’s exploits prior to this meeting due to a lack of sources, it is likely Rollo had been carrying out large scale raids in Northern France. We can piece this together thanks to Dudo’s account of this meeting, which states Rollo had “overrun the whole of Frankia” and mentions Rollo had fought several successful battles against the counts of the Kingdom.[1] Although it is unlikely that Rollo actually overwhelmed the entirety of Frankia, it shows how significant a threat Rollo and his followers were. Surely this implies Rollo is the superior power here? Having won several victories and brought one of the foremost powers in Europe to the diplomatic table certainly make this view plausible. However, this may not necessarily be the case, as we’ll see below.

Dudo of St Quentin’s account specifies Charles was willing to give Rollo Flanders, as well as the hand of his daughter to secure peace for his realm. In return Rollo was to be baptised. Rollo rejects this offer, primarily because of the extensive, unusable marsh land which took up much of Flanders, but he eventually settles for receiving the area which would become the Duchy of Normandy.[2] What does any of this have to do with meeting places? For answers we must turn to the account of William of Jumièges. We’re told both parties met upon a river, a river which neither was willing to cross. This problem was solved by the sending of emissaries back and forth, but why would neither party cross the river?[3] By stressing that neither party crossed the river, William is showing that this is a meeting of equals. Could this not just be diplomatic etiquette? After all, the reasons listed above certainly seem to imply Rollo was the superior here. Although this could be true, we must take into account the context of the situation. Yes, Rollo was had been victorious in several conflicts involving the Franks and won. We must remember though that Rollo was a Viking leader, most likely from Denmark. However, Denmark was no short distance from Northern France, and it is unlikely that Rollo would have been able to bring more men from his home country to consolidate his position. Furthermore Charles ruled a vast realm, and his relations with his neighbouring Kingdoms, as well as with his own aristocracy were in a precarious state.[4] It would be significantly easier for Charles to settle these Norsemen on land and in turn gain their support rather than to weaken himself by engaging them in battle, which would also give his enemies at home and abroad opportunity to attack him. It was in Rollo’s interests to quit whilst he was ahead, and Charles’ to settle this dispute in a way which would not cause too much disruption to his realm. Thus we can clearly see that they were equal in terms of military prowess, and in turn met as equals. The refusal for either one of them to cross the river, into the others ‘controlled zone’ reflects that. It may be argued that Williams account is inaccurate as it was written significantly after the events it records, c. 100 years in fact. Although this is true, it does not matter. What matters is that William recorded what he thought the meeting between two equal parties would have been like.

Meetings between parties were often held upon the parties boarders. This is somewhat evidenced by the continuation of meetings along the borders of the Duchy of Normandy and the Kingdom of France after the aforementioned meeting in 911. These conferences were consistently located where the edges of these two realms touched.[5] For example, in 1202 King John was summoned to the court of King Philip Augustus in Paris, in his capacity as Duke of the Normans, vassal of the French King. John replied saying that the Duke of the Normans had been granted the privilege of only having to meet the French King at the border between the Duchy and the Kingdom.[6] In fact, the chronicler Roger of Howden gives the general location of these meetings as “between Gisors and Trie where parleys had always been held between the Kings of the French and the Norman Dukes”.[7] In fact, we know of at least twelve other diplomatic meetings which have occurred in this area in the previous century.

However, the above paragraph has skimmed over a major development which occurred between the treaty of 911 and that of 1202, the Conquest of England. Rollo, a leader of wondering Viking raiders may have been equal to Charles the Simple in terms of military success and power, but surely this necessitates the heirs of Rollo, having conquered the entirety of England, should be seen as superior to the French kings? If this is true, why does John successfully demand to meet Philip Augustus 291 years later as equals, as indicated by the meeting place between their borders? This does seem to throw a wrench in the works of the theory, but this interpretation too brushes over important events. As mentioned above, Charles the Simple had enemies both abroad and at home, the latter of which revolted, in 920 and again in 922, and imprisoned him for the remainder of his life.[8] Charles’ power over his barons was weak well before the revolts of the 920’s and thus he did not have the strength one would associate with one of the most powerful monarchies of Medieval Europe. However, in the later part of the 10th century, the Capetian dynasty came to power, displacing the Carolingian which Charles was a part of. The Capetian dynasty did much to revitalise the power of the monarchy in France and bring the Barons under the King’s thumb once more. A pivotal period was the reign of Louis VI, also known as ‘the fat’, who quashed rebellious lords who overstepped their role and reasserted the power of the monarchy in the royal demesne.[9] By 1202 the Kings of France were in a significantly better position, being able to call upon the might of their various vessels. The opposite is true for the King John, in that his barons were becoming increasingly unsatisfied with his rule, which eventually resulted in an outright rebellion and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.[10] The very fact that King Phillip attempted to bring his English counterpart to his court shows the precarious position which John was in. Thus we can still claim that despite the evolving circumstances of the period, the Dukes of Normandy were still equals to the Kings of France.

Both examples covered so far have been between equal powers, how can we be sure that meeting between boarders was not the norm for all medieval powers, and not just between those of equal standing? This calls for an example involving two powers which were clearly uneven in terms of status. In 1181 Valdemar, King of the Danes, met the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the river Trave.[11] Not only did the Valdemar have to cross the river to the Emperor, clearly showing his inferior status, the river itself was located in the Empire, not on the boarder. As Emperor Barbarossa had significantly more resource than Valdemar, both in terms of wealth and armed forces; this compelling of the inferior power to be within the territory of the superior reflects this. This  compelling of an inferior into a superiors domain was not unique to diplomacy between the Danes and Germans. Anglo-Welsh relations are full of examples in which various Welsh princes were compelled to cross into English territory.  For example, in 1177 Henry II met with two Welsh princes at Oxford, a clear indication of their inferior status.[12] There are also various examples of this practice involving Anglo-Scottish relations and Danish and Slavic relations. This is clearly a practice which was recognised widely throughout the Medieval world.

However, can we be sure that this was not just a European phenomenon? Surely cultures south of the Mediterranean will have had a different practises regarding diplomacy? Although this is undoubtedly true, to say that meeting places did not have a place in indicating whether the parties involved were equal or not is unlikely. In 1192 Richard I, leading the Third Crusade, and Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, or Saladin, made peace. Richard was sick at the time so negotiations were conducted via a series of messengers.[13] Although it is true that there was no actual meeting place between the two rulers, that fact that neither of them came to the other shows they were both regarded as equal. This mirrors the aforementioned treaty of 991, whilst also being on a separate continent to all other treaties discussed in this article. Clearly  more examples are needed, particularly non-European ones, but what is certain is that meeting places, or rather, where parties were positioned when negotiating, were important status indicator in Medieval culture.

The topic of meeting places and its intrinsic relationship with indicating status is one which I’d be interested in studying further. In particular I’d like to see how many parallels can be drawn between European and non-European powers. The examples mentioned in the article are incredibly Eurocentric, even the last example that mentions an Arabic power is from a European source, but this is due to a lack of English translations of sources from this period outside of Europe. It is certainly something which I’d like to write about in the future, if provided the opportunity. If you would like to read more on the subject Jenny Benham’s ‘Peacemaking in the Middle Ages’ covers this topic in great detail, and also explores a plethora of other factors that affects Medieval diplomacy.

[1] Dudo of St Quentin, History of the Normans, tr. E. Christiansen (Woodbridge, 1998), 35-40

[2] Dudo of St Quentin, History of the Normans, tr. E. Christiansen (Woodbridge, 1998), 35-40.

[3] The Gesta Normannorum ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni, ed. E.M.C. van Houtss (Oxford, 1992-95), I, 52-5.

[4] Mckitterick, R., The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, (Essex, 1983), 306-309

[5] Benham, J., Peace Making in the Middle Ages, (Manchester, 2011), p21-33; The matter of boarders in the Medieval period is still hotly debated amongst historians, and warrants another article. For the purposes of this article I am accepting Benham’s definition.

[6] Ralph of Coggeshall., Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. Joseph Stevenson, Rolls Series, 66 (London 1875), 135-136.

[7] Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi Benedicti Abbatis, 2 vols, ed. W. Stubbs, Rolls Series, 49 (London, 1867), 47

[8] Mckitterick, R., The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 308-309

[9] Suger., The Deeds of Louis the Fat, tr. R, Cuismano, J. Moorhead, (Washington, 1992), 18

[10] Church, S., King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant, (London, 2015), 214

[11] Saxo Grammaticus., Danorum Regum Heroumque Historia, ed.  E, Christiansen. BAR international series, (Oxford 1981),  iii, 804 fn. 332

[12] Brut y Tywysogyon or the Chronicle of the Princes, tr. T. Jones (Cardiff, 1952), 70.

[13] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, 6, tr. H, Nicholson, (Aldarshot, 1997), 27-28, 371-372.