Recently I decided that I needed to review a film on Tudor history. I turned on Netflix and went looking for one of the classics—Anne of the Thousand Days, A Man for All Seasons or perhaps one of Cate Blanchett’s movies about Elizabeth. I discovered two things. 1) Netflix has no films on Tudor history at all, just a bunch of not very good-looking documentaries. 2) Ironclad (2011, dir. Jonathan English). I’m not sure why Netflix suggested this film, because the only thing it has in common with any of the above films is that it’s set in England. But I faintly remembered hearing about it when it first came out, so I watched it.
It’s a small independent film; the financing was apparently such a big challenge that at one point they had to recast all the supporting roles, after Megan Fox dropped out. But despite the modest budget, it’s the largest independent film ever made in Wales. And, a little improbably, it’s based quite solidly in history, albeit with some important liberties.
The Siege of Rochester Castle
On June 15th, 1215, King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta, a charter of liberties in which he agreed to a variety of restrictions on his powers as king and lord of vassals. Most of the charter was limited to John’s relationship with his vassals and therefore applied only to nobles, but a few details applied to everyone in the country, most notably the establishment of what can be called the right of due process for all non-serfs and the abolition of double jeopardy in trials.
However, soon after John signed it, he repudiated it, and Pope Innocent III declared John released from his oath to support it. This triggered the First Barons’ War, in which the rebellious barons, supported by King Louis VIII of France, essentially attempted to depose John. The rebels were also supported by Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury.
In October, Langton sent the nobleman William d’Aubigny to occupy Rochester Castle. The castle had been in John’s hands, but the Magna Carta had required John to return it to Langton because it was the property of the archbishopric of Canterbury. John persuaded the castellan, Reginald de Cornhill, to open the gates and D’Aubigny occupied the castle with a small force, much to John’s great frustration. Rochester Castle controlled the southern road to London, which the rebels had taken control of. John could not risk bypassing Rochester, and so he laid siege to the castle for two months.
John’s forces occupied the city of Rochester and destroyed the bridge linking the city to London, thus making it difficult for the rebels to relieve the siege. For two months, d’Aubigny’s small band of men, variously numbered between 85 and 150, struggled to keep hold off John. John’s forces broke through the outer wall of the castle, forcing the defenders to retreat to the keep. John’s forces sapped the keep, digging a tunnel under it and then burning the tunnel supports. This caused part of the keep to collapse, but the rebels held out in the part of the castle that remained. Some of the less-able-bodied defenders were forced to leave because of dwindling supplies, and some sources report that John cut off their hands and feet. Eventually, the remaining defenders surrendered; John imprisoned all of them, including d’Aubigny, except one archer whom John executed because the man had served him from childhood but then rebelled.
Sadly for John, the capture of Rochester did not improve his position significantly. He was able to force the rebels into a stalemate, but suffered a setback when his baggage train was lost crossing a tidal estuary. He contracted dysentery or something similar and died on October 18th, 1216, about a year after starting the siege of Rochester.
King John was a complex figure. He was widely disliked by his nobles, and his various defeats sharply colored his posthumous reputation, especially in comparison with his more famous and accomplished father Henry II and brother Richard the Lion-hearted. He has been remembered by derisive nicknames such as ‘Lackland’ and ‘Softsword’, and most historical literature treats him poorly; he is, after all, the main villain in modern Robin Hood stories, and The Lion in Winter makes him seem like a pathetic joke.
But in recent decades scholars have tended to paint a more balanced picture of John. They have pointed out that he was an extremely skilled solider; his forces never lost a battle at which he was present, but his great tragedy was that the two most critical battles of his reign were ones he was unable to be at. He was a talented administrator, who paid far more attention to his kingdom than his older brother did. His servants were deeply loyal to him, but he lacked the skills to manage the nobles and clergy who truly mattered politically. Like his father, he was possessed of both enormous energy and a ferocious temper, but at key moments he seems to have been paralyzed by inaction; one historian has suggested that he might have been bi-polar. All in all, I like John, far more than I like his brother Richard.
The plot of Ironclad focuses entirely on the siege of Rochester, and it follows the events of the siege fairly closely, albeit with some significant deviations. The main character is the entirely fictitious Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy), a Templar knight with some sort of dark secret that is never revealed. The film claims that the Templars were the main reason that John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which is completely untrue. John had good relationships with the Templars, and relied on the advice of Aymeric de St. Maur, the master of the Order in England at the time. Aymeric encouraged him to sign the Magna Carta, but that’s a far cry from claiming that the Templars forced him into it.
Like Arn the Knight Templar, this film seems to suggest that one joins the Templars like one joins the modern military. There are suggestions that Thomas might be allowed to “take a leave” from the Templars, and at the end, Archbishop Langton tells Thomas that he’s “earned his freedom.” But joining a monastic order was a permanent conversion; men did not leave the Order after a period of time. However, an archbishop would have had the authority to release someone from their monastic oaths, although it would have been highly unusual to do so. One of the reasons men joined monastic orders was that it was thought to significantly increase the chance of salvation, so leaving a monastic order would not have been seen as a good thing by most people at the time.
Also, the film claims that Templars had a “vow of silence”. Vows of silence were a real thing, but they’ve been badly misunderstood. In general, monks were expected to focus their thoughts on spiritual matters and to avoid frivolous conversations. Some orders employed a simple form of sign language so that monks could communicate simple ideas without speaking. But most orders allowed monks to talk, at least at certain moments. Monks met regularly in chapter meetings to discuss matters of importance. At meals, they heard texts read to them. Some monastic rules set aside time for the brothers to converse. And of course they sang the liturgy multiple times a day. But these are not formal vows of silence, which was a practice only employed by a minority of medieval monastic orders. The Templars most certainly did not maintain a vow of silence, since as soldiers, they needed to communicate orders on the battlefield. Clearly the screenwriter hasn’t thought this issue through.
Also, Thomas uses a Braveheart-style great sword. If it was too early for William Wallace, it’s way too early for an early 13th century Templar. Thanks, Mel Gibson. Now everybody apparently needs to use great swords.
Early in the film, Thomas and William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox) are sent by Stephen Langton to hold Rochester Castle against John. They do a Seven Samurai number and recruit five more soldiers and then go to Rochester, where they convince Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) to let them hold the castle, But Cornhill has only eleven men, so 18 soldiers and a few servants are left to hold off John’s forces. This is an absurdly small group to hold even a small castle; in an actual siege, a group that small would have been overwhelmed on the first day of battle.
Historically, John hired a mixed group of continental mercenaries during the Baron’s War, but in this film he hires a band of pagan Danish Vikings. This is the worst anachronism of the film. The Danes had been Christian for more than 200 years by the Baron’s War. The only purpose served by making John’s men pagan Vikings seems to be to make John look bad, for employing pagans when he’s allied to the pope. It’s an egregiously silly detail in a film that in many respects strives to be true to events.
King John (Paul Giametti) is actually quite well-handled. The script is written to make John seem like a complete asshole, but Giametti manages to capture John’s fierce temper in a way that humanizes him. When John’s forces break into the castle bailey and capture d’Aubigny, John gets a monologue that is written to make him seem petulant, but Giametti transforms it into an angry tirade fueled by John’s quite legitimate complaint that his rights as king are not being respected. It’s a speech that captures something of the actual attitude that medieval kings had about their position.
The film is also rather naïve about the Magna Carta. It is referenced as being a document “for the people” in a rather vague and unspecified way, as if it were a proto-constitution instead of the peace treaty it actually was. The film frames the Baron’s War as being a conflict between a tyrannical John and a group of nobles who are somehow champions of the common man. John was definitely being unreasonable, but nothing that he did prior to 1215 would have been seen as illegal or tyrannical; rather his nobles felt that he was abusing his rights as their lord, using legal rights in ways they had not been intended.
Despite all these problems, the film does a remarkably good job of following the outlines of the siege. Rochester Castle is realistically depicted (although it’s located out in the countryside, instead of in a city and within an arrow’s flight of Rochester Cathedral). When I watched the film, I thought that the siege details were being a little improbable, but upon researching the actual siege, I saw that the film actually follows the basic sequence of events fairly closely, although it plays with the time-frame of events somewhat, extending the first part of the siege and then compressing the later parts somewhat. But all the major details of the siege in the film have at least some basis in the actual siege, other than Thomas’ romance with Cornhill’s wife, and the deaths of Cornhill and d’Aubigny, both of whom are known to have survived the siege.
An Orgy of Violence
If you decide to watch Ironclad, be warned; it’s extremely violent. I’ve seen my fair share of modern action films, and this film goes somewhat beyond them. The film dwells on graphic violence in ways that I found a little shocking. The camera watches a number of extreme injuries, including the top of a man’s head being chopped off and a man being cut from shoulder to waist. In one particularly graphic shot, a man’s arm is hacked off, with four strokes that gradually hack through the bone. The film also dwells on John’s order to cut off d’Aubigny’s hands and feet.
I’m of two minds about the film’s use of graphic violence. One part of me feels that the film was being true to its nature as a war film and showing what war really looks like. In most Hollywood films, the graphic violence is somewhat ludicrous; limbs are easily chopped off even though most medieval swords weren’t sharp enough to accomplish that feat easily. In this film, the dismemberments actually seem plausible (d’Aubigny’s hands and feet are braced against wooden blocks, for example). The violence is shown as being psychologically brutal to the defenders of the castle; at the end of the film, Thomas and the two other survivors all seem moderately traumatized by what they’ve been through.
However, the other part of me feels that the film is just indulging in the pornography of violence that has become so common in modern action films. Many Hollywood films have decided to take the Grand Guignol approach to storytelling, without paying much attention to the consequences of the violence. So if you watch the film, be prepared for some gore.
Overall, the film takes some liberties with the facts, but fewer liberties than I was expecting. It’s a bit like The Warlord in that it’s a small-scale film, focused on a single conflict within a much larger picture, and it has a similar ending, with the hero worn down by his struggles. While I have some problems with this film, I’d rather watch a dozen films like this than a Braveheart or 300. Now I just have to hunt down a copy of a film on Tudor history.
Update: I review the sequel here.
Want to Know More?
Ironcladis available on Amazon. The best book I know on King John is W.L. Warren’s King John (English Monarchs), but it’s getting on in years. For a more recent take, and one more closely connected to this film, try Stephen Church’s King John: And the Road to Magna Cartadoes a good job of examining the Baron’s War and how it led to Magna Carta.