Good King John, or was he Bad King John? Born in 1167 he was king from 1199 to 1216. He visited Bridport in 1201 and 1204 and in 1211 the Sheriff billed King John for “moneys which he has paid for 3000 weighs of hempen thread, according to Bridport weight, for making ship’s cables and for the expenses of Robert Piscatoris whilst he stayed in Bridport to procure his nets”, according to Luke Over in Bridport, the evolution of a town. Then in 1213 King John sent instructions “also cause to be made at Bridport, night and day, as many ropes for ships both large and small and as many cables as you can, and twisted yarns for ballistae” from Bridport: Burgh his and Borough, 878 to 1974 AD by Richard Hindson. (This was to fight the French navy). So Bridport was recognised by King John for its prowess in its main industry and no doubt the work he placed here must have increased its wealth, prestige and created expansion.
Within a few miles of Bridport is the village of Powerstock, earlier known as Poorstock. Just outside the village is Castle Hill on which it is believed that King Athelstan built a “palace”, followed later by a Norman motte and bailey. In 1205 King John exchanged land at Fordington with Robert de Newburgh for Poorstock Manor including this motte and bailey castle, and its surrounding deer park and forest. Evidence of the castle can be seen in aerial photographs but on the ground only irregular humps and bumps can now be seen. It is thought that much of the stone was robbed for building purposes over the years. King John had a large hunting lodge erected on the site, probably mainly a wooden structure as John ordered the Sheriff of Devon to supply a hundred thousand nails for the buildings at Poorstock in 1205, according to Hindson, who also suggests that they were probably transported by ship to Bridport. Presumably the lodge was later owned by various owners, some absent, it fell into disuse and decayed. Maybe the wood was taken for building or firewood. Some of the remaining earthworks, ditches etc., erected to enclose deer may still be seen. It may be that wild boar were also available to be hunted. (Hunting was the sport of kings in those days). King John made several visits, perhaps five, to his hunting lodge, the last being in 1213.
It is not impossible that John also passed through Bridport on some of these occasions. The hunting lodge must also have produced local employment, from its building, to later a housekeeper, cook, ostler and herdsman for the deer. After the death of King John the castle/hunting lodge was passed to his son, King Henry III, who used it infrequently for three years. Some of the information about Powerstock is taken from an article in the Bridport History Society Journal of Jan.2001 by our friend and fellow member Roland Moss following a visit led by Dr. Karen Mew and also from Secret Places of West Dorset, by Louise Hodgson.
So Good King or Bad King? Popular history favours the latter, but all of the early kings probably regarded the serfs with contempt. He lost Normandy in 1204 and so was known as “John Lackland” and when he left the fight to return to England was also called “John Softsword”. He also quarrelled with the Pope. I read a more balanced view which said that on one hand John could be considered hard working, presiding “at home” over important administration, but on the other hand he was an oppressor and his military and political success was poor. He had a naval victory preventing a French invasion, but then his allies were defeated in 1214 resulting in the barons rebelling and the Magna Carta. King John signed this “Great Charter” at Runnymede in June 1215, but refuted it soon after. It was reissued in modified form by his son King Henry III and promised that freemen will be judged by their peers. However it has been considered to be a mainly feudal document, covering narrow baronial interests. Henry III gave Bridport its charter in 1253.
Even if King John is regarded badly there are indications that his actions were good for this area, resulting in work in local business and general expansion.
Bridport History Society does not meet in August, so why not have a walk around Powerstock castle?
Cecil Amor, President, Bridport History Society.
Tel: 01308 456876.