Good King John

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Graham E. Seel | Published in History Today Volume: 62 Issue: 2 2012

For centuries King John has been regarded as the embodiment of an evil ruler. But, says Graham E. Seel, this image is largely the creation of monastic chroniclers with an axe to grind. A close examination of contemporary records reveals a more nuanced character.

King John with an unsteady crown, depicted in a manuscript of 'Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae', an abridged version of the chronicle of Matthew Paris, produced in St Albans 1250-59

King John with an unsteady crown, depicted in a manuscript of 'Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae', an abridged version of the chronicle of Matthew Paris, produced in St Albans 1250-59

Everyone knows that King John (r. 1199-1216) was bad. In 2009 listeners to Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time were told by the medieval historian Nicholas Vincent that ‘John really was an absolute rotter through and through; the worst king in English history.’ Here is a monarch, it is argued, whose character was so ill-suited to the delivery of effective governance that it was inevitable that his reign should be one of misdeeds and failures. The loss of Normandy; the marriage to Isabella of Angoulême; the murder of Richard I’s designated heir Arthur; the prolonged contest with Pope Innocent III; the acts of cruelty against Jews and other members of the political nation; and John’s lustfulness towards the wives of his barons – all are perceived as wayside markers pointing to the inevitable climax of the reign: baronial revolt and Magna Carta. Since his own day – apart from a period in the 16th century when he was temporarily rehabilitated by the Tudors because of his resistance to Innocent III and some revisionism undertaken in the 20th century – it has been commonplace to portray John as fatally flawed. ‘Foul as it is, Hell itself is defouled by the foulness of John’, concluded the chronicler Matthew Paris (c. 1200-59). John was literally diabolical.

John’s reputation suffered at the hands of chroniclers even before he became king. Among the most important sources for his early years are Richard of Devizes, who ended his Chronicon de rebus gestis Ricardi Primi in 1192, and William of Newburgh, whose Historia rerum Anglicarum ceased at the author’s death in 1198. Roger of Howden, author of Gesta Regis Ricardi, and Ralph of Diceto, author of Ymagines Historiarum, ended their chronicles in 1201 and 1202 respectively. All provide devastating early assessments of John. William of Newburgh, for example, commenting upon John’s alleged treachery towards his brother while Richard was absent on crusade, concluded that John was ‘Nature’s Enemy’. Richard of Devizes also pictured John as intent upon seizing the throne from Richard and attributed a fearsome anger to him. At a meeting in 1191 with William Longchamp , Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Ely, Richard of Devizes describes how John flew into a rage and ‘became unrecognisable in all his body. Wrath cut across his forehead; his burning eyes shot sparks; rage darkened the ruddy colour of his face … Indignation so swelled in his closed breast that it had either to burst or to vomit its venom somewhere’.

After John became king in 1199 Ralph of Coggeshall (d. 1218), in his Chronicon Anglicanum, evinces a reasonably balanced opinion of him until about 1203. Thereafter he accuses him, among other things, of indecision, duplicity and cowardice. In 1216, when the army of the future king of France, Louis, Count of Artois, threatened Winchester, Ralph says that John ‘fled in terror, weeping and lamenting’. In his Gesta Regum Gervase of Canterbury (d. 1210) agrees with these judgements, awarding John the famous epithet of ‘Softsword’. Gerald of Wales (d. 1223) believed that John ‘could not equal his illustrious brothers and parents in good qualities … [and] being far worse in moroseness of his disposition and in the depravity of his actions, he not only surpassed them in bad qualities but even eclipsed all vicious men in his enormities’. John was, asserted Gerald, a ‘tyrannous whelp, who issued from the most bloody tyrants and was the most tyrannous of them all’.

The source most damaging to John’s reputation is the chronicle produced by monks at St Albans Abbey, notably Roger Wendover (d. 1236) and Matthew Paris. Wendover began his account of the reign about ten years after John’s death in 1216. Bad King John strides across the pages of Wendover’s main work, the Flowers of History. Here is the king who, we learn, ordered the crushing to death of Archdeacon Geoffrey under a cope of lead; who threatened to slit the noses and to pluck out the eyes of papal emissaries; who lost Normandy because ‘he feasted sumptuously with his queen daily, and prolonged his sleep in the morning’. John is cowardly, cruel, lecherous, tyrannical, duplicitous and irreligious. When Wendover died in 1235 Paris succeeded him in his role as historiographer at St Albans, continuing the chronicle and reworking Wendover’s account. Writing with a style and flourish that had eluded Wendover, Paris puts words into the mouths of historical figures who had hitherto remained silent. As the historian W.L. Warren points out, ‘the portrait of King John that emerges is … even further removed from reality than that in Wendover, but it is eminently more readable’. Too vivid to forget, it is the John portrayed by Wendover and Paris that has entered the public realm.

Video: Cinematic Portrayals of King John

In the 19th century, even if some doubts about the accuracy of Wendover and Paris had emerged, they were brushed aside. William Stubbs, historian and Bishop of Oxford, judged John to be ‘a mean reproduction of all the vices and of the few pettinesses of his family … [a king for whom] we have no word of pity as we have had none of sympathy’. In A Short History of the English People (1874), a bestseller carried to the loneliest places of the British Empire, J.R. Green concluded that ‘John was the worst outcome of the Angevins’. Such 19th-century representations stood firmly on the shoulders of the chroniclers and continued to manifest themselves in the 20th century. Kate Norgate, in her biography of John published in 1902, referred to the king’s ‘almost superhuman wickedness’. J.H. Ramsey, writing a year later, considered John ‘a selfish cruel tyrant of the worst type’. In The Plantagenets, published in 1948, John Harvey described the tomb effigy of John in Worcester Cathedral:

The face has a sly wolfish cast, with slanting eyes faintly amused at the righteousness of better men, and a sensual mouth slightly drawn into the doglike grin distinctive of the cynic born.

The image of John as an evil tyrant has pervaded 20th-century popular culture, too, in Marriott Edgar’s rhyme Magna Carta, for example. In A.A. Milne’s poem King John’s Christmas nearly every verse begins with the refrain ‘King John was not a good man’. The Oscar-winning 1968 film The Lion in Winter, starring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, portrays John, in the words of one reviewer, as ‘a rumpled, drooling, inane man-child impossibly spoiled as the king’s favourite, played to pathetic amusement by a terrific Nigel Terry’. Meanwhile scores of Robin Hood films produced over the past hundred years have presented John either as the principal villain or an effeminate coward, the latter tendency assuming an extreme form in Disney’s 1973 animated film, Robin Hood, in which the king is portrayed as a thumb-sucking lion. In the 1990s Channel 4 made a series of documentaries called The Most Evil Men in History in which John took his place alongside the likes of Attila the Hun, Vlad the Impaler and Adolf Hitler. Likewise he found himself once again rubbing shoulders with history’s most evil men and women in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Monsters (2008).
Such vilification has produced a reaction. Yet upon what evidence is such revisionism based, beyond a natural inclination to rescue John from his critics simply because their criticisms are so extreme?

First, scholars have become more balanced in their treatment of chronicle material. Chroniclers were monks and because literacy existed almost exclusively among the clergy, it follows that if a monarch’s relations with the Church were difficult then the clergy were inclined to be hostile to the king, especially if they were writing in the years immediately after his death. In this context it is important to recognise that until John’s spectacular submission to Innocent III in 1213, the king’s relations with the Church were increasingly acrimonious from 1205. The origins of the dispute lay in who had the right to nominate the Archbishop of Canterbury, a position made vacant by the death of Hubert Walter in that year. After the election of John’s candidate, John de Gray, was invalidated by Innocent III the papacy increased the pressure upon John to accept the papal nominee, Stephen Langton. The imposition of a papal interdict led Gervase of Canterbury to describe scenes where ‘bodies of the dead, whether of the ordinary fold or the religious, could not be buried in consecrated ceremonies but only in vile and profane places’. When the interdict failed to overcome John’s opposition to papal ambition, the papacy proceeded to excommunicate the king in 1209 and clerical pens blackened John’s reputation still further.

V.H.H. Galbraith, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, spearheaded a new awareness of chronicle bias in an important lecture of 1944.

There can be little doubt that the picture [Wendover] gives us of John is already something of a legend [i.e. unreal]. For if we look closely – and I don’t think historians have – we shall find that the picture he gives us is a very savage one, so savage as to be suspect.

In the same lecture Galbraith also observed that whereas ‘Wendover gives us an impossible shadow, Paris converts it into a living portrait – though the portrait is not one of John … I conclude that Paris’ additions to Wendover for this reign are not merely worthless, but very misleading’.

The veracity of the chronicles comes into question when tested against other known facts. Of especial notoriety is Wendover’s tale of a ‘Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Norwich’ – killed, according to the chronicler, by being crushed to death by a leaden cope. Since this same Geoffrey became Bishop of Ely in 1225 Warren concluded that because Wendover ‘has the wrong year, the wrong cause, and the wrong man, the odds are heavily stacked against his being right about the leaden cope’.

Unable to rely upon the chronicle material, historians have sought other sources. A distinctive feature of the reign of John is that this is the moment when the secretariat of government – Chancery – begins to keep a systematic record of its business in the form of charters, letters close (legal documents of a personal nature in which a monarch grants rights) and letters patent (open legal documents).

This record evidence took some time to enter the public domain, having been effectively catalogued under the auspices of the Public Record Office only in the 19th century. Through these documents we can see the wheels of government turning: grants of land and office made; payments transacted for goods and services; the royal will transformed into legal warrant. Decisions of government are thus presented, as one authority says, ‘intriguingly preserved, like flies in amber’. What the record evidence shows is that John consistently applied himself with remarkable attention to detail and high levels of energy and focus. Basing his judgement on this record, Warren concluded that John’s reign was ‘indeed a tour de force of personal monarchy. It required unbounded energy and universal competence. John had it’. It seems as though there had never been a king who devoted himself so keenly to the job of ruling. John’s government was vibrant and forward-looking. The evidence thus throws into serious doubt the veracity of Wendover’s judgement that John loses Normandy because of his ‘incorrigible idleness’. This is not to say that the king was always right or always undertook the best course of action. Nonetheless the record evidence demonstrates John’s effectiveness, just as the rebellion of elements of the political nation in 1215 is a demonstration of resentment of the efficacy of his rule.

The impression formed of John from the record evidence is very different to the one in the pages of the chronicles. It also disproves some of the stories first told by Wendover and perpetuated by his successors. In the immediate aftermath of the sealing of Magna Carta on June 15th, 1215 Wendover would have us believe that ‘whilst lying sleepless that night in Windsor castle [John’s] thoughts alarmed him much and before daylight he fled by stealth to the Isle of Wight, and there in great agony of mind devised plans to be revenged on the barons’. But the contemporary record evidence, attested by the king and witnesses, as well as carrying a precise date and location, demonstrates that the king did not then visit the Isle of Wight, nor is there any evidence of his ever having travelled there – except in May and June of 1206 and in February of 1214 – casting serious doubt on Wendover’s version of events. Similarly, when narrating John’s orders that a priest-killer be freed in 1208, Wendover has John say: ‘He has slain an enemy of mine, release him and let him go.’ Yet this is at odds with a Letter Patent, issued at roughly the same time, in which the king is clearly concerned that justice should be done. Another example is Wendover’s story of John ordering ‘all the Jews, throughout England, of both sexes [to be] seized, imprisoned and tortured [and that, in the case of one particular Jew, his agents were] to knock out one of his cheek-teeth daily until he paid ten thousand marks of silver to him’. This contrasts with the contents of a letter written by John in 1208 to the Mayor of London in which the king admonishes the mayor for having allowed ‘mischief to be done to the Jews in London’. Chronicle accounts also frequently portray John as impious; Wendover and Paris state that he often blasphemed by using the phrase ‘By the feet of God’. Yet this sits awkwardly with evidence that John frequently gave to the poor and that he took a particular interest in St James’ relics at Reading. The king even founded an abbey, at Beaulieu in the New Forest. It seems that although Wendover’s stories may make for a good read they are wrong.

Chronicle material must not be dispensed with entirely – after all, Wendover and Paris were monks at St Albans and, located on one of the main arteries in and out of London, we must imagine that they were privy to gossip and rumour about the great and the good. A rejoinder to Galbraith’s position is that it does not matter that chronicle material fails to portray the real John. What matters is that it perhaps reflects what people thought about John shortly after his reign. Yet a close study of the record evidence calls into question the stereotype of a wicked John, to be replaced by an image of a monarch possessed of terrific energy. Here is a king, claims Warren, who:

took a thoroughly intelligent and immensely energetic interest in the running of the country … The total achievement was enormous, fit to stand alongside that of Henry II or Edward I. Together these two and John represent a standard which was never again equalled in the medieval period.

The King John of ill-repute has disappeared from the pages of some history books but only, in most instances, to be replaced with King John the Inadequate. R.V. Turner, whose biography of John was published in 1994, concluded that John should be seen ‘not as a monster of superhuman evil, but merely as a twisted and complex personality, a man with ability and potential for greatness, whose own flaws prevented him from living up to the reputations of his brother, Richard I, or his rival, Philip Augustus’. Elsewhere the malign reputation of John persists. John Gillingham stands firm in the belief that John ‘is the most overrated king in English history’, a consequence of historians falsely revering the record evidence when in fact – because the record evidence just happens to become available for the first time during John’s reign – the favourable impression it gives of John is actually illusory. Richard I, argues Gillingham, was at least as effective a ruler, if not better. Frank McLynn, too, expresses bewilderment at any attempt to relieve John of his evil reputation: ‘The more one examines John’s good press among modern historians,’ he states, ‘the more bizarre it seems.’ McLynn baulks at modern historians ‘absurdly demanding to see the evidence [of John’s misdeeds] in the Rolls or other archives.’

Pope Innocent III in a 13th-century fresco by Master Conxolus in Subiaco Abbey, Lazio, Italy
Pope Innocent III in a 13th-century fresco by Master Conxolus in Subiaco Abbey, Lazio, Italy

Although the record evidence has not persuaded some historians it is possible to redeem John by other means. The king’s reputation has benefited from an appreciation that his reign coincided with what most historians agree were two peculiarly resilient and clever adversaries: Philip Augustus of France (r. 1180-1223) and Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216). The former proved extraordinarily adept at conniving with John’s enemies; the latter ‘whose insistence on his rights and duties as God’s vice-regent, summed up all the efforts of his predecessors’, according to Cheney and Semple, made him an unusually formidable opponent. John has also benefited from suggestions that Richard I’s achievements are overblown, along with a sense that John’s inheritance was little other than a damnosa hereditas.

Historians sympathetic to John and/or critical of Henry II and Richard I have suggested that the loss of European possessions was more the result of structural deficiencies than the inadequacies of John. Proponents of this view, first espoused by J. C. Holt in 1963, hold that the ‘Angevin Empire’ (a term coined by Kate Norgate in 1902) was not an empire but a convenient invention of modern historians used to describe a set of territories which was brought together by time and chance. Since this ‘empire’ had no emperor, no common coinage, almost no ‘imperial’ acts binding the territories and, above all, no political elite drawn from its constituent parts and united in loyalty to the Angevin dynasty, it was naturally disposed to fracture. Indeed so potent was this fissiparous tendency that a more useful question to ask might be why John was able to hold onto his continental territories for as long as he did? Moreover John’s inheritance was made yet more problematic because it seems likely that England was financially exhausted in 1199, drained of its wealth by Richard’s exactions to finance his role in the Third Crusade (1189-92) and then obliged to raise the ransom required to free him from the clutches of Emperor Henry VI (1191-97), along with the costs encountered in his building of Château Gaillard in Normandy – at £11,500 pretty much one third of the entire English royal revenue.

Scholarly debate about the respective incomes of France and England at the beginning of the 13th century are complex and involved, but it is worth noting that chronicles normally critical of John lend support to the suggestion that England was financially derelict upon John’s accession. Most memorably, Coggeshall alleged that ‘No age can remember, no history can record a preceding king, even those who reigned for a long time, who exacted and received so much money from his kingdom as that King [Richard] exacted and amassed in the five years after his return from his captivity.’ To make matters worse it is now clear that John’s reign coincided with ‘an especially rapid, substantial and, as far as we can tell, fairly general rise in prices’, a development which justified many of John’s money-raising expedients so loudly complained of in Magna Carta.

Above all, John’s actions deserve to be assessed in the context of his time, an undertaking that allows the historian to see a different man to the one found in the chronicles. For instance, John’s refusal to accept the papal nominee, Stephen Langton, as Archbishop of Canterbury fits well with the fact that each of his predecessors had at some point experienced tensions with the Church, the most recent of which had been the rivalry played out between Henry II (r. 1154-89) and Thomas Becket, culminating in the dramatic murder of the latter in 1170. Those with cause to malign John have frequently relied upon chronicle accounts to accuse the king of the killing of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany (1187-1203). ‘When he was drunk and possessed by the Devil, [John] slew Arthur with his own hand and, trying a heavy stone to the body, cast it into the Seine’, insists the Margam annalist. The facts are that, despite Arthur having paid homage to John, the nephew had rebelled against the uncle and had done so in collusion with Philip Augustus. Arthur had even been captured while fighting against John. As a contumacious vassal he deserved to die. John’s mistake was arguably not the removal of Arthur but that he allowed himself to be implicated in that act. Chronicle opinion would also have us believe a lurid picture of mad infatuation, of John as a 12th-century Humbert Humbert, obsessed with his pubescent wife, Isabella of Angoulême (c. 1188-1246). Historians have not been able to prove Isabella’s age definitively in 1200 but she was unlikely to have been more than 15 and quite possibly as young as nine. ‘How happy it must make all latter day critics of King John,’ observes Vincent, ‘to know that the king may have been guilty not only of cruelty and murder but even, possibly, of child molesting.’ Yet such a judgement is made against the mores of 21st-century life, where the tabloid newspapers try hard to persuade their readers that there is a paedophile under every stone. In fact marriage at an early age in John’s day was commonplace: John’s sister, Eleanor, had been married to the King of Castile when she was eight and her husband was 22; John’s son, Henry III, married Eleanor of Provence when she was 12 and he was 29; John’s daughter, Joan, was married to Alexander II, King of Scots when she was 12 and her husband 24; and John’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, was married at the age of nine to the son of William Marshal, a man about 15 years her senior. Moreover, Isabella did not give birth to her first child until 1207, suggesting that John abstained from sexual relations until that time. All in all it is possible to conclude that John’s second marriage ‘in no way offended against contemporary law or contemporary morals’, as Richardson and Sayles point out, even though it may violate our own. 

The tomb of King John at Worcester Cathedral
The tomb of King John at Worcester Cathedral

The king’s reputation has suffered especial damage because of the way in which Magna Carta has come to be perceived as a talisman for freedom, a buttress against tyranny, a cornerstone of liberties. If this is the essence of Magna Carta then it follows that John must have been despotic, inestimably so since he went on to ignore it. Magna Carta was reissued in 1216, 1217 and 1225, each re-issue making it easy to assume that John’s rule had been especially burdensome and contrary to custom (even though each re-issue included revisions to the 1215 version). This sentiment was given new life when interest in Magna Carta was revived in 17th-century England (when it was used as a means of justifying resistance to the allegedly absolutist intentions of Charles I) and evoked in the founding charters of American states such as Massachusetts and Maine. Yet these later versions of Magna Carta were not the document to which John had given his assent in 1215. That document was fundamentally a set of peace terms between an element of malcontented barons and a particular king, not a device espousing new constitutional principles. Moreover, as a peace settlement it was always destined to be short-lived because Clause 61, empowering the barons to select 25 of their number who, if the king should ‘offend in any respect’, …[will] … distrain and assail [John] in every way possible … by seizing castles, lands [and] possessions’, was at odds with monarchical government. Acceptance would have established a self-perpetuating oligarchy, which in turn would have rendered John a phantom king. No monarch of the time could have accepted Magna Carta. Indeed, as Warren points out, it seems likely that ‘having obtained the Charter [the rebels] immediate aim was to provoke John into infringing it so that they could rally the whole baronage against him’. Detractors of John argue that it was because of his inadequacies that John faced rebellion in the first instance, but it might equally be said that he faced that eventuality because of the biting effectiveness of his governance. It is not that John did not know how to rule; rather, at least in terms of mobilising resources, he ruled – if not too well – too robustly and too energetically.

For many historians, whatever methodology is employed, whatever evidence examined, John remains flawed. Writing in 1961 C. Warren Hollister concluded that, ‘despite a certain amount of rehabilitation on the part of recent historians, John remains a curiously twisted and enigmatic figure, a man who possessed great talents in certain areas but was afflicted with fatal shortcomings in others’. W.L. Warren in his 1961 biography argued that John ‘had the mental abilities of a great king but the inclinations of a petty tyrant’.

To lift John’s reputation out of this purgatory of semi-rehabilitation there is perhaps one card left to play: counterfactualism – that is to suggest that, if John’s forces had won at the great set piece battle at Bouvines in 1214 (and they almost did), then it seems as though there would have been no Magna Carta and no civil war. If so, historians would surely spend their time applauding John for his concentrated governance, which was so effective that, against all the odds and even though he presided over diminished territories, he was able nevertheless to mobilise sufficient resources to wage a battle rare in scale (no battle of the size of Bouvines had occurred since Tinchebrai in 1106). Wendover’s pen would then have taken a different course, recording stories of a fiercely effective king who died in his bed in 1223, at the same age as that king of universal renown, John’s father, Henry II.

Graham E. Seel teaches History at the Grammar School at Leeds. His King John: An Underrated King? will be published by Anthem Press later this year.

From the archive:

King John's Maundy

England's royal black sheep may well turn out to be the instigator of the ancient ceremony linking Church and Crown. Arnold Kellett explains how this came about.

Further reading:

  • S.D. Church, King John: New Interpretations (Boydell, 1999)
  • J. Gillingham, The Angevin Empire (Arnold, 2001)
  • J.C. Holt, King John (Historical Association, 1963)
  • F. McLynn, Lionheart and Lackland (Vintage, 2007)
  • R.V. Turner, King John (Tempus, 2005)
  • W.L. Warren, King John (Yale University Press, 1997)
  • R. Wendover (trans J. A. Giles), Flowers of History (BiblioBazaar, 2009)

Good King John | History Today

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