Saturday, 8 May 2021

King John

 I do choose my times. The loyal reader might recall, a long time ago, that I temporarily stopped reading Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis during, I think, the last US presidential election. Before that, I gave up on one of Jonathan Sumption’s books on the Hundred Years War (I think it was Cursed Kings) for a similar reason. This time, I had to stop reading

Morris, M. (2015). King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta. London: Hutchinson.

during the recent US presidential elections. The reasons were the same. Reading political history, at these levels, brings home exactly how useless most leaders have been during history, how self-seeking, careless of the lives of their subjects or citizens and ideologically committed to their own well-being, over and above that of others, that they are. Human nature has not changed much, it seems to me, although the translation from medieval and early modern history to the present I shall leave to my reader.

As I read parts of the book, I started to feel that there was an apostrophe missing from the start of the title: ‘king John. Mind you, his brother Richard was not much better it seems, being mostly engaged in warfare. They both seem to have believed that England was a cash cow for their military adventures. Richard was a bit more successful than John (it would not have been hard) and so gets a rather better historical press, I suspect.

The general outlines of John’s reign are probably quite well known to wargamers generally, as well as anyone who has watched Disney’s Robin Hood. He attempted to take the throne while Richard was on crusade (and while his brother was awaiting ransom), extorted taxes from all and sundry and finally managed to upset, annoy and outrage a sufficiently large number of his barons that he was forced to sign Magna Carta and hence establish the liberties of the free-born Englishman.

It all needs a bit more nuance, I suppose, although that is not to say that John seems in any way to have been a nice person. There are questions as to whether the Angevin Empire could have been held together by the most able English king. It was simply too big and too sprawling and had too many enemies, to permit that. The English, after all, saw no particular reason to go and fight, or to pay, for their king’s foreign wars. Wars against the Welsh, Scots, or even Irish might be acceptable, but adventures on the Continent to secure even more power for an already unpopular king were not going to play well.

The whole era seems to have been one of unreliable alliances, personal animosities, petty jealousies, and a determination to win land and power at whatever the cost to other people. The switching of sides of assorted nobles on both sides of the Channel was, to this reader, a bit bewildering, although the author did his level best to explain it all. This is all fairly normal medieval fare (fayre?) it seems, but John took it to a new level, ordering the wives and children of some of his enemies to be starved to death (enemies in the sense of ‘having fallen out with’), certainly ordering and possibly executing the murder of his nephew Arthur of Brittany, starving to death a number of other people who had crossed him, both ‘great’ and ‘small’ (as if the status of the person meant that their death was any less significant).

I suppose if John had won any of his wars, or even successfully usurped the throne, he might have received a better account. But the fact is that he failed at, well, pretty much everything. I think the only successful military operation he ordered that is in the accounts was the siege of Rochester Castle. Even then he was losing the war when he died, having managed to unite his barons (or a sizeable chunk of them) and the French against him. He was fleeing from this lot when, as those of you who remember the Ladybird book of Kings and Queens of England, he lost the crown in the Wash.

Having been forced to sign Magna Carta, John seemed to have no intention of sticking by it. If he had not died rather suddenly he would have spent considerable effort, money, and lives (but only of ordinary people and barons who opposed him, so he would not have worried about it) in undermining its terms. Foreign invasion and civil war did not seem to have convinced him that, perhaps, his behaviour was proving unacceptable to a significant chunk of the political nation, a chunk that could afford the soldiers to oppose him and who had an ally, in the shape of the son of the French King, willing to invade in exchange for the throne. Anyone was better than the incumbent, it seems.

The ease with which King John upset people, and with which he took offence and propagated murder against the offenders are startling. Not only that but his extortion against both ordinary and noble figures is notable. It was as Morris notes, a cruel age, but John took such cruelties to a new level. His acts of violence were considered excessive at the time. While the chroniclers were mostly clergy or monks, and therefore would have had an interest in denigrating John (due to his falling out with the pope and managing to get the country placed under interdict – this is possibly a better analogy for Brexit, historically, than the Reformation) the few secular chronicles are also horrified by his behaviour, attitudes, and general all-round ineptness as king.

In terms of history, Magna Carta is something that lots of people know about, even if they have never read it (Morris includes a translation – most of it is irrelevant to today). What is more sobering is that if he had lived a few more years, John would have done his absolute best to undermine it, and, quite possibly, have succeeded. History might have been a little different in those circumstances.


  1. Excellent analysis.
    Here's a controversial one though; one of the leaders who perhaps did care about his subjects (much later, granted), even across two countries due to the threat of France, would be William III of Holland (and King of England from 1688) - now much maligned, but we are hard pressed to determine other than he did actually give a crap?

    If I said this on facebook or twitter mind you, I would currently be awaiting the all sorts of religious animosity would be headed my way now LOL

    1. Agreed. The problem is that the material we have to deal with is often biased, one way or the other. Most chroniclers did not like KJ, most people seem to have taken against Bill III.

      History is written, on the whole, by winners. John wasn't one of those and William had other things to do than ensure his posterity. It is also hard to see either John or William at the centre of strictly religious wars - on the whole those don't happen (there is another controversial one, of course).

  2. You've certainly identified the curse of reading history, which as someone said, doesn't repeat, but certainly rhymes.

    1. Absolutely. I'm with Douglas Adams on this: anyone who can make themselves president of the universe should, under no circumstances, be permitted to exercise power.

      The application of that principal is left as an exercise to the reader :)