This Q&A was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Part of the problem in answering this question lies in the fact that the popular stereotypes of John’s malicious character are close to the truth. Thus, unsurprisingly, medieval chroniclers struggle to praise – or even find – John’s occasional qualities; tellingly, but overlooked by those who would defend John, this is also true even of accounts written by those who fought for the king.
An essential mark of goodness in the Middle Ages was the display of conventional piety, which John attempted: he founded Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest, bestowed substantial gifts on religious houses, went on pilgrimage to English shrines and tried to mitigate his transgressions with generous alms-giving to the poor (including providing meals for many hundreds of paupers a year).
In the secular sphere he could be generous to friends and supporters; on rare occasions he could be merciful; and in 1208 he showed concern for recent maltreatment of the Jews in London in a chastising letter to the mayor. None of these actions, though, were necessarily altruistic.
When the saintly Bishop Hugh of Lincoln was terminally ill in 1200, John notably took the time to pay him a visit. He was not well received.
Answered by Sean McGlynn, the author of Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216 (History Press, 2010).