One might have hoped that the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta would have provided at least some oxygen to the argument that ‘Bad King John’ was perhaps not too ‘Bad’ after all; and – whisper it – that in some ways this traditionally most maligned of monarchs was perhaps really rather Good.
Instead, the anticipated tsunami of popular and learned articles collectively assert, inter alia, that John was at once cruel and coercive, treacherous and tyrannical, pusillanimous and pitiful, lazy and lackluster. For the large part it seems that, 800 years later, opinion has broadly backed Matthew Paris, the 13th-century chronicler who alleged that John’s greatest achievement was, by dying, to make yet more foul the existing foulness of Hell: John was not only Bad; he was diabolical.
Popular understanding of Magna Carta has significantly stunted debate on the nature and achievement of John. Magna Carta, we are told, stands for the rule of law. Invoked by those in 17th-century England who sought to thwart the allegedly despotic tendencies of Charles I, and latterly employed by the American Revolutionaries in their making of the United States Bill of Rights in 1789, Magna Carta has become totemic of the liberties by which western societies identify themselves.
Indeed, this tendency has travelled so far that Magna Carta has, according to G Hindley, “acquired an almost mystic incantatory quality”. This, he claims, is partly evidenced by the fact that the government sponsored the Magna Carta 800th anniversary website, which currently asserts that Magna Carta “is the foundation stone supporting the freedoms enjoyed today by hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries”.
These are powerful words, and it follows that if John ignored Magna Carta – which he did – then it must surely be the case that he was indeed malign. The ever-growing extent to which Magna Carta is celebrated and elevated necessarily means that, in equal and opposite degree, the reputation of John is tarnished and diminished. In this context, to argue that John was anything other than ‘Bad’ seems inappropriate and somewhat unbelievable.
However, the Magna Carta that John chose to ignore did not purport to be a constitutional document adumbrating and guaranteeing liberties to all English people. The Magna Carta of 1215 (it is important to realise that there were many reissues of Magna Carta after the reign of John, each different to the one presented to John) is better understood as a set of flawed peace terms designed to heal the incipient civil war between John and an element of rebellious barons.
In order to try and bind John to their terms, the barons insisted that John accept a committee of 25 of their number empowered to police and enforce Magna Carta by seizing John’s castles and assets when he was judged – by them, and against criteria put forth by them – to have transgressed.
No medieval monarch could have accepted for any length of time the Magna Carta of 1215, for it clearly rendered the king a phantom of a monarch. Indeed, so extreme was this impact that it is not beyond sensible contemplation that the ambition of the rebel barons was not to obtain a lasting peace, but instead absolutely to provoke John to break the newly agreed terms so that they could seize his largesse. John did indeed overturn Magna Carta, but arguably any medieval monarch would have done the same. The Magna Carta of 1215 is not the Magna Carta of popular imagination.
The Barons compelling King John to ratify Magna Carta. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Popular representations of events at Runnymede in June 1215 would also have us believe that leading rebel barons such as Eustace de Vesci and Robert Fitzwalter were revered freedom fighters. In fact, they are better understood as tight-knuckled, low browed feudal reactionaries kicking against John’s increasingly efficacious administration.
A considerable body of evidence in the form of pipe rolls, charters and letters patent indicates strongly that John was highly effective – perhaps too effective – in mobilizing the resources of his kingdom and in imposing the royal will upon the population at large. This apparently incontestable evidence shows John to have been possessed of vigour and vim, constantly on the move enforcing Angevin aspirations. Ironically, the very fact that John faced rebellion in 1215 is itself indicative of the fact that his government had bite as well as bark.
Moreover, even though chronicle sources allege that the whole of the baronage was united against John, this was clearly not the case – not least because there would have been no possibility of civil war if there had not been two sides, each with the wherewithal to resist the other. Indeed, by the spring of 1215, it has been estimated that of England’s 197 baronies only 39 were in active opposition to the king, with perhaps the same number acting in his support.
Nor is it true that John antagonized elements of the baronage because he was lacking in martial prowess, or that the king was ‘Softsword’, as the chroniclers assert. His reluctance to commit to pitched battles was entirely conventional in an age when all leaders preferred to avoid them – John’s arch-enemy, Philip Augustus, King of France (r1180–1223) shied away from a setpiece battle at least as frequently as his protagonist. We should not mistake John’s military caution for cowardice. Instead, John prosecuted siege warfare with the sort of energy, determination and success that is usually only spoken of in reference to Henry II and Richard I.
Thus, we see him, for example, razing the walls and castle of Le Mans in 1200, assaulting the forces besieging Mirebeau in 1202 (having covered a distance of 80 miles in 48 hours), marching upon Montauban in 1206 and pressing the siege of Rochester castle in 1215 – an event that the leading authority of castles and castle warfare in this period considers was “the greatest operation in England up to that time” (RA Brown).
John was also an effective strategist. His plan to relieve the siege of Chateau-Gaillard in 1203 by arranging a simultaneous assault from land and amphibious forces has been described as “a masterpiece of ingenuity”by K Norgate. Even John’s much-criticised twin-pronged invasion of France in 1214 (which culminated in the disastrous battle of Bouvines on 27 July 1214) achieved its basic aim of dividing the Capetian forces.
John’s alleged lasciviousness and acts of cruelty have been presented as further character traits that antagonised the barons and thus prevented him from delivering strong kingship. Lusting after the wives and daughters of those men he relied upon to deliver the royal command was no doubt a problem in a world where private relationships were the stuff of high politics. Yet nearly all medieval kings took mistresses. Indeed, William the Conqueror’s loyalty to his wife, Matilda, was the subject of perplexed comment.
If John was indeed a “smutty minded groper” (CJ Tyerman), he remained a rake rather than a rogue. His marriage to Isabella of Angouleme when she was unlikely to have been more than 15 and quite possibly as young as nine has prompted a flood of accusations that John was a 13th-century Humbert Humbert. Yet marriage at an early age was commonplace at the time – a survey of the marriage arrangements of John’s contemporaries leads to the conclusion that the Angevin king had an eye for an older women!
Isabella of Angouleme, queen consort of King John. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Further contextual analysis also diminishes the charge that John was a perverted purveyor of acts of cruelty. The evidence does not permit John to be charged definitively with killing his nephew, Arthur, but the king nevertheless had arguably legitimate reasons to undertake such an act since Arthur (a 16-year-old boy) had put himself at the head of a rebellion sponsored by Philip Augustus.
Similarly, it is not proven that John starved Matilda de Braose and her son to death in Corfe Castle, but if he did so it was because of her refusal to offer her sons as hostages in order to trim the rebellious behaviour of their father. Yet hostage taking was part-and-parcel of medieval government, and as such it follows that they sometimes paid the ultimate price. Indeed, King Stephen was seen as weak for refusing to hang the son of Marshal when the latter broke the terms of an agreement with the king.
If John is guilty of cruelty, then what of Richard I in 1191 when, following a dispute about the terms upon which Acre had been surrendered, he ordered the killing of 2,700 Muslim prisoners? What of Henry V, who during the battle of Agincourt in 1415 ordered the killing of several thousand French prisoners? What of John’s father, Henry II who, having taken 22 hostages from the Welsh in 1165, ordered that the males among them – some of them sons of princes – be blinded and castrated, and that the females should have their noses and ears cut off? Medieval monarchs were expected to be fierce, and John fulfilled those expectations.
The Barnwell annalist, Walter Of Coventry, concluded that John “was indeed a great prince but less than successful [and that]…he met with both kinds of luck”. John was certainly unlucky in that his reign coincided with probably the two most accomplished leaders of the Middle Ages – Philip Augustus and Pope Innocent III (r1198–1216) – and he was certainly unlucky in that the Angevin ‘empire’ he had inherited in 1199 was increasingly ungovernable and assaulted by fissiparous tendencies. Yet, I argue, he was not “less than successful”. John’s achievement is that he held things together for as long as he did.
Graham Seel is head of history at St Paul’s School in London. He is the author of King John: An Underrated King (Anthem Press, 2012). He has recently released ‘King John’, an app version of the book available on iPad.
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This article was first published on History Extra in June 2015