King John: the making of a medieval monster

"It was in Ireland that King John revealed himself as a monster". Nicholas Vincent on a medieval king's descent into evil

Everyone knows what happened at Runnymede in June 1215. Furious, outmanoeuvred, crippled with vice, King John was obliged to seal a document – Magna Carta – guaranteeing the liberties of his subjects. Or at least so it used to be taught.

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Historians these days are a lot more cautious in declaring quite what changed as a result of Magna Carta. However, there has always been a much clearer consensus over John himself. The king, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, “was a very bad man… brim-full of evil qualities”. Or as William Stubbs, greatest of King John’s Victorian biographers, put it, John was “the very worst of all our kings… polluted with every crime that could disgrace a man”.

Through military incompetence, John lost most of his family’s lands in France. He lusted after the wives and daughters of his leading Anglo-French barons, bullied the church, refused to govern by custom or law, delighted in cruelty, especially to women and children, and in general revealed himself as a tyrant unfit to rule. Magna Carta, according to this interpretation, was a response to a system of royal misgovernment, extending to John’s dealings not only with the English barons but with the pope in Rome, the kings of France, and the peoples of both Scotland and Wales.

There is, strangely enough, an absentee from this list of John’s ‘victims’: an absentee that now demands a hearing. John ruled in England from 1199 to 1216, but in Ireland for more than twice as long. First nominated as Ireland’s future governor in 1177, he commanded military expeditions there in 1185 and 1210. In the process, he became one of only two English sovereigns before Queen Victoria to have visited Ireland twice. It was in Ireland that John first learned to behave as politician and lord. It was to Ireland that he and his followers considered fleeing at the end of his life, with England itself in turmoil, threatened by civil war and a French invasion.

Anglo-Norman freebooters

Even at Runnymede, Ireland demanded a hearing. In its very opening words, Magna Carta proclaims itself a charter issued by John King of England and Lord of Ireland. As this and many thousands of other royal letters testify, John was the first English king officially to include Ireland in his royal title. Far from being ignored at Runnymede, Ireland and the Irish were there in force, at least if we now revisit John and his reign, looking for the ways in which John and his style of kingship were themselves moulded by his Irish experience. Historians in the past have asked what effects John’s rule had in Ireland, either for good or ill. But what if we now reverse that question and ask: what effect did Ireland have upon King John?

The groundwork for John’s relationship with Ireland was laid in 1171 when his father, Henry II – attempting to extricate himself from the political crisis provoked by the murder of Thomas Becket – crossed the Irish Sea to impose his authority on a group of his barons who had seized lands there. At first, Henry gave Richard ‘Strongbow’, the leader of this group, the task of restoring order to the colony. But five years later Strongbow was dead, and so in 1177 Henry turned to John, appointing him the future ruler of Ireland. John, the youngest of Henry II’s four surviving sons, was just 11 years old.

While in Ireland John developed his taste for headhunting, collecting the heads of dead enemies as trophies

John was now promised sovereignty over a group of Anglo-Norman freebooters: Hugh de Lacy in the kingdom of Meath to the north of Dublin, Philip de Braose in Limerick and the far west, and the Geraldine clan in Cork and the southern kingdom of Munster. These Anglo-Irish colonists were in turn offered their own semi-independent lordships if only they could first conquer the native Irish.

This was no mean feat. Hugh de Lacy, Strongbow’s successor as Irish viceroy, was murdered by an Irishman, struck with an axe while overseeing the construction of a castle at Durrow. Meanwhile, John’s first expedition to Ireland, mounted in 1185 when he was 18, has been written off as a failure. This negative assessment we owe to the expedition’s chief reporter, Gerald of Wales.

According to Gerald, shortly after his arrival at Waterford, John allowed members of his court to mock the native Irish, and even to tug on their long, shaggy beards. Youthful folly, Gerald hints, rendered the expedition futile. The natives, he tells us, considered John “a mere youth… a stripling who listened only to youthful advice”. John himself returned to England in December 1185, to be presented with a golden coronet decorated with peacock feathers sent to him by the pope: no real substitute for the recognition as king of Ireland that he had originally sought.

There is much in this account that is biased or misleading. Historians have scoffed at John’s peacock coronet, not realising that a crown of peacock feathers was a symbol specifically identified with triumph and military conquest. It was just such a ‘tufa’ of peacock feathers that the emperors of Byzantium wore on returning from successful campaigns. By sending a peacock crown, the pope was honouring John, not scorning him.

Historians have also ignored the 20 or more land grants recorded in charters that John issued while in Ireland. These tell a story very different from that related by Gerald. Here we find the young John deliberately, and with a fair degree of skill, building up both an entourage and a future administrative elite. It was under John, in 1185, that families such as the Burghs, the Verduns and the Butlers were first recruited into Irish service, deliberately implanted there in competition with the pre-established Anglo-Irish elite. For the next several centuries, it was these same families that were to serve as the backbone of England’s colonial administration.

Native dynasties

Despite what Gerald alleges, John did not shirk his military responsibilities. In fact, he built castles (at Lismore, Tybroughney and Ardfinnan) as staging points from which to exploit rivalries between the native dynasties of the Irish south-west. Throughout the 1190s, as he acquired lands in western Normandy, Devon and Cornwall, Glamorgan and Lancashire, John’s Irish estate remained central to what he seems deliberately to have conceived of as his own North Sea empire, stretching from Liverpool and Dublin in the north to Montmartin and Mortain on the Norman frontier with Brittany.

In Dublin a great castle was built, its moat and towers still visible beneath the present structure, in its way as great or greater than the contemporary fortifications that the French king, Philip Augustus, was building for himself at the Louvre.

We first read of the Dublin moat in the 1190s, when it was the scene of a murder. In an attack that echoed the killing of Hugh de Lacy, William le Brun, an English colonist, fell into the moat having been struck with an axe by an assassin, presumably an Irishman. Those alleged to have arranged the crime were condemned to defend themselves in trial by battle (fighting one another to the death to prove guilt or innocence). John himself insisted on attending the spectacle.

It was thus in Ireland that John first displayed his well-attested delight in attending judicial duels. It was in Ireland too that he developed his taste for headhunting, collecting the heads of dead enemies as trophies. This was a notorious aspect of warfare among the native Irish that in due course John was to be accused of introducing to his dealings with the natives of Wales. “A hundred heads sent to Dublin,” forms part of the bleak report of John’s Irish expedition of 1185. It was also in Ireland, among fractious colonial and native elites, that John first learned how to play off one subordinate against another, stirring up tensions that, however useful to him in the short term, were eventually to coalesce into the great baronial rebellion of 1215. As a French chronicler reported of him, after his death, John “set his barons against one another whenever he could; he was very happy when he saw hate between them”.

Starved to death

An Irish dimension can be detected even in the greatest of the king’s crimes. After his succession to the English throne in 1199, John was to become notorious both for demanding hostages from his barons, and for the mistreatment of the women and children entrusted to his care. Two atrocities in particular were attributed to the king. In 1202, he either murdered or commanded the murder of his young nephew, Arthur of Brittany, deemed a rebellious rival for the throne. In 1210, and as a direct consequence of his second Irish expedition, he imprisoned the wife and son of his former favourite, William de Braose, allowing both mother and son to be starved to death. According to the most detailed report, when their bodies were found, mother and son were locked in a cannibal embrace, Matilda having gnawed away her son’s cheeks.

John’s acts of violent revenge, although well outside the norms of European chivalry, were all too typical of what he had observed, and apparently admired, of the feuding between native Irish kings. No wonder that in 1210, asked to deliver his sons to John as hostages, Cathal Crobderg, king of Connacht, rode away from John’s court and never returned. John’s evil reputation rendered him an object of disgust, even among the notoriously bloodthirsty Irish.

The capture of Arthur in 1202, like the hunting down of William de Braose and his faction in 1210, are today remembered as crimes. They might instead have been commemorated as triumphs. In 1210, the king not only expelled the Braoses from Ireland but brought their chief allies to heel, personally besieging and capturing the great De Lacy family fortress of Carrickfergus on the northern shore of Belfast Lough. But what could have been great victories were transformed into public relations disasters by John’s cruelty and mistreatment of his prisoners. The disappearance and presumed death of Arthur led directly to the rebellion and French invasion of 1203 in which John lost Normandy and the lion’s share of his continental lands. After the seizure of Carrickfergus and the exile of the Braoses and Lacys, we first begin to read of baronial plots to murder or depose the king.

This is hardly surprising. The Lacys and Braoses belonged to a closely intermarried Anglo-Norman elite. Who could blame their cousins and in-laws for wondering which of their sons or daughters might be next on the list of John’s high-born murder-victims? In this way, the internecine violence of Ireland was allowed to infect the English body politic. Even at Runnymede and in the rebellion that followed, many of the more prominent players – Hugh and Walter de Lacy; Giles de Braose, bishop of Hereford; the two William Marshals, father and son – were members of an Anglo-Irish elite conditioned to feuding almost as a way of life. It was the elder William Marshal, Strongbow’s successor as Lord of Leinster, who in 1216 offered to carry King John’s son, the young Henry III, to safety in Ireland “on my own back, if needs be!”

From King John to Mr Gladstone, and from Home Rule to Brexit, Ireland has posed many questions that the English have not found easy to answer. It is perhaps time that we recognised John for what he truly was: the one and only king of England first trained in kingship in Ireland. The problem for his subjects was not that John failed to organise effective lordship for the Irish. Rather, John was too Irish for his French or English subjects to bear.


A land at war with itself

The Ireland that John first encountered in the 12th century was riven by political factionalism

Twelfth-century Ireland was a fertile land, fully European in terms of trade and Christianity. Its politics, by contrast, remained mired in feuding between the many native Irish sub-kings. These native kings were in turn obliged to keep a watchful eye both on Anglo-Norman realities and upon the Vikings or ‘ostmen’ settled in Dublin and elsewhere. More broadly, Ireland formed part of a distinct political network, stretching via the Isle of Man to Scotland and thence to the North Sea empires of Norway and Denmark, existing in parallel to the better-known worlds of Anglo-French or papal-German politics.

Ireland was a land where power could be achieved only by playing off one enemy against another. Henry’s II expedition of 1171–72 allowed him to impose his authority over Richard ‘Strongbow’, an Anglo-Norman baron who for the past few years had exploited feuding between the native Irish kings to seize power in the former kingdom of Leinster, the region stretching from Dublin southwards to the ports of Wexford and Waterford. The king spent Christmas 1171 in a great wooden hall specially built outside Dublin. There he is said to have feasted on roast crane. But in April 1172, after barely six months, Henry II departed his new colony, never to return.

From the beginning, this was a settlement founded upon bloodshed and expropriation. As in England after the conquest of 1066, colonisers were massively outnumbered by natives. But by contrast to Anglo-Saxon England, Ireland remained a land deeply divided between warring sub-kingdoms. It lacked anything comparable to the administrative sophistication of the Anglo-Saxons. Nor had the Irish themselves suffered the sort of defeat inflicted by the battle of Hastings in 1066 to persuade them of their ultimate doom. There were the seeds here of future violence and paranoia.

“A vast solitude” inhabited by “wild and ferocious barbarians” was how one English monk described Ireland in the 1170s. Even 50 years later, another English visitor reported it as a land divided by “a most evil and dangerous frontier between English and Irish”, still only a small part of it established as a “land of peace”.


Nicholas Vincent is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia. His book John: An Evil King? is due to be published by Allen Lane in 2020. You can read Nicholas’s piece on a 13th-century ‘Brexit’ here.

To listen to Melvyn Bragg discuss Magna Carta on the 800th anniversary of its sealing, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04y6wdt

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This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine