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

"It was in Ireland that King John revealed himself as a monster," writes Nicholas Vincent. (Image by Alamy)

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.

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”.

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