Was King John really that bad?… Yes!

Most kings were capable of behaving badly from time to time. Yet, says Marc Morris, when it came to lechery, treachery and shocking acts of cruelty, the king who sealed Magna Carta 800 years ago was in a league of his own...

King John hunting on horseback

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

For most people (and here I include myself) mention of the name ‘King John’ conjures up images of the character from the tales of Robin Hood – a pantomime villain, rolling his eyes and gnashing his teeth.

At the same time, most people are aware that these tales are legendary, and, in their earliest versions, make no mention of John at all. The king was first inserted into the Robin Hood story in the 16th century, but his inclusion has no historical basis whatsoever.

Those who go in search of the real John therefore tend to suppose that he must have been unfairly maligned, and suspect that in reality he was not nearly as bad as legend maintains. In the 20th century, some historians put forward a case for the king’s defence, arguing that his badness was largely a later invention, and that his misfortunes as a ruler were mostly down to ill luck. So successful was this rehabilitation that, in the popular imagination, John is now often seen as being the victim of a posthumous smear campaign, a king no worse than most others – misreported and misunderstood.

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