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.
Among academics this interpretation has not fared nearly so well, for the simple reason that it requires certain fundamental facts about his reign to be downplayed or ignored completely. The reality is that John was not as bad as legend made out – he was worse.
To begin with, John was exceptionally cruel. People generally regard the Middle Ages as a cruel time, and there is indeed some justification for doing so. This was a period when you could be blinded, castrated or even killed by the king’s officials for taking a deer in the royal forest. Anyone who has read their Shakespeare knows that medieval kings and nobles were forever murdering and maiming each other, either on the field of battle or more discreetly in darkened castle chambers.
What was true of the Wars of the Roses, however, was not true of the 12th and 13th centuries, when stricter rules about combat and treatment of prisoners held sway. During these more chivalrous times, aristocrats did not expect to die in battle, and if they were taken prisoner they expected to be kept in honourable captivity until they could be ransomed. Nobles were killed in great numbers in Anglo-Saxon England and again in the later Middle Ages, but between 1076 and 1306 not one English earl was executed.
John repeatedly broke this taboo. Famously, he arranged the ‘disappearance’ of his nephew and rival, Arthur of Brittany, who contested the king’s claim to his inheritance until John captured him in 1202. Arthur’s fate was made famous by Shakespeare, who has him threatened with blinding but killed by accident, falling from his prison window as he tries to escape. During John’s reign the finger of suspicion was pointed more firmly at the king himself, with some contemporaries alleging that he murdered his nephew with his own hand. Others argued that John had acted with justification, noting that Arthur was taken while in armed rebellion against his uncle.
Starved to death
But Arthur was only the most famous of John’s victims. When the king captured his nephew in 1202, he also took prisoner hundreds of other knights, who expected to be held in honourable confinement. Yet when their friends and families in Anjou and Brittany continued to fight against him, John rounded up 22 of these knightly captives and sent them to Corfe Castle in Dorset, where they were starved to death.
His cruelty was almost unheard of. John’s brother Richard the Lionheart had reportedly starved a man to death, but this appears to have been an isolated incident. John, by contrast, killed people in this way en masse, and on more than one occasion. In 1210 he committed one of the most notorious acts of his reign by starving to death the wife and son of his former friend, William de Briouze.
This clearly shocked every other noble family in England, but did not deter the king from threatening to mete out similar treatment to others: in 1215 and 1216 he induced some of the Magna Carta rebels to surrender by threatening to starve their captive companions. “He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement,” wrote the author of the 13th-century History of William Marshal, “that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty.”
Another of John’s major failings was cowardice. He was certainly not a milksop like Henry VI or Richard II, averse to armed conflict. For most of his reign John was at war with the king of France, Philip Augustus, and he did not hesitate to invade Scotland, Wales and Ireland when he felt that the rulers of those lands had crossed him. On several occasions he prosecuted successful sieges.
At Rochester in 1215 he famously forced the surrender of the mighty castle by undermining and partially collapsing its great tower.
Fleeing the French
It does not require any particular military genius, however, to carry out a siege, only superior resources in manpower and artillery. The real test for a military commander comes when the odds are less than certain. John was presented with this kind of situation several times, and each time his decision was the same.
When the king of France invaded Normandy in 1203, John failed to confront him and fled to England, an act of desertion that led directly to the duchy’s loss. He returned to the continent in 1206 and 1214 to try to regain lost ground, but on each occasion withdrew rapidly when told that his enemies were approaching. When the French finally invaded England in the spring of 1216, John watched them disembark on the beaches of Kent, briefly considered fighting them, then rode off in the opposite direction. So fast was his retreat on this occasion that he was three leagues away before his troops realised he had abandoned them. In an age when personal bravery mattered, John repeatedly showed his back to the enemy. “No man may ever trust him,” sang the troubadour Bertran de Born, “for his heart is soft and cowardly.”
Cruelty and cowardice were two of John’s most notable faults, but he had plenty of others besides. Contemporaries also regarded him as treacherous, remembering in particular his attempt to seize the throne for himself while his brother Richard was in captivity. They also complained that he forced himself on the wives and daughters of his barons. On top of all this there was the generally extortionate nature of his regime, with huge taxes and arbitrary fines, resulting in what is reckoned to have been the greatest level of financial exploitation in England since the Norman conquest. Small wonder that when he died in 1216, some chroniclers imagined him suffering the torments of hell.
It is a commonplace defence of John, still advanced in school textbooks, that contemporary opinion of him is not to be trusted, because all chroniclers were churchmen, who were biased against the king because he had attacked the church. John certainly persecuted the church with a particular fury after his row with the pope over the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury. He drove the monks of Canterbury into exile and eventually seized the lands of all the English clergy – moves that led to England being laid under interdict and the king himself being excommunicated. The clergy certainly had good reason to hate him.
But the assertion that all medieval chroniclers were churchmen is a fallacy. Plenty of laymen put pen to parchment during the Middle Ages, and John’s reign is no exception. Bertran de Born, the troubadour poet mentioned above, was a member of the lay aristocracy of southern France. The author of The History of William Marshal was also a layman, and repeatedly blames the disasters of John’s reign on the king’s own personality.
Another author, known as the Anonymous of Béthune, is also likely to have been a layman, since his chronicle dwells upon the concerns of a lay audience, and was written for an aristocratic patron, Robert of Béthune. Robert was a Flemish nobleman who fought on John’s side in the final years of his reign, and was well rewarded as a result. Yet even here the overall assessment of the king is damning. “He was a very bad man,” says the Anonymous, “more cruel than all others. He lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. Whenever he could he told lies rather than the truth… He was brim-full of evil qualities.”
Clergymen and laymen alike were united in their detestation of John. Modern attempts to rehabilitate him require us to ignore this chorus of disapproval from his contemporaries as well as his own nefarious acts.
Historians quite rightly set out to challenge legends and dispel myths, but in this case the myth is a modern one. Any reasonable assessment of the sources must lead us to conclude that in the case of Bad King John, tradition had it about right.
How to be a good medieval king
The highest standards of conduct were expected of Plantagenet rulers. Sadly, John rarely managed to meet them…
Medieval kings were expected to be able to protect and defend their subjects from attack and to lead from the front. This was a risky business. Edward I narrowly escaped death by crossbow bolt; Richard I was not so lucky. Nor was King Harold, but he at least engaged his enemies when they landed on the shores of England and went down fighting alongside his men. John’s response in similar circumstances was to run away.
Do the lord’s work
Medieval kings were expected to be pious, and they could demonstrate this in a variety of ways — by distributing alms to the poor, for example, or building a new church. Some kings were extremely pious in their own devotions, such as the French king Louis IX. King John seems to have been reasonably observant, but his attack on the church led to him being written up as irreligious after his death.
Share your wealth
Those who waited on medieval monarchs did so in the hope of reward, so generous rulers were invariably praised. One of the few positive statements made about King John was that there was always plenty to eat and drink in his hall, and that he distributed robes to his men on a regular basis. When John’s son Henry III cut back on such expenditure to save up for his crusade, he was criticised for departing from the example of his father.
At the time of their coronation, medieval monarchs were required to swear an oath, part of which was a promise to do good justice. Good kings took this responsibility very seriously. After his death in 1307 Edward I was praised for the quality of his justice, and in his own letters the same king can be seen exhorting his officials to act justly. John was very active in hearing court cases, but his motivation was the money he could raise by imposing punitive fines.
Be prepared to listen
Maintaining yourself in government involves a simple trick – make sure more people want you to remain in power than want you out. Whether by summoning great councils or later parliaments, successful medieval rulers took steps to consult their more important subjects, noting their views, winning them round and channelling their ambitions. Bad kings like John were always accused of taking ‘evil counsel’, which meant relying on a clique of advisors.
Marc Morris is a historian and broadcaster whose books include A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (Windmill, 2009).
This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine