This being the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, it is not surprising that there should be two new biographies of King John; not surprising either that one should be billed as ‘The Making of a Tyrant’, the other as a story of ‘Treachery’ and ‘Tyranny’. King John has long been regarded as the worst English king: cruel, deceitful, avaricious, untrustworthy, incapable and cowardly. For some of us he remains indelibly the despicable younger brother of Richard the Lionheart, as so memorably portrayed by Claude Rains in the irresistible swashbuckling Errol Flynn movie The Adventures of Robin Hood. It doesn’t matter that John had no connection with the outlaws of Sherwood Forest, and that the popular association with them derives from Walter Scott’s bestseller Ivanhoe. This is John as we recognise him — an out-and-out dastardly but chicken-hearted villain.
John has had few defenders. This thought came to me as I watched the somewhat camp ceremony with which the body of Richard III was reburied after its discovery beneath that car park in Leicester. Richard, Shakespeare’s finest villain, presumed murderer of the little princes in the Tower, has a society (patron, the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Gloucester) devoted to proving that he was a victim of Tudor propaganda, and in reality an all-round good chap. No such body exists to speak up for King John. Nobody goes to great lengths to prove him innocent of the murder of his nephew Arthur of Brittany. The popular opinion is still that of the 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris, who thought hell too good for such a horrible person.
It is true that academic historians have long sought to redress the balance of opinion. The great 19th-century medievalist Bishop Stubbs remarked on John’s administrative ability and thought him unlucky in his enemies. Fifty years ago, in a generous biography, W.L. Warren made a good case for John being the victim of historical circumstance. Nevertheless, Warren concluded: ‘He had the abilities of a great king, but the inclinations of a petty tyrant.’ John’s latest biographers, Stephen Church and Marc Morris, do not dissent. For Church, John was ‘without any doubt, a catastrophic failure’. For Morris, ‘his reign was, without any doubt, a disaster’.
So there it is, all doubts removed; John was no good. He lost Normandy and most of the Angevin empire in France which he had inherited from his father Henry II and brother Richard. He made such severe financial demands on the Church in England that the Pope excommunicated him and the whole country was placed under a papal interdict. Then, crumbling before this punishment, he knuckled under and made England a fief of the papacy. He alienated the English barons, seduced their wives, pillaged their estates and aroused such opposition that first they refused to fight for him and then they humiliated him by forcing him to sign Magna Carta, a statement of the rights and liberties of his subjects. Finally, when he got his papal master to revoke his agreement, he provoked so fierce a rebellion that his enemies even offered the English crown to the heir to the French throne and invited him to invade England. John died suddenly, with the outcome of the subsequent war unsettled.
Yet he was a man of some ability who applied himself energetically to the business of government and the administration of justice. We know more about his activity than we know about those of his predecessors because he insisted on copies being made of all his letters, and these show him to have been a hard-working monarch. His failures were personal. Brought up, unlike his older brothers, mostly by women, he had no taste for knightly exercises; he seems never, for instance, to have fought in a tournament. At odds with his barons, he came to rely on mercenary troops, and it was his misfortune that the price of employing mercenaries had more than doubled since his father’s day.
This was one reason why he had to impose such heavy taxation. As a military commander he was mostly unsuccessful: failure to lead by example led to his nickname ‘John Softsword’. Even so, his position was not desperate when he died. Hilaire Belloc, in his little book Warfare in England, judged that his strategy in the campaign of the civil war was ‘so well planned and successful that nothing but the accident of his death prevented its final triumph’. This is not, however, an opinion to which either Church or Morris assents.
Both their biographies give a fair and rounded picture of the king and his reign. There may be too much detail for the general reader, but their very similar assessment of John’s character and misfortunes is convincing.