King John

king_john_stag_3231934bThe Victorians did not like King John, medieval chroniclers weren’t that keen on him and Walt Disney portrayed him as a lion who sucked his thumb. Mathew Paris, one of the medieval writers, proclaimed that ‘Hell would be befouled’ by John’s presence.

So what did John do so wrong? First of all he spent much more time in England than previous kings. It wasn’t because he liked the scenery or the people. It was because he’d lost his father’s empire. At the start of his reign in 1199 he arrived at an agreement with King Philip II of France, stopped a war that King Richard had been winning and accepted Philip’s overlordship – and, ultimately, he handed over the Lionheart’s magnificent fortress at Chinon without so much as a quibble. This earned John the nickname Soft Sword. He then managed to loose Normandy – which was careless and put his nobility in a difficult position as most of them owned property in what had suddenly become France as well as in England. It was impossible to do homage to both monarchs so they had to choose – French or English. Most of them found a way round it by handing part of their land over to a son sooner rather than later so that the estate at least stayed in the family. Medieval kings were supposed to win wars not hand over their best fortresses on a platter to their enemies or make life more difficult than necessary for everybody else.

In an age of brutality John excelled. He had people blinded, starved and brutally executed left, right and centre. He is even purported to be the only King of England who has actually murdered someone in person with his own hands. That person, his nephew Arthur-was the son of his eldest brother and who had a better claim to the throne than John- was apparently killed by John in a drunken rage and then thrown into the Seine. This is, of course, all here say. No one in his or her right mind would add that juicy little bit of information to a chronicle.

However, Matilda or Maud (depending upon your frame of mind) de Braose was the wife of William de Braose. He was one of King John’s favourites. In 1208 the two men had a bit of a disagreement. William owed John five thousand marks and John demanded William’s grandsons as hostages. Matilda refused to part with them saying very loudly and clearly that she would not give her boys to the man who’d murdered his own nephew. Matilda and her oldest son ended up in a dungeon in Corfe Castle where they were deliberately starved to death. In later years, when John realised that his time was up he allowed a kinswoman of the murder victims to become a nun in order to pray for the souls of Maud and her son. Draw your own conclusions.

John’s personality wasn’t what you might call winning either. All the Plantagenets seem to have been prone to temper tantrums. Henry II is reported to have rolled around on the floor in his rages. John’s moments of irritation were exacerbated by his drunkenness. He had numerous mistresses, which in itself wasn’t unusual for Norman or Plantagenet kings, but he didn’t necessarily get the lady’s agreement first and he made a habit of making off with his barons’ wives and daughters which was tactless to put it mildly. Eustace de Vesci tried to save his wife from John’s attentions by putting a servant in John’s bed instead of his wife. John was not pleased but then neither was Eustace and it might go some way towards explaining why Eustace would eventually rebel against John. Famously one woman promised the king two hundred chickens if she could just be allowed to spend one night with her husband. In addition, he was spiteful and vindictive.   It is alleged that one woman who turned down his advances was sent a poisoned egg.  He thought nothing of having people dragged to their deaths behind horses and having priests wrapped up in leaden copes if they dared to disagree with him.

The thing that really ensured that history knows all John’s character flaws was his attitude to the Church. He hunted on fast days, ate meat on Fridays and once told a bishop to keep his sermon short, as he wanted to eat his dinner. To cap it all he got England excommunicated in 1208 when he refused to accept Simon Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. For five years there were no masses, baptisms or funeral rites. In an age where most people were very concerned abut their immortal souls it spelled disaster. John, on the other hand, had a fine old time stealing Church property and wealth. Ultimately the Pope made him give it back but it is easy to see how monastic chroniclers wouldn’t have spared John’s blushes. One of them, known to be a bit wild in his story telling, even suggests that John spent three months in 1215 as a pirate.

What John really excelled at was administration and administering justice. The former ensured that the system of taxation worked very efficiently. He imposed eye-watering death duties; taxes on widows who didn’t wish to remarry; taxes on heiresses and taxes on personal property that were applied quite often by the mercenaries he’d appointed to positions of power. He became very, very, wealthy and his people became very, very, hacked off. The Jewish population were particularly scared. John exhorted additional taxation from them and was known to use torture to get even more money.

Ironically, assuming you hadn’t been taxed out of existence and you didn’t have a pretty daughter or wife the smaller landowners got a better deal out of John than they had from previous kings because John possessed a detailed knowledge of the law, wanted to ensure that everyone understood Royal Justice was the ultimate justice within the country and because he travelled so widely administering it. Poor men could appeal to the king and ask for a trial by jury in a way that the barons couldn’t if they’d received a raw deal from their overlord. John was far too busy using the legal system to squeeze the great and powerful for every penny they had in any case – so if he found against the great magnates he could levy huge fines upon them.

No wonder that in 1215 the Barons rose up and forced John to sign Magna Carta. Little did they realise it was all going to get much worse in very short order.

Seward, Desmond. (2014). The Demon’s Brood. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd

10 thoughts on “King John

  1. ohn had very bad press.He was not forced by his Barons to sign Magna Carta he himself invented that document two years before as a point of law.John loved law as a hobby. He did take De Brose up when he took Abergavenny castle off him.He died in penitude in France where as John placed his nagging wife in jail and forgot all about her. As far as being cruel I think he excelled but he did love Hereford for its cider.He died in Worcester of cider poisoning and that is the only reason he is not buried at Windsor. He was in fact my kinsman and so I feel somesort of loyalty to the fellow. Richard was a mean and base homosexual witha lust for war.He hated England and spaent just ten day in England and never saw it again. No wonder Johnny boy was pissed off as every man JACK paid for his brothers ransom in front of Johns face. He desrved that throne more than ever Ricard did. When Henry 11 died at Chinon Ricard spit in his face and rode off to fight Saracens who had never insulted or hurt a single Christian.Ricahrd gave us the real cause of terrorism as his legacy. John was more ofa survivor than he should ever have been but looking at his childhood what does one expect. Loosing all that loot and booty in the sands was a bit silly but was it insured? King Charles 11 who I have no connection with at all,paid A man called Blod or even Blood in the modern terms ,to steal the crown jewels as he had just insured them. One of the Royal burnt Winsor chapel roof off maybe that was an insurance job too. Being King one tends to do as one pleases so forgive John for his naughtiness shall we.There my ancester rest in peace before that alter and fear not month or rust nor name calling nor cash shortages nor good cider first draughts..He was said to have bedded his wife for two years,Some say longer but Marshall suggest he never gotout only for a pee. Stamina I have a mind to say is admirable. Great King much milagned. Temper is a blessing and a release and rolling about an exercise.I do it regularly so do not doubt. I also love cider and good French wine from only Chinon where we began.

    • I rather suspected that you would come out in support of John. Law was definitely a hobby of his and he travelled widely. I like the fact that he made it on several occasions to Carlisle where he administered justice. Liking cider is also a drop in the scales on his side. However, generally speaking I’m with the Victorians on this one – he was not a nice man but then again medieval kings didn’t keep power based on their pleasant demeanour. He was an interesting king undoubtedly but best viewed, I feel, from about eight hundred years distance. I shall be doing rather a lot of reading about him in the next couple of months as I’m teaching a day school on him this year.

      • It’s one thing to be sharp and effective when quelling rebellions. It’s quite another to go around brutalising people just because one thinks one can get away with it. When Gilles de Rais, a powerful military hero in his time, was found out to have committed atrocities against children, his own people promptly tried, convicted and hanged him.

        According to the biography of William Marshal commissioned by his own son, the Marshal had a discussion with a friend over who to support: Arthur or John. His friend said Arthur, but William answered that Arthur was young and had an aloof manner, so would he listen to counsel? Surely, John, being a mature adult, would be a better choice. His friend said: only because you’re my close friend and I don’t want to become your enemy, I will support you in this, but, mark my words, we will live to regret this decision.

      • Dear Julia so glad you are teaching. What I meant about John aws he was King and power certainly corrupts. No different now believe me.My book Time DETECTIVE is about indjustice cases please read it to help you understand I hate power mad people who treat human life as flith. I am just a gardener a chef and now retired relaxed after hetic Nato life. I saw such horror as to shock the mind. I know it happens everywhere as those at the top want to stay there at any cost.Tony Blair was that sort of man he even murdered his best pal the arms inspector Doctor Kelly just to stay pals with Bush and go to war illegally.Put Saddam on public trail illegally and sluaghter him by murder just to be in power and slyly succeed. Thatbis why no power will accept and live peacefully on my estates here. I still have a house near Kendal in England. Good luck as you will make an excellant teacher of history.

  2. “This is, of course, all [hearsay]”. Except for the little detail that John had made William de Braose as Arthur’s gaoler, so William was in a position to know what John did to Arthur.

    Poor Maud had the decency to tell John to his face, in private, what she knew. John could have let her blow off steam and then assured her of his innocence. Instead he had her and children imprisoned and then, oh so delicately, “forgot about her” [and the youngsters].

    This might have been overlooked by the general public, but John overlooked one tiny detail: William had anticipated John’s intentions for him and escaped to the Continent to tell everyone what John had done to Arthur and to the Braose family. The simmering discontent exploded, and all of the Angevin home territories rebelled en masse. That’s why John quickly lost Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Brittany, Touraine and Aquitaine. It’s no good attributing it to the French king’s supposed military nous: it was all John’s doing.

    Despite his military failures, John had proved himself quite adept at attacking children. Arthur and his elder sister Eleanor (“the Fair Maid of Brittany”) were in a civil discussion with their grandmother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) when John displayed uncharacteristic haste in bringing his army to bear on them, lest his own mother side with his niece and nephew.

  3. Magna Carta wasn’t a new contrivance of the late part of John’s reign. It had precedents in Charters of Liberties going back at least to Henry I. Even William II promised such a thing during his exigency in 1088, though he failed to deliver.

    As for MC being John’s idea: no sooner had the barons gone home than John tore it up, thus provoking another rebellion, which ended only because John had the final decency suddenly to die.

  4. I see but John did not tear MC up no place is that said only suggested. John volunteered to sign it. If it was destroyed then what is MC that hangs so noticed in our view. John was weak and called lackland by his overpowering nasty father so he punished as he was punished. At least he loved England and said so at Worcester long before that cider cup killed him. First glass of green cider must be poured in the ground.Second left for the faireys. John drank by accident or design from others a glass left for the faireys it seems. was he murdered or was it by accident?Then what happened to the royal taster He certainly died in some agony what ever it was. Times being violent and being in the top job was so important then for survival ina strong Baron run Nation it woud be considered prudent to kill off all whom oposed you. Common sense really. Standing alone in power even now is somewhat the same but hidden. The arms inspectors death should provide that proof. Being at the top means one must saty there at any cost or face the hatered of all those who climb the fence to your crystal towers. Nothing has changed and Russia know s that. England must arm herself to the very teeth as Russia is powering up to take over. I live just twenty miles from that Russian border so all activity I know. We have fly byes by Russian jets daily followed by Nato planes playing cat and mouse. Do not blame King John too much what ever he was he was merely a man of his times.

    • Import documents such as wills and diplomatic, political, financial and legal agreements, even letters between important persons, were often duplicated. MC would have been signed on each copy and distributed. Stephen Lagoon and the rebel leaders would have held copies.

      • Important, not import, documents! Comical misspellings are a hazard of automatic word completion on small screen mobile phones.

        As to “a man of his times”, and the comparison with modern power politics: not everyone was (or, hopefully, is) the same. As JuliaH may recall, I have been studying a fellow named Alan Rufus, who despite working beside all the most ruthless men of the Norman Conquest, refused to be like them.

        As the commander of the royal household knights and an important law officer he abided by the letter of the law, but he interpreted it in the spirit that he considered best: protect, defend, forgive. A man honoured by William I’s queen Matilda during his youth and by King Harold’s daughter Gunhild, after his (Alan’s) death, is someone very special.

        Make no mistake about it, Alan was very successful, through sheer prowess: at the peak of his powers in 1088, he fought off multitudes of barons in defence of the beleaguered William II. Yet, he urged the restoration of the defeated rebels. A few months later, as the chief arresting officer in a treason trial, he offered to resign rather than participate in a miscarriage of justice.

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