I have to admit that my knowledge of King John (1167-1219, ruled 1199-1216) came primarily from two sources – my vague recollection of what happened at Runnymede with the signing of the Magna Carta, the 1968 film “The Lion in Winter,” and the Walt Disney 1973 children’s film “Robin Hood.”
Then I read King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England by British historian Marc Morris. It turns out my recollections were indeed vague, and mostly wrong, and certain elements of the King John character in the 1968 movie and the Disney animated film were accurate.
John was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. This was medieval Europe, and kings and queens and their children were almost by definition pawns on a continent-wide chessboard. All of John’s older brothers (included Richard the Lionhearted) died before him, and he became king almost my default. Richard reportedly favored a nephew, named Arthur, as his successor. The French king Philip Augustus also favored Arthur. John eventually had Arthur killed.
John had a lot of people killed. And imprisoned. He made grants of landed, cities, castles, and estates, and often revoked them. He seemed to have been forever at battle – with the French, with his brothers (he plotted against Richard), with his own earls and barons, with relatives, and often with allies (allegiances in this period were extremely fluid).
Based on meticulous and in-depth research, especially from contemporary sources, Morris draws a detailed picture of King John and his times that is complex, nuanced, and highly readable. (The British seem to excel at the writing of history, especially the “highly readable” part.) John’s fortunes ebbed and flowed; he gained all of his family’s territory in France and lost it, and often regained part of it back. He battled the king of Scotland and some of his own nobles in Wales, Ireland, and England. He relied upon mercenaries to an extraordinary degree. He argued almost continually with the pope, until he adroitly turned the tables on everyone and made the pope one of his chief defenders.
The story of King John is a surprising one. Morris is more than fair in his assessment of the ruler and the man; John did many things that rightfully earned his tyrannical reputation. But one thing he wasn’t – he was not a weak, indecisive ruler who gave up his kingly rights at Runnymede. In fact, within two weeks of signing what came to be known as the Magna Carta, John was already plotting and preparing to renew his battle with the barons.
Morris is the author of A Great and Terrible King: Richard I and the Forging of Britain (2008);
The Norman Conquest (2013); and several other books on medieval British history. His doctorate on the 13th century earls of Norfolk was published in 2005. He lives in England, and is a lecturer, broadcaster, and academic castle tour guide. He presented the television program “Castle” and wrote the accompanying book.
King John is a history that is both absorbing and entertaining, reflected solid research and a deep understanding of whom this man was, what he did, and how he accomplished what he did in vary trying, dangerous times.
Illustration: An illuminated painting of King John on a stag hunt, scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287., Public Domain, via Wikipedia.