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King John

Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede

A chronicler named Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans, wrote an account of John's reign ten years after his death in 1216. For various reasons Roger portrayed John as a monster, embroidering his story with some laughably implausible details. It was Roger who was responsible for the story of John forcing Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Norwich to wear a hooded cloak of lead, which slowly crushed him to death in 1209. This is clearly nonsense since it was Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Norwich who became Bishop of Ely in 1225. Imaginative historian Wendover was succeeded as historian at St Albans in 1235 by Matthew Paris, an excellent writer, though not a very conscientious researcher. He tidied up Wendover's dramatic tales, added a few of his own, and the popular image of John as a cruel tyrant was set. Dramatic tales are more readable and stay in the memory longer than humdrum history. That is why Shakespeare chose to dramatise the story of John in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare was in show business, and he needed a striking story to tell. Shakespeare was also a writer who understood the nature of illusions in life, and the power of stories that people tell as history. Memorably in the last scene, as King John dies at Newark Castle, he says:



I am a scribbled form drawn with a pen

Upon a parchment, and against this fire

Do I shrink up

(King John Act 5 Scene 7)

Inevitably after centuries of demonisation, there was then a fashionable trend among historians to suggest he wasn't too bad. In the 1960s W.L. Warren did a very good job of this in his book King John. But then, as often happens in the study of history, things started to swing the other way again. At the end of the 1990s John Gillingham switched back to a more negative interpretation (Historians Without Hindsight in King John New Interpretations ed C.S Church). Personally I think ups and downs of historical reputations are inevitable. Otherwise what exactly would historians do? No one is going to make their mark saying: "Yes, so and so said it all, and I agree." Historians, like Shakespeare, have to make a living, and come up with new stories.



Bodleian Library, Oxford

John was born at Oxford on Christmas Eve 1166, youngest son of Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitane. Soon after John's birth Henry and Eleanor were estranged, probably the result of Henry's constant infidelities. Eleanor retired to Poitou in western France, where she had her court. John was sent to the abbey of Fontevrault in the hope that he might have a Church career. John also spent some of his youth in the household of his brother Henry, where he probably learnt hunting and riding. An academic education was directed by Ranulph Glanville, Henry II's most senior official. Beyond these few facts little is known of John's childhood. He was a fourth son, unlikely to become king, and little noticed by chroniclers.

As Henry II's four sons - Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John - grew up, their father hoped they would help him rule his widespread dominions, which included England, Normandy and huge areas of western France. The eldest son Henry was crowned in his father's lifetime, to try and ensure a smooth succession. Geoffrey was made Duke of Brittany in 1171, Richard was made Duke of Poitou in 1172. But this left John as the brother with no lands. His father called him Lackland, a nickname which stuck. Then in 1172 an opportunity opened up in northern Italy. The Count of Maurienne had no son and heir, but he had two daughters. He agreed to let his eldest daughter Alice marry John, and make John his heir, all for the reasonable price of 5000 marks. The deal was done. But King Henry rather impetuously also offered John the castles of Chinon, Loudan and Mirebeau, part of his brother Henry's inheritance. This was the spark which led to Henry the Younger fighting a civil war against his father in 1172 and 1173. By the time the war was over Alice of Maurienne was dead, and so were John's prospects of his own little Italian kingdom.


For a while the brothers seemed to settle down to helping their father. But Richard's military skill in defeating rebels in Poitou caused jealousy and more family conflict. Then in 1183 the family situation was profoundly shaken up when Henry the Younger, heir to the throne, died of dysentery. Richard was expected to become heir to the English throne, while John took over Poitou, but there were more disputes. Over the next few years John was sent on an unsuccessful mission to subdue Ireland, and moved one step closer to the throne when his brother Geoffrey was killed in a tournament in 1185. The French king Philip tried to fuel disputes in King Henry's family by spreading rumours that there was a plan to deny Richard his inheritance and give the throne to John. As a result Richard allied himself with his father's mortal enemy, the King of France. King Henry now a tired old man, broken by endless arguing and fighting died at Chinon Castle in Touraine on 6th July 1189.

Richard became king, and soon disappeared off on crusade, leaving regents to govern England in his absence. John, however, continued to harbour his own ambitions, constantly making plans to undermine Richard's regents. At the end of 1192, hearing of trouble in England, Richard finally decided to make his way home. On the return journey, however, he was captured in Austria and held to ransom. John redoubled his efforts to gain power, moving mercenaries into his castles at Windsor and Tickhill. When it turned out that a ransom had been successfully raised for King Richard's release, John fled to Paris. But it seems as though treachery and fighting were an accepted way of life for this family. Inspite of his rebellion John was soon forgiven, and spent the rest of Richard's reign as a loyal supporter, fighting for him in Normandy. John's years of loyalty put him in a good position when Richard was killed by a crossbow bolt outside a castle at Chalus-Chabrol. On his death bed Richard designated his brother as heir. John landed at Shoreham with a few friends on 25th May 1199, and was crowned at Westminster Abbey two days later.


Corfe Castle

Early in his reign John attempted to deal with constant problems besetting his continental empire. He faced the combined threat of Philip of France, who had long resented England's continental power, and rebellion led by his own family. The struggle started well for John. A rebellion broke out in Poitou led by Arthur, son of John's brother Geoffrey. After rebels captured John's mother, John responded by staging a daring rescue mission at Mirebeau Castle on the night of 31st July 1202. Most of the captured rebels were shipped off to Corfe Castle in Dorset. The rebel leader, Arthur, remained in custody in France. Much has been made of the prisoners' treatment in the creation of John's evil reputation. A number of prisoners at Corfe Castle starved to death, and the story was that this happened on John's orders. W.L. Warren suggests that the prisoners actually broke out of their confinement, barricaded themselves in the keep, and chose to starve rather than give up. The fate of rebel leader Arthur, though, is more damaging to John's reputation. It is not clear exactly what happened to him, but an account by William of Briouse, the man who actually captured Arthur at Mirebeau, describes John killing Arthur in a drunken rage.


Following his triumph at Mirebeau, things started to go badly for John. Roger of Wendover described John lying in bed all day in a state of lassitude, saying things like: "Let be, let be, whatever he takes now I will one day recover." In contrast, administrative records indicate that John was working constantly trying to win the war. All this effort, however, could not prevent French success, particularly as important Norman barons deserted to the French side. On 5th December 1202 John fled from Barfleur to England. His great castle at Chateau Gaillard in the Seine valley held out until 6th March 1204, until that too fell. Finally, Rouen, the capital of Normandy, was taken by Philip in June. This meant that all of John's Norman possessions, except for the Channel Islands had been lost. England was to maintain an ambivalent position in Aquitane in western France, but for all intents and purposes John was confined to England. There had to be some explanation for this loss, beyond the shifting tides of history. Making John out to be lazy and incompetent was an easy option, and one that became accepted as fact.



HMS Invincible at Portsmouth Dockyard

John, confined to England, set about ruling his last remaining province with customary energy. Various plans for re invasion of France were made, but came to nothing, mostly because powerful barons of England simply did not want to go. So, confined to an island, it made sense to have a powerful navy, and John was largely responsible for setting up the Royal Navy as it is known today. A large and efficient organisation centred on Portsmouth became established during his reign. The creation of the navy was part of a more widespread professionalisation of government. The absence of Henry II , and then Richard the Lionheart from England for much of their reigns meant that government in England had learned to run itself. John, who worked hard in the day to day business of government, valued the kind of professional organisation that had begun to evolve. Soon after his coronation John appointed Hubert Walter as chancellor, a man who was perhaps the most brilliant administrator of his time. Walter remained chancellor until his death in 1205. Matthew Paris claimed that the king on hearing of Walter's death said: "By God's feet, now for the first time I am king and lord of England." (Quoted W.L. Warren P134.) Paris simply made this up. Walter had been appointed by John, and was kept in his position of chancellor for the rest of his life. In the running of this administration merit was more important than social status. John would, in Warren's words, be on the look out for able men "without regard to status or nationality" (P144). We might find all this admirable now, but at the time there were some groups who did not approve. The first of these was the barons.





The powerful barons of England had been slowly excluded from positions of government influence since the reign of John's father. Resentment had been growing. With John's enthusiastic involvement in professional administration this exclusion became more obvious. Marginalising the barons also suited John's highly suspicious nature. Following the desertion of Normandy's barons, John never trusted their English counterparts. While he would sit for hours listening to disputes between humble citizens, and showing great generosity to them, to anyone who was a potential threat John was ruthless and sometimes cruel. Any little legal infringement, the building of a weir without the king's permission for example, would be used to deliver crippling fines and debts on the barons. Sons would be kept as hostages for good behaviour. Barons would be swapped around between castles to prevent any one man becoming too closely associated with such dramatic symbols of power. This ignored the fact that some families had been associated with a particular castle for centuries. In the case of William de Briouse, who refused to hand over a hostage, his wife and child were captured and disappeared into Windsor Castle. It is possible that they were starved to death there - or at least that's what Roger of Wendover suggests. Eventually this threat to traditional baronial privilege became too much and in 1214 the barons went into rebellion. Actually it wasn't so much the barons who rebelled as their hot headed young sons. Older, wiser heads still sided with the king. The famous Magna Carta of 1215 was an attempt by a moderate group of barons and bishops to bring everyone together at Runnymede and agree final terms. This document primarily was an attempt to save old privileges, and was not a charter for a new world. For some reason the words "any baron" were replaced during drafting of the document with the words "any free man". Quite why this was done is not understood, but it gave a sense of universal relevance to the Magna Carta, which was seized upon when the Magna Carta became fashionable in the seventeenth century.



Canterbury Cathedral

The second powerful group who opposed John's professionalisation of government was the Church. John was a conventionally religious man, but as a secular leader he wished to maintain secular authority over the Church. His clash with ecclesiastical power began with an accident. In July 1205, Hubert Walter, chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, died. The monks at Canterbury wanted to elect a successor, while local bishops and the king also wanted their say. The monks rashly held their own secret election, choosing their prior Reginald. He was sent to Rome, but told not to reveal himself as Canterbury's choice unless it was felt necessary to oppose the king's choice of nominee. But Reginald got carried away, and as soon as he arrived in Rome he announced himself as the new archbishop. John heard of this and stormed down to Canterbury. Demanding another election, his candidate John de Grey was elected, and sent to Rome, where a confused pope now had two men claiming they were archbishop. The pope declared that as there seemed to be some confusion why not elect a neutral candidate. He suggested Stephen Langton, a respected teacher at the university of Paris. Everyone seemed happy with this except John, who had not been consulted and could not accept Langton. His authority as king would be seriously threatened if he did. Similarly the pope's authority would be threatened if Langton was withdrawn. In this way John was dragged into a war with the Church. The ensuing stand off resulted in the Interdict of 1207 which meant in effect that the clergy went on strike, and would deal with nothing except baptism and last rites for the dying. No one could get married, and no one could be buried in churchyards. This dragged on for four years, and when John did not give in he was excommunicated. John, as a king, was meant to be appointed by God to his role, but the king was acting more as the head of a large corporation. The Church was not naturally sympathetic to a professional government, so perhaps it is not surprising that John ran into conflict with religious authority. This did not happen because John had a grand vision of the future of modern government. He was simply following his inclinations, and defending his patch, but the result was the same. The representative of a secular, professional government came into conflict with landed interests and religious power. Since historians tended to be churchmen the record was unlikely to be kind to John. John was forced to back down in 1213, when he accepted the pope as overlord of England and Ireland. This moment of turmoil in John's reign can actually be seen in the walls of Wells Cathedral being built at that time. Because of the interdict all work on the cathedral stopped for four years. During this period building technology advanced, allowing the use of bigger blocks of stone, which were duly used when building recommenced in 1213. Visitors to Wells Cathedral today can still see the point in the wall where smaller blocks give way to bigger blocks.



The Silent Pool, Surrey

Because of the struggle between king and pope, a lot of silly stories were made up about John. These are well illustrated by the story of the Silent Pool at Newlands Corner, Surrey. In the nineteenth century a story arose that the pope's compromise candidate Stephen Langton may had been born in a little village called Friday Street in Surrey. As a boy Stephen and his girlfriend Alice were supposed to have been beaten up by John and his band of thugs beside a beautiful pond near Friday Street called the Silent Pool. Later this story describes John pursuing a girl called Emma who had a liking for bathing naked in the Silent Pool. Disturbed one day by John and his thugs at the Silent Pool she drowned trying to escape. Emma's brother also drowned trying to save her. Langton is supposed to have heard of this, which of course added to his hatred of John. According to the story, Langton got his revenge when he led the group of barons which forced the signing of the Magna Carta. I read this story in a publication sold at one of the National Trust properties in Surrey. It's all complete nonsense, and an excellent illustration of the kind of story which was put about to maintain the status quo founded on hereditary and religious authority.







Rochester Castle

Following the end of his struggle with the Church John's fortunes briefly improved. His navy had destroyed a French invasion fleet on the river Zywn in May 1212, and this was followed up by a successful expedition to western France in 1214. But the defeat of John's allies in northern Europe at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214, ended all hope of recovering former continental possessions. John landed at Dartmouth in October facing a precarious situation. The barons, or rather their sons, were at boiling point. The attempted peace deal at Runnymede in June 1215 did not stave off war. Some of the young barons slipped away from Runnymede to give them the excuse for not being bound by any agreement. In September 1215 John fought rebels who were holding out at Rochester Castle. The siege went on for seven weeks, one of the castle towers being demolished in the process. Today Rochester Castle has three square towers and one round, the round tower being the one destroyed, and then rebuilt following John's siege. The following year the situation grew even worse with an invasion by Louis, son of King Philip of France. A huge English fleet placed on alert to defeat this invasion was destroyed in a storm, allowing Louis to gain a foothold in Kent. Dover Castle, however, held out against the French. Elsewhere in the country John toured with his own army attempting to stamp out rebellion. He continued travelling until October 1216, when passing down near the Wash, part of his baggage train was lost in a river. Then at Kings Lyn John fell ill. He struggled on to Newark Castle where he could go no further. In the early hours of 18th October a messenger rode through a storm with letters from a number of rebels who wished to make peace. But John was too ill to read them. He died within a few hours, and in accordance with his last wishes was buried at St Wulfstan Abbey in Worcester.

King John's enemies were to get their revenge in the stories they told about him, but they are not the only stories that can be told about John. As Shakespeare said the parchment shrinks up against the fire and there is always another point of view.