Remembering ‘Bad King John’: A bad eulogy

Poor John. Who says poor John? Don’t everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames there’s not a living soul who’d pee on me to put the fire out!
-Prince John ‘A Lion in Winter’

19th October marks the death-date of one of England’s most loathed historical figures: King John I. I’m sure this slipped 99.9% of peoples’ minds, for such a famous, or infamous king not much, outside the fabricated legend of Robin Hood and the very real Magna Carta, is known of him. It is hard to make a sympathetic case for John, he betrayed his father Henry II, the man who had given him everything; before going on to betray his brother King Richard I. John is an intriguing man, the spoilt baby of his family and forgotten fourth son he rose to prominance in the 1200s after a series of political failures. In his short time on the throne he’d create so many enemies that the legend of Robin Hood was invented purely to spite him. John was so hated, so despised that in death he’d garner a nickname still remembered today: Bad King John.

One of the overwhelming problems historians have found with John is that the man could never be happy with his lot, as the youngest of Henry and Eleanor’s eight children, John was partly the spoilt baby of the family-the apple of his father’s eye- but on the other hand, as the fourth son John was considered relatively unimportant.

Johnny Lackland
Johnny Lackland

I recently met the acclaimed author Justin Cartwright who has finished a book which heavily features Richard I, Cartwright mentioned that very little is known of Richard’s life. While this is true we know even less of John’s early life, chroniclers not wanting waste their time on somebody as unimportant as the fourth son of a king. Due to his lowly status John looked to inherit very little from his parents whose respective territories in England and France had already been split between his older brothers Henry, Richard and Geoffrey. As a result of this Henry II nicknamed his pride and joy ‘John Lackland’ the name stuck and I believe it haunted John for many years. Henry II was desperate to leave his favourite son something promising him, as part of a marriage deal, the castles of Mirebeau, Chinon and Loudon in 1172 which of course led to the great revolt of 1173-4 as the castles belonged to the Young King Henry. Henry II had promised John these castles as part of a deal with Count Humbert III of Maurienne, Humbert’s daughter Alice was to marry John giving Henry’s son the territory of Maurienne and therefore and inheritance. However, Humber would only agree to the match if John no longer remained ‘Lackland’ arguing that his daughter deserved better than a landless fourth son. This first attempt to give John land backfired spectacularly and Henry would be forced to look elsewhere.

A somewhat idealised later portrait of John. In reality he was dark, heavy set and rather short
A somewhat idealised later portrait of John. In reality he was dark, heavy set and rather short

Several years later the old King decided that the kingdom of Ireland would be a suitable prize for John and, with some allies across the sea Henry packed John off with some of his friends. Admittedly all John had to do was show up, charm the nobles of Wessex and take hold of reins Henry had already set out. But John, with his arrogance and smug sense of entitlement alienated the Irish and he was soon sent back to England, tail between his legs, blaming everybody but himself. Henry, increasingly worried about Richard and the young French King Philip-Augustus turned a blind eye and waved John’s Irish débâcle off as bad luck. John stuck by Henry through the 1170s and most of the 1180s as he had everything to gain from being the favourite son and, despite Henry’s worsening health the old guy was coming out on top time and time again. But come 1188 Henry’s bad health has caught up with him and with the deaths of Young Henry and Geoffrey in quick succession only John and Richard remain. With Henry’s ill health I think it’s obvious that John knew just where the future lay and it certainly wasn’t Henry ‘the guy who let him get away with everything’ II, it was with Richard I and Philip-Augustus; with Y.H and Geoffrey out of the way the only thing standing between John and the crown was Richard. Let’s face it, Johnny definitely knew this. At some point in June 1189 John goes off the radar, leaving the sickly Henry II without a word John could sense the changing tide and knew just where his future lay. After signing a humiliating treaty essentially signing over all of his power to Richard and the French King, Henry was taken to Chinon to die. On the way John was still a no-show and Henry repeatedly asked where he was, it’s said that those around the dying king all knew where John was but not one had the heart to tell him that his favourite had abandoned him. However Henry demanded to see a list of those who betrayed him, after begging his father not to read it, Henry’s only loyal son-a bastard named Geoffrey-reluctantly showed him the list; John’s name was the first on the list. Henry promptly died partly of blood poisoning but many believe that what finally broke his resolve was the John’s betrayal. He died of a broken heart crying out;

“Shame, shame on a vanquished king!”

So John betrayed his father to support Richard however, history seems to tell us that John could never truly be happy with his lot. He was greedy, always desiring more when he usually had plenty, more than enough for a man as inept as John. Unsurpisingly John betrayed Richard, sided with soon to be nemesis Philip Augustus before failing miserably and returning to Richard. While I’m no fan of the slippery Richard-who in no way deserves his status as national treasure-he showed a degree of loyalty to his mother; Richard was Eleanor’s biggest supporter, he was her favourite son after all. But John, for all of his father’s favour showed no loyalty to his father or any other member of his family, he is, in a moral sense, completely without merit. Yes, Richard was a violent bore, uninterested in…well most things that weren’t the Crusades BUT he was loyal to those who’d supported him. John was a wholly selfish man, the spoilt baby of a large family.

John in his most famous form:  as sulky prince John in Disney's Robin Hood
John in his most famous form: as sulky prince John in Disney’s Robin Hood

However, I try not to look at things in black and white and while as a son John failed miserably, his was not without merit as a king. Yes John has a few disasters; the mess that is the Magna Carta, losing French land, barons’ revolt – and these problems marr his reign but in terms of an understanding of government and finances John was far better than the sainted Richard I. Richard was a brute; he showed little to no interest in England-beyond its use as a ye olde ATM- spent less than a year in the county (around 6-9 months) and didn’t speak a word of English. Beyond his talent as a skilled soldier Richard showed no skill as a politician, law-maker or government reformer, he lacked the skills that had made the ealry portion of his father’s reign so glorious. Henry II was a spectacular military tactician; but he was also preoccupied with bringing law to a lawless country and keeping on top of taxes, finances and pesky barons. Richard’s lack of care when it came to anything related to England that wasn’t riaisng taxes to fund his crusade, made him deeply unpopular and actually led to a resurgence of popularity for his predecessor. So, in terms of kingly duties John was slightly more clued up than Richard. Annoyingly enough, John used this knowledge to squeeze as much money as he could from his barons and landowners, he taxed heavily, placing impossibly large taxes on those who displeased him at one point imprisoning a noblewoman (who wouldn’t hop on the Plantagenet love train) and her sons, promptly starving them to death. John lost prized Angevin lands in France such as the historic area of Anjou which had been in the family for generations, where his father triumphed John failed. His successor Henry III would spend years fighting to reclaim the Plantagenet’s lost land but, with the rise of the French royal house (The Capetians) the balance of power swung in French favour. Isabel Countess of Gloucester and John’s first wife was essentially imprisoned by John when he could not annul their marriage quickly, even after they seperated John held onto Isabel’s estate and other assests…nice.

No post about John would be complete without mentioning two things:

The Magna Carta and the murder of Arthur of Brittany, a rival to the throne and John’s nephew. John has managed to earn the dubious title of ‘first English King to be accused of commiting murder with his own hands’ after the sudden death of claiment to the throne Arthur of Brittany. Arthur was the surviving son of John’s now long dead brother Geoffrey, as John’s older brother any legitimate child would be above John as heir to throne…you with me? John’s claim was supported-rather surprisingly-by his mother Eleanor but Arthur still remained a threat to John’s right to rule. in 1202 after an unsuccessful rebellion in Normandy Arthur was imprisoned in Chateau de Falaise on John’s command. Arthur had proved troublesome for John and the French king and, after John’s men refused to mutilate Arthur (eeew) John’s rival was sent to Rouen Castle where he promptly disappeared in 1203. There are many rumours as to how and why Arthur died but one thing is almost certain John had something to do with it. There are stories of drowing, thwarted escapes and brutal stabbings but until I invent time travel we’ll never know just what happened to Arthur.

Now onto the Magna Carta, synonymous with John’s reign, the Magna Carta (NOT the the Jay Z album) was written up in 1215 by the English nobility who were desperate to limit John’s power and regain some of their rights. This is not the case of the greedy barons of Henry II’s reign but desperate men who were frightened for the future of England. Humiliation abroad was a bitter blow to national pride, John was a womaniser often stealing other men’s wives taking who and what he wanted whenever the time was right. His avarice, refusal to co-operate, lusty nature and the sorry state of affairs at the Royal treasury culminated together and eventually became too much for John’s subjects. The treaty came on the back of a rebellion and, with little options John was forced to sign the charter limiting his power and giving back some control to the feudal barons who signed it. After signing it John rather quickly broke it’s rules and rebellion broke out, this is John’s fatal flaw: he cannot accpet defeat. Neither a gracious winner or loser he was irrational, quick tempered and lacked the tactical mind of his equally hot-headed father. While Henry II and Richard I demonstrated fiery tempers and harsh revenge they were ultimately moral men, they had an understanding of right and wrong and, as we can tell from Henry’s famous penance of 1174 they can admit mistakes. John does not at anytime, show an ounce of morality, understanding or even genuine sorrow at his wrongdoings. He is a failed Machiavellian figure in that he tries so hard to be ambitious and to succeed but, ultimately he fails due to his own misgivings and vice.

The Magna Carta in tea-time form
The Magna Carta in tea-time form

John died-unsurprisingly-in mysterious circumstances in 1216, it is rumoured that he was poisoned but, like Arthur’s death, the manner in which John died is still a mystery. He left behind five legitimate children and at least nine bastards and, at the time of his death the heir to the throne, Henry III was only nine. In the wake of John’s death civil war broke out and his poor heir would have to fight the shackles of the Magna Carta for most of his long reign. Even in death John caused problems for Henrys!

John is one of England’s most controversial kings, historians such as Warren are keen to argue that yes, he had his faults but the reputation he’s garnered is largely undeserved and is an unfortunate bi-product of Richard’s status as a national treasure. Whatever we think of him John has definitely made English history all the more interesting.

King John laid to rest
King John laid to rest

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