King John, Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England by Marc Morris

One of my English friends on Face Book says that King John is considered the worst king England ever had. After reading the details of King John’s life and reign in historian Marc Morris’s book, I would have to conclude that that is probably true.

If I were to write a continuation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, I would pair King John of England with the Roman Caesar Domitian. Both were the sons of highly respected and dynamic rulers, Henry II and Vespasian respectively, both succeeded successful and well-loved brothers, Richard the Lion Hearted and Titus, respectively, and both were disastrous as monarchs, remembered for rapacity and cruelty. Both suffered from paranoia, a condition that their own ill-considered actions tended to reinforce. If I were to judge between the two of them on military acumen and statesmanship, I would give a slight edge to Domitian.

King John was the youngest of the eight children of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Three older brothers had survived childhood so he was not expected to inherit the throne. His father jokingly called him John Lackland when he was young. He was pretty much neglected by his parents as a child and raised in a convent, seeing them only on holidays. He was about seven when Henry II imprisoned Eleanor for sixteen years, so he probably rarely saw his mother.

Relations within John’s family were turbulent to say the least. His eldest brother, Hal, died of an illness while leading a rebellion against his father. The second and third sons, Richard and Geoffrey also periodically led armed rebellions. Geoffrey died in 1186 after being injured in a tournament. That left Richard. In characteristic fashion, Henry avoided naming Richard his heir, which drove Richard into rebellion in league with Phillip of France. Belatedly, John joined the rebellion, something historians have seen as a great betrayal of his father. Perhaps exhausted from all the strife, Henry died in 1189 and Richard became King of England and the continental lands the family ruled-at that time these included Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, and the Aquitaine, among others.

The Battle of Hattin and the conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 impelled Richard to go on crusade in 1191, shortly after he became King. Richard achieved fame for his military skill and audacity but failed to reconquer Jerusalem. On his return he was captured by the Duke of Austria and imprisoned. His mother, Eleanor, worked tirelessly to raise the 150.000 marks ransom, a sum that nearly bankrupted England. In the meantime, John colluded with Phillip of France to try to prevent Richard’s release.

After his release, Richard pardoned John and eventually restored some of his lands to him. Phillip of France had encroached on Richard’s territory and had to be dealt with. Then the Barons of Aquitaine rebelled and Richard was wounded in the neck by a crossbow bolt while conducting a siege. He died eleven days later. John became King.

John’s reign was turbulent from the start. Phillip of France took advantage of the situation to seize the Vexin, and Normandy. John’s brother Geoffrey had a posthumous son named Arthur who had a claim to the throne according to Phillip. Eventually John captured Arthur and he conveniently disappeared. Historians believe he either ordered Arthur’s death or, perhaps, killed him himself.

John was defeated in his quest to recover his territories from Phillip in 1204, and went back to England. The recovery of these lands became an obsession for John and he constantly tried to organize and raise funds for battle on the continent. This required the acquisition of money and resources by any means possible. Morris goes into the various institutions for collecting funds for the crown-reliefs, scutages, forest eyries, tallages etc.  “At the start of his reign he had struggled to raise his annual income higher than 25,000 pounds. By 1211 it had soared to a figure well in excess of 100,000 pounds-possibly more like 145,000 pounds. John took full advantage of any fund-raising device he could. Predictably, this angered many of his barons and led them to revolt.

Morris sums up John’s reign in this paragraph: “Being a poor warrior put John at a great disadvantage, which he managed to compound by being a poor politician. His most egregious mistake, in the eyes of his contemporaries, was his marriage to Isabella of Angouleme, because of the gratuitous offence it caused to the Lusignans. On many occasions during his reign, John set about needlessly provoking people when he felt strong, then desperately trying to win them back when his confidence evaporated. He goaded the Lusignans into rebellion, then tried to woo them again once his other allies had deserted. He victimized the Anglo-Norman lords of Ireland and the March of Wales, then sought their help when conspiracy threatened to topple him. He imposed scutage of unparalleled severity on the English barons who refused to fight in Poitou, then cravenly sought their assistance when his military plans miscarried. He harried the Northerners, then looked for their support against a French invasion. John may well have been a genius when it came to devising ways to extort money, but when it came to the fundamental skills of political management, he was clumsy and foolish.”

He was also cruel. He killed his nephew Arthur, hanged 28 Welsh hostages after a revolt by the Welsh ruler Llewellyn Ab Iorworth, starved a number of prisoners to death in his dungeons, including, most notoriously, the wife and son of William de Briouze. Her crime? Refusing to surrender her sons as hostages, sighting the death of Arthur. Morris also mentions an incident where he cut off the hands and feet of surrendering prisoners.

Toward the end of John’s reign, the barons were in full revolt and up in arms. It looked as though there would be an all-out civil war. The rebels took over the city of London, and forced John into negotiations at Runnymede. The ultimate result of these negotiations was the Magna Carta, a list of 62 items defining the rights of the barons and of the people of England. Most of these clauses were in response to the abuses of King John’s reign. John was compelled to sign and seal the document, but he soon resumed his war upon the barons, and only his sudden death prevented a civil war. After he died resistance died down and his nine year old son Henry became King under the regency of William Marshal

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