I feel provoked into this by Martin Rowson:
That is his rendering of King John as an utter prick. And, yes — since you didn’t ask — I have the book on order.
The Ott v. Lydon, c.1962
There was, in my days at TCD, a cleavage of opinion over John. Two of our academics held violently opposing views on him and his reign. Examinees learned to check which one was setting the examination paper, and tailored answers accordingly.
The dispute goes back to Stubbs versus Green. Stubbs in 1873 held:
What marks out John personally from the long list of our sovereigns, good and bad, is this — that there is nothing in him which for a single moment calls out for our better sentiments; in his prosperity there is nothing we can admire, and in his adversity there is nothing we can pity … John has neither grace nor splendour, strength nor patriotism. His history stamps him as a worse man than many who have done much more harm, and that — for his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects — chiefly on account of his own personal share in the producing of his own deep and desperate humiliation.
Phew! But did you notice the small caveat: his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects? It almost makes one muse what, from the view down below, a medieval monarch was useful for.
Almost at the same moment, publishing in 1874, along came J.R.Green:
the ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins … In the rapidity and breadth of his political combinations he far surpassed the statesmen of his time.
Green’s was the view that predominated for much of the twentieth century. So we find A.L.Poole, for the fourth (originally third) volume of the Oxford History of England:
He was cruel and ruthless, violent and passionate, greedy and self-indulgent, arbitrary and judicious, clever and capable, original and inquisitive. He was made up of inconsistencies.
We’d also need to remember that almost all the contemporary opinions of John come through churchmen and the chroniclers — if one likes, a synthetic view. Doris Stenton wrote (page 46) of that:
No chronicler should be believed who is not strictly contemporary, and is not supported by record evidence when he makes extravagant claims about the King’s evil deeds.
And John was no dutiful, obedient follower of the church. The records, though, suggest a different creature — and, should one like to characterise it, an analytic approach. The second shows us a king who knew the law, and applied it (arbitrarily, but that is the mark of the times).
The great script writer
William Goldman did more for my appreciation of “Bad’ King John than all the lectures and books.
Henry II: Power is the only fact. (indicating Richard) How could I keep him from the throne? He’d only take it if I didn’t give it to him.
Richard: No, you’d make me fight for it. I know you. You’d never give me anything
Henry II: True, and I haven’t. You get Alais and the kingdom, but I get the thing I want most. If you’re king, England stays intact. I get that. It’s all yours now… the crown, the girl, the whole black business. Isn’t that enough? (He exits)
Alais: I don’t know who’s to be congratulated. Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous. (She exits)
Eleanor: Poor child.
John: 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.
Richard: Let’s strike a flint and see.
John: You’re everything a little brother dreams of. You know that? I used to dream about you all the time.
Eleanor: Ah, Johnny.
John: I’ll show you, Eleanor. I’ve not lost yet.
Goldman wasn’t finished with John there.
I have here his 1979 novel (now badly decayed), Myself as Witness. It covers the period of 1212 to 1219. The first-person narrator is a version of Giraldus Cambrensis (who, in reality, was already retired to Lincoln). It remains one of my favourite historical confections. Goldman is unashamedly positive about John. Here, from the introductory A Note to the Reader is Goldman’s near-apologia:
I have written about King John before; he makes appearances in both The Lion in Winter and Robin and Marian. Following the mainstream, I conceived him as a violent, unstable person with no principles at all. Not so this time around. Several years ago, this completely villainous King John began to seem increasingly improbable to me. He was too black, too terrible. And so I went back to the history books, and the more I read the more it seemed apparent that tradition had it wrong: a very different John must have existed. What had begun as an emotional conviction gradually seemed to be substantiated by the facts.
What are the facts? Remarkably little survives that was written while John was alive, and the picture of him that emerges from these scattered sources is surprisingly complimentary. The evil monarch we have come to know begins to appear in chronicles written a generation or more after his death. On top of which , the writing of history was a curious procedure in those days, and the chroniclers on whom we have relied give us reports of devils and dragons with the same conviction and seriousness that they accord verifiable political events.
Why these chroniclers made John into a monster is an unanswerable question. Possibly because England had had enough of Henry and his children, possibly because John’s reign saw more defeats than victories, possibly in response to political pressures of the moment.
I think that’s where I came in here.
Those chronicles on which much history has been based are:
- Roger of Wendover, about 1225;
- Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall, who cannot be writing before 1221;
- the Barnswell chronicler, again writing in the 1220s and adding to the record until 1232 or so;
- the biography of William Marshal was started in 1221 and not finished until 1225-6;
- the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie ends in 1220, and was probably written at or after that date;
- the Margam annals must be even later in the thirteenth century;
- the annals of Burton are found only in late-thirteenth century copies.
All good sons of Mother Church (which John was not). All good retainers of the baronial class (which John tried to contain). Let us now conceive — for an analogy — that any future account of the Labour government of 1997-2010 will derive from the Murdoch press of and after the second half of the present decade (2015-20+).
Three aspects of John particularly appeal to a modern sensibility. First, his love of books. He had a small library which he carried round with him on his restless travels and often swapped titles with the abbot of Reading; we hear of John’s interest in Pliny and in the history of England — not something we can ever imagine Richard bothering with. In an age when personal hygiene did not rank as one of the human priorities, John was positively oriental in his liking for baths and cleanliness; the records show that between 29 January and 17 June 1209 he took eight baths at different places on his itinerary and even possessed a dressing gown. Yet what most intrigues the historian of the early twenty-first century is John’s alleged atheism.
What’s not to like?