History Essays – King John
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Was King John bad? Discuss with reference to other Angevin kings.
“In his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins. He united into one mass of wickedness their insolence, their selfishness, their unbridled lust, their cruelty and tyranny, their shamelessness, their superstition, their cynical indifference to honor or truth”
History has judged King John harshly. The last in the long line of the Angevin monarchs and seen to have lost great tracts of land and a great deal of monarchic power during his reign, his story, on the surface, is one of failure. By 1205, six years into his reign, only a fragment of the vast Angevin empire acquired by Henry II remained, John was embroiled in quarreling with the Pope over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was also forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, which restated the rights of the church, the barons and all in the land and left him a broken ruler. But is this fair? Despite being branded a ‘man of almost superhuman wickedness ’ in the early twentieth century, can he simply be described as ‘bad,’ or is this a simplistic and historically naïve statement?
Of course, King John, it could be said, was somewhat hampered in historical terms by the pressures put on him by his royal lineage. His father King Henry II had been one of England’s greatest medieval kings. And, despite his ferociously violent conquests and somewhat limited time spent in Britain, Richard the Lionheart was perceived as a noble monarch, and was a significantly stronger and more forceful ruler than his brother John who preceded him on the throne. Despite the fact his career seemed to be lavished more on his crusades and less on England itself, Richard was ‘revered as one of the great warrior kings of England ’ – a position John was always going to have trouble following, especially due to the financial pressures Richards crusades had put upon the countries wealth.
Coupled with this, compared with Richards ‘noble, Christian spirit,’ John had already been mired in moral scandal and was perhaps not perceived as entirely trustworthy, which may well have encouraged the negative aura around him. Indeed, before his ascension, John had already acquired a reputation for treachery, having conspired sometimes with and sometimes against his elder brothers, Henry, Geoffrey and Richard and his rule over Ireland had ended acrimoniously after only eight months, after the nations people grew to despise him. As well as this, King John’s regal rule was seen as illegitimate by a sizeable proportion of the noble population who refused to accept his reign, and regarded his young nephew Arthur of Brittany as Richard the Lionhearts rightful heir.
However, perhaps John’s biggest failing came about as a result of what could be seen as good practice in the painstaking care he took in his legal and administrative duties. Indeed, one historian claimed that ‘only the old king himself [i.e. Henry II] is comparable to the later John in his powers of organisation and the ability, invaluable in a ruler, to bend his energy to points of administrative detail ’ and it was perhaps this commendable amount of time and effort he put into the common law and judicial processes that actually seemed to hold him back somewhat. Indeed, despite the fact that during Johns reign, he and his brilliant administrators began to put the country in order preserving charter rolls, patent rolls and close rolls and prompting one historian to remark that ‘1199 is a real turning point in English history. The materials available to the historian suddenly became more numerous and exact,’ it cannot be denied that John certainly upset his people.
Indeed, many disagreed with his style of ‘hands-on’ government and his seemingly never-ending administrative work he took on during his enforced exile in England after the loss of Normandy, made his rule seem more personnel and tyrannical that those of his freewheeling and vibrant predecessors. ‘His remorseless tours of the country, his vigorous attention to the smallest points of detail resulted in efficiency but a general feeling of oppression .’True, his powers of organisation and respect for the common law are seen, in terms of contemporary history, to be far better than his brother and perhaps equal to his father, but this very formal, precise form of governing was rejected by his people who clearly preferred a courageous brave king who would not bother them with his rule – rather they preferred a traditional brash military monarch, like his brother Richard.
However, having said all this, it would not be fair to totally underestimate Johns military prowess, so understated in traditional historical textbooks, and it has been noted that even in affairs of the sword he was capable in showing real bravado, despite his rather cruel nickname of ‘softsword’. For one thing, he continued the good work that Richard had undertaken in the development of the English navy and was quick to act when the loss of the northern continental fiefs ensured that the channel once again became an open frontier . One historian has commented that ‘It is surprising that a nation so proud of its naval history has not honoured King John more .’ Indeed, it is also true that his well publicised coup in Mirebeau ensured that he also showed an undeniable boldness in rescuing his mother and capturing many of his most powerful enemies.
However, as I have previously suggested, John’s real strengths certainly lay in his day-to-day rule of the country rather than his ‘heroic exploits.’ Almost uncharacteristically of the Angevin bloodline, other than this Mirebeau incident, he was not a particularly bold monarch, despite his occasional successes. Indeed, when besieging rebellious barons during his reign, he took isolated castles and harried their defenses, but was hesitant in attacking the core of their power in London. He was also never totally without fear of treachery amongst his own troops by reputation, and despite his quick action, would it not be true to say he was responsible for losing out on the fiefs of the Angevins in the first place?
However, I certainly do not believe that this was enough to warrant his branding as a ‘bad’ king. Despite the historical glory surrounding his brother Richard, I feel closer examination displays the problems that had set in before John had even taken to the throne. For a start ‘Richard had left him an empty treasury, a people wakening to disenchantment, and a difficult and costly foreign policy ’ and while elements of John’s alleged acts of tyranny have echoed down the years as his problems alone – it has been suggested that his perceived failings are more to do with the Angevin lineage and a rot that had set in because of their ways of government, one which John, in the face of a changing world, was forced to take on however well he had ruled.
One such example of this was the famous signing of the Magna Carta, a charter that was effectively seen as a means to stop John’s so-called tyranny. It is said it was partly instigated due to the way he cracked down on finances, taxing revenues, the Jews, conducting investigations into the royal forests and feudal tenures, and mercilessly exploiting his privileges, but was this not a reaction to Britain’s overall financial plight? And in essence, was the Magna Carta not a treaty against the whole lineage of the Angevin line and their basic feudal ideas and policies? ‘Magna Carta was a judgement, a grand inquest upon the whole past of Angevin kingship!”
Indeed, one criticism leveled against John’s tyranny was his practice of demanding hostages from his barons as guarantors of their loyalty – but was this not ‘a normal disciplinary method of government amongst his predecessors? ’ And was not his custom of forcing barons into debt, so as to keep them from becoming too powerful, by high relief tax not a similar policy too one employed by his successful rival, Philip of Augustus ? It seems to me that John had become king of a neglected state and was therefore castigated through certain failings of his brother who had neglected England in pursuit of his brave, yet questionable crusades and his father who despite his brilliant rule, had implemented a feudal system that could not endure without the very strongest of rulers implementing it. New methods of raising revenue were needed and John was obliged to accept the problems that came with that task.
So in answer to the question, I think it is safe to say that John cannot be described simply as a ‘bad’ king, despite his significant failings. Indeed, he did use his powers in a rather intrusive way, and it cannot be denied that his bravado and royal charisma was not up to that of his predecessors. Coupled with that, he was not decisive enough against tyranny, and was always open to criticism, primarily because of the way he had himself succeeded to the throne. However, the situation in which he had to operate was certainly difficult. Richard had ensured that money was short and the great land masses that had been won in previous generations were very much under threat. Coupled with this, the world was changing away from the Angevin feudal system and his style of government could not cope against the rebellious nature of ‘the new breed of barons.’ His organizational skills and common law knowledge could not be denied and it has been said that they went close to providing him with a way out of Britain’s problems – It didn’t however, leaving me to suggest that ‘Bad King John’ then, was a ruler, who in no way was Britain’s worst ever king, but ruled at an unlucky time.
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