Was King John Really A Bad King Essay

146 Reviews Church, S. D., ed., King John: New Interpretations, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 1999; cloth; pp. xxvi, 361; 34 tables; 9 figures, 2 maps; R R P £45, US$75; ISBN 085115736X. This important collection of 15 essays on the hapless King John leaves the the abiding impression that John, for all his faults as politician, monarch, economist diplomat and husband, was a man embattled - under siege from all comers ofthe western European world including his own. This is no revelation, as S. D. Church's introduction makes clear. Nor is it the ultimate judgment of this collection, which attributes major personality and character defects to John, including the treachery long ago asserted by Bishop Stubbs. The collection claims to represent new interpretations, then, not on the basis ofthe question asked (was John a good or bad king?) but rather on the basis ofwhat a critical reading ofa variety ofsources might tell the m o d e m reader about this most complex of early thirteenth-century rulers. The collection begins and ends with essays on contemporary representations ofthe king. John Gillinghatn's exploration of'historians without hindsight', that is, those historians who wrote prior to the loss ofNormandy in 1204, demonstrates that even early on in John's reign, he was subject to criticism and distrust. Jim Bradbury's concluding piece compares John with his nemesis, Phillip Augustus,findingthat Phillip Augustus fared much better in contemporary opinion. The highlight of the collection is four essays on the English economy in the early thirteenth century. Here w e find just h o w important finance and economic policies were in contributing to political outcomes such as the loss of Normandy. In comparison to Richard I, V. D. Moss tells us that John's fiscal performance 'appears truly awful' (p. 116). John's incessant financial demands to fund his military campaigns and his policy of hoarding led to a reduction in money supply and higher prices throughout England. This period ofhigh inflation from 1199-1204, as J. L. Bolton points out, was followed by price stability, but at a higher level. This can be illustrated by Paul Latimer's study of wheat and oxen prices for the period. Overall, a recession lasting from 1204-14 was the result of poor economic management and increased military expenditure. An interesting comparison is teased out by Nick Barrat, who looks at the concomitant fiscal performance ofPhillip Augustus. Again, John does not acquit himselfwell. Three essays resist the notion of a 'Celtic fringe' to elucidate successfully the different political frameworks of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and John's encounters with each. As a separate kingdom, Scotland was already a 'distant political culture', according to A. A. M . Duncan, w h o asserts the consolidation of Reviews 147 Scottish autonomy in the early thirteenth century as a result ofJohn's minimal role in Scottish affairs. In Ireland, however, things were different. Sean Duffy describes the 'dubious legacy' (p. 245) lefttoHenry III by King John, whose military lordship ofIreland saw this 'unruly frontier society' (p. 239) demand more and more ofthe monarch's attention. In Wales, which was neither kingdom or lordship, conspiracy and split allegiances were the order ofthe day. For Ifor Rowlands, John's failure can be discerned in the stark contrast between the fairly strong position of the monarch in Wales in 1211, and the collapse of royal power there by 1216. Wales had been implicated so deeply in the affairs of England, that when John's power began to collapse in England, it could not help but fall apart in Wales, too. 'There was a stench of failure everywhere', concludes Rowlands glumly (p. 286). The situation in France is explored in detail, and, not surprisingly, we find that John was in some ways peripheral to the events that unfolded so disastrously around him. Jane Martindale reveals the fundamental political role still played by Eleanor ofAquitaine after 1199, while Nicholas Vincent shows that Isabella ofAngouleme also played a central role in Capetian advances and John's losses. Daniel Power argues that the disunited Norman aristocracy were variously happy to accommodate Phillip Augustus, indifferent to John, actively hostile to John or simply unable to...

Introduction – The Worst King Ever?


King John (1199-2016) was the son of Henry II.  For many years, historians thought that he was a bad king – 'the worst king ever to have sat on the throne'.

Here are three things he was accused of doing:

1.  He murdered his 16-year-old nephew Arthur in a drunken rage, and threw his body into the river.

This story was written by a monk-chronicler from Margam Abbey in Glamorgan.  Margam Abbey was given money by William de Braose, a great enemy of King John.

2.  He tortured and murdered Geoffrey, a priest who critised him.

This story was written by Roger of Wendover, a monk-chronicler who was writing after 1230 (John died in 1216).  It is known that John made Geoffrey Bishop of Ely, and that Geoffrey was still alive in 1225, years after John's death.

3.  He gave orders for his wife's lovers be strangled on her bed.

This was written by Matthew Paris, a monk-chronicler writing in 1250.

Do you believe these accusations?  In the Middle Ages, all the books were written by monks.  In 1208, King John had quarrelled with the Church, so most monks hated him.  Did the monks exaggerate his faults?  King John had a bad reputation ... but did he deserve it?

Many historians say that he did.  In 2009 medieval historian Nicholas Vincent told BBC Radio 4 that ‘John really was an absolute rotter through and through; the worst king in English history.’ 

Here are some of John's failures that are undeniable facts:

4.  He lost Normandy, which was conquered by Philip II, king of France.

5.  He lost his quarrel with the Church, and had to accept the Pope as his overlord.

6.  He lost his quarrel with the barons, and had to accept the Magna Carta.

7.  In 1216, Louis Capet, Philip II's son, invaded England.


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