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Penguin Monarchs: King John.

September 27, 2021
Voetica Poetry Spoken

King John was not a good man,

He had his ‘little ways’…

And sometimes no-one spoke to him

For days, and days and days…

I suppose any serious historian (and Nicholas Vincent is certainly that) feels obligated to demonstrate that their subject differs from widely circulated cartoonish stereotypes. Vincent subtitles his book “An Evil King?”, an interrogative epithet which invites the possibility of some sympathetic revision.

Well, sympathetic revision is dangled in front of the reader and then pretty much withdrawn in this book. The most horrible rumours about John were current in his lifetime and nobody seem to have appeared as much of a witness to the defense. While his many of his contemporaries, and indeed his immediate family, have various atrocities to account for, they at least had some sort of military reputation which in those brutal times counted for almost everything. John on the other hand had a reputation for cowardice at critical battlefield junctures.

Like many medieval historians, Vincent is keen to downplay the Magna Carta. He points out that it was rescinded by Papal edict almost immediately and that none of those involved with its drafting appear to have regarded it as more than a medium term tactic in an ongoing conflict, Yet the value of the charter was its re-issue. It gained a citational strength over centuries and as its citation index swelled, so did it its ability to be imagined as a reliquary, symbolic of any binding tradition of “rule of law”. And the more its provisions were violated the more they had to be requoted. Perhaps Tony Hancock was not so far off the mark when he exclaimed “Magna Carta – did she die in vain?!”

By the end of this short book, the question mark seems to have fallen off the epithet. Vincent concedes that the subject of his book was cruel, treacherous, greedy, lecherous, cowardly, selfish, and ruinous on an international scale. If there’s some rarefied definition of “evil” which somehow escapes this catalogue of horror, then we’re in need of some really complex theology. My only problem with Vincent’s book is that he appears to have set himself the task of accommodating a counter-melody of sympathetic reappraisal while being unable to hum such a counter melody for even a few bars at a time.

He tortured prisoners. He murdered hostages. He may have personally killed his nephew Arthur. Nobody was safe. And there’s a word for someone who abuses his power to have violent sex with anyone he wishes and the word is rapist.

At the end of the day, John appears to have been so destructively repulsive that a critical mass of movers and shakers in England at the beginning of the thirteenth-century decided they’d rather be ruled by Louis of France. They would rather give up England itself. That’s a pretty devastating vote of no confidence.

Of course John was unlucky and of course other medieval rulers were hideous. But the excuse that “he had a good run for a while” sounds like the plea of a desperate poker player who has just gambled away the family inheritance.

The two good things about King John involve his very horribleness and uselessness. Losing the Angevin Empire was the saving of France and England also. These vast sprawling territories could only be managed by a court that spent most of its time somewhere between Normandy and Gascony. “England” stood to wither on a vine of neglect if Plantagenet ambitions were to be ever truly satisfied. And of course the defeat of John at the hands of Philip Augustus gave much of France some respite from being repeatedly trampled on by competing armies.

And the example of John was important. His sheer awfulness helped encourage the slow but sure development of the idea that rulers need to function within some structure of agreed law. A less repulsive ruler than John could never have accelerated this critical concept.

I have thoughts about other books in this series:

Richard II:

Henry V:

Henry VI:

Edward IV:

Richard III:

Henry VIII:

Edward VI:

Queen Mary:

Elizabeth I:

James I and VI:

Penguin Monarchs: James I and VI

Charles I:

Oliver Cromwell:

Charles II:

James II and VII:

William and Mary:

George III:

George IV:


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