The Magna Carta of 1215 (it is important to realise that there were many reissues of Magna Carta after the reign of John, each different to the one presented to John) is better understood as a set of flawed peace terms designed to heal the incipient civil war between John and an element of rebellious barons. Bad King John? If you subscribe to BBC History Magazine Print or Digital Editions then you can unlock 10 years’ worth of archived history material fully searchable by Topic, Location, Period and Person. These are powerful words, and it follows that if John ignored Magna Carta – which he did – then it must surely be the case that he was indeed malign. It does not require any particular military genius, however, to carry out a siege, only superior resources in manpower and artillery. Was King John bad? For most of his reign John was at war with the king of France, Philip Augustus, and he did not hesitate to invade Scotland, Wales and Ireland when he felt that the rulers of those lands had crossed him. John was the pathetic, childish, gibbering, thumb-sucking lion brilliantly voiced by … Please enter your number below. In the 20th century, some historians put forward a case for King John’s defence, arguing that his badness was largely a later invention, and that his misfortunes as a ruler were mostly down to ill luck. Indeed, this tendency has travelled so far that Magna Carta has, according to G Hindley, “acquired an almost mystic incantatory quality”. Sadly, John rarely managed to meet them…. His reluctance to commit to pitched battles was entirely conventional in an age when all leaders preferred to avoid them – John’s arch-enemy, Philip Augustus, King of France (r1180–1223) shied away from a setpiece battle at least as frequently as his protagonist. So fast was his retreat on this occasion that he was three leagues away before his troops realised he had abandoned them. If you subscribe to BBC History Magazine Print or Digital Editions then you can unlock 10 years’ worth of archived history material fully searchable by Topic, Location, Period and Person. You will shortly receive a receipt for your purchase via email. Some kings were extremely pious in their own devotions, such as the French king Louis IX. Those who waited on medieval monarchs did so in the hope of reward, so generous rulers were invariably praised. John was very active in hearing court cases, but his motivation was the money he could raise by imposing punitive fines. Anyone who has read their Shakespeare knows that medieval kings and nobles were forever murdering and maiming each other, either on the field of battle or more discreetly in darkened castle chambers. For the large part it seems that, 800 years later, opinion has broadly backed Matthew Paris, the 13th-century chronicler who alleged that John’s greatest achievement was, by dying, to make yet more foul the existing foulness of Hell: John was not only Bad; he was diabolical. You can unsubscribe at any time. Some people believed the signing of the great charter was a good thing but freemen and barons still disliked John.John was not a complete bad King, he had some good points as well. “He was a very bad man,” says the Anonymous, “more cruel than all others. This was a period when you could be blinded, castrated or even killed by the king’s officials for taking a deer in the royal forest. By entering your details, you are agreeing to HistoryExtra terms and conditions and privacy policy. Indeed, King Stephen was seen as weak for refusing to hang the son of Marshal when the latter broke the terms of an agreement with the king. He taxed the country far too much and despised many of his own people, especially the barons. Using youtube clip, pupils then decide whether the Disney film portrays John as good or bad. John did indeed overturn Magna Carta, but arguably any medieval monarch would have done the same. King John then was definitely, as the old history books would put it, not just a bad king but a very bad king. Others argued that John had acted with justification, noting that Arthur was taken while in armed rebellion against his uncle. Thanks! Ironically, the very fact that John faced rebellion in 1215 is itself indicative of the fact that his government had bite as well as bark. Instead, the anticipated tsunami of popular and learned articles collectively assert, inter alia, that John was at once cruel and coercive, treacherous and tyrannical, pusillanimous and pitiful, lazy and lackluster. Indeed, by the spring of 1215, it has been estimated that of England’s 197 baronies only 39 were in active opposition to the king, with perhaps the same number acting in his support. One might have hoped that the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta would have provided at least some oxygen to the argument that ‘Bad King John’ was perhaps not too ‘Bad’ after all; and – whisper it – that in some ways this traditionally most maligned of monarchs was perhaps really rather Good. This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine, Save a huge 50% off a subscription to your favourite history magazine. And men who came across him, When walking in the town, Gave him a supercilious stare, Or passed with noses in the air --And bad King John stood dumbly there, Blushing beneath his crown. Popular understanding of Magna Carta has significantly stunted debate on the nature and achievement of John. You're now subscribed to our newsletter. John, John, bad King John Shamed the throne that he sat on; Not a scruple, not a straw, Cared this monarch for the law; Promises he daily broke; None could trust a word he spoke; So the Barons brought a Deed; Down to rushy Runnymede, Magna Carta was it hight, Charter of the People’s Right, Framed and fashioned to correct Further contextual analysis also diminishes the charge that John was a perverted purveyor of acts of cruelty. At Rochester in 1215 he famously forced the surrender of the mighty castle by undermining and partially collapsing its great tower. Good kings took this responsibility very seriously. Medieval monarchs were expected to be fierce, and John fulfilled those expectations. After his death in 1307 Edward I was praised for the quality of his justice, and in his own letters the same king can be seen exhorting his officials to act justly. John’s alleged lasciviousness and acts of cruelty have been presented as further character traits that antagonised the barons and thus prevented him from delivering strong kingship. This apparently incontestable evidence shows John to have been possessed of vigour and vim, constantly on the move enforcing Angevin aspirations. Nor was King Harold, but he at least engaged his enemies when they landed on the shores of England and went down fighting alongside his men. Maintaining yourself in government involves a simple trick – make sure more people want you to remain in power than want you out. Similarly, it is not proven that John starved Matilda de Braose and her son to death in Corfe Castle, but if he did so it was because of her refusal to offer her sons as hostages in order to trim the rebellious behaviour of their father. Please enter your number below. Thank you for subscribing to HistoryExtra, you now have unlimited access. Cruelty and cowardice were two of John’s most notable faults, but he had plenty of others besides. He was certainly not a milksop like Henry VI or Richard II, averse to armed conflict. Arthur’s fate was made famous by Shakespeare, who has him threatened with blinding but killed by accident, falling from his prison window as he tries to escape. Like William I, King John is one of the more controversial monarchs of Medieval England and is most associated with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Contemporaries also regarded him as treacherous, remembering in particular his attempt to seize the throne for himself while his brother Richard was in captivity. Dysentery was his one and only enemy! The official website for BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and BBC World Histories Magazine, Save 50% on a BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed subscription, Was 'Bad King John', as he has been famously nicknamed, really as 'bad' as history has made him out to be? King John was the reigning king from 1189-1199. So successful was this rehabilitation that, in the popular imagination, John is now often seen as being the victim of a posthumous smear campaign, a king no worse than most others – misreported and misunderstood. His plan to relieve the siege of Chateau-Gaillard in 1203 by arranging a simultaneous assault from land and amphibious forces has been described as “a masterpiece of ingenuity”by K Norgate. John was also an effective strategist. This was the cause of his death which took place at Newark. Medieval kings were expected to be pious, and they could demonstrate this in a variety of ways — by distributing alms to the poor, for example, or building a new church. You're now subscribed to our newsletter. The author of The History of William Marshal was also a layman, and repeatedly blames the disasters of John’s reign on the king’s own personality. Yet when their friends and families in Anjou and Brittany continued to fight against him, John rounded up 22 of these knightly captives and sent them to Corfe Castle in Dorset, where they were starved to death. And sometimes no one spoke to him For days and days and days. In an age when personal bravery mattered, John repeatedly showed his back to the enemy. You will shortly receive a receipt for your purchase via email. King John was not a good man --He had his little ways. Historians quite rightly set out to challenge legends and dispel myths, but in this case the myth is a modern one. Small wonder that when he died in 1216, some chroniclers imagined him suffering the torments of hell. Invoked by those in 17th-century England who sought to thwart the allegedly despotic tendencies of Charles I, and latterly employed by the American Revolutionaries in their making of the United States Bill of Rights in 1789, Magna Carta has become totemic of the liberties by which western societies identify themselves. And men who came across him, When walking in the town, Gave him a supercilious stare, Or passed with noses in the air – And bad King John stood dumbly there, Blushing beneath his crown. When the king of France invaded Normandy in 1203, John failed to confront him and fled to England, an act of desertion that led directly to the duchy’s loss. King John was not a good man, He had his little ways. King John is one of the most well-known figures in history because he signed Magna Carta. Here, writing for History Extra, author Graham E Seel considers John's governance, and asks whether it is time to change our opinions of him. Most kings were capable of behaving badly from time to time. 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” In fact, they are better understood as tight-knuckled, low browed feudal reactionaries kicking against John’s increasingly efficacious administration. We should not mistake John’s military caution for cowardice. Those who go in search of the real John therefore tend to suppose that he must have been unfairly maligned, and suspect that in reality he was not nearly as bad as legend maintains. Bad/Good/Important? Yet, I argue, he was not “less than successful”. For most of his life, John remained loyal to his father when all his brothers … Yet hostage taking was part-and-parcel of medieval government, and as such it follows that they sometimes paid the ultimate price. And men who came across him, When walking in the town, Gave him a supercilious stare, Or passed with noses in the air— And bad King John stood dumbly there, Blushing beneath his crown. When John’s son Henry III cut back on such expenditure to save up for his crusade, he was criticised for departing from the example of his father. And sometimes no one spoke to him For days and days and days. You have successfully linked your account! Pupils then use cards to identify evidence that John was good and bad. John, byname John Lackland, French Jean sans Terre, (born c. 1166—died October 18/19, 1216, Newark, Nottinghamshire, England), king of England from 1199 to 1216. My main reason for saying this is that it seems that his subjects never really supported him. King John was not a good man— He had his little ways. King John was born in 1167 and died in 1216. The reality is that John was not as bad as legend made out – he was worse. As a starter, pupils draw a spider diagram listing the qualities they think a good king has. His father, Henry II of England, had inherited significant territories along the Atlantic seaboard – Anjou, Normandy and England – and expanded his empire by conquering Brittany. The evidence does not permit John to be charged definitively with killing his nephew, Arthur, but the king nevertheless had arguably legitimate reasons to undertake such an act since Arthur (a 16-year-old boy) had put himself at the head of a rebellion sponsored by Philip Augustus. This clearly shocked every other noble family in England, but did not deter the king from threatening to mete out similar treatment to others: in 1215 and 1216 he induced some of the Magna Carta rebels to surrender by threatening to starve their captive companions. Graham Seel is head of history at St Paul’s School in London. He is the author of King John: An Underrated King (Anthem Press, 2012). The official website for BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and BBC World Histories Magazine, Save 50% on a BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed subscription. He lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. KING JOHN IS NO MORE! When the king captured his nephew in 1202, he also took prisoner hundreds of other knights, who expected to be held in honourable confinement. He was a good King because he was very hardworking! Magna Carta, we are told, stands for the rule of law. Whenever he could he told lies rather than the truth… He was brim-full of evil qualities.”. The Sins of the Sons. King John was the reigning king from 1189-1199. The Barnwell annalist, Walter Of Coventry, concluded that John “was indeed a great prince but less than successful [and that]…he met with both kinds of luck”. As for Matilda Fitzwalter of Diss, she may have been propositioned by King John but at least she was not poisoned by him. However, the Magna Carta that John chose to ignore did not purport to be a constitutional document adumbrating and guaranteeing liberties to all English people. King John - Good or Bad? Yet nearly all medieval kings took mistresses. John's powerful mother Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, had a tenuous claim to Toulouse and Auvergne in southern France, and was the former wife of Louis VII of France. Another author, known as the Anonymous of Béthune, is also likely to have been a layman, since his chronicle dwells upon the concerns of a lay audience, and was written for an aristocratic patron, Robert of Béthune. King John is famously linked with the Barons War and the subsequent signing of Magna Carta. Thus, we see him, for example, razing the walls and castle of Le Mans in 1200, assaulting the forces besieging Mirebeau in 1202 (having covered a distance of 80 miles in 48 hours), marching upon Montauban in 1206 and pressing the siege of Rochester castle in 1215 – an event that the leading authority of castles and castle warfare in this period considers was “the greatest operation in England up to that time” (RA Brown). This is a typical description of King John from Newnes Pictorial Knowledge – an old children's encyclopaedia written in the 1930s. John’s brother Richard the Lionheart had reportedly starved a man to death, but this appears to have been an isolated incident. 1 King John. Instead, John prosecuted siege warfare with the sort of energy, determination and success that is usually only spoken of in reference to Henry II and Richard I. King John is often referred to as a bad king these days and there is a lot of evidence both modern and written by sources in King John’s time, to give reason for that name. I mean, come on, he’s “Bad” King John, right? John’s response in similar circumstances was to run away. Here’s why…. Moreover, even though chronicle sources allege that the whole of the baronage was united against John, this was clearly not the case – not least because there would have been no possibility of civil war if there had not been two sides, each with the wherewithal to resist the other. John's reign has been viewed in very different ways by historians. King John - Good or Bad? Bad he was, and bad should John remain. On several occasions he prosecuted successful sieges. “No man may ever trust him,” sang the troubadour Bertran de Born, “for his heart is soft and cowardly.”. Whether by summoning great councils or later parliaments, successful medieval rulers took steps to consult their more important subjects, noting their views, winning them round and channelling their ambitions. John was not as bad as legend made out – he was worse Those who go in search of the real John therefore tend to suppose that he must have been unfairly maligned, and suspect that in reality he was not nearly as bad as legend maintains. “He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement,” wrote the author of the 13th-century History of William Marshal, “that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty.”. To begin with, John was exceptionally cruel. Nor is it true that John antagonized elements of the baronage because he was lacking in martial prowess, or that the king was ‘Softsword’, as the chroniclers assert. His reign was not the most righteous reign, as many citizens thought that he was a disbeliever, then other people thought he was a wasted more money than ever before. The Magna Carta of 1215 is not the Magna Carta of popular imagination. This was a risky business. Some claim that he was a very poor king who made many mistakes and left the country very weak. Listen to Professor Nicholas Vincent discuss the life and reign of the infamous 13th-century monarch King John: But Arthur was only the most famous of John’s victims. King John's Christmas. One of the few positive statements made about King John was that there was always plenty to eat and drink in his hall, and that he distributed robes to his men on a regular basis. Nobles were killed in great numbers in Anglo-Saxon England and again in the later Middle Ages, but between 1076 and 1306 not one English earl was executed. They also complained that he forced himself on the wives and daughters of his barons. King John was not a good man, And no good friends had he. Discuss with reference to other Angevin kings. King John (24 December 1166 – 19 October 1216) was the son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine.He was King of England from 6 April 1199, until his death. The real test for a military commander comes when the odds are less than certain. He was a good King because he ensured that even common people got the same respect as others! John certainly persecuted the church with a particular fury after his row with the pope over the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury. The king was first inserted into the Robin Hood story in the 16th century, but his inclusion has no historical basis whatsoever. John, by contrast, killed people in this way en masse, and on more than one occasion. Bad kings like John were always accused of taking ‘evil counsel’, which meant relying on a clique of advisors. Make a list of all the words which describe what kind of person John was. He has recently released ‘King John’, an app version of the book available on iPad. What of John’s father, Henry II who, having taken 22 hostages from the Welsh in 1165, ordered that the males among them – some of them sons of princes – be blinded and castrated, and that the females should have their noses and ears cut off? “In his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins. He was considered a weak king who was managed by others like the barons and the Pope. I think that John must have been a bad king. You have successfully linked your account! If John is guilty of cruelty, then what of Richard I in 1191 when, following a dispute about the terms upon which Acre had been surrendered, he ordered the killing of 2,700 Muslim prisoners? King John is often referred to as a bad king these days and there is a lot of evidence both modern and written by sources in King John’s time. Medieval kings were expected to be able to protect and defend their subjects from attack and to lead from the front. Modern attempts to rehabilitate him require us to ignore this chorus of disapproval from his contemporaries as well as his own nefarious acts. During his reign he had victories against the Welsh and the Scots. There seems to be a problem, please try again. Thanks! Indeed, William the Conqueror’s loyalty to his wife, Matilda, was the subject of perplexed comment. Famously, he arranged the ‘disappearance’ of his nephew and rival, Arthur of Brittany, who contested the king’s claim to his inheritance until John captured him in 1202. On top of all this there was the generally extortionate nature of his regime, with huge taxes and arbitrary fines, resulting in what is reckoned to have been the greatest level of financial exploitation in England since the Norman conquest. Put pen to parchment during the battle of Agincourt in 1415 ordered the killing of thousand! 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