Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Defense of King John

by Christy English


Modern Vision of King John


King John gets a bad rap.

I know he is not popular even now. He has been portrayed in film, literature and history as an egomaniac who was also a bad king. Seen even during his lifetime as the least of all his brothers, he damaged the monarchy so badly that to this day, no king has been named John since.

I beg to differ.

Not on every point, of course. Some of the things that John is famous for really did happen. The barons really did force him to sign the Magna Carta, which, from the perspective of history and the development of law in England,  was a good thing. So that point alone is not enough to condemn him.

John is known as a manipulative turncoat, the prince who was loyal to his father, Henry II, until Henry was on his death bed. As his father lay dying, when the balance of power had swung irrevocably in favor of his older brother, Richard, John abandoned the king and fled to his brother's camp.

Richard, a man who valued loyalty above all else, detested his brother for what he considered to be an act of cowardice of the worst kind. But Eleanor, locked away as she was in Winchester Castle at the time, no doubt understood her youngest son and his motivations very well.  A dead king is no good to anybody, not even a king who ruled as long or as well as Henry II.


John is looked on as the man who lost the vast empire his parents had built, losing Normandy and Anjou to Philippe Auguste of France in 1204. In all fairness, no man but Henry II could have held those lands against a French monarch as powerful and as devious as Philippe Auguste, save perhaps for Richard I, who was a brilliant general and warrior, if not a brilliant king.

To blame John for the loss of those lands was easy, but after his mother's death in 1204, the last of his old allies fell away and he was left alone, cleaning up the mess his illustrious brothers had left him.

Richard the Lionheart, as he is known today, was an amazing man. I won't spend a lot of time dwelling on his lovely qualities here but will save that for next month's entry, Richard: The Troubadour King. Suffice it to say that he was a man of honor, and honor costs money.

When Richard was taken prisoner by his fellow "brother king" Leopold of Austria, who turned him over at once to the Holy Roman Emperor, Richard was locked away. The only thing that bought his freedom was an immense amount of money, raised by Eleanor of Aquitaine from the backs of the English barons, and of course, their peasants.

After years of war and after this ransom was raised, the English treasury was bankrupted. None of this was John's fault, though he gets the blame for all that came after.

As soon as he lost the lands in France to Philippe Auguste, John began to beef up the English navy. He knew, as every king has known after him, that if he could command the seas, he could keep invaders out of England. This proved true time and time again, and John was the first man to see it.

So I would like to raise a glass of mead to John, and to his memory. He was not all things to all people, but he served England as its first true monarch since before the Norman invasion. He was far from perfect, but then, aren't we all?

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Please visit Christy English on her blog for more about her obsession with the early Plantagenets and her more recent romps into a very fictional Regency England.

4 comments:

  1. Not even criminals or bad rulers are pure evil, full time, as John has been portrayed over the centuries. He must have felt justified in some of his actions, probably the most notorious of his actions. He was forced to act in ways that he might not have chosen in a so-called perfect world. The economy or the nation's interests and enemies don't reset at the end of the previous rule. I'm not attempting to excuse or rewrite the horrible, immoral things John did, but you're right--we should consider the good results and his motivation if we want to learn about the whole man rather than the Hollywood-type super-villain cartoon.

    In my WIP about real people and events, I have two main villains. One is a very rounded bad guy who loved his family and was loved in return, and did good and noble things--but his obsession with harsh and elitist religion still plays out 350 years later. The other villain is just evil, and I haven't attempted to redeem him even a little bit.

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  2. This is an interesting time as writers try to see the hero and villain kings as people. I only know John from Shakespeare's play where he kills his nephew. and the great A.A, Milne poem...

    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;
    And round about December
    the cards upon his shelf
    Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer
    And fortune in the coming year,
    Were never from his near and dear
    But only from himself...

    Quoted from memory!

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  3. King John has never been unpopular with me, I've always thought that it wasn't until he came along that England became a country in it's own right; up 'til his time it was considered as just an offshoot of France and/or Normandy by his predecessors and another source of income from the oppressed.

    As for his brother Richard I've always regarded him as the worst king that England ever had, he bled us dry.

    History has been most unkind to him and Richard III

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  4. I enjoy looking at things from other points of view and that includes people in history. Thanks for showing some good arguments for John.

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