King John by Stephen Church

King John: And the Road to Magna Carta by Stephen Church (Basic Books, 2015), 300 pages.

KJ Church

This book forms a kind of bookend with a book I wrote about earlier this year, The Greatest Knight. One of the five (or four: depends on how you count them) kings that William the Marshall served was King John. Church’s book depends a lot on the newly recovered manuscript of the life of William Marshall for details that remain mere notices in the records of the time. For those who are interested, I wrote about that book here:

Church’s subtitle oddly includes the full colon and the conjunction…what was wrong with “King John and the Road to Magna Carta” or “King John: The Road to Magna Carta”? Who edited this? The subtitle refers to the one thing that most people know King John for: in the spring of 1215, his nobles forced King John, while passing through a field west of Windsor Castle called Runnymede, to agree to limitations on the powers granted him by God over the lands of and persons dwelling in England. This “Great Charter” (never “THE Magna Carta”) set a lot of precedents, including the basis for trail before a jury of peers and rulers needing the consent of the governed to enforce their will.

This year, 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of that event, and there was nothing but reverential silence on the tour bus this June when we passed near Runnymede on our way from Windsor to Stonehenge. It was a bit weird for me because I remember the 750th anniversary so well…it was a big deal in schools, even in the USA. The 800th seemed subdued to me, but so did the 150th anniversary events of the US Civil War compared to the Centennial from 1960-1965. It might be that the rounder numbers are more important, but maybe things in the schools are as big as ever. I’m not sure, because I recall the Sunday newspaper comic strip called “At the Crossroads” that detailed, week by week, the events of the US Civil War exactly 100 years after they occurred. Now, that’s the way to teach history! Some people don’t believe me, but you can check Anyway, I’ll know for sure if the big party for 1066 in 2066 (the 1000th year!) is bigger than the events of 1966.

I knew King John mainly as “John Lackland” (always contrasted with his saintly older brother, “Richard the Lionhearted”), but I thought the “lacking land” title came late in his reign, after King John had managed to fumble away the family lands in Normandy and other places in northwestern France. But no, as Church reveals, the title actually came to poor John very early in life, while still a toddler. Old King Henry II, John’s father, wanted to make sure that his lands were divided according to his wishes while he still lived, rather than relying on his heirs and the Church to make the decisions (page 13). Henry had good reason to worry about the French claiming a piece of the pie: his wife, the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, had formerly been the wife of King Louis VII of France, although they had no children (there is an indispensable genealogy on pages xiv and xv followed by some nice maps—except the shading used is hard to decipher). But in the 1169 division of lands among Henry II’s children, the two-year-old John was ignored, mainly because he had four older brothers and not all toddlers lived to adulthood in those days.

Church’s traces much of John’s suspicion, peevishness, cruelty, vengeance-seeking, and downright nastiness to John’s insecurities as the youngest of the family. He’s probably right.

With the rules of succession in place today, John would not even have become rightful king in 1199 on the death of his brother Richard. The crown could easily have gone to Arthur of Brittany, son of his older brother Geoffrey, who died in 1186 on the tournament field while jousting. But Arthur was almost as ham-handed in the pursuit of power as John, and once John had the teenaged Arthur in his grasp it is little wonder the teen’s body turned up floating in a river (page 111). This was not John’s usual style: he normally held people who annoyed him in one of his many castles and slowed starved them to death, often at Corfe Castle in Dorset. (When we toured the ruins of Corfe Castle—it had become a hated symbol of royal oppression—in June of 2015, the litany of nobles starved there was one of the highlights of the tour information.)

Church spends a lot of time detailing a year-by-year accounting of John’s reign, tracing every misstep and miscalculation as John manages to lose almost everything to the three forces confounding his rule: his exasperated nobles, Pope Innocent III, and the King Philip Augustus of France. One of the drawbacks of Church’s level of detail is that these three forces, all of which were interrelated in various ways, get bogged down and blurred in the amount of detail presented, especially in the middle of the book. My eyes started to glaze over at the machinations of John regarding Robert fitz Walter over Baynard Castle or Stephen Langton, the on-and-off Archbishop of Canterbury. But hang in there: the destination is worth the journey.

It was John’s major misfortune to be opposed in his plans to retain and expand his “empire” by a strong king of France, a powerful and energetic pope, and nobles who were relied on more and more to supply the money for John to fight back. The noble families blamed John for passively giving up their lands in France, and the revenues they provided, and then demanding funds to launch various expeditions to gain them back. John also had a reputation for capriciously—or at least with minor provocation—transferring castles and estates from one person to another as they rose and fell in John’s favor. To be safe, many of the nobles stayed in Wales or Ireland and sent money to John only when they absolutely had to. In fact, John collected and hoarded so much silver coin, the only “legal” currency, that nobles could not easily fulfill John’s demands for more and more (pages 133-134).

There is room to say a few words about Pope Innocent III and John. The bishops elected Stephen Langton, an Englishman who studied in France, as Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important ecclesiastical post in England (page 139). They didn’t ask John first, which was bad enough, but the French connection made John eager to stop the posting. This meant tangling with the pope, who put England under interdict (page 155: no services, not even church bells!) and excommunicated John. Then John “took the cross” for a proposed crusade and, on paper at least, gave all of England to the church (page 195). Now John became the pope’s man, and Pope Innocent III got furious at Langton for backing the nobles and their Magna Carta against his buddy King John.

Of course, John, now with his friend the pope firmly behind him, starts to hunt down the nobles who made him put his name to the Magna Carta. This led to the famous fall of Rochester Castle to John’s forces (page 232). The 2011 movie Ironclad ( ) has a nice presentation of John’s ruthless attitude, but is pretty worthless as history. The nobles reacted by inviting (!) Philip Augustus to have his son Louis invade England to overthrow John, surely a sign of how far John had fallen (page 233).

The best that Church can say about King John is that during his reign, very good records began to be kept that are a boon to modern historians (page 5). But this is a little like saying that ever since my brother-in-law screwed me over that borrowed money, I started keeping really good records that help me with my taxes.

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

By Thomas Asbridge (Harper Collins, 2014) 444 pages

TGK Asbirdge

I have really weird interests in certain historical periods and the geography they involve. The cutoffs at the ends are usually precise: one starts with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Another stretches from the end of Livy’s narrative in 293 BCE to the start of the war with Hannibal and so spans the whole missing Second Decade of Livy. And then there’s this one that starts with the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE and peters out sometime around 1453 with the end of the Hundred Years War (and the end of the Byzantine Empire). William Marshal, who probably lived from 1147 to 1219 (see the genealogy and family tree on page 389 and the other information on pages 162-3), has a career that falls right into the sweet spot of my interest.

Marshal served four and a half English kings: Henry II, Henry the Young King (who never ruled on his own and therefore I count as a half-king), Richard the Lionheart, John (who was so bad as a ruler that no one ever used his throne name again), and Henry III. So the claim that Marshal was the “greatest knight” is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, including the claim that Marshal was the only knight ever to unhorse the crusading king Richard the Lionheart with a lance. And Marshal was treated quite shabbily by some of these kings, like the time that five-year-old William Marshal was held as a hostage by King Stephen, a monarch that is often overlooked in the rush to get from the family of the Conqueror to the Angevins proper. Asbridge prefers the “Angevin” designation to the common “Plantagenet” name I learned mainly through Thomas Costain’s four-book series, but I never like the Plantagenet thing anyway. But back to Marshal: the story goes that as a hostage, young Marshal treated the threats of hanging and being catapulted to death as games to play with his captors and so won over the stern King Stephen with his childish innocence.

How could we possibly know such a detail from the life of William Marshal? I mean, the monks wrote about the great events of the day, and the kings had the royal scribes or whatever to record their daily activities. But of the common people, or even the knights and nobles, we know little, especially before the invention of the printing press (another of those 1400 watershed events). For William Marshal’s life, we owe the good eyes of a French scholar named Paul Meyer. In early 1861, as detailed in the book’s preface, he saw an intriguing manuscript at Sotheby’s auction house in London. It was part of the Savile collection, a group of rare manuscripts put together in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

Meyer became a great scholar (his evidence cleared Alfred Dreyfus of espionage charges in 1898), but in 1861 he was only twenty-one and unable to do anything but examine the book before the auction. And there, inside the brown leather, was an account in verse of (as Meyer recorded in his notebook) “an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.” Once Meyer became a respected scholar, he tried to find the intriguing manuscript, but it had disappeared into an enormous collection of 60,000 manuscripts (!) held by Sir Thomas Phillipps, and miscataloged to boot. Not until 1881 was Meyer able to read the story of Sir William Marshal, knight, earl, raider, tournament winner, pilgrim, landholder, early Irish settler, and friend of kings, all set out in 19,215 lines of medieval French verse.

I found the account that Asbridge presents of medieval times, especially the tournament circuit in France in the 1100s, and the tension between the conquered English and their Norman (French) overlords, absolutely fascinating. England is not the England of Robin Hood, but the England Richard treats like a source of money and goods to accomplish his real goals of conquest, a place where he spent only a few months of his entire reign. Most of the drama of Marshal’s life plays out on the tournament circuit of Norman France, where the practice was still legal. Even here, the noble combatants often used the jousts and contests as an excuse to get all rowdy and terrorize the countryside (page 62 and 65 has nice details on this).

I learned a lot more about medieval tournaments and combat than I ever knew from this book. I also learned the difference between the Occitan “Langue d’Oc” (where “yes” is “oc”) and French “Langue D’Oeuil” (where “yes” is “oeuil” or the modern “oui”)(page 79). Oddly, this difference plays a role in the Joan of Arc book from last week: when the inquisitor asks with an Occitan accent what language Joan’s voices speak to her in, Joan retorts that “they speak better French than you do.” Joan rocks, I think.

One of the claims of the book is that men like William Marshal helped to usher in the fall of the noble-knight-vassal-peasant system. Asbridge’s argument is persuasive, and includes the observation that the rise of a more stable, moneyed economy meant that knights could just pay their way out of that nasty-dangerous warfare thing and sit home in the castle while contributing to the ruler’s war chest or supplying a bunch of paid mercenary volunteers to do their dirty work. Sturdy household knights became rich nobles, and much of this evolution took place during Marshal’s lifetime.

The defining moment of King John’s reign is, of course, the Magna Carta forced on him by his nobles to limit the whims of majesty. But I never realized how complex the process and document were: the clauses cited on pages 332 and 333 make readers almost feel sorry for poor King John.  But King John wasted no time trying to destroy the lives and careers of those who opposed him. William Marshal, who owed almost everything he had to the kings of England, officially backed his king instead of the French invaders under Louis of France – yes, 1066 was the last successful invasion of England, but Louis had no problem rampaging through Kent. Only after John’s death did the nobles decide they would rather have a weak Henry III than a strong Louis ruling over them.

On a complete tangent, this book made me aware of a great film featuring a fictionalized “Thomas Marshal” and his knights. In 2011, the movie Ironclad depicted the siege of Rochester Castle by King John in 1215. Although in many ways a complete fantasy, the film does capture the real brutality of the times and the fine line the well-off had to walk to stay in the good graces of everyone who mattered. The peasants ran into the woods and the monks headed for the hills (of Rome), but those with castles to defend were sort of stuck with defending it.

This is the second book in as many weeks that impressed me with both the selection and the quality of the color illustrations. Where else can you find illustrations of the shields of nobles and knights (facing page 141)? Or the seals they affixed to the Magna Carta (referenced on pages 349 and 366)?

I love books that are so good you don’t want them to end, that teach you many things you did not know before, and that are well-written and illustrated. This book has it all.


Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured By Kathryn Harrison (Doubleday, 2014) 382 pages

JOA Harrsion

Somewhere on the fringes of “walterspace” dwells a stack, and on this stack are books that I have read. I can access this stack in LIFO manner, pushing books onto the top of the pile and popping one off each week when I write these. I usually do this. But I can also deal from the bottom and process the stack as a FIFO queue and go back a few months. (If these terms make no sense and I sound like I think like a computer, be thankful you aren’t me.)

Everyone should know more about Joan of Arc than they do. So read this.

I admit I am a sucker for Joan of Arc anything. I have been since I first encountered the Classics Illustrated version of the life of Joan of Arc in Mrs. Girard’s fifth grade class. We were all like “What? You can read comic books in class?” (There were no graphic novels until comic books went all literary.)

Mark Twain, who knew a thing or two about human nature and the struggle to excel when things are stacked against you, wrote a book about Joan of Arc. Twain said that Joan led the “most remarkable life between us and Jesus.” You don’t have to be religious or a Christian to recognize that Twain had a very high opinion of the girl who came to lead the armies of France against the occupying English. I say “girl” because she was burned at the stake as witch by the English on May 30, 1431, a few months after her 19th birthday. Her career as a general lasted only 13 months, from early May 1429 (when she was 18) until May 23, 1430 when she was cut off and captured outside the walled town of Compiegne (I am not adding accents here).  She started her agitation to attack the occupying English forces in 1428, after claiming to have heard “voices” guiding her in 1424, when she was 13. (BTW, I have nothing against the English for the whole Hundred Years War thing—heck, I’m an American: invading is what we do.)

These facts occupy the first half or so of Harrison’s book (Joan is captured by the Burgundians on page 227). She was a female peasant born in 1412 (we don’t know exactly when, but it seems to have been late January) on the edges of what was then left of France. After a couple of false starts, she convinced the Dauphin (prince) of France to give her an army to raise the siege of Orleans and chase the English out of France for good. She didn’t succeed, but had the Dauphin crowned King Charles VII of France in the heart of English territory. The new king apparently did not care to have someone around more popular that he was (and a girl at that), so he withdrew financial support.  Joan carried on more or less alone until captured, tried by the English as a heretic and witch, and burning at the stake. So see what happens to uppity chicks around here?

I learned many things from this book, and I’ve read quite a few on Joan. The color photo section is one of the best, and it’s even possible to cross-reference the illustrations with the page of the text where they are discussed, which is not always possible in many books. One thing that started to wear on me a bit is Harrison’s habit of tossing in bits and pieces from fictionalized treatments of Joan. That said, I’m not sure how I would have ever learned about Bertolt Brecht’s 1900 play (one of three he wrote about Joan) called Saint Joan of the Stockyards (page 57) which transplants Joan and her struggles to the slaughtering grounds of Chicago where she champions the hungry workers and confronts the Meat King.

To those who point out that Joan’s exploits did not end the Hundred Years War, Harrison replies that the war ended in 1453 with peace terms that would have been unthinkable without Joan’s conquests.  Had she lived to see it, Joan would have been all of 41 years old (page 312). Her rejection of the traditional roles of Medieval womanhood (or modern womanhood for that matter) as maid (what’s with the horseback riding?), wife (some local yokel tried to claim her, but her father would have none of that – page 59), and unmarried woman (only one type of girl went off willingly with men-at-arms, as page 46 points out) confounded even her family…at least until she became famous.

I liked how Harrison emphasized Joan’s military aspects, topics often avoided in more faith-based books and films. Her Joan comes soaked in the blood of her enemies, a fact that helped the prosecution brand her as a tool of the devil. Joan is trained by the best of knights (page 72) and outfitted in customized battle armor (page 113) and wields a sacred sword (page 114). Joan is wounded several times (almost killed by a crossbow bolt on page 156, pierced through the thigh on page 206). Joan apparently endures repeated checks of her virginity with a shrug, although she does take precautions against rape after her capture by sewing herself into her clothes (page 250). For those who wonder, Joan showed no evidence of “the female malady” during her time in the field, as reported by her squire (page 44). I wondered about this until I read about how irregular women were in this time of famine and enormous stress (in a great little book called The Medieval Vagina, which actually has a chapter called “Going Medieval on That Vagina”).

It’s easy to be skeptical about Joan, just as easy as it is to be impressed with her accomplishments. She was peasant born, true, but her father was the richest peasant in Domremy (page 22) and made a “dean” on page 30. Their house (it still stands) was no shack, but stood right next to the parish church (the book has very nice photos of the place). So her family had a certain standing and respect when it came to interacting with the great powers of the day.

Some books try to reveal “the power behind Joan” which could be a conniving relative, or Yolande, the king’s mother, or some great noble who did not like La Tremoille, the evil minister who had Charles’s ear. Her appointment as general was a joke: clearly someone else was in charge “for real.” Harrison addresses these issues head-on, for example, by noting Joan’s orders regarding the placement of cannon on the battlefield, which may not have been the consensus, but was always obeyed. There seems to be no question that many people who encountered Joan encouraged or supported her for selfish reasons. But so what? We should all be so lucky. Joan’s favorite saying was “God helps those who help themselves” (page 103).

There’s always controversy regarding Joan: she was supposed to be a virgin, but you know how those country girls are (you can add a wink here). And the whole short hair thing and dressing in men’s clothes, well, you know what that means. None of these “sins” seemed to have bothered Joan. Joan had no qualms about being a girl in boy’s clothing: she wasn’t in disguise; she was in the army. Out of armor, she didn’t wear a false penis codpiece, but this meant her “short, tight, and dissolute” male jackets and leggings left her sexual characteristics right there on display for all to examine (page 188).

My favorite line in this book is on page 284. Joan of Arc is condemned on May 2, 1431 because she had “searched curiously into things passing our understanding.” Who among us will have as good an epitaph?

In her short years, Joan of Arc upset a lot of cherished ideas about the young, the poor, the odd, the misfit, the gender-bent, the illiterate, the devout, the privileged, the downtrodden, and so on. May your life be as disruptive to the status quo as Joan’s. I can leave you with no better blessing.