King John: And the Road to Magna Carta by Stephen Church (Basic Books, 2015), 300 pages.
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: http://www.whatswalterreading.com/2015/02/the-greatest-knight-by-thomas-asbridge/.
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 http://www.worldcat.org/title/old-glory-at-the-crossroads-1861-1865/oclc/20548122. 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHCMt0kfF8Y ) 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.