Jonathan Sumption

What a Rotter

King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta


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King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant


Macmillan 334pp £25 order from our bookshop

In a contemporary life of Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, there is a story about King John, whom the bishop knew well. The two of them were standing outside the abbey church at Fontevraud in the Loire Valley in April 1199, waiting for the funeral service of John’s predecessor, Richard I. Above the west door of the church there was a sculpted tympanum showing the Last Judgement, with Christ in Majesty dividing men into the saved and the damned. Among the damned, Hugh pointed out, there were several kings in full regalia. ‘Think’, he said, ‘of the great risks which rulers are taking when they are set up with authority over others but cannot control themselves and end up perpetually tortured by devils.’ John pointed to the procession of the saved on the other side of the tympanum and observed that there were kings among them too. ‘My Lord Bishop, you should have shown me those ones, for they are the ones I intend to imitate and whose company I shall join.’

Not for the first time, or the last, John was being unrealistic. Anyone succeeding to the throne of Richard I in 1199 was almost bound to be a ‘bad’ king. The empire of the Angevins was ungovernable. It comprised England itself and about a third of France, including all of its Atlantic provinces – Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, together with the whole of the vast inheritance of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the southwest and the overlordship of Brittany. These territories had been assembled by Henry II, largely through accidents of inheritance and marriage. They had no natural unity and no common link other than the king himself. Power had to be shared with local noblemen whose interests were usually narrowly bounded by their own regions. Except in England, where there was a tradition of centralised government and a precocious bureaucracy, the Angevins had no institutional framework to support them. None of their states, not even England, had an adequate system of taxation.

Only a tyrant could ever have held this unwieldy and disparate empire together against the persistent hostility of the Capetian kings of France. Henry II could fairly have been called a tyrant. But even he had intended to break up the empire by dividing it among his sons. This project failed, mainly because of the premature death of two of them, Henry and Geoffrey, and the mutual jealousies of the two survivors, Richard and John. Perhaps the empire would have collapsed anyway. But it was doomed by its internal contradictions and the inadequacies of Henry II’s successors.

When John came to the throne in 1199, the mainstays of Angevin power were diplomacy, military force and a residual sense of legitimacy. John had a poor hand in all three departments. He was a bad diplomat, a foul-tempered bully whose word no one trusted. He was an unskilful general and was heavily dependent on mercenary troops, whom he lacked the tax revenues to pay. His appeals to legitimacy, though legally sound, were undermined by the claims of Arthur, Duke of Brittany, the son of his dead elder brother Geoffrey. Arthur’s murder on his uncle’s orders was regarded by most contemporaries who mattered as the standard price of unsuccessful rebellion. But it has done more than any of John’s other misdeeds to blacken his name with posterity. His assault on the Church ensured that he never got a good press in his own day, and the chroniclers have set the tone ever since. Magna Carta completed the damage. There may have been very little to be said for the barons at Runnymede, but the myths surrounding the charter have ensured that John would always go down as a bad man and a bad king. Sir James Holt, for many years the doyen of Magna Carta studies, attempted a partial rehabilitation of the old monster with the aid of the abundant administrative records. Few of his readers were convinced.

These two books represent the first batch of a mass of studies of John’s reign designed to catch the Magna Carta market in this octocentenary year. They are very different. Marc Morris has written a narrative history of the reign in muscular prose, full of anecdote and with a strong sense of period. He reconstructs with much skill some of the critical events of the reign, such as the murder of Arthur and John’s brutal feud with William de Briouze and his family. But there are serious flaws that make it hard to recommend to anyone coming fresh to the subject. Although John’s is the first reign in English history for which there are abundant administrative records, Morris uses them only to fill out the narrative. He tells us very little about the terminal problems of government facing the Angevin empire, an appreciation of which is essential for understanding its final years. We are left with the impression that John failed simply because he was a nasty piece of work. Yet that is only part of the truth and not even the major part. Morris seems to have run out of puff by the time he gets to John’s later years. We learn very little about the build-up to Magna Carta or about what really divided King John from his baronial enemies. But perhaps the most infuriating thing about Morris’s book is the arrangement of the text. He starts in the middle of John’s reign, with a chapter on the siege in 1203 of Château Gaillard in Normandy. We then have a chapter on John’s youth. Morris then fast-forwards to the loss of Normandy in 1204. He then goes back to the reign of Richard, forward to the middle years of John’s reign, back again to Richard’s rule, and so on. Each chapter is a chunk of narrative, but their incoherent and disjointed order makes the sequence of events almost impossible to follow.

Stephen Church’s King John lacks the panache of Morris’s account, but for all that he has written a more satisfying book. He has a sound grasp of the administrative sources and of the complexities of governing the empire’s French provinces. His understanding of the dynamics of English society makes his account of the final civil war and the background to Magna Carta altogether more convincing. Where Morris is content to describe, Church explains. In a story that needs so much explaining, this is a real advantage. We have certainly not heard the last word on King John. But for the time being W L Warren’s King John, originally published in 1961, remains much the best biography for my taste.

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