Author Topic: King John  (Read 7317 times)


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King John
« on: May 28, 2009, 07:20:30 PM »
I wrote this essay over three years ago. What do you think of King John? Did he do the right things as a monarch? What should he have done? Why has history remembered him so badly..?

<big>King John; Good or Bad?</big>

On Christmas Eve 1167, a royal child was born in England. The youngest son of Henry II and Elanor of Aquitane, John was to become known as one of history’s worst kings; a murderer, tyrant, and a greedy drunk. But did John deserve his reputation as one of our worst leaders?  Has history shown us the full picture? I think that John was a good king, albeit unlucky.
John became King in 1199 and reigned for 17 years. His reign was already troubled as soon as the coronation was over; Richard the Lionheart, his older brother, had been a popular but expensive king who had cared very little for the economy and drained England dry of its wealth. Not only that, but the Barons, England’s greedy, abusive, army-running mini-kings, were plotting against John.
   Phillipe (or Philip) II of France was one man watching the events with interest. He was a tough fighter, and much of the best land in France was under the English crown. In 1200 it was John himself who provided the excuse. John was a passionate man and, in a way, lost France for love. He abducted Isabelle, the daughter of a French nobleman, and married her in 1200. When he refused to appear before Phillipe, the French king joined with John’s nephew, Arthur, declared John a felon, and in 1202 began a war.
The barons were by no means eager to aid John; he should have been able to secure his borders, but the barons were content to let Phillip in at the gate, and without two thirds of the Norman knights under his command John could do no more than put up a brave fight as the few loyal castles fell. The French also had a useful bargaining tool: they held Eleanor of Anjou, John’s mother, as a hostage.
John proved that he could fight, however, by going on a daring raid in which he took Arthur and two French nobles prisoner, and rescued his mother. This risky attack showed that, despite the treachery of the barons, John was by no means a beaten king. In 1203 he had Arthur murdered.  This may have been immoral, but it secured John’s position on the throne and prevented a civil war. Despite losing Normandy, John did keep hold of his mother’s lands in Aquitane (Eleanor died in 1204).
The incident that really turned History against John, however, was a catastrophic argument with the pope over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1207, that ruined his reign. The pope closed every church in England, and in 1209 excommunicated John.  The interdict lasted for six long years, in which the monks - the historians - now out of a job, painted the classic picture of John as the godless, scheming, drunken, murdering, clawing tyrant that has become engraved in the minds of the people forever.
However, there are two sides of even these seemingly dark hours of John’s reign. In the same year that he was excommunicated he took new land from the Scots in northern England, which meant that for many years the Scottish were no longer a threat to the crown. In 1210 he successfully defeated the Welsh, and in 1211 battered the Irish princes into submission. As the Barnwell Chronicle records “There is no man in Scotland, Wales or Ireland who would not obey the command of the king of England”. A monk - someone who had no reason to say anything good about the hated John - wrote the Barnwell chronicle. Also, even the interdict brought some good; the money gained from the closure of the wealthy and powerful churches replenished England’s coffers, emptied by John’s brother. John used a lot of the money to create a fledgling English navy, which he used for the above-mentioned invasion of Ireland and in 1213, under the Earl of Salisbury, to defeat a major French invasion fleet. In this period he also managed the economy well, rushed up and down the country to hold court, and proved that he could manage the people. He also issued an edict that no churchman should be killed, which makes many of the monks ‘hung priest’ stories very unlikely.
It was not the loss of France that was the last straw for the barons, though, but the attempts to regain it. John paid for a new English army, and gained the support of Otto IV of Germany. This meant that when he landed at La Rochelle, the French could not come too far southwest for fear of the Germans attacking in the northeast. When Otto’s troops did arrive, however, the Flemish backed them up and a large contingent of mercenaries had been hired. Events again transpired against John, though. A German traitor had given Phillipe all of John and Otto’s plans. Phillipe was thus able to prepare for the attack, and defeated Otto, who was a poor general anyway, at Bouvines on 27 July 1214. Despite John having some success in the south, several English nobles, including the tough military leader, the Earl of Salisbury, were now imprisoned and he could not risk them getting executed. It was a humiliating failure, but more than that, it was an expensive one. And it was the Barons who bore the brunt of the cost.
Enough was enough for the Barons. They rose in rebellion and, in May 1215, they gathered under the banner of Robert FitzWalter, an East Anglian Baron, in an attempt to depose John. To prevent the rebels gaining help from Phillipe and his son, Louis, John stalled for time, trying to keep out of a full-scale war against both his barons and the French, by signing the Magna Carta. Most of this famous document simply outlines a tax relief system for the landed classes and the church. This shows that it was not created for ‘the common good’, but just as a bargaining piece to keep the barons happy for a while.
Magna Carta was a failure, lasting less than three months before the rebels were at it again. Despite the rebels having early successes, some barons remained loyal, William Marshall for one, and by November 1215, John had the rebels in retreat.
John’s handling of the situation in 1215 shows that he was not forced to sign the Magna Carta, and in fact could have simply dealt with the rebels. It also shows that he cared about his country as well as his power; he prevented the breaking of England at the expense of much of his power over the church and the barons.
Louis invaded England in 1216; two-thirds of the barons joined him, and John with no realistic prospect of victory retreated north. In one last pathetic twist of fate, John developed dysentery from eating too many peaches and drinking too much new cider, and died. The Regency Council, run by William Marshall, declared that John’s son, Henry III, should become king. The nobles agreed, and Louis, cheered into England only months before, was jeered out of it. Henry became king at the age of just nine.

John had some rare qualities as a king. He was a tough and daring general, a good diplomat, a great family man, and a man who, while having little of the charisma of his elder brother, cared much more deeply about the country he ruled. While Richard was a great fighter with a lot of charisma, John was a careful, clever leader, one who was far more able at running a country. He was also, of course, unlucky, but he cared about his job and his family, not a half-baked vision of paradise. John was down-to-earth, fought those who were a threat, and managed the law and economy well. He did not neglect his duty.

« Last Edit: July 26, 2011, 04:12:27 PM by Jubal »
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King John
« Reply #1 on: July 16, 2009, 09:27:00 AM »
John was not a good king. He had none of the bravery of his brother and none of the political savvy of later Henries. He was a bad king, but more than likely demonized by his detractors to the extent it is hard today to tell the real John from the myth.