The History Society’s first speaker was medieval specialist Dr Marc Morris who talked about the reign of King John (1199 – 1216), with particular focus upon the means by which he took power, and the first five years of his rule. He pointed out that it was surprising that John had even made it to the throne, given that he had three older brothers. However, following the death of their father Henry II in 1189, only Richard (Henry’s successor) and John remained. It would be during Richard I’s reign that John took his first major reputational hit, with his alliance with Philip Augustus against Richard labelled a “pact from hell”.
Dr Morris detailed John’s ascendancy to the throne in 1199 with the defeat of Arthur, Duke of Brittany, following Richard’s death. Although this period was known for chivalry, John’s actions defied the accepted norms. In 1202 he took hostages from Brittany after Arthur’s sieged of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Mirebeau, and allegedly starved 22 knights to death and murdered Arthur, which was anything but acceptable practice.
Cowardly actions of this type, in addition to the defeats John endured at the hands of French during the last ten years of his reign, and the bankruptcy of the monarchy resulted in the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
In closing, Dr Morris quoted thirteenth century chronicler Matthew Paris, who wrote “hell itself is made fouler by the death of King John”.
John has been criticised throughout history, and denounced for his “superhuman wickedness”. However, I had always viewed John in a more positive light because the documented narrative on John was written by chroniclers such as Roger Wendover, anti-royalists who relied on anecdotes without evidence.
Dr Morris challenged my views by contrasting the medieval and modern understanding of kingship. Dr Morris stressed that John’s reputation was sealed from the start of his reign. This intrigued me as I believed the damage to his reign stemmed from his military incompetence after the loss of French lands in 1204. I learned he was subject to “malevolentia” and was deeply suspicious of everyone, which is evident from his treatment of the prisoners of Mirebeau, which William Marshall said was a “disgrace to witness the cruelty”. This blackened John’s reputation and explained why Barlow describes him as “prowling about the kingdom”. Dr Morris helped me to understand why many historians believe John deserves his reputation as “Bad King John”.
George Crawley (L)
Mya Onyett (K)