Book Review: King John and the Road to Magna Carta
by Stephen Church
Basic Books, 2015
King John, the third son of the great King Henry II to become king, was a thoroughly despised man and has remained so. He was feckless, wordless, faithless, humorless, and a plain dresser. He was hated by his own people, both in England and in his vast territories on the Continent, which he promptly lost in any case. He was greedy, contrary, unsound, unpredictable, and unbecomingly sarcastic. To say that he was effortlessly multilingual and physically tireless isn’t to say much more than that he was a Plantagenet, since the whole breed shared those traits. And to say that he was unlucky is likewise beside the point; his brother Richard was held prisoner in a foreign land for years, and he’s still celebrated in story and song (some of which he wrote himself – try imagining John doing that). Whether in good times or bad, whether the whip was in his hand or his enemy’s hand, John was vicious, treacherous, rapacious, and mercurial, but these things were only sins, for which kings can be forgiven (indeed, they can forgive themselves; as King Henry VIII says in Charles Jarrott’s wonderful film “Ann of a Thousand Days,” “When I pray, God answers”). In the dealings of royalty, John was guilty of something much worse than being sinful – he was guilty of being weak.
It’s one of the curious consolations of history, in other words: no matter how rotten you’re feeling about yourself, at least you’re not as bad as bad old King John.
It makes him a tempting target for revisionist biographers, historians trying to find the good buried deep in this monstrous monarch, and John has been the unworthy recipient of some utterly magnificent efforts by such historians, probably most famously and durably H. L. Warren in his log-solid biography from half a century ago. When you add to this revisionist zeal the fact that 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of John’s worst failure, his capitulation to his barons at Runnymede in 1215 in the form of Magna Carta, the lure becomes irresistible. Nothing like as irresistible as, say, the anniversary of a good king doing something successful, but irresistible nonetheless.
Which brings us to Stephen Church’s King John and the Road to Magna Carta, which signals its mildly revisionist intentions on its US cover by having King John pose with a fawning dog at his lap (the king probably paid the dog to pose with him)(and then taxed the payment, the bastard). Church here sets himself a methodology all historians should employ, but one that’s particularly hard to use when it comes to John: Church intends to tell the king’s story as though we didn’t all already know how it turns out. Working from the primary sources of John’s life and times, Church approaches each major event in the reign – war with France, excommunication by the Pope, punitive expeditions in Scotland and Ireland, plus marriage and fatherhood – from the even-keel perspective of the moment those events were happening, to the extent that such moments can be known.
Grudging though it may be to admit, it works surprisingly well. By concentrating on what John and his contemporaries knew and when they knew it, Church avoids most of the pall of pathetic contempt that usually covers accounts of John’s reign. We see him not so much as an unreasonable tyrant in Ireland and Scotland as a successful tactician in both places, putting down rebellions and thwarting back-stabbing with an equally heavy hand. We see him not so much as both a dupe and a deceiver of the Church as a monarch every bit as canny as his mighty father was at dealing with the Pope’s temporal power – and just as often thwarted by that power. Most of all we see John himself, not with an aura of defeat read back into him but much as he must have seen himself, undauntedly fighting against his unruly nobles, his unruly commoners, his unruly Continental vassals, and the unruly way Fate always seemed to be favoring other men. Church’s narrative catches a figure often far more capable and even optimistic than the one we’re accustomed to seeing:
John spent Ascension Day, May 23, 1213, in public feasting. It was an auspicious day: he was reconciled with the pope, and it was becoming clear that he had ridden out the difficulties of the previous twelve months and had the support of his kingdom. Peter the Hermit’s prophecy that John would not rule beyond Ascension Day 1213 had not come to pass (not literally, anyway, though some did note that in having handed his kingdom to the pope, John had, technically, lost it). He was alive and well, ready to meet the challenge presented by King Philip’s invasion force.
Of course, on Ascension Day 1213 he still had enormous defeats, heinous treacheries, and Runnymede ahead of him. But that’s peeking.