Book Review: King John
by Marc Morris
Pegasus Books, 2015
2015’s 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta between King John and his uppity barons at Runnymede has sparked a small, predictable, and intensely enjoyable spate of books. There’ve been new studies of Magna Carta and new critical editions of it, and new biographies of the luckless king who was brought to the bargaining table by his own subjects. Adding to that little banquet is this extensively-titled new volume by Marc Morris, King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England: The Road to Magna Carta, (it’s a dismally bad sign when a book’s title has even one full colon – two displays an author, or a publisher, in rather dire spiritual distress) as good and involving as this author’s earlier history of the Norman Conquest. Morris’s King John is a wonderful popular biography of a universally-maligned figure in the roll call of English monarchs.
Morris covers all the doleful aspects of John’s reign: his endless wars, his enormous patrimony (and their connection; as Gerald of Wales wrote, “One may marvel that Henry II and his sons, despite their many wars, nevertheless abounded in wealth”), his cold marriage and endless public affairs, his roughshod manners with both the nobles and the common folk of his realm, and of course his life-long clashes with the Church in Rome. And as Morris did in his Norman Conquest book, so he does here: taking the full tangles of his medieval subject and clearing them and smoothing them with smart, dramatic explanations. Take as one example his summing-up of the Law of the Forest in early Plantagenet years and the heavy penalties for breaking it:
The simple solution, one might conclude, was to say out of the royal forest; but for many people that was not an option. What had started after the Conquest as a royal hunting preserve had been massively extended during the twelfth century, chiefly by Henry II. Even as he was making the common law more accessible to his subjects, Henry was in this way extending his arbitrary power over them. By the end of his reign, the jurisdiction known as ‘the Forest’ did not apply only to the wooded or wasteland areas used for hunting, but to almost a third of all England. Land of any kind, arable or pasture, could be forest. Villages could be forest. All of Essex was forest.
All these new books, whether consciously or otherwise, toil in the shadow of W. L. Warren’s 1961 book King John, which was the first major modern biography of the wretched king to propose that Shakespeare & Co. have given him a bad rap, that he was a man of rare parts but rotten fortune (as one of his contemporary commenters rather tepidly insisted). Morris very refreshingly makes it clear that he isn’t having any of that; he takes great pains to remind his readers of John’s insulting womanizing, his fecklessness on all subjects at all times, and – a recurring point that seems, very rightly, to horrify Morris more than any other – his marked preference for punishing subjects he didn’t like by the particularly barbaric method of starving them to death. In the concluding portion of his book, Morris shows little inclination to eulogize, and his account is the better for it:
There was no doubt that John’s reign had been a disaster. He had come to the throne in 1199 as the ruler of a great empire, the most powerful prince in Europe. Yet within five years most of his continental inheritance had been lost, and now he was being buried in the midst of a bitter civil war. The Scots had occupied the north of England, the Welsh had overrun the southern March of Wales, eastern England was in the hands of the rebels, and all of the south-east had been invaded by the French. At the start of his life John had been dubbed ‘Lack-land’. By the time of his death it seemed inevitable that the story was going to end the same way.
Readers looking for a fully-detailed and approachable biography of poor mean old King John could do no better than this lively volume with its tripping retinue of auxiliary titles.