Enter King John – England's Worst-Ever Monarch

Kevin Costner fought against John's tyranny in the 1991 Warner Bros movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Kevin Costner fought against John's tyranny in the 1991 Warner Bros movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

by Ray Setterfield


December 24, 1167King John was born on this day – England’s worst-ever king. Or so some say. Author Thomas Costain, for instance, described John as “selfish, cruel, shameless, cynical, lustful, dishonourable and utterly false.” A slightly more measured assessment came from historian J.C. Holt, calling John “suspicious, vengeful and treacherous.”

Perhaps he will best be remembered for causing the creation of Magna Carta, the charter of English liberties and – indirectly – for the Robin Hood legend to be born!

John – no monarch before or since has used the name – ruled England as Prince Regent while his brother, Richard the Lionheart, was away fighting in the Crusades.

John was the youngest of Henry II’s four sons. Henry himself was born in France in 1133. His father was the Count of Anjou and his mother, Matilda, the daughter of Henry I of England.

Henry, who also became the Duke of Normandy, married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest heiress in western Europe, in 1153. As a result, he came to rule over the most extensive collection of lands ever gathered together under an English king – an empire in all but name, that stretched from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees, and from Dublin in the west to the frontiers of Flanders and Burgundy in the east.

And that became the root of King John’s troubles.

Henry crossed to England in 1153 and became King the following year. When he died in 1189, his son Richard (“the Lionheart”) succeeded to the throne. But this iconic king spent no more than a total of six months in the country. If he was not off fighting in the Crusades, he was in France defending his extensive interests there.

John ruled England in his place, first as Prince Regent, then in his own right as King when Richard died in 1199.

An example of John’s treachery came when Richard was captured and held for ransom on his way back from fighting the Third Crusade. John negotiated with his brother’s captors to keep him in prison rather than pay the colossal ransom that was demanded – although the cash was eventually handed over.

John was no match for King Philip of France (also known as Philip Augustus) who in 1202 confiscated the English monarch’s French possessions and re-took Normandy, Anjou, Poitou and much of Aquitaine.

Determined to get the lands back, John turned to his rich and powerful barons, demanding money for the cause. But he was badly defeated at the Battle of Bouvines and when John asked for more money for another campaign not only did the barons refuse but 40 of them renounced their feudal ties to the King.

They did so very much aware of the cost of his continual struggle to regain lands lost in France, the money spent on Richard’s Third Crusade, the ransom paid for his release, and, not least, John’s extravagant lifestyle. He had massively increased taxes to pay for all this.

John met the rebels at Runnymede, just outside London, where they presented him with a document – the Magna Carta, which for the first time formally placed limits on royal power and made the King subject to the laws of the land.

On June 15, 1215 John signed the historic document which contained 63 promises about what he could and couldn't do. It also set up a council of 25 barons to make sure he kept his word.

Of course, he had no intention of doing so and he asked the Pope for permission to ignore Magna Carta – on the grounds that he had been forced to sign it. The Pope agreed. With an army of mercenaries, John was then to attack the homes and estates of his enemies, forcing those he defeated to swear an oath that they would disregard Magna Carta.

A blurring of fact and fiction which did John’s reputation no good at all was the emergence of the fictional Robin Hood legend. In the books, Robin and his men saw John as a usurper and devoted themselves to robbing the rich and giving to the poor – a campaign that hindered John from collecting his much-needed taxes.

Taking their cue from the stories, Hollywood films from Ivanhoe (1952) to Robin Hood (2018) have portrayed King John as a tyrant. He died on the wild stormy night of October 18, 1216 after being seized by an attack of dysentery. He was succeeded by his nine-year-old son who became King Henry III.

Not everyone had a bad word for John. As late as the 1960s some historians were saying that he had been misrepresented. They argued that he quarrelled with the barons because he was an energetic, reforming king who tried to increase the power of the monarchy.

Apart from clipping the King’s wings, Magna Carta established the principle that everyone is subject to the law and guarantees all the
right to justice and a fair trial.

Young Henry III issued a shorter version and decreed that all future charters must be issued under the King’s seal. Between the 13th and 15th centuries the charter is said to have been reconfirmed between 32 and 45 times, having last been confirmed by Henry VI in 1423.

Nevertheless, it is seen as one of the most influential legal documents in British history and was described in 1965 by the distinguished judge Lord Denning as “the greatest constitutional document of all time – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.

Published: December 12, 2019

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