Magna Carta or Not, King John’s Reign Was a Bad One | History Hit

Magna Carta or Not, King John’s Reign Was a Bad One

Dan Jones

22 Oct 2019
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Over the centuries, King John’s name has become a byword for badness. Unlike the French, who commonly identify their medieval kings by nicknames like “The Bold”, “The Fat”, and “The Fair”, the English have not tended to give their monarchs sobriquets. But in the case of the third Plantagenet ruler we make an exception.

What the nickname “Bad King John” lacks in originality, it makes up for in accuracy. For that one word best sums up how John’s life and reign panned out: bad.

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A troubled start

When we examine the bare bones of John’s biography, this is hardly a surprise. The youngest son of Henry II, he caused plenty of trouble before going anywhere near his father’s crown. He was known in his youth as Jean sans Terre (or “John Lackland”) on account of his want of a landed inheritance.

Henry’s attempt to carve out something for John to govern in central France was the cause of armed warfare between father and sons.

John’s poor behaviour was evident when he was sent to Ireland to enforce English royal prerogatives. Upon his arrival, he provoked the locals by needlessly mocking them and – according to one chronicler – tugging their beards.

It was during his brother Richard the Lionheart’s reign that John’s behaviour became actively perfidious, however. Barred from England during Richard’s absence on the Third Crusade, John nevertheless interfered in the politics of the realm.

When Richard was captured and held for ransom on his way home from the Holy Land, John negotiated with his brother’s captors to keep Richard in prison, giving away lands in Normandy that his father and brother had fought hard to win and keep.

In 1194, Richard was released from prison and John was fortunate that the Lionheart decided to pardon him out of piteous contempt rather than ruin him, as would have been quite justifiable.

The Lionheart’s death

Under Nazi rule, which lasted from 30 January 1933 until 2 May 1945, Jews in Germany suffered extensively. What began with official and state-encouraged discrimination and prosecution, developed into an unprecedented policy of industrialised mass murder.


Prior to the Nazi’s rise to power, Jewish history in Germany had been chequered with alternating periods of success and victimisation. Stretches of relative tolerance by those in power allowed the community to prosper and caused its numbers to grow with immigration — often due to mistreatment in other parts of Europe. Conversely, events like the Crusades, various pogroms and massacres, resulted in exodus to more accepting territories. [programme id= "30150"] As the quintessential ‘other’ in central Europe, many tragedies were arbitrarily blamed on the Jewish community. Events as disparate as the Black Death and the Mongol Invasion were somehow attributed to a nefarious Jewish influence. While some nationalist political movements in the 19th century typically vilified Jews, from the latter half of the 1800s until the rise of National Socialism, the Jewish community enjoyed at least nominal equality with Germany’s majority populace, though practical experience often revealed a different story.

The rise of the Nazis

[caption id="attachment_14427" align="alignnone" width="690"]nazi treatment of jews 10 March 1933, 'I will never again complain to the police'. A Jewish lawyer is marched barefoot through the streets of Munich by the SS.[/caption] Anti-Semitic feelings and actions amongst high ranks in military and civil society in the early 20th century would pave the way for Hitler’s ascendance. At the Nazi Party’s first official meeting, a 25-point plan for the segregation and complete civil, political and legal disenfranchisement of the Jewish people was unveiled. When Hitler became Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933 he wasted no time in beginning the Nazi plan of ridding Germany of the Jews. This began with a campaign of boycotts against Jewish-owned businesses, facilitated by the muscle of the SA stormtroopers.

Anti-semitic legislation

The Reichstag passed a series of anti-Jewish laws, starting with the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on 7 April 1933, which took employment rights from Jewish public servants and reserved state employment for ‘Aryans’. What followed was a systematic legal assault on human rights, including forbidding Jews from sitting university exams and prohibiting the owning of anything from typewriters to pets, bicycles and precious metals. 1935’s ‘Nuremberg Laws’ defined who was German and who was a Jew. They stripped Jews of citizenship and forbade them to marry Aryans. All in all the Nazi regime enacted some 2,000 anti-Jewish decrees, effectively prohibiting Jews from taking part in all facets of public and private life, from work to entertainment to education. In retaliation against a Jewish gunman shooting two German officials for the mistreatment of his parents, the SS organised Kristallnacht on 9 – 10 November 1938. Synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes were vandalised and burned. 91 Jews were killed in the violence and 30,000 were arrested and subsequently sent to newly built concentration camps. [programme] Hitler held the Jews morally and financially responsible for the damage inflicted on Kristallnacht. To avoid this kind of treatment, hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated, mainly to Palestine and the United States, but also to Western European countries like France, Belgium, Holland and the UK. By the start of the Second World War, nearly half of Germany’s Jewish population had left the country.

Capture and genocide

With the annexation of Austria in 1938, followed by the launch of the war in 1939, Hitler’s plan for dealing with Jews changed gears. War made immigration especially difficult and the policy turned towards rounding up Jews in Germany and conquered territories like Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and placing them in slums and later concentration camps, where they were used as slave labour. SS groups called Einsatzgruppen, or ‘task forces’ carried out mass killings though the shooting of Jews in conquered territories. Prior to the United States’ entry into the war, Hitler considered German and Austrian Jews to be hostages. Their removal to Poland prompted the extermination of Polish Jews already imprisoned in the camps. In 1941 the construction of special mechanised death camps began. [programme id= "5323"]

The Final Solution

When the US entered the war, Hitler no longer saw German Jews as holding any bargaining power. He changed his plan again in order to fully realise his vision of a Judenfrei Europe. Now all European Jews would be deported to the death camps in the East for extermination. The collective result of the Nazi's plan to rid Europe of all Jews is known as the Holocaust, which culminated in the killing of some 6 million Jews, as well as 2-3 million Soviet POWs, 2 million ethnic Poles, up to 220,000 Romani and 270,000 disabled Germans.

Image Attribution: Richard I was the foremost soldier of his generation.

Richard’s sudden death during a minor siege in 1199 put John in contention for the Plantagenet crown. But although he seized power successfully, he never held it securely.

While Henry II and Richard I were the foremost soldiers of their generations, John was a middling commander at best and had the rare ability not only to alienate his allies but also to drive his enemies into one another’s arms.

Within five years of becoming king, John had lost Normandy – the bedrock of his family’s sprawling continental empire – and this disaster defined the rest of his reign.

His hapless and dizzyingly expensive attempts to regain his lost French possessions put an intolerable fiscal and military burden on English subjects, especially those in the north. These subjects had no sense of personal investment in winning back what the king had lost through his own ineptitude and they felt increasing resentment at having to bear the cost.

Meanwhile, John’s desperate need to fill his war-chest also contributed to a long and damaging dispute with Pope Innocent III.

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A regrettably present king

On April 29, 1962, at a White House dinner honouring Nobel Prize winners, John F. Kennedy said:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

A wealth of achievements

This testament to the astounding scope and resonance of Jefferson’s achievements is not especially over-stated. To list just the public offices he held: He was a founding father, third President of the United States, Governor of Virginia, US diplomat in Paris and Minister to France, first US Secretary of State under George Washington and Vice President in 1796. [programme] He also authored several iconic documents. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. After Independence was won he returned to Virginia and authored the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. jefferson-bible In an example of his intense anti-clericalism he also created the Jefferson Bible. This consisted of taking a bible in one hand, a razor blade in the other, and proceeding to cut out all the bits he considered fantastical or immoral. As President he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase (1803) which ‘doubled the size of the USA at 10 cents an acre.’ Napoleon sold Louisiana to USA at a knockdown price to keep it out of British hands. [caption id="attachment_5458" align="alignnone" width="750"] It is interesting to think what would have happened if French Louisiana had fallen into British hands. Here, reenactors perform the roles of British infantrymen in the documentary Sean Bean on Waterloo on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now[/caption] He dispatched Louis and Clark (1804-6) on their famous cross-country expedition. He also crushed the Barbary Corsairs, a North African pirate community that had plagued American merchant shipping. louisianapurchase These achievements are well known and attest to a remarkable innate talent. Jefferson spoke five languages, learning Spanish on a single 19-day voyage. He was a pioneer in the fields of zoology and botany – mainly in his role as President of American Philosophical Society – and once, when whaling became a minor political issue, composed an entire treatise on the issue. He was a remarkable librarian; he offered to sell his collection to the Library of Congress after the British burned it down in 1814. He once said 'I cannot live without books.' One of his proudest achievements was founding the University of Virginia. In 1768 he personally designed Monticello (his own 5,000-acre estate) and the university buildings (he was a superb architect) and in doing so enshrined his belief that educating people was a good way to establish an organised society. He believed such schools should be paid for by the general public, so less wealthy people could be educated as students [programme] Admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1767, Jefferson could have become the greatest lawyer of his day. He took on a number of freedom suits for slaves, often without charging a fee. In the case of Sam Howell he expounded the principle of natural law for the first time, the principle that would become the basis for the Declaration of Independence. Finally, he was a prolific innovator. He improved the moldboard plough and the polygraph, invented the pedometer, swivel chair, and created his own enciphering device (the Wheel Cipher) after discovering that his correspondence was being monitored. Another was the 'Great Clock', powered by the Earth's gravitational pull on Revolutionary War cannonballs.

First among patriots

Beyond these achievements, however, was codifying the philosophical basis for the American identity. 'I have sworn upon the altar of God,' he said, 'eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.' [caption id="attachment_15058" align="alignnone" width="650"] Jefferson was a strong believer in the right to free religious practice and expression .Take a fascinating journey though religious art history with Dr Janina Ramirez on the Art Detective podcast. Listen Now[/caption] Jefferson believed each man has 'certain inalienable rights' and that 'Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others...'

Jefferson's cognitive dissonance

One should not avoid the controversies. Jefferson embodied contradiction. He owned slaves and indeed fathered children with one, Sally Hemings. He spoke out against slavery but owned hundreds. In his book, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ he wrote extensively about slavery, miscegenation, and his belief that blacks and whites could not live together as free people in one society because of lingering resentments over slavery, fearing that it would lead to the 'extermination of the one or the other race.' He ordered that the Santo Domingo revolt be brutally crushed, exhibiting a counterrevolutionary streak. He also had a punitive, hard-line approach to Native Americans, enacting a policy of Indian removal.


In reference to the words to be placed on his gravestone, Jefferson said, 'On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more.' He continued by writing, 'because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered': HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA. He did not feel being President, Vice-President and Secretary of State worth mentioning.

Image Attribution: King John granted the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215, only to renege on its terms shortly after. This romanticised 19th century painting shows the king ‘signing’ the Charter – which never actually happened.

Not helping matters was the fact that John’s permanent presence in England (after more than a century of more or less absentee kingship since the Norman Conquest) exposed English barons to the full and disagreeable force of his personality.

The king was described by contemporaries as an unchivalrous, cruel and mean-spirited cheapskate. These traits would have been tolerable in a monarch who protected his greatest subjects and their property and provided evenhanded justice to those who sought it. But John, alas, did quite the opposite.

He persecuted those closest to him and starved their wives to death. He murdered his own nephew. He managed to upset those whom he needed in a bewildering variety of ways.

It was no surprise in 1214 when defeat at the calamitous battle of Bouvines was followed by rebellion at home. And it was no surprise in 1215 when John, having granted the Magna Carta, proved himself as faithless as ever and reneged on its terms.

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When the king succumbed to dysentery during the civil war he had helped create it was taken as read that he had gone to Hell – where he belonged.

From time to time it becomes fashionable for historians to try and rehabilitate John – on the grounds that he inherited a nightmarish task in keeping together the territories his overachieving father and brother had united; that he has been wrongly defamed on the evidence of uptight monastic chronicles whose authors disapproved of his abuses of the English church; and that he was a decent accountant and administrator.

These arguments almost always ignore the loud and near-universal judgment of contemporaries who thought him an appalling man and, more importantly, a lamentable king. Bad he was, and bad should John remain.

Dan Jones is the author of Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter, published by Head of Zeus and available to buy from Amazon and all good book shops.

Tags: King John Magna Carta Richard the Lionheart

Dan Jones