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

Dan Jones

4 mins

15 Jun 2018

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

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

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.