Why Was King John Known as Softsword?

History Hit Podcast with Marc Morris

2 mins

20 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Magna Carta with Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 24 January 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

If you’re the king of England and your nickname is Softsword then you’ve got a big problem.

King John’s nickname, “Softsword”, entered circulation at the height of his reign, around 1200, and isn’t often regarded as complimentary.

Interestingly, however, the monk who reported it, Gervais of Canterbury, implied that the moniker was given to John because he made peace with France. Something he himself seemed to regard as a good thing. And peace is usually a good thing.

But there were clearly some people at the time who felt that John had ceded too much in the way of territory to the king of France and should have fought harder.

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The risk-averse king

Softsword is certainly an epithet that John went on to earn over the rest of his reign.

John liked war; he wasn’t a milquetoast king like Henry VI or Richard II. He loved beating people up, going blood and thunder at the enemy and burning and destroying. So John’s reign saw spectacular sieges of castles like Rochester.

What John didn’t like was risk. He wasn’t fond of confrontation when the outcome was anything less than guaranteed in his favour.

A good example is the scant resistance he put up when Philip Augustus, King of France, attacked Chateau Gaillard in 1203.

Chateau Galliard was built by John’s older brother, Richard the Lionheart, in the late 1190s. Barely finished by the time Richard died in 1199, it was huge and highly state-of-the-art when Philip launched his attack.

Normandy was under assault but John put up very scant resistance. Rather than attend the attack himself, he sent William Marshal up the Seine to try and relieve this siege, but the night-time operation was a complete disaster.

John opted to run away and, by the end of 1203, he’d retreated to England, leaving his Norman subjects to face the king of France leaderless.

Chateau Gaillard held out for another three months before submitting in March 1204, at which point the game was really up. Rouen, the Norman capital, submitted in June 1204.

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A pattern begins to emerge

The whole episode proved to be pretty typical of John’s reign.

You can see his tendency to run away time and again.

He went back to France in 1206 and got as far as Anjou. When Philip approached he ran away.

In 1214, having scrimped and saved and extorted money from England for years, he returned to try and regain his lost continental provinces.

As soon as he heard that Louis, Philip’s son, was advancing towards him, he once again ran away back to La Rochelle.

Then, when the Louis invaded England in the spring of 1216, John was waiting on the beaches to confront him, but ultimately opted to run away to Winchester, leaving Louis free to occupy Kent, East Anglia, London, Canterbury and eventually Winchester.