King John – The Genesis of a Sinister Reputation

The Decendants of Melusine

For over fifty years from 1154 to 1216 , England was ruled by a man from Anjou in France and two of his sons. They were King Henry II, King Richard I, and King John. Henry’s claim to the English throne was derived from his mother Matilda. She was the only child of King Henry I to survive him, and after the death of her first husband, Emperor Henry V of Germany, she had been married to Count Geoffrey of Anjou.

These Angevin rulers of England had marked characteristics of personality. They were passionate and dynamic, with clever minds and strong wills. They had a hot temper which sometimes prejudiced their calculated schemes. They seemed, even to contemporaries, a little larger than life. Their minds and bodies appeared to work faster than those of normal men. When they conceived anything it was usually on a grand scale; their will matched their conception, and their vast resources were bent to its realization. Henry II was a ‘human chariot’ drawing everything after him. He never seemed to take a moment’s rest: in church even he scribbled or drew pictures; while hearing matters of business he would be mending his hunting gear; in relaxation he would hunt from dawn until sunset, pushing through woods and mountain passes, and even then weary his court after supper by remaining on his feet. To be in his household was to know the fury of Hell, said his courtiers. Richard I, differing from his father in build and coloring and in his zest for war, was like him in a ruthless energy that brooked no opposition: the builders of his castle at Les Andelys were startled one day by a shower of blood, but the King forced them on, ‘and even if an angel had descended from heaven to urge its abandonment he would have sworn at it.’ John defied every man, seeming to challenge his whole world single-handed. For six years he brushed aside the denunciations of the great Pope Innocent III, gathering the Church in England into his fierce hands and squeezing out of it all opposition and nearly all life. ‘He feared not God, nor respected men.’

The violent temper of the Angivins, their vicious reaction being thwarted, was almost pathological in its intensity. A misplaced word of praise for the King’s enemy, William the Lion of Scotland, threw Henry II into a fit of rage one morning in which he fell screaming out of bed, tore up his coverlet, and threshed around the floor cramming his mouth with the stuffing of his mattress. Frequently he would chew the rushes of the floor in his fury. Richard, believing that he had got the worst of a bargain on one occasion, flew into a blind rage, like a wounded boar, it is said, and no one dared come near him. The chronicler Richard of Devizes remembered John as a young prince breaking out in frustrated fury at Chancellor Longchamp: ‘His whole person became so changed as to be hardly recognizable. Rage contorted his brow, his burning eyes glittered, bluish spots discolored the pink of his cheeks, and I know not what would have become of the chancellor if in that moment of frenzy he had fallen like an apple into his hands as they sawed air.’

‘From the Devil they came’, growled St. Bernard, ‘and to the Devil they will return.’ There were many who agreed with him. Popular gossip told of their descent from a devilish ancestress – it was a convenient explanation of their demonic energy, their ferocious ruthlessness. In the days of long ago, when all fairy stories were credible, a count of Anjou, men said, returned from a distant journey with a strange woman whom he married. She was evidently a lady and very beautiful, but there was much that was odd about her: she had no relatives or friends, she seldom went to church, and when she did always made some excuse to leave before the Consecration. In time her husband became so puzzled by this behavior that he instructed four of his knights to stay close by her when next she entered the church, and prevent her slipping out. Just as the Consecration was beginning she made as if to leave, but the knights trod on the hem of her robe to detain her. As the priest raised the Host above his head she uttered a scream, wrenched apart the fastening of her cloak to escape from it, and still shrieking flew out of the window. She was Melusine, daughter of Satan, and no evil spirit, as it is well known, can look upon the Body of Christ. In her flight she dragged two of her children with her; but two remained and from them were descended the Angevin kings of England. Henry II’s sons, with characteristically profane humor, were prone to joke about the story, and to people who protested against their fighting among themselves they replied: ‘Do not deprive us of our heritage; we cannot help acting like devils.’