Bad King John and Magna Carta: Some Revisionist Perspectives


On October 18, 2008 — by coincidence the anniversary of the death of the English King whose reign led to the Magna Carta — BOMC-MOC members and guests met at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Essington, PA for a combined fall meeting, reception and luncheon.  Dr. George B. Stow, Professor of History at LaSalle University, was the speaker, and his talk was entitled, “Bad King John and Magna Carta: Some Revisionist Perspectives.”

Dr. Stow began by describing three crises which he said “led inexorably to the confrontation at Runnymede” – John’s struggle to retain his Angevin holdings, which involved his marriage in 1200 to Isabella of Angouleme, the intrigues of French King Philip II and the machinations of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany; domestic governmental affairs that included exorbitant taxes and a quarrel with the church that caused the country to be laid under an interdict; and finally, his defeat at the Battle of Bouvines.

Who John “Was” vs. What He “Did”

All of this, Dr. Stow noted, is probably common knowledge.  What is not so well known, he said, are appreciations for how John WAS – as opposed to what he DID – and the prevailing sentiment is that John was “cruel and ruthless, violent and passionate, greedy and self-indulgent, repellent and arbitrary … an evil tyrant, a monster and a villain….”  At the same time, and after nearly 800 years, Dr. Stow noted that opinions of John and his character have varied considerably, ranging from bitterly hostile to enthusiastically favorable to something in-between.

Two well-known, near-contemporary writers – Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris – were in the bitterly hostile camp.  But during the Tudor-Stuart era in the later 16th and 17th centuries, opinions of John “changed in accordance with the political winds”.  For example, Henry VIII’s battle with the papacy made John appear “the illustrious predecessor” of Tudor Protestantism.

At the time of the Stuarts, “amidst swirling debates over the nature of royal tyranny…and whether or not Parliament had the authority to depose unruly monarchs – Parliamentary leaders, particularly Sir Edward Coke, repeatedly invoked the Magna Carta in their argument.”

John’s image was also re-crafted in more favorable terms during the early years of Charles II.  But in the Victorian era, assessments again turned negative.  And towards the end of the 19th century, J. R. Green’s “History of the English People” set the tone with a devastating portrait that transformed John from an unscrupulous villain into a psychotic.

New Evidence is Positive

Historians today have uncovered evidence that undermines the credibility of the original, very negative Chronicle sources – i.e., Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris.  V.H. Galbraith, for example, dismisses the Paris portrait as “a creation of literature: as fictitious as Shakespeare’s Falstaff”, and Sidney Painter observes, “in many, perhaps in most, respects John was an excellent King…I can see no justification in calling John a tyrant in the political or constitutional sense.”

In a similar vein, J.C. Holt wrote, “It is now recognized that John took a thoroughly intelligent and immensely energetic interest in the running of the country.  The total achievement was enormous, fit to stand with that of Henry II or Edward I.  Together, these two and John represent a standard which was never again equaled in the medieval period.”

High marks are also accorded John regarding matters of foreign policy.  According to A.L.Poole, “No medieval English King before or since his time dealt more successfully with the Welch, the Scots, or the Irish, and even his later campaigns in Poitou might have been crowned with victory had it not been for the treachery or at least the half-hearted support of the barons who followed him.”  And as R.V. Turner has noted, it was John who had the foresight to initiate efforts to construct an English naval force.

More recent studies in the late 20th and early 21st century have once again registered doubts about all this and have reverted to something like the original view – i.e., that John was cruel, violent, ruthless, greedy and highly unstable.  For authorities writing in John’s lifetime the picture is generally hostile, and the views of those writing 10-20 years after his death are even more negative.

Everyone Disliked John

In the words of John Gillingham, “All contemporary historians, both English and non-English – took a critical view of John.  This in itself is a highly significant political fact.  Everyone disliked John.  In the end [baronial] dislike and discontent were so great that they invented a new kind of focus for revolt, a programme of reform, Magna Carta.”

Concluding a most interesting talk, Dr. Stow reminded everyone that the historiographical tradition attending King John’s posthumous reputation is ever-changing.  “Now up, now down”, he said.  John’s reception among historians from his day to ours “has offered up contradictory and at times conflicting interpretations.  Strangely enough, however, King John has at times found admirers and sympathiziers, who have on occasion limned for more favorable portraits – perhaps not as John qua person, but rather as John qua ruler – and in a curious way, as contributing in a positive way to the future history of England.”

Dr. Stow concluded his talk by quoting Sir Winston Churchill: “The difficulties with which he [John] contended, on the whole with remarkable success, deserve cool and attentive study.  Moreover, when the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns; for it was through the union of many forces against him that [Magna Carta], the most famous milestone in our rights and freedom, was set up.”

It was a most interesting, informative and enjoyable talk, and Dr. Stow received a loud and well-deserved round of applause when he finished.