King John Was Not a Good Man

King John Was Not A Good Man
by The Honorable Timothy Field Beard, FASG

BOMC/MOC Breakfast 10 April 2014, Washington, DC

“King John was not a good man, he had his little ways, and sometimes people would not speak to him for days and days and days. “ This was a poem by A.A. Milne in “Now We Are Six.” I memorized it before I was six, along with others from Milne’s “When We Were Very Young” that taught me to think about English history and culture at an early age. “They are changing guard at Buckingham Place. Christopher Robin went down with Alice. Alice is marrying one of the guard. A soldier’s life is terribly hard, says Alice.” I of course wanted to get over the water to see the changing of the guard and eventually I did. However, I did not necessarily want to meet King John!

These books were given to me by my grandfather Beard’s cousin, Philadelphia (Stuart-Menteth) Vines, who behaved like a grandmother to me. She outlived her generation and my father’s generation. Cousin Phil had a connection to Lincoln Cathedral and King John. Her husband T. Humfrey Vines, Principal of the Sind Madrassah Tul Islam in Karachi, India, was the son of Rev. Thomas Hotchkin Vines Victor of Fiskerton, in Lincolnshire, and a prebendary of Lincoln Cathedral. Humfrey’s mother was born Catherine Maria Stuart-Menteth, a first cousin of Cousin Phil’s father and my great-grandmother. At that period everyone in our family seemed to marry cousins! Cousin Phil spent a lot of time at Fiskerton when her husband was ill and after his death in the 1922. She told me about Lincoln Cathedral where  our ancestors Lady Joan Beaufort , wife of Ralph Neville, lst Earl of Westmoreland, and her mother Katherine Swynford were buried. Joan Beaufort was 7th in descent from King John through her father John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It is in the archives of Lincoln Cathedral that one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta is located.  Cousin Phil began corresponding with me about family history when I was 12 and continued to do so for many years almost up until the time she died at 93 in 1967. I still have all her letters which sent me on a course to learn about the events in English history, such as the signing of the Magna Carta.

Why do people still think King John was not a good man some 800 years after his death, and if it was not so why has there never been another King John? John, the youngest son of Henry II, King of England and first of the Plantagenet, or Anjevin, English kings, was born in Oxford at Christmastime in 1166 or 1167. He was the 10th child of his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine who was around 45 at the time of his birth, and I am sure she hoped he would be the last!! She had 8 children by Henry and two by her first husband, Louis VII of France. His father King Henry was only 32, and he had several mistresses to keep him happy. King Henry was evidently delighted with the little tyke and took time off from his mistresses to spoil him. When John still had three older brothers, his father thought his angelic baby boy might make a good member of the clergy. As the brothers dropped off, and only Richard and John were left and his complex personality developed, this idea faded. 

After so many centuries have gone by, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the early years of King John. Some say that he was educated in the Court of his older brother Henry, heir to the throne. Others say that his mother Eleanor sent him & his sister Joan, two years his senior, to the Abbey of Fontevrault in Anjou to be educated, and both theories seem to have some truth to them. On 28 September 1176, King Henry agreed to the betrothal of John and his second half cousin Isabella of Gloucester, daughter of William, Earl of Gloucester. Her sisters were disinherited, and she was made her father’s sole heir so that she could bring John a rich inheritance. However, they were not married until 1189.

As he grew older historians say that he was said to be genial, witty, generous and hospitable, but he also had some dangerous personality traits, such as pettiness and spitefulness. He could be jealous and over sensitive. He was prone to fits of rage, biting and gnawing his fingers in anger. He became a man whom people could not trust.

John was not considered an important member of the Royal family in his early years, as he had three much older brothers. Henry was called the Young King and was to be Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, Richard was Count of Poitou with control of Aquitaine. Geoffrey was Duke of Brittany, and his father nicknamed his young son John “Lackland “, due to the fact that there were no lands left for him. Then his oldest brother Henry, heir to the throne, died in 1183, and his brother Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, died in 1186. Only his brother Richard and John were alive by the time their father died in 1189. Richard then became king and John considered himself to be his heir, if he died without a son. There was a slight problem as Geoffrey had a son, Arthur, born after his death who could be considered senior to John in the line of succession.

King Henry II,  died on 6 July 1189 and on the 20th of July, his son Richard nicknamed the Lionhearted was declared Duke of Normandy and crowned King of England on 3 September 1189. He was called the Lionhearted, as at the age of 16, he took charge of an army and was a brave soldier.

When Richard became king, he was good to John and made him Count of Mortain and assigned to him the revenues of six English counties. In 1190 Richard started off on the third Crusade and had an agreement with the King of France, Philip II, or Philip Augustus, as he was called, to go on the Crusade together. Neither one trusted the other not to invade their lands, if they were absent! It was when they arrived in Sicily in September of 1190 and subdued the island, that Richard proclaimed his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany, his heir, if he died without a son. They went on to Cyprus which was captured and where Richard married Berengaria of Navarre on 12 May 1191.  The Crusaders finally arrived in Acre on 6 June 1191, and in spite of the fact that both Richard and Philip became ill, the city was captured. Then Richard and Philip argued about how they would divide Cyprus and who would be King of Jerusalem, a title that Philip wanted. Philip returned home and soon was in contact with John with the thought to undermine Richard’s rule.  

Around Christmas of 1192, Richard was captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria on his way back from the Crusade. He eventually was turned over to Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, and eventually on Feb.4, 1194 released after his mother Eleanor had raised the money for his ransom. During his captivity John was conspiring with Philip of France to overthrow Richard. However, when Richard returned, he forgave John and made him his heir instead of Arthur.  Richard spent most of the five years that remained of his reign on the continent. He died in the arms of his mother on April 6, 1199 and was buried at Fontevrault at the feet of his father.

King John was crowned at Westminster Abbey on May 27 1199.Suddenly John Lackland was in control of all the English and French lands of the Anjevin Kings. His wife Isabella was not crowned with him. It is said that he displayed an unseemly levity during the ceremony and left before receiving the Sacrament.  One of the first things that John did was to put aside his wife Isabel of Gloucester, as she was childless. It was easy to show that they were too closely related and have the Pope declare their marriage void. He found another wife in France, namely Isabelle of Angouleme who was a young teenager, and already engaged to Hugh IX de Lusignan, Count of La Marche. It was said that he was so infatuated with her that he would stay in bed until noon and neglect his kingly duties. They had five children .After John’s death she married the son of her former fiance, Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and had nine more children.

One historian described John as “a hardworking administrator, an able man and an able general”. However, during the early years of his reign in various battles he lost most of the continental lands of his family- Normandy, Anjou, Aquitaine all slipped away which seems to belie these attributes.   Phillip of France was sometimes an ally and sometimes an enemy. At one point John was even going to marry his daughter. It was during the early years of John’s reign that he captured and imprisoned his nephew Arthur. Many of his Angevin subjects still believed that, under their law, Arthur was senior to John and the real heir of Anjou, Normandy and England.  John first asked Hugh de Burgh, his Chamberlain, and later Justiciar and Earl of Kent, to castrate and blind the teenager. After he refused, it is said that John in a fit of rage strangled Arthur and threw his body into the Seine.  

As John retreated to England, he began to pay attention to the English nobles from whom he needed to obtain additional funds to run his government.  His brother and father had spent much of their reigns in their French lands, and the barons were able to gain more power. Now that he needed money from them, his evil side came to the fore. One example of his cruelty is in the case of William de Broase a powerful baron on the Welsh Marches with holdings in Ireland. When he refused to pay more than 26,000 pounds in punitive damage to John, the King imprisoned William’s wife and son, which resulted in their death. William de Broase died in exile in 1211, and at the time of John’s death in 1217, his grandsons were still in prison.     

This was typical of John’s cruelty. His demands for unreasonable taxation made the Barons rise up against John. Thus it was that their forces gathered on June 15, 1215 at the peaceful field of Runnymede on the Thames near Windsor Castle to confront King John. They demanded that he sign the Magna Carta. This document limited the powers of the King and protected their rights. This was an important process that led to constitutional law, not only in England, but in other parts of the world. The Constitution of the United States is a descendant of this famous document.  As time went on and the power of the English House of Lords diminished, the power of the House of Commons representing the people grew in strength.

By the time colonists arrived in this country, the local courts were important. Today we have many volumes of abstracts of our early court records that give us a picture of these early settlers and their way of life. Beverly Fleet in his abstracts did not delete some items that others who abstracted the same records found shocking.  An excellent example of this is in a 17th century court record of Accomac County, Virginia.  A woman who was being berated by a judge, could finally take no more of it. She turned her back to him, raised her skirts and said “Kiss”. There were many people around the year 1215 who would have liked to have performed this same gesture to King John, but they had no protection by law and would have been sent to the Tower of London for execution! Fortunately for the lady in Virginia, she had some participation in the court procedure, thanks to the Magna Carta signed so many years before.