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The ‘Madness’ of King John
By Euryn Rhys Roberts
History Magazine, Issue 9 (2015)
Introduction: The past is full of controversial characters. It would be difficult by the standards of any period to find a good word to say about individuals such as Emperor Nero (‘the enemy of mankind’ according to one contemporary) or Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of All the Russians and prime despot of the sixteenth century. In more recent times, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot are names that chill the blood and bring to mind images of the twentieth century’s worst atrocities. Drawing up a shortlist of history’s main villains and miscreants would be an impossible task; suffice to say that every period has produced individuals who would fit the bill.
An interview with Medieval historians, or a closer look at the works of observers chronicling the British Isles at the turn of the thirteenth century, might persuade us to add one more name to our list of historic villains. Here is a taste of what to expect when reading the opinions of contemporaries of John, king of England from 1199 to 1216. According to Gerald of Wales (d. c.1223), one of the shrewder observers of that period, John surpassed ‘every unjust oppressor … with ragerd to the abhorrence of his misdeeds’. Matthew Paris (d. 1259) painted a very similar picture some decades after John’s death, describing him as ‘more of a tyrant than a king, more of a subversive than a ruler’ (‘potius tirannus fuit quam rex, potius subversor quam gubernator’).
For now it is fair to suggest that later historians portray King John in a similar light. On summarising John’s reign, Kate Norgate argues that many of his deeds were absolute proof of his ‘superhuman wickedness’. Similarly, he was described by Maurice Powicke as ‘[a] throughly bad man’. And even though Lewis Warren, in his biography of John, paints a fairer and possibly more balanced picture, he also highlights the king’s more obvious failings and his tendency to act the ‘petty tyrant’ rather that the ‘great king’.
The charges against John are therefore very serious. However, rather than tarring him with the same brush as other objectionable tyrants and dictators, it is only fair that we study the evidence before judging his character. Almost eight hundred years after his death, should we question king John’s position amongst the villains of the past? Was John really a devil in human form as many contemporary observers claim, or was he an energetic and ambitious king who went to extremes to fight for his rights? The aim of this article is to assess to what degree John deserves his reputation.