A Brief History
On October 12, 1216, King John of England capped off what had to be one of the least glorious chapters in the history of Britain by losing his crown jewels. Conducting a campaign across his country in an effort to retain his crown, some of John’s baggage train was lost in “quicksand and whirlpools” of the “Wash,” an estuary in East Anglia (a squarish bay of about 15 miles by 15 miles into which 4 major rivers flow).
John and his brothers, including Richard the Lionheart, later Richard I, King of England, etc., took part in an unsuccessful rebellion against their father, King Henry II. Lucky for them, Henry II forgave them.
The miserable career of King John continued when his brother, the King, Richard I was off in the Levant during the Third Crusade.
John attempted to seize power in the King’s absence, giving rise to the scenario in which the Robin Hood legend is based. This legend and the subsequent books and movies about it depict John as a miserable and cruel usurper, totally unfair to the people and one of the great villains of history.
Upon Richard’s return, the King resumed his rightful throne, and again, John found forgiveness for his lack of loyalty, even naming John heir to the throne. (Note: Richard was not so “lionhearted” toward Jews, and persecuted them to a shameful extent.)
John ascended to the throne in 1199 when Richard was struck by a crossbow bolt during a campaign in Chalus (Western France). (Note: Richard’s heart was buried in Rouen, his entrails in Chalus, and his torso in Anjou.) John’s reign did not go smoothly, as economic tensions and unrest were the order of the day. King John managed to lose the lands in France, diminishing his kingdom, and then suffered a rebellion of the barons in England, being force to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, ceding some of his power to a council of barons.
Neither King John nor the barons lived up to the terms of the Magna Carta, so the fighting continued until John contracted dysentery in 1216, lost his crown jewels in transit of The Wash, and died on October 19, 1216. Unpopular in life, reviled in popular media as a villain in death, John nonetheless is buried at Worcester Castle with all the normal honors given a King.
Described as petty, spiteful and cruel, John does have his champions that claim his reign was not that bad (apparently a low bar standard!). Seen as energetic and competent, a certain amount of historical revisionism has taken place for a King that was as tax happy as they come and twice tried to usurp the throne. In fact, John was even ex-communicated by the Pope and was accused of offering to convert to Islam in exchange for the financial support of Muslims. Historian Kate Norgate refers to John’s “almost superhuman wickedness,” certainly not a ringing endorsement of his legacy.
The tenacity with which Britain clings to the tradition of the monarchy baffles this author, as history is rife with examples of monarchs supposedly ordained by God that had miserable and flawed character, especially showing no respect for other monarchs presumably also ordained by God. Question for students (and subscribers): Please share your thoughts on monarchy with the rest of us in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Morris, Marc. King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England: The Road to Magna Carta. Pegasus Books, 2015.