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King John and the Historians

  • C. Warren Hollister
Extract

King John Lackland was surely one of the most enigmatic figures ever to rule England. The dramatic ambivalence of his personality, the passions that he stirred among his own contemporaries, the very magnitude of his failures, have made him an object of endless fascination to historians and biographers. Whose interests would not be piqued by the man who was recently described by a distinguished scholar as “cruel and ruthless, violent and passionate, greedy and self-indulgent, genial and repellant, arbitrary and judicious, clever and capable, original and inquisitive”?

As one might expect, King John has received a great deal of scholarly attention. Nearly every historian who touches on any aspect of his reign feels compelled to offer his own judgment of John's puzzling character, his effectiveness, even his personal morality. The present century has seen, in addition to numerous specialized studies of various facets of John's reign, no less than three major biographies of that indefatigable but luckless king. The first of these, by Miss Kate Norgate, was published in 1902 and reflects the traditional viewpoint of the late nineteenth century. The second, Sidney Painter's work of 1949, stresses the monarch's relations with his baronial and administrative subordinates and presents a more genial and sophisticated interpretation of John himself. Hopes for a promised companion volume dealing with military and naval institutions and the development of the common law under John have been shattered by Painter's untimely death.

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1. Poole, A. L., From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (2nd ed., Oxford, 1955), p. 425 .

2. Norgate, Kate, John Lackland (London, 1902). A German study, Lehmann, 's Jokann ohne Land (Berlin, 1904), although of sound scholarship, adds little to the work of previous English writers.

3. Painter, Sidney, The Reign of King John (Baltimore, 1949). Painter, 's earlier work, William Marshal (Baltimore, 1933) is an exceptionally valuable study of the man who was one of the most important and most loyal of John's barons. His Reign of King John begins shakily with a tribute to Sir Frederick (sic) and Lady Stenton but thereafter is a model of scholarship.

4. Warren, W. L., King John (New York, 1961). J. C. Holt's more specialized study of baronial discontent under John, The Northerners, will be forthcoming in the immediate future.

5. Stubbs, William, The Constitutional History of England (6th ed., 3 vols. Oxford, 1897), I, 563 .

6. Green, John Richard, History of the English People (special ed., Nations of the World series, 4 vols., New York, n.d.), I, 237 .

7. Norgate, , John Lackland, p. 286 .

8. Petit-Dutaillis, Charles, The Feudal Monarchy in France and England, (London, 1936), p. 215 . Actually, Petit-Dutaillis bases his conclusion more on John's vacillations in Normandy than on his evil reputation.

9. Ibid., p. 216; L'Essoir des états d'occident (new ed., Paris, 1944), p. 137 .

10. Sayles, G. O., The Medieval Foundations of England (Philadelphia, 1950), p. 390 . Previté-Orton, C. W., The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History (2 vols., Cambridge, 1952), II, 707 , suggests in passing that his alternation between energy and lethargy has made his sanity suspect.

11. See Poole, , Domesday Book to Magna Carta, p. 426 ; Warren, , King John, p. 88 .

12. Galbraith, V. H., Roger Wendover and Matthew Paris (Glasgow, 1944), pp. 35–9. See also Vaughan, R., Matthew Paris (Cambridge, 1958), and the excellent review of the problem in Warren, , King John, pp. 1116 .

13. Norgate, , John Lackland, p. 136 ; Wendover, Roger, Chronica, ed. Coxe, H. O. (5 vols., 18411844), III, 229 . See also Ramsay, James, The Angevin Empire (London, 1903), p. 434 , and Powicke, F. M., Stephen Langton (Oxford, 1928), p. 100 .

14. Painter, , Reign of King John, pp. 270–72. The basic outlines of the tale are corroborated by de Coggeshall, Ralph, Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. Stevenson, J. (Rolls Series, 1875), p. 165 (A.D. 1212); the Annals of Dunstaple, in Annates Monastici, ed. Luard, H. R. (5 vols., Rolls Series, 18641869), III, 33–4 (A.D. 1210); and the Annals of St. Edmunds in Memorials of St. Edmund's Abbey, ed. Arnold, Thomas (3 vols., Rolls Series, 18901896), II, 25 (A.D. 1212), but without reference to the cope of lead. Paris's, Matthew accounts of this episode are lurid and badly confused: Chronica Majora, ed. Luard, H. R. (7 vols., Rolls Series, 18721883), II, 537–8, 557 ; Historia Anglorum, ed. Madden, Frederic (3 vols., Rolls Series, 18661869), II, 126 . Painter asserts that Geoffrey was murdered in prison (op. cit., p. 236), but this is by no means certain. Much confusion arises from the fact that at least three Geoffreys of Norwich were active during John's reign: the justice of the Jews(who was probably the victim in question), Geoffrey de Burgh (archdeacon of Norwich who became bishop of Ely in 1225), and Geoffrey de Buckland (also an archdeacon of Norwich who vanishes from the records around 1203). See Painter, Sidney, “Norwich's Three Geoffreys,” Speculum, xxviii (1953), 808–13. Painter complains, “There were simply too many Geoffreys connected with Norwich.” See also Richardson, H. G., “William of Ely, the King's Treasurer,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, XV (1932), 51–2.

15. Warren, , King John, p. 13 . See also Poole, , Domesday Book to Magna Carta, p. 427, n.1.

16. Norgate, , John Lackland, p. 113 . citing Paris, Matthew, Historia Anglorum, II, 104 .

17. Painter, , Reign of King John, p. 61 ; Paris, Matthew, Chronica Majora, II, 559 . Cf. Norgate, , John Lackland, p. 194, n.5, and Warren, , King John, pp. 14, 134 .

18. Magna Vita S. Hugonis, Episcopi Lincolniensis, ed. Dimock, J. F. (Rolls Series, 1864), pp. 292–3. See Warren, , King John, pp. 171–2, who remarks dryly, “Unfortunately for his reputation, John was not a great benefactor to monasteries which kept chronicles (p. 172).”

19. William of Newburg. Historia Rerum Anglorum in Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, ed. Howlett, Richard (4 vols., Rolls Series, 18841889), II, 521 ; Warren, , King John, pp. 189, 230 .

20. Richardson, H. G., “The Marriage and Coronation of Isabelle of Angoulême,” English Historical Review, LXI (1946), 289314 , and King John and Isabelle of Angoulême,” English Historical Review, LXV (1950), 360–71.

21. Ibid., p. 361.

22. Cazel, F. A. and Painter, Sidney, “The Marriage of Isabelle of Angoulême,” English Historical Review, LXIII (1948), 83–9; LXVII (1952), 233-5.

23. Warren, , King John, p. 257 .

24. Ibid., p. 47; see also pp. 100-101, 125-153.

25. Painter, , Reign of King John, p. 238 ; see also pp. 93-150. The older view is expressed by Norgate, Kate, John Lackland, p. 215 : “The whole judicial administration of the realm was corrupt.” Ibid., pp. 217-18: “In a word, the entire system of government and administration set up under the Norman kings and developed under Henry and Richard had been converted by the ingenuity of John into a most subtle and effective engine of royal extortion, oppression and tyranny over all classes of the nation, from earl to villein.”

26. Besides the references cited above, see Lyon, Bryce, A Constitutional and Legal History of Medieval England (New York, 1960), p. 241 ; Stenton, D. M., English Society in the Early Middle Ages, pp. 44–5, and King John and the Courts of Justice,” Proceedings of the British Academy, XLIV (1958), 103128 ; Barlow, Frank, The Feudal Kingdom of England (London, etc., 1955), pp. 396–9; Poole, , Domesday Book to Magna Carta, p. 429 ; Jolliffe, J. E. A., Angevin Kingship (London, 1955), pp. 345 ff. For the older view, see Maitland, F. W., The Constitutional History of England (Cambridge, 1908), p. 93 : “Under John the sale of justice had become scandalous.”

27. Powicke, F. M., The Loss of Normandy (Manchester, 1913), p. 447 .

28. Jolliffe, , Angevin Kingship, pp. 346–7.

29. Barlow, , Feudal Kingdom of England, p. 398 .

30. For a full discussion of this matter, see Painter, , Reign of King John, pp. 93 ff.

31. This fact is stressed by Barlow, , Feudal Kingdom of England, p. 407 ; Jolliffe, , Angevin Kingship, pp. 345 ff. Lyon, Bryce, Constitutional and Legal History, p. 241 , writes, “John's administrative ability, though superb, led him to develop Angevin government into a despotism. …,” and Previté-Orton, , Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, II, 720 , observes that under John “efficiency and with it oppression reached their peak.”

32. See Warren, King John, pp. 207 ff., 233 ; Painter, , Reign of King John, pp. 192 ff. Painter calls John's decision to make England a papal fief, “a true stroke of genius (p. 193).” See also Norgate, , John Lackland, pp. 181–2.

33. Warren, , King John, p. 232 .

34. See my book, Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions (Oxford, Clarendon Press, forthcoming).

35. Stenton, D. M., English Society in the Early Middle Ages, p. 45 . See Brooks, F. W., The English Naval Forces, 1199-1272, (London, 1933), pp. 134, 164 .

36. And for a few years between 1087 and 1106.

37. See Powell, W. R., “The Administration of the Navy and the Stannaries, 1189-1216,” English Historical Review, LXXI (1956), 177–88.

38. Warren, , King John, p. 125 . See also ibid., pp. 20-25; Brooks, English Naval Forces, passim; Barlow, , Feudal Kingdom of England, p. 409 .

39. Poole, , Domesday Book to Magna Carta, p. 426 .

40. Ibid.; Warren, , King John, p. 88 .

41. Previté-Orton, , Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, II, 708 ; Warren, , King John, pp. 8688 .

42. Lyon, , Constitutional and Legal History, p. 141 .

43. See Warren, , King John, pp. 248–9, 252 .

44. Barlow, , Feudal Kingdom of England, p. 395 . See also Lyon, , Constitutional and Legal History, p. 238 , Warren, , King John, pp. 89–91, 99 ; Fawtier, Robert, The Capetian Kings of France (London, 1960), p. 145 : “The artificial union brought about by Henry II, just strong enough to hold together in his own lifetime, was proving to be a brittle thing in the hands of his heirs.” Powicke, (Loss of Normandy, p. 367), observes, “The causes of Angevin failure … lie partly, of course, in John's character, but they are to be found even more in the fact that, while in France the growing separation between feudalism and government was a symptom of national strength and purpose, in Normandy it was typical of a general disintegration. In crushing the power of resistance to themselves Henry II and his sons destroyed the desire to unite against an invader.” On the other hand, Powicke believes that Richard's death hastened the loss of Normandy (ibid., p. 189.

45. Holt, J. C., “The Barons and the Great Charter,” English Historical Review, LXX (1955), 2 .

46. Painter, , Reign of King John, pp. 226–7. See also Barlow, , Feudal Kingdom of England, p. 407 , and Warren, , King John, pp. 178, 238–9.

47. Joliffe, , Angevin Kingship, p. 341 .

48. Ibid., p. 328.

49. Ibid., p. 329.

50. Ibid., p. 349.

51. Holt, , “The Barons and the Great Charter,” p. 3 .

52. Ibid., pp. 4, 17.

53. Warren, , King John, p. 239 .

54. Painter, , Reign of King John, p. 238 .

55. Ibid., p. 228. See also Barlow, , Feudal Kingdom of England, p. 402 : “Just as he had lost his fiefs through a quarrel not of his own choosing and because of factors largely outside his control, so his great struggle with the pope was not in origin of his own making or connected directly with his special vices.”

56. Stenton, D. M., English Society in the Early Middle Ages, p. 44 .

57. Poole, , Domesday Book to Magna Carta, p. 383 .

58. Petit-Dutaillis, , Feudal Monarchy, p. 214 .

59. Fawtier, , Capetian Kings of France, p. 146 . See also ibid., p. 26: “King John's blundering drove the English barons into revolt at the very time when a united England might have proved fatal to Philip.” Sayles, (Medieval Foundations of England, p. 393), believes that John was by no means free of blame in the catastrophe at Bouvines. John's role in the campaign was to strike at Philip Augustus through Poitou, forcing the French to defend themselves on two fronts: “After a promising beginning to his campaign John succumbed to inertia and allowed himself to be checked on the Loire when it was essential that he should advance towards Paris.” Philip was therefore able to devote his full energies to the Flemish and Imperial forces at Bouvines.

60. Powicke, , Loss of Normandy, p. 189 .

61. Cazel, and Painter, , “The Marriage of Isabelle of Angoulême,” pp. 83–9; Poole, , Domesday Book to Magna Carta, p. 380 .

62. Ibid.; Petit-Dutaillis, , Feudal Monarchy, pp. 217–18; Fawtier, , Capetian Kings of France, p. 146 . Warren, (King John, pp. 258–9) writes, “… he won a respite by his campaign of 1199 and by the Treaty of Le Goulet, but threw it away by his reckless provocation of the Lusignans.”

63. See Ralph of Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicanum, pp. 137–8.

64. Warren, , King John, p. 80 .

65. See Powicke, , Loss of Normandy, pp. 226–7.

66. Annals of Margam, in Annales Monastici, I, 26 .

67. Ibid., I, 27.

68. Wendover, , Chronica, I, 316–17; II, 8; III, 171. Wendover's account is accepted by Norgate, (John Lackland, p. 89) and at least partially by several later writers, e.g., Sayles, (Medieval Foundations, p. 390), who refers to his intermittent fits of energy and apathy in his continental campaigns; Previté-Orton, , Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, II, 707 (“energy alternated with singular lethargy”). But see Warren, , King John, pp. 87–8.

69. Previté-Orton, , Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, II, 708 .

70. Warren, , King John, p. 86 .

71. Ibid., p. 84.

72. Ibid., p. 259.

73. See Powicke, , Loss of Normandy, pp. 453–81; Petit-Dutaillis, , Le Deshérite-ment de Jean Sans Terre et le meurtre d'Arthur de Bretagne (Paris, 1925).

74. The story is attested by every contemporary chronicler. See Painter, , Reign of King John, p. 236 ; Warren, , King John, p. 185 .

75. Painter, , Reign of King John, p. 237 . Although the chiefs were in rebellion, Painter observes that John's act was “savage beyond the custom of the day.”

76. Ibid., pp. 232-6; Warren, , King John, pp. 189, 230 .

77. Ibid., pp. 190-91; Painter, , Reign of King John, pp. 231–2.

78. Ibid., pp. 229-30. Warren calls his appeal to the pope to annul the Charter “double-dealing of the most contemptible, though yet secret, kind” (King John, p. 242).

79. Ibid., 71-2, 184 ff., 258 ff.; Painter, , Reign of King John, pp. 228 ff., 238 , and passim.

80. Powicke, , Loss of Normandy, pp. 191–2.

81. Warren, , King John, p. 258 . John's behavior toward the Lusignans, which I touched on earlier, is only one of numerous examples of his clumsiness in baronial relations.

82. Norgate, , John Lackland, p. 286 . Cf. Warren, , King John, p. 256 : “John's death itself helped the cause of his house. …”

83. Painter, , Reign of King John, p. 7 .

84. Norgate, , John Lackland, p. 286 .

85. Previté-Orton, , Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, II, 707 . Probably, however, Warren would prefer softer words than “thoroughly bad”.

86. Warren, , King John, p. 10 ; see also p. 16.

87. Green, , History of the English People, p. 238 ; Norgate, , John Lackland, opposite p. 1 .

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