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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