Medieval and Modern Historians on King John (Classroom Activity)


John, the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, was born in Oxford on 24th December 1166. Virtually nothing is known of John's childhood and early education. He was initially brought up in the household of Henry the Young, so that he could learn to be a knight. This was followed by time in the home of the king's justiciar, Ranulf de Glanville, where he was taught about the business of government.

John's father, Henry II, died on 6th July 1189. His older brother, Richard the Lionheart, now became king of England. However, he was badly wounded while fighting in France on 25th March 1199. Richard named John as his heir before dying on 6th April 1199.

England and Normandy accepted John succession without protest. However, the barons of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, refused to accept him as their ruler and instead declared for Arthur of Brittany, Eleanor's grandson (the son of Geoffrey). Eleanor was outraged and ordered that Anjou be laid waste as a punishment for its support of Geoffrey. Her soldiers attacked Angers and sacked the city.

King John's marriage to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, failed to produce any children and made plans to divorce his wife. However, Stephen Church, the author of King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant (2015), a more important reason was to marry someone who would help increase the size of his kingdom. With the encouragement of Eleanor, the marriage was annulled and he married Isabella of Angoulême on 24th August, 1200. At the time of her marriage to John, the blonde and blue-eyed 12-year-old Isabella was already renowned by some for her beauty. John was "madly enamoured" with his bride, as "he believed he possessed everything he could desire".

Isabella, was originally betrothed to Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan. He protested against the sudden loss of his fiancée and when he got no justice from King John he appealed to the court of Philip II of France, who "declared in his favour and ruled all of John's "continental fiefs forfeit". John now invaded France and initially had some success and on 1st August 1202 he was able to capture Arthur of Brittany, one of the leaders of the rebels in Normandy. More than 250 knights were chained together and then paraded as trophies before being taken to prisons in England and Normandy.

Dan Jones, the author of The Plantagenets (2013) has argued that "John's military campaign was the most complete and stunning victory won by forces under an English king since Richard had relieved Jaffa in 1192. At a stroke, John had decapitated the Lusignan resistance in Aquitaine... John was careful to rub it into the noses of everyone he passed slowly on his way back to Normandy. His illustrious prisoners were paraded, heavily manacled, as a public warning of the consequences of rebellion."

Arthur and other rebels were kept in terrible conditions. William Marshal, who had supported John as king was highly critical about the way he treated the prisoners: "The king kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner and such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed his cruelty." At Corfe Castle twenty-two of these prisoners starved to death.

Arthur of Brittany was shut up in a dungeon in Falaise Castle and was never seen alive again. Roger of Wendover reported: "Opinion about the death of Arthur gained ground, by which it seemed that John was suspected by all of having slain him with his own hand; for which reason many turned their affections from the King and entertained the deepest enmity for him."

The people of France were horrified by the idea that John had executed the 16-year-old Arthur. The lords of Maine defected to King Philip and Le Mans fell to the French. In Brittany, Arthur's subjects rose in revolt and this cut Normandy off from Poitou. King Philip advanced along the Loire and took the great fortress of Saumur. "Chinon held out against him, so he swung north and marched unopposed into Normandy, taking town after town: Domfront, Coutances, Falaise, Bayeux, Lisieux, Caen and Avranches - those great bastions of Angevin power - all fell to him."

In December 1203, John decided to abandon France and left his officials to make the best terms they could. A month later, Angers, was captured. There was also a serious rebellion against his rule in Aquitaine. One of his officials wrote that John "saw his land getting worse by the day as a result of war, and Frenchmen who had no love for him and pillaged his land". By the summer of 1205 the last of his strongholds in Normandy and Anjou had fallen. These humiliating military defeats earned John a new nickname; he became known as "Softsword".

Primary Sources

King John
(Source 1) King John

(Source 2) The Margam Abbey Chronicle (c. 1205)

King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time in the castle of Rouen... After dinner on the Thursday before Easter when he was drunk and possessed by the Devil, King John killed him with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine.

(Source 3) The Barnwell Abbey Chronicle (c. 1220)

He (King John) was generous and liberal to outsiders but stole from the English. Since he trusted more in foreigners than in the English, he had been abandoned before the end by his people, and his own end was little mourned.

King John
(Source 4) King John

(Source 5) Matthew Paris, Greater Chronicle (c. 1260)

John was a tyrant rather than a king, a destroyer rather than a governor, an oppressor of his own people, and a friend to strangers, a lion to his own subjects, a lamb to foreigners and those who fought against him; for, owing to his slothfulness, he had lost Normandy and, moreover, was eager to lose the kingdom of England or destroy it; he was an insatiable extorter of money, and an invader and destroyer of the possessions of his own natural subjects... he had violated the daughters and sisters of his nobles; and was wavering and distrustful in his observance of the Christian religion?

(After signing the Magna Carta) King John's mental state underwent a great change... He started to gnash his teeth and roll his eyes in fury. Then he would pick up sticks and straws and gnaw them like a lunatic... His uncontrolled gestures gave indications... of the madness that was upon him.

(Source 6) Gerald of Wales, Concerning the Instruction of a Prince (c. 1190)

Caught in the toils and snared by the temptations of unstable and dissolute youth, he was as wax to receive impressions of evil, but hardened against those who would have warned him of its danger; compliant to the fancy of the moment; more given to luxurious ease than to warlike exercises, to enjoyment than to endurance, to vanity than to virtue.

King John
(Source 7) King John

(Source 8) William Stubbs, Constitutional History of England (1875)

John had made private enemies as well as public ones; he trusted no man, and no man trusted him. The threat of deposition aroused all his fears, and he betrayed his apprehensions in the way usual with tyrants.... John was the worst of all our kings... a faithless son and a treacherous brother... polluted with every crime... in the whole view there is no redeeming trait.

(Source 9) John Gillingham, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975)

John possessed some good qualities. Few kings took such a close interest in the details of administration and the daily business of the law courts, but in his own day this counted for very little. John was suspicious of other men and they of him. He inspired neither affection nor loyalty and once he had shown that, no matter how hard he tried, he lacked Richard's ability to command victory in war, then he was lost.

King John
(Source 10) Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland from
Thomas Walsingham's Golden Book of St Albans (1380)

(Source 11) Maurice Ashley, Life and Times of King John (1972)

The monastic chroniclers... have been shown by modem research to be completely unreliable in what they said about John, because their works were largely compiled out of gossip and rumour directed against a monarch who had upset the Church... King John was... a first-class general, a clever diplomat and a ruler who developed... English law and government.

(Source 12) Stephen Church, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant (2015)

He (King John) had started his reign as the de facto ruler of not only England, but also large parts of what would become the kingdom of France. He was duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou. In addition, he enjoyed rulership of the kingdom of Ireland, overlordship of Wales, Scotland and Brittany, and claimed overlordship of the county of Toulouse. By 1204, he had lost Normandy, Anjou and the northern part of Aquitaine (called Poitou and centred on Poitiers), though he still held the southern part (called Gascony and centred on Bordeaux). By his death, John had lost control of London (his capital city), of Westminster (where his Exchequer sat), of the south of England (to the French who had invaded under the leadership of Louis, son of the French king), and he had enemies in the north and in the east of his kingdom.

(Source 13) Dan Jones, The Plantagenets (2013)

John did not inspire confidence. This was perhaps his defining characteristic. Neither princes nor bureaucrats were fully inclined to believe him or to believe in him, and frequently this was with good reason. John's career to 1199 was pockmarked by ugly instances of treachery, frivolity and disaster, since his earliest, unwitting involvement in the dynastic politics of the Plantagenet family as "John Lackland" his father's coddled favourite, until his covetous behaviour during his brother's long captivity. John's behaviour during the latter years of Richard's reign had been broadly good, but it did not take much to recall how appallingly he had acted while Richard was out of the country. John had rebelled against Richard's appointed ministers, interfered with ecclesiastical appointments, connived at the destruction of the justiciar William Longchamp, encouraged an invasion from Scotland, spread the rumour that his brother was dead, entreated Philip II to help him to secure the English throne for himself, done homage to Philip for his brother's continental lands, granted away to Philip almost the whole duchy of Normandy, attempted to bribe the
German emperor to keep his brother in prison, and almost single handedly created the feeble state in which Richard had found the Plantagenet lands and borders on his eventual release from captivity.

And these were only the political facts. The personal perception was worse. Although John had been quiet and dutiful in his service to Richard following their reconciliation in 1195, he was still thought by many to be untrustworthy. Contemporary writers also commented on John's unpleasant demeanour, which seemed dark in opposition to the brilliant glow of chivalry that emanated from his brother. Like Richard and Henry II, John was already known for his tough financial demands and fierce temper. Like Henry he was thought to be cruel, and he tended to make vicious threats against those who thwarted him. Unlike Henry and Richard, however, he was also weak, indecisive and unchivalrous. Several writers noted that John and his acolytes sniggered when they heard of others' distress. He was deemed untrustworthy, suspicious, and advised by evil men.

(Source 14) Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1999)

On 25 May 1199, confident that his continental possessions were secure for the moment, John crossed to England to claim his kingdom... As King of England, John has received a bad press, although recent studies of the official documents of his reign have shown that he was a gifted administrator who showed a concern for justice... Unlike his brother Richard, he showed real concern for his kingdom, and travelled more widely within it than any of his Norman and Angevin predecessors, dispensing justice and overseeing public spending. During his reign, as a result of his personal intervention, the Exchequer, Chancery and law courts began to function more effectively. The records also suggest that the King took a more than ordinary interest in the welfare of his common subjects.

Questions for Students

Question 1: What bad things do the authors of sources 2, 3, 5 and 6 say about King John?

Question 2: What do the people who produced sources 2, 3, 5 and 6 have in common? How might this have influenced what they wrote about King John? Before answering this question it will help you to read source 11.

Question 3: Compare what William Stubbs, Maurice Ashley, John Gillingham, Stephen Church, Dan Jones and Alison Weir say about King John. Give reasons why these historians should have such different views of King John

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.