Medieval and Modern Historians on King John (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Medieval and Modern Historians on King John

Q1: What bad things do the authors of sources 2, 3, 5 and 6 say about King John?

A1: The Margam Abbey Chronicle (source 2) argues that King John murdered Arthur of Brittany. Source 3 (The Barnwell Abbey Chronicle) alleges that while King John was generous to foreigners he "stole from the English". Source 5 (Matthew Paris) claims that King John was "unbalanced and unstable" and acted like a "lunatic". Source 6 (Gerald of Wales) suggests that John gave the "impressions of evil".

Q2: 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.

A2: Sources 2, 3, 5 and 6 were all written by churchmen. As Maurice Ashley (source 11) points out, monastic chroniclers were very hostile to King John because of his policies towards the Church. Ashley claims that the works of the monastic chroniclers "were largely compiled out of gossip and rumour directed against a monarch who had upset the Church".

Q3: 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

A3: William Stubbs, has argued that John was the "worst of all our kings" and before he obtained power he showed he was "a faithless son and a treacherous brother". Stubbs claims that he had great difficulty forming alliances: "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."

Dan Jones, the author of The Plantagenets (2013), agrees with this assessment. He claims that his early behaviour, when he betrayed his father and his brother, meant that he was not trusted: "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."

Writers such as William Stubbs and Dan Jones rely heavily on the work of 13th century historians. Maurice Ashley has pointed out that medieval historians were not always very accurate in their writings: "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."

Alison Weir supports this view and compares John's record with his brother, Richard the Lionheart and his father, Henry II: "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." Weir points out that "recent studies of the official documents of his reign have shown that he was a gifted administrator who showed a concern for justice" and during "his reign, as a result of his personal intervention, the Exchequer, Chancery and law courts began to function more effectively". Finally, the "records also suggest that the King took a more than ordinary interest in the welfare of his common subjects".

However, Stephen Church, takes the view that King John has been criticised by historians because of his military failures. He points out: "By 1204, he (King John) had lost Normandy, Anjou and the northern part of Aquitaine... 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".