In my previous post, 'My Visit to Runnymede' , I promised to write to explain the background to the Magna Charta and why the signing of it at Runnymede was so important.
To set the context, a few words must be said about bad King John and his family background.
The thirteenth-century monk and chronicler Mathew Paris said, “Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." As these remarks suggest, King John (r. 1199-1216) has the distinction of being remembered as the worst monarch England has ever known, with the possible exception of Bloody Mary, four hundred years later. Possessing a seemingly endless supply of greed, violence, malice, rage, lust, sadism, treachery and hypocrisy, it seems that there was no vice in which John did not excel.
But neither John nor his wickedness arose in a vacuum. The wickedness of King John, like the greatness of J.S. Bach, was the product of a family culture stretching back many generations
John’s family background was deeply rooted in the feudal structure of medieval society. Throughout the Middle Ages, the kings of France derived legitimacy through their vassals who governed the provinces. By giving land and titles to these nobles, the French king – only marginally more powerful than his vassals – could strengthen his rule. In return, the vassals were expected to provide armies to help protect the throne. This model was replicated in the vassal’s own land, where he protected peasants in exchange for service rendered to him.
This arrangement, known as Feudalism, was far from straightforward. Vassals of the French king would often fight to gain one another’s territory, and on occasion would even engage in battle with the king himself.
In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, himself a vassal of the king of France, conquered England, a territory equal in strength to that of France. From then on, whoever carried the title “Duke of Normandy” also held claim to the throne of England. This situation created a thorny relationship between the kings of France and the kings of England. In his capacity as Duke of Normandy, the English king remained a vassal to the French monarch, but in his capacity as King of England, he liked to think of himself as equal to the king of France. This created a number of problems that would come to a head during the reign of King John.
A House of Devils
One important vassal to the French king had been the 9th-century Frankish nobleman, Ingelger. He was appointed Count of Anjou by Louis II (“The Stammerer”; r. 877-879). Not much is known of Ingelger, but his importance is derived from the fact that he stood at the head of the Plantagenet dynasty, which would become one of the most powerful houses in all of Europe.
Legends from the time, recounted by the chronicler Gerald of Wales, maintained that Ingelger and his progeny, the counts of Anjou, were descended from the daughter of Satan. The history of the Anjou rulers seemed to lend credence to this dubious pedigree. Fulk III (“The Black”; 987-1040) had his first wife burnt to death in her wedding dress as a punishment for unfaithfulness. He later died during a holy pilgrimage. Fulk’s son, Geoffrey II, called Martel (“The Hammer”; 1040-1060), was known for his treachery and cruelty to neighbors. He enjoyed relations with a succession of different wives before becoming a monk in the final year of his life.
As these and other stories suggest, the Anjou propensity to wickedness was matched only by their quest to appear pious. True Pharisees, the counts of Anjou bestowed lavish gifts on the church, built impressive monasteries and abbeys, and went through all the outward motions of religious devotion while living lives of utter corruption and immorality.
The Angevin Curse
Ingelger’s descendents would probably have remained in relative obscurity were it not for the fact that Geoffrey the Fair (r. 1129-1151), one of the counts of Anjou, captured Normandy in 1144, securing the throne of England for his descendents. As Geoffrey had a custom of wearing a sprig of broom (Fr., genet) in his hat, he was given the nickname “Plantagenet.” The name stuck and remained with the Anjou rulers ever since.
Geoffrey’s descendents derived more than their name from him. They also inherited his relentless ambition, combined with a knack for increasing power through complex political games, warfare, and shrewd diplomacy. By the time of Geoffrey’s son, Henry II of England (r. 1154-1189), Angevin lands encompassed half of France, in addition to all of England.
For all their power and wealth, the Plantagenets were not a happy family. The situation was the reverse of the Bach clan: instead of looking out for the best interests of one another, ambitious Plantagenet children feuded constantly. This ultimately weakened their empire. The problem, which came to be known as the “Angevin Curse,” often centered on Plantagenet rulers attempting to divide their dominions among numerous ambitious children, all of whom vied for the best lands and titles. Over the years this led to a culture of jealousy and mistrust that would reach its climax in King John.
Childhood and Early Life
John was born Christmas Eve, 1167, the fourth child of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. From an early age he learned the art of treachery by seeing his older brothers and mother unsuccessfully conspire against their father. The conspiracy ended with John’s mother being imprisoned by his father. That did not end the trouble. John’s brother, Richard, continued to fight against their father right up until the time of Henry’s death.
John’s own relationship with his father was not much better. Eclipsed by his older brothers and neglected by his father, he was sent to be raised in the household of his elder brother in order that he might learn to be a knight. He also spent time in the household of Ranulf de Glanvil, head of Henry’s government, to learn the business of state. It is doubtful that John mastered either of these skills, but it is certain that none of his family’s propensity for self-seeking and hypocrisy was lost on him.
King Henry gave his youngest son the nickname “Lackland” because there was no land left to give him as an inheritance. As a compensation for this, John was put in charge of governing Ireland. It only took John six months to alienate the entire native population. He achieved this by ridiculing the beards of the Irish chieftains, even going up to the warriors and tugging on their facial hair. The situation escalated out of control and John was forced to slink back home to his father.
Four years later John’s brother, Richard I (r. 1189-1199), succeeded as King of England and Lord of the Plantagenet empire in France. But Richard’s heart, “lion” though it may have been, was not in England. He remained on the island only long enough to raise money for a Crusade (known as the “Third Crusade”). When Richard was able to leave for the Holy Land in 1190, he appointed William of Longchamp to oversee the kingdom. Hoping to keep his younger brother out of trouble, Richard gave John control of vast estates.
If John had any virtues at all, gratefulness was not among them. As soon as his brother Richard was safely out of the way, John began scheming to overthrow Longchamp and make himself supreme ruler of the land. Because Longchamp was unpopular, John did not find it difficult to rally the people to his side.
When news of the rebellion reached Richard, he dispatched Archbishop Walter de Coutances to put an end to it. Not willing to admit defeat, John conspired with King Philip II (r. 1180-1223) of France to stir up rebellion against Richard. The opportunity arose when Richard was returning from the Holy Land and fell prisoner to the Duke of Austria. With Richard safely locked up, Philip seized strategic castles of Richard’s in France, while John usurped the throne. However, by 1194 England had raised enough money to pay Richard’s ransom and he was able to return home. Unfortunately, Richard refused to punish his younger brother, who had never been forced to face the consequences of his actions. Though John was twenty-seven at the time, Richard considered him the family baby and made the excuse that he had been the victim of bad company.
John knew when it suited his purposes to behave, and for the next five years he restrained himself. His piety proved beneficial, for when Richard was mortally wounded in a fight to regain one of his castles, he appointed John heir to the Plantagenet dominions.
Although Richard’s wishes were respected in England and Normandy, the barons in Anjou, Maine and Touraine chose John’s twelve-year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany, as overlord. John eventually took care of that: by bribing King Philip, he was able to capture and murder his young nephew.
“No Animal in Nature”
With his rival out of the way, John began to reveal his true colors. Yet for all his wickedness, John’s character remained a complex mixture. “Richard had embodied the virtues which men admire in the lion,” wrote Winston Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, “but there is no animal in nature that combines the contradictory qualities of John. He united the ruthlessness of a hardened warrior with the craft and subtlety of a Machiavellian. . . . In him the restless energy of the Plantagenet race was raised to a furious pitch of instability.”
As Churchill’s words suggest, John’s character was something of an enigma. He was both impulsive and calculating, impetuous and highly intelligent. Always on the lookout for carnal pleasures, he also devoted much time to book learning. Though he eschewed moral purity, he was careful about personal hygiene at a time when it was unusual for an Englishman to regularly wash. In order to advertise his own generosity and righteousness, he conferred modest grants on numerous Abbeys and helped to found the monastery at Beaulieu, in Hampshire. Yet he also enjoyed advertising his wickedness and drew particular delight from publicizing the shame of those women he had successfully seduced. Though in many respects he remained a spoiled child who refused to grow up, he worked hard in the administration of his kingdom at a time when it was not customary for monarchs to do so. Though he was very kind to his animals and regularly gave alms to the poor, he punished women and children by starving them to death, and crushed old men under heavy piles of lead.
Behind John’s brutality was a mind of exceptional cunning. A keen judge of human nature, John knew how to manipulate people and circumstances to his advantage. Accounts from the time have chronicled his wickedness, but they also describe him as judicious, patient and occasionally generous. This was partly because he was subject to impetuous swings of emotion, but more often it was because he possessed the same knack as his Anjou ancestors of being able to perceive when it advanced his aims to adopt the pretense of piety.
The one constant in his character was that he could not tolerate being accountable to anyone. This quickly brought him into conflict with his overlord, Philip. Though John had been united with Philip as an enemy of his brother Richard, he did not find the relationship to his liking now that he was subject to the French king.
The trouble with Philip began when John became infatuated with twelve-year-old Isabella of Angoulêm. Believing that a union with her would be a political asset, John deserted his first wife for this girl twenty years his junior. But young Isabella was already betrothed to Hugh of Lusignan, who had been waiting for his fiancé to come of age. John not only snatched Hugh’s bride, but also confiscated his lands and made a gift of them to his new father-in-law.
Hugh appealed to the judgment of Philip, who summoned John to Paris. As King of England, John felt it would be beneath his dignity to comply. But Philip argued that he had not lost authority over John simply because his vassal had acquired the status of king of England.
As a result of his refusal, Philip dispossessed John of all his continental holdings, giving John’s boyhood nickname ‘Lackland’ a new significance. But now John had to contend with another nickname: “Soft-Sword,” because of the way he had allowed Philip to so easily help himself to his lands.
“When we reflect,” observed Churchill, “that the French provinces counted just as much with the Plantagenet kings as the whole realm of England it is obvious that a more virtuous man than John would be incensed at such treatment, and its consequences.”
John did realize his mistake, but only after it was too late. Not only had he lost all the Plantagenet holdings in France, but he was looked upon as a coward for not putting up a fight. For the rest of his life all his energies were bent on recovering both his territories and his reputation.
Taxing Dry the Land
For John, the solution to his problem was simple: he would simply tax the people until he could afford an army large enough to invade France. He had watched his brother tax and spend and now he was eager to prove that he was just as capable of implementing this unpopular policy.
The problem was that Richard had already wrung England dry to finance his Crusade. On top of that, the shires had then been forced to contribute an exorbitant amount to pay Richard’s ransom. During the last five years of Richard’s reign, he had again bled England dry to recapture the castles Philip had taken. As a result, by the time of John’s reign, the economy of England was depleted, poverty was rampant, and prices were soaring. All that was needed to push the economy into total ruin was another tax. And that is exactly what John introduced.
John invented creative new ways of taxing his subjects. He forced knights to buy themselves out of military service every year, even when the land was at peace. In 1207, he levied a surcharge on all rents and moveable property (previously people’s taxes were calculated on the basis of their land). In addition, he tightened the forest laws and appointed sheriffs in charge of enforcing them.
John also let it be known that he was open to bribery. Corrupt officials could pay him not to peer too closely into their questionable activities. He also found ways to exact huge sums from the native Jewish population, already subject to punitive taxation. His methods were simple: blind and hang members of the Jewish community until they coughed up exorbitant sums of cash.
Behind this oppressive system of taxation was a philosophy of government that had been imported to England at the time of the Norman Conquest. Prior to the invasion of 1066, England had never had kings who thought they owned all the land they governed. However, William and the Norman rulers who followed in his wake, considered the entire island of England to be their own private backyard.
The French nobles whom William had placed in leadership throughout England followed their king’s example by enslaving the populations in their territories. But by the time of John in the early 13th century, these nobles had begun to think of themselves as Englishmen and had imbibed many of the ideas of liberty native to the English tradition. Moreover, many of them had grown powerful, capable of mounting a front to resist the king’s oppressive taxation. The king, they argued, did not rule the land he governed, but must himself be subject to the rule of law.
Thinking it would be perceived as weakness to listen to these complaints, John stepped up his demands. He knew that the people would not support an expedition of English soldiers into the Continent. Instead he waged war on Philip indirectly by paying the anti-French emperor, Otto, 1,000 marks a year to make trouble for France. He also paid the Count of Boulogne for a similar purpose. Additionally, large sums went to the Dukes of Limburg and Brabant, and the Counts of Flanders and Holland to encourage proxy wars against Philip. John also maintained an expensive army himself, which included hundreds of Flemish knights and a navy with the capability to demolish French fleets. As all of this required yet more money, John continued to raise taxes.
In addition to monies, John built up a large collection of jewels and fine clothes, with which he loved to decorate his person. He also had expensive tastes when it came to food. For one Christmas celebration he ordered 1,500 chickens, 5,000 eggs, 20 oxen, 100 pigs, and 100 sheep. John’s greed for money, jewels, and food was surpassed only by his lust for women. In his court the “royal prerogative” took on a new and more sinister meaning. It soon became evident that no woman could be safe around the king. The barons knew that John often cast an envious eye on the more attractive of their own wives, daughters and sisters, always looking for opportunities to add to the growing population of his illegitimate children.
The Church Goes on Strike
Unable to get the money he needed from the Barons, John turned his attention on the wealthy church. Opportunity to seize control of the English church had presented itself in 1206 with the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the English church. John appointed his own man, John de Gray, to the vacancy. But the bishops of Canterbury had already elected one of their own company to the post. When the rival archbishops arrived in Rome, each one claiming authority, Pope Innocent III declared both appointments invalid and set forth his own candidate, the English cardinal and theological professor, Stephen Langton.
John refused to recognize the papal choice, and forbad Langton to even set foot in his kingdom. Unperturbed, Pope Innocent responded by placing all of England under an interdict – formally suspending all activities of the national church. This essentially meant that the church had to go “on strike.” For over six years no one in England could get married, receive a blessing at death, or partake of the sacraments. Only private baptism and last rites (the sacraments deemed necessary for salvation) were allowed. Even on Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, the church bells remained silent.
John was incredibly skilled at being able to adapt to changing circumstances and manipulate them to his own advantage. Although the work of the English churches could have carried on as normal, even without formal sanction from the Pope, John made sure the churches did not operate. Then because the churches were no longer functioning, John reasoned that they no longer needed funds. Thus, he ordered his men to plunder the buildings and confiscate their wealth. Churchmen who resisted were imprisoned until they agreed to pay, while others were hung or put to the sword. Some escaped to the Continent.
Unsurprisingly, John’s persecution of the church actually found support from many of the barons, as the new stream of revenue temporarily diverted the king’s attention from the little that remained of their own wealth. John eventually stole from the church £100,000 (hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s currency) and used this money to wage successful wars in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
But Pope Innocent was not finished with John. The most powerful of all the medieval popes, he was not a man to brook opposition. As the first pope to style himself “vicar of Christ,” Innocent regarded all resistance to himself as opposition to Almighty God. Seeing that John would not admit Langton into England, Innocent unleashed the final weapon at his disposal. On November 1209, he excommunicated the King.
The sentence meant that John was no longer considered a Christian and that his subjects were absolved from the oaths of loyalty they had sworn to him. By thus placing John outside Christendom, the Pope made it morally permissible for anyone to invade and conquer the island. Moreover, any Christian who invaded the land of an excommunicant was considered by the church to be a Holy Crusader.
It did not take long for John’s nemesis, Philip of France, to grasp the import of the situation and stake his claim to the English throne.
From Excommunicant to Church Darling
John may not have possessed the Plantagenet aptitude for effective rulership, but he lacked none of his family’s propensity for hypocrisy. Faced with the threat of losing his throne, and with it the amorous relationships he cultivated, John announced in May 1213 that he would repent.
Not one to do anything half-heartedly, John decided to prove the genuineness of his conversion by offering all of England as a gift to the Pope. This meant that from then on England would be a papal fiefdom and that John and all subsequent monarchs of England would be obliged to do homage to the Pope as their feudal overlord.
It was a stroke of tactical genius. Convinced that the king was being genuine, Innocent returned the country to John as a gift five days later. Now John was more powerful than ever since he had the Pope as his political ally, in addition to all the diplomatic powers at Rome’s disposal. (Prior to this transaction with the Pope, John had persuaded the church prelates to sign an acknowledgment that the revenue he had stolen from them had, instead, been freely donated.)
King Philip quickly abandoned his invasion plans, unwilling to make an enemy of the Pope. In July, Langton was able to return to England and assume his position as archbishop. In the ceremony to install Langton, John prostrated himself on the ground, his eyes streaming with tears and his heart filled with sorrow for his sin. Embarrassed by this public display of emotion, the king’s men urged him to desist, but John could not hold back tears of what appeared seemed to be bitter remorse. Langton absolved him. In return, John swore to uphold the liberties England had enjoyed under his father’s reign and to repeal any unjust law.
Dispute With the Barons
John was characteristically swift to break his promises, revealing his newfound piety to be nothing more than the dramatics of hypocrisy.
Although the Pope may still have been fooled by John, Archbishop Langton was not. But Langton was tactful, and knew that outright opposition to the king could make matters worse. He talked with the barons and waited for the right time to act.
John’s standing with the people plummeted still further in 1214, when he attempted an unsuccessful invasion of France. Nor did it help when, returning from the Continent, he imposed a tax on all the barons who had not joined him in the war.
While he would have liked to have ruled as an autocrat and simply ignored the barons’ grievances, no medieval king could govern without some support from his aristocracy. This was especially true in John’s case, as he had numerous foes abroad who would have taken advantage of a civil war. Thus John was forced to negotiate with the barons, both before and after his failed French expedition. The barons pleaded with him to preserve their historic rights. But John continued to abolish the ancient freedoms in his ongoing quest for more wealth and power.
Although the dispute with the barons had been brewing for many years, John’s relationship with the pope brought with it a new determination not to yield. With the “vicar of Christ” now on his side, John began to confuse his own egotism with piety.
Believing they had no other recourse, a group of barons in the North conspired against the king. John prepared for open war and marched to confront the rebels. Learning of this, Langton rode from London to Northampton to meet the king’s army. The Archbishop, as much a shrewd politician as an able Bible scholar, persuaded the King to negotiate with the barons. Realizing that this time he had no other option, John consented.
The Magna Charta
Instead of negotiating, John appealed to the Pope. Before he had a chance to receive a reply it became clear that his life would be in danger if he did not submit. As the barons marched on London, John agreed to a series of meetings in the spring of 1215.
Langton and the barons had grown to distrust all the king’s promises and pressed for a written charter outlining their liberties. The negotiations culminated in the two parties meeting near a marshy meadow by the Thames riverside, known as Runnymede. There they signed the Magna Charter (Great Charter). In drafting the agreement, Langton had urged the barons to look beyond their own class interests and root their demands in the customs of English common law, as well as an earlier charter issued by John’s Father, Henry I.
The document removed John’s hated administrators, guaranteed the privileges of the church; introduced checks and balances into government; returned the king’s mercenary troops to the Continent; protected the rights of widows; limited the amount of inheritance required of a baron’s heir; prohibited the confiscation of land belonging to Jews and debtors; reduced the extent of the king’s forest; and instituted trial by peers to prevent the king from arbitrarily confiscating someone’s property. In addition, many of the rights granted to the barons by the king were also to be granted to the tenants of the barons. The document paved the way for a parliament, declaring that taxes may not be levied without the consent of leading churchmen and barons.
John signed the document under duress, as the principles it embodied were contrary to everything he stood for. True to form, John had no intention of keeping this agreement any more than his earlier ones. One ancient chronicler noted that “the king of England was so full of guile that he could scarcely keep faith with anything he wrote or said, for he upheld neither his promises nor his charters.” The excuse for renouncing the charter arose later in the same year when John and the barons met to discuss how it should be enforced. When the convention broke up in quarreling, John appealed to the pope, asking him to squelch the charter.
Pope Innocent was only too willing to help his ally and annulled the document, denouncing it as “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust.” He went even further, forbidding John to obey it or the nobles to enforce it. The Pope excommunicated all the rebel barons, as well as the citizens of London and the Cinque Ports. When Langton refused to publish news of the excommunications, the Pope removed him from all his duties.
John now looked upon the excommunicated rebel barons as enemies, not just of himself, but of the church. He therefore took the vows of a Crusader and prepared to fight against them. The barons, who had once played the part of holy Crusaders against an excommunicated king, found that the tables had turned.
Death of King John
With the Magna Charta set aside, the rebellious barons believed there was no recourse left other than armed revolt. They appealed to the French for assistance, and the French prince Louis (son of Philip) was dispatched to help. It was during this war with Louis and the barons that John contracted dysentery and died, aged forty-nine. He was buried at Worcester at the shrine of his favourite saint, Wulfstan.
After his death, the rebel barons were defeated by the royalist army and Louis was forced to return to France. John’s son, Henry III (r. 1216-1272), helped to bring stability to the land, although he continued to dispute with the barons over the Magna Charta. However, by this time the barons had become powerful enough that they forced Henry to call the first parliament in 1265, enabling many of the Charter’s provisions to be applied.
The Legacy of Bad King John
Rightly considered to be one of the most disastrous kings in English history, John earned himself the nickname “Bad King John.” Yet for all this, his legacy is not altogether negative.
Prior to John, the monarch of England’s ties to France had been weakening, and by the days of John it had become very expensive to maintain the ancestral lands in Aquitaine and Normandy. Although John was looked upon as a failure for losing these domains, it did enable the sovereigns who followed him to focus exclusively on England. No longer merely an adjunct of France, England was free to develop a distinct identity and language.
By far the greatest monument of John’s reign was the Magna Charta. Modern historians have downplayed the document’s significance, pointing out that little changed for the people of England in the wake of its signing. Moreover, the Charta caused the civil war it was meant to prevent. Nonetheless, the importance of it cannot be denied. In many respects it has defined the landscape of British politics over the centuries. In the hundred years following the meeting at Runnymede the document was reissued 38 times, with only a few alterations. Its emphasis on checks and balances, together with its assertion that the monarch is subservient to the law, has seeped into the very bloodstream of how English-speaking people think about law and politics.
The charter also set an abiding precedent for the way in which political disputes would be treated in the future. In his book The Offshore Islanders, historian Paul Johnson points out that after Magna Charta “the English came to see compromise, consultation, the settlement of dispute by argument as opposed to force as their outstanding national characteristics; and in time shaped their habits to conform with this image.” This way of doing politics would eventually reach fruition in the modern English parliament and, through Britain’s influence, the rest of the Western world.
Lessons from the Life of King John
John’s life teaches us the importance of conservatism. Contrary to the misguided notion that Magna Charta was a forward-looking piece of proto-democracy, the barons who signed it were actually looking back to liberties they had lost. The Magna Charta sought to restore many of the terms reflected in an earlier charter of freedoms that Henry I had issued, which was itself based on freedoms stretching back to King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). John was the one pressing for “progressive reform,” while the barons were the true “conservatives” of the day, claiming the restoration of freedoms that had historically been the heritage of the English people.
Another lesson we learn from John’s life is that “[a] man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) The churchmen who suffered from John’s evil plans had no way of knowing the remarkable way God was actually directing events. From our vantage point nearly a thousand years later, it is easy to see how God brought good out of John’s foolishness. As Winston Churchill put it in History of the English-Speaking Peoples, “When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns; for it was through the union of many forces against him that the most famous milestone of our rights and freedom was in fact set up.”
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