king of England (1199–1216). As every schoolboy knows, John was a monster and a tyrant. It is a reputation with deep historical roots, culminating in the judgements of Victorian historians such as J. R. Green. The Victorian view of John stemmed from a perspective from the high moral ground, and drew its support almost entirely from contemporary chroniclers, responsible for so many of the notorious anecdotes concerning him.
More recently, the unreliability of many of these chronicle sources has been exposed. John has come to appear in a new light as a capable administrator with great powers of organization and application. No one would now doubt that John was an intelligent and able man. The system of continental alliances that he built up against Philip II of France prior to the disaster at Bouvines (1214) reveals diplomatic skill and a sure grasp of strategy. His surrender of England as a papal fief in 1213 was a brilliant piece of manœuvring, at a stroke dividing the pope from the conspiracy developing against John in France and England.
Yet modern scholarship has also strengthened some of the traditional charges against him. Perhaps the most infamous charge, that he murdered—or caused to be murdered—his own nephew, Arthur of Brittany, now seems virtually certain. Other acts of cruelty are also proven, his hanging of 28 hostages, sons of rebel Welsh chieftains, in 1212, or the starving to death of William de Braose's wife and son in a royal prison. The consensus has grown that although men of his age could be excessively cruel, John overstepped the mark.
He did not live up to contemporary expectations of a king. In contrast to his brother Richard I, he seemed incompetent in warfare. Particularly damaging was the epithet ‘Softsword’ applied to him as early as 1200. Again, he took the business of dispensing justice seriously, but often his subjects could complain that the judgment rendered was unfair and partial.
Had John succeeded in regaining his lost lands, Magna Carta would almost certainly not have occurred and the legend about him would never have developed. But he lost, and paid a posthumous penalty as well. And one of the chief reasons that he lost lay in his appalling handling of his greater subjects. Whatever John's technical competence as a ruler, it was constantly compromised by his suspicious nature towards them, his jealousy, unpredictability, and caprice. None could live easily with such a ruler. Rule by fear might keep them in check, but in the long run, John's regime was unstable. John remains baffling and enigmatic. As Lewis Warren put it so succinctly, ‘He had the mental abilities of a great king but the inclinations of a petty tyrant.’
Subjects: British History.