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King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta

av Marc Morris

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2246121,898 (3.85)9
King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robin Hood. Formidable and cunning, but also cruel, lecherous, treacherous and untrusting. Twelve years into his reign, John was regarded as a powerful king within the British Isles.… (mer)
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"King John was not a good man..." a poem by A.A. Milne is demonstrated by this biography. There is enough detail to convince this reader the judgement was correct. The childhood is covered in some detail, and the sad disfunctional family of Henry and Eleanor is clearly described. The financial pressures are laid bare, and the difficulties of ruling an England riven by the ambitions of the Magnates is also here. The continental picture is also reasonably delineated. The final good point is the full translation of Magna Carta. It is a worthy addition to your medieval library. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Oct 17, 2022 |
One of the few lay books written entirely about King John, long held to be the worst King in British history, Morris tries and usually succeeds in being impartial. He has hundreds of footnotes, something I think textbooks should be forced to use. It is important when teaching or learning history to know where the writers got their information. Morris used the oldest known references, such as Roger Wendover, Coggeshall, and "Anonymous" of Bethune. If Marc Morris actually read all 226 of the tomes listed, it is really impressive.
While the information is the most important part of the book, Morris does write pretty well and it's readable.
Spoiler: King John was a pretty crap King after all. ( )
  LeslieHolm | May 19, 2022 |
King John is most famous in popular culture as a bad guy in Robin Hood movies (although the Robin Hood tales weren’t written down until hundreds of years after John) and as the king who was forced to sign the Magna Carta. According to this scholarly yet readable biography by historian Marc Morris, John really was pretty unpleasant; he seems to have been personally cowardly, fleeing from battles; he is reputed to have personally murdered his nephew Arthur to gain the throne; and he could be viciously cruel; his favorite execution method seems to have been starvation – simply locking enemies in a cell and leaving them there. In a particularly ugly case, he imprisoned the noblewoman Matilda de Briouze (aka Maud de Braose, if you’re googling) and her son William together; when the cell was eventually opened it was found Matilda had eaten her son’s face before dying herself.

John proved craftily devious. In 1207, he demanded one tenth the value of all loans by Jews; debtors who had been carried on the books for years now suddenly found the Exchequer demanding immediate payment – with royal power has enforcement. In 1213, beset by rebellious nobles, he made England a fief of the Papacy and did homage for it – meaning that rebels against John were also rebels against the Holy See and could be excommunicated.

He started his reign as the most powerful monarch in Europe, controlling land from the Scots border across the Channel to the Pyrenees, plus the east coast of Ireland; by alienating his nobles and his own military incompetence he’d lost almost all his continental holdings before his death.

Morris notes there is a lot more information about John than about earlier English rulers, since it was under his reign that the Chancery Office began keeping and storing duplicate copies of records. This is an easy read, well referenced and footnoted. Maps of England, Ireland, and Angevin France; a family tree; and other appropriate illustrations. My only mild criticism is Morris jumps around chronologically at the beginning; chapter’s start dates go from 1203 to 1120 to 1204 to 1189 to 1205 to 1194 to 1207 to 1202, but the last chapters are in sequence from 1208 to 1216. I found this a little confusing at first. The index seems sparse; I had trouble finding some things I wanted to look up. This is just minor nitpicking, though; I found the book educational and entertaining. ( )
3 rösta setnahkt | Oct 27, 2020 |
This book covers the life and reign of King John, the infamous king whose war with the barons brought about Magna Carta, one of the most celebrated documents in constitutional history, and certainly the most celebrated in English or British history. It is well written and researched; thanks to the preservation of most of the Pipe Rolls, we have far more written evidence of John's reign than we do of any of his predecessors, so it is possible to track his movements and activities in much more detail. That said, the book's structure is in my view flawed. Its first half switches between two narrative streams, one from 1203 which is a key turning point in the reign, the other recounting Angevin history and John's early life and the first few years of his reign, in alternate chapters. I found the author's rationale for this approach unconvincing and the result irritating and a bit confusing for recalling whether a particular incident I'd read about was before or after another such (hence it's not for me a five star book).

The book exposes well John's many flaws, while acknowledging his better points (though there are rather few of those). Some have said John was merely unlucky, though it seems very clear he was the author of most of his own misfortunes through his unnecessary provocation of those who might have been allies, his well founded lack of trustworthiness, pronounced treacherousness and extreme arbitrariness. Worse, in an age where kings were almost all, and arguably had to be, ruthless, John went further and many of his actions show a cold cruelty, in particular his policy of using deliberate starvation as a method of execution for some of his opponents and hostages. He was rapacious in extorting money from the whole population to fund his wars against the Scots, Welsh and Irish and his attempts to regain the Angevin empire he inherited and then lost within five years largely through his own ineptitude. His oppression of the church was such that England lay under a papal interdict for six years, with no marriage or burial services in consecrated ground able to be performed. Many of these injustices had been carried out in some instances by some of his predecessors, but John institutionalised them. It is small wonder that he was almost perpetually at war with his barons and knights. He tried to undermine Magna Carta almost as soon as he sealed it (to be fair, some of the barons didn't stick to what was agreed at Runnymede either). The barons invited Prince Louis, son of the French King Philip Augustus, to come and be their new king, and Louis conquered much of the south and was welcomed by Londoners. England came close to being ruled by the heir to the French throne; but then the situation was retrieved, ironically, by John's own death at the age of 49. The barons were unwilling to oppose and deny the birthright of John's infant son, Henry III, supported as regent by the indomitable William Marshal; within a year, England was at peace once more. A dark period of history was over. There were, of course, more trials and tribulations, and battles to come for justice and a system truly based on the rule of law, but the seeds had been sown. ( )
  john257hopper | Apr 23, 2017 |
This book tells the story of King John in a slightly different way. It begins in 1203, which the author considers a turning point in John's reign, then sets up an alternating thread in which he discusses the circumstances leading up to John taking the throne. This thread includes Henry II and Richard, which may not be news to devote readers of all things Plantagenet. Morris writes well, but I think I've burned out on the Plantagenets; I returned this to the library unfinished. Still, I would not like to dissuade anyone who's interested in reading it. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Nov 24, 2016 |
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In the summer of 1797 a group of workmen in Worcester Cathedral caused a sensation, locally if not nationally, by discovering the body of King John. (Introduction)
In 1203 King John was the ruler of a vast international empire.
The morning after John's death his body was prepared for burial. (Conclusion)
John, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitane, count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants and all his official and faithful subjects greeting. (Magna Carta, 1215: A Translation)
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King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robin Hood. Formidable and cunning, but also cruel, lecherous, treacherous and untrusting. Twelve years into his reign, John was regarded as a powerful king within the British Isles.

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