Happy Magna Carta day

Happy Magna Carta day

Today marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, for which we should really thank King John. For as Winston Churchill put it in The 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.’ Here’s an extract from my Kindle Single, 1215 and All That.


John has gone down in history as a ‘bad king’, but unlike his showy brother, at least he bothered to visit England, he treated the poor no worse than the privileged (equally badly), and as a borderline atheist he got a bad press from the Church. On the other hand, he did beat his nephew to death in a drunken rage, so nobody’s perfect.

Pretty much every notion in history goes through some sort of revisionism, and the more you read into the past the more you realise there are two sides to the story and everything is a blur. Even in John’s case there was an attempt to do this in recent years, but it didn’t get very far; all the evidence suggests that he was in every way a terrible, terrible man.

Gerald of Wales called John ‘a tyrannous whelp’; another chronicler, William of Newburgh, said he was ‘nature’s enemy’. Even one of John’s own generals, who was on his payroll, conceded that he was ‘a very bad man, cruel and lecherous’. The kindest word comes from twentieth-century historian RV Turner, who wrote that ‘compared with Hitler and Stalin… John seems quite tame’ – not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Eleanor was 45 when she brought John into the world, by which time his next youngest sibling was already nine, and while his mother had doted over Richard, she ignored John, who seems to be a classic example of the old adage that if you are treated as a child, you behave like one. Like his brother, he was a boisterous young boy, and in one charming episode he was having a game of chess, which in those days was played with very heavy pieces (the game had been brought over from the Arab world by the Normans) when he lost his temper and smashed his opponent over the head. This was no different from the behaviour of any other members of his family, but John was both violent and a coward.

Already as a youngster he gave the impression of being wrong in the head; in 1185 when John had visited Ireland as its new teenaged despot he immediately got off to a bad start by making fun of the locals’ dress sense and pulling the red beards of Irish kings who came to show him their fealty, a trick which he seems to have found immensely amusing; them less so. He then squandered all his soldiers’ pay, much of it on whores and drink during his trip to Waterford, and by the time he was ordered home he’d managed to achieve the impossible by uniting English soldiers and Irish natives in hating him.

With his short-ish stature, he was physically the opposite of his dashing brother. During John’s drunken rages, which were frequent, his face would go dark red and his eyes would blaze and his mouth foam.

John’s career ‘was pockmarked by ugly instances of treachery, frivolity and disaster’, and unlike Richard, he was never forgiving nor straight in his dealings. His brother had been nicknamed ‘Richard yay-or-nay’ (ie straight answer) , but John ignored almost every oath he took, as well as betraying both his father and brother; as soon as he became king he broke alliances with his nephew Otto of Brunswick and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne. This was a pattern throughout his life, which was partly why Magna Carta had to come about.

He was also cruel and ruthless even compared to his contemporaries, which was a low bar. Most infamous, for some, was his execution of 28 sons of Welsh princes who had rebelled against him, or his murder of soldiers whose side he was supposed to be on during the Philip v Richard conflict, or the way he treated French prisoners of war: ‘so vilely and in such evil distress that it seemed shameful and ugly to all those who witnessed this cruelty’.

And he was – by modern-day standards – a paedophile.

Still, John was tender-hearted about animals and doted over his pet falcon, Gibbun, who was fed on doves, pork and chicken once a week. So, good in everyone then.
During his 17-year reign John levied tax after tax to wage war in France, a conflict he lost disastrously. And after his final, humiliating military defeat in 1214, unrest burst into the open and a group of rebel barons defied the king, renouncing homage and fealty. They were led by Robert Fitzwalter, whose daughter the king had supposedly taken some sort of interest in (not in a good way). What emerged was Magna Carta; a ‘failed peace treaty’ at the time but which over the following century would become a firmly established part of English law.

What do you think?