Monday, October 31, 2011


A review of W.L. Warren’s King John (1961)

(Rating 5 of 5)

King John the first, last, and only is famous for two things, and one of those things he did not really do. As a prince, he is known to have chased around Robin Hood—that is fiction. As the King of England, he signed the famous Magna Carta; he did do that, but Warren points out that it is not quite the historic event that many thought it was. W.L. Warren attempts in this biography of King John to strip way the myth—particularly negative myth—about a ruler who in his view was quite competent but just really unlucky.

(King John of England, not quite what people think)

Historical giants surround King John throughout his life. His father is the famous King Henry II who established Common Law in England. His mother is the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was the wife of two kings and the mother of two kings . His famous brother Richard the Lionhearted, was a celebrated and overrated crusader. His archrival is King Philip II of France, known as Philip Augustus, who begins the process of transforming France into a nation by expanding French royal power at the expense of King John. Amongst these great people John seems small by comparison and his reputation suffers.

“The persisting images are of Henry as a strong and beneficent ruler, of Richard as a glamorous hero, and of John as a villainous failure; but these sharp contrasts reflect the attitudes of the more influential of the chroniclers rather than real differences of personality. The dominant impression of Henry is closest to reality, that of John furthest removed.” (p.4)

(King Philip II of France, known as Philip Augustus, was one of France's greatest kings who achieved much at John's expense)

Warren describes John as the son who was most like his father—who is generally regarded as great monarch. Like his father, John is interested in governing his kingdom. This passion is in direct contrast to his brothers who saw kingship as something that was prestigious but not something one needed spend their energies on. As a ruler, John is a great politician who suffers from a lot of reverses. The fact the he manages to survive all of them is testament to his ability but that is not to say he his actions should not invoke criticism. How he handled the loss of Normandy was not one of his prouder moments.

“Richard himself could not have beaten that combination. If Richard had lived for another five years, though, there would have been one notable difference in the course of the campaign. The king himself would have been on the heights above Les Andelys as dawn broke, to give the single of the combined attack on the French camp; however ready the Normans were to surrender, Philip would not have been able to march up the valley of the Orne to Caen without fear of sudden assault by Richard and his household cavalry; and even when all else had gone, Richard would have been urging the citizens of Rouen to arms, and parrying the first assault with blows from his great sword. John stayed in England biting his nails.” (p.99)

Throughout the book Warren tries his best to present what John was like as a person. Part of his negative reputation comes from the fact that most the people who disliked him were nobles whose interests would often conflict with the royal interest. These nobles, as the most literate men of the kingdom would often wright the history of John's reign. King John was often could show great acts of kindness with the average everyday people who worked for him.

“On the other hand he will make presents to men who have served him well—barrels of wine, it may be, or even a hundred head of deer. When he hears that the son of his henchmen William Brewer has fallen into the hands of the French, John helps to pay his ransom. When his valet Petit falls ill and has to stay behind in Somerset, the sheriff is instructed to see that he wants for nothing. John was, it seems, the old-fashioned kind of paternalistic employer who is intolerant of laxity in his workers but ready to set his own shoulder to the wheel, able to talk familiarly with the lowest of them, and remember their birthdays and their babies. John’s trouble was that he could not get along with the men who claimed to be his fellow directors.” (p.145)

Magna Carta has been considered by people since the 17th century to be the most important aspect of King John’s reign. However, Warren points out that the whole event was overrated and what we were taught in school is mostly a false image.

(Popular image of a defeated king forced to sign a document limiting his royal power, not quite what happened)

“One of the most remarkable things about Magna Carta is the obscurity of its antecedents. This obscurity extends from the dating of the charter itself, back over the preceding negotiations and parleys to the muster of rebellion. One of the few things that can be said with certainty is that the hallowed tradition, derived largely from Wendover, is false which pictures a baronage united in arms against the Crown, confronting a cowed and humiliated king at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, and obliging him, with praiseworthy restraint, to set his seal to a statement of constitutional liberties with it had drawn up. It does not make the picture more true merely to darken the colours by saying that the baronial rebels were reactionaries pursuing selfish class interests.” (p.224)

The important thing about Magna Carta is not what it actually was but an idea that it came to represent. That idea is: a government is legitimate only if it has the consent of the governed, that idea became the bedrock of Anglo-American thought on government.

“As such it opened the way to periodic revisions of custom and law, and implied that the government should not be conducted to damage the governed. Moreover, merely by existing it was a standing condemnation of the rule of arbitrary will. Even in the emasculated form in which it eventually got on to the statute book, an appeal to Magna Carta was a shorthand way of proclaiming the rule of law. Its actual provisions exercised little influence on the development of the constitution until misinterpreted by 17th century lawyers to mean trial by jury, and no taxation without the consent of representatives; yet their interpretations are not wholly absurd, for they accurately reflected the spirit if not the purpose of the 13th century original. It should be remembered, however, that the charter which the 17th century politicians studied with such zeal was not the one issued by John in 1215, but a truncated and modified version promulgated by his son, Henry III, in 1225.” (p.240)

King John is a great book. I would recommend this book to anyone who wanted to know more about the life a reign of one of the most important (not great) monarchs in the history of the world. This book shows the reader the truth behind the historical events surrounding the signing of Magna Carta, and the revelation that maybe John is not the villain history holds him to be.

{Video is from the 2010 movie Robin Hood where King John is played by Oscar Isaac. This version of Robin is very different from the classic version.}

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