“Bad King John”
One might have hoped that the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta would have provided at least some oxygen to the argument that ‘Bad King John’ was perhaps not too ‘Bad’ after all; and – whisper it – that in some ways this traditionally most maligned of monarchs was perhaps really rather Good.
Instead, the anticipated tsunami of popular and learned articles collectively assert, inter alia, that John was at once cruel and coercive, treacherous and tyrannical, pusillanimous and pitiful, lazy and lackluster. For the large part it seems that, 800 years later, opinion has broadly backed Matthew Paris, the 13th-century chronicler who alleged that John’s greatest achievement was, by dying, to make yet more foul the existing foulness of Hell: John was not only Bad; he was diabolical.
Popular understanding of Magna Carta has significantly stunted debate on the nature and achievement of John. Magna Carta, we are told, stands for the rule of law. Invoked by those in 17th-century England who sought to thwart the allegedly despotic tendencies of Charles I, and latterly employed by the American Revolutionaries in their making of the United States Bill of Rights in 1789, Magna Carta has become totemic of the liberties by which western societies identify themselves.
Indeed, this tendency has travelled so far that Magna Carta has, according to G Hindley, “acquired an almost mystic incantatory quality”. This, he claims, is partly evidenced by the fact that the government sponsored the Magna Carta 800th anniversary website, which currently asserts that Magna Carta “is the foundation stone supporting the freedoms enjoyed today by hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries”. These are powerful words, and it follows that if John ignored Magna Carta – which he did – then it must surely be the case that he was indeed malign. The ever-growing extent to which Magna Carta is celebrated and elevated necessarily means that, in equal and opposite degree, the reputation of John is tarnished and diminished. In this context, to argue that John was anything other than ‘Bad’ seems inappropriate and somewhat unbelievable.
However, the Magna Carta that John chose to ignore did not purport to be a constitutional document adumbrating and guaranteeing liberties to all English people. The Magna Carta of 1215 (it is important to realise that there were many reissues of Magna Carta after the reign of John, each different to the one presented to John) is better understood as a set of flawed peace terms designed to heal the incipient civil war between John and an element of rebellious barons.
In order to try and bind John to their terms, the barons insisted that John accept a committee of 25 of their number empowered to police and enforce Magna Carta by seizing John’s castles and assets when he was judged – by them, and against criteria put forth by them – to have transgressed. No medieval monarch could have accepted for any length of time the Magna Carta of 1215, for it clearly rendered the king a phantom of a monarch. Indeed, so extreme was this impact that it is not beyond sensible contemplation that the ambition of the rebel barons was not to obtain a lasting peace, but instead absolutely to provoke John to break the newly agreed terms so that they could seize his largesse. John did indeed overturn Magna Carta, but arguably any medieval monarch would have done the same. The Magna Carta of 1215 is not the Magna Carta of popular imagination.
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One might have hoped that the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta would have provided at least some oxygen to the argument that ‘Bad King John’ was perhaps […]