Summary of: King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England: The Road to Magna Carta
King John is known to all as the villain from the tales of Robin Hood—greedy, cowardly, despicable, and cruel. But who was the man behind the legend? Was he truly a monster, or a capable ruler cursed by bad luck? In his new book, bestselling historian Marc Morris draws on contemporary chronicles and the king’s own letters to bring the real King John vividly to life.
John was dynamic, inventive and relentless, but also a figure with terrible flaws. In two interwoven stories, we see how he went from being a youngest son with limited prospects to the ruler of the greatest dominion in Europe, an empire that stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. His rise to power involved treachery, rebellion and murder. His reign saw oppression on an almost unprecedented scale: former friends hounded into exile and oblivion; Wales, Scotland and Ireland invaded; the greatest level of financial exploitation since the Norman Conquest. A quarrel with the pope led to the king being excommunicated and England being placed under Interdict. John’s tyrannical rule climaxed in conspiracy and revolt, and his leading subjects famously forced him to issue Magna Carta, a document binding him and his successors to behave better in future. The king’s rejection of the charter led to civil war and foreign invasion, bringing his life to a disastrous close.
Review of: King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England: The Road to Magna Carta
King John has some tough competition for the title of worst king of England — Stephen, Henry III, Edward II being some of the more worthy claimants to the title, but John was in a class of his own and he had some of the worst luck during his reign.
With this biography, Marc Morris continues his string of highly readable and mostly judicious books on the English monarchy. John’s reign was intensely complicated and Morris has the rare virtue of being able to untangle the period. Morris takes the reader back and forth through time, taking John through the reigns of his father Henry II, and his brother Richard I, Morris thus lays the foundation for the narrative of John’s time as king, explaining everything in a tour de force of clarity.
Mr. Morris is fair in his assessments of events and people — he doesn’t particularly care for William Marshall and I wish he would have put more emphasis on the fact that many of John’s barons were a sorry lot. I also wish he had more of a point that John was extremely unlucky to have Philip II Augustus of France as his nemesis rather than a French king of the caliber of, say, Charles VII. Nevertheless, Morris’ telling of the genesis and promulgation of Magna Carta is an interesting model of concision.
The book flows easily, it never drags, it is well researched and, as such, is useful for persons new to the subject and historians who want an excellent overview of the period. King John certainly was a bad king but his life reads like a novel in the hands of one of the most capable authors of popular history currently active. Highly recommended, along with his biographies of William I (The Conqueror) and Edward I.