Review of Marc Morris’s King John

Morris, Marc, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.58-61.

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King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta
Marc Morris
London: Windmill Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780099591825
XVIII + 382 pp

King John is perhaps best known among British people for being so bad a monarch that there can never be a John II and for losing the crown in the Wash (part of the sea to the east of the country off Lincolnshire). His representations on stage, screen and printed page are mostly limited to being the bad guy in contrast to Richard the Lionheart and using his proxy the Sheriff of Nottingham to persecute the sainted Robin Hood. Who, really, can quote from Shakespeare’s play? However, much of this is little more than hearsay and accurate information about the life and times of the historical king is comparatively limited, at least for non-specialists. Consequently, a work of popular history on the subject is most welcome.

The value of works of popular history is that they are obliged to tell the actual story in as clear terms as possible. Academic history is required to present the myriad of quiddities and contradictions that appear in the sources and to take various theoretical frameworks of analysis as a means of examining the material in such a way that it is possible for the reader to remain unsure of what, if anything, actually did happen. One of the more notable benefits of the current book is that it is made clear why this confusion takes place: it was so difficult actually to get anything done, while there were powerful incentives to try to broadcast quite the opposite in a world in which significant enemies could respond aggressively to any show of weakness. Indeed, it is not difficult to find evidence of weakness in John’s performance since, during the first part of his reign, he managed to lose possession of England’s (this was the pre-union era) extensive holdings in what is now known as France. As Morris announces (p.5): “Travellers could pass from the border of Scotland to the border of Spain without ever leaving his territories. Millions of people, speaking at least half a dozen different languages, were his subjects. By any measure, his was the most important and powerful dominion in Europe.”

The Norman Yoke had been imposed upon the British people only 150 years before and it had led to the creation of the empire which had become anglicized at the highest-level because of the agricultural value of England. This could have been used for the benefit of all people through such means as more integration of economic and social systems to help create a civilization that would rival Byzantium. Instead, it was used for predatory raids on the working people and frittered away in needless wars and diplomatic failures. John lost France and his influence in Ireland was greatly reduced after a disastrous adventure there. Yet all of this was effected not so much by active misrule as by the inability to get things done. So much effort had to be expended persuading minor nobility to do what was expected of them and acting as the gift-giver able to create and sustain patronage networks that it was almost impossible for a limited monarch like John (whose ascent to the throne was made possible by a relentless plague visited upon his many older relatives in the direct line) to find the time to do anything else. Furthermore, a great deal of what he wanted to achieve was subject to forces beyond his control, notably including the weather. British weather is notoriously changeable and British sea power, its traditional strength in European politics, was limited in the pre-steam era to the prevailing conditions. Any foreign military venture required naval support both for transportation and for bringing needed supplies, reinforcements and information. An inconvenient storm could, therefore, waste months and even years of planning as the gathered troops and their leaders wait in port eating the food and spending the money raised by taxation while waiting for the rain to stop.

However, irrespective of the vagaries of getting things done, what John actually did get done was often quite despicable. A notable example of this was his predatory taxation policy (back to the Sheriff of Nottingham theme), which extended to various ruses aimed at acquiring assets, including people, from those who felt they had a legal claim to them. This was not only wrong for ethical reasons but actively dissolved the bods between monarch and nobility on which the political order of the country depended. The more that John alienated his erstwhile supporters, the closer he came to the creation of Magna Carta, that restatement of the social bonds between the classes that has become so central to the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. Had John’s reign not taken place or had taken place in a different manner, then the Magna Carta moment would have happened somewhat later. That it would have happened in some form appears to be an unavoidable fact.

Morris is to be praised for producing a clear and readable book that highlights the major themes of the life and times of an important but little understood period of British history. One would be forgiven for thinking, based on popular culture, that little happened between the Norman invasion and the six wives of Henry VIII. This book helps to fill that gap in knowledge. If, occasionally, the reader might hope for a little more information about some of the contextual or background issues, that is beyond the scope of this book and Morris provides enough information in the footnotes and references for that reader to create a personal reading list for further investigation.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

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