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n !his "ay
King #ohn and $ichard %& Brothers and $ivals
By Dr Mike Ibeji
Last updated 2011-02-17
$ichard % and #ohn have gone do'n in history as a (good( and a (bad( king) respectively. %s this vie' of
them fair* +ike %be,i investigates.
n this page
An Angevin autocrat
King #ohn and his contemporaries
!ragic fla's
!he villainous king
#ohn(s youth
%n his brothers( shado's
-aranoia and e.travagance
-lots) crusades and banishment
Key /ocations
Find out more
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An Angevin autocrat
!he story of King #ohn is a story of failure 0 he 'as the last of the Angevin kings) the one 'ho failed to
hold onto his territory in 'estern France) lost his cro'n and many valuables in the mud of 1ast Anglia)
drove his sub,ects to impose the +agna Carta) and almost lost the Kingdom of 1ngland. %t is the
tragedy of a fla'ed genius) crippled by his o'n inheritance.
By contrast) his brother $ichard has been seen by his contemporaries) and by later historians) as a
superstar 0 his nickname) the (/ionheart() says it all.
!he popular image of #ohn is of a classically bad king& a scheming) untrust'orthy co'ard consumed by
greed) 'hose rapaciousness drove his sub,ects to impose their 'ill upon him. His acts of apparent
cruelty are 'ell documented. He hanged 23 hostages) sons of rebel Welsh chieftains in 4242 and
starved to death William de Braose(s 'ife and son in a royal prison.
He 'as the archetypical Angevin& the autocratic ruler of a vast territory.
Attempts to rehabilitate him have highlighted his administrative genius and his unstinting personal
attention to his kingdom) but this vie' involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of
kingship in the +iddle Ages.
!o understand #ohn) 'e must forget 24st0century concepts of (good( governance) and stop seeing him as
a solely 1nglish king. He 'as the archetypical Angevin) the autocratic ruler of a vast territory. 5et
these 'ere the traits that 'ere most responsible for his eventual failure.
King #ohn and his contemporaries
%t is impossible to speak of #ohn 'ithout comparing him to those around him) most especially his
brother $ichard. !he historian W/ Warren) puts it 'ell) 'hen discussing the loss of 6ormandy&
(%f $ichard had lived another five years) there 'ould have been one notable difference in the course of
the campaign. !he King himself 'ould have been on the heights above /es Andelys... and even 'hen
all else had gone) $ichard 'ould have been urging the citi7ens of $ouen to arms) parrying the first
assault 'ith blo's of his great s'ord. #ohn stayed in 1ngland biting his nails.(
By comparison 'ith $ichard) then) #ohn has been seen as a 'eedy little tick.
By comparison 'ith $ichard) then) #ohn has been seen as a 'eedy little tick. %n the early 28th century
there 'as a movement to overturn this vie'. %t pointed out) 9uite rightly) that many of the infractions
laid at #ohn(s door 'ere begun in the reign of $ichard.
Historians said) for e.ample) that $ichard(s e.actions 'ere as arduous as #ohn(s) that #ohn paid much
more attention to 1ngland and that) far from being a co'ard) #ohn could be the e9ual in generalship of
both $ichard and his father. All of this is true) but it misses the fundamental point that makes $ichard a
(good( king and #ohn a (bad( one.
!ragic fla's
$ichard 'as a superstar precisely because he 'as an absentee 'arrior king. He had the dash and flair to
risk all on the most slender of odds. He 'as prepared to bury the hatchet and put his faith in even his
most inveterate enemies and he understood that in the realpolitik of the day) you had to give in order to
receive. He also left the administration of 1ngland to his subordinates) removing himself from their
more unpopular measures.
#ohn(s greatest 'eakness 'as an inability to trust.
#ohn) on the other hand) lacked flair. Although a perfectly able strategist) he 'ould al'ays make the
percentage play) opening himself up to the charge of co'ardice. 6or could he) in Warren(s 'ords&
(...miss the opportunity to kick a man 'hile he 'as do'n(. !his habit created enmities that festered into
5et #ohn(s greatest 'eakness 'as an inability to trust. !he truism that (a liar 'on(t believe in anyone
else() 'as never more apt than 'hen applied to #ohn. !ime and again) 'hen he should have trusted
someone and given them po'er) a free rein and a say in things) he shied a'ay) never daring to put his
faith entirely in anyone. %t lost him friends. %t also lost him opportunities.
!he villainous king
#ohn(s paranoia 'ould over'helm him) and instead of striking 'hile the iron 'as hot) he 'ould hesitate
for fear of betrayal. He stayed in 1ngland (biting his nails( because he could not believe that anyone
'ould support him) and this of course proved to be a self0fulfilling prophecy.
#ohn(s ultimate) most unforgivable) crime 'as failure.
Add to this his obsession 'ith detail) 'hich meant he could not avoid becoming involved) and 'hich
therefore meant that all the ills of the Angevin administration 'ere blamed on him. %t did not help
matters that #ohn(s most cherished hobby 'as collecting ,e'ellery. He 'as born to be a Bond villain.
!he sad thing is that) from an ob,ective point of vie') #ohn 'as really no 'orse than his
contemporaries. His father Henry %% had a reputation for untrust'orthiness) matched only by the utter
faithlessness of the French kings /ouis and -hilip Augustus.
His brother $ichard pulled financial stunts so rapacious that #ohn actually felt the need to repeal his
'orst e.cesses. 5et they had a flair born of success and #ohn(s ultimate) most unforgivable crime 'as
#ohn(s youth
Henry %% and 1leanor of A9uitaine) depicted in stained glass at
-oitiers Cathedral : #ohn 'as the fourth son of Henry %%; the youngest of the ("evil(s Brood(. He gre'
up in the shado' of his older brothers and once again the comparisons are interesting.
Stories from his childhood suggest that he 'as probably bullied and beaten if he complained.
Warren can(t help but point out that at an age 'hen his brothers $ichard and <eoffrey 'ere stamping
their authority on A9uitaine and Brittany) #ohn had s9uandered his opportunities in %reland. !he
criticism is reasonably ,ustified) but to understand 'hy) 'e need to look at his upbringing.
%n a family so obsessed 'ith its rights and possessions) being the last of four sons 'as not an enviable
position. Henry 'as clear about his hopes for his first three sons) but until %reland cropped up) #ohn
seems to have been left out of the picture.
Stories from his childhood suggest that he 'as probably bullied and beaten if he complained of his
plight. %t may be due to this perceived lack of character that Henry 'as loath to incorporate #ohn into
his schemes.
At various times) #ohn 'as destined for the Church) for an %talian marriage and for piecemeal lands that
belonged to his brothers =and 'hich they refused to give him>. His o'n father gave him the disparaging
nickname (/ackland() and it 'as not until the death of his oldest brother) Henry the 5ounger) that #ohn
began to figure in King Henry(s plans.
%n his brothers( shado's
-oitiers) capital of A9uitaine : With the death of Henry the
5ounger in 443?) Henry %%(s plans for a federal Angevin empire 'ere in ,eopardy. He tried to solve this
by ordering $ichard to hand over A9uitaine to #ohn) 'ith the implication that $ichard 'ould take
Henry the 5ounger(s place as heir apparent.
Henry %%(s policy over %reland 'as al'ays one of reaction.
5et his plans foundered on the mistrust of his sons and the Angevins( stubborn possessiveness. $ichard
'ould not give up A9uitaine and began fortifying his castles against any attempts to sei7e them from
%n a fit of rage) Henry told #ohn he should raise an army and sei7e the duchy for himself. %t 'as not a
serious suggestion) but #ohn took him at his 'ord) making a pact 'ith his brother <eoffrey) in 'hich
they both invaded -oitou.
!here 'ere various conferences bet'een the interested parties to settle this dispute 0 one of them is
depicted in the Holly'ood film The Lion in Winter. By 443@) ho'ever) Henry had given up any idea of
prising $ichard from his patrimony) and 'as more concerned 'ith %reland.
Henry(s policy over %reland 'as al'ays one of reaction. %n 443?) $ory (Connor) High King of %reland)
retired to a monastery) leaving control of the kingdom in the hands of Hugh de /acy) Henry(s ,usticiary.
Hugh(s policy of fair dealing 'ith the %rish seems to have been too successful) for by 443@) Henry had
gro'n suspicious of him. =%n the light of Hugh(s marriage to $ory(s daughter in 4438) Henry probably
sa' another Strongbo' looming on the hori7on.>
!he 1nglish king(s solution 'as typical. He knighted the 430year0old #ohn) gave him an army of ?88
knights and a treasury) and sent him to %reland to take charge of the situation.
-aranoia and e.travagance
An effigy of Henry %%) Fontevraud Abbey) France : <erald of Wales 'as part of
#ohn(s retinue) and gives us an eye0'itness account of events in %reland) albeit a heavily biased one.
#ohn took a lot of young hangers0on 'ith him) 'ho ridiculed the %rish chieftains 'hen they turned up to
pay homage) and to 'hom he made land grants that antagonised the 6orman settlers.
So 'hen the %rish buried their differences and united against him) #ohn found himself isolated and
impeded by the locals. Anable to pay his mercenaries because of the e.travagance of his 'ay of life) he
'as eventually forced to abandon %reland in September) blaming Hugh de /acy for obstructionism.
King Henry 'as then obliged to appoint another Hiberno06orman) Hugh de Courcy) as ,usticiary.
With the death of <eoffrey in a tournament) and the 'orsening relationship bet'een Henry and
$ichard) #ohn became Henry(s favourite. 5et there is absolutely no evidence that Henry considered
passing $ichard over as his heir. #ohn had failed to oust his brother from A9uitaine and) at an age 'hen
$ichard 'as bro'beating that province into submission) he had s9uandered his opportunities in %reland.
Henry seems to have recognised his youngest son(s limitations) though he took a perverse pleasure in
keeping $ichard guessing. !he paranoia this induced backfired spectacularly) 'hen $ichard made
common cause 'ith /ouis of France and declared 'ar on Henry in 443B.
ld and infirm) Henry 'as hounded from castle to castle) but 'hat finally broke him 'as the discovery
that #ohn had betrayed him and gone over to $ichard(s side. He died) a broken man) on C #uly 443B.
-lots) crusades and banishment
-ainted effigies of Henry %% and his 'ife) 1leanor of A9uitaine) at
Fontevraud Abbey) France : $ichard 'as cro'ned king on ? September 443B. He made #ohn the
Count of +ortain and granted him e.tensive lands in 1ngland =including 6ottingham>. !he ne' king
also had enough respect for #ohn(s troublemaking tendencies to ban him from 1ngland for three years
'hilst he =$ichard> 'ent on crusade. Ho'ever) against $ichard(s better ,udgement) he 'as prevailed
upon by his mother 1leanor to allo' #ohn back into 1ngland. !his 'as a mistake.
%t 'as from the chaos and outla'ry of this time that the legend of $obin Hood 'as probably born.
#ohn conspired against $ichard(s regent) William /ongchamp) and set himself up as King in all but
name. A plot to divvy up the Angevin empire bet'een himself and the ne' French King) -hilip
Augustus) 'as only ,ust forestalled by his mother) 'hen she intercepted him as he 'as about to take
ship from Southampton. When $ichard 'as imprisoned on his return from the crusades) by "uke
/eopold of Austria) #ohn again conspired 'ith the French King to sei7e the kingdom.
$ichard 'as unimpressed. (+y brother is not a man to 'in land for himself if there is any resistance() he
said. He 'as proved right 'hen 1leanor rallied support among the 1nglish barons) and besieged #ohn(s
%t 'as from the chaos and outla'ry of this time that the legend of $obin Hood 'as probably born. n
$ichard(s release #ohn fled to France) but he 'as soon forgiven by his brother) 'ho himself returned to
France) 'here he died in 44BB. n his deathbed $ichard named #ohn as his heir) although by the la' of
primogeniture Arthur) the son of an older brother) <eoffrey) should have succeeded him.
!hus) despite their rivalry) $ichard and #ohn conspired to keep the cro'n in the family) and #ohn(s
coronation took place at Westminster Abbey) on 2D +ay the same year.
Key /ocations
Chinon 0 location of the (/ion in Winter( conference and castle in 'hich #ohn(s 'ife %sabella 'as
besieged 'hen the 6orman lords turned against him.
Château-Gaillard 0 fantastic 6orman castle built by $ichard % as the key to the defence of 6ormandy.
%ts loss signalled the end for #ohn in 6ormandy.
Lusignan 0 ancestral seat of the /usignans in -oitou.
Poitiers 0 Angevin capital of -oitou. Henry %% married 1leanor here in 44@2) and its surrender by the
/usignans marked the end of Angevin po'er in A9uitaine. !he cathedral church dates to the 44C8s.
Mirabeau 0 to'n and castle in central France =An,ou> 'here 1leanor 'as besieged and #ohn defeated
Arthur and the /usignans.
Alençon 0 to'n on the 6orman border. When #ohn learned that the Count of AlenEon had gone over to
the other side) he panicked and gave up on 6ormandy.
Carrickfurgus 0 main stronghold of Hugh de /acy in %reland.
Dublin 0 centre of #ohn(s ne' %rish administration. !he core of "ublin castle as it stands today 'as
started by #ohn.
St Asaph 0 centre of the Four Cantrefs taken from /ly'elyn in 6orth Wales.
arnsdale and Sher!ood "orest 0 recorded haunts of $obin Hood.
#unny$ede 0 site of the signing of +agna Carta.
#ochester Castle 0 key loss of the +agna Carta rebels) 'hich meant they had to turn to /ouis of
France. !he round to'er on the south corner of the keep 'as torn do'n by #ohn and had to be rebuilt)
'hich is 'hy it differs from the other s9uare to'ers.
Do%er 0 besieged by /ouis of France in 424D) but never fell.
Sand!ich 0 site of the landing of /ouis in 424C and his final defeat in 424D) during 'hich the outla'
1ustace the +onk 'as also killed.
Find out more
King ohn by W/ Warren =4BC4>
King ohn by $alph F !urner =/ongman +edieval World Series) 4BBG>
The !nge"in #$pire by #ohn <illingham =Hambledon) 4BBG>
The %or$ation o& the #ng'ish (o$$on La) by #ohn Hudson =/ongman +edieval World) 4BBC>
*obin +ood by #C Holt =!hames H Hudson) 4BB?>
The ,ut'a)s o& Medie"a' Legend by +aurice Keen =4B3D>
The -o'iti.a' De"e'op$ent o& the British Is'es by $obin Frame =Clarendon -ress) 4BB@>
About the author
"r +ike %be,i is a $oman military historian 'ho 'as an associate producer on Simon Schama(s !
+istory o& Britain.
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