King John (Mis)Remembered
Ashgate 216pp £60
Historical reputations rise and fall, but King John has had more of a rollercoaster ride than most across the centuries. Reviled in his own day and throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, he was unexpectedly rehabilitated during the Tudor period because, like Henry VIII, he had defied the pope. Protestant propagandists blamed John’s problems on papal machinations against him and dismissed his evil reputation as a fabrication of biased monastic chroniclers. Since then historians have veered between these two poles, some condemning John’s moral turpitude, others praising his administrative ingenuity and so on.
Igor Djordjevic is concerned with the evolution of the king’s reputation in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, following the publication of John Stow’s The Chronicles of England in 1580. Stow included in his book a fragment of an early 14th-century chronicle written at Dunmow Priory in Essex, which attributed the conflict between John and his barons to the king’s lust for Matilda, the daughter of Robert fitz Walter, the leader of the Magna Carta rebels. According to the Dunmow Chronicle, when Matilda rejected the king’s advances, he had her poisoned with ‘a boyled or potched egge’. This story was quickly taken up by playwrights and players (including the Lord Admiral’s Men of the subtitle) and became the basis for a cluster of dramas about King John in the late Tudor and early Stuart period. The Dunmow account is far from a new discovery, but Djordjevic explores its impact in detail and charts the way it was fused with the tales of Robin Hood.
There are two main problems with this book. The first is the author’s style, which makes it a heavy slog from the outset: for example, ‘I studied the various early modern interpretive communities that derived from the texts they read about their national past meanings relevant to them in their present – to explain to themselves what made them who they were and what it meant to be “English” – but modern scholars are an even more distinct interpretative community of readers of the same texts because they overtly and unabashedly inscribe meanings on them’.
The second is that Djordjevic’s book suggests he essentially shares the opinion of Tudor writers for whom John was a king who simply received a bad write-up, as well as their disdain for the contemporary chroniclers of the king’s reign. Djordjevic’s analysis suggests that he may not have read the original sources in sufficient detail. For example, at the start of chapter one, ‘Reclaiming John from the Monks’, we are told there is no need to revisit the works of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris. However, later writers, such as Sir Richard Baker, whom he suggests was inventing scurrilous material about John in the 17th century, were actually copying Wendover and other chroniclers more or less verbatim.
Djordjevic may feel justified in this attitude towards John because he finds it in the work of ‘modern historians’, but the authors he cites are almost exclusively historians who wrote in the mid 20th century and who preferred royal administrative records to the testimony of chroniclers. The actual consensus among scholars writing in the past 20 years is that John was indeed a terrible king, who failed precisely because of his cowardice, cruelty and sexual predation. The story told by the Dunmow Chronicler, while clearly much improved, echoes a well-informed contemporary writer, the Anonymous of Béthune, who says that Robert fitz Walter fell out with John because the king tried to force himself on his daughter. Since fitz Walter, far from being a ‘perennial rebel’, had little or no quarrel with John before 1210 and only minor material grievances, the possibility of a real personal animus against the king cannot be dismissed as ‘medieval drivel’. Here, however, stories about John’s sexual harassment are dismissed as fabrications and even well-attested examples of individuals being starved to death on the king’s orders become ‘alleged atrocities’.
The repeated assertion that John was a ‘much-maligned’ monarch detracts from what might otherwise have been an interesting work of scholarship. Pace Djordjevic, it was not the 17th-century playwright Anthony Munday who damaged John’s reputation ‘by forever branding him as an attempted rapist and tyrannical homicide’. That damage had been done by the king himself.
Marc Morris’ latest book is King John: Treachery, Tyranny, and the Road to Magna Carta (Hutchinson, 2015).