Wednesday, 10 December 2014

King John- a misunderstood Monarch



In truth King John has had a bad press. He is usually considered one of the worst Kings ever to rule England which he did for 17 years from 1199 to 1216. John is in the same league as Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI in terms of  inept medieval monarchs. Cruel, militarily inept, untrustworthy, devious and sadistic are just some of the epithets that are usually directed against him. It culminated in the Barons forcing him to sign the “Great Charter” or Magna Carta in a field by the Thames curbing his dictatorial powers. I was thinking of him as a gazed down on his tomb at Worcester Cathedral. He asked to be buried in the same church as St Wulfstan, a local saint, so on his death at Newark( after according to one source eating unripe peaches and drinking too much cider) his corpse undertook a long cross country journey before it was buried beside the River Severn.

But Leek owes John a lot and perhaps his reputation needs to be restored.  It was John who granted the Market Charter to Leek in 1207 as he did for many other towns in the country. Liverpool got its charter in the same year. This was a consequence of the king needing to raise additional revenue as a consequence of losing all his family’s possessions and land in Normandy. John stands poorly in comparison with his brother the courageous Richard the Lion Heart who only spent a short period in England before going on the Third Crusade and in consequence bankrupting the country. John followed in the steps of his father Henry II who energetically got round the country administering justice. John was in his father’s mould in being a serious administrator. He was probably the first King since the Conqueror to know  England very well, crisscrossing the country in frenetic activity, like his father, personally overseeing the running of his land. His awareness of the country was assisted by his enthusiastic pursuit of game. John like all the Angevin Kings was a keen hunter and there is evidence that he hunted throughout the Midlands, the North and the West Country. As a consequence he was one of the few medieval monarchs to encourage the building of bridges and improving roads. He was also the first to recognise the pottery industry in Staffordshire as an order for 4,000 plates and 500 cups was made to supply a Christmas banquet at Tewkesbury in 1204.

John’s main problem was an inability to get on with the leading barons and the high handedness he frequently showed to them would eventually lead to the showdown at Runnymede. This can be demonstrated by his handling of the most powerful lord in these parts, the founder of Dieulacres Abbey, Ranulph Earl of Chester a very loyal and dependable knight. In 1203 John accused him of aiding his enemies in France and the following year of siding with the rebel Welsh. Despite these slurs Ranulph remained faithful aiding him  in the last rebellions of his rule and acted as executor of John’s will.


John was unlucky. The poor economic situation of England forced him to embark upon ever more ingenious ways of extracting money from the barons which caused ill feeling. The brutal methods that he employed to ensure their loyalty such as hostage taking only worsened the situation. The verdict of history on him must be that he had the ability and energy to be a great king, but all too often he acted like a petty tyrant