Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Magna Carta Week: John: A Restless Tyrant

John: A Restless Tyrant 
by Rich Price

With Magna Carta, it's inevitably the lurid banner headlines that attract people to the history of John's dramatic and chequered reign – the cauldron of resentment, treachery and violence that provoked and sustained the Barons' War, gruesome killings and starvation in dark castle dungeons, or the near-total loss of a vast empire, all set against the background canvas of the bell, book and candle of excommunication and papal interdict.

Our modern democratic minds tend to cast the rebel barons as heroic freedom fighters, when they were nothing of the sort. Their leadership was unimpressive and often disreputable, even by the standards of the time, but they found some kind of unity in their visceral hatred of John and his overbearing greed for their money - and, say some, for their wives and daughters. To cap it all, there are the redtop tabloid tales in the contemporary chronicles of the frothing rages of a paranoid autocrat ruled by passion, greed and lust, and, perhaps, by the icy, uncaring narcissism of the psychopath, all of it generously seasoned with the spite of a spoilt, angry and neglected younger brother.

King John pores over the Magna Carta
 before sealing it

Like all medieval monarchs, John used violence, illegal acts, financial rapine and extortion, espionage and treachery – and in all these things he's not greatly different from his predecessors or successors, sometimes better, sometimes worse. William of Normandy would have shrugged at much of John's royal bad behaviour but would probably still have despised him as a serial loser. But, of course, the more you find out about him, the easier it becomes to see Bad King John as much more than the melodrama villain he's normally caricatured as.

John, possessed of what we'd now call a seriously abrasive 'A Type' personality, was a demanding, micromanaging administrator, constantly on the move and, in his day-to-day work of ruling and travelling, dealing with complex problems and decisions on the hoof (literally) in an age when news travelled no faster than the king himself. Like his father Henry and mother Alienor, he had enormous energies and stamina and was utterly convinced of his right to govern his empire by his own 'vis et voluntas', force and will. And, yes indeed, he was greedy – for power, naturally, but for money above all, to maintain that power and to finance the ruinously expensive series of wars he fought in his ultimately doomed attempts to recover his lost lands in France.

To achieve the control he needed, John and his administrators relied on coherent and comprehensive details of his own and his court's actions and decisions, as well as of the intricate financial dealings - the taxes, fines, debts and disbursements - on which his survival depended. It's from his reign that the patchier information we have from earlier reigns becomes a flood of records in the form of the various Exchequer and Chancery rolls, the 'filing cabinets' of the time. These are formidable factual historical resource and reference points. Whilst the contemporary chronicles, the op-eds of the time, usually reflect the prejudices of their monkish writers - most of them no great fans of a king who pillaged church funds when he had the chance - the rolls are the hard facts of John's day-to-day business, all filed and dated and showing where John was on that date.

These are typical of the rolls
kept in the National Archives
in leather casing

And it's this, the minutiae of John's everyday actions and decisions in these documents, that drew me to John's reign, not the broad historical and political sweep of the route to Magna Carta. For some 18 months now I've followed John's letters in the Patent Rolls, the Chancery files of the king's 'open' correspondence. I'm lucky in that I can read Latin (sometimes erratically), the business language of the Middle Ages, but the original rolls still require being able to understand the handwriting of the time.

Fortunately, thanks to Thomas Duffus Hardy, a 19th century civil servant and scholar at the Records Office, the Letters Patent (as well as many other documents) have been transcribed and printed – and many are available on the internet. The Patent rolls are the file records of a huge variety of royal business, ranging from ecclesiastical appointments, hostages, prisoner releases, instructions to John's soldiers, servants and statesmen, right down to banal receipts for money or equipment. They are written in what is very close to a medieval 'text speak' or shorthand, filled with abbreviations and symbols that would have been expanded fully in the original letters but saved time and work for the clerks when making their file copy.

The example here records John's gift of war horses on the 17th of May 1215 to his lords of the Welsh March, stipulating in which order they should choose one from John's stables at Gloucester Castle. As well as giving the date, the last line locates John at Freemantle in Hampshire on that day.

From evidence like this, Hardy used the rolls to create a relatively comprehensive itinerary for John's reign, for the king rarely stayed in one place for very long, sometimes travelling as much as 40 miles or more each day and regularly 25 or so, accompanied by his travelling circus of courtiers and knights, clerks and crossbowmen, servants, women and hangers-on. Along with them came the wagons and pack-animals, loaded with kitchen equipment, the portable chapel, John's bed, bath, urinal, travelling library and locked chests full of valuables and money - anything and everything the king might need or want, no doubt including his dressing gown. The rolls, lacking a word for such a new thing, record its purchase: 'For the surcoat of the lord king, for getting up in the night, 20 shillings'.

Another example in the National Archives

Eight hundred years before mass communication he needed, like all medieval monarchs, to make his power visible and tangible to his powerful lords and tenants by personal appearances in their territories. Peter of Blois, an influential Angevin courtier in Henry II's reign, bemoaned the indignities and unpredictability of being in the king's train on journeys like this. The saddle-sore minor clerks of John's Chancery, like Peter, would have wondered where they would sleep that night, perhaps in the itchy straw of some castle stable or, worse perhaps, in an even itchier peasant house, commandeered for the night.

Julie Kanter, in her doctoral thesis of 2011, calculated the details of John's incessant movements. Throughout his 18-year reign he travelled nearly 80,000 miles in total, rarely staying anywhere more than a couple of nights, often less. The daily average distance is between 12.5 and 14.9 miles. To put it all into a modern context:

The average distance travelled per person in Great Britain in 2006 was 7,133 miles or 19.5 miles per day. Therefore, John's average distance per day was 64% of the average distance travelled per day of a resident of Britain in 2006, for whom cars, trains and planes were all available. … J.C. Holt remarked that John did not usually remain in the same location for long, stating that 'Usually after two or three nights, or frequently one, he was off again'. But was this actually the case? In a word, yes. The average length of time that John spent at a location per visit was a mere 2.1 days.

John's 16-day stay at Windsor Castle for the Magna Carta negotiations is understandably long, though not remotely the norm. The longest time John ever stayed in one place, an exceptional 55 days, almost eight weeks, was through force majeure, during his siege of Rochester castle from October to December 1215. So when you contemplate the huge implications of Magna Carta for our modern ideas on justice and right, spare a kindly thought, too, for John's exhausted and long-suffering staff and courtiers, finally getting the chance to rest and recuperate for a fortnight from their endless perambulations - and for Thomas Duffus Hardy, whose lifetime studies made so much of John's reign easily accessible to us.

(NB: I'd like to express my huge gratitude to novelist Elizabeth Chadwick for introducing John's itinerary to me through her fascinating daily Facebook postings on the topic. She got me completely hooked and my first job of every day now is to check the itinerary and decipher the letters patent of the day.)

King John's tomb

Reference Cited:

Kanter J. E. Peripatetic and Sedentary Kingship: The Itineraries of the Thirteenth Century English Kings. Doctoral thesis, King's College. London: 2011


Richard is now retired after 26 years working as a staff counsellor at a southern university and as a social worker before that. He occupies himself with historical reenactment as a member of Regia Anglorum, photography, and a lifelong and wide-ranging interest in ancient and medieval history. His BA degree was in Latin.


The Review would like to thank Rich Price for taking the time to write his excellent piece
on the life and character of King John


  1. Learning about an historical character's personality makes them seem so real. Thank you for this excellent insight into John's life.

  2. This was a really insightful post about King John and the Magna Carta, and I enjoyed reading it very much! Just Wonderful!

  3. I have also been following Elizabeth Chadwick's daily posts on King John's amazing itinerary leading up to the stay at Windsor for the signing of the Magna Carta. I am really impressed with his stamina in putting so many miles under his horses. I also find John fascinating, definitely a very complex man. I wonder how much of the reports of his dastardly deeds are handed down to us by the propaganda of the time, vis-à-vis Richard III. Really enjoyed your blog - and envy you your comprehension of Latin, which I took in high school about 65 years ago and still can only interpret a word here and there! Mary Rose Caslin

  4. A superb post, Rich. The rich and insightful detail backing up the ongoing day-by-day history on Elizabeth Chadwick's daily post has been a delight to read and a real treat. I've also appreciated the explanations of how and why you translate the Latin the way you do, and the problems involved - an additional learning experience. It's been terrific!

    1. Many thanks Marilyn. I have to say it's been a huge learning experience for me too and has really helped revive my Latin comprehension (variable though it can be).

  5. Superbly informative, really good read. I've seen the tomb twice now, still has a certain 'aura' about it!

  6. Brilliant post, Rich. :) You should blog more often. Your posts are always so interesting.

    1. Thanks ever so Marsha :) - I may well try to do more after this positive experience.

  7. Rich, I also try to follow Elizabeth Chadwick's King John itinerary posts, and this blog is a wonderful read for more insight and deeper details. I agree with the others; it really is amazing to be able to peer into these historical figures' lives and daily activities, and in the process learn more about this fascinating time that we feel such a deep connection with.

    1. Cheers Lisl and thanks. I have to say the letters have taught me more about John than anything I'd ever read before. On the daily posts at Elizabeth's page I often find myself talking about it in the present tense becuase of that sense of day to day reality the letters give.