a) Who are the principal historians of the reign of King John ? What changes have taken place in historical opinion on King John?
Katie Mooney ----
King John seminar- defence put forward by Lady Doris Mary Stenton.

Lady Doris Mary Stenton was an historian who studied the pipe rolls of John I, and her research can be found in two of her books, "English society in the Early Middle ages" and "English Justice between the Norman Conquest and The Great Charter".

Traditionally John was discredited and very little good was said about him by the contemporary Chronicles, but Lady Stenton believed there was another side to his story away from his political failure, which many historians had concentrated upon. 

She credited him most for his work within the justice system and claimed in this way he was "the true son of his father", who had established many of the systems John developed. John took a personal interest in his justice and travelled about England sitting as the judge on many cases, sometimes without evidence of taking any special payment for his presence. Lady Stenton believed this was due to John's lively mind and keen intelligence, and his personal attention aided the expansion of Justice at this time, helping the development of a real legal profession. This opinion creates the view of a hard working lavish king who was willing to allow access to the benefits of his courts to all that wanted them. 

Lady Stenton also gives evidence of John as an able and generous king in what she calls "the paradox of John", such as his gifts to small clerical houses, his creation of a new coinage to replace the old worn out one, and sense of duty to protect his people by ordering anyone harming a clerk would be hung, as well as proclaiming "if we granted protection to a dog, it ought to be invidably observed". She also believed that we must not judge John upon present day moralities, and we must see his so called faults in context of the brutal age in which he lived. 

It seems Lady Stenton saw that many of negative aspects of John's reign can put upon the unlucky situation he was in as she claims that "no king was ever so unlucky as John". She gives this to three main reasons:

  • 1) As France came into the hands of Philip II, the conquest of Normandy was only a matter of time. 
  • 2) John's barons resented both fighting and paying for John to protect his continental lands, but also felt resentment after they were lost when they found they had lost their own continental land in the same process. This created a mutual resentment between John and many of his barons. 
  • 3) John had powerful enemies in pope Innocent III and Philip II, who were watching his every move. Therefore John felt it difficult to trust anyone who was bound to him by self-interest.
It seems that Lady doris Mary Stenton tried to show that John was not the failure that traditional history has depicted him as, and he should be credited with his development of Common law. She believed he was an able and generous king who found himself in a very unlucky situation, in a very brutal age.

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b) What are the main historical sources for the reign ? What opinions did the Chroniclers hold of king John ? How reliable are the Chroniclers for this period ? What other sources are available.
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c) What kinds of problems did John inherit from his predecessors, particularly from Richard ? What changes took place in the organisation of the King's council under Richard ? What was the function of the Justiciar in this period ?
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d) What policies did John follow to recover the ground lost by the monarchy under Richard ? Why were these policies so unpopular with the barons ?
Georgina Taylor Tracy Kortright
During Richard's absence whilst on crusade, not only financial burdens but civil disturbances occurred. Richard was ransomed by king Philip of France sacrifices were great for the English. Following his release, he began a period of great expenditure on war-the building of castles, purchase of Rhenish alliances and the increasing hire of mercenaries. Richard was able to afford such military expenditure through borrowing money from financial houses. By 1198 ministers of the English government began to revive the principle of the Danegeld as an extra means of collecting tax. This inevitably led to a number of complaints. 

With regard to Normandy, by the time of John's reign it was in a sorry state, crippled completely by the expenditure of Richard on defence. With the loss of Normandy in 1204 the king became a permenant resident in England. Where as the administration of England had increasingly fallen into the hands of the justiciar during the absences of previous kings, John involved himself in the day-to-day governing of England. John began to act as his own first minister and therefore made the position of justiciar something of an anachrinism.

When John came to the throne, the situation was one of complete overstrain in material resources and morale. The reckless actions of Richard and his expensive adventures which he embarked upon meant that John had to deal with the situation differently - with a 'soft sword rather than a firm sword.'

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The main problem John had was financial, prices were rising rapidly and his expenditure was great with continual warfare, repressing rebellions and fighting French kings. Richard had inherited a great deal of money from his father that he spent on crusades, by the time he died there was nothing left, and the throne was struggling financially. 

The Barons were able to take advantage of the inflation and exploited their lands, but the crown was not able to do so. The Royal demesne had decreased since the Doomsday book, and with the limited economy the crown could not keep up with the growing economic costs. 

Before 1204 John willingly sold pardons, privileges, properties and offices for quick cash. This was considered to be politically safe since the purchasers could see themselves gaining something in return for their money. But it was not long before he began exploiting his feudal rights, the lords had to pay for the knighting of their eldest son and the marriage of their eldest daughter, there was no fixed price to this, so John raised them. 

Scutage was another form of income. This could be levied at ant time, and without the Barons permission, and was done so during Johns reign that it became to resemble a tax. John even called for scutage when there was no battle taking place. 

The prices on relief's was also raised. The relief (a sum of money an heir pays the crown for the right to enter his inheritance) had no fixed price, though it was customary to pay 100 shillings. John saw it as negotiable, for some people the relief was enormous. He charged people he disliked, or those whose legal right to the land is shaky the most. Similarly when the heir is underage, he would take custody of the land, pocketing the money from the estate until the heir is of age. Originally it was no custom for a ward to pay relief when he came of age, but John began to demand it. 

John also began demanding money for his consent for a widow or heiress to marry. Widows of royal tenants in chief could avoid a forced remarriage by paying a fine. Widows also had to pay fines to enter inheritances or dowers. 

John also exploited his regalian right. When a Bishop or Abbot died, John delayed in appointing a successor so he could benefit from the money they would have earned. By the spring of 1213 seven bishoprics and over a dozen abbacies were in the kings hands. 

He also began to demand prompt payments of debts to the crown. Previously Barons could draw out repaying their debts over a considerable amount of time, now they were faced with having their lands seized and imprisonment for failure to pay quickly. 

Tallages (an amount of money paid by a Royal Borough to the crown) also rose dramatically. There were also increased rates in the Royal forest, so it cost more to feed the pigs, pasturage of livestock and to cut down trees for wood, or for extra space to grow crops. 

Sheriffs were seen to be in a profitable position. Richard began the policy of demanding the sheriffs pay a fixed annual sum, John continued the policy (which ended with Magna Carta) John also removed boroughs or towns from one sheriffs control and granted it to another for a higher annual sum. He also took money from inhabitants of towns to be free of a sheriffs control. 

John was also the first King to introduce import and export taxes, they began as one fifthteenth of the cargo.

There were several political problems that John had to deal with. He was a hand on monarch, and excluded the Barons from having a say in government. He was the first king to bring in 'alien' advisers, he also developed the Royal household and the privy seal, so it operated as a parallel government under his control.

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e) What was the significance of the loss of Normandy in 1204 ? Was it a decisive factor in turning the barons against John?
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f) Who were the barons who actually framed Magna Carta ? Were they drawn from the same group as the rebels ? What were their objectives in framing the Charter?
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g) To what extent did the Charter satisfy the objectives of the barons who led the rebellion ? To what extent did the Charter reflect a more moderate viewpoint ? Is it possible to regard the Charter as less than a total defeat for John ?
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h) Was the Great Charter a genuinely revolutionary restraint on the king ? Did it really guarantee the 'freedom' of all Englishmen ?
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I) Does Magna Carta deserve its place in history ? Why was it so highly regarded by later generations ? Was their confidence in it misplaced ?
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j) Is it possible to defendJohn's policies ? To what extent was he a victim of circumstances beyond his own control ? What were his achievements ? Does he deserve his evil reputation in history ?
Debate ----

When Richard 1 died , his brother John, the fourth and youngest son of Henry II, succeeded to the throne.

The task of ruling the assortment of lands which constituted the Angevin Empire, to which he succeeded, was a difficult one. The heavy financial demands that John was accused of making ,because of inflation, followed Richard's expensive crusading activities plus the heavy taxation for ransom to release him from captivity. Until recently the reputation of John has been based on chroniclers who wrote of John before he had established himself as a monarch or after his death.

William of Newburgh and Gerald of Wales wrote observations of John as a teenager, before he became king

Most influential in creating John's bad historical reputation is Roger of Wendover, who wrote his Flowers of History well after John was dead. Victorian historians have vented their disapproval of John's morality, founded on these monastic chronicles.

None of the Angevins were attractive characters. Richard like John, has been described as ' a graceless boor', but Richard had the glamour of having been a Crusader in the Holy Land.

It is only in recent times, since administrative records have been studied by experts, that a more balanced view of John and his reign has emerged. Official records depict John observing the church's feasts and participating in penitential practices. The king made arrangements for feeding hundreds of paupers, and almsgiving was a normal part of the royal household's expenses.

Testimony of Lady Doris Mary Stenton, historian

I studied some of the pipe rolls for John's reign and was the general editor 1933-1964 of The Great Roll of the Pipe 1-17.

John's frequent gifts to small and obscure religious houses, often convents, suggests his uncalculating generosity. John had a lively mind and a keen intelligence and I consider him to be no tyrant.

His personal attention to the work of his courts and legal development has led me to discount the barons' conviction that the king tampered with justice for selfish ends and to conclude that he deserves more praise than blame for his tireless activity in hearing pleas, especially his readiness to admit litigants not only into his court but to his presence, and, for developing judicial administration.

Of John's military ability, his ill-repute results chiefly from his disastrous failed defence of Normandy, 1202-1204. Yet, John's military record on his death is hardly one of cowardice or incompetence; he was a capable enough strategist and skilled in seigecraft. His strategy for recovering his lost duchy came incredibly close in 1214. Philip Augustus had at his command far superior resources than John. John recruited experienced mercenary officers and soldiers in preference to the untrained and disorderly feudal host, but John's allies failed him, not his mercenaries but his barons.

Some of the most respected barons remained loyal to the king, despite occasional quarrels.

One was William Marshal, soldier of fortune in his youth, and subject of a French poem of more than 19,ooo lines, and considered the very model of feudal virtue

Testimony of William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, the nation's leading soldier d.1219

 I was a mentor and companion at arms to John's elder brother Henry, teaching him courtesy and martial arts.

When Richard I went to the crusades I remained as one of his agents in England.

I favoured John when it came to determining Richard's successor and persuaded wavering English barons to support him. John made me earl of Pembroke at his coronation. and I became royal companion, counsellor and military commander

Even Philip Augustus declared me the most loyal man he had ever known. Before John died he appointed me as regent and guardian for Henry III, John's son.

Some of the most powerful barons remained loyal to the king, even though they had interests in Normandy to consider.

Testimony of Ranulf III, earl of Chester

I had substantial Norman holdings, as did many English barons. Many important Norman barons defected to the French king Philip Augustus' side in 1203. When my brother-in-law, the lord of Fougères, Brittany deserted, John was suspicious of, but quickly regained confidence in me. John relied on me as a Marcher Lord to defend the frontier with Wales, and at the height of the rebellion of the barons when a formidable proportion of the baronage was from the northern counties he could count on my allegiance. I was a leading loyalist magnate in the troubles which followed the great baronial revolt of 1215-16

 John could inspire loyalty among capable administrative officials: and he took a serious interest in administration. The long series of the English charter, patent, and close rolls date from his early years. John chose initially administrators who had already proved themselves to be very able men in Richard's absence and they also won easy acceptance by their fellow barons.

 Testimony of Hubert Walter: Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury and former justiciar. Died in July 1205

I had served Richard I as justiciar and accompanied him on crusade, returning to England in 1193. Considering that Richard spent the greatest part of his reign away from England, I had to be an able administrator in his absence.

I resigned as justiciar for Richard in 1198, but at his coronation John retained me as his chancellor.

Testimony of Geoffrey fitz Peter, Earl of Essex, justiciar. Died 1213

I succeeded Hubert Walter as Chief justiciar in 1198, and headed England's administration in that post until my death in 1213.

With William Marshal and the archbishop, I helped persuade hesitant English barons to accept John as their king and swear fealty to him after Richard died.

At his coronation John made me Earl of Essex. Most of John's justices owed their selection to me and I organised periodic circuits of royal justices that carried the king's justice to the shires, creating a link between central government and the localities.

With the loss of Normandy, John's almost permanent residence in England gave him greater opportunity to involve himself personally in the work of justice.

John was also wise in his later choice of leading officers of State. When Geoffrey fitz Peter died he appointed Peter de Roches as justiciar. After him, John appointed Hubert de Burgh. Both of Geoffrey fitz Peter's successors proved to be reliable men. John de Grey, a trusted bishop of Norwich whom John had tried to appoint as Archbishop of Canterbury, he made Irish Justiciar in 1208.

An accomplishment of John's was to establish the nucleus for a royal navy. He understood the importance of seapower and the value of economic sanctions maintained by naval blockade. In his wars against Wales and Ireland John made good use of his seapower. There was also always the treat of invasion from the French and soon after John's death, it was to be Hubert de Burgh's sea victory over Louis of France in 1217, which brought an end and humiliation to French Prince's invasion.

 Testimony of William of Wrotham, Canon of Wells and Archdeacon of Taunton and royal clerk King John made me the mediaeval equivalent of First Lord of the Admiralty

I was one of the chief keepers of the ports, concerned with allocating to particular ports the galleys being built for coastal defence.

I organised the fledgling navy that protected England's coasts and transported forces abroad.

The early feudal method of raising ships had been to commandeer ships and sailors for a limited period from the barons, in the same way that knights were called up to form royal armies. John had a substantial number of galleys built and galleymen were enlisted or impressed and paid at a relatively high rate of sixpence a day. John would often give the galleymen half the proceeds of any prize ships or goods captured.

In 1213, King John ended a period of struggle with the papacy, when he surrendered his crowns of England and Ireland, putting himself and his realms under apostolic suzerainty, receiving them back as fiefs to be held by him and his heirs of the popes. This was at a time when Philip Augustus king of France was threatening to invade.

John's only contemporary chronicler without blatant bias is the anonymous Barnwell Chronicler

Testimony of The Barnwell Chronicler, writing c.1202-25

I am the annalist of Barnwell near Cambridge

Of his surrender to the Pope, I wrote that : "the king provided wisely for himself and his people by this deed.....For as soon as he put himself under apostolic protection and made his kingdom part of St.Peter's Patrimony, there was no prince in the Roman world who would dare attack him or invade his lands"

At the peak of his power I wrote: "That there is now no one in Ireland, Scotland and Wales who does not obey the command of the king of England; that, as is well known, is more than any of his ancestors achieved." John was certainly a great prince but hardly a happy one.


To summarise what we have attempted to demonstrate

John was an energetic administrator

a competent general and at times, a clever diplomatist

He developed the institutions of English law and government

He established the makings of a navy

And he was wise in his choice of ministers; appointing men of outstanding quality and loyalty

Sidney Painter produced one of the first reappraisals of the reign of King John, and I call on him to summarise this advocacy of John and his reign

Testimony of Sidney Painter, historian 1902-1960

I wrote the book: The Reign of King John which was published in 1949. My arguments almost entirely rest upon contemporary administrative records and I do not often cite chronicles unless it is to demonstrate their unreliability.

 John was more greedy in his financial demands than his predecessors, but his extortions were a question of degree not of nature; John generally remained within the framework of custom set by those predecessors even though he strained it at the edges.

The unenthusiastic if not actually treasonable behaviour of the Anglo-Norman baronage was a factor in the loss of Normandy

If Bouvines had been won, John would have been the dominant power in Europe. I think that John's putting himself and his realms under papal suzerainty was a diplomatic stroke of genius - in giving his kingdoms in fief to the pope, John drew about him the protection of Pope Innocent III, who interceded for John against his enemies both domestic and foreign.

Finally, John contributed to the relatively peaceful succession of his ten-year-old son, leaving behind him an able group of statesmen who were loyal to the Angevin monarchy, including William Marshal who became Protector of the kingdom.

Caryl Dane 



John's character was made up of negative characteristics, he was weak, petty, a bad general and ruthless, all of which led him to disaster.

John ruthlessly alienated the barons by bleeding them dry of money. He exploited to the utmost the feudal aids and incidents, which were paid by the tenants in chief. Took scutage as an annual payment from the barons who offered to fight personally, raised the amount of feudal incidents, insisted on exercising the archaic right of marrying heiresses to persons of his own choice and ruthlessly exploited his right to take the income from wards during their minorities. He also levied two taxes on moveable property in 1203 and 1207 only to pay for his failures abroad.

(John was forced to rely on these unpopular sources of income as there was a period of inflation and the rents were fixed, so he was forced to find funds else where. This indeed by the end of the 13th century has actually become the normal way for the King to earn money. John then sets a precedent for future Kings.)

Johns petty argument with the pope lead to his excommunication. His weakness as a king lead him to later give homage to the pope and as a result England and Ireland fief to the pope. Also lumbering England with a 1000 pound sterling tribute to pay each year and forever more.

(The way in which John gets the Pope back on side is quite a shrude political move, which gains him the support of the Pope for him and his successors in future crisis.)

Johns failure to compensate his new wife's ex-betrothed, Hugh of Lusignan, resulted in the King of France, Philip II, to pronounce all of John's lands forfeit after John failed to respond to summons. Philip enforced this ruling, and John showing is his weakness once again fought a few skirmishes and ran to England loosing his French territories. He again shows his ineptitude when he tries to regain his lands in france, and even though having a much larger force fails to beat Philip in a pitched battle at Bouvines on the 27th of July 1214. So through his poor leadership he forever loses his continental territories.

(Granted he does cause his own problems by not giving compensation, but he actually unable to defend his territory as he cannot rely upon his troops, and later at Bouvines it is his allies that let him down and do not show up on time allowing Phillip to fight each army separately therefore wining. Also John is a quite good general as ever castle he lays siege to falls to him, it is the people who are with him in battle that fail him again and again, the lack of support from the Barons, but whether this lack of support stems from his character I don't know.)

It is therefore not surprising that john would return to deal with insurrection on his return in 1214. His lack of character had lead the Barons to lose all faith or respect for John, whose reputation was rightfully a bad one after al these acts plus throwing his only rival for power, a young boy, Arthur of Brittany off Rouen Cathedral.

(This is only rumour, there is no evidence for this.)

He was a bad King. It was his inability's which lead his actions and these in turn fail. Ruthless, petty, weak and un-chivalric John had not the ability to rule over his more powerful subjects and so this incompetent tyrant was a failure as a King.

(John was certainly duplicitous, but he was a good administrator and it would not be too lenient to say he was as much a victim of circumstance as he was of his lack of ability.)

By Jonathan Eastwood.

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JSI /20/10/99

School of History and Welsh History - University of Wales Bangor