Thursday 15 September 2016

Robin Hood and the dishonourable Prince John

“Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
When gold and silver becks me to come on.”

King John (3.3.12) by William Shakespeare

Last time, on my hunt for RobinHood, I took a look at King Richard and his role in the legend. Today I want to look at his brother, the infamous Prince John.

I have always taken quite an interest in the life and times of King John. I am, dare I admit it, a direct descendant of his. Yes, you heard, I have a notoriously bad king as a Grandfather ~ sounds about right!

King John is often portrayed as this womanising coward, who was intent on bringing down his brother. Can you remember Disney's Robin Hood ~ Prince John is a lion without a mane who sucks his thumb when things go wrong. That portray kind of rattles actually. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not his champion, far from it. He wasn't the greatest of kings, but there was more to him than meets the eye. I will concur, however, that he is the perfect antagonist for our Robin Hood.

I thought as I did with Richard in the last post, I would give you an abbreviated version of John's life. Out of all the Kings of England, I think John is one of the most fascinating figures to research.

But, as with all things, to understand where John ended up, it is important to start where he began.

John was the youngest child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was born on the 24th December 1166. No one ever thought he would become King, at least of all his father who nicknamed him John Lackland ~ which simply put, means he had no lands to inherit. Henry wanted to do something about that. He didn't want his youngest son to be left with nothing. If only Henry had possessed the gift of hindsight, then maybe history would have gone down an altogether different path.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine holding court.

Henry II is a complicated character to get my head around. He appears, on one hand, to be a devoted father who only wants the best for his children. Unfortunately, his wife, who seems to have great influence over their sons, hinders him at every opportunity. It was her influence that set off a disastrous chain of events. However, Eleanor cannot be held solely responsible, Henry chooses to do something so irresponsibly stupid that I cannot even believe I am writing it down.

Most of us understand how Kingship works. There are two ways to become a king. You either inherit the title, or you take over a kingdom, dispose of the king and place yourself on the throne. What you don't do, is share the throne with your son. You do not declare to your kingdom that your son is now also the King of England. Two roosters ruling the roost ~ what a recipe for disaster.

Although named King, Henry the Younger King had no powers. He was King in name only, and his resentment festered. What was the point in being King, if he had to look constantly to his father for permission to do anything? It was an empty crown with a hollow promise.

And what was worse, Henry the Younger King had to watch while his father bestowed praise on his youngest and unworthy brother, John. John was the golden boy. The one who could do no wrong. Jealousy darkened Henry the Younger King’s heart. Was there ever a more twisted and bitter family as theirs?

Henry II wanted to secure lands for John, as he had done with his other sons. There is nothing wrong with that, you may think.  But by doing so, he would tear his family apart. Not only would they rebel against him, but they would also fight amongst themselves. They knew not what family loyalty was. It was every man for himself.

Encouraged by their mother, the brother's revolted against their father in 1173. The reason why? John had been favoured and it wasn't fair. Their father was giving lands to John that Henry the Younger King saw as his inheritance and worse still, his father had not consulted him. Was he a King or not? How dare he.

The rebellion was short-lived and quickly suppressed. A peace treaty was drawn up. Henry II was more than generous to his traitorous sons. However, that was nothing in comparison to how he awarded his eight-year-old son, John, who had remained loyal to him throughout.

But it didn't end there, not for this war hungry family. News reached the King that his eldest son, Henry the Younger King was a war with his brother, Richard. Henry sided with Richard and by the end of the war, Henry the Young King was dead. Henry II immediately drew up plans to make Richard heir to the throne. His other son, Geoffrey would retain Brittany, but his youngest son, John would become the Duke of Aquitaine, a title that Richard currently held. Richard was enraged. He would not hand over his lands to his brother, and once more Henry II prepared himself for war. This war ended in stalemate.

Henry II then had this rather brilliant idea of making John the King of Ireland. But John's first visit to Ireland was nothing short of a fiasco, and he came home full of anger and resentment, blaming others for his shortcomings.

Meanwhile, John's brother Geoffrey died. Geoffrey left a son, Arthur, and a daughter. Richard was keen to go on Crusade, but he feared that if his father were to die, while he was away, then John would be appointed King. It was time to put an end to this matter once and for all. Richard took up arms and with the support of his allies he once again warred with his father. 

John, stayed loyal to his father until he realised that this time, his father was on the losing side. John changed sides. It is said that after Henry's defeat in battle, he learnt of John's treachery, and it broke his heart. He died two days after.

Richard was crowned King, and then he promptly left for the Crusades. He left his kingdom in what he thought was capable hands. He made William Longchamp his Chancellor ~ a fatal error for the man was unpopular, and it gave John the excuse to set up an alternative court. John had an eye on his brother's throne, and he wanted to be ready to step in if Richard were to have an unfortunate accident in the Holy Lands. John was canny; he remained faithful to Richard. He gave Richard no reason to doubt his loyalty.

 And then the unthinkable happened. The Lionheart died.

 Which left two possible claimants to the throne.

John and his nephew, Arthur.

It would take a war to decide who the rightful heir was. It would take more than one post to tell you all about what happened next, but the long and the short of it is that John was victorious over Arthur, and he took not only Arthur but many of Arthur's knight's prisoners. It is, I think, what happened next, that defined John's reign.

John was nothing like his father. He had witnessed first hand what happened when you forgave your enemies. He was not going to make the same mistakes as his father. Despite the captured knights being kin, his treatment of them was appalling. Twenty-Two of them died while in his care. But then John did something even more unforgivable.

"John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time in the castle of Rouen ... when John was drunk he slew Arthur with his own hand and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine."
The Annals of Margam Abbey

This was his nephew. His brother's son. But John had other things to worry about. Philippe II was gaining ground. John was going to lose Normandy if he wasn't careful. And lose it he did.

William the Marshal, one of John's most senior military leaders, by Matthew Paris

What John needed was money. If only he had more money, then nothing would stop him from taking Normandy back. However, England was already impoverished thanks to Richard's campaign to the Holy Lands and subsequent ransom. John became obsessed with thinking up new ways with which to fill his treasury.

Let's take a step back, and think again of Robin Hood.

"Robin…stole from the rich,
To give to the poor."

But John was also robbing from the rich, but legally and in the form of taxes. He started to sell Sherriff appointments. And these Sheriffs had to make their money back somehow ~ they increased the cost of fines and penalties.

No one was excluded from John's taxes, and John made sure that everybody paid. The nobles had their income taxed for the first time ~ which saw a staggering £60,000 go into the treasury. Import and export duties were to be paid directly to the crown.  And if the Baron's refused to pay, well then, John would just take their land as payment.

John's reign was far from peaceful, not only did he want to win back Normandy, but he also had to deal with Scottish aggression, Irish and Welsh. John then fell out with the church, with resulted in his excommunication.

It is no surprise that the Barons revolted. John agreed to meet the rebels at Runnymede on 15th June 1215. John was presented with a charter ~ which would later become known as The Magna Carta ~ The Great Charter. The Baron's wanted political reform. They wanted assurances. John agreed to the terms, although both sides knew that John didn't mean it, and he would appeal it at the first given opportunity.

The Barons had no choice, but to arm themselves and go to war against their king. John's campaign started well, but it rapidly went downhill when the Barons, invited the French Prince, Louis, to lead them. John wasn't going to give up without a fight, but then John contracted dysentery, which unfortunately proved fatal. John died in 1216.

King John of England in battle with the Francs (left), Prince Louis VIII of France on the march (right). (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 385)
I can see why Robin Hood would be connected with King John; it makes a sort of twisted sense. John did, after all, sell Sheriff appointments, and so this makes the idea of an "evil" Sheriff somehow more believable. And I like the idea that Robin was stealing the tax money and giving it back to the poor. Such antics would have certainly not gone unnoticed by the king. But there is nothing on parchment that suggests such a thing occurring. I don't see John riding up to Sherwood to reprimand the Sheriff personally for not doing more to stop this outlaw. Surely he would have just replaced the sheriff?! Nevertheless, it is fascinating stuff...isn't it?!

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx