The official blog of Historical Fiction author, Mary Anne Yarde, and home to The Coffee Pot Book Club. Come and join Mary Anne on the hunt for everything historical, as well as mythological. Oh, and let's not forget the odd book or two! Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy...
“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
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
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
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
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
And then the unthinkable happened.
The Lionheart died.
Which left two possible claimants to the
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
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
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
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?!