Authors: Sean McGlynn
In some ways these conflicting views reflect the times in which the historians wrote. The Victorian age, with exceptions such as Stubbs, admired the manly heroic figure cut by the chivalrous form of Richard (who, as we have seen, is himself the subject of conflicting views in the modern academic community) to the detriment of John who, it was believed, lacked the chivalry of big brother.
Many modern historians, more preoccupied with quantifiable information gleaned from official documentary evidence, and in reaction to unfashionable military history, praise John’s undoubted administrative skills, sometimes effusively so.
But against this praise must be balanced Colin Richmond’s telling observation that ‘The records of government are all very well, but on issues that matter they do not tell the truth. In fact, they seek to obscure it.’
Favourable views based on bureaucracy accentuate chronocentric bias and preference, placing one skill at a premium over the other instead of valuing both as the two sides of the same coin. A good military commander in the Middle Ages had to be a good administrator: Richard the Lionheart excelled in both areas, hence his deserved reputation as a military genius; John excelled only in one, and even this was chiefly the result of his military failings which forced him to administer his kingdom ever more efficiently in an effort to find revenues to pay for the losses inflicted by war. Whatever today’s sensibilities may be, medieval subjects expected their monarch to achieve success in war; as Ralph Turner neatly summarises it: ‘modern scholars’ admiration of kings such as John for attention to administration is anachronistic, applying standards of the twentieth century rather than the thirteenth.’
Growing recognition of this has seen John’s reputation plummet. An important collection of papers from scholars published in 1999 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of John’s accession to the throne is universally damning of the King, and the most recent research even challenges John’s innovations in administration. David Crouch, writing in 2010, promotes wide, though not universal, current agreement in judging John’s rule as ‘ham-fisted’ and the King as ‘unpredictable and unreliable’, whose ‘irrational capacity for abrupt, extravagant, and uncontrolled resentment’ put him ‘outside the courtly world’.
The balance must weigh heavily against John. Indeed, the greatest achievement of his reign, Magna Carta, was the result of his inability to rule effectively. With only some reservations, therefore, it is safe to concur with mitigated opinions of contemporary chroniclers, while bearing in mind John’s record in administration. Gerald of Wales, virulently hostile to the Angevin house, declared that John ‘feared not God, nor respected men’; Richard of Devizes depicted John as a raging madman, his face so contorted as to be unrecognisable; the more even-handed Barnwell writer says of John that ‘he was less than successful’ and ‘a pillager of his own people’. Of course, such monastic voices had their own political and financial agenda, but John fares little better at the hands of secular sources. The anonymous biographer of William the Marshal portrays the King as a suspicious and resentful ruler, heedless to reason, blinded by pride and incapable of retaining baronial affection. The Anonymous of Béthune (whose master fought for John) labels John ‘a very wicked man: he was cruel to all men … he ashamed many of the great men of the land, for which he was much hated.’ The Anonymous goes on to relate how John set his barons against each other, ‘happy to see animosity between them, and that he hated them through envy’; quite simply, ‘he had too many bad qualities.’
This last assessment is one of the most telling; it confirms the inconsistency of the King and his woeful inability to manage people. Whereas Richard was an inspired leader of men, John was a Machiavellian manipulator, and not a particularly good one.
Was John mad? Contemporary depictions of his rages and rolling around on the floor gnawing frantically at straws would suggest this. But the question of whether John really was insane is debatable. Charles Petit-Dutaillis thought so, believing that John ‘was subject to a mental disease known today and described by psychiatrists as the periodical psychosis … Philip Augustus had a madman as his rival.’
Vivian Green, in his study
The Madness of Kings
, offers a more equitable judgement, questioning whether there is any real justification in labelling John as a madman; rather he was ‘immature in behaviour and outlook …His occasional bouts of energy, his rage and cruelty, his obsessive suspicions may well suggest that he was a victim of an acute personality disorder.’
Perhaps it would be more pertinent to say that those around him were the victims of his personality disorder.
The summation of faults displayed by John was dangerous in a king and disastrous in a medieval military commander. When John attempted to be assertive he often came across as shrill, cowardly and malevolent, as seen in his monstrous treatment of William de Braose’s family (his wife and child were starved to death in a royal prison), his deadly intentions for the defeated garrison at Rochester and his duplicitous massacre and decapitations at Evreux in 1194. In W.L. Warren’s memorable phrase, John ‘could not resist the temptation to kick a man when he was down’.
He could not even keep his balance while doing so. In contrast, when Richard was assertive, the signal sent out was one of ruthless efficiency: his mass execution of nearly 3000 Muslims at Acre in the Holy Land, though reprehensible, at least had the merit of being an effective solution to a serious logistical problem, caused by an enemy failing to satisfy agreed demands.
The important point here is one of perception: whatever good John may have done, it was always overshadowed by his darker acts. Contempories considered him a loser, and so labelled him with the damning soubriquet of
Churchill believed that the British nation owes more to the vices of John than to the labours of the more virtuous monarchs (but then he also considered the loss of Normandy to be a good thing);
this was not the view of contemporaries, and their judgement was fairly sound.
Perhaps John’s failings would have counted for less if he had been faced with a less formidable opponent: King Philip II of France. That Philip had made little headway against Richard in the 1190s is more of a reflection of Richard’s qualities than Philip’s shortcomings. Philip is the most important of all the seventeen Capetian kings of France: he did more than any other to create the foundations of modern France. Jean Flori, his most recent biographer, rightly claims that his reign constitutes ‘a fundamental moment in the history of the French kingdom’ and he ‘merits the title of the first King of France’.
He became monarch in 1180 when only fourteen. During his reign the very existence of the French nation was constantly in peril, a danger that persisted until a climactic battle for survival in 1214, when John’s allies were poised to deliver a crushing blow to Philip. The Anglo–French conflict of the early thirteenth century is the story of a fight for survival between the Angevin Empire and the Capetian monarchy. This contest was fought out within the boundaries of modern-day France, except during the period 1215–17, when the war spilled over into England for its final round. So bitter had the struggle become, by 1214 both sides seemed to veer towards Catonic strategy:
delenda est Carthago
. Ultimately, France survived, and to this day the French revere Philip for expanding and consolidating his kingdom and for guaranteeing its long-term security.
When John became king, Philip already had nearly 20 years of experience as ruling monarch under his belt. He had been schooled in the art of kingship by Henry II and Richard I, two of its great practitioners; his lessons were well learned and consistently applied. However, in many respects Philip and John were evenly matched. Philip was only two years younger than John. Both were possessed of singularly unengaging personalities. Turner notes that Philip ‘shared unattractive traits with John: lustful, authoritarian, cynical, suspicious, and treacherous’; Steven Runciman remarks on Philip’s ‘nervous disorder’ and his predisposition to indulge in ‘underhand intrigue’; Elizabeth Hallam has written of ‘cruelty, treachery and authoritarian behaviour’. French historians have also noted his unappealing features: Robert Fawtier accurately labels him ‘a cautious, cynical distrustful man’; Charles Petit-Dutaillis describes Philip’s politics as ‘flexible and unscrupulous’; Flori, less critically, describes his character as ‘complex and secretive’ and also ‘stern and severe’ when compared to Richard the Lionheart.
Like John, a picture of calculating slyness emerges; but unlike John, this unsavoury quality was used to great effect, for Philip was a master Machiavellian, a schemer whose machinations got results. For this reason, similarities in character are not matched by similarities in reputation. Philip had developed talents at an early age. In 1184 he was faced with a serious threat from Count Philip of Flanders, ‘one of the shrewdest soldiers of the day’ (under whom Richard the Lionheart had served his military apprenticeship).
Henry II, who had afforded Philip a considerable degree of protection during the latter’s early years on the French throne, brokered an armistice between the two sides for a year. The two parties had to name their allies who were to be included in the agreement. King Philip audaciously implicated his father-in-law, Count Baldwin of Hanault, by naming him without prior consultion and without Baldwin ever having even taken the King’s side. Furthermore, Baldwin had no wish to antagonise his powerful and dangerous neighbour, the Count of Flanders, who was at odds with the French king. By this brazen move, the French King succeeded in achieving two aims: he artificially represented his position as being stronger than it really was while simultaneously manufacturing a useful split between Flanders and Hainault.
Philip was indeed ‘a prudent and skilful diplomat’,
no matter how dubious this diplomacy may have been. The French historian R-H. Bautier has rightly praised Philip as ‘a remarkable tactician of politics’, who augmented his strength by his ability ‘to judge allies and adversaries, and discover their weaknesses and profit from them’.
I would argue also that an even greater attribute was his capacity, which developed with his political maturity, to gauge and recognise his own debilities and limitations, especially in the military sphere.
Philip’s phenomenal success offers one explanation for his great renown; another is provided by the panegyrical writings of the chroniclers Rigord and William the Breton, the official royal biographers: Rigord bestowed upon Philip the appellation of ‘Augustus’, complete with quasi-imperial overtones, and one altogether more flattering than ‘Softsword’ or ‘Lackland’, which English writers had stuck on John; William was sycophantically unstinting in his praise, regularly lapsing into eulogistical hyperbole. There was no battalion of hostile monks taking up their quills against him such as John faced in England. But Philip had some need of literary flourish in support of his martial endeavours: in another resemblance to John, Philip was not heroic material. A pale, sickly child who grew into a fat, prematurely balding young man, Philip was not the stuff of chivalric legend.
There is much truth in the accusation levelled by Gillingham that Philip was a ‘timid soldier’, but it is misleading to say, as A.L.Poole does, that he was ‘not a great soldier’ or, as Alan Lloyd concurs, he was ‘not an outstanding warrior’.
Holders of this view might have cited the outburst of Philip’s contemporary, the pathologically belligerent troubadour, Bertrand de Born, who charges Philip with being too soft (’trop mols’) and chides him for ‘hunting sparrows and tiny birdies’ instead of pursuing the manly and noble past-time of war.
But Philip was to prove himself militarily as a commander-in-chief rather than as a fighting man.
When John came to the throne of England in December, 1199, these two unlikely generals stood on the eve of unleashing upon each other the fury of their armies in a series of bitterly contested and viciously waged wars, which extended the established patterns of the Angevin-Capetian struggle. John and Philip were to be the chief instigators of the momentous events of the next eighteen years, but it would have been difficult for them to have forseen the desperate character that these wars were to take on, or the new levels of intensity that they were to reach. However, just before the storm was about to break, there came the lull. This appeared in the shape of the treaty of Le Goulet, signed on 22 May 1200. By the terms of this treaty, Philip Augustus recognised John as Richard’s heir in all his French possessions, with Brittany held by Arthur as John’s vassal. In return, John ceded the strategic Vexin and Evreux to the French king, reflecting, in part, Philip’s recent military advances. Further terms were agreed as the two kings talked by themselves, surrounded by their retinues, at this border conference that a papal legate had done so much to bring about: John abandoned his alliances with Otto of Brunswick and some of Philip’s vassals, which Richard had carefully cultivated;
he paid 20, 000 marks to Philip as a succession duty, a feudal relief for taking up his continental inheritance; and the treaty was sealed by the marriage of John’s niece, Blanche of Castille, to Philip’s son, Prince Louis of France.Warm embraces between the monarchs were followed by John’s summer visit to Paris, where he was lavishly entertained by his Capetian host.
The salient features of the treaty formed telling portents of future events; alternatively, they may be viewed as actively shaping the future course of Anglo-French relations. Although the Norman Vexin was relinquished to France, Andelys and its defensive network, centred on Richard’s magnificent ‘bold castle’ of Château Gaillard (also, but less accurately, called ‘saucy’ castle), remained in John’s hands: this set the immediate scene for the epic struggle for Normandy in 1203–4. John’s payment of the colossal sum of 20,000 marks for his continental territories defined his feudal relationship with his overlord, Philip of France: when this contract was ruptured in 1202 it allowed Philip, however tenuously, to justify his military moves against John in legalistic terms. And the marriage of Blanche of Castille to Louis was perhaps most significant of all: it gave the young Prince Louis his claim to the English throne in 1216.