King John’s Verdict: the good, the bad, and Magna Carta

(originally published in The Weekly Standard, 18 May 2015)

May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34

In Ivanhoe, Prince John is thoroughly repugnant, displaying “a dissolute audacity, mingled with extreme haughtiness and indifference to the feelings of others,” as well as a “libertine disposition.” According to Stephen Church, Walter Scott’s character is “almost wholly a later concoction”—except, presumably, for the love of fine clothes and jewelry that Scott depicts and Church’s archival evidence proves. The reality revealed here is even rougher.

While Prince John didn’t know what to do about his nephew Arthur, a rival claimant to the English throne, King John, after ascending the throne, contemplated blinding and castrating him—a punishment inflicted by Ottoman sultans upon their younger brothers. Ultimately, the king took the simplest route and had Arthur killed. The newly crowned John repudiated his first wife when a more advantageous alliance with a 12-year-old French heiress presented itself. Later, John incarcerated the wife and son of a rebellious baron and starved them to death.

Governance in John’s administration was as personal and secretive as in Saudi Arabia. It was conducted “by the king himself along with his domestic servants.” Our word “family,” Church explains, derives from the Latin familia, applied to a lord and his retainers, whether or not related by blood. Money, not blood, was at the root of “family.” But John’s kingdom wasn’t a savage backwater: The Angevins took their name from the French province Anjou, the capital of which was Angers. Now a sleepy university town, Angers is best known for its château containing the magnificent 14th-century Apocalypse tapestry. In the 12th century, though, Angers was at the center of the European world.

Church calls this book, in part, “a study in failure,” referring to John’s loss of his father Henry II’s French lands to the French king Philip Augustus. But it’s also a study in long-term success: While these Anglo-French battles would be re-fought in the Hundred Years’ War, John’s loss of territory and retreat to England was decisive for English history—and, indeed, for worldwide governance. His excesses led to Magna Carta (1215), which set the groundwork for Parliament and, eventually, constitutional monarchy.

Much of this lucid, workmanlike history could be ripped from today’s headlines—although in places like Iraq and Libya, not England and France. The unstable, untrusting alliances; the identification of the ruler with the state; the extortion by the ruler of his subjects; the outright sale of state offices; the brutal fighting among members of ruling families—all are the stuff of Third World politics today. How did England move from a culture in which one contemplated blinding and castrating one’s political rivals to the peaceable, money-laundering capital of the world? How did we English-speakers escape this past, and how can others for whom it is the present do so as well?

Church provides some answers. One is that medieval England had good luck. A major condition for stability was the state’s monopoly of force within its borders. The English had this one solved for them by William the Conqueror, who controlled Normandy as well as most of England: “The English king was richer in lands by a margin so great that no mere baron could challenge the king for power.” This isn’t to suggest a very impressive level of security; piracy was a problem at the time, even in the English Channel. But it did put Angevin England ahead of most European societies.

An organized, relatively stable state needs bureaucracy and wealth, and each in turn requires a work ethic and some measure of the rule of law. All of this was present in King John’s England, though still primitive. In fact, John’s reign is the first for which the king’s clerks recorded most of his correspondence. We don’t know why this common-sense measure was adopted at the time, but these documents (called Chancery Rolls) enable historians to reconstruct John’s movements and acts and also attest to a degree of organization. There was enough of a state apparatus that John could identify the lands of those who rebelled against him, as they would toward the end of his reign, and confiscate and redistribute them.

Wealth for most people in Angevin England meant land and agricultural produce; the use of money was still undeveloped. It wasn’t necessary for most of England’s three million people, but it was very necessary for those who would make war, such as the king. England had just one coin, a silver penny, and the total value of all those pennies was only £250,000 in today’s currency. In 1207, John controlled nearly a fifth of England’s wealth, raising £57,000 through an innovative tax called the Thirteenth. Earlier tax farming levied fixed amounts on the barons and landowners, who raised the money from their tenants in chief, who, in turn, raised it from their tenants. While responsibility was at the top, the pain was felt lower down the scale. John, instead, required all landowners, including churchmen, to pay 13 percent of their wealth to the crown, so the levies were not pushed down the social scale. Church believes that it was this tax that fatally alienated the nobility from King John, leading to Magna Carta. (He also notes that John, like other Angevin kings, used special taxes on the Jews to balance his budget.)

Education is essential for effective administration, and the events here took place around the time of the establishment of the University of Paris, the first university created north of the Alps and the second in Europe after Bologna. Oxford and Cambridge were still in the future, but a sufficient number of John’s barons were literate that Magna Carta was translated into the French that most of them used day to day.

Speaking of the rule of law, I would have welcomed a few pages about the state of English law at the time. We learn that, in Henry I’s Coronation Charter, he guaranteed that women would not be married without their families’ consent (or, for widows, without their own consent) and that Magna Carta allowed women the right to bring murder cases only for the death of a husband. A bit more context would have been welcome, however: How did John’s courts work? What access did ordinary people have to justice?

It is possible, of course, that the author prefers writing about battles and governance rather than laws and charters, for there is disappointingly little here about Magna Carta and how it relates to other royal charters. And while a perfunctory genealogical chart and two maps are included, a more extensive, better annotated Angevin family tree would have been nice, along with a few pages to explain how English dominion in France was resolved in the Hundred Years’ War.

But these shortcomings aside, Stephen Church has written a thoughtful and suggestive book, instructive for anyone interested in comparative government and essential for students of early medieval England and France.

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