History, Department of
Date of this Version
Except for a certain period during the English Reformation--an exception that supplies the topic for the following paragraphs--King John has been despised with near unanimity for centuries. His poor reputation began early: soon after his death the chroniclers recalled him as a young prince habitually plotting against his brother Richard (who forgave him each time with suave contempt), and as an arbitrary king who vexed his own nobles into civil war. They remembered his stamping rages and appalling cruelties, his sloth, his gluttony; and they accused him of lechery so befuddling that once he lay in bed all morning with his young new wife while his army floundered to a defeat in the field. And since the chroniclers were churchmen, they remembered John's sullen defiance of Pope Innocent III with special clarity. In 1206 he rejected Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, even though Innocent himself had designated him for the post. When negotiations over Langton failed, Innocent placed the whole of England under papal interdict, a favorite sanction of his. John ignored this prod, and Innocent took the further step of excommunicating him. John ignored this also. At length, however, when the French threatened to invade, John capitulated. Not only did he accept Langton but also yielded his kingdom to Innocent as a papal fief. He did so as a matter of policy, to gain the pope's support against France, a move that many of his nobles thought so astute that they tried to claim credit for thinking of it. To others, of course, John's behavior looked like abject hysteria, proving him cowardly as well as impious.
This view of John as a coward, a bully, and a voluptuary would last for centuries; indeed it may still be the consensus that John is the worst monarch to rule England. For a time, however, during the advent of the English Reformation and for some years afterward, John's reputation underwent--at least officially--a complete rehabilitation: the medieval villain became a hero of English liberty, a kind of anticipant Protestant, a lonely pioneer in resisting the tyrannies of Rome.
Published in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), pp. 23-32 Copyright © 1980 The Sixteenth Century Journal. Used by permission.