King John was after all a bad king. One can go further, he was a bad man. Marc Morris has little time for the recidivists, anxious to rehabilitate Jean, as he should be known. He hinted during his excellent talk on ‘King John’ at the Buxton Literary Festival, that he does not have much truck with those who have rehabilitated Richard the Third. That though is another story. Who knows perhaps another book?
Morris is not only a very good historian he is an excellent speaker. His use of humour spiced with quotes and his depth of knowledge of his subject kept the audience enthralled, despite the heat, which at times, was almost stifling in the auditorium.
He quietly and succinctly put England in its correct place politically. We make the mistake of thinking that the kings that followed William the Conqueror, were English. They were not. The Kings were Norman French. They did not consider themselves as English. After all England was only one part of their empire. Importantly they did not speak English. More often than not they were buried in Normandy or even France.
John stumbled into Kingship. His father, Henry the second had not allocated any portion of his empire for John, perhaps because John was too young and therefore had an uncertain future. However a combination of unfortunate events saw this inadequate, disappointing human being find himself as head of the Empire that his father had fought so hard to retain.
John was a disaster. He clearly had no aptitude for politics or warfare. Those wishing to rehabilitate John often refer to his ability as a military strategist. Morris demonstrates that this is bunkum. John was brilliant when the odds were loaded so heavily in his favour that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. However, shift the odds slightly towards his opponents and to quote Monty Python, ‘Brave brave Sir Robin (John) ran away’.
So as well as being bad, he was a coward.
That leaves us with Magna Carta. The ideas had been floating around for a while. The impression one gets is of John going to Runneymede, reluctant to make any concessions but out manoeuvred he agreed to the demands of the barons, no doubt with his fingers crossed behind his back.
Marc Morris is a brilliant storyteller and historian. He is required reading for anyone seeking to understand this turbulent and difficult period of our history.