King John: The Worst Monarch in English History?
When it comes to Kings (and Queens) of England, there is strong competition as to who can claim the title of being the worst in the nation’s long history.
There is Ethelred the Unready, whose chaotic reign saw the country held to ransom by Viking invaders, and there is Richard the Third, forever associated with the murder of the young princes in the Tower of London. There is Henry the Eighth and his six wives. There is Queen Mary, better known as Bloody Mary , burning Protestant martyrs at the stake. There is Charles the First who, in common with some of Henry’s wives, ended up losing his head.
And then there is King John. That’s Bad King John , who ruled from AD 1199 to 1216 and features so prominently in the legend of Robin Hood.
Ethelred the Unready [left], Mary I of England - Bloody Mary [center], and Henry the Eighth [right]. (Public Domain)
Well Meaning or Dangerously Wicked?
Now King John does have his apologists who will point out that John (also known as John Lackland because, as the youngest son of King Henry the Second, he was not expected to inherit any great estates) was a monarch who struggled to do his best in difficult times.
King John on a stag hunt. ( Public Domain )
To an extent this is true. There was a dispute between the English crown, which liked to control senior church appointments, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Pope, who wanted his own men in these roles. During John’s reign this dispute escalated to a point where Pope Innocent III actually excommunicated John and placed an interdict on England for five years, which meant nobody could receive a church christening, marriage or funeral service.
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There was an ongoing war with the French monarchy deriving from the fact that, thanks to dynastic claims, alliances and marriages dating back to the time of the Norman Conquest, the King of England ruled more of France than the King of France. There were dynastic disputes with the rest of John’s Angevin royal family – John was the only one of the sons of King Henry the Second not to have joined in an attempt to overthrow his father. And, there was a constant power struggle with his barons (the most important lords in the land) that culminated in John being forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, although this didn’t prevent a civil war from breaking out the following year.
A romanticized 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta. ( Public Domain )
Nevertheless, all these factors do not mitigate against what one Victorian-era historian described as John’s “almost superhuman wickedness” and his “distasteful, even dangerous personality traits” including pettiness, spitefulness and cruelty.
Life Versus Legend
My own interest in King John was piqued by some research I am doing for a book about this history and folklore of South Norfolk, in England, when I looked at the official sign for the market town of Diss. (It is a tradition in East Anglia that villages and towns have elaborately carved signs depicting aspects of their municipal history.)
The Diss town sign shows a lady in a long pink gown, wearing a tall conical headdress (technically a hennin). Standing next to her is a distinguished-looking, bearded gentleman in black medieval garb, offering the woman what appears to be a boiled egg, in an egg-cup!
Signpost in Diss, England. (Photo by author)
The plaque on the sign’s base explains the image shows Matilda, the daughter of Robert Fitzwalter (one of the most important barons during the reign of King John), who rejected the King’s amorous advances, but with dire consequences, as the angry King sent a messenger bearing the gift of “a poisoned potched egg, whereof she died in 1213.” (A potched egg is another name for a boiled egg, rather than a poached one.)
As I discovered, this is an intriguing tale as it reveals how, over the centuries, two entirely separate stories, aided and abetted by some 16th and 17th century playwrights, became intermingled to create an urban myth.
The facts are Sir Robert Fitzwalter did have a daughter called Matilda and, in a statement he made in 1212, he claimed King John had attempted to seduce her. However, several other barons made similar allegations against John – and John is known to have had at least five illegitimate children by different mistresses, all of whom were either the wives or daughters of noblemen. In fact, one baron, upon learning that John had propositioned his wife, hired a prostitute to take her place. In the poorly lit bed chambers of medieval castles, King John apparently was none-the-wiser.
What is clear is Sir Robert was one of the barons challenging King John’s powers: he was one of the signatories of the Magna Carta and he fought against John in the subsequent civil war. However over time Sir Robert and his daughter Matilda became caught up in the legend of Robin Hood so that, by the early 1600s, one play – the not-exactly snappily titled “ The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, afterwards called Robin Hood, with his Love to Chaste Matilda, the Lord Fitzwater’s daughter, afterwards his faire Maid Marian” – depicted Matilda fleeing from King John’s lustful advances, escaping to Sherwood Forest, changing her name, and eventually becoming Robin Hood’s companion Maid Marion.
Illustration from Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. ( Public Domain )
Another play – “ King John and Matilda” in 1628 – sees her constantly falling into the hands of King John, only to escape with her virtue intact. In both plays, however, she is ultimately murdered, a martyr to virtue, by the agents of King John. In one she falls prey to a poisoned glove, while in the other it is a bracelet whose poison had “eaten its way to her bone, and the fiery poison had dried her life blood”.
But where does that leave us with the tale Matilda Fitzwalter of Diss? The clue can be found in the 1628 play, where there is a minor characters called Lady Bruce, the wife of one of the barons opposing King John. She and her young son George are both shown being imprisoned by King John’s men and left to starve to death in a dungeon.
It is at this point that historical fiction overlaps with historical fact for in real life there was another Matilda in King John’s circle; She was Matilda (also known as the Lady of Hay –after Hay-on-Wye) who was married to William de Braose, a powerful baron on the Welsh Borders who, for about ten years, was a favorite of King John. Unfortunately, in 1208 William quarreled with John – one suggestion is that it was over a huge sum of money (5000 marks or £1,750,000/US$2,500,000 in modern values) that William owed the king.
Another suggestion is that Matilda de Braose made indiscreet comments regarding the murder of King John’s nephew Arthur, the Duke of Brittany. Arthur was another member of the Angevin royal family with a claim to the English throne but in 1203, at the age of 16, he disappeared from the pages of history. At the time he was a prisoner in one of King John’s French castles and it is widely suspected that John himself killed Arthur in a drunken rage and then threw the body into the River Seine.
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However, there is an alternative suggestion that he was murdered on John’s orders by William de Braose, which would also explain how his wife Matilda knew of Arthur’s fate.
William, incidentally, did have a track record for this kind of behavior, as in 1175 he perpetrated the so-called Abergavenny Massacre , when he invited three Welsh princes to a Christmas feast and promptly had them all murdered. He subsequently went on to hunt down and kill one of the Welsh prince’s seven-year-old sons.
The surviving ruins of Abergavenny Castle, interior. South East Wales. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Whatever the reason, John demanded that Matilda’s son William be sent to him as a hostage for her husband’s loyalty, and as a surety for his debts. Matilda refused, saying “she would not deliver her children to a king who had murdered his own nephew.” John acted quickly and ruthlessly, leading troops to seize de Braose’s castles and, in 1210, captured both Matilda and her son William. Matilda’s husband, meanwhile, had been declared an outlaw and escaped to France, disguised as a beggar but died the following year.
As for Matilda and her son, they were imprisoned in Corfe Castle in Dorset, where they were placed inside a dungeon and left to starve to death.
Corfe Castle; within whose dungeon Maud de Braose and her son William were starved to death. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
According to one report, the boy died first and his body was found to have had the flesh chewed away where his starving mother had, in her desperation, turned cannibal and been forced to eat her own child! (Although rats are a more likely culprit.)
A Very Bad King
King John then was definitely, as the old history books would put it, not just a bad king but a very bad king.
As for Matilda Fitzwalter of Diss, she may have been propositioned by King John but at least she was not poisoned by him. There again, disappointingly for the romantics among us, neither did she run away to Sherwood Forest to become Robin Hood’s girlfriend!
Incidentally King John, according to legend, died as a result of eating a “surfeit of peaches” – in contrast to his ancestor King Henry the First who died from eating a surfeit of lampreys (eels). In reality, dysentery is the more likely explanation.
Charles Christian is a professional writer, editor, award-winning journalist and former Reuters correspondent. His recent non-fiction books include A travel guide to Yorkshire’s Weird Wolds: The Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle
Learn more about the bloody history of medieval England in Charles Christian’s exclusive Ancient Origins Webinar: Tales of Conspiracy, Betrayal and Cruelty - a Short History of how the English Ruling Class Behaved During the Middle Ages , on the Members Only site!
Top image: Deriv; A drawing of the effigy of King John, Worcester Cathedral. ( Public Domain )