Book Review: King John, An Underrated King

Graham E. Seel, King John. An Underrated King. London: Anthem Press, 2012. 230 pp. (PB) $22.95.

Graham E. Seel graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in History. He is currently Head of History at St Paul’s School in London. He has published on such subjects as the Early Stuart Kings, and the Republic. In King John. An Underrated King, Seel addresses what he perceives as a misleading and unjust reputation of King John, one that was suggested by medieval chroniclers such as Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, and has been perpetuated ever since by English historians from the 13th century onward. Known as “John Softsword”, the youngest son of Henry II has been portrayed as a “bloody tyrant” and as “Nature’s Enemy,” to name only two of the negative epithets given him. By sifting through the various sources available to today’s historian, Seel intends to reinterpret the facts in their proper context, as some other historians have done (W.L. Warren, R. V. Turner), in order to “further develop this sympathetic treatment of John” (p.9).  To do so, he relies on chronicles and record materials, which are provided (unfortunately only in their Modern English versions) in the Appendix section. His portrayal of King John is refreshing and precise, with a well written historical background, although some there are reasons to object to his interpretation of the political propaganda available to the Angevin dynasty.

The book is divided into ten chapters. Each chapter, except the first, begins with a timeline, which proves to be useful in understanding the events described in the following pages. Each subject is anchored in both time and space, making the complex political and geographical situation easier to grasp. Considering the book is published in a series intended for general interest readers, and first year undergraduates, the careful and precise contextual analysis of the author is welcomed.

Seel begins with a clear recollection of the events that lead to the highly unpredictable crowning of John Lackland in 1199. The youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, he survived his three older brothers and reigned until his death in 1216. Seel argues that King John’s reign can be divided into four phases, each “shaped and defined in particular by foreign policy” (p. 1). From the initial phase (1199-1203) when John fought to secure his inheritance, followed by the loss of Normandy and other Angevin possessions (1203-1204), then by the fight to regain these territories (1205-1214), and finally the failure and death of the king (1216), the author draws a portrait of a despised king, hated and criticized by the clergy and described as a “robber of the people” (p. 6). Nevertheless, the author concludes by arguing that a careful look at the documentary material, provided at the end of the book, can and will prove otherwise.

Seel offers various interpretations of John’s actions during his reign. To do so, he contests the idea of a weak and ill-equipped leader, alerting historians to the fact that Richard’s flamboyant reign was and continues to be viewed as highly successful, thus making it almost impossible for John to shine.

A complete understanding of John’s actions could not have been possible without a focus on England’s difficult relations with its powerful neighbor, France. The general interpretation, one that considers John to have caused the collapse of the Angevin “Empire” is challenged by Seel with a panoramic view of the kingdom’s strengths and flaws. If the Angevin Empire is to be viewed as a “bundle of territories which did not automatically belong together” (p. 31), it would be unfair to expect one man to keep it all under one crown for more than a few years. Therefore, Seel argues, there must be “reasons other than the qualities of John” (p. 36) to explain the growing influence of the French kingdom and John’s failure to keep his “Empire” together.

From the 1199 succession crisis to the difficult relations between John and Philip, King of France, Seel sets out to demonstrate that John managed to reign efficiently during a highly chaotic period. By highlighting the complex diplomatic and economic stakes facing England’s king, Seel makes a case whereby John’s actions were in fact expected by his subjects. If, as a ruler, he was willing to negotiate his decisions (as in the case of the threat of French invasion) this does not mean he should be portrayed as “lazy, cowardly and irresolute” (p. 53), as some chroniclers suggest.

After a review of the “international” political aspects of John’s reign, Seel shifts the focus to domestic and religious issues. Ranging from John’s involvement in Britain (one of “unparalleled intensity”, p. 76) to his troubled relationship with Pope Innocent III, the issues selected by Seel show a clever king: one who knows when to keep his distance and cooperate (with Scotland, for example), one who can be tough and kill hostages, and one who is wise enough to appreciate the consequences of religious sanctions.

Seel examines the importance of the Pipe Rolls, which have informed his earlier interpretations, in chapter 8, Administration, Justice and Finance. This chapter allows Seel to take a step back and analyze the political structure of kingship, showing how the persona of the crowned monarch could embody the whole nation. John’s reign is particularly interesting because he was the first king who made a conscious effort to keep “a systematic record of its business in form of charters, letters close and letters patent, all enrolled.” (p. 125). The analysis conducted by Seel shows that “record material also straightforwardly contradicts the notion that John was lazy, a key criticism of the chroniclers” (p. 127). The image of Bad King John disappears, to be replaced by one of a dynamic, energetic monarch.

The new habit of writing and keeping every administrative and legal decision contributed to the importance of what could have been the first declaration of human rights and the highlight of John’s reign: the Magna Carta,. However, as Seel explains, the Magna Carta must be appreciated for what it really is: a “set of peace terms between an element of malcontented barons and a particular king, not a device espousing new constitutional principles.” (p. 155). Between a domestic war with the barons, and the ceaseless war with France, John showed what Seel considers to be strong ability in warfare.

In conclusion, Seel admits that the “quest to determine the nature and attributes of any historical personality is never straightforward” (p. 169). King John’s complex personality makes it even harder for any modern scholar to apprehend England under his reign. By employing a variety of approaches, and by attempting to avoid readymade opinions about King John’s abilities and personality, the author has demonstrated that fresh interpretations of the charters, chronicles and documents show a different king from the one historians have conveyed in the past. When different interests and agendas are undisclosed, it is clear that King John’s “failure” to end the Civil War with the barons has been used to promote political ideas which do not consider the context in which the events took place. Aside from a few mistakes, England’s monarch, the son of Henry II, must be viewed as a good king, who “very nearly achieved his goals” (p. 172). An underrated king, indeed.

King John. An Underrated King is, without a doubt, an excellent introduction to political, social and religious aspects of twelfth and thirteenth century England. The author draws a clear portrait of king John without losing his readers in a labyrinth of family dramas and shifting alliances. However, contrary to Seel’s affirmation that king John could not rely on a “concerted propaganda campaign” (p. 34), it has been demonstrated by many scholars (M. Aurell,[1] A. Chauou,[2] C. Haskins,[3] etc.) that the Angevin dynasty, like the french Capétiens, had successfully built a political propaganda based on the ‘history’ of a great monarch: King Arthur. To say that John “had no ‘spin doctor’ of his own” (p. 35) stretches too far, and ignores the discovery of King Arthur’s and Guinevere’s graves in Glastonbury in 1191. It also neglects the numerous writings that emerged from, and contributed to, the popularity of the great king (i.e., Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace), claiming that the greatest Christian king of all times and the greatest conqueror of the Western world had been an Englishman born of Roman noble parents. John’s inability to affirm his power and to prevent the collapse of the ‘Empire’ is certainly due to difficult political times, and Seel is successful in revealing these complications. However, his analysis would have gained depth if he had acknowledged the importance of Arthurian materials and provided the readers with the chronicles that were meant to compete with the French authors, even if it meant shedding some light on John’s weaknesses. This book will undoubtedly be useful to scholars looking for a basic political background to the end of the Angevin Empire, as it looks at John’s reign differently. However, the lack of original material, such as chronicles and letters, and the absence of footnotes with direct quotations will prevent this book from being used as a more advanced scholarly source.

Geneviève Pigeon

Geneviève Pigeon recently received a Ph.D. of Religious Studies from the Université du Québec in Montréal. Her thesis demonstrates that King Arthur, as a Britton, and later as a English historical figure, can be though of as a royal myth. Her research interests focuses on the sociological analysis of myth, orality and “new orality.” She is particularily interested in studying the many ways in which knowledge and beliefs are passed on from one society to another. She is currently a lecturer at the Religious Studies department of UQÀM, as well as a tutor for the Téluq (Télé-Université, Native American Spirituality).

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Book Review: King John, An Underrated King by Geneviève Pigeon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

[1] M. Aurell, L’empire des Plantagenêt, 1154-1224, Paris : Perrin, 2003.

[2] A. Chauou, L’idéologie Plantagenêt, Royauté arthurienne et monarchie politique dans l’espace Plantagenêt (XIIe – XIIIe siècles),  Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2001.

[3] C. Haskins, ‟Henry II as a Patron of Literature”, Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout, Manchester, 1925.


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