Magazine

Why is King John the classic villain?

  • 1 March 2011
  • From the section Magazine
Paul Giamatti as King John in Ironclad
Image caption Paul Giamatti is the latest to play King John as a villain in Ironclad

A new film about King John further underlines history's judgement of the medieval English monarch as a cruel tyrant. But among the dozens of bad kings and despots, why is John always the pantomime villain?

Surrendering lands in France, forced into a humiliating climbdown with the nobility and excommunicated by the Church. Not to mention being blamed for the murder of his nephew.

The medieval reign of King John has been characterised by disaster and his reputation languishes among the lowest for all the kings and queens of England.

This poor standing is illustrated by his persistently negative appearances in British cultural life 800 years on. Depictions on television, stage and big screen, particularly in Robin Hood films, usually present a man who is treacherous and weak.

In 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, John (played by Claude Rains) is an overtaxing oppressor, while Disney's Robin Hood showed John as a cowardly lion sucking his thumb.

A new film Ironclad, released in the UK on Friday, stars American actor Paul Giamatti as the villainous king laying siege to the noble barons in Rochester Castle, in the civil war that followed the Magna Carta.

So why do we always like to bash King John?

Make no mistake, he was a bad king, says John Hudson, of the Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of St Andrews.

"He was a very considerable failure as a king. He loses a large amount of possessions inherited, in particular lands in France, like Normandy and Anjou. He manages to surrender his realm to the pope and ends up facing a huge baronial rebellion, a civil war and a war with France. In terms of failures, he is one of the worst kings."

And his unpleasant personality compounds his mistakes, says Professor Hudson. Trying to seize control of the throne while his brother, King Richard I, was imprisoned abroad, lost him the trust of the people long before he became king himself.

"A lot of very effective medieval kings are cruel and inspire fear but he hasn't inspired trust. For people to trust a king and fear him is essential but people don't trust him.

"People wanted someone to be heroic and not to interfere with their lives. But John was a king who did interfere and wasn't heroic."

But it's simplistic to portray John as simply evil and Richard good, as in some of the Robin Hood films, he says. At least The Lion in Winter, starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole as John's parents Eleanor and Henry II, portrays the family tensions acutely and gives a sense of the personal power struggles within the Plantagenet dynasty.

John grew up in a feuding family. He was born in Oxford in 1166, the youngest and favourite son of Henry II. When John was five, three of his brothers plotted against their father to seize the throne, enlisting the help of Louis VII of France and their own mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The rebellion was short-lived but Henry II punished his wife by imprisoning her for 16 years. On Henry's death in 1189, John's brother Richard became king but he nominated his nephew, Arthur, as heir. John tried unsuccessfully to instigate a coup while his brother was in prison, captured on his way back from fighting the Crusades.

The popular image of John as a cruel tyrant began a few years after his death in 1216, after a turbulent 17 years on the throne. The chronicles of Roger Wendover, a historian and monk at St Albans, and his successor Matthew Paris, included many accounts of cruelty that have since been questioned.

'John the punchbag'

The Tudors were more sympathetic to him, although Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John provides a mixed portrayal of the monarch as treacherous and ruthless, but also patriotic in standing up to Rome.

But it was the Victorians who made King John the pantomime villain he is today, says Paul Sturtevant, who is researching Hollywood depictions of the medieval period, at the University of Leeds.

"The Victorians used King John as a punchbag. Prior to the 18th and 19th Century, Robin Hood was not put in a historical place. It wasn't about the monarch at all, just Robin Hood and his adventures.

"So the Robin Hood stories being placed in John's reign is a recent thing. He's portrayed as a pantomime villain because a number of accounts from the time suggest that people found him quite unpleasant as a person. So the question is to what degree those sources are accurate."

The Victorians latched on to John's moral failings like his cruelty and his sexual deviancy, taking mistresses married to barons, and this repulsed their newly formed idea of medieval knights as perfect gentlemen.

"To the Victorian mindset, he was everything they didn't want in an English king. They reimagined the period in terms of courtly love and chivalry."

Most historians would agree he was quite a bad king but whether he was a caricature of evil is another question entirely, he says.

Image caption John's most famous moment is signing the Magna Carta

"Almost all the depictions of King John out there are Robin Hood ones and as a result he's the villain, either bumbling and idiotic or in the Disney animation he's a lion who sucks his thumb. He's infantile, with a snake as a patsy."

The truth is that he was an inept politician but he wasn't a tyrant, says Mr Sturtevant. His conflicts were not with his subjects but with barons, the Pope or the French.

"I see him a bit like Barack Obama in so far as he inherited a nightmare situation from his predecessor but because he was a bad politician he didn't help himself to get out of it.

"Richard still has a really good reputation as the heroic, lion-hearted king but he spent only six months of his life in England and the rest either on crusade in Holy Land or at war in France."

To pay for his foreign wars, not to mention a huge ransom when he was captured, Richard had raised taxes far higher than any level England had experienced. By the time John was crowned king, the cupboard was bare, but his fiscal demands led to unrest.

Mike Ibeji, who researched King John for Simon Schama's History of Britain on the BBC, says it was in the interests of those who put John's successor Henry III on the throne to portray him negatively. King John was very unlucky, he says, but he also made his own bad luck.

"There are several times during John's reign where he actually has the upper hand, where he's in a position where if he just does things the right way, he's going to end up succeeding in what he's trying to do.

"But he always overplays his hand and goes too far because he's in a position of power and can't rein back. So he doesn't have a sense of scale and that's his biggest problem."

For example, he quelled a rebellion in France but when his nephew and enemy Arthur then dies in his custody, the finger of suspicion points at John and the revulsion felt in France renews the revolt and leads to defeat. A kingdom that once stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees was falling apart.

What John will always be remembered for, apart from antagonising Robin Hood, is the Magna Carta, which limited royal power and restated English law. And some of his defenders say that at least he provoked the barons into introducing one of history's most famous documents.

In the History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill wrote: "When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns; for it was through the union of many forces against him that the most famous milestone of our rights and freedom was in fact set up."

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