BritDopers: Why is King John so reviled?

Picking up on Argent Towers’ observation in my other King John thread, why is John so uniquely reviled in English/British royal history? He fought with his barons and with the Pope, but a lot of kings did that. He was unsuccessful at war and lost lots of territory, but the same is true for other kings.

Is it just the combination of all of these factors? Was it the bad luck to have succeeded Richard I, a pop-culture superstar of his day?

How deeply does the aversion to John run? If Prince William were to have a son and name him John, would the reaction go no farther than chuckling over finally breaking with superstition, or would there be minor scandal and disapproval, or would there be something drastic like an Act of Parliament to exclude the baby from the line of succession?

He wasn’t a very good king. Like you said, he was unsuccessful at war, and lost lots of territory, was constantly fighting with his barons and with the Pope, inherited a really crappy financial situation, and only came to power after killing his nephew, who also claimed the throne. And he spent pretty much his entire life before he became king scheming to get the throne. So it’s not like everybody figured he was a swell guy to start with.

He’s the big bad in a lot of Robin Hood stories, too.

If Prince Bill called a son John I don’t think there’d be many people who would care. In any case, royals have many given names to call upon in such an event; Prince Charlie boy’s being “Charles Philip Arthur George”, apparently he will take George as his regal name, as King Charles I was beheaded and Charles II was a philandering ‘merry monarch’ best known for his hair.

Didn’t stop George V naming his youngest son, John. In fact, one rather suspects that most comment about any new Prince John would focus more on whether the name was a nod to his much more recent and now rather famous namesake.

The future Edward VII’s third son was also named John, and died in infancy. I think the name has an odor of misfortune nowadays in British royal circles. There are plenty of other good, historic names out there that don’t have the bad associations of “John.”

As far as the reaction to William naming his son John: it wouldn’t be very major at all. He’s not nearly as famous as you might think - I suspect a lot of people in this country probably aren’t aware there was a King John, and if they are, it would probably be because he’s the bad guy in the Robin Hood stories. I remember hearing about him in a history lesson when I was really young - the teacher mentioned that he was considered a bad king despite signing the Magna Carta, arguably one of the most important documents in British history.

So I think there would be very little public reaction to there being a ‘King John’, and the reaction there was would be along the lines of “chuckling over finally breaking with superstition”. There might be some newspaper articles and TV shows explaining the history of other royal Johns but I don’t think anyone would take it all very seriously. There might some more serious debates about other issues though: whether we really need a monarchy any more, for instance, or about the rules of inheritance.

Plotted against his father, plotted against his brother, murdered his nephew, divorced his wife in order to pinch some baron’s pre-teen betrothed, thus alienating his ally in some of the previous plots, fought a disastrous war as a result, taxed the crap out of England to finance another war, got in a row with the Pope over the appointment of an archbishop and no-one could get baptised or buried for years as a result, lost some more wars and the money gouged out of the English, treated the rule of law with contempt (pardoning a murderer simply because the victim was a priest, had a priest who complained forcibly starved to death), chased anything in a skirt but had men strangled for supposedly being the Queen’s lovers, and finally lost the Crown Jewels while fording The Wash. He accumulated enough fuck-ups to last for several reigns, all in comparatively few years.

Most of John’s problems were of his own making, and he was a nasty piece of work by all accounts. However, it should be noted that he inherited the financial situation from Richard the Lionheart, who bankrupted the country indulging in The Crusades, and left John stuck with the tab. Richard, of course, is as revered by romanticists as John is reviled.

And yet he really wasn’t that incompetent :D…

Really. He was a solid military commander. He performed ably in Normandy under Richard during Richard’s war with Philip Augustus. His quick descent on Mirabeau to take his nephew in the rear ( who was busy sieging his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine ) was perfectly executed and showed some real foresight. He seemed capable at siegecraft. He performed ably and successively in Wales and Ireland and his military strategy in the final campaign that culminated in Bouvines was sound.

He was also had good administrative skills and was capable of clever diplomacy. His marriage to young Isabelle of Angouleme was actually a coup - the powerful Taillefer family was thereafter a dedicated and important bulwark that seemed to have buoyed up his position by shielding Gascony. His failure there was in arrogantly refusing to compensate the jilted Lusignan family. Which points out one of his many flaws.

Although John had potential for success, with intelligence, administrative ability, a flair for military strategy and for diplomatic intrigue, too many personality flaws limited him. One of John’s faults was a lack of proportion, a propensity for pushing things too far, so that an action that should have brought success ended in failure.

From King John by Ralph V. Turner ( 1994, Longman Group UK Limited ). He was also crude, bitingly sarcastic, paranoid, cruel and altogether unable to massage the egos of his vassals who he ruled by intimidation and fear, which cost him in the end.

But all of his downsides would probably have been wiped away if Bouvines had been a victory for his alliance. It was one of the most decisive pitched battles in that century and was a very close thing. Success there would have changed history, at least in the short run, with a probable restoration of the Angevin empire, the likely pre-empting of the Hohenstaufen prince Frederik of Sicily in the empire and made John the most important monarch in Europe. Almost certainly no Baron’s rebellion, no Magna Carta and a likely run of kings named John ;).

One of the other reasons he is thought of so poorly is that by comparison with his brother and predecessor, Richard, he looked nothing like what the people thought a king should be.

Of course, if you look at the historical record, Richard’s reign was a disaster, and John was actually fairly progressive, for the day.

I thought that he has a system of favourites where he would attempt to play of Barons against each other, but ended up switched favourites which didn’t help him at all.

He was also well known for setting laws for others to follow, and be punished, laws that he would then flout for himself, a classic case of ‘I am the law’.

Although he was brought to Runymede to sign the Magna Carta, he never changed, and as soon as he was free of his captors, systematically broke any agreements he had made and hounded those he held responsible.

He also broke the systems of taxation which was based on vassalage, which was in effect a traditional set of values and duties that had existed for generations - one might call it fuedalism if that term were not such a prejudiced one.

Does this make him all that much worse than other British kings, especially William the Bastard - whom Northerners still hold a grudge against. There’s a pretty long list of inbreeds, incompetant and narcissists who deserve plenty of contempt among the British royal line. He’s had a worse press than most of his line, or rather, people just don’t take much trouble to look deeper into British history in a critical manner.

Henthforth…all the toilets and England will be called…Johns.

Actually, given the state of England at the moment, your typo is apropos.

I thought that was more Richard’s thing. :stuck_out_tongue:

Yes, but the reason that he was forced to sign the Magna Carta was because he was such a louse. The barons got tired of the way he treated them, and made him sign the MC to force him to treat them better (MC was for their benefit, not the common peoples’). It’s not like he came up with the idea himself.

That’s the ironic part of the Magna Carta–it would never have happened if John had been a more moderate guy who tried harder to make everyone happy and got himself a reputation as a good king. No one ever sees a reason to limit the power of a “good” king. So having a “bad” king led folks to think about reforming this whole kingship/absolute power deal.

On another note, I find it a little frightening that my two kids, 9 and 6, know more about ol’ Richard I and John than an actual British person does. I’ve told them quite a bit about how everyone loved Richard because he was dashing and kingly-looking, but really…

I also see many references on the web to John offering to convert to Islam, become a vassal to a North African state in return for military assistance and convert his subjects along the way. Maybe he was atheist himself, but what were his Catholic subjects supposed to think about such propositions? For a ruler who is trying to have his own country conquered by a foreign army and not just conquered but subjected to a cultural/religious purge, I think Magna Carta isn’t a stern enough response :slight_smile:

I must be being dense today, because that makes two jokes in this thread that I don’t get at all. This one, and APB’s remarks about King John’s “much more recent and now rather famous namesake”.

And then as soon as he could after he signed the thing, he sucked up to the Pope and got him to say the Magna Carta didn’t count.

I always did like Richard best.

Heh. The under-13 history class were watching that today. :smiley: