King John (1166-1216) is a rare English medieval monarch whose fame owes less to Shakespeare than legend. His villainy remains so ingrained, writes historian and broadcaster Morris (The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England, 2013) in this capable biography, that no subsequent king has named a son “John.”
John was the youngest son of Henry II (1133-1189), an illustrious monarch who spent much of his reign fighting John’s three rebellious elder brothers, largely ignoring John. On Henry’s death, two brothers were also dead, and John was old enough to consider himself heir to Richard I. Richard did not always agree, and John alternatively cooperated and engaged in frankly treasonous rebellion. Upon Richard’s death, John’s realm included Ireland, Wales, and half of France. “In 1203,” writes the author, “King John was the ruler of a vast international empire….By any measure, his was the most important and powerful dominion in Europe.” By his death, he had lost most of it and was losing a civil war with his English barons, who had forced him to sign the Magna Carta two years earlier. Historians agree on John’s political incompetence, but his treachery and cruelty were only modestly excessive by medieval standards. Morris stresses that he faced an experienced, aggressive French king and ruled an England exhausted by expensive wars and tired of fighting in France. Like other medieval historians, the author must rely on surviving archives and contemporary chroniclers aiming to celebrate powerful men and revile their enemies.
The result is a traditional politics-and-war biography: a relentless succession of intrigues, quarrels, battles, sieges, negotiations, truces, and betrayals illuminated by lucid writing but muddied by Morris’ decision to jump back and forth in chronology.