Reigning from 1199 to 1216, King John’s villainy remains a mainstay of popular media. Church (Medieval History/Univ. of East Anglia; The Household Knights of King John, 1999) does not downplay his defects in this scholarly but readable biography.
John’s father, Henry II (1133-1189), was a tough act to follow. Competent and pugnacious, he vastly expanded the realm but could not control John’s elder brothers, who regularly fought their father and among each other. After Henry’s death, Richard I seized the throne and proclaimed his nephew, Arthur, his successor. Church’s account of John’s 10 years under Richard is an often numbing series of political intrigues, wars, betrayals and negotiations, during which he won his brother’s trust. After Richard’s sudden death, John prevailed over Arthur’s supporters and seemed secure in an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, he faced a French king, Philip Augustus, who was determined to regain his English-ruled provinces. He quickly succeeded in Normandy, and John’s talent for offending French allies made matters worse. He returned to England in 1203, spending the next 10 years trying to recover these lands while also fighting the Scots, Irish and Welsh and his increasingly hostile barons opposed to foreign service, high and perhaps illegal taxation, and his highhanded methods. Their rebellion resulted in John signing the iconic Magna Carta in 1215. However, neither John nor the barons made much of an effort to honor the peace accord, and civil war was raging when John died the following year.
Church sticks close to the evidence, almost all government records and surviving chronicles devoted to the deeds of great men. The result is not a page-turner but an insightful, likely definitive, biography.