King John does not have the finest of reputations in English history, but is the opprobrium deserved or unkind?
This biography recounts the life (with a strong focus on adulthood) of perhaps the most persistently disliked of English kings.
The structure for the first 2/3 or so is unorthodox, in that it has alternating timelines, leading up to and after 1203 (the former, of course, comes to an end from which point the later timeline continues until John’s death). Although the cut-off points are chosen well and skilfully lead to some interesting juxtapositions, I probably would’ve preferred a more straightforward single timeline account.
John was one of four sons of Henry II (Henry, Richard and Geoffrey being the others) who embarked upon a great many squabbles, rebellions, and wars with/against Philip Augustus (the king of France, a wily fellow who benefited greatly from Henry II’s rank incompetence when it came to keeping his family singing from the same hymn sheet).
John was an interesting, and wretched, character. I found him despicable in personality, but less incompetent than imagined (indeed, he did have a few strokes of bad luck that substantially altered the course of events. That said, it’s possible to imagine Richard [his elder brother] reversing such misfortunes, and John was never accused of a surfeit of courage). His greatest skills were extortion and low cunning.
But it was this very wretchedness that brought about Magna Carta, which became touchstone against tyranny for centuries to come.
The writing style is easy to read, and there aren’t many difficult terms (where these occur, such as ‘prise’, they’re explained). If you don’t read much history I don’t think you’d have any problems with this as an introduction to 12th/13th century history.
This biography of King John is the second book I’ve read by Marc Morris, (the first, an Edward I biography, is reviewed here).
Those interested in the period may also find Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshal (reviewed here) of interest.