I opened King John expecting to add to what I knew from old movies, that he was a disgruntled usurper who had to face his brother, Richard the Lionhearted, when Richard returned from captivity after leading a Crusade, who was eventually forced to sign the Magna Carta by rebellious nobles.  I discovered this and much more.  In Marc Morris has woven a biography of a Medieval warrior king, into an account of warfare in the England and France of his day. 

John was one of the kings “who never should have been king.”  Born in 1166, the fourth son of Henry II, he appeared to be destined for a minor post until the deaths of his older brothers moved him up the line of succession.    Succeeding his brother, King Richard I, in 1199, John embarked in a disastrous reign until his death in 1216.  John presided over years of seemingly interminable dynastic and international warfare.  

For the Plantagenets, the dynasty of which Richard and John were monarchs, war was seemingly a fact of life. To set the scene, as the introductory maps do very well, the realm John inherited included England, Normandy, and, essentially, much of what we would consider modern France.  Place this in an era of Crusades and the emergence of nation states, and prevalence of martial ardor is understandable. 

In 1166 Henry II, Richard and John’s father, gave permission for Anglo-Norman lords of south Wales cross the Irish Sea in support of the deposed King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, beginning the oft-violent relationship between England and Ireland. In 1185, Henry commissioned John to lead an expedition from Wales to Waterford.  Despite attempts to build some castles, John’s forces were met with defeat and desertion, compelling and his inglorious return to England. 

John’s prime continental antagonist was Phillip Augustus, King of France from 1180-1223.  Typical of the fluid alliances of the era, Phillip crusaded with Richard, plotted with, allied with, made war against and peace with John and, ultimately, through invasions of Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Pontou, Brittany and elsewhere, extended the borders of France and drove John back to his island realm.  The account of battles, such as the pivotal 1214 Battle of Bouvines, shed light on the nature of thirteenth century combat. 

Expulsion to Britain was not the end of John’s troubles.  Resentful over taxes and other issues drove British barons into rebellion and their country into civil war.  Supported by France, barons attacked and took castles and cities, including London.  It was in this environment that John, dispossessed of his capitol, agreed to the Magna Carta in the meadow of Runnymede. 

Author Marc Morris has crafted an intensively researched book.  His writing style draws readers into trusting his conclusions and statements by supporting them with facts and logic.  Instead of making bald assertions, Morris leads with “there is no good reason to believe” and “there are good reasons for supposing” followed by evidence that guides the reader to share the author’s conclusion. 

This work can be appreciated on at least two planes.  One familiar with medieval war and politics may revel in the dates, persons, events documented on these pages.  Others, like me, who would be overwhelmed with minutiae, can benefit from a broader understanding of the era.  In school I learned that dynastic states were influenced by consanguinity and marriages.  I am now aware that the diplomacy and wars prosecuted by John were driven by an empire of England, Wales and what is now western France which his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was instrumental in assembling and protecting.  The steps by which John lost his continental lands deepens my knowledge about how they were lost.  I now see the Charter more in the nature of a peace treaty than a political constitutional advance. 

I recommend “King John” for Middle Ages students seeking an intense focus on John’s role and reign and for general readers desiring to broaden their ken of diplomatic and military history of the epoch. I did receive a free copy of this book without an obligation to post a review.



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