The Story So Far ...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

King John - A Very Bad King? Stephen Church Casts Light

On the 800th anniversary of King John's death, it's my immense pleasure and privilege to welcome Stephen Church, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia:

A very warm welcome, Stephen. 
A national newspaper reviewed your book about King John and said that "Wicked or unlucky - either way, (John was) a catastrophic failure." Could you sum up, in a few sentences whether you feel he was wicked, or unlucky? I was attempting to get us beyond the ‘wicked/unlucky’, bad/good debate since I think it is much more interesting to try to understand who John was. Understanding is at the heart of what historians should be about and that is what I have tried to do with John: to understand and not condemn. In that regard, John was a complex character (aren’t we all). If he was unlucky, it was that in his opponents he met two of the more remarkable men of the age, Philip king of France and Pope Innocent III.

Yet the treatment of Matilda de Braose* seems barbaric to modern observers. Was John judged by his contemporaries for this? Was it, in your view, an act of vindictiveness, and was it typical of him, or out of character?
The murder of Matilda de St Valéry is an interesting one. There is no doubt that John felt that he needed to justify the treatment of the Briouzes which is why he issued his explanation (probably dating to 1210). But at the time, it may have seemed to John a legitimate way of dealing with difficult subjects. It has been argued by Aine Foley  that starvation rather than public execution might have been seen in certain contexts as a more humane form of execution. I am not saying that this is what John had in mind. Perhaps he neglected Matilda. Perhaps someone thought that they were following John’s orders. What is certain is that the aftermath of the death of Matilda, her son, and then, in exile, her husband, caused a storm that John had to address. And that, for me, is far more interesting than passing a judgement on John’s humanity.

It's perhaps a modern concept, but how much do you think John was a product of his upbringing? Do his childhood circumstances go some way to explaining his behaviour as an adult?
Yes, we are all products of our upbringing (‘they f**k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do'). In John’s case, sending him to Fontevraud probably meant that he was brought up in a less masculine environment than that of his brothers. He was certainly less bellicose than they and I always felt that he had difficulty dealing with men who had been brought up to wield a sword and charge the enemy with a lance. John was not a man’s man, and that, in the final analysis, counted against him when faced by the men of the court who, I don’t think, respected him.

One thing I had always believed as fact was that John lost all his treasure in The Wash. You suggest in your book that this might not be the whole truth. Can you elaborate for us?
The story of the loss of the treasure is one which was certainly bigged up in the 1220s by that scurrilous rumour monger Roger of Wendover. At the time, it was seen as a disaster, but not on a huge scale. I suspect (though we shall never know for sure) that the majority of what counted for treasure remained at King’s Lynn or was transported by ship (John hired ships from Wisbech to take his gear to Nottingham). There is also evidence that John was so cash strapped at the end of his life that he was living hand-to-mouth as money came into the exchequer. And treasure, finally, was also accounted for in cloth and relics, books and accounts. I doubt that there is much gold or silver to be found in the wash… but never say never!

Given that he was wicked/unlucky and a 'catastrophic failure' he's rarely, if ever, portrayed in fiction as a sympathetic character. You've shed a little light on his formative years; is there anything that can be said in mitigation, and what drew you, as a biographer, to him as a subject? (I know you've said in the past that biography is problematic anyway, when dealing with someone from such a long way in the past)
As a subject, John’s fascination for me is that he was such a failure. I am interested in power and especially in power mishandled. I have, since I was a small boy, wondered why people have power over other people and why they misuse it so badly. John provides a great example of a man who mishandled power and for me that is the interest of him. He is, therefore, just plain interesting, unlike his brother Richard, who is the tedious goodie two shoes of his generation. I can’t bear him.

I know that you have studied and taught other periods of history and that you are very busy with your teaching commitments. Are you planning to write another biography, and do you have anyone in mind?
I have just finished a biography of Henry III for the Penguin English Monarchs series. I have enjoyed writing that one especially as it is really aimed at a general audience. At just 30,000 words, it is a long essay, really, but it was tremendously interesting to research and write and I hope offers a new insight into this much-unknown monarch in whose reign parliament started and England (in the aftermath of Magna Carta) developed into a bureaucratic kingdom with a king constrained by a constitution. It is jolly interesting stuff!

Thanks so much for talking to me today, Stephen.
Find all of Stephen's books Here


  1. Really interesting interview! Steve's book is definitely on my list.

    1. Thanks - glad you enjoyed the interview :)