King John of England (1166-1216) is mostly known for three main things: William Shakespeare's play King John, which dramatizes the period of his reign (1199-1216) (Lander&Tobin, 2018) (1), the famous myth Robin Hood, in which he is presented as the main villain (D'Ammassa, 2010) (2), and from Magna Carta, the great charter of liberties and rights he granted to his barons in 1215. (3) These three things have one thing in common: John is presented as an evil, greedy, and tyrannical king in each of them. Rightly so, one might say, we have formed this image of John, as he is responsible for the loss of Normandy in 1204 as well as the territories of the Angevin-Plantagenet Empire in France; he is also considered responsible for the civil wars that broke out between Englishmen, for revolts against his father, King Henry II (1133-1189), and against his brother, Richard I (1157-1199), for an unsuccessful financial policy that led the kingdom into an economic quagmire, and for many more unfortunate events in the history of the country (Holt, n.d.). (4) However, under the reign of King John, the English Kingdom had also flourished in some areas, such as legal and tax system. In order to criticize King John fairly, this article aims to present the reforms made by him.
John was born on 24 December 1166. His father, King Henry II of England, had inherited significant territories along the Atlantic seaboard – Anjou, Normandy, and England, expanding his empire by conquering Brittany. John's powerful mother, Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), had a tenuous claim to Toulouse and Auvergne in southern France, and was the former wife of King Louis VII of France (1120-1180). The territories of Henry and Eleanor formed the Angevin Empire, named after Henry's paternal title of Count of Anjou, particularly its seat in Angers (Warren, 1991). (6) John was the proclaimed king after his brother, Richard, died in 1199. King John reigned till his death in 1216. He also had two nicknames: "John Lackland", as he was not expected to inherit the significant lands mentioned above (Norgate, 1902) (7), and "John Softsword", but this was perhaps a little unfair as John did manage to do some things right after his defeats in France (Cartwright, 2019). (8)
John inherited a sophisticated system of administration in England, with a range of royal agents answering to the Royal Household: the Chancery kept written records and communications, the Treasury and the Exchequer (Ministry of Finance) dealt with income and expenditure respectively, and various judges were deployed to deliver justice around the kingdom. This particular trend of increased record-keeping continued into his reign. John travelled around the kingdom, dealing with both local and national matters. He was very active in the administration of England, and was involved in every aspect of the government. He has stayed in England for much longer periods than his predecessors, which made his rule more personal than that of previous kings (Warren, 1991). (6)
The administration of justice was of particular importance to John. Several new processes had been introduced to English law under Henry II. These processes meant the royal courts had a more significant role in local law cases, which had previously been dealt with only by regional or local lords. John increased the professionalism of local sergeants and bailiffs, and extended the system of coroners by establishing a new class of borough coroners. The King worked extremely hard to ensure that this system operated well through judges he had appointed, by fostering legal specialists and expertise, and by intervening in cases himself. He continued to try being involved in relatively smaller cases, even during military crises. John discharged "his royal duty of providing justice with zeal and tirelessness to which the English common law is greatly indebted" (Warren, 1991). From a more critical perspective, John may have been motivated by the potential of the royal legal process to raise fees, rather than a desire to deliver simple justice. His legal system also applied only to free men rather than to all of the population. Nonetheless, these changes were popular with many free tenants who acquired a more reliable legal system that could bypass the barons, against whom such cases were often brought (Warren, 1991). (6)
John intensified his efforts to maximize all possible sources of income. He also used revenue generation as a way of exerting political control over the barons: debts owed to the crown by the King's favored supporters could be forgiven whereas collection of the debts owed by enemies was more stringently enforced. The result was a sequence of innovative, but unpopular financial measures. John maximized his right to demand relief payments when estates and castles were inherited; sometimes charging enormous sums, beyond barons' abilities to pay. Building on the successful sale of sheriff appointments in 1194, the King initiated a new round of appointments, with the new incumbents withholding their investments due to increased fines and penalties. The King announced new taxes and extended existing ones. For example, John created a tax on income and movable goods in 1207, which could be interpreted as an early version of the modern income tax. He created a new set of import and export duties that was payable directly to the Crown. He found that these measures enabled him to raise further resources through the confiscation of the lands of barons who could not pay, or refused to pay (Turner, 2009). (9)
John’s death left England in a civil war. His reputation, before and after his death, was further depressed by writers of the next generation. But John was cultured and literate. He was extraordinarily active, with a great love of hunting, and a readiness to travel that gave him a well-rounded knowledge of England matched by few other monarchs. He was the first king of England since the Norman Conquest (1066) who could speak English. He took a personal interest in judicial and financial administration, and his reign saw important advances at the Exchequer regarding the importance of the privy seal and the royal household, methods of taxation, military organization, and the grant of chartered privileges to towns. Despite a lot of people discussing his unreliable character, one may also say that his political judgment was acute. In 1215, many barons, including some of the most distinguished, fought on his side (Holt, n.d.). (4)
Shakespeare, W. (2018). King John. Arden Shakespeare Third Series edited by Jesse M. Lander and J.J.M. Tobin, Bloomsbury, 65–102.
D'Ammassa, D. (2010). Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction. Facts On File, Incorporated, p. 94.
Magna Carta. (2019, April 26). National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/magna-carta
Holt, J. (n. d.). John, King of England. Britannica. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-king-of-England
King John of England [Photograph] The National Portrait Gallery in London. https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11603/king-john-of-england/
Warren, W. L. (1991). King John. (2nd ed.). London: Methuen. p. 21, 143-144, 171.
Norgate, K. (1902). John Lackland. London: Macmillan. p. 1-2.
Cartwright, M. (2019, December 16). King John of England. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/King_John_of_England/
Turner, R. V. (2009). King John: England's Evil King? UK: History Press. p. 87, 95, 148.
Tomb of King John (centre) in Worcester Cathedral. [Photograph]. Worcester Cathedral, Worcestershire, England. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-king-of-England/Quarrel-with-the-church