Why is King John the classic villain?

Paul Giamatti as King John in Ironclad Paul Giamatti is the latest to play King John as a villain in Ironclad

A new film about King John further underlines history's judgement of the medieval English monarch as a cruel tyrant. But among the dozens of bad kings and despots, why is John always the pantomime villain?

Surrendering lands in France, forced into a humiliating climbdown with the nobility and excommunicated by the Church. Not to mention being blamed for the murder of his nephew.

The medieval reign of King John has been characterised by disaster and his reputation languishes among the lowest for all the kings and queens of England.

This poor standing is illustrated by his persistently negative appearances in British cultural life 800 years on. Depictions on television, stage and big screen, particularly in Robin Hood films, usually present a man who is treacherous and weak.

Life of a king...

Drawing of King John in 1880
  • 1166: Born in Oxford, youngest of four sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine
  • Nicknamed Lackland because no obvious inheritance
  • 1189: Brother Richard becomes king and names nephew Arthur as heir
  • 1192: Tries unsuccessfully to seize throne
  • 1199: Richard is killed and John becomes king
  • 1204: Loses much of western France in war
  • 1207: Quarrels with pope over who should be Archbishop of Canterbury and excommunicated
  • 1215: Signs Magna Carta
  • 1216: Dies from food poisoning

In 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, John (played by Claude Rains) is an overtaxing oppressor, while Disney's Robin Hood showed John as a cowardly lion sucking his thumb.

A new film Ironclad, released in the UK on Friday, stars American actor Paul Giamatti as the villainous king laying siege to the noble barons in Rochester Castle, in the civil war that followed the Magna Carta.

So why do we always like to bash King John?

Make no mistake, he was a bad king, says John Hudson, of the Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of St Andrews.

"He was a very considerable failure as a king. He loses a large amount of possessions inherited, in particular lands in France, like Normandy and Anjou. He manages to surrender his realm to the pope and ends up facing a huge baronial rebellion, a civil war and a war with France. In terms of failures, he is one of the worst kings."

And his unpleasant personality compounds his mistakes, says Professor Hudson. Trying to seize control of the throne while his brother, King Richard I, was imprisoned abroad, lost him the trust of the people long before he became king himself.

...and the king lives on

Leonard Rossiter as King John
  • 1590s: Life and Death of King John, by William Shakespeare (with Leonard Rossiter, above)
  • 1819: Ivanhoe, a novel by Walter Scott
  • 1938: The Adventures of Robin Hood featured Claude Rains as John and Errol Flynn as Robin
  • 1968: The Lion in Winter film
  • 1973: Robin Hood animation by Disney

"A lot of very effective medieval kings are cruel and inspire fear but he hasn't inspired trust. For people to trust a king and fear him is essential but people don't trust him.

"People wanted someone to be heroic and not to interfere with their lives. But John was a king who did interfere and wasn't heroic."

But it's simplistic to portray John as simply evil and Richard good, as in some of the Robin Hood films, he says. At least The Lion in Winter, starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole as John's parents Eleanor and Henry II, portrays the family tensions acutely and gives a sense of the personal power struggles within the Plantagenet dynasty.

John grew up in a feuding family. He was born in Oxford in 1166, the youngest and favourite son of Henry II. When John was five, three of his brothers plotted against their father to seize the throne, enlisting the help of Louis VII of France and their own mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The case for redemption

"It's two-fold. One, that he inherited a very difficult situation, especially in France. Two, he seems to be very involved in the administration of the king more than previous kings had been. But being very much involved in administration is not a vital attribute to being king."

The rebellion was short-lived but Henry II punished his wife by imprisoning her for 16 years. On Henry's death in 1189, John's brother Richard became king but he nominated his nephew, Arthur, as heir. John tried unsuccessfully to instigate a coup while his brother was in prison, captured on his way back from fighting the Crusades.

The popular image of John as a cruel tyrant began a few years after his death in 1216, after a turbulent 17 years on the throne. The chronicles of Roger Wendover, a historian and monk at St Albans, and his successor Matthew Paris, included many accounts of cruelty that have since been questioned.

'John the punchbag'

The Tudors were more sympathetic to him, although Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John provides a mixed portrayal of the monarch as treacherous and ruthless, but also patriotic in standing up to Rome.

Start Quote

I see him a bit like Barack Obama in so far as he inherited a nightmare situation but because he was a bad politician he didn't help himself to get out of it”

End Quote Paul Sturtevant Expert in medieval films

But it was the Victorians who made King John the pantomime villain he is today, says Paul Sturtevant, who is researching Hollywood depictions of the medieval period, at the University of Leeds.

"The Victorians used King John as a punchbag. Prior to the 18th and 19th Century, Robin Hood was not put in a historical place. It wasn't about the monarch at all, just Robin Hood and his adventures.

"So the Robin Hood stories being placed in John's reign is a recent thing. He's portrayed as a pantomime villain because a number of accounts from the time suggest that people found him quite unpleasant as a person. So the question is to what degree those sources are accurate."

The Victorians latched on to John's moral failings like his cruelty and his sexual deviancy, taking mistresses married to barons, and this repulsed their newly formed idea of medieval knights as perfect gentlemen.

"To the Victorian mindset, he was everything they didn't want in an English king. They reimagined the period in terms of courtly love and chivalry."

Most historians would agree he was quite a bad king but whether he was a caricature of evil is another question entirely, he says.

King John at Runnymede John's most famous moment is signing the Magna Carta

"Almost all the depictions of King John out there are Robin Hood ones and as a result he's the villain, either bumbling and idiotic or in the Disney animation he's a lion who sucks his thumb. He's infantile, with a snake as a patsy."

The truth is that he was an inept politician but he wasn't a tyrant, says Mr Sturtevant. His conflicts were not with his subjects but with barons, the Pope or the French.

"I see him a bit like Barack Obama in so far as he inherited a nightmare situation from his predecessor but because he was a bad politician he didn't help himself to get out of it.

"Richard still has a really good reputation as the heroic, lion-hearted king but he spent only six months of his life in England and the rest either on crusade in Holy Land or at war in France."

To pay for his foreign wars, not to mention a huge ransom when he was captured, Richard had raised taxes far higher than any level England had experienced. By the time John was crowned king, the cupboard was bare, but his fiscal demands led to unrest.

Mike Ibeji, who researched King John for Simon Schama's History of Britain on the BBC, says it was in the interests of those who put John's successor Henry III on the throne to portray him negatively. King John was very unlucky, he says, but he also made his own bad luck.

A king's ransom

On the way back from the Holy Land in 1192, Richard I was imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria and handed over to the German emperor Henry VI, who ransomed him for the huge sum of 150,000 marks. Historian David Boyle estimates that sum could be the equivalent of about £2bn today. It was paid by English taxes, and contributed to the parlous finances inherited by King John.

"There are several times during John's reign where he actually has the upper hand, where he's in a position where if he just does things the right way, he's going to end up succeeding in what he's trying to do.

"But he always overplays his hand and goes too far because he's in a position of power and can't rein back. So he doesn't have a sense of scale and that's his biggest problem."

For example, he quelled a rebellion in France but when his nephew and enemy Arthur then dies in his custody, the finger of suspicion points at John and the revulsion felt in France renews the revolt and leads to defeat. A kingdom that once stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees was falling apart.

What John will always be remembered for, apart from antagonising Robin Hood, is the Magna Carta, which limited royal power and restated English law. And some of his defenders say that at least he provoked the barons into introducing one of history's most famous documents.

In the History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill wrote: "When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns; for it was through the union of many forces against him that the most famous milestone of our rights and freedom was in fact set up."

Send us your comments using the form below. A selection will be published.

One side-effect of John's reputation for villainy, and Robin Hood's mythical career, is that one of England's greatest heroes - William Marshall - is virtually unknown in his homeland. Apart from all his other exploits, it was Marshall, as Regent to the young Henry III, who re-promulgated Magna Carta (after John had renounced it). The strength of the charter dates from that event, not Runnymede.

David Craig, London

As the author of several novels involving King John and as the author of two novels about the great William Marshal (The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion), I have studied John's reign extensively, often in primary source. I have come to the same conclusion as his main biographer, WL Warren, that John had the abilities of a great king and the inclinations of a petty tyrant.

Elizabeth Chadwick, Nottingham

John lost swathes of Norman France. This came after a spending spree on large fortresses in borderlands that were never very loyal to him. Needless to say, some of the fortresses didn't see a single siege before joining Philip II. That said, despite his questionable ethics and abilities, signing England over to the Papacy was a masterstroke. At a time when England was vulnerable to invasion from nearly anybody, England was afforded Papal protection. Without this supposedly negative course of action, maybe England would have been consigned to the same pages as Castille, Aquitaine and Flanders in history?

Tim, York

John was a bad King politically, but he was also the first "English" King since 1066... he could speak English - the language of the peasants, none of the other kings could - and he was the first since the Conquest to be buried in England. He also, unwittingly, made England the blueprint for democracy in the world establishing parliament centuries before other nations - both the Declaration of Independence from France and the USA are based on the Magna Carta.

Mark, Canterbury

As a child I loved the A A Milne poem 'King John's Christmas'. Although it begins "King John was not a good man" it portrays him as a sad, misunderstood figure who wants nothing more than a "big red india-rubber ball" for Christmas. It still brings a tear to my eye when the object of his desire hurtles through the window past his royal head and bounces on his bed on Christmas day.

Hilary, London

I am surprised that no-one has mentioned the two most notorious facts about King John, namely that he lost the Crown Jewels in the Wash, & died of a surfeit of lampreys, both evidence of thoroughly bad character.

Tony Ridge, York

History is bunk and inevitably 'written' by the victors who are hardly likely to give a fair and just account! History books still lazily print the long accepted versions (notably Richard 111) thereby perpetuating the myths. Richard 111 is always portrayed as a deformed and murdering tyrant (thanks to Will Shakespeare's fairy tale) who was deservedly trounced by Henry Tudor. In fact Henry Tudor immediately put to death whole families, dated the battle as taking place the day before thus proclaiming that anyone fighting on Richard's side was guilty of treason, and throughout his reign put to death anyone foolish enough to get in his way! Yet Henry is always shown as a good king who gave us 'stability' whilst Richard is portrayed as a heinous monster for murdering his nephews, the Princes in the Tower (more nonsense as they were still seen playing whilst he reigned - not so after Henry Tudor married their sister!) In reality, Richard gave us the start of a just and fair legal system and would have gone on to further prove his worth but was too trusting which was his downfall.

Jill Scuffham, Basingstoke

Magna Carta was an attempt by the wealthy to weaken the central government for their benefit, it did nothing for the ordinary working folk. The same can be said for the constitution of this country, if you have forgotten ordinary working class white men did not get the vote until 10 or so years after the adoption of the constitution.

Xavier, Pineland, USA

To talk of 'good' and 'bad' in history is almost always meaningless. By 'good', people generally mean successful, or portraying traditionally desirable qualities. This is shown in the reputations of Richard I and Henry V, who are portrayed as good kings, because (ironically) of their 'manly' aggression and successful fighting; and Henry VI, who is portrayed as a bad king, even though he was a thoroughly kind, and brave, man. But you can't shift people away from their caricatures. They won't see Elizabeth I as a vacillating ditherer, Victoria as a headstrong girl, and they persist in seeing Charles II as nothing more than a dashing young rake and Cromwell as a miserable old killjoy. It is not just the modern view: most of our history was written by the Plantagenets, then the Tudors, then adapted by the Victorians. Even Simon Schama and his researchers clearly share the popular belief that between Alfred the Great and William I, nothing much happened.

John Stuart Guthrie, Yate, England

The media haven't always portrayed John in a negative light - for example in Doctor Who the King's Deamons, his desire to have the Magna Carta signed is explored.

Maddie,

Often the "bad" kings have been the best for the country in the long run. John did loose much of the French territories - yet that was a good thing. Forcing the English kings to concentrate more on England than their French estates (which they always considered more important). Remember King Richard spent almost all his reign outside of England. And his mismanagement led to the Magna Carta - a core document in English history. So while he may have been a poor king, his legacy was actually a stronger England in the future.

Paul Benwell,

John was a bad King but Richard "the lionheart" was a psychopath with no interest in England at all, who didn't speak a word of English, and left England to be run by Bishop Marshall who came up with more stealth taxes than any modern govt could dream of. The system of coroners courts was solely created by Richard to extort even more taxes from us to fund his foreign wars.

Peter, Notts

Really interesting - although I love the fact that the most anyone can say for John is, 'He was such an idiot at least all his Barons revolted and gave us Magna Carta'. Hardly a blueprint for kingship, is it - 'be completely incompetent, it'll provoke the nation into progress' (!) One of the few major historical figures NOT due a timely revision...?

Richard Goff, Croydon

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