The Incompetence of King John

Aaron Holland, Dickson College, 2012


The following essay was written as part of the High Middle Ages unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2012. It was written in response to the following question: 'What led the barons to rebel against King John in 1215?' .


From its very beginning to its very end, the reign of King John seemed marred with bad decisions and bad luck. On June 15, 1215, from a mixture of long term and short term reasons, the barons that were subject to John rebelled in what would end up being a defining historical moment with the creation of the Magna Carta. Although these reasons are numerous, there are four key overarching causes that the barons’ rebellion can be attributed to. Firstly, the character of King John was suspect to his barons; he did a number of things that gave his barons a preconceived bias against him. Secondly, King John made long term mistakes that crippled his relationship with his barons. Things such as the initial loss of French lands and future military failures in France altered the barons’ perception of John and created doubt. Thirdly, John’s quarrel with the Church resulted in an interdict for England and a humiliating loss of authority for John, causing his barons to lose their respect for him. Lastly, John pressured the barons by increasing the weight of their feudal obligations and arbitrarily fining and taxing them to the point of constriction. He levied harsh scutages on the barons and put them in a position they were not familiar with. Because of these reasons and factors, the barons subject to King John were left with little choice and consequently rebelled when the opportunity arose in 1214 AD.

The matter of King John’s character is important when analysing why the barons rebelled. His character flaws were always present for them to observe and judge. Two good examples that highlight John’s character to the barons that ended up having large ramifications for him are his marriage to Isabel of Angoulême and the murder of his nephew and rival claimant to the throne, Arthur of Brittany.

During John’s initial struggle with Phillip II of France for the dominion of French possessions, the counts of Angoulême and the house of Lusignan were in conflict with each other, both of whom were integral to John’s interests in France in regards to the accessibility and movement in his lands (Austin L. Poole, pg. 378). John cleverly solved the problem with the arranged marriage between the two parties with Isabel of Angoulême and Hugh the Brown of Lusignan. This put John in a strong position as he gained the allegiance of the counts of Angoulême, he had succeeded in dissolving a volatile situation. John, made a seemingly irrational move shortly after, he married Isabel of Angoulême, the betrothed of Hugh the Brown of Lusignan, this lead to the fatal quarrel with the house of Lusignan: “In the following spring John was summoned to appear before Phillip’s court at Paris on the complaints of the Lusignans; he failed to answer the summons, was adjudged contumacious, and sentenced to the loss of his French lands” (Austin Lane Poole, pg. 380). John had completely ruined his position; he acted irrationally without any foresight and ultimately his decision cost him dearly with the loss of many of his French possessions in the subsequent war – including Normandy. For John’s barons, not only would this fault impede on them later with heavier feudal and fiscal burdens, but it displayed that John was an unpredictable and irrational man. There is no doubt that events like this were long term factors in the rebellion of 1215 as the barons could not trust the character or reliability of John at all.

Related Article: The Reign of King John
When Phillip II of France planned to have Arthur of Brittany crowned king instead of John, it is acceptable that John would attempt to capture or stop Arthur. Arthur was captured by John when he and the Lusignans were besieging a castle (A.L. Poole, pg. 381). Again, John is in a favourable position in the fact that he has captured his rival claimant; he has political leverage and bargaining power. Unfortunately, King John again lost this position when he murdered Arthur: “according to the best –authenticated story , on 3 April 1203 John, drunk and in one of his paroxysms of ungovernable rage, did him to death by his own hand and threw the corpse into the Seine”(A.L. Poole, pg. 382). Although John solidified himself as the sole claimant to the throne, it did not come without ramifications. Dissatisfaction spread among the barons, the Bretons revolted and the barons of Maine defected to Phillip II’s cause as a consequence of Arthur’s murder (A.L. Poole, pg. 383). This displays John’s irrationality and lack of control, open for observation to all of his subjects – including his barons. Before any official grievances occurred between King John and his English barons, it can be seen that already they had a preconceived bias against him because of his character.

John made a number of key failures that were long term factors in the baron’s rebellion. The loss of Normandy and other French holdings between 1202–1204 had a fiscal and psychological effect on John’s barons. Normandy was in a very defendable position for John: “Its resources in men and money were considerable, and they could easily be reinforced from across the Channel; it was protected by a network of castles and defensive posts” (A.L. Poole, pg. 383). John however, failed to act properly in a seemingly easy position; he instead moved lethargically from place to place with little purpose and eventually retreated to England in December 1203 after having lost the control of most of Normandy to Phillip II (Steven Muhlberger, 1999). John’s lack of inspiration and confidence as a leader left him out of touch with his barons: “The Norman barons had no heart in fighting for a king who himself made so little effort to defend his dominions. They preferred to make bargains with the conqueror” (A.L. Poole, pg. 384). This shows that the Norman barons had little faith in John as a man and a leader and had no care of him great enough to fight the aggressors. This was a common feeling amongst many of the barons under John, they had little respect for him and lacked any kind of attachment to him; the barons expected some kind of success from their monarch, because it ultimately meant more prosperity for them, but John’s constant failures and humiliations disappointed and frustrated his barons (Steven Muhlberger, 1999). It can be observed that the barons’ lack of belief and respect for John was definitely a factor at play when they rebelled.

For all kingdoms in Christendom in the middle ages, it was essential that good relations were maintained with the church, especially for monarchs. When King John had his quarrel with the church over the election of the Archbishop of Canterbury, it gave the barons another indicator that John was not only reckless, but had a general disregard for them as the dispute placed all of England under an interdict. Not only did it give the barons more of a reason to distrust John, but also it helped free up an opportunity to rebel. When England was placed under interdict by Pope Innocent III in 1208, John expelled and fined many clergymen, blocked Stephen Langton’s entry to the country and seized much of the churches’ property in England (J.P. Sommerville, 2012). Pope Innocent III in 1212 absolved John’s subjects of their allegiance to him and ceased recognition of John’s Kingship. Because of John’s actions towards the religious body of England during the interdict, William Sharpe Mckechnie (1914), states that: “The result was that, when the barons began active operations, not only had they no opposition to dread from churchman or merchant, from yeoman or peasant, but they might count on the sympathy of all and the active co–operation of many“(pg. 38). John had become extremely unpopular and lost friendship with the English Church; furthermore, the barons did gain the sympathy of the church and this was confirmed when the barons and religious authorities met at St. Pauls Cathedral on the 25th of August 1213 (Mckechnie, pg.24). “In the King’s absence, Stephen reminded the magnates that John’s absolution had been conditional on a promise of good government. He showed them Henry I.’s coronation charter: “by which, if you desire, you can recall your long lost liberties to their pristine state.” All present swore to “fight for those liberties, if it were needful, even unto death.” The Archbishop promised his help, “and a confederacy being thus made between them, the conference was dissolved” (Mckechnie, pg. 24). Stephen Langton reminded the barons that John was mistreating them, and that they should recall their lost liberties. This displays that the backing of the English church was a massive factor in the baron’s decision to stage the rebellion.

King John was extremely harsh on his barons within his feudal jurisdictions. He arbitrarily burdened them with heavy taxes and fines. He also increased the weight of their feudal obligations to an almost paralysing extent. This was extremely frustrating for the barons, particularly the Northern barons as many of them owed John substantial amounts of money from what would seem unfair rulings (J.P. Sommerville, 2012). Under King John, there were more scutages levied than any other English monarch before him – eleven to be exact over the course of his seventeen year reign (Mckechnie, pg. 51). The closest being Henry II, John’s father who levied only 7 scutages in a thirty-five year reign and Richard I, John’s late brother who levied only four scutages over his ten year reign. Mckechnie states that John incorrectly used scutage: “John elevated scutage from a weapon reserved for emergencies into a regular source of revenue” (Mckechnie, pg. 51). This is a key point, the barons had only been used to scutage as a periodic emergency tool that kings would use and obviously the transition into a regular occurrence greatly agitated them. The barons finally reached their breaking point when they refused to pay scutage to John in May 1214 after they refused to provide military service to him in France as they were not obligated outside the jurisdiction of England (Mckechnie, pg. 51). All throughout the Magna Carta, it is very clear that scutage and service were one of if not the biggest concerns of the barons. Clauses such as 12, 14 and 16 shift the power within the context of feudal service and scutage over to the barons. Because of the heavy scutages and feudal abuses suffered by the barons, it is obvious that one of the main motivations for them to rebel against King John was to put an end to it and implement devices of control and fairness.

The rebellion against King John that resulted in the creation of the Magna Carta can be attributed to four things. Firstly, John’s character made him quite unpopular and unlikable through the decisions he made. John’s character gave his barons incentive to rebel, events such as his marriage to Isabel of Angoulême and the death of Arthur of Brittany created unrest and doubt amongst them. Secondly, John’s long-term failures such as the loss of his French possessions including Normandy solidified his place as an uninspiring and reckless leader, one whom his barons as a result gradually grew angered and frustrated with. Thirdly, John’s dispute with the church confirmed and proved to the barons that John had little regard for them, but it also provided a better opportunity to rebel because of the sympathies they gained from the religious body of England. This was demonstrated at the meeting between the barons and Stephen Langton at St. Pauls Cathedral. Lastly, King John paralysed the barons with his heavy fines, taxes, scutages and services. The barons were not used to this level of burden; evidence can be seen in the Magna Carta that they were infatuated with putting a stop to John’s abuse of the feudal system. They wanted to shift control to themselves. Although the barons’ rebellion has been attributed to bad circumstantial luck, it is clear because of the reasons stated that the barons were led to rebel because of John’s incompetent, uninspiring leadership and bad decision-making.


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Bibliography


Poole, A L 1951, From Domesday Book To Magna Carta 1087-1216, 2nd ed. Great Britain: Oxford University Press.
Austin Lane Poole is a brilliant authority on medieval English history. I was able to extract a lot of knowledge and information from this book – particularly background information and analysis on events during John’s reign. This was particularly useful as insight into John’s character and how he was viewed by his barons.

William Sharpe Mckechnie, 1914, Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, 2nd ed. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. Accessed January 28, 2013 at http://files.libertyfund.org/files/338/McKechnie_0032_EBk_v6.0.pdf
William Sharpe Mckechnie is another excellent source on English medieval history. This book was more specifically tailored to the Magna Carta, so I was able to extract a lot of information and commentary on the Baron’s rebellion. Things such as the scutage problem and the quarrel with the church were the main events of interest that I used from the book.

Muhlberger, S 1999, 'King John and the Loss of Normandy', The ORB Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. Accessed 14 November 2012 at http://the-orb.net/textbooks/muhlberger/lackland.html
I used this source to gather information on a very specific matter – John’s long term mistake of losing Normandy and the effect it had on his barons within the context of the rebellion.

Sommerville, J P 2012, 'The Crisis of John's Reign', University of Wisconsin. Accessed 16 November 2012 at http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/123/123%20114%20John%20in%20crisis.htm
This source was useful as a grounding base of knowledge on the events that took place during the reign of King John.