How will these resources help you?

The chronicler Matthew Paris, writing in the 1230s, said: ‘England reeks with John’s filthy deeds; the foulness of Hell is defiled by John.’ But can this interpretation of the reign be considered fair? While Richard I is a glamorous figure who is easy to characterise, John is more opaque. In his biography of John, F. L. Warren says: ‘the historian, for most of the time, follows John at a distance, unable, quite, to catch up with him.’ Superficially, it is easy to cast John purely as a villain. However, more recent publications have suggested there is a lot more substance to him, both as a person and as king, making it possible to develop a better understanding of his reign.  These resources offer a more rounded picture, providing you with the evidence to support a more nuanced interpretation. It is clear that John was an energetic administrator, but also that he was an unsuccessful ruler. These resources offer lots of evidence that will enable your students to investigate John themselves. The central picture that emerges is that John was often quite a proactive king but had a tendency to throw away his advantages. Blame for this tends to settle on the flaws in John’s personality.

The definitive biography of King John

King John

by W.L. Warren, published by Yale University Press, (1998), 9780300073744

This book is where to come to find authoritative details about John's reign. Warren’s famous summary of King John is: ‘He had the mental abilities of a good king, but the inclinations of a petty tyrant.’ This could be the key interpretation that you introduce to your class at the start, you could ask students to organise evidence to support both sides of this contention. Taking four of the specification's key topics, students could map this idea against ‘the loss of Normandy’, ‘dispute with the Papacy’, ‘worsening relations with the Barons’, and ‘Magna Carta and the First Barons’ War’. They could try to identify how John demonstrated good kingship in each of these areas, but then where he was undermined by his own personality.  
Warren’s style is accessible and would be easy to use in the classroom. The book is packed with aphorisms that could form the basis of a very effective lesson. Teachers could give different groups an individual statement and then ask them to find evidence to support it. For example: ‘John challenged his whole world single-handed’; ‘Why were men prepared to tell such tales about John?’; ‘John only showed caricatures of his brothers’ qualities’; and ‘John frequently showed himself highly sensitive to fears of treason’. Warren is also very thorough on John's travels during his reign: teachers could create large blank maps of England and France and ask students to research where he visited and when. This would demonstrate the energy of the king and also the range of difficulties he faced. Students could colour-code each place to show whether or not John was successful in his handling of key events.

Bringing 1215 to life

In the Reign of King John: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England

by Dan Jones, published by Apollo, (2020), 9781838934828

Jones’ book backs up the views of Warren, though he tends to be slightly less sympathetic to John. The ‘blizzard of commands’ that suggests his bureaucratic machine was ‘awe-inspiring’ is overshadowed by John’s problems. This may be because Jones focuses his account purely on the year 1215, and so the fuller examination of the reign is not so obvious. However, this does have its benefits. Arguing that 1215 is ‘easily as important as 1066 or 1485’, Jones uses the events of the year to capture the spirit of John's relations with barons, papacy, church, and the laity. Jones suggests that John’s three problems after the loss of Normandy were: (1) the political rupture that occurred, (2) his own desire to reclaim Normandy, and (3) the fact that he was blamed for all the problems of the Angevin empire. This trio of problems could work well as the means by which to study the background to Magna Carta.  Jones argues that Magna Carta was fundamental to understanding the end of the reign, as John’s behaviour was indicative of his attitude to the kingdom and the barons. He claims that when Regent William Marshal reissued Magna Carta in November 1216, he did so because it ‘could stand as the foundation of a new monarchy’. Teachers could challenge their students to come up with a summary of how they felt that a ‘new’ monarchy would emerge after 1215.  Jones’ book is also a treasure trove of details about life in England. After each of the first seven chapters there is an illuminating examination of different parts of English life. These vignettes are a perfect size to give students an area to investigate, illustrate and present, for example: clothing, food, justice, the life of women, and language.  

The problems of King John’s reign

King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant

by Stephen Church, published by Pan Macmillan, (2016), 9781447241959

This is a useful resource in terms of explaining the events of John’s reign. Church’s aim is to identify why John ‘came to be seen as a failure’. His answer is that John had the opportunity to succeed at each juncture of his life but chose the wrong option each time: in Ireland he was undermined by his own ‘youthful folly’; he lost Normandy despite being ‘gifted with victory’; and his demands for money alienated him from the English nobility. Central to Church’s argument is that John and his barons were divided over the nature of kingship. John ruled by his ‘will and wish’, whereas the barons wanted him to rule justly and by law. This was the route to Magna Carta – a useful activity in class would be to find the evidence that John had taken a tyrannical approach before 1215, and where this was being challenged by the different clauses of Magna Carta itself.

Further materials

Magna Carta: Speak to King John (Chapter II), published by The National Archives, UK Visit this website
Your guide to King John, the monarch who issued Magna Carta by Dr Marc Morris, published by History Extra, (2022) Read this article
Mark Robinson is a history teacher who has many years’ experience of teaching both History and Classical Civilisation. He has also been an examiner. He has written on a wide range of topics for the educational website TEDEd.

Text © Mark Robinson, 2021-2023