Although there is much to dislike about King John, at times I found myself laughing out loud at (if not necessarily approving of) his sleight of hand.
There were at least three occasions where he really cleverly confounded his enemies.
The first one (taxing mistresses) he probably learned from his grandfather.
Cunning Plan 1: The Mistress Taxer’s Revenge
Like his father, Henry II, and like most other medieval monarchs, John had ongoing disputes with the church about who was ultimately in charge. John wanted to be able to control who was appointed to the important and lucrative posts of bishop and archbishop. After all, the church owned about twenty-five percent of the country’s land. The monarch felt it was important that the king rather than the pope held sway.
In July 1205 the Archbishop of Canterbury (Hubert Walter) died and John wanted his secretary, the Bishop of Norwich, John de Gray, to replace him. The monks of Canterbury wanted to elect their prior Reginald. After months of visits and appeals to the Rome, Pope Innocent III rejected both candidates and chose one of his own, Stephen Langton.
John was furious. He expelled the monks of Canterbury who had to spend many years as refugees in French monasteries. And although he could not prevent Langton being consecrated as archbishop, he could prevent him being installed at Canterbury. He refused to allow Langton to enter the country and declared that anyone who called him an archbishop should be taken as a public enemy.
The “war” with the church rumbled on for years. During this time both sides tried to put pressure on each other.
When the pope realised that John was not serious in his desire to find a mutually acceptable resolution, the pope released his two weapons.
Pope’s Weapon 1: Interdict The first was an interdict in 1207, where clergy were instructed to withhold the traditional offices of the church – thus confirmations, church weddings, burials in consecrated ground, and Holy Communion were all put on hold. Only confessions, anointing of the dying, and baptism of children were allowed. Everywhere marriages took place in porchways, and the dead were buried outside the town walls and in ditches by roadways without a priest present.
(Note: This particular tactic was later used by Bishop Despenser to punish the people of Lynn when he couldn’t get his own way. Read about it here.)
Pope’s Weapon 2: Excommunication When this failed to bring John to heel, the pope excommunicated him in 1209.
John’s response was equally direct and very clever.
John’s Counter-Attack 1: Confiscation of Property He simply seized church estates and property and then offered it back to the church for a price. For him it was a win-win situation that made him very rich. If the clergy refused to pay the ransom, he simply kept the income from his new estates. If they paid the ransom and fines, he gained from the money given.
John’s Counter-Attack 2: Ransoming of Mistresses His particular masterstroke was in his treatment of the women “attached” to the clergy. The Church authorities had had great difficulty in enforcing celibacy. Many clergy had gone through a form of marriage or kept concubines under the euphemism of “housekeepers”. John ordered all clergy mistresses to be seized and held for ransom. It was impossible for the church to object to this action, and many clergy hurried to bail their women out. Perhaps John had learned a trick from his grandfather (Henry I) who had fined clergy for disobeying church decrees on celibacy, but who had then sold them licences allowing them to do so.
Cunning Plan 2: The Protected New Vassal
One side effect of John’s excommunication was that it left the country more vulnerable to invasion. After all, his French enemies gathered around Philip IV of France could now claim that an invasion of England was doing God’s work by delivering the church from such an evil oppressor as John.
Attempts were made over the years to patch up the row between John and the pope. However, the pope wanted John to show penitence and to agree to pay reparations to the church for all the money he had taken over the years. John proved elusive and unwilling until he found himself boxed into a corner in 1213. John was planning a major invasion of France but had to delay it because of hearing rumours of plans to usurp him. Also Philip Augustus of France was planning his own invasion.
It was at this point that John executes his second really clever move. On hearing from his papal envoy that Pope Innocent III was ready to make peace, provided that the terms could be agreed by 1 June, John rushes to accept this offer of salvation. Messengers shuttled to and fro across the Channel in an effort to convince the pope that John was in earnest. On 13 May terms were accepted and three English earls and the Count of Boulogne swore on the king’s soul that he would abide by the terms.
This would have been enough to satisfy Innocent’s conditions, but John cleverly decided to go much further. Two days later, in the presence of the papal legate and a crowd of English magnates he ceremoniously resigned his crown and his kingdoms and declared that he wanted to receive them back as a vassal of the pope. This, he said, was to atone for his sins. And he would pay the papacy 1,000 marks a year.
Although some were worried about his surrender of sovereignty to a foreign power, the pope was very pleased. However, the brilliance of the move lay in the fact that he now had the pope’s protection. As soon as John had performed his homage, messengers scurried across the Channel to break the news to Philip IV who was told to stand down his invasion forces on pain of being excommunicated himself.
John had used the dispute over the archbishop, first, to get rich, and then to protect himself from invasion.
Cunning Plan 3: The Shielded Crusader
John continued to be unpopular with many of the barons who sensed his growing unpopularity. They presented their injustices to him on several occasions and tried to get him to agree to documents limiting what he would do in the future. This eventually culminated in the Magna Carta of 1215. But, of course, John provaricated, and neither side stuck to the agreements.
As rebellion loomed and as castles across the country were being fortified, John revealed his final cunning plan – what some historians regard as a diplomatic masterstroke.
On 4 March 2015 John, along with several of his close followers, take the cross – in other words he agreed to go on a crusade to the Holy Land. The pope had been pressing for a new crusade for some time, and this sudden show of commitment by John was bound to raise him even higher in Innocent’s esteem. More importantly, the king’s decision gave him the legal benefit accorded to all crusaders. He was free from all secular obligations for three years, and all his property was placed under the church’s protection. He now had a caste iron excuse for prevaricating with the requests made by the barons.
When the barons continued to want answers and redress for their oppression, the pope became angry. Innocent III knew nothing of the Magna Carter. All he knew was that the barons had rejected his proposal for peace and risen up against their loyal lord – a papal vassal and now also a sworn crusader. He accordingly denounced the barons as “worse than Saracens” for trying to depose a king who as pledged to succour the Holy Land. At the same time he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other bishops of complicity in this crime on account of their failure to oppose it. “We excommunicate all such disturbers of the king and the kingdom of England.”
The Sea and Disease Listen to No One
If you live by dissimulation, in the end, nobody believes you. The ultimate result for John was a war. In 1216 he finds that two of his foreign enemies meet up in his own back yard. The King of Scotland comes to England to pay homage to the heir to the throne of France who has just landed in Kent. And the barons had previously taken control of London.
King John had given a charter (for a fee) to the important port of Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in 1204, but he visits the town again in flight in 1216 hoping to get supplies for his northern castles. Having been richly entertained, John leaves on 11 October 1216, and rides ahead. Unfortunately his baggage train cart drivers wanted to avoid the longer road route and tried to take the known shortcut across the Wash from Cross Keys to Long Sutton. Sadly his servants got their timings wrong and many of them and John’s baggage are destroyed in the mud by the incoming tide. John struggles on from Swineshead to Newark where, on October 18, he dies.
John almost certainly died from dysentery caught in Bishop’s Lynn – though a surfeit of peaches and new cider, weariness from excessive frantic travel, the heartbreaking news of defeats by his enemies, and the losses of his religious relics and money in the Wash, probably all combined to play a part.
He was immediately disembowelled (as was the custom) and his intestines were buried in the nearby Croxton Abbey. John’s other bodily remains were entombed in Worcester Cathedral, apparently because with the civil war going on, it needed a place of safety. It is ironic that Worcester was chosen because on least one occasion John had threatened to burn the city to the ground.
Click here for History Trivia on King John.
© James Rye 2021
- Jones, D. (2013) The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins
- Jones, D. (2015) In the Reign of King John: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England, Head of Zeus Ltd.
- Morris, M. (2015) King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, Penguin Books
- Vincent, N. (2020) John: An Evil King?, Penguin Books
- Warren, W.L. (1961) King John, Eyre & Spottiswoode