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King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England: The Road to Magna Carta

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A rousing and authoritative new biography of the notorious King John, by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Marc Morris. King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robi A rousing and authoritative new biography of the notorious King John, by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Marc Morris. King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robin Hood. Formidable and cunning, but also cruel, lecherous, treacherous and untrusting. Twelve years into his reign, John was regarded as a powerful king within the British Isles. But despite this immense early success, when he finally crosses to France to recover his lost empire, he meets with disaster. John returns home penniless to face a tide of criticism about his unjust rule. The result is Magna Carta – a ground-breaking document in posterity, but a worthless piece of parchment in 1215, since John had no intention of honoring it. Like all great tragedies, the world can only be put to rights by the tyrant’s death. John finally obliges at Newark Castle in October 1216, dying of dysentery as a great gale howls up the valley of the Trent. 16 pages of color and B&W illustrations


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A rousing and authoritative new biography of the notorious King John, by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Marc Morris. King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robi A rousing and authoritative new biography of the notorious King John, by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Marc Morris. King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robin Hood. Formidable and cunning, but also cruel, lecherous, treacherous and untrusting. Twelve years into his reign, John was regarded as a powerful king within the British Isles. But despite this immense early success, when he finally crosses to France to recover his lost empire, he meets with disaster. John returns home penniless to face a tide of criticism about his unjust rule. The result is Magna Carta – a ground-breaking document in posterity, but a worthless piece of parchment in 1215, since John had no intention of honoring it. Like all great tragedies, the world can only be put to rights by the tyrant’s death. John finally obliges at Newark Castle in October 1216, dying of dysentery as a great gale howls up the valley of the Trent. 16 pages of color and B&W illustrations

30 review for King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England: The Road to Magna Carta

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bubu

    This is difficult to rate. I wish I had bought the Kindle version, which I still may or may not do. Not sure yet. The narration was superb but still difficult to follow because, as with every historical non-fiction book, it is very, very, very detailed. So much so, that I had to rewind quite often. That doesn't mean it was absolutely bad. Besides, I don't know enough of King John, the person, to ascertain how good or bad the book itself was. For those who wish to listen to the audio version, I re This is difficult to rate. I wish I had bought the Kindle version, which I still may or may not do. Not sure yet. The narration was superb but still difficult to follow because, as with every historical non-fiction book, it is very, very, very detailed. So much so, that I had to rewind quite often. That doesn't mean it was absolutely bad. Besides, I don't know enough of King John, the person, to ascertain how good or bad the book itself was. For those who wish to listen to the audio version, I recommend to read up a little on King John, as I found the number of places, persons and deeds quite overwhelming. Wikipedia, alone, would have been my friend here. Edit Okay, with about two days in between, I've noticed that I was still mulling over this book and what to make out of King John. As the narration in the first half of the book jumped back and forth, before John became king and after, a few points stick out (simplified): - His reputation at the time of his coronation was already heavily damaged. He had rebelled against his father in his father's last days, and joined the cause of his brothers; he later tried to take the crown from Richard Lionheart whilst he was in imprisoned. - The loss of Normandie in 1204 was a major setback. Trying to get the lost territories in France back, money was needed. The taxation (other, various words are used but I'll keep it simple) was heavy and seemed - in many cases - arbitrary. For a widowed mother to keep custody of her children to an heir to get a hold of his/her inheritance (to name only two of many ways John tried to raise money), nothing was out of the reach of the king. I say arbitrary for it seemed to be dependent on John's liking or disliking of a person whether said person had to pay the money at all or in what kind of instalments. Sometimes, even payments weren't guaranteed to fulfil John's demands as he could simply demand even more. - The death of Arthur I. of Brittany, his brother Geoffrey's only surviving son, and a serious contender to John's crown, at - supposedly - his own hands, further damaged his reputation and didn't necessarily lead for the baron's to trust their king. - His excommunication from the church over the question who should be Bishop of Canterbury was another blow that took years to mend. - The decline of the economy. Now, here's where I'm not sure if the author was trying to be too nice, as he didn't attribute it directly to John. At the end of the day, wars cost money. Money needs to be raised. Coins were debased. Taxes still needed to be paid, et voilá, the economy suffers. Simply put, of course. And of course, for an economy to suffer other components are important. But if put together, there's no wonder that the economy declined during his reign. - A strong French king who knew how to play the game of changing loyalties, and taking advantage of it. John's reign was catastrophic for the institution 'kingship', and though not everything was entirely his fault, one very important point remains. John's hubris to stand not only above the law but actually be the law, whatever it meant for those who had to experience setbacks which led to bad blood. Not that his ancestors didn't act similarly, but what John didn't seem to understand was the simple concept and consequences of 'action vs. reaction'. Nothing makes that clearer than his wishes in his dying days when he wanted to make amends to at least a few people he had wronged. In other words, he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it came to emotional intelligence.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Richard Thomas

    This is an absorbing life of King John who is generally and rightly regarded as one of England's worse kings. Marc Morris reviews his reign and his earlier life in detail which reveals John's weaknesses and dishonesty. He is fair in describing the King's good points but sets these against the full picture of a cruel man with weaknesses who had a singular capability to make a bad situation worse. Richard I comes out reasonably well as does Eleanor of Aquitaine; John does not but finishing the boo This is an absorbing life of King John who is generally and rightly regarded as one of England's worse kings. Marc Morris reviews his reign and his earlier life in detail which reveals John's weaknesses and dishonesty. He is fair in describing the King's good points but sets these against the full picture of a cruel man with weaknesses who had a singular capability to make a bad situation worse. Richard I comes out reasonably well as does Eleanor of Aquitaine; John does not but finishing the book will add much to the understanding of a man and a complex era. In 1066 and all that, Sellars and Yeatman did get John bang to rights. The book ranges widely across England, France, Ireland and Scotland and is rewarding reading for anyone wishing to know more of an age of complicated history and strong personalities. One minor carp is that the book does depart from strict chronology to no apparent benefit - at least for this reader.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mercedes Rochelle

    King John is one of those villains who seems too wicked to be true. It was bad enough that he squeezed his countrymen again and again to fund his fruitless wars. But no man or woman was safe if caught by his displeasure, and even his contemporaries were horrified at his cruelty; starving his victims in dungeons seemed to be his favorite retribution. He behaved with little or no regard for consequences, until caught in the web of his own misbehavior. Once forced to retreat from an intolerable pos King John is one of those villains who seems too wicked to be true. It was bad enough that he squeezed his countrymen again and again to fund his fruitless wars. But no man or woman was safe if caught by his displeasure, and even his contemporaries were horrified at his cruelty; starving his victims in dungeons seemed to be his favorite retribution. He behaved with little or no regard for consequences, until caught in the web of his own misbehavior. Once forced to retreat from an intolerable position, he would charm his way back into the good graces of his barons; grants of land (often stolen from them in the first place), money and promises were proffered, though there was no way to know what he would take back in the future. He ruled through fear (often with mercenaries paid by extorted funds) and treachery. This is the kind of king you don’t read about for pleasure. I’ve read about him in the past, and the litany of evil deeds started to weigh on me like a heavy burden. I wasn’t sure I could shoulder more of the same, but fortunately Marc Morris was able to distance the reader from the perils of too much misery. Yes the events happened; it seems impossible that every year he forced more and more money out of rich and poor alike. Yes, he committed many murders, debauched many wives, broke almost all his promises. But we are able to see the events from an academic point of view rather than being thrust into the thick of oppressive bullying. I know he was a tyrant; I’m relieved that I didn’t have to suffer along with his victims. Because John’s younger days were not well documented, the author began with the early part of his reign (1203) when king Philip II of France began driving John from his continental possessions. This was certainly an interesting sequence of events and showed us how his reckless behavior was destined to make lots of enemies: “This frank exchange (with William Marshal) made John predictably angry, and he shut himself away in his chamber. The next day he was nowhere to be found in the castle, and his men were annoyed to discover that he had slipped out of Rouen without them; they eventually caught up with him on the coast at Bonneville-sur-Touques, more than fifty miles away.” Apparently John made a habit of slipping away like a thief in the night, especially when things started to get uncomfortable. Like his father, he was constantly on the move and could cover great distances in a remarkably short time. No one could figure him out, but his actions were usually not favorable. As I expected, in the second chapter we went back to his father’s reign so we could get some background. That was fine and necessary. But for the next several chapters, the author decided to take us back and forth from post-coronation to pre-coronation to post-coronation again, etc. As a reader I had a difficult time following the events; I couldn’t hang on to the chronology. Frustratingly, each chapter ended with a “bang”, and then the story picked up somewhere else, which slowed down the momentum. Every time I had to go back two chapters and figure out where he left off. It wasn’t until halfway through the book that the chronology finally “caught up”, and from then on the events were in proper succession. That worked a lot better for me. It was interesting to see just how far John was able to go before his barons presented him with the Magna Carta; the mystical power of kingship almost did give him unlimited dominion over his subjects. It was also curious to see how the Pope’s overuse of excommunication lost its potency. In the end, it seems, Might was Right and as usual in the feudal world, the guys with the biggest armies won. Throughout, the narrative flowed well and I'm glad I read this book, which I received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Nigeyb

    "He was a very bad man, more cruel than all others" - the Anonymous of Bethune Like most British people, I knew King John had signed Magna Carta and was generally known as “Bad King John”, but that was about it. I bought King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris primarily because it was an Audible deal of the day and looked interesting. A very good decision as it turned out. In an unlikely tune of events, given John was the youngest son of Henry II, he became King of "He was a very bad man, more cruel than all others" - the Anonymous of Bethune Like most British people, I knew King John had signed Magna Carta and was generally known as “Bad King John”, but that was about it. I bought King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris primarily because it was an Audible deal of the day and looked interesting. A very good decision as it turned out. In an unlikely tune of events, given John was the youngest son of Henry II, he became King of England on 6 April 1199. However, he soon lost the great Continental empire assembled by his ancestors (Anjou, Normandy and Brittany) and spent the remainder of his reign trying to regain it, often to the exclusion of all else. There are two concurrent narratives: John’s route to the throne, and John’s attempts to get his French land back. What clearly emerges are John’s shortcomings. His judgement was frequently awry, he was politically inept, he was often cowardly and cruel, his decision making was short termist and cack handed, indeed there’s very little to recommend him. Being charitable, he was full of energy, and generally on the move, and it’s no wonder he died relatively young in 1216 aged 49. King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta is an engrossing, pacy account of an incident-strewn reign and brilliantly compelling. I will be reading more history books by Marc Morris. I also now want to fill in more gaps in my historical knowledge. It’s also a great follow on from The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, which I recently read and greatly enjoyed. 4/5

  5. 5 out of 5

    Blair Hodgkinson

    As expected, Marc Morris presents a well-researched and detailed study of the life and reign of King John. Morris sifts effectively through often-conflicting chronicles (both contemporary and subsequent) and scholarship to support his conclusions about the king's character and style of kingship. The text of Magna Carta is included. The book's emphasis on the importance of this event in John's reign is in the proper perspective of his time. (It was only later in history that the charter won great As expected, Marc Morris presents a well-researched and detailed study of the life and reign of King John. Morris sifts effectively through often-conflicting chronicles (both contemporary and subsequent) and scholarship to support his conclusions about the king's character and style of kingship. The text of Magna Carta is included. The book's emphasis on the importance of this event in John's reign is in the proper perspective of his time. (It was only later in history that the charter won greater fame and influence.) This is an excellent overview of John's life, covering all the major events that shaped not only his life, but much history of England. His behaviour as royal son and prince, king, brother, father and Christian is studied and evaluated. John's much-praised administrative ability is not overlooked in this study, but is placed in perspective to the rest of his kingship, where it is not, as some 20th century historians had it, his most important trait. Instead, John's whole character is reviewed, leading to the conclusion that for all John's genius as an administrator, he was wanting in many other areas required for effective medieval kingship. Picking this book up, I was expecting a fairly straight-forward bashing of John's character, but after having read it, my impression is that Morris has delivered as balanced a study of John the man and the king as is possible at a remove of eights centuries and after the accretion of countless lies, legends and errors to his historical aura. He neither overpraises nor underpraises John, recognizing his few virtues, his talents and his failings in a manner that struck me as quite fair.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Morris shows how King John's disastrous reign led to the loss of the Plantangenet empire on the European continent during the early years of his tenure. He was an ineffective commander, leading troops by threats of punishment and tyranny rather than by inspiration. He was seen as a cruel and fickle ruler by his contemporaries. As a means for punishment, he would frequently lock away his enemies and starve them to death. He did not honor his promises or agreements, making him untrustworthy to his Morris shows how King John's disastrous reign led to the loss of the Plantangenet empire on the European continent during the early years of his tenure. He was an ineffective commander, leading troops by threats of punishment and tyranny rather than by inspiration. He was seen as a cruel and fickle ruler by his contemporaries. As a means for punishment, he would frequently lock away his enemies and starve them to death. He did not honor his promises or agreements, making him untrustworthy to his enemies and allies alike. His oppression of the Scots and Welsh ended up pushing both of these groups into an alliance with the English Barons, who, during the last years of John's reign, went into open rebellion against their King. The result of this was the Magna Carta, which stated that a king must govern within the law and was the first step in preventing a repeat of his type of tyrannical reign. The book begins a couple of years into his reign and continues chronologically every other chapter. In the first half of the book, the alternating chapters are flash-backs to John's childhood and early adulthood. These flash-back chapters are quite effective in revealing how his unsavory character began to develop and fit in quite well with the main timeline. I would recommend this book to those interested in delving into the details of King John's reign.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    Whilst Richard III has found his supporters in ever-growing numbers in recent years, there has been no such reevaluation or redemption for England's other black legend, King John. And, as Marc Morris ably demonstrates, there is good reason for this. Richard III didn't reign for long enough for any real evaluation of his reign, and his track record prior to his accession was one of proven loyalty and steadfastness. Richard III was damned by history effectively because he lost at Bosworth - had he Whilst Richard III has found his supporters in ever-growing numbers in recent years, there has been no such reevaluation or redemption for England's other black legend, King John. And, as Marc Morris ably demonstrates, there is good reason for this. Richard III didn't reign for long enough for any real evaluation of his reign, and his track record prior to his accession was one of proven loyalty and steadfastness. Richard III was damned by history effectively because he lost at Bosworth - had he gone on to a long and stable reign it is unlikely we would view him as the evil hunchback bequeathed to us by Shakespeare. John on the other hand had a history of treachery and betrayal as long as your arm, even before he became king, betraying his father on his deathbed and his brother Richard whilst the latter was on crusade. He most definitely did murder his nephew Arthur, potentially even by his own hand. He was cruel beyond even the standards of his time, murdering hostages, starving captives to death, defying the chivalric convention that expected defeated noble enemies to be held in honourable captivity. He was an incredibly poor politician, alienating his barons by his excessive financial demands, needlessly provoking them with his high-handed behaviour before trying to woo them back once he needed them. And whilst he did not shy away from warfare, he was not personally courageous, often cutting and running in the face of conflict, earning himself the sobriquet 'Softsword' to go alongside his youthful nickname of 'Lackland'. It was a turbulent era, with a great deal of back and forth of military fortunes and political infighting and conflict, but Morris lays it out in a concise and readable manner, neither condescending to the reader nor assuming too much knowledge. I had previously read and enjoyed his book on Edward I and this book was equally as enjoyable a read, although the chapter-by-chapter jumping back and forth of the chronology threw me a little bit. Whilst this is by no means a whitewashing on John's reign (and it would be impossible to do so without resorting to flights of fantasy), neither it is a thorough castigation. John's legacy, after all, is a mixed one. As Morris points out, John may have lost all of the Continental possessions of his ancestors, reducing the once mighty Angevin Empire to little more than the kingdom of England, but it was through his tyranny that the Magna Carta was bequeathed to posterity. Whilst in his lifetime John never came to terms with the Great Charter, seeking to evade its provisions through appeal to the Pope, the Charter came to signify the rights of subjects against a tyrant, enshrining the concept for the first time that the king could not act entirely without the consent of the governed, that no-one, not even a king, was above the law. It is a legacy John himself would have loathed, but history ought to thank him for that at least.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    Very well presented and researched - King John is one of my favourite historical figures (Good Lord what does that say about me??!!). I am more of an 'insights' person than a 'dates and figures' person and this book caters more to the latter but that's just my personal taste. I think I would have preferred to read rather than listen to this as the audio delivery was very dry and I would have liked the opportunity to skim read the bits that were boring me rather than rolling my eyes and shouting co Very well presented and researched - King John is one of my favourite historical figures (Good Lord what does that say about me??!!). I am more of an 'insights' person than a 'dates and figures' person and this book caters more to the latter but that's just my personal taste. I think I would have preferred to read rather than listen to this as the audio delivery was very dry and I would have liked the opportunity to skim read the bits that were boring me rather than rolling my eyes and shouting come on get to the good bits!!!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jamie Collins

    2.5 stars. I found this one a little dry, especially at first. I like the Plantagenets, and I enjoyed this author’s book on Edward I and his book about the Conquest, but this one seemed to frequently bog down in a litany of castle sieging, treachery, and relentless fundraising. It’s the fundraising that got John in the most trouble: he extorted money, through taxes, fines and fees, to an unprecedented degree. John is most famous for his role in Robin Hood’s story as the wicked Prince taking adva 2.5 stars. I found this one a little dry, especially at first. I like the Plantagenets, and I enjoyed this author’s book on Edward I and his book about the Conquest, but this one seemed to frequently bog down in a litany of castle sieging, treachery, and relentless fundraising. It’s the fundraising that got John in the most trouble: he extorted money, through taxes, fines and fees, to an unprecedented degree. John is most famous for his role in Robin Hood’s story as the wicked Prince taking advantage of the absence of his noble crusading brother King Richard. He’s next most famous for being such a bad king that his nobles forced the Magna Carta on him. John was the fifth and youngest son of the great Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, so far from the throne that his father had given all of the important provinces to his older brothers, leaving John with the nickname “Lackland”. But his brothers fell, one by one, until the death of Richard the Lionheart left John on the throne of England and at the head of the great Angevin empire: all of Britain and much of what is now France. John would leave to his own son a greatly reduced legacy. Explaining that John’s childhood and youth are barely documented, the author chose to begin the book in the middle of his reign, in 1206, just as he begins to lose his hold on his territory in France. The author then relates the earlier history in flashbacks. I think this was a mistake. First of all, the brief discussion of John’s predecessors (Henry I, Stephen and Maud, Henry II and Eleanor) would be unintelligible if you weren’t already pretty familiar with them. Then when the flashbacks reach Richard’s reign, it became confusing to bounce back and forth between the politics and military actions going on then and those happening after 1206. The text of the Magna Carta is printed in an appendix.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Marcus Pailing

    Excellent, as I expected. (It also made me actually *read* Magna Carta, the whole way through, for the first time!)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Larry

    Though sometimes disjointed (driven by flashbacks as it is), Morris's portrait of King John, one of England's several truly inadequate kings, is both complete (as far as the sources allow) and fair. It's hard to be patient with John. Even if he wasn't the figure many of us grew up detesting (the Prince John of the Robin Hood movies), he lost the English holdings in France and engaged in conflict with his nobles that he couldn't win. His reign did result in the Magna Carta, but it also led to mor Though sometimes disjointed (driven by flashbacks as it is), Morris's portrait of King John, one of England's several truly inadequate kings, is both complete (as far as the sources allow) and fair. It's hard to be patient with John. Even if he wasn't the figure many of us grew up detesting (the Prince John of the Robin Hood movies), he lost the English holdings in France and engaged in conflict with his nobles that he couldn't win. His reign did result in the Magna Carta, but it also led to more turmoil and instability (an invasion by the French, uprisings by the nobles) than even bad luck could produce. He even lost the national treasury while on the run from his nobles. His father's nickname from him, "Lackland" (because as the very youngest son he wasn't provided with a territorial base for much of his childhood) proved pedictive, given his losses to the French. Morris writes books that are a bit like those of Dan Jones (on the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses), though they are not organized quite as well

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lauren DeMers

    I enjoyed this book about King John and found it to be well researched. However the jumping back and forth between time periods in the first half, two thirds of the book caused a little bit of confusion for me. I had to keep stopping and thinking, "ok, what was happening two chapters ago so I can keep following along with the story." Great information in this book but the time hops is why I knocked it down a star.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Corpruga

    I'm beginning to feel like Marc Morris's jam is taking on controversial English rulers, going through their positives and negatives in detail, and issuing an assessment. That's what A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain more or less was, and that's pretty much what this was, too. John's kind of famous for being the other bad guy in Robin Hood movies and being the "Magna Carta" king, both of which come up in that Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott Robin Hood movie. I've only seen I'm beginning to feel like Marc Morris's jam is taking on controversial English rulers, going through their positives and negatives in detail, and issuing an assessment. That's what A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain more or less was, and that's pretty much what this was, too. John's kind of famous for being the other bad guy in Robin Hood movies and being the "Magna Carta" king, both of which come up in that Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott Robin Hood movie. I've only seen that once, I should rewatch it some time. But anyway! Other things John's known for include losing the continental lands of the Angevin Empire--i.e. the ancestral lands of Normandy and Anjou--and thus being real unpopular for that. Morris's goal here seems to be to try and do a fair assessment and ask, was John really that bad? (Spoiler alert: yep.) The one downside of this book, for me, anyway, is Morris's decision to alternate between John's early life and his attempts to win parts of his empire back from Philip Augustus in the early 13th century. Mostly I dislike this because it was confusing to me, particularly listening via audiobook--many of the players involved are the same, and I'm not good at keeping track of dates in my head, and so we'd jump from a guy becoming Archbishop of Canterbury to that guy dying and I'd get real confused. Or we'd be talking about John doing something in Poitou in 1200, and then him doing something there ten years later, and I'd just be going "okay, what's the backstory there again?" I guess structuring the book this way gives one a little something different from the good ol' chronological order, but I think the fanciness was lost on me. It actually made it hard for me to get back into the book after I'd taken a few days off from listening to it--I felt like I needed a reminder of the timeline every time, like, "are we in early John at this point or later John?" And then of course the two timelines intertwine, so whatever. I liked the rest of it, though. I keep listening to audiobooks on the same span of time in English history, the 12th and 13th centuries, and I really like getting different writers' perspective on it. Some highlights for me were: a detailed accounting of what John got up to while Richard was crusading; Morris getting real snarky about William Marshal (whom I like as much as the next person, but I still snickered); the focus on John's hate-turned-love with Innocent III; straight-up including the text of Magna Carta in the appendix, because it's cool hearing about the specific grievances and demands the barons, Londoners, Welsh princes etc. had; more details on Henry II's failure as a father; more foreign mercenaries than you can shake a stick at; and the weird situation where his teenage wife and his ex-wife, both named Isabella, were apparently living together. As far as assessing John's reign, I think Morris is pretty fair about it--he gives John more credit for industriousness and caring about his kingship than he often gets, but as he pointed out, people generally weren't HAPPY about John getting more involved as a king, because he was so vindictive and exploitative. What's fascinating to me is, from this and other depictions of John I've encountered this summer, it seems like in some respects John was really clever--identifying when a moment was ripe for exploitation or when the situation had turned against him, taking advantage of opportune moments--but in some respects he seemed profoundly short-sighted, because his scheming caused people to dislike him and gave him a reputation for untrustworthiness that hurt his goals even in situations where he might have intended to keep his word. Like, he could have been known as a hero for getting William Longchamp removed as justiciar while Richard was on Crusade, but instead he overplayed his hand and got a reputation for stabbing his crusader brother in the back that kept on hurting him. He could have, like, not starved a bunch of prisoners to death or killed his teenage nephew, and that probably would have helped his reputation, too. The finances of the king's treasury at this period are kind of fascinating to me because I don't know that much about them, but John's exploitative relief policy just blew my mind. No wonder the barons got PO'd. I was kind of entertained by the end, where Morris is like, "It could have been really bad for the Angevins after John died, seeing as how Henry III was a little boy and William Marshal was an old man and they were in the middle of a civil war, but actually, just not having John and his reputation for being a sleazy liar around really helped Henry and Marshal out." Moral of the story: don't alienate your allies and barons and don't marry Hugh de Lusignan's fiancée on Philip Augustus's advice. Lesson learned, book enjoyed.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Wylie Small

    Having very little knowledge about King John of England, except that his terrible leadership resulted in the Magna Carta, I was interested in learning more through Marc Morris' biography "King John." Was John really so terrible? Was he as cruel as many believe? Was the baronial revolt that resulted in the Magna Carta justified? After completing Marc Morris' book, the short answer is yes. Even before John became King, he demonstated treachery in trying to undermine his father, King Henry II, and, Having very little knowledge about King John of England, except that his terrible leadership resulted in the Magna Carta, I was interested in learning more through Marc Morris' biography "King John." Was John really so terrible? Was he as cruel as many believe? Was the baronial revolt that resulted in the Magna Carta justified? After completing Marc Morris' book, the short answer is yes. Even before John became King, he demonstated treachery in trying to undermine his father, King Henry II, and, later his brother, King Richard (the Lionheart). After Richard's death, John took no time in illustrating all the qualities that would lead to a terrible reign. He allegedly killed Richard's son Arthur (either directly or on orders); taxed the bejeezus out of everyone, from nobility on down; cruelly destroyed anyone who annoyed him, including walling up William de Braose's wife Matilda and their adult son in Corfe Castle and allowing them to starve to death; losing lands in France his family had gained; stealing a compatriot's 12 year old "fiancé" who quickly became his wife. He surrounded himself with paid mercenaries and pillaged and burned his way through England. After his death, chronicler Matthew Paris wrote, ‘Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John.’ Overall, this is an excellent book to give one an overview of a tyrannical king - a king so corrupt that there has never been another "King John" in British history. Recommend for history and medieval fans; an easy read and fascinating book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Les Wilson

    Very informative. I had not realised that my local castle of Hedingham was besieged and also later stayed at by King John. It also put. Me right in regards to my understanding of the Magna Carta.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kristi Richardson

    “To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Magna Carta I grew up with the evil King John from the Disney “Robin Hood” or the other tales told of King John as the evil King that ruled when Robin Hood was around. I also remember him as the pimply youth from “The Lion in Winter.” Mr. Morris shows us that he was much more complicated than we have been told. He also did not live in the same time as Robin Hood per scholars. This is King John’s story. He was not England “To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Magna Carta I grew up with the evil King John from the Disney “Robin Hood” or the other tales told of King John as the evil King that ruled when Robin Hood was around. I also remember him as the pimply youth from “The Lion in Winter.” Mr. Morris shows us that he was much more complicated than we have been told. He also did not live in the same time as Robin Hood per scholars. This is King John’s story. He was not England’s best King but was he truly the worst, or more a victim of the times. His family had only ruled England when his father Henry II took power and they were more French than English. His mother was the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine who divorced the King of France to marry Henry, but even that story is more legend than romantic tale. He was the youngest of his brothers and known as “Lackland” because his father had run out of lands to give him at his birth. He grew up in the shadow of his brothers Henry (the young King) and Richard the Lionheart. You can almost start to feel sorry for him. This book is well written and scholarly. If you enjoy English history than you will enjoy this book. My husband can trace his ancestry to King John so I have a special interest in this history. I felt that it read more like a novel than history because I felt very engaged in where the story was going. I especially liked the inclusion of the entire Magna Carta in the back of the book. When you read that you realize the significance of what the nobles asked of their King. I received this book from the publisher in order to write an honest review.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bev

    A first rate biography and for those of us brought up on a diet of Errol Flynn and other versions of Robin Hood, an eye opener as well. Someone once described John to me as a "total shite" and they were not far off the mark, he was a complete villain, but a complex one and also an unfathomable one, because again and again you are left open mouthed trying to work out his motivations. I get that he was money hungry and possibly power hungry, but he had enough of both if he had been sensible, but h A first rate biography and for those of us brought up on a diet of Errol Flynn and other versions of Robin Hood, an eye opener as well. Someone once described John to me as a "total shite" and they were not far off the mark, he was a complete villain, but a complex one and also an unfathomable one, because again and again you are left open mouthed trying to work out his motivations. I get that he was money hungry and possibly power hungry, but he had enough of both if he had been sensible, but he seems to have had some sort of self destruct button. Was he likeable? He must have had some charm because he was able to command loyalty from some, while making others despise him. Anyway, this is a beautifully written and beautifully researched book and well worth a read.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jim Kerr

    An incredible portrait of a terribly flawed man who happened to be a king. John is shown to be ruthlessly and unnecessarily cruel, incapable of even the most basic personal relationships, and a completly inept politician. John endlessly dissembled and had frequent changes of mind, often with disastrous results. One wonders what else we would know about him if John had lived in a time with additional documentary evidence.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Richard K

    Liked the book. Very insightful. It really shows John as a complex but ultimately very flawed individual

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    King John is one of those rulers that it is easy to hate.  To be sure, there are people who really appreciate that tax-grabbing absolutism, but those are the kind of people who are also easy to hate.  What this book does well is put the widespread dislike of King John both at the time and throughout history into a context that demonstrates why it is that people hated and disrespected King John at the time and why they continue to do so.  In doing so, the author manages to compile quite a lot of King John is one of those rulers that it is easy to hate.  To be sure, there are people who really appreciate that tax-grabbing absolutism, but those are the kind of people who are also easy to hate.  What this book does well is put the widespread dislike of King John both at the time and throughout history into a context that demonstrates why it is that people hated and disrespected King John at the time and why they continue to do so.  In doing so, the author manages to compile quite a lot of well-supported reasons why King John was and is so reviled--he was a terrible bully but also a coward when anyone stood up to him.  He was cruel and vicious but also unable to inspire people by courage or love or anything other than fear, and he had a great gift of alienating people to a high degree.  Even those people who served King John largely loyally, like William Marshal, were highly inclined to downplay this fact for the sake of their own reputations and often endangered themselves in principled opposition to him and his failed policies, which nearly destroyed the Angevin empire in France. This particular book of about 300 pages in length is divided into fourteen chapters with other materials.  The book begins with acknowledgements, a note on money, a list of illustrations, and maps and a family tree for the period.  After that the author begins the book in 1203 with King John's realm under attack by the King of France (1), before going back to the foundations of the Angevin empire and how it was built over the course of the 12th century (2).  Sadly, King John and his forces were unable to rally and lost almost all of his French domains in 1204 and 1205 (3), reminding everyone of the weakness and treachery that King John showed during the first half of his brother's reign (4).  Despite massive losses, King John was able to preserve some of his territory and dignity in 1205 and 1206 (5), after which the author jumps back to the period of John's greatest success at the end of his brother's reign and the early part of his own reign (6).  The author looks at the hostility between King John and Pope Innocent III (7) as well as the deed of shame when John killed his cousin (8), and struggled to deal with the enemies within among the high nobility, who he treated with rapacious brutality (9).  At this point the author discusses the last part of John's reign in sequential order, looking at John's expression of his tyrannical will from 1210-1212 (10), the trouble that was caused by the hermit's prophecy in 1213 (11), the loss of Bouviens and its crushing result for John's efforts to recover his French empire (12), the failed efforts to make peace with the barons at Runnymede (13), and finally, the end of his life spent in conflict over the fate of England (14), at which point John mercifully dies and William Marshal is able to recover England for his young son Henry III.  The book then closes with a translation of the Magna Carta, abbreviations, notes, a bibliography, and an index. The failures of King John indicate what sort of behaviors a medieval king could take in order to alienate the political population of his country.  Indeed, a great deal of his behaviors could be part of a guide on how to lose friends and alienate people--squeeze others ruthlessly for cash, by a great deal of dishonest means, including fining people for the privilege of being forced to marry one's ex wife, stealing a child bride who is engaged to someone else because of her attractiveness only to continually treat her like a child long after she has come to adulthood, engage in continual attempts to regain one's lost territory while lacking in any sort of bravery and courage in those efforts, and manage to inflame rebellion in one's relatives, friends, neighbors, as well as subjects, to the point where one is left to die unmourned and on the run from a multitude of enemies.  Had King John been brave and not so much of a "soft sword," he might have been such a historical disaster that no king has ever been named after him in the rest of English history, but at least England and her settler colonies got the Magna Carta out of John's disastrous reign so that liberty could be preserved for future generations.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    John was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He born in 1166 and was the son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He is often considered to be the most evil monarch in Britain's history for a variety of reasons and he is familiar in history as being the bad guy in contrast to his brother, the great warrior and crusader, Richard the Lionheart, and in fictional literature for using the Sheriff of Nottingham to persecute Robin Hood. I was always curious about him and as we approach the 8 John was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He born in 1166 and was the son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He is often considered to be the most evil monarch in Britain's history for a variety of reasons and he is familiar in history as being the bad guy in contrast to his brother, the great warrior and crusader, Richard the Lionheart, and in fictional literature for using the Sheriff of Nottingham to persecute Robin Hood. I was always curious about him and as we approach the 802nd anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document famously issued by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, I read Marc Morris’ outstanding biography to try and get insight on this man and time he lived in. There’s no question that John was a tyrant with a capital “T”, cruel and cowardly as this book reveals. He was a very complicated man who lived in a very complicated time. The quote below is not from Mr. Morris’s book but it aptly describe King John’s reign: “He betrayed his elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, by trying to usurp the throne while Richard was on crusade. He extorted more money from his English subjects than any king since the Norman Conquest. He inherited a vast dominion on the Continent, including Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine, but lost almost all of it and failed to win any of it back. He took prisoners and hostages, several of whom he starved to death. His nephew and rival, Arthur of Brittany, was murdered on the king’s own orders. In the end John’s subjects rose up in arms against him and demanded reform, forcing the king to commit to Magna Carta. When he rejected the charter a few weeks later the result was chaos and civil war. The English barons offered his crown to the son of the king of France, who invaded and occupied half of the country, including London. John died with his kingdom in flames and his reputation deservedly in tatters.”

  22. 5 out of 5

    Michael Bully

    t's a difficult review to write. The reign of King John -which ran from 1199- 1216- is well chronicled and this biography is by a highly esteemed historian of this period. In 1199 the Angevin empire stretched from Northumberland to the Pyrenees, taking huge swathes of what is now western and northern France. When he died , the French possession were gone, large parts of England were in the hands of rebel barons and French invader,s with a ghastly civil war ranging. The books is based on sections w t's a difficult review to write. The reign of King John -which ran from 1199- 1216- is well chronicled and this biography is by a highly esteemed historian of this period. In 1199 the Angevin empire stretched from Northumberland to the Pyrenees, taking huge swathes of what is now western and northern France. When he died , the French possession were gone, large parts of England were in the hands of rebel barons and French invader,s with a ghastly civil war ranging. The books is based on sections which aren't in strictly linear order which is not to every read tastes. One sees how John's reputation is well deserved. His cruelty to opponents and their families,, his avarice, his endless betrayals, relentless taxation, murder of his nephew, ,come over very well in the book. Along with lesser known aspects such as his ill treatment of the Jewish population. The Magna Carta is translated as an appendix , and the attempt to put this document in wider context from looking at the laws and customs of the reign of Henry I onward is very helpful. The only drawback is the author's lack of analysis of the papal interdict's impact on England, in an age where religious faith was so powerful. Also a little more about how the collapse of the Angevin empire led to the rise of Medieval France would have been useful. But I read the book twice already, and will be coming back to it.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Chris Miller

    Morris has created as fair and balanced a look at a midieval king as possible in this intriguing biography. The King who as Prince John figures large in the Robin Hood b.s., is shown in a different but sometimes damning light as an historical figure. He is the youngest son in a royal dysfunctional family. He is never going to be a hero in his story, but then again, he is not nearly as villainous or pure evil either. Son of Henry II who had Beckett ‘removed’, and brother of the ‘blessed’ Richard Morris has created as fair and balanced a look at a midieval king as possible in this intriguing biography. The King who as Prince John figures large in the Robin Hood b.s., is shown in a different but sometimes damning light as an historical figure. He is the youngest son in a royal dysfunctional family. He is never going to be a hero in his story, but then again, he is not nearly as villainous or pure evil either. Son of Henry II who had Beckett ‘removed’, and brother of the ‘blessed’ Richard I, ‘Lionheart’, who bankrupted the country for his “King’s Ransom”, when he was captured in Bavaria, travelling incognito from the holy lands. John “Lackland”, with the help of his mother, Katherine of Aragon, becomes a force to reckon with. But with his constant attempts to maintain his foot hold in the continent, and beset by rebellious subjects in the British Isles was forced to use the power of the Exchequer and raise tax collection to a fine art. Unfortunately for John, his Barons and nobility took umbrage, leading to the Great Charter. Morris has done tremendous research and created a great biography.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rosaline Weaver

    Morris reviews John’s reign, examining how his inherited Angevin Empire disintegrated within a few decades. The first half is spilt into two concurrent narratives; John’s route to the throne; and John’s attempts to regain his continental lands. The book begins with a vivid and fast-paced description of the sudden loss of Normandy in 1203. The next chapter takes us back to 1120 and the white ship disaster of Henry I’s reign, before working gradually through the main events of the twelfth century. Morris reviews John’s reign, examining how his inherited Angevin Empire disintegrated within a few decades. The first half is spilt into two concurrent narratives; John’s route to the throne; and John’s attempts to regain his continental lands. The book begins with a vivid and fast-paced description of the sudden loss of Normandy in 1203. The next chapter takes us back to 1120 and the white ship disaster of Henry I’s reign, before working gradually through the main events of the twelfth century. Although each part is well written, detailed and accessible, the device of contemporary and subsequent chronicles is disrupting. Halfway through Morris reverts to a brilliantly compelling linear account of an incident-strewn reign. Throughout the history he offers revisionist opinions on the reliablity of the sources, advising which should be treated with caution; this feels unnecessary for a general reader this book seems aimed at .

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Marc Morris shows us why King John was a failure. As a contemporary rhyme about him put it: "hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John." Cruel, avaricious, cowardly, deceitful and debauched (to name a few of his minor faults), John, by the time of his death, had lost his ancestors' continental empire and left his country riven by civil war. But, ironically, he did leave an admirable legacy. By dint of John's long tyranny, Magna Carta set limits on the English monarch's coercive pow Marc Morris shows us why King John was a failure. As a contemporary rhyme about him put it: "hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John." Cruel, avaricious, cowardly, deceitful and debauched (to name a few of his minor faults), John, by the time of his death, had lost his ancestors' continental empire and left his country riven by civil war. But, ironically, he did leave an admirable legacy. By dint of John's long tyranny, Magna Carta set limits on the English monarch's coercive power and set the stage for the acknowledgement of the rights his subjects. Although it is obviously very well researched, I did not think this book was as rich and engaging as Morris's books on the Norman Conquest and Edward I. I thought this book's chronological structure was, at times, disconcerting and the prose not as lush. Nonetheless, a fun read if you like medieval intrigue, war and politics.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Leslie

    I found it very hard to get through about the first 2/3 of this book, though I really enjoyed the last part. I don't know if it's because I'm not as familiar with the people and places (and a lot of it did seem to be taken up by John going from place to place, getting into arguments with this person or that, which/who all kind of seemed to run together for me), or if it's just that he is such an unappealing character in general. While he had his better moments, they seemed to be few and far betw I found it very hard to get through about the first 2/3 of this book, though I really enjoyed the last part. I don't know if it's because I'm not as familiar with the people and places (and a lot of it did seem to be taken up by John going from place to place, getting into arguments with this person or that, which/who all kind of seemed to run together for me), or if it's just that he is such an unappealing character in general. While he had his better moments, they seemed to be few and far between - otherwise, the unremitting greed, disloyalty and cruelty were pretty off-putting. Anyway, I'm sorry to have to give it just 3 stars, since so many other people seemed to like it better. It was definitely worthwhile to read (or at least skim) the complete (translated into modern English) text of Magna Carta

  27. 4 out of 5

    Paithan Campbell

    This is the third historical book I've read by Marc Morris, and it has only further entrenched my opinion of him as an excellent historian. He manages to walk the fine line between providing too many facts (and therefore overwhelming the reader) while only keeping pertinent information in (and therefore keeping the reader well informed). At the same time he manages to make historical figures feel like the real human beings they were, and makes the historical events pop off of the page. This book This is the third historical book I've read by Marc Morris, and it has only further entrenched my opinion of him as an excellent historian. He manages to walk the fine line between providing too many facts (and therefore overwhelming the reader) while only keeping pertinent information in (and therefore keeping the reader well informed). At the same time he manages to make historical figures feel like the real human beings they were, and makes the historical events pop off of the page. This book was engaging and informative, but also objective. Morris does not paint King John as a villain. That picture paints itself with a simple walk-through of the horrible things King John does. But where Marc Morris really earns his historical merit badge is in acknowledging King John's virtues/strengths (skilled administrator, head for finance).

  28. 5 out of 5

    Fiona Howells

    I chose this because I had enjoyed Marc Morris's Edward I A great and Terrible King last year. I enjoy his writing, well written and very detailed but very accessible and interesting. I didn't know a huge amount about King John, outside the Robin Hood legends which I now know have no basis in fact. As the youngest of several siblings, he was never expected to be king, and was not really suited to it in fairness to him. He had a lot of bad luck along the way, but his volatile personality did him n I chose this because I had enjoyed Marc Morris's Edward I A great and Terrible King last year. I enjoy his writing, well written and very detailed but very accessible and interesting. I didn't know a huge amount about King John, outside the Robin Hood legends which I now know have no basis in fact. As the youngest of several siblings, he was never expected to be king, and was not really suited to it in fairness to him. He had a lot of bad luck along the way, but his volatile personality did him no favours. We have the Barons who reined his worst excesses in with the groundbreaking Magna Carta to thanks for many of the principles of law that still exist in England today. Very interesting to read.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    Good bio of King John. He's just as horrid as he's generally portrayed. However Marc Morris does a fine job of tellling John's story at the right level of detail using a lot of contemporary sources. He relies heavily on the stories of the monks who recorded history of the era, but carefully takes into account their biases. If I need to give someone a recommendation of a book about King John, this would be it. The book also does a good job of setting the context of John's action by describing imp Good bio of King John. He's just as horrid as he's generally portrayed. However Marc Morris does a fine job of tellling John's story at the right level of detail using a lot of contemporary sources. He relies heavily on the stories of the monks who recorded history of the era, but carefully takes into account their biases. If I need to give someone a recommendation of a book about King John, this would be it. The book also does a good job of setting the context of John's action by describing important actions from the reigns of his father, Henry II and his brother, Richard II (The Lionhearted).

  30. 4 out of 5

    Neil Hannah

    We all know about King John from the tales of Robin Hood and so on, don't we?. Well it turns out i did not know as much as I thought I did. Marc Morris tells the story well with lots of insight and interesting detail. i found the chronology confusing however. For reasons best know to himself Marc Morris starts in 1203, then fills in the back story, then jumps to 1204, back to 1189 then on to 1205 and so on. Very confusing but otherwise a great book. I would like to know more about the endgame in We all know about King John from the tales of Robin Hood and so on, don't we?. Well it turns out i did not know as much as I thought I did. Marc Morris tells the story well with lots of insight and interesting detail. i found the chronology confusing however. For reasons best know to himself Marc Morris starts in 1203, then fills in the back story, then jumps to 1204, back to 1189 then on to 1205 and so on. Very confusing but otherwise a great book. I would like to know more about the endgame in 1215-1216 and see that Dan Snow has just written a book on exactly that but it looks somewhat coffee table-ish.

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