The Medieval Review 16.02.34

Church, Stephen. King John and the Road to Magna Carta. Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West. Basic Books: New York, 2015. pp. 328. $29.99 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0465092994 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

John Cotts
Whitman College

There is little reason to expect that the 900th anniversary of King John's issuing of Magna Carta in 2015, or that of John's death the following year, will occasion much controversy over one of England's most consistently derided monarchs. The general assessment that John was at best incompetent has proven steadfastly impervious to revision; there has been no truly successful attempt at the wholesale rehabilitation of Bad King John's bad name. For example, when W. L. Warren argued in a 1961 study that we must reject the thirteenth-century appraisals of John as a spectacularly evil monster, the best he could conclude was that John "had the mental abilities of a great king, but the inclinations of a petty tyrant." In this new synthetic biography, Stephen D. Church resists explicit revisionism of historiography of either Magna Carta or of the king himself, and instead very subtly reframes both man and document within the political possibilities of Angevin rule.

While Church admits that, owing to John's loss of Normandy and the rebellion still ongoing at the time of his death, his book is ultimately a "study in failure," he also introduces it as a "study in the crisis of English kingship." And in this regard it is indeed a successful study that will strip away some of the ahistorical baggage with which John and Magna Carta have been burdened. Non-specialist readers will find Church's rather Whiggish assertion that "Magna Carta signaled the beginnings of English constitutional monarchy" both familiar and comforting, but this book is in fact refreshingly non-teleological, as it highlights the myriad contingencies that John had to confront throughout his reign. Forcing John to issue Magna Carta was itself just one of the possible responses of a still ill-defined community of the realm to the exercise of Angevin power.

Written with an educated popular audience in mind, the work follows a sensible biographical structure. Church is especially effective at pausing to point out essential background information for non-specialist reader, and he begins by emphatically rejecting the popular moniker of "Prince John" (3). More substantively, Church clearly introduces such problems as the fragmented nature of high medieval France and its implications for John's succession as king (71). In addition, he shows that some of the acts that earned John moral opprobrium from medieval and modern historians alike are perfectly understandable in context. When John accepted bribes both sides in the dispute over William de Longchamps's chancellorship it was, from his point of view, "no more than the usual way to rule a kingdom," and at any rate his brother Richard "had been no less squeamish in extracting money from those of his subjects who came within his sights" (59). Church is also straightforward in his treatment of the "disappearance" of his nephew and chief rival for the throne, Arthur of Brittany. Discounting the oft-cited Margam annalist's story that John murdered Arthur in a drunken rage, he simply asserts that Arthur's "execution" was a "coolly calculated political act" (111). The author has a knack for highlighting details that specialist might take for granted, which he demonstrates when he prefaces his account of the problems of 1204 with an explanation of the some idiosyncrasies of the medieval calendar (122). At the end of that year, Church describes John's wearing of his regalia at Tewkesbury with meticulous care.

In this fashion, Church leads the reader from John's days as Lackland to his machinations while Richard was on crusade, and on to his tumultuous seventeen-year reign. Scholars will not find a great deal that is wholly original here, but they will be glad to see Church making effective use of the (still unpublished) results of Nicholas Vincent's Angevin Acta project. Church does provide some new interpretations of old problems, most of which helpfully explain the "crisis of Angevin kingship" outlined in his introduction. He demonstrates, for instance, that John's persecution of William de Briouze, long regarded as an example of the king's tyrannical nature, makes perfect sense in light of John's Irish policy (163-166). As for John's controversial and baffling paralysis in the face of Philip Augustus's seizure of Normandy in 1204, Church finds it not at all unexpected that John would have delayed a cross-Channel expedition until he could be sure that England was stable. John made bad decisions, but these decisions were understandable given the political circumstances.

The title of the book promises a consideration of the "road to Magna Carta," and Church takes a fairly traditional tack when he suggests that "John's departure from Normandy at the end of 1203 was the first step on the road to Runnymeade and to the creation of Magna Carta" (119). Rouen fell the following June, and John would spend much of the next twelve years trying to recover the duchy. Because John lost considerable amount of income as his continental possessions fell away, he needed to turn to England and its barons as a source of revenue for what were now foreign adventures, and this led to the perceived abuses that Magna Carta purportedly addressed (in this regard it might have been helpful for him to refer to scholarship debating the financial impact of the lass of Normandy). At the same time, John's need to put England on a defensive footing helped create a "community of the realm" that would be implicitly acknowledged at Runnymeade. As Church follows this "road" he portrays John not as hapless or lazy, but as an often shrewd negotiator who ultimately was not up to a task (recovering Angevin continental lands) that was in all likelihood beyond his resources. John comes of especially well in Church's telling of the dispute with Innocent III over the archbishopric of Canterbury that led to England being placed under interdict.

When Church arrives at Magna Carta itself, which John issued once Philip Augustus had definitively thwarted his continental ambitions at the Battle of Bouvines and English baronial discontent boiled over at (what was now) home, his approach is clear and matter-of-fact. He traces the evolution of the document from distant antecedents like Henry I's coronation charter of 1100 through the so-called Unknown Charter and the Articles of the Barons, both dating to the months before Runnymeade, showing considerable skill at close reading to show the evolution of John's concessions. Magna Carta appears here as a practical response to the political crisis that resulted from both parties "attempting to pursue [their] objectives through legal means" (209). It was part of a broader series of negotiations that took on a vaguely constitutional character in retrospect because it happened to be fixed in writing--an act that "turned an event into a text" (223).

At this point, Church's argument might in fact be too subtle and decoupled from traditional debates about the constitutional implications of the Charter, especially in a work for a general audience. While scholars are certainly tired of arguing about whether Magna Carta reflected the wishful thinking of a reactionary aristocracy or the first blow for individual liberty, a consideration of these debates might have made the work more accessible to a general audience and more useful to an undergraduate survey. On the other hand, there is something very attractive about the way in which Church shows Magna Carta emerging gradually but not inevitably from the crisis of Angevin kingship.

King John and the Road to Magna Carta avoids getting bogged down in assessments of John's character by making him comprehensible in terms of the political rules of the day. To twist Rick Blaine's assessment of Captain Renault in Casablanca: John was just like any other king, only less so. Richly detailed and comprehensive in its portrayal of high medieval political life, this book should immediately become an essential starting point for non-specialist readers wishing to learn the trajectory and character of John's reign.

Copyright (c) 2016 John Cotts

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