16.10.22, King John and Religion

Main Article Content

Ralph V. Turner

The Medieval Review 16.10.22

Webster, Paul. King John and Religion. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, 43. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015. pp. xvi, 254. ISBN: 978-1-78327-029-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ralph V. Turner
Florida State University

An important part of King John of England's notoriety is his supposed irreligion. Since chroniclers in John's time were monks writing in monasteries that were strongholds of local privilege unsympathetic toward royal government, and suspicious of any change threatening social stability, they were unlikely to look kindly on John, a monarch avid for money, heedless of local notables' interests, and immoral in his personal life. Two chroniclers bear greatest responsibility for John's poor historical reputation. Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, his successor as historian at St. Albans Abbey, are notorious for distortions and exaggerations in their portrayal of John. In late nineteenth-century England, pioneer professional historians followed their tendency to judge rulers by their personal morality; William Stubbs described John as a man who "had defied God by word and deed all his life." [1] Historians today describe most post-Conquest English kings as 'conventionally pious'--even John.

Webster rejects the term conventionally pious, preferring to examine "personal religion." He acknowledges that we cannot see into John's "inner soul," yet he argues that he "recognized personal religion to be an important aspect of kingship" and he sought "to fulfill the expectations of the day" (1-2, 4). Webster organizes his study into eight chapters, five of them topical: first, the Mass; second, the saints whose cults John supported; third, "Powerhouses of Prayer," or John's monastic foundations; fourth, John's family and his provision for prayers and masses for them; and fifth, his charity and almsgiving. Three final chapters take a more narrative approach, considering the greatest religious conflict of John's reign, his quarrel with Pope Innocent III over naming a new archbishop of Canterbury and its aftermath.

In Chapter One, the author finds that John attended Mass when it was expected of him and in ways that his contemporaries found appropriate, despite rumors that he never took communion. He maintained chapels and chaplains at castles and hunting lodges that he visited while circulating about his kingdom as well as a traveling "chapel" with chaplains, portable altar, and other necessary items for Mass. John was a pioneer in endowing chantry priests to offer masses perpetually for his soul, revealing his part in "a major shift in high-status religious activity" (28).

In the second chapter, Webster discusses King John's devotion to three English saints: Edmund, king and martyr, King Edward the Confessor, and Thomas Becket. At John's coronation the presence of St. Edward the Confessor "was an important element of ritual accompanying the start of the reign" (39). John and his Angevin predecessors showed devotion to another Anglo-Saxon king, the martyred St. Edmund (d. 869). Somehow Henry II had "managed to appropriate Becket's cult for his own political ends," transforming the martyred archbishop into a protector of the Angevin realm. [2]

In John's early years, he followed a pilgrimage itinerary taking him to three major shrines of these saints: Westminster Abbey, Bury St. Edmunds, and Canterbury Cathedral. After the loss of Normandy, John became a devotee of St. Wulfstan of Worcester, the last Anglo-Saxon bishop (1062-95). On his deathbed in 1216, he chose Worcester Cathedral as his burial place, although he had earlier selected Beaulieu Abbey, his own foundation. His choice may reflect his devotion to St. Wulfstan, but his choices were limited due to the military situation at the time, with baronial rebels controlling southern England. John showed devotion to the cult of relics at various religious houses, and he had his own relic collection that accompanied him on his travels. Even in the midst of civil war "he kept means of attending services close at hand" (173).

Chapter Three, "Powerhouses of Prayer," treats King John's patronage of religious houses. His chief new religious foundation was a Cistercian abbey, Beaulieu, founded as a penitential act for his mistreatment of the Cistercians. Although the king consistently financed the abbey's construction throughout his reign, it remained unfinished at his death. His interest in Beaulieu affords "a wealth of evidence for religion as an aspect of his kingship" (71). Except for Beaulieu, John was not a notable founder of monastic houses. In later years, however, several claimed him as their founder, although Webster shows them to be later foundations. John did found two or three houses at Waterford in Ireland. One was a leper hospital, and John founded other leper houses in England.

In Webster's fourth chapter, he looks at John's religious activity on behalf of his family, assessing how "the Angevin kinship network influenced his devotional activity" (86). John's religious benefactions generally went to houses founded or supported by his forebears. Despite the penchant of the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine for rebellion, all took care to commemorate members of their family. In 1189 Eleanor urged her two surviving sons and their illegitimate half-brother, Geoffrey Plantagenet, to make donations for chantry priests at Rouen Cathedral for masses for their deceased elder brother, Henry the Young King (d. 1183). She was a strong influence on her sons, and it is not surprising that John gave gifts to Fontevraud Abbey, her residence in her last years. Webster does not emphasize as strongly as he might Eleanor's role in turning Fontevraud into a Plantagenet mausoleum, marking it as a symbol of the union of the Angevin and Poitevin domains created by her marriage to Henry II. John's actions on his mother's death indicate the depth of his affection for her. He ordered all prisoners in England released "for the love of God and for the salvation of the soul of our dearest mother" (93). He also ordered masses for her salvation at several English churches. John did not neglect funding intercessory prayers for his father, his brothers Henry and Richard Lionheart. However, his failure to provide for prayers for his third brother Geoffrey of Brittany, is striking.

In Chapter Five on John's charity and almsgiving, Webster finds that John accepted almsgiving as an important part of a king's religious obligations. His charity is most evident in his generosity to the poor, distributing food and money to them as he traveled about his kingdom. John was following Christ's commandment, but he expected something in return. He expected his almsgiving to compensate for infractions of religious rules, most often for failing to fast on Fridays or for hunting on feast days. Webster's thorough research in the royal records shows John feeding the poor on a regular basis, sometimes 100, 350, and even 1,000 at a time. John's charity was not limited to the poor. He also gave money to small religious houses, especially women's communities, nineteen in all, and he supported hermits and anchorites. Webster finds that the scale of John's alms foreshadows his son Henry III's far larger-scale alms giving.

Webster's final three chapters treat John's long quarrel with the papacy, Innocent III's battle to install Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury despite John's opposition, and his last days during the baronial rebellion. John was not alone among late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century monarchs in defending their predecessors' right to make episcopal appointments against pontiffs seeking to expand their power. It is Webster's view that because of John's conflict over the Canterbury succession, he came to be regarded as "a king who lacked respect for religion and the church" (131); the conflict "sowed the seeds for consistently negative portrayal of John's kingship in the years that followed" (169). His treatment of the clergy, especially the Canterbury Cathedral monks, and his exploitation of church property sowed the seeds of his bad reputation created by the St. Albans chroniclers. Despite John's fury against the pope and his supporters, Webster points to evidence that "the pattern of royal religious activity...continued during the interdict [1209-13], and even whilst John was excommunicated" (159). The royal chapel continued to be staffed, the king continued to give alms to the poor, and building works at Beaulieu and other religious centers continued. Religious houses enjoying John's favor soon regained their lands taken into his hand.

Eventually the threat of a papal decree of deposition and a French invasion forced John to give up his resistance to Langton as archbishop and to come to terms with Innocent III. John's sudden shift from bitter enemy of the pope to his willing vassal confirmed estimates of him as insincere. His reputation was ruined, mistrust undermined support for him during the 1215-16 baronial rebellion, and the rebels suspected his seriousness in negotiating Magna Carta. When he took the crusader's cross to win papal support against the rebel barons, it was viewed as a cynical political move. Predations of John's mercenary troops against churches aroused the wrath of monastic chroniclers, who considered them "sacrilegious actions of an irreligious king." In the author's view, John's record of violence against the church "created a reputation which overshadowed all evidence of his engagement with the religious during his lifetime" (172).

King John died on the night of 18/19 October 1216, and it seems that he died a 'good' death according to the church's definition. He was conscious and capable of confessing and receiving the Eucharist; he made his last will; and he commended his body and soul to God and St. Wulfstan. The author of the History of William Marshal wrote that he "had heard it said that the king was most truly penitent" at his death (174).

Webster's finding on King John's religion is that he realized that as England's monarch he must be seen to participate in religious rituals. Participation in them on key dates in the liturgical calendar was part of the definition of kingship, enhancing royal authority. Indeed, the author argues that Henry III followed his father's lead in some spiritual matters, particularly in feeding hosts of the poor. Webster's book is likely to be the definitive work on King John's religion or irreligion for many years. His bibliography testifies to his knowledge of both primary and secondary sources, and his impressive notes refer to every charitable act of John. Anyone working on aspects of John's relations with the church will turn first to this book.



1. Arthur Hassall, ed., William Stubbs' Historical Introduction to the Rolls Series (London and New York: Longmans, Green, 1902; reprint New York: Haskell House, 1968), 487.

2. Colette Bowie, The Daughters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Histoires de famille: La parenté au Moyen Âge 16 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 170-71.

Article Details