King John

Classic Pamphlet

By J. C. Holt, published 29th April 2010

A Misunderstood King?

In the opinion of Stubbs King John was totally, not even competently, bad... Stubbs was the predominant, but no the sole voice of his generation. J.R. Green was already claiming that John was ‘the ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins... In the rapidity and breadth of this political combination he far surpassed the statesmen of his time. It is from Green, who saw the King as a paradox of viciousness and ability, rather than from Stubbs, that the modern view of John descends...

The key- word here is inconsistency. No student of King John would wish to exclude it; it is appropriate, but it is wonderfully convenient, too, for it permits the demands contradiction and paradox. It also leaves room for variants, and although few historians today would dissent much from Dr. Poole's judgement, they would undoubtedly wish to adjust the balance by adding comment of their own, Lady Stenton, for example, has emphasized John's ability as a hard-working administrator and as an expert, sometimes merciful, judge; Professor Painter placed more weight than most recent scholars on the suspicious side of John's character; and Mr. Jolliffe has pointed to the arbitrary, extra-legal features of his government. But these and other scholars have found common ground in the real and alleged paradoxes of John's personality, and a student could easily imagine that experts were now largely agreed about his character and government, that most of the problems were delineated and understood, if not finally settled. Such unanimity of the ferocity of contemporary criticism of John and of the widely varying opinions of him held in different ages. In fact the unanimity is sometimes apparent rather than real.

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