"Foul as it is Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of King John,” wrote the monkish chronicler, Matthew Paris.
One wonders whether today’s ‘post Leveson’ press would indulge in invective like this – even against safe- to-attack hate figures like Nixon, Thatcher and Murdoch. The question is how history will eventually come to view them. It comes down, of course, to who writes the history. What we do know is that legends have their own momentum, and stories sometimes trump facts.
Seven hundred years later the historian J R Green would write of King John:
“In his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins…his punishments were refinements of cruelty, the starvation of children, the crushing of old men under copes of lead.” - And my favourite - “His court was a brothel where no woman was safe from the royal lust.” The image is wonderful, the foul John, lurking in shadow, poised to pounce on unsuspecting wenches. And yet J R Green’s opinion is based on just two chroniclers who wrote ten years or more after John’s death. Note, too, the plural - ‘the crushing of old men under copes of lead’ - as if it was a royal past time indulged in on rainy days.
Roger of Wendover, the other chronicler, may have written his chronicle ten years after John’s death, but he was blessed with acute, extra sensory powers in his ability to recall the king’s exact words whenever the occasion demands. Thus we know John’s favourite oath: ‘God’s teeth!” Who knows, it could catch on.
He tells good stories like, for instance, how he daily knocked out the tooth of a Jew from Bristol until he revealed where his treasure was hidden, how he threatened to slit the noses of papal servants and take out their eyes.
Roger doesn’t let a good story get in the way of facts. Thus, in the same chronicle we hear of the small black pig that sucks a woman dry because she took in washing on a Sunday; the loaf of bread baked on a Sunday, which ran with blood when cut. And, if you’re interested, there is an eighteen page description of the experience of a peasant called Thurkhill from the village of Twinstead in Essex who in 1206 was given a guided tour of Purgatory and Hell by St. Julian. The problem is stories like these are recounted with the same authority as those he writes of King John.
We can’t prove a small black pig didn’t suck a woman dry, but we can check on the stories he tells of John. So, in 1209, according to Roger, John ordered the crushing of Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Norwich under a cope of lead. That same Geoffrey of Norwich became Bishop of Ely in 1225.
And those we can’t check on we can deconstruct:
“About that time the servants of a certain sheriff on the confines of Wales came to the royal court bringing in their custody a robber with his hands tied behind his back, who had robbed and murdered a priest on the Highway; and when they asked the king how he wished such cases to be dealt with, her replied at once, “He has slain an enemy of mine, loose him and let him go.”
Even if we didn’t know that Royal Records ordered the hanging from the nearest oak tree of anyone who injured a member of the clergy by word or deed, the story itself is deeply flawed. The chronicler is vague about when it took place, who the Sheriff was, and where about in Wales it all took place, yet he knows the exact words of the king.
The key factor behind all these particular chronicles is that King John quarrelled with the Church. Churchmen fulminated against his immorality, so royal officials kidnapped their ‘unofficial’ wives and held them for ransom. The church went on strike. John took some comfort from the fact that most people didn’t’ seem to notice or care. It also came with a bonus that John as feudal overlord could seize ‘church’ land since, by striking, they’d broken their feudal contract. All in all it made for a pretty quarrel, which accounts for the venom in these chronicles and puts one in mind of contemporary events.
It is up to the reader to take sides: an over powerful church against a tyrannical king, a powerful press baron against an even more powerful establishment. Truth falls casualty to both sides. In Pilate’s words ‘Truth? What is truth?’