I recently went to a performance of Shakespeare’s King John at the RSC in Stratford Upon Avon. It is not a play that is performed often, and I wasn’t sure what to expect as I hadn’t read up about the RSC’s performance beforehand. I was blown away by it. It was set in the 1960s and King John and Cardinal Pandulph were played by actresses. It was a fabulous staging of the play. I will definitely go and see it again when it is streamed live at the local cinema in April 2020!

A tear came to my eye when the King of France (Philip II) accuses Constance – ‘You are as fond of your grief as of your child’ over her raging sorrow for the injustice and loss of her son Arthur. She replies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

Then, have I reason to be fond of grief.

Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,

I could give better comfort than you do.

I will not keep this form upon my head,

When there is such disorder in my wit.

O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!

My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

Travelling from Somerset to Stratford Upon Avon for the play motivated me to swing by Worcester and visit King John’s tomb in the Cathedral. It is at the east end of the Cathedral directly in front of the high altar. In the photo above the Purbeck Marble effigy shows the king in repose, flanked by the figures of St. Oswald and St. Wulfstan.

It is difficult to reconcile reverence towards such a person as John. On one hand he put England through turmoil. However, his actions created a unity of his barons, which resulted in the creation of Magna Carta.

King John ruled England for 17 years (27 May 1199 until 19 October 1216). He was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. In March 1199, his brother King Richard I was wounded by an arrow whilst suppressing a revolt in southwest-central France. Richard died soon after from the infected wound. John succeeded to the throne. However, this succession was contested by his nephew Arthur of Brittany (of which Shakespeare’s words above refer to). Arthur was the son of Geoffrey (by now deceased), John’s elder brother.

John wasn’t the most effective or popular of kings. He had a mercurial and vindictive temper and could issue out harsh punishments. He imprisoned and reputedly murdered Arthur. He also imprisoned Arthur’s sister, Eleanor. Whilst Eleanor was imprisoned at Corfe Castle in Dorset there was an attempt to escape which ended up with 22 of her knights being locked up in the oubliette (an underground dungeon with a hatch, which is secured once the prisoners are inside) and left to die.

King John’s most dramatic failures included (a) losing the majority of the French lands his father had secured, including the Duchy of Normandy, to Philip the II of France, (b) extorting money mainly through innovative legal mechanisms to fund campaigns to reclaim these lost lands (c) getting into a dramatic conflict with the Pope over the succession of the archbishop of Canterbury, and (d) the mistreatment of his nobility – turning many against him, with his behaviour going against the code of Chivalry.

From Independent Kingdom to Papal State

In 1205 when Hubert Walter died, Pope Innocent III wanted Stephen Langton to succeed and believed he had the last say. John believed it was his right and his reaction was to drive the monks of Canterbury out of England, seize the lands of the archbishopric and command these lands must not be cultivated. He also would not let Langton enter the kingdom.

The negotiations continued until Innocent issued an interdict which was proclaimed on 24 March 1208. This meant that churches were closed, and all the sacraments stopped, except for baptism and extreme unction. In the autumn of 1209, John himself was excommunicated by the Pope. The bishops fled abroad and by the end of 1209 there was only one bishop left in England. The avaricious John enjoyed his new source of huge revenues from confiscated ecclesiastical property. However, his actions both at home and abroad threatened the peace, stability and integrity of the whole population of England.

I find myself wondering why he had learned nothing from what happened between Henry II and Thomas Becket. However, John, being heavily motivated by avarice saw his unique opportunity to get his hands on the ecclesiastical revenues. He did not stop to consider the effect on his subjects and the stability of his kingdom.

It was pressures from within and outside of the kingdom that finally led him to evaluate his position and brought him to terms in 1213. The barons were uniting against him, which threatened to depose him, plus the fear of an invasion by Phillip II of France. John backed down and allowed Langton to take up the see of Canterbury. He also gave his kingdom to the Pope, receiving it back as a papal vassal. This alliance would potentially give him papal protection should a military conflict with Philip arise. However, he had effectively lost the Angevin empire his father, Henry II, had secured.

He was now absolved from excommunication and the interdict was lifted in 1214.

As a fiefdom of the Pope, England was required to pay 1000 marks a year to Rome. A mark is not a coin but was a unit for accounting purposes – it was worth 13 shillings and 4 pence. It would have been around 667 pounds. Whilst it may not seem that much these days at a national level, this amount for the time would be around 10 percent of the average crown income (ignoring the fact that John had raised exceptional income due to his unscrupulous methods).

It wasn’t until Edward III’s reign, in 1366, that England became an independent kingdom and no longer a papal state.

In my next post I will be looking in more detail at the tomb of King John.



‘Coinage’, University of London https://archives.history.ac.uk/richardII/coinage.html [accessed 18 November 2019]

‘Currency converter: 1270-2017’, The National Archives, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result [accessed 17 November 2019]

Bartlett, Robert, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 404-5

‘King John’, Worcester Cathedral, http://worcestercathedral.co.uk/King_John.php [accessed 19 November 2019

‘King John’, The Shakespeare Head Press: The Works of William Shakespeare Gathered into One Volume (Watford: Odhams Press, 1947), p.316

‘The Magna Carta Project’, http://magnacarta.cmp.uea.ac.uk/about/historical_intro [accessed 17 November 2019]