Whilst Richard III has found his supporters in ever-growing numbers in recent years, there has been no such reevaluation or redemption for England's other black legend, King John. And, as Marc Morris ably demonstrates, there is good reason for this. Richard III didn't reign for long enough for any real evaluation of his reign, and his track record prior to his accession was one of proven loyalty and steadfastness. Richard III was damned by history effectively because he lost at Bosworth - had he gone on to a long and stable reign it is unlikely we would view him as the evil hunchback bequeathed to us by Shakespeare.
John on the other hand had a history of treachery and betrayal as long as your arm, even before he became king, betraying his father on his deathbed and his brother Richard whilst the latter was on crusade. He most definitely did murder his nephew Arthur, potentially even by his own hand. He was cruel beyond even the standards of his time, murdering hostages, starving captives to death, defying the chivalric convention that expected defeated noble enemies to be held in honourable captivity. He was an incredibly poor politician, alienating his barons by his excessive financial demands, needlessly provoking them with his high-handed behaviour before trying to woo them back once he needed them. And whilst he did not shy away from warfare, he was not personally courageous, often cutting and running in the face of conflict, earning himself the sobriquet 'Softsword' to go alongside his youthful nickname of 'Lackland'.
It was a turbulent era, with a great deal of back and forth of military fortunes and political infighting and conflict, but Morris lays it out in a concise and readable manner, neither condescending to the reader nor assuming too much knowledge. I had previously read and enjoyed his book on Edward I and this book was equally as enjoyable a read, although the chapter-by-chapter jumping back and forth of the chronology threw me a little bit. Whilst this is by no means a whitewashing on John's reign (and it would be impossible to do so without resorting to flights of fantasy), neither it is a thorough castigation.
John's legacy, after all, is a mixed one. As Morris points out, John may have lost all of the Continental possessions of his ancestors, reducing the once mighty Angevin Empire to little more than the kingdom of England, but it was through his tyranny that the Magna Carta was bequeathed to posterity. Whilst in his lifetime John never came to terms with the Great Charter, seeking to evade its provisions through appeal to the Pope, the Charter came to signify the rights of subjects against a tyrant, enshrining the concept for the first time that the king could not act entirely without the consent of the governed, that no-one, not even a king, was above the law. It is a legacy John himself would have loathed, but history ought to thank him for that at least. Reply