King John has had a pretty bad rap from history. To some extent he deserved it but he was hardly worthy of the intense vilification of future generations. In popular mythology he is the villain-in-chief of the Robin Hood legends, in cahoots with the Sheriff of Nottingham to rob simple peasants of their livelihoods. He is the evil younger brother of the valiant Richard the Lionheart who spent most of his reign in the service of Christianity engaged in retaking the shrines of the Holy Land from Muslim invaders. In the movie about his rather interesting family, The Lion in Winter – he was one of the sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II– he tends to snivel and skulk quite a lot
That’s the mythology. The reality is quite different. For a start there probably was no Robin Hood and even if there was he was just as likely to have lived up to his surname as he was to have robbed from the rich and given to the poor. As for Richard the Lionheart he spent most of his reign as King of England ignoring his subjects while pursuing his hobby of killing Muslims. He got the money for this by selling public offices to the highest bidder. Eventually he cost his subjects a shed-load of money when he got himself captured by Duke Leopold of Austria and was ransomed by the German Emperor Henry VI.
King John’s reputation was acquired because he spent much of Richard’s ten-year reign plotting against his big brother. But then what’s a guy supposed to do? They weren’t particularly fraternal to begin with and then Richard abadons the family store and leaves it wide open to shoplifters. Then there was the whole ‘Lionheart’ thing. Red rag to a royal bull really.
Of course John was neither a popular nor a successful King. He managed to lose most of England’s French dominions and in trying to get them back annoyed the barons. This led to the Magna Charta being forced down his throat after a successful rebellion. The Great Charter, signed at Runnymede in 1215, was the first negotiated curb on kingly power in England.
Five years before he submitted to the barons he went after one of their number in Ireland. King John landed here with an army in 1210 in an attempt to put manners on the de Lacy’s – Walter, the Earl of Meath and Hugh, Earl of Ulster. He landed at Crook in Co.Waterford, giving rise to some confusion about the origins of the phrase ‘by hook or by crook’. One version has it that had John not landed in Crook he would have come ashore nearby at Hook Head – hence his invasion of Ireland would have taken place ‘by hook or by crook’. There are, however, umpteen other versions of how the phrase originated. John’s visit was fairly successful and the De Lacy’s ceased to be a major irritant for him as a result.
Six year’s later he died, after reneging on the Magna Charta and going back to war with his barons. He claimed that he had signed it under duress. He is said to have died of dysentery, not the kind of thing you associate with the deaths of Kings.
King John, the only English monarch of that name, landed in Ireland 904 years ago, on this day.