King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant

Written by Stephen Church
Review by Tracey Warr

The fifth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, John inherited the Angevin kingdom in 1199, after the deaths of his brothers. John lacked a martial upbringing but enjoyed reading and pomp. King Richard called him a child when he was 27 and his mother said he had “the shallow mind of an adolescent”. In Stephen Church’s well-researched account he emerges as irresolute, at loggerheads with barons and bishops, and roundly outmanoeuvred by King Philip of France. Church clarifies the process leading up to Magna Carta, describing John’s murder of his nephew Arthur, and of Matilda de St Valery and her son, starved to death in a dungeon; his conspiracy against Richard; the enormous taxes and papal interdiction he inflicted on his English subjects. The narrative grip is patchy, at times drawing us inexorably into the story of John’s spectacular blunders and “unmitigated disasters”, but sometimes merely recounting a sequence of events. “Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John,” exclaimed one chronicler after the king’s death from dysentery, his Anglo-French kingdom in tatters, Prince Louis of France occupying London.