So, I suppose the idea is that now Richard III has unanimously been cleared of being England’s most hated historical monarch, King John comes under greater scrutiny. This villainous rogue is much more difficult to clear of said charge.
King John of England (1199-1216) was a terror hated in his own time but is that simply because John himself was not the victor of the conflicts and struggles of his reign, in which case his characters lines were written by another. In history John is your typical cartoon villain, cackling evilly and shouting ‘Boo!’. The charges levelled against John by his own people include the murder of his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany, the sexual harassment of noble wives and daughters, and the enforced starvation of the wife, Matilda de Briouze, and children of a former companion. John’s criminal unpopularity gave his barons cause to rebel, rebel against domineering rulership and the chokehold he had upon their property. This rebellion would lead the barons to force John to authorise a Charter of Liberties, the much-celebrated Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede on 15th June 1215. So, you see history itself cannot judge John too harshly, his rule gave the world the Magna Carta (he gave his signature, if not his approval), a document which would become a template for such documents as the US Constitution and the UN Declaration Of Human Rights. John’s annulment of the Magna Carta and continuous domineering however mean that few lamented his mortality, when he was finally deceased at Newark Castle, purportedly of dysentery, in October of 1216.
But did King John indeed die of dysentery? It was only it seems in the late 13th Century that this was in any way disputed, and by a mere rumour at that. It went thusly, that despite the clear historical record, King John had not been a victim of dysentery but of an assassin’s poison.
In October of 1216 John, King of England demanded hospitality at Swineshead Abbey, with the remnants of his support. Swineshead Abbey rests within the Lincolnshire Fens, a treacherous route to take at the best of times, but in haste it meant John lost half his baggage train. It is probable then that upon arrival John was not in the sunniest of moods, least of all because as John impeached upon the peace of Swineshead Abbey, Louis of France attempted to seize John’s kingdom. At this point Louis of France, supported by the majority of English barons besieged the castles of Lincoln and Windsor, having already taken possession of London and Winchester. Not once in this period had John faced Louis in battle, instead hoping to regroup his forces by retreating north, this must have been foreboding for Swineshead Abbey indeed.
And this is truly where the rumours of assassins and poison begins, it begins with John sitting down to dinner at Swineshead Abbey and querying of a monk just how much a loaf of bread cost, how very mundane. The monk informed King John that the loaf could have cost no more than a halfpenny. King John’s reply it is said went thusly, he first remarked that the value was good, but then his remark became more sinister, for he stated that should he live, in half a year’s time that very same loaf would cost as much as 20 shillings. Such a high price, the monk was well aware, would mean famine for John’s people, the remark was either nonsensical or pure evil. The monk vowed that he himself would rather die than see the England of John’s threat.
Traipsing to the Abbey gardens, the monk procured a toad. This would be the source of the King’s poison, using a brooch pin the monk pierced the toads skin allowing a white fluid to seep from it, this he collected carefully into a cup. Filling the cup then with a strong ale to mask the taste of the poison, the mix was taken to the king and the archaic English toast of ‘wassail!’ was given. Suspicious by nature John would only dine to drink from the cup if the monk too did so, needless to say the monk drank and so too did John. The poison employed was Bufotoxin, a toxin produced by toads which either stops the heart or causes it to race. Other symptoms include pains, seizures, nausea, hallucinations and ultimately death. With no known antidote the individuals’ fates were sealed. The monk proceeded to the Abbey’s infirmary. Suffering greatly King John demanded the whereabouts of the monk, only to be told that the monk had already proceeded to the afterlife. King John of England ordered his swollen stomach to be bound in hopes of alleviating his pain, within hours he too would succumb to the poison.
This is the telling of King John’s mortality as told within the Brut Chronicle, an often legendary chronicle of English history, written in the late 13th Century. But the Brut has a very particular image of King John it wishes to portray, that of a meddlesome tyrant who would have been the downfall of England, denying with the annulment of the Magna Carta a fair and just England. This is to be expected however, the Brut itself was intended for a very particular audience, John’s arch-enemies the barons themselves, and let’s face it they were hardly going to approve a chronicle which idolised John.
I’m just going to come straight out and say it, no matter how disappointed you may be about the distinct lack of drama, King John was NOT murdered… he really did just die of dysentery. Sorry. Although John did visit Swineshead Abbey, on what would be his last journey, he became sick with dysentery and lasted only until Newark Castle. Where, as already mentioned, on the night of 18th/19th October 1216 he died, supposedly during a portentous and terrible storm. How can she be so sure and committed that this was the case you may ask? Well, there are a number of historical accounts of what happened to John, him being a king and all. One contemporary historian writes that John was the cause of his own illness, a result of his ‘pernicious gluttony’, a reference to what some thought a cause of dysentery or a direct criticism of John’s gluttonous personality. Other writers throughout the following decade would suggest that John’s death was the imminent judgement of God upon his sinning. Though accounts may differ on details of John’s death or reasoning for it, all accounts seem to conform on one thing, the cause, with the exception of the Brut Chronicle, all accounts agree that Bad Old King John, died of dysentery.
King John was hated, of that there can be no dispute, and because of this throughout the centuries there has been a savage pleasure for many in retelling his demise, often in the most demeaning way possible. Rumours and retellings have had him poisoned, struck down through the eating unripe peaches or the drinking of too much sweet ale. And the hatred of John is lasting, some 40 years following his death, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey, Matthew Paris declared ‘foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John’. Many in this modern day and age would still concur with Paris’s sentiment, indeed King John’s film portrayals are 90% the villain and 10% the entitled fool.
It’s been mentioned a few times in this article, but please if you are in the area, visit Newark Castle. It was permitted by leave of King Henry I in the mid-12th century for the Bishop of Lincoln to build a bishop’s palace, the bishop however wanted a defensive castle and so devised Newark Castle as a cunning amalgamation. The Castle now appears as a ruin having been dismantled in the 17th Century following the English Civil Wars. I volunteer there and truly the tower and dungeon tours would be of great interest to any lover of history! The Castle experience is set to soon be even more spectacular with the start of the Tower Project, which aims to put floors into the tower where King John purportedly died, with the help of Heritage Lottery Funding.
As a treat I leave you with a rendition of ‘The Phony King Of England’ a Disney production, the film is still a favourite of mine perhaps hypocritically after 19 years. I am a historian I swear… Enjoy!