King John and Religion

Dr Paul Webster is the Exploring the Past Co-Ordinator and a lecturer in medieval history in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University. His book, King John and Religion, was first published in June 2015, when he kindly agreed to be interviewed for the Medieval Herald. To mark the one-year anniversary of his book’s paperback edition we look back at his fascinating interview. But first let’s see some of the praise Dr Webster’s book has enjoyed: 

When one digs deeper the caricature of John the Monster dissolves into a much more nuanced picture of John the human. HISTORY 

This is an excellent book. It makes an important contribution to a dynamic field of research and is both scholarly and accessible. NOTTINGHAM MEDIEVAL STUDIES 

Webster’s book is likely to be the definitive work on King John’s religion or irreligion for many years…Anyone working on aspects of John’s relations with the church will turn first to this book. THE MEDIEVAL REVIEW 

Never before has the evidence for John’s relationship with the church and religion been so comprehensively mined, and the case for his defence so extensively put. SEHEPUNKTE 

This is a book about the personal religion of one of England’s most notorious kings. What led you to this subject? 

King John has long been considered a tyrant, with Magna Carta a stark testimony to the reaction provoked by his methods of rule. King John and Religion originated with the idea of investigating the piety of the thirteenth century kings of England. Several people I spoke to about it enquired whether this was going to include King John. I rather suspect that they assumed that it would not! Yet, delving deeper into the records of the reign revealed a fascinating contrast. On the one hand you have the traditional reputation of England’s ‘evil’ king, seen in the 19th century in Bishop Stubbs’ judgement, ‘of religion he has none’, in the mid-20th century in Sidney Painter’s view of a king who was ‘as close to irreligious as it was possible for a man of his time to be’, and with only recent acknowledgement that perhaps John at least conformed to the expectations of the day. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that this was a ruler who engaged with the personal religious obligations expected of a man of high-status of his day. The idea and shape of the book grew from there, leading me to examine the evidence for John attending religious services, providing for them to take place, engaging with the cult of the saints, founding and supporting religious institutions (monasteries and hospitals) and giving to the poor. 

But it’s indisputable that John has a lousy reputation? Does this book seek to rehabilitate him? 

Not in the sense of arguing that this was a successful and capable king. John clearly failed in most of the enterprises he set himself – he failed to defend his continental inheritance, he failed in his efforts to recover it, and he failed his subjects in the way he governed. As a result, he was condemned by the writers of the day. The fact that his opponents sought to address matters with the production of a document such as Magna Carta speaks for itself.  

However, whilst the outcome was failure, it is worth examining the way in which John sought to exercise the power of a king. One of the things that this book sets out to do is to explore the extent to which personal religion was part of John’s kingship. This allows us to consider him in comparison to other rulers of England. Strikingly, many of the aspects of personal religious practice seen in the activities of his predecessors and successors as king – including his son Henry III, who was perhaps the most religiously minded of the medieval kings – can also be seen in John’s activities. 

Meanwhile, in terms of the relationship between personal religion and reputation, the book considers this too, with particular focus on John’s long dispute with the church over who should succeed Hubert Walter as Archbishop of Canterbury, following the latter’s death in 1205. This led to John being subjected to the severest sanctions the medieval church could impose – a general interdict on England and Wales (involving the cessation of the sacraments, which lasted from 1208 to 1214), and the personal excommunication of John himself (in force from late 1209 to 1213). This provoked an exceedingly hostile response from the king, targeted against those who observed the sanctions. The perception of the king preserved in the narrative sources largely reflects the observations of those on the receiving end of sustained and ruthless financial exploitation. 

Which raises the question of how King John saw things? 

Absolutely, and this book seeks to piece together the evidence for the king’s perspective, as opposed to the view from Canterbury or Rome. John was fighting against the tide in his attitude to the appointment of bishops and archbishops, but nonetheless there were people in his entourage prepared to support his stance, and to help him to build an argument against the monks of Canterbury and Pope Innocent III, based on their belief that there was a longstanding royal right to involvement in the election of bishops. 

What this also reveals is that John saw his dispute with the church in purely political terms. Thus, he essentially attempted to ignore the sanctions imposed upon him, and much of his personal religious activity continued, in so far as was possible, during the years in which he and his kingdom were under sanction. The abbot of St Albans refused to perform mass in his presence. One wonders whether others were so principled. When the sanctions were lifted, he sought protection from further censure for his personal chapel, and the protection afforded by the medieval church to crusaders. This, of course, was all played out against a background of the events surrounding Magna Carta. On his deathbed, John requested papal absolution for all his sins. By this time, the chroniclers had made up their minds: this was an irreligious tyrant, whatever provision he sought to make for the posthumous wellbeing of his soul. 

So John was universally damned? 

You might think so, and certainly plenty of medieval writers took this line, with some reporting visions of him clad in burning robes of unsupportable weight. Their consensus passed down to inform what one historian has described as the ‘sober judgement of history’. Even here, however, new findings have come to light. There was a surprising amount of posthumous provision for John’s memory. This was not limited to the requests he made whilst alive, for masses and prayers to be performed for his soul after he died. Many of those who surrounded him during his reign, and at the time of his death, rallied round to endow religious activity in his memory. The monks of Worcester were foremost here, and a great deal of rebuilding work was undertaken to create a fitting setting for the royal burial housed in their cathedral. John’s son, Henry III, was prominent in providing for this, as he was in ensuring the completion of the late king’s major monastic foundation at Beaulieu in Hampshire. But the monks and King’s John’s heir were not alone. 

A further striking fact here is that that in the later Middle Ages, there were several religious houses prepared to turn up at the royal court with their documents, and to claim that they owed their existence – that is their initial foundation – to King John, which is in itself interesting given the general perception of the evolution of his bad reputation. Prayers and giving to the poor for his soul were still ongoing at the time of the Reformation. Finally, although there has never been another king of England named John, it is a myth that the name dropped out of royal usage after his reign. Several rulers had sons that took the name, although as yet, none have survived long enough to accede to the throne. 

Taken from an interview originally published in issue 22 of the Medieval Herald, our quarterly e-newsletter. Subscribe here  

King John and Religion 
Paul Webster 
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