“Arrogant, greedy, ruthless and cowardly,” the depiction of Prince John in the Walt Disney cartoon version of Robin Hood expresses a sense of the person we met in the stories we read at primary school. Television dramas depicted John as a grasping self-centred man. His brother Richard was off fighting for the faith while John was at home being a villain.
King Richard was away at the Third Crusade. Richard, in the story we were told in our books, was a good and just man Richard was the Lionheart who would restore equity and justice when his battle for the Holy Land was complete. Richard was a heroic figure whose bravery was not reflected in his exploitative younger brother.
Of course, the stories we were told were all nonsense. Richard would never return to England because he had hardly spent more than a few months here since childhood. Richard’s home was in Aquitaine in south-west France, he spoke French and Occitan, the people of England would not have understood him if he had spoken to them.
The Lionheart was a cruel and violent man who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of two and a half thousand Muslim prisoners whom he had been holding as hostages at Ayyadieh. Those who participated in the Crusades would have been complicit in the killing of countless Muslim children, women and men, all of it in the name of the Church.
At one point, John, who was a villain in our stories, was forced to raise money to ransom his brother, who had been captured by the Holy Roman Emperor. The ransom was two or three times the income of the Crown, so John had to raise taxes, and his raising of taxes was something for which he was vilified in the tales we were told. No-one mentioned the recklessness of Richard.
Far from being a man of the people, Richard was someone who claimed “divine majesty” for himself, he believed he had the right to rule by “force and will.” If John was high-handed in his manner, he was following a long tradition.
Despite tradition, despite himself, John’s legacy is greater than anything Richard achieved. The signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15th June 1215 laid the foundations for the English political system. The charter was forced on John by the barons and both sides subsequently reneged on their agreement, but the principles of the charter remained.