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I've been rereading "The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England" by Dan Jones and there is something I don't get. Richard I is praised for basically everything he did in his reign, even taxing his people. Jean I (or John I guess) inherited a quite bad England to rule, and was blamed for it, massive debts everywhere, aggressive neighbors, rebellious vassals and the like...

Which actually was also the case for Richard I, who waged wars far away for a long time. He's even listed among the other great Plantagenets kings, but what has he done that was THAT good for his people? He was a good crusader but that's basically it, what did I miss ?

Also, on the many things that were blamed on Jean during his early reign, were his losses on the continent. Richard couldn't hold more than Jean did since, well, it happened after his death but not long after, Richard's army was defeated, he was besieging a castle when he died, but his army was close to deserting beforehand (can't find again the reason, but the morale was just very very low, that's why he went to the frontline in the first place).

I'm not saying Jean I was a good king, but he's far from incompetent, and he really isn't the worst of the Plantagenets. So why is he so hated ?

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    I'm not convinced that most historians consider Richard to be a good king. Sir Steven Runciman described King Richard I as “A bad son, a bad husband, [and] a bad king ...”. However, most of Richard's losses in France happened while he was captive in Germany (and with the collusion of John). For comparison, when he was king, John became so unpopular that he was almost replaced by King Louis! – sempaiscuba Oct 6 '17 at 12:09
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    "...Richard I, who waged wars far away for a long time" Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Particularly in the case of kings and other rulers. – jamesqf Oct 6 '17 at 17:50
  • Monks were the reviewers. If they didn't like you (e.g. because you were defying the pope) you got a bad write up. Eventually later historians worked this out. – Ne Mo Oct 7 '17 at 10:12
  • Richard wasn't "good" for the people. He was "good" for the Crusades, and the (mostly religious) leaders of the time attached far more weight to this than to the former. See my answer below. – Tom Au Oct 7 '17 at 16:26
  • Added link to preview of the book on Google books. Please rollback if that's not OK. – sempaiscuba Oct 8 '17 at 14:55
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TL; DR

Few modern historians would consider Richard I to be a "good king". However, John was much worse.


I'll try to answer without writing book. Let's start with Richard I.

Sir Steven Runciman's verdict on King Richard I was that he was

“... a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.”

  • [Runciman, 1897, p75]

So, was he right?


Well, William did rebel against his father, Henry II. He may well even have hounded him to his death in 1189. One might argue that there were valid reasons for Richard's rebellion, but one can certainly make a case that Richard was a bad son.

It was during the campaign of 1189 that William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke ("the greatest Knight in Christendom"), defeated Richard in combat while covering Henry II's flight from Le Mans. After Henry's death, when Richard was king, he would welcome William Marshal back to court. This is instructive, and tells us a lot about Richard.


Richard married Berengaria of Navarre in May 1191, on his way to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. He didn't spend much time with her, and they certainly never had any children. In fairness, Richard spent the the rest of his life either on campaign in Outremer, in prison in Germany or fighting the French King in Normandy.

OK, yes, he may indeed have been a bad husband.


So, was he also a bad king?

Well, he doesn't seem to have been considered such by his subjects and contemporaries. Contemporary and later chroniclers compared him to King Arthur, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne and the Emperor Augustus. For hundreds of years after his death, King Richard I, "Coeur de Lion", set the standard for kingship to which other kings were expected to aspire. Even his enemies seem to have admired him. Imad al-Din, a contemporary Muslim historian wrote:

“Never have we had to face a bolder, or more crafty opponent".

Anothe Islamic historian, Ibn Al-Athir, said:

“His cunning, courage, energy, and patience made him the most remarkable man of his time.”

These were all considered to be important qualities of kingship in the medieval world.

Richard famously only spent a few months of his reign actually in England. He spent most of his reign fighting wars abroad, or in captivity in Germany. It's true that he did raise a lot of money through taxation to pay for his wars (not to mention his "king's ransom" of 100,000 marks). Perhaps surprisingly though, he still seems to been enormously popular in England.

The crusade was considered to be his Christian duty. Then as now, taxes were never popular, but these were seen to have been in a good cause. For the people of 12th century England, the Third Crusade was "the right thing to do" - it was "what God wanted" (or so they were told by parish priests from the pulpit!). Jerusalem, the holy city, had been captured by the Saracens! It was clearly a Christian monarch’s duty to recover it, and the English seem to have been extremely proud that their king was leading the Crusade.

Richard also left his kingdom in generally competent hands (with the notable exception of his brother John). England faced no external threats during Richard's reign. His wars with Philip were conducted in France, and William was on very good terms with his northern neighbour, William the Lion of Scotland. For most people in England, this was a period of peace and stability - even if they were subject to high taxes.


We know that Richard was a warrior who genuinely loved to fight. Perhaps more importantly, he was also very good at it. He was an excellent general and he was courageous, frequently defeating much larger forces with relatively small bands of knights. He shared the hardships of his troops on campaign and led from the front in battle. But he lived in a time and place, in which these were all considered to be desirable qualities in a king.

He was also noted for his piety, reported to be generous, and the evidence suggests that he was also merciful. We've seen evidence of this mercy in his treatment of William Marshal, but we also see it in how he dealt with his brother John after his treachery. Oh, and, according to the chronicles, he also apparently loved poetry and music (he supposedly wrote a poem called “No man who is imprisoned” which still survives).


So how should we judge him today? By objective, modern standards, we certainly wouldn't say he was a "good king". But perhaps we should rather consider him against other kings of his time:

  • Stephen: 1135 - 1154 -- Presided over the civil war known as The Anarchy.
  • Henry II: 1154 - 1189 -- "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest ..."
  • Richard I: 1189 - 1199 -- see above
  • John: 1199 - 1216 -- see below

Personally, I'd suggest that judged against that company, Richard comes out of the comparison relatively well. His one important failing was to produce a legitimate heir.


Well, what about King John?

In 1192, John forged a treasonous alliance with King Philip II of France while Richard was in captivity in Germany. John returned to England in 1193 with the claim that Richard was dead and that the crown should now pass to him. Unfortunately for John, the government in England had already learned that Richard was alive and a prisoner in Germany.

(It was at that point, while Richard remained in captivity, that Philip made his greatest inroads into "English" territory in France).

John then conspired with Philip again, and they spent the rest of the year in a series of attempts to bribe Henry VI to extend Richard's captivity (or even to hand him over to them!). They failed, and Richard was released in February 1194. Philip wrote to John Saying:

"Beware, the Devil is loose."

  • Europe in the Middle Ages, Ierne L. Plunket, Oxford, 1927, p168

By May 1194, Richard was on campaign in Normandy. He defeated John, and then proceeded to forgive him. The conflict would drag on for another five years, until Richard's death in 1199.

Philip captured much of Normandy in the campaigns of 1202-1204. Without Richard, John was not up to the task of defending Normandy. He was even less successful in his later attempts to retake the Duchy. The loss of Normandy effectively broke the Angevin Empire and earned John the nickname "John Lackland". The troubadour poet Bertran de Born wrote:

“No man may trust him, for his heart is soft and cowardly.”


So John lacked Richard's martial abilities, but what of his other qualities?

It seems that John was almost shockingly cruel. In an age where aristocrats would generally capture and spare their enemies, rather than kill them, John just killed them, very often by grisly means. For example, he ordered 22 captive noble knights to be taken to Corfe Castle in Dorset and starved to death. On another occasion he had the wife and son of his former friend and ally, William de Briouze, starved to death. In 1203, he also famously arranged the disappearance, and probable murder, of his own nephew (and rival for power) Arthur of Brittany.

Compare this with Richard's treatment of William Marshal, and even of John himself.

The chroniclers also tell us that John was lecherous. Several nobles are reported to have taken up arms against him because he had forced himself on their wives and daughters.

As for taxation, the taxes imposed by Richard may have been bad, but those imposed by John were of a different order altogether. Initially, he needed money to pay for his attempts to reconquer Normandy. Taxes were demanded on an almost annual basis. Nobles were charged huge sums to inherit their lands; exorbitant fines were imposed by Royal justices for trifling offences; Church lands were seized; and Jews were imprisoned and tortured until they agreed to pay up.

It's probably true to say that John’s reign saw the greatest financial exploitation of England since the Norman Conquest. And yet he still failed to retake Normandy.


In the wake of these failures, and other abuses of Royal power, the Baron's rebelled and seized London. In 1215, John was forced to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede.

Everyone knows that Magna Carta is one of the most important documents of English, and indeed world, history. It is also a really useful document if we want to assess the qualities of John as a king, for each of the 61 clauses is a damning indictment of the abuses of Royal power during his reign.

Alongside this, John's reign saw a return of civil war to England, after the years of relative peace under William.

John's reaction to Magna Carta was to write to Pope Innocent III almost immediately, complaining that the charter had been exacted from him under duress. The Pope agreed, and declared it invalid.

Within weeks, John was once again at war with his barons ...


The rebel barons invited the French prince Louis to lead them.

John contracted dysentery after relieving the rebel siege of Lincoln and died on 19 October 1216. Fortunately, he had entrusted his nine year-old son Henry to the care of William Marshal who had remained loyal to the king (despite his having humiliated William at court some years earlier). It was William Marshal who arranged for John's funeral and the coronation of Henry III.

As Protector to the young king, it was William Marshal who led the king's armies and defeated Louis and the rebel barons.


The judgement of contemporaries and modern historians is just about unanimous. King John was a terrible king. All things considered, he is probably a strong contender for the title of England's Worst Ever King!


So, to answer the question. "Why is King Richard I "Coeur de Lion" considered to be a good king, and King John a bad one?"

By the standards of the day, Richard actually was a good king, or at least he was considered to be one by most of his contemporaries. By those same standards, King John actually was a really, really bad king.

Modern historians take a wider view. While few would argue that Richard was a "good king" by any objective standard, most would certainly agree that he was much better than John.

(And yes, I managed to answer the question in less than a book. Just.)


Sources

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    Nice answer. Those who don't want to read a whole book about Richard & John could do worse than have a look at vol II of the Oxford Mini History of Britain where John Guillermin has chapters on Richard and John. – Lars Bosteen Oct 7 '17 at 1:50
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    Henri II was an incredible king, he made the Angevin Empire. I'm not sure you can really blame him for the priest affair (he notoriously repented and flagellated iirc) , he also broke Louis VII's power over his fiefdoms, and lot of other good things. So I'm not really sure he would pale in comparison to his sons. The other points are interestings, thanks! – LamaDelRay Oct 8 '17 at 10:42
  • @LamaDelRay Yet, writing just a generation later, William of Newburgh observed of Henry II that "in his own time he was hated by almost everyone" (my translation). – sempaiscuba Oct 8 '17 at 14:23
  • @sempaiscuba Weirdly tho, everyone despised him (except his barons and maybe the common folks), yet he managed to secure political gains, stabilize england, bring his sons and the french king to their knees, calm the scots down... He had trouble with the church so there's that for his bad rap. – LamaDelRay Oct 9 '17 at 9:40
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    @LamaDelRay I'm guessing you meant Dan Jones, rather than Dan Simmons? For contemporary sources, you could do a lot worse than start with Chronicles of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I – sempaiscuba Oct 9 '17 at 12:26
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It is only in popular culture that Richard I is considered a "good king". He was essentially an adventurer, participated in a Crusade, was imprisoned, people had to pay a huge bounty for him etc. All this catches public imagination. Of course, serious historians do not consider him a "good king", in the sense that as a king he did not bring much benefit to his country. (Nevertheless a monument to him stands next to the Parliament). As I understand, his romantic popular image was created by Walter Scott.

It is somewhat similar to Mary Stuart vs Elizabeth. There is an enormous literature on Mary's adventures. But certainly she was not a "good queen" in the sense that her rule was unlikely to benefit her country.

Of course John I was also not a "good king" in any sense. But the result of struggle against him was Magna Charta ("Great Charter") which is usually considered a "good thing" by historians.

EDIT. In general serious historians do not use such labels as "good king". Because this has no meaning. Indeed, what is a "good king"? A person who increased the territory under his control at the price of a million lives? Such kings usually have the word "Great" attached to their names by descendants of the population which they ruled. (Some historian remarked that Hitler would be known as "Adolf the Great" had he won the war.) Is this what you mean by a good king?

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    Yet, no other monarch bore John's name and Richard was exemplified as a great knight and stuff. Wasn't that Cromwell that said the english people got more from John than from Richard I and Edward Longshanks ? – LamaDelRay Oct 6 '17 at 15:32
  • If Cromwell said that, it was not in the way John intended! Edward Longshanks named his eldest son John but he died long before his father. – Lars Bosteen Oct 7 '17 at 1:47
  • @LamaDelRay Do you have a source for that Cromwell quote? – sempaiscuba Oct 7 '17 at 23:52
  • @sempaiscuba my bad, wasn't Cromwell it was Winston Churchill (tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/KingJohnOfEngland) – LamaDelRay Oct 8 '17 at 10:33
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IMHO King John was a bad king because he was a king who was a bad man. King John showed that he was a bad man by killing a bunch of kids.

In addition to killing his nephew Arthur, John is said to have hanged 28 boys aged 12 to 14, hostages from Gwynedd, at Nottingham Castle in 1212, and also about 1212 it said that one of John's officials hanged a 6 year old Welsh hostage.

Killing even one person who is a minor is enough to make someone evil in my eyes.

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The reputations of the two men had to do with their personal reputations, not their roles as kings.

Richard was known as the lion-hearted, (Coeur de Lion). He was brave in battle, and magnanimous toward his enemies. He became the leader of the Crusades when others dropped out of the picture, and his reputation was known through all of Europe. He also made a brilliant cease-fire with the enemy sultan, Saladin that almost became a "love-fest."

John was known as "John Lackland," because he was the youngest son who inherited the least from his father (until his brothers started dying off), a man with a inferiority complex and a chip on his shoulder. He was regarded as a coward in battle, a lecher around whom no one's wife or daughter was safe, and personally cruel; he ordered the torture-executions of a number people.

As a king, Richard neglected and overtaxed his country for his personal (Crusades) glory. John (accidentally) gave England the Magna Carta and some personal liberty. It's not clear that Richard was the better king than John. But he was clearly the better man, and the two are remembered for the latter and not the former.

  • Since John's first act after signing Magna Carta was to get it revoked by the Pope, it is probably more accurate to say that it was his son, Henry III (or perhaps, since it was mostly during Henry's minority, William Marshal, the Lord Protector) who "gave England the Magna Carta". – sempaiscuba Oct 7 '17 at 16:17
  • @sempaiscuba: That's why I used the word "accidentally" and put it in parentheses. But John did get the wheels turning for others to finish. – Tom Au Oct 7 '17 at 16:22

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