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
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.)
- Barlow, Frank: The Feudal Kingdom of England, 1042-1216,
- Gillingham, John: Richard I, Yale, 2002
- Plunket, Ierne L: Europe in the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1927
- Runciman, Steven: A History of the Crusades, Volume 3,
Cambridge University Press, 1987