Two medieval kings re-examined
LIONHEART AND LACKLAND:
King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest
by Frank J. McLynn
(London: Vintage, new edition)
Paperback: 592 pages
Rec. price: AUD$29.95
For those of us reared on studying British history, capped off with watching Errol Flynn playing the dashing Robin Hood in the 1938 early colour film of the same name, and the reading of Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 classic Ivanhoe, King Richard I of England was traditionally depicted as a brave and noble warrior, and King John as an evil and largely incompetent schemer.
However, in recent decades it has become fashionable among revisionist historians to challenge these assumptions by arguing that John received a bad press from hostile contemporary sources, whereas Richard’s warrior skills blinded contemporary writers to the defects that revisionists claim to have discovered, such as mismanagement of his kingdom.
Frank J. McLynn challenges these revisionists and argues that the traditional portraits and interpretations of Richard and John are substantially correct.
Central to his argument is his claim that the historical facts speak for themselves and provide overwhelming evidence to support the traditional interpretation.
Exploring the lives of the brother-kings chronologically, from their father Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, to the death of John, McLynn examines their characters and actions during this significant period in English history.
Henry II and his son Richard regarded their English possessions as secondary to their French ones, the jewel in their empire being Normandy.
However, with the loss of Normandy by John in 1204, English monarchs became increasingly dependent and focussed upon their English kingdom. It was an era in which monarchs and nobles jostled almost constantly for their power, thus resulting in virtually continuous military campaigns, the only major interruption in Richard’s case being the years in which he went on the Third Crusade, after learning that Jerusalem had fallen to the Muslim warrior Saladin.
The portrait that emerges of Richard is not only that of a brave warrior, but also of an extremely competent commander and military thinker, who, for example, effectively used the strategy of surprise on superior numbers of his Saracen enemy during the crusade.
McLynn argues that, although Richard spent little of his reign in England, he governed it competently, with major administrative problems during his absence being caused by his brother John.
However, McLynn concedes one major criticism of Richard as a military commander: that on one occasion he massacred large numbers of prisoners.
Other criticisms are that Richard used England simply as a source of revenue, for example, on one occasion before his departure on the Third Crusade, and on another occasion for ransom money after he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor just before Christmas 1192 when returning from the Crusade. McLynn notes that, while the taxes and levies for this ransom money were burdensome, Richard has received less criticism for these than has John for the taxes the latter king imposed during his reign.
Indeed, McLynn contrasts John with Richard. Richard competently fought and played off a number of rivals, from the time in his early adulthood when he supported a rebellion against his father, Henry II, until his death, notwithstanding the period of his captivity by the Holy Roman Emperor, which gave his rivals the advantage.
John, by contrast, through military mismanagement and poor strategy and leadership, lost Normandy, one of the prize possessions of the Angevins, in 1204.
His dispute with Pope Innocent III, lasting from 1205 to 1213, was largely over the nomination of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This saw England placed under interdict.
The various taxes and measures John introduced served only to undermine his command over the barons who revolted and forced him to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.
Although the intended beneficiaries of the concessions in this document were by and large the barons, numerous clauses would be identified by later legal experts as the basis for various rights and liberties benefiting the rest of the population.
McLynn’s Lionheart and Lackland contains interesting analysis of this period. However, the largely chronological recounting of events can, at times, be demanding of the reader’s concentration.