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johnbwExactly eight hundred years ago, King John of England lay dying in a bed in Newark Castle. He would die in the night, among rumours of poison, or “a surfeit of peaches” – while in truth it was a bad case of dysentery. Then again, most contemporary biographers would be eager to give him a death that was the product of either retribution or gluttony…

Poor John.

Maybe it’s just contrariness, but since childhood I’ve wanted to side with John. I cannot stand the Lionheart, and can’t bring myself to like Robin Hood, either. At one point I was given a book of Robin Hood stories. I may have been eight or ten – during my Medieval period, anyway – and I remember heartily disliking Robin. I did like Will Scarlet, though – if only because, when imprisoned and doomed to die, he confessed to being afraid of hanging, and asked to be spared the indignity…

But I’m straying. John. Well, in that book Prince John was quite despicable, and what little is seen and heard of him in Ivanhoe is hardly better. So it must really have been contrariness that sent me questing for more sympathetic portrayals. And because I could find precious little (even Shakespeare’s John, while not actively evil, is an indecisive incompetent at best), at sixteen I wrote a one-act play where a peach-surfeited John, while far from an admirable character, at least gets to rant about the way history and fiction treat him.

Twenty-five years and a good deal of reading later, and while by all account he seems to have been an unpleasant person at the very least, I still think that he was left to disentangle circumstances not of his own making – and mostly failed. Not up to it? Most likely. Quintessentially villainous? I don’t think so. He was more floundering than evil, and I can’t help feeling still a certain amount of sympathy for him, poor Bad King John… Just as I can’t help thinking that Good King Richard was good mostly because he was away from England for most of his life.

Ah well. I’ve acquired a copy of Philip Lindsay’s The Devil and King John, and I’ll have to see what kind of John it portrays. Meanwhile, do read what John’s recent biographer Stephen Church has to say on the matter, in this interview for Casting Light Upon the Shadow.