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Posted on Nov 22, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Richard and John: Kings at War – Book Review

By Richard N Story

kings_cover.jpgBook Review: Richard and John: Kings at War, De Capo Press, 2007

Most Americans know of King Richard, the Lionheart, and King John from the tales of Robin Hood. Or that King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. Yet there was much, much more to these two Kings than is recognized in the United States. Were the ‘Good King Richard’ and the ‘Evil Prince/King John’ personas created for Robin Hood a creation of the modern day media or was there historical basis for these interpretations of the two Angevin Kings? Frank McLynn, former Visiting Professor in the Department of English at Strathclyde University, and acclaimed author takes a look at not only the historical record, but recent interpretations by other historians to try and answer this question.


To understand the problem facing any historian trying to solve the riddles from the Middle Ages it must be remembered that reading and writing was limited to the richest of families, nobles and the clergy. Each of these had his or her own cause to expound on or defend. Where Frank McLynn excelled was that he not only studied the documents from each camp of the dispute, but also what might be considered ‘enemy’ documents as well. The enemies in this case were the Capetian French documents and the Islamic records from that period.

The Angevin ‘Empire’ was the creation of Henry II, King of England, and consisted of England, Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou and Poitou. While Henry II considered the Empire to be more of a Federalist state he recreated the stage for anarchy when he gave each of his sons, both legitimate and illegitimate, a piece of the Empire to rule. Henry II sons were known as the ‘Devil’s Brood’ because they all possessed fiery temperaments and all but Richard practiced deceitfulness and treachery to one another in one degree or another. But why were Richard and John polar opposites of each other?

Richard was the favorite of his mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was raised with her in her home territory of Aquitaine. John, on the other hand while the favorite of his father, was brought up in the care of the Catholic Church at the abbey of Fontevaud. So do we see this as a case of nature versus nurture? It must be remarked that John’s upbringing reinforced the apathy for the church that his father had. Both Henry II and John took Crusader vows or was otherwise obeyed the injunctions and requests from the Vatican when it suited their purposes. Richard was a dedicated crusader during the Third Crusade and while he did not retake Jerusalem as was the purpose of the crusade; he did have both logistical and strategic reasons for not doing so. But Richard did leave the Christian Crusader state in the Middle East (Outremer) in good enough shape that it was to survive a hundred more years after his death.

One thing to remember that neither Richard nor John expected to become ‘Emperor’ of King of the Angevin Empire. That role was reserved for ‘The Young Henry’ as eldest male heir to Henry II. Like the rest of the ‘Devil’s Brood’; The Young Henry was seduced into treachery and arose in rebellion against his father. But while his father forgave him his trespass; the Young Henry went ahead and died before his father. Thus when Henry II died the crown fell to Richard.

Richard was not as universally popular as the modern day media makes out. It has been pointed out correctly that Richard spent very little time in England. While Richard’s heart may have belonged to Aquitaine, his head never allowed him to overlook just administration of all the Empire. Probably the most accurate criticism of Richard was that he was heedless of his own personal safety. Richard died needlessly from a cross bolt from a French Crossbowman when he exposed himself to see what was going on at a castle he was besieging. Another criticism, sounding like many modern complaints heard today, was that he was taxing England for his Crusade and conflicts in mainland Europe without any ‘reward’ to England. Yet England did get a reward in both stability and an effective administration emplaced by Richard. Another unrealized benefit England received was that Richard was directly responsible for creating what would become the Royal Navy.

When John received the crown he had already had a reputation of having lustful appetite toward other women, wives and daughters of his nobles, being treacherous, having lead a revolt against Richard, grasping of wealth and paranoid. Nothing John did during his reign changed any of these opinions. In fact the one opinion John did change was his reputation as a military leader. While it would have been unfair to expect anybody to match or exceed the reputation of Richard; John’s reputation sunk so low that Phillip Augustus of France, and his son Louis, felt very little to fear from John. Frank McLynn makes the persuasive case that John was Manic-Depressive and during his manic (energy) stages he could do good field work, but those were few and far between his normal showings. So what good did John do? He signed the Magna Carta, but that was revoked by the Pope and a civil war broke out in England that lasted till John’s death. In fact it can be said that the Magna Carta was more important to the United States Constitution than to English governance. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment that John did was the creation of efficient record keeping. This was born of his need to grasp every Mark and Shilling he could while coupled with his paranoia about enemies real and imagined. One of the oddities mentioned in the book was that at this time the English Pound was not a ‘real currency’ but a record keeping device. The Pound was equivalent to 1.5 Marks. The conclusion had to be that not only was the stereotyping of Richard and John accurate; it could be said that with John it was understated. Perhaps the most accurate portrayal of Prince John in the modern media was in Walt Disney’s Robin Hood despite it showing that John still sucked his thumb.

Frank McLynn’s book shows the real face of the nobility in the Middle Age with the casual betrayals, negotiations, trials and tribulations of dealing with church and state. While the book is technically proficient in writing; there was a constant problem with printing in the advanced copy where the last line of the left most page was under inked. The advance copy did contain the maps that will be in the book which will be published on the 15th of November; it sadly did not contain any of the illustrations that were listed. Perhaps the only complaint that I had with the book was that the eminent professor used ’25 cent’ words when ‘5 cent’ words would have sufficed. The lack of a glossary was regretful as well. I would also argue for the author to have a full bibliography instead of a partial bibliography with the rest included in the notes. Overall I would rate the book a great value at a suggested retail price of $30 dollars especially if one is interested in the Middle Ages or anybody curious about how the world we live in today was influenced by King Richard I, the Lionheart, and King John. You won’t be sorry.