King John was not a good man,

He had his little ways.

And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days.

And men who came across him,

When walking in the town,

Gave him a supercilious stare,

Or passed with noses in the air,

And bad King John stood dumbly there,

Blushing beneath his crown.”

(A.A. Milne)[i]

Nature’s Enemy

His father called him Lackland. His subjects called him Softsword. More recently, the historian John Gillingham called him a ’shit’. Of these derisive names, it is perhaps Gillingham’s vulgarity that best captures the popular image of ‘bad King John’. He is depicted in countless Robin Hood films as either an evil, greedy and grasping villain, or as a bumbling man-child. In Walt Disney’s 1973 cartoon film ‘Robin Hood’, John is mocked as an anxious, thumb-sucking, cowardly lion. Even the effigy on his tomb in Worcester Cathedral contributes to our perception of him as the pantomime villain. It reminded John Harvey of the ‘big bad wolf’ with ‘sly, slanting eyes faintly amused at the righteousness of better men’; John Dover-Wilson thought he ‘looked a little effeminate in appearance’.[ii] My first impression of John came from AA Milne’s amusing poem ‘King John’s Christmas’, in which almost every verse starts with the refrain ‘King John was not a good man’. This was confirmed for me at school and also at home whilst watching TV episodes of ‘Robin Hood’ (starring the incomparable Richard Greene) in which Prince John is portrayed as a repulsive, seedy, weedy sort of spiv.

Even John’s apologists acknowledge his ‘fractured personality’. He was, we are told suspicious, untrustworthy, treacherous, amoral, aggressive, vengeful, cruel, spiteful, a liar, a coward, irreligious, lazy and stupid. He exhibited the human vices of a spoilt child and few if any human virtues. His good deeds were calculated. His bad deeds revealed his true character. He compared unfavourably with his three brothers. “Where young Henry had been gay [light-hearted], [John] was frivolous, where Geoffrey had been cunning, he was sly, where Richard had been bold, he was merely bombastic[iii]. His first independent command leading an expedition to Ireland ended in fiasco and failure. John was revealed as a ‘feckless waster’. He tried unsuccessfully to seize the English throne during King Richard’s absence abroad. By the last decade of the twelfth century, John was known for a traitor and a fool. Nor was he a successful king. His royal title was dubious, he seized the English throne and the Angevin lands in France by force, and he might have murdered his nephew Arthur of Brittany the legal heir. His Angevin fiefs were lost to Phillip Augustus the king of France, he quarreled with Pope Innocent III resulting in England’s interdiction and his excommunication. He alienated almost all of his most important subjects by his financial exactions and abhorrent behavior. Such was his unpopularity that in 1215 the English barons rebelled, preferring to be ruled by a French Capetian prince than King John. It was only his sudden and unexpected death in 1216 that preserved the English throne for his Plantagenet son Henry. All this, we garner from the medieval chroniclers of John’s life and reign.

More recently, however, the thirteenth century government records and other official documents of John’s reign have been used to inform a nuanced understanding of his governance and achievements. For example, professor Wilfred Warren’s subtle re-assessment of John, though scarcely an exoneration of his character flaws and his excesses, concludes that he was an abler king than he is generally given credit for by the monastic chroniclers. It is an assessment that is closer to that of the Crowland Chronicler, who thought ‘John was a ‘great prince but an unlucky one’, than it is to the conventional ‘bad King John’ narrative. Similarly, Sir James Holt, perhaps the leading authority on this subject, argued for a revision of John’s performance based on the contemporary official records, which he regards as objective evidence necessary to balance the subjective chronicle accounts. Holt delineates clearly between John’s horrible personal qualities and his administrative skill, which he says created a level of administrative efficiency in government unsurpassed during the whole of the medieval era.[iv] Unfortunately, owing to the fact that John micromanaged the affairs of state exclusively for his own aggrandisement, the English people equated his ‘efficiency’ with oppression. In Holt’s view the problem was not that John was ineffective, but that he was too effective. He was a nuisance.[v] In this century, Graham Seel takes the argument for John’s rehabilitation further by suggesting not only that he is an underrated king but that he is also the victim of nineteenth century moral bias, which judged him culpable of all wrongs even in circumstances for which he was not responsible or over which he had no control.[vi] 

It would be wrong to regard these attempts to salvage John’s reputation as a modern phenomenon. As early as 1528 William Tyndale rejected the conventional ‘bad King John’ narrative and accused the monastic chroniclers of bias. “Consider the story of King John, where I doubt not but they have put the best and fairest for themselves, and the worst of King John: for I suppose they make the chronicles themselves.”[vii]  Tyndale was writing on the cusp of the Protestant Reformation in England and his anti-Catholic views are obvious. The depiction of John as proto-Protestant was undoubtedly useful propaganda but that does not detract from the fact that much of the monastic chronicle history of John is indeed biased.  By the middle years of the sixteenth century, the parallel between John’s rejection of papal supremacy and Henry VIII’s dispute with the Roman Church was evident, and giving rise to a, softer protestant interpretation of John’s reign in the Tudor chronicles of Hall, Holinshed and others, which challenged the severe (Catholic) monastic chronicle versions used in Polydore Vergil’s Historia Anglica.

English Chronicle Play

By the1580s, plays about English history based on the Tudor chronicles had created a new, popular dramatic genre: the English Chronicle Play. Unlike the medieval Morality Plays, which regarded political probity above all else, the history plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and many others provided a repository of recreational anecdotes about historical events and great men to serve as memorials and often to convey a separate moral lesson. Though, the anecdotal nature of these plays links them with the less thoughtful, more lurid type of historical writing they are all distinguished by patriotism. Not the narrow, touchy, aggressive nationalism prevalent during Henry VIII’s reign, or the jingoism engendered by the Spanish Armada, but a patriotism arising from natural pride and interest in English valour and achievements of the past. I am not suggesting that these plays were true history or impartial, or that they did not form part of what Tillyard calls the ‘Tudor myth’. Far from it in fact: those are the very issues I will be discussing in this article.

Tudor and early Stuart playwrights had a penchant for using the history of the past as a mirror for contemporary issues, which often made them distort or change history for dramatic effect. They are even known to have created fictitious characters and events in order to make their point. I have, therefore, chosen three history plays for my subjects: the first is Kynge Johan (c1534) written by John Bale, the second is The Troublesome Reign of John King of England (C1590) by George Peel and the third is The Life and Death of King John (c1595) by William Shakespeare. In view of their close association with the ambiguous Tudor historiology, it is hardly surprising that these plays are confused about John’s merit. It is, perhaps, even less surprising that they are each regarded as a metaphor for Tudor fears about the succession, papal authority, the divine right of kings and the right of rebellion.

Though we may take it that playwrights are generally more interested in entertaining than instructing, sixteenth century playwrights were constrained by culture and by cautious self-interest to include suitable references to moral and political principles that were intrinsic to Tudor doctrine and transcended the author’s artistic vision. These principles were, a reflection of the Tudors’ neurotic insecurity about their royal lineage and the legitimacy of their line. The key to the Tudor doctrine of kingship was the notion that they held divine status directly from God, who had chosen them to reign and consecrated their accession with holy oil. The ‘Divine Right of Kings’ was not a new concept; it had been the aspirational ideal of English kings from the Conquest onwards. But the Tudors invoked it to justify a regal absolutism not seen in England since the twelfth century. Not only were they above all earthly authority and law, but also their subjects were bound by God’s law to remain loyal and obedient to them no matter how bad or wicked they might be. To rebel against the monarch was treason, but worse than that it was a mortal sin. Contemporary concerns about the validity of the Tudor succession and their dread of rebellion were, for obvious reasons, expressed carefully in themes running throughout plays about King John.

‘A Faithful Moses’

It is possible that John Bale (1495-1563)[i] was inspired by William Tyndale’s work to write Kynge Johan as an anti-Catholic polemic intended to promote and confirm the Protestant reformation.[ii]  Bale was an English cleric, historian, playwright and noted controversialist. Ordained into the Catholic priesthood, he converted to Protestantism in the 1530’s. The original version of Kynge Johan was probably penned in 1534 to reflect the practical nature of Henry VIII’s dispute with Pope Paul III.  The play seems to have been revised in 1539 for a Christmas performance at Archbishop Cranmer’s house.  The modern English text I have used is based on a manuscript in Bale’s handwriting with alterations dating from 1561 and prepared for a performance before Queen Elizabeth.[iii] It is the earliest known example of an English drama written in verse with historical characters (such as King John, Pope Innocent III and Archbishop Stephen Langton) alongside abstract ‘vice’ characters taken from morality plays (such as Sedition, Usurped Power, Dissimulation, Verity, Civil Disorder and Treason).  As such, it marks the transition from medieval morality plays to the chronicle history plays of Elizabethan England.[iv]

John Bale was a Protestant fanatic imbued with the doctrine of Wycliffe and Tyndale. Kynge Johan is the most important of his reformation plays. It is written in two parts, in a style that is more homiletic than dramatic.  Nevertheless, and notwithstanding John Dover-Wilson’s opinion that it is little more than a Protestant pamphlet,[v] it is obvious that Bale had some theatrical skill. He arranged the dialogue so that nine actors could play nineteen roles and extracted maximum dramatic irony from that economy by cleverly matching the allegorical vice characters with historical personages, each played by the same actor; so for example, the actor who plays ‘Usurped Authority’ also plays Pope Innocent III. Furthermore, by dressing the female character ‘England’ in a widow’s garb, Bale reminds the audience how the wicked English ‘Catholic’ clergy (Sedition) have exiled ‘England’s husband’ God. In a later shrewd piece of stagecraft, Usurped Power (aka Pope Innocent III), Private Wealth and Dissimulation are seen to bring Sedition on to the stage. There is no denying, however, that the dialogue expounds the tenets of the Protestant reformation as intellectual discussions rather than melodrama.

Ignoring many other similarities between the reigns of John and Henry VIII, Kynge Johan mirrors the crux of the problem as the Tudor sovereigns saw it: the “disaffection of Englishmen, particularly the clergy and the Catholic nobility under the influence of the Catholic Church whereby religion is cloaked as sedition.[i]  It is an enduring theme encapsulated in an exchange between Sedition (the English Clergy) and King John. Sedition, having presented itself as the ambassador of papal supremacy over kings and princes throughout Christendom, cautions John: “ No Prince can have his peoples obedience except it doth stand with the Pope’s pre-eminence.” John, having debated further with Clergy, Nobility and Civil Disorder, warns them in no uncertain terms of the tangible danger to the peace of the realm: “I put the case that this false thief, Sedition, should come to you three and call himself religion — might he not under the cloak of holiness cause you to consent to much ungodliness”[ii]

Central to Bale’s theme is the notion of John as a proto-Protestant fighting papal tyranny in England. “In this present act we have to you declared, as in a mirror, the beginning of King John. How he was of God a magistrate appointed the governance of this same noble region, to see maintained the true faith and religion. But Satan the Devil, which at this time was at large, had so great a sway that he could not it discharge.” [iii] John’s divinity as being ordained by God is a consistent theme throughout the play. Only God can judge a king. That is the point Bale is hinting at in this verse. ‘Satan the Devil’ is a reference to the Catholic Church at large, which held ‘great a sway’ among the English people. By arrogating John’s sovereign prerogative and alienating his subjects from their obligation of obedience and loyalty to the King, the Pope and the English clergy were usurping God’s authority, and breaking his law and teachings.

 Historical doubts about Tudor legitimacy, and their preference for liquidating dynastic rivals do not arise in this play for two reasons. First, it would tarnish John’s image as a noble and faithful prince, and second, the serious Stuart/Catholic threat to the Tudor throne lies in the future. By cherry-picking events from John’s reign, Bale present John as a virtuous man who is betrayed by the English barons and papist clergy, all of whom have a vested interest in maintaining papal authority over the English Church. “Upon good zeal he attempted very far for the wealth of this realm to provide reformation in the Church thereof. But they did him debar of that good purpose…by excommunication. The space of seven years, they interdict this nation. These blood-suppers thus, of cruelty and spite subdued the good king for executing right.” Their evil intention is made plain in the second act of the play. “Wherein Pandulphus shall him excommunicate within this land, and depose him from his reign. All other princes they shall move him to hate, and to persecute after most cruel rate (i.e. Other princes will hate and persecute John.). They will him poison in their malignity and cause ill repute of him always to be. Subsequently, a Catholic monk murders John and his reputation is traduced by posterity.[iv] “This noble King John as a faithful Moses withstood proud Pharaoh for his poor Israel, minding to bring it out of the land of darkness. But the Egyptians did against him so rebel that his poor people did still the desert dwell, till that Duke Josua (sic), which was our late King Henry, Clearly bought us into the land of milk and honey.” If John is ‘the faithful Moses’, Pope Innocent III is the ‘proud Pharaoh’. But just like Moses, John does not live to see the Promised Land. He is murdered for his faith.  His unfaithful people are thereafter condemned to wander in the wilderness until King Henry VIII leads them out of the desert. Thus John prepared the way for Henry VIII’s ultimate success as it is portrayed in the second half of the play.

Bale’s projection of King John as a Protestant exemplar is, of course, puffery. Any similarity between John and Henry exists only in the general sense that they both opposed papal authority over the English Church for essentially utilitarian, secular reasons. John wanted unfettered control of episcopal appointments to increase Crown revenues from vacant sees; whereas, Henry apparently wanted to divorce his first wife in order to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. Both kings argued their case on grounds of royal supremacy. In fact Henry defended his prerogative against papal interference in the Hunne case (1515) on precisely that ground.[i]  It is, nevertheless, moot whether Henry’s annulment/divorce (call it what you wish) was an act of state driven by his conscience or an impulse driven by his libido.[ii] What is clear, however, is that the circumstances of the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries were quite different.  Historically, King John never claimed jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical courts or spiritual control of the Catholic Eucharist.[iii] Henry’s stance was far more serious.  By making himself Supreme Head of the Anglican Church he united Church and State under his spiritual and temporal authority, including jurisdiction in ecclesiastical litigation. He did not turn England into a Protestant nation, but created a religious rift between his subjects that did not bode well for the future.[iv]

Though Bale’s failure to address the controversial aspects of John’s reign diminishes its value to the historical narrative, it has the inestimable merit of being the first play of its type. It paved the way for better writers to follow. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Peele, Ford, Davenport, Heywood, Munday, Legge and numerous others all took their lead from Bale’s example to write historical plays, based on the chronicle texts instead of the Holy Scriptures and the classic Roman or Greek texts. Nonetheless, Bale’s literary bequest is not a template for historical plays. Perhaps more importantly, it is an insight as to how chronicle material might be harnessed as a mirror for contemporary politics, and how it might also be used to develop theories of kingship and obedience in the Protestant tradition.

 [i] John Matusiak –Henry VIII (The History Press 2013) pp. 126-127: Hunne was a wealthy tailor who refused to make a customary offering to his local rector. His case was taken to Lambeth Palace, where Hunne was adjudged to be at fault. Still he refused to pay.  On Hunne’s next attendance at his parish church, the priest (Thomas Dryfield) excommunicated him. Exiled from his community and with his mortal soul at risk, Hunne issued a writ of praemunire asserting the King’s superiority over papal authority and the clerical courts as the final arbiter of a subject’s rights. The ecclesiastical authorities responded by charging Hunne with heresy and imprisoning him in the Lollard’s Tower. The case had a sensational outcome as Hunne was found hanged in his cell before he could be brought to trial.  The Church authorities said that he hanged himself. However, the Coroner’s inquest determined that Dr Horsey the Bishop of London’s chancellor had murdered Hunne.  The public furore that followed was exacerbated by the Bishop of London’s decision to convict Hunne of heresy posthumously. His remains were exhumed and ceremoniously burned at Smithfield along with his books. Hunne’s death and the denial of secular justice against his murderer raised serious questions about the rights of clerics to be tried only in church courts.  The matter was considered so important that the possibility of prosecuting Dr Horsey in a secular court was debated in Parliament and in convocations. Ultimately, the matter came before the King himself. A suggestion that it might be referred to the papal court in Rome received a robust answer from the youthful Henry: “ We are by the sufferance of God King of England, and Kings of England in times past had never any superior but God. Know, therefore, that we will maintain the rights of the crown in this matter.”

[ii] Matusiak pp.57-67; It has long been assumed that Henry’s Reformation was driven by his need for a male heir to secure the Tudor line against Yorkists claimants and pretenders from the Stafford line. However, some modern historians have challenged that assumption: first, LB Smith in Henry VIII the mask of royalty (Stroud 2012) and more recently John Matusiak. Although it is beyond my scope to enter into this debate, it might help to summarise Matusiak’s point, as I understand it. First, the Yorkist claimants had been all but wiped out. Those who remained were in exile abroad or literally keeping the heads down at home. The Yorkists’ claim, therefore, was for all practical purposes extinct. Similarly, the Stafford claim was moribund. Second, Henry’s obsession with a male heir blinded him to the possibility that his daughter Mary could succeed him. There was no objection to this in English law or constitutional custom. The throne had been entailed down the female line before (i.e. Matilda: her accession in 1135 was not rejected by the English barons because of her gender, but because she was German).  Third, Henry’s claim to be following his conscience was a subterfuge to conceal his infatuation with Anne Boleyn. 

[iii] Owen Chadwick –The History of the Church Vol 3: the Reformation (Pelican 1972) Chps 4 and 8 passim: see also Harold Potter – Historical Introduction to English Law (Sweet & Maxwell 1932) pp.194-197. There is a distinction between what Chadwick calls the Protestant Reformation of Henry VIII’s time and the Catholic Reformation during the second half of the sixteenth century, which was aimed at reversing the growth of Protestantism in Europe. As Dr Potter also points out, Henry went much further than John in reforming canon law and the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts.  As Supreme Head of the Anglican Church, Henry consolidated Church and State, thus establishing royal supremacy in English law, whether spiritual or temporal.

[iv] Matusiak pp.115-134: the traditional view of Henry as a reluctant Protestant has been challenged by GW Bernard, who describes him as a ‘active advocate’ of Protestant thinking (note p.296).  It is difficult to be sure what merit there is in Bernard’s argument since even if we accept that Henry was indeed a zealous Protestant convert we cannot be sure whether his sudden epiphany was based on principle or expediency. Certainly there is nothing in his conduct to suggest that before his amour fou for Anne Boleyn he was not a devout, orthodox and loyal Catholic. Indeed, Henry’s loathing for the heretical books of Martin Luther and William Tyndale found its expression in his own book ‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’, which despite being a second-rate, misconceived and clichéd defence of the Roman Church was sufficient in 1522 to earn him the appellation ‘Defender of the Faith’ from a hard-pressed Pope grateful for any support he could get. Moreover, the Act of the Six Articles of 1539 made it a capital offence to deny the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist; also, priests were forbidden to marry and the necessity of confession to a priest was affirmed. To many of Henry’s subjects this was not true Protestantism but reformed Catholicism or Anglicanism, as it is known. 

Caught in the Cross-wind

During the twelve years that separated the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, England descended into a realm of religious extremism and intolerance.[i] Protestant fundamentalism and the despoliation of the churches during the reign of Edward VI replaced the via media of the Henrician reforms, much to the anger of English congregations. Nor did Edward’s death in 1553 bring relief from religious fanaticism. Queen Mary, a devout Catholic, repealed all her father’s and late brother’s reforms and restored the Church of England to the authority of the Roman See. The Catholic Eucharist was once more celebrated in English churches. Those Protestants who did not flee abroad were persecuted and many were burnt at the stake. Even worse from the Protestant perspective, was the fact that Mary took Phillip of Spain as her husband-consort, thus raising the spectre of a Spanish-Catholic dynasty on the English throne.  Such, was Queen Elizabeth 1’s inheritance in 1558.

By the closing decade of the sixteenth century, Elizabeth had ruled England for more than thirty years and her reign thus far was defined by the religious conflict that threatened to overwhelm her and the realm. First, there was the prospect of civil war that would follow a disputed succession.[ii] Second, there was the intra-faith confrontation following her religious settlement (c.1559), which risked religious war in England.[iii]  Third, there was the risk of a Spanish invasion and conquest, which would end English independence. Fourth, there was the threat of Catholic rebellion and the danger posed by assassination plots sponsored by the Vatican.[iv] It is in the context of those events that that I now turn to consider The Troublesome Reign of John King of England (TR) and The Life and Death of King John (KJ).

Literary scholars have long speculated about the authorship of TR and also about which of these two plays came first. It is well known that William Shakespeare wrote KJ, but until this century it was believed that ‘Anonymous’ (the most prolific of all the Elizabethan dramatists) wrote TR. However, Sir Brian Vickers, reprising previous scholarly investigations spanning more than a century and using modern data-mining technology, produced research evidence suggesting that George Peele (1546-1596) was the author of TR.[v] Subsequently, professor Charles Forker, applying Vickers’ research to his own reappraisal of the play, confirmed Peele as the author beyond reasonable doubt and also that TR was written first (c.1589/1590). We now know, for certain what has long been suspected, Shakespeare reworked TR for his own play (c.1595/1596).[vi]  The result is two plays wherein the historical source, the selection of characters, the sequence of events and the management of scenes are so entwined that literary experts are unable to disentangle them. Sometimes they parallel scene for scene and even speech for speech.  I have been unable to find a modern edition of either play that does not require an explanation of their correlation. My approach is, therefore, pre-determined, I must study them together. 

Their mutual historical source is Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of England, Scotland and Ireland (c.1587), which is itself an amalgam of twelfth and thirteenth century monastic chronicles, and later Protestant historiology. Though Holinshed broadly accepts the Protestant view that John had a ‘princely heart’ and was betrayed by papists, he is not blinded to his character flaws that alienated the English barons. His cruel treatment of Arthur, his oppressive financial exactions, his rash vendetta against the English clergy and his wickedness made things much more difficult for him. It is this ambiguous portrayal of John as alternately England’s saviour and oppressor that licenses Peele and Shakespeare to weave fact with fiction. Both authors recognized “the tragic possibilities of  [a monarch] caught in the cross wind of public and private interest, mired in the conflicts of personality and office, buffeted by the variable effects of success and failure, and remembered [for his] frailties and strength…virtues and vices.[i] Nobody should be surprised, therefore, that despite access to the same source material they interpreted John’s life and reign differently. The main thrust of Peele’s play is religious reformation Shakespeare’s main interests are the dual issues of royal legitimacy and regicide.

Historically, John’s tribulations came sequentially over a period of seventeen years (c.1199-1216): (i) his disputed succession in place of Arthur whose claim to the English throne is supported by the French king, (ii) his dispute with Pope Innocent III who is supported by the French and (iii) the rebellion of the English barons during which John is supported by the Pope; the rebel barons, by the French. However, that is not the way our authors tell the story. Both plays compress those events into a few thousand lines. And in doing so, they distort history and so rearrange the sequence of events as to create a chain of cause and effect that actually mirrors the pattern of Elizabeth I’s reign.[ii]

As an impassioned Protestant, Peele naturally wished to reinforce the narrative of John as a righteous champion of Protestantism against papal oppression, ‘yet one who was not quite virtuous enough to be God’s agent for definitive reformation’.[iii] For which purpose, as far as possible, he remained faithful to Holinshed’s history. He described John as “…a warlike Christian and your countryman. For Christ’s true faith endured he many a storm and set himself against the man of Rome, until base treason by a damned Wight, did all his former triumph put to flight.[iv] And yet as a dramatist, Peele was seduced by the dramatic potential of John’s fear of Arthur his dynastic rival. Consequently, audiences were presented with the confusing portrayal of a man they were expected to admire for his resistance to the Pope but deplore for his murderous intent towards the captive Arthur.[v] Shakespeare’s purpose is altogether different. He wanted to write a melodrama in which the characterization of the protagonists was more important than historical truth. Shakespeare’s John is a usurper and regicide by intention if not deed. He is certainly no hero. Those Puritans who delighted in the plays of Bale and Peele would undoubtedly have found this John a half-hearted Protestant. Shakespeare also toned down the anti-Catholic rhetoric by removing all the ‘unbecoming scenes involving monks’, including John’s murder.[vi]  Given this subject matter, it is no surprise that literary critics and historians have habitually interpreted these two plays in the context of the burning issues of late Elizabethan England: the religious settlement and the succession. A third point brought on by religious conflict relates to the question rebellion and a subject’s duty of obedience and loyalty to their sovereign: when is rebellion justified? It is to these questions that I now turn.

Borrowed Majesty’

TR opens with a speech by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, proclaiming her son John as a ‘second hope’ for the English throne sprung from her womb. “A king that may in rule and virtue both succeed his brother in his empery.”[i]  This is immediately followed by the entrance of the French ambassador with a demand from King Phillip that John should resign his Crown and his Angevin lands to his nephew ‘and right royal sovereign’ Arthur of Brittany.  Arthur is the only legitimate son of Geoffrey Duke of Brittany who though deceased was John’s elder brother.  Arthur’s claim to the English throne, therefore, is based on the ‘right of primogeniture’ (the right of the first-born male to inherit). In TR the issue is crystal clear, Arthur’s de jure primogeniture claim is trumped by John’s stronger de facto elective title.[ii] Arthur’s adherents might label John a usurper, but Arthur himself recognizes the strength of his uncle’s position: “Ah, mother, possession of the Crown is much and John, as I have heard reported of, for present vantage would adventure far. I rather think the menace of the world sounds in his ears as threats of no esteem. And sooner would he scorn Europa’s power than lose the smallest title he enjoys. For questionless he is an Englishman.”[iii] Having been chosen by his people in preference to Arthur, a minor and a foreigner, John stands withal an English champion.

Shakespeare’s King John is a usurper. The play’s opening lines spoken by the French ambassador make that clear. “Thus after greetings speaks the King of France to the majesty, the borrowed majesty, of England here.” and then “… Desiring thee to lay aside the sword, which sways usurpingly these several titles and put the same into young Arthur’s hands.[iv] This is not idle rhetoric; Phillip is willing to go to war in support of Arthur’s claim, which, despite John‘s ‘strong possession’, is superior in law. Queen Eleanor admits as much in a whispered aside to her son “Your strong possession much more than your right, or else it must go wrong with you and me. So much my conscience whispers in your ear, which none but heaven, and you and I shall hear.” [v] John meets the French demand with the customary defiance of a Plantagenet King. But behind the bombast, he is weak and in the grip of his domineering mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Shakespeare’s John lacks the métier to be genuinely heroic.[vi]

In the second scene, the brothers Phillip and Robert Faulconbridge petition John to adjudicate litigation between them. The brothers and their mother Lady Margaret Faulconbridge are fictional characters created by Peele in TR to highlight the importance of a person’s ‘Last Will and Testament’ in inheritance law and especially John’s own status as a younger brother. Phillip and Robert are arguing about which of them should inherit the family estate following the death of ‘old Sir Robert Faulconbridge’. Phillip is the elder brother and relies on the common law principle that the “first-born son be heir indubitate, by certain right of England’s ancient law“.[vii] Robert accepts the law but challenges the facts. He alleges that Phillip is not the son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge, but the bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion who slept with Lady Faulconbridge while her husband was abroad. In support of his claim Robert avers that Phillip’s “face, his features, his actions and his lineaments and in his princely presence[viii] attest to his royal paternity.  Although John agrees that Phillip bears a remarkable resemblance to King Richard, he is not convinced by Robert’s argument. “Prove this land is yours by England’s law.” Robert’s problem is that according to the law, illegitimacy is not an automatic bar to inheritance and his concession that Sir Robert during his lifetime counted Phillip his lawful heir is sufficient to legitimize the elder brother.

The impact of a dead King’s Last Will and Testament is central to the outcomes of the English succession in 1199 and in 1553/8. King Richard I on his deathbed is reputed to have bequeathed the throne and all his lands to John, thus overturning an earlier entailment in which he nominated Arthur as heir presumptive. Similarly, Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne at the bequest of her father despite the superior heritable rights of the Scottish Stuart line.[ix]  Peele makes no mention of old Sir Robert’s Will but Shakespeare does. Although his Faulconbridge scenes are far more entertaining and dramatic than Peele’s, he generally follows Peele’s legal line with the same result. In desperation, therefore, Robert declares that his dead father made a will disinheriting Phillip. “Upon his death-bed he by Will bequeathed his lands to me, and took it on his death that this, my mother’s son, was none of his.”[x]  Unfortunately, far from solving Robert’s problem, this actually makes thing worse. A deathbed bequest was worthless in English law, not because it offended against feudal custom but because ‘it was wrung from a man in his agony’.[xi]

Shakespeare’s John knew the law and in being minded to dismiss Robert’s claim he was applying it correctly. Though, it was hardly a ringing endorsement of the efficacy of the royal Wills made in favour of John and Elizabeth. In TR, however, John is rescued from this dilemma by Phillip’s supernatural trance; following which, he realizes that being the bastard son of a king is much better than being the legitimate son of a knight, so that when he is pressed by the King he answers thus: “Please it your Grace, I am King Richard’s son.”  And it is on that basis that Robert wins his father’s estate and Phillip gains royal prestige. Although, Shakespeare’s solution is equally Deus ex machina-like in its imagination, he has an artistic reason for promoting Phillip to royal privilege. Phillip ‘the Bastard of Faulconbridge’ is the real hero of KJ as a foil for the weasel King John.  Phillip is a fearsome warrior, handsome, intelligent, witty, brave, loyal, plainspoken and just. He is everything that Coeur de Lion was and John is not. 

Inevitably, the historical reality is far more complicated than the black or white perspectives of these dramatists, whose approach to the question of royal legitimacy seems to have been moved by contemporary Elizabethan politics rather than what actually happened at the turn of the thirteenth century. Peele dismisses Arthurs de jure claim out of hand, while stressing the legitimacy of John’s elective de facto title precisely because in 1558 that was the basis for Elizabeth’s succession. In doing so, he overstates the historical threat to John’s throne. Shakespeare is also guilty of exaggeration. By accentuating the notion of Arthur as a young and innocent child at the mercy of his wicked uncle John, Shakespeare has inflated Arthur’s historical right to the English throne.

The death of Arthur is a pivotal moment in both plays. Dramatically, if not historically, it marks the beginning of John’s downfall and his psychological collapse in later scenes. The capture of Arthur at Mirabeau creates a dilemma that John cannot adequately resolve. Naturally, he is pleased that Arthur is in his custody, but the question of what to do next is a thorny one. In TR, we see John’s predicament best in his response to Arthur’s defiance: “He never will forget his claim. I would he lived not to remember it.”[xii] He wants Arthur dead but cannot order it for fear of the political consequences. His instructions to Hubert de Burgh, Arthur’s jailer are, therefore, a model of ambiguity and contradiction. “ Hubert keep him safe, for on his life doth hang thy sovereign’s crown; but in his death consists thy sovereign’s bliss.”[xiii] In the subsequent prison scene, we discover that Hubert is commanded to blind Arthur; cruel though that is, it falls short of murder. Whether John had relented on his wish to kill Arthur or simply taken counsel to his fears we cannot say.  But it doesn’t matter anyway since Hubert is unable to blind Arthur, much less kill him. Peele’s Arthur is not a terrified and helpless child awaiting his fate. He is in fact an astute political theorist who debates with Hubert on the nature of a subject’s duty of loyalty and obedience to a royal command that breaches God’s law. Ultimately, it is not pity but legal argument that moves Hubert to release Arthur. He is finally convinced that God’s law overbears the King’s instructions.[xiv]

At the same time, John is mulling over a prophecy that he will lose his crown and estates before Ascension Day. He is resolved that “the brat shall die that terrifies me so” [xv] At which point, Hubert enters to report that an hour or so after being blinded, Arthur died from pain and shock. At first John is delighted: “then with him die my fears”.[xvi] However, he soon realizes from the hostile reaction of the English barons that his relief has come at a ruinously high price: “ His death hath freed me from a thousand fears but it hath purchased ten times ten thousand foes.” [xvii] Horrified by the corrosive political atmosphere caused by the news of Arthur’s death, Hubert confesses that a sighted Arthur lives still. But it is too late; Arthur is killed accidentally whilst escaping his prison.[xviii]  It is the discovery of his body that causes the English barons’ to rebel against John and to join an invading French army led by Prince Louis and to offer him the English crown.[xix] Needless to say, Peele’s portrayal of events leading up to Arthur’s death and afterwards bears little resemblance to the known history of John’s reign, but no Elizabethan audience would fail to recognize the play’s remarkable parallels with the history of Queen Elizabeth and her relationship with Mary Stuart.

Shakespeare’s treatment of these events is both emotional and confusing. By portraying Arthur as a young child, Shakespeare injects pathos into the prison scene, which is absent from TR. Threatened with violence Arthur behaves as a child. He is helpless and terrified by the men and the ‘hot irons’ that threaten him. He is no shrewd political theorist. He can only appeal for their pity to protect him from John’s implacable cruelty. He has no hesitation in ordering his nephew’s death in his first conversation with Hubert. “Hubert throw thine eye on yon young boy. He is a very serpent in my way and whereso’er this foot of mine doth tread he is before me. Doth thou understand me? Thou art his keeper”. The following exchange is chilling in its brevity: (Hubert): “And I’ll keep him so that he shall not offend your majesty“  (John replies): “Death”  (Hubert) “My Lord?” (John) “A grave” (Hubert) “He shall not live”.[xx] However, when one get to the prison scene it is clear that Hubert only has a warrant to blind Arthur. Some eminent literary scholars believe that Shakespeare was either confused or careless because he seems to have forgotten John’s earlier explicit verbal instruction to kill Arthur, but that is not necessarily so. John clearly wanted Arthur to die a death for which he personally would be held blameless. Consequently, he was hardly likely to give Hubert a written warrant for Arthur’s murder as proof of his guilt.

‘Usurped authority…’

Historically, John’s dispute with Pope Innocent III was not about theological or pastoral differences. The king objected to the papal election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury[1] because it arrogated his prerogative to make religious appointments in England, and because it removed a valuable source of royal income and patronage. In acting so, John was simply following the example of his father Henry II and his brother Richard I, both of whom enforced strict royal control of ecclesiastical appointments.[2] Peele and Shakespeare well understood the importance of this point to Protestant audiences and to the Tudor polity. Therefore, any difference in their dramatic treatment of this issue is one of emphasis and not substance.

Though Shakespeare could not safely ignore the subject of royal supremacy, it was not his main interest. Dover-Wilson argues persuasively that he almost succeeds in portraying John’s quarrel with Rome as an extension of the ‘ancient debate between the spiritual and temporal powers that bedeviled the middle-ages’, and which had little, if anything, to do with Henry VIII’s Reformation.[3] Though he adheres faithfully to the historical sources, Shakespeare confines John’s rejection of papal authority to a single speech and the whole episode to thirty lines. The exclusion of any clergy from his dramatis personae (except Cardinal Pandulph whose activities are political anyway) and his handling of John’s death seem to confirm Shakespeare’s intention to write KJ with a strict dramatic impartiality to which neither side could object. Conversely, Peele’s purpose was to extol John’s Protestant virtues and to denigrate Catholic priests. He achieves this by including long scenes (not in KJ) depicting the Bastard of Falconbridge and the ‘rude, unseemly adventures of hypocritical monks and nuns’, and also by showing on stage John’s murder at the hands of the treacherous Thomas of Swinestead Abbey. Yet, this John is not to be regarded as ‘another Moses leading his people to the Promised Land’. He has moral and political issues to face that Bale shirked, not the least of which is Arthur.

In reprising John’s clash with the Papal Legate, I will in the interests of brevity paraphrase elements of both plays. As the scene opens, King John and King Phillip of France are about to ratify a peace treaty, which will be buttressed by a marriage between Louis the French dauphin and Maude, John’s niece. Cardinal Pandulph, who has come from Rome, interrupts the negotiations. He comes straight to the point. “Know John that I, Pandulph, Cardinal of Milan and Legate from the See of Rome demand of thee in the name of the Holy Father…why thou dost, contrary to the laws of our Holy Mother the Church…disannul the election of Stephen Langton whom his Holiness hath elected Archbishop of Canterbury. This I demand of thee in his Holiness’ name.”[4] John’s reply as penned by Shakespeare appears on the face of it to be an orthodox exposition of the protestant doctrine of royal supremacy.  “What earthy name of interrogatories can test the free breath of a sacred king? Thou canst not, Cardinal devise a name so slight, unworthy and ridiculous to charge me to answer than the Pope. Tell him this tale. And from the mouth of England add this much more: that no Italian priest shall tithe or toll in our dominions. But as we, under God, are supreme head, so under him that great supremacy where we do reign, we will alone uphold without the assistance of mortal hand. So tell the Pope, all reverence apart to him and to his usurped authority.”[5] However, the force of this assertion is reduced by the audience’s knowledge that this John is neither the rightful king nor a virtuous man. He cannot, therefore, claim to be God’s spokesman. The inference that he doesn’t actually believe what he is saying is inescapable. Thus Shakespeare’s is able to depict John as dutifully resisting papal authority, without promoting him as a great Protestant warrior. In TR doubts about John’s legitimacy do not arise and he is not held to be culpable for Arthur’s death. Although he is a flawed man, Peele is able to depict John as more obviously a Protestant stalwart.

John’s disobedience was to have truly catastrophic consequences for him in both plays, albeit for different reasons. Pandulph pronounces his doom with dreadful finality. “Then by the lawful power that I have, thou shall stand cursed and excommunicate. And blessed shall he be that doth revolt from his allegiance to an heretic. And meritorious shall that hand be called, Canonized and worshiped as a saint, that takes away by any secret course thy hateful life”.[6] Thus John is faced with a perfect storm of the three things English monarchs most feared: domestic rebellion, a foreign invasion and deposition. The fact that the Holy Mother Church actively sponsored attacks on his kingdom and his person is an indication of how Godless John was in the eyes his contemporaries. This outcome puts King Phillip in a difficult position, especially as Pandulph threatens him with excommunication if he makes peace with a heretic. Phillip argues his sovereign right to make war or peace as he sees fit, but the risk of excommunication is too great. He reneges on the peace treaty. Once again, France and England are at war.

In TR, John is portrayed as a man driven to despair by difficulties. Anxious about the fate of his nephew, betrayed by the English clergy and barons who have no interest in throwing off the papal yoke, he faces a dynastic challenge from the French while grieving for his dead mother. He searches for an escape from his predicament but without much luck. The death of Arthur has already turned the barons against him. The earl of Essex encourages the vacillating barons to follow through with their planned rebellion, which is now legitimized by a Papal Bull against John.[7]  “Besides, the Pope on peril of his curse has barred us of obedience unto John. This hateful murder, Louis his true decent [and] the holy charge we have received from Rome are weighty reasons, if you like my rede, to make as all persevere in this deed.[8] Thrown into the arms of the French by John’s dreadful behaviour, the English barons join the French army of the Prince Louis the French dauphin who has invaded England to take the throne by right of his marriage to Maude. John recognizes that to save his phone he must surrender to papal authority. His decision to surrender is based on utility and not principle. He hasn’t changed his mind about royal supremacy. His sole aim was to save his throne and his posterity at any cost. In a moment of remarkable self-awareness and prescience, he realizes  “…that his sins are too great to be the man to abolish Pope and popery from the realm. But in thy seat, if I may guess at all, a king shall reign that shall suppress them all.”[9]  

Historically, John acknowledged Innocent III’s authority over the English Church and put his kingdom under papal protection as a fief of the Holy See. The latter was a political masterstroke, which ensured the Church’s defense against his enemies and secured the Plantagenet succession for his son.[10] However, it didn’t sit well with the sixteenth century notion of John as a Protestant hero. Peele minimizes the impact of this by emphasizing the weight of John’s burden, the treachery of his subjects and the cruelty of his enemies. Eventually, a monk at Swinestead Abbey murdered him. Shakespeare ignored these issues because they were not that important to him. John’s submission to papal authority and his murder by a Catholic monk are reported but not acted on stage. Moreover, in KJ the English barons’ rationale for rebelling against John is their belief that he is responsible for Arthur’s unnatural death. Their alliance with the French is a convenient byproduct of their antipathy to John personally.[11] Whereas, “The Troublesome Reign had appealed to the spirit of sectarian bitterness. There is no bitterness in King John, not even against the national foes. It raises the whole issue to a higher plane, and appeals statesman’s head as well as the patriot’s heart.“ [12]

John’s death ends the discord between Englishmen. Prince Henry succeeds his father as Henry III and is crowned before Prince Louis can intervene. TR ends with Henry III’s call for unity “Thus England’s peace begins in Henry’s reign and bloody wars are closed with happy league. Let England live but true within itself and all the world can never wrong her state…If England’s peers and people join as one, nor Pope, nor France, nor Spain can do them wrong.”[13] Shakespeare’ version of that speech is spoken by the only heroic man in the play. Throughout KJ, the Bastard of Falconbridge, though sceptical about John’s title remained loyal to him, without ever condoning his behaviour and actions. He has the last word in KJ, in one of the most famous speeches in the Shakespearean canon “This England never did nor never shall lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, but when it first did help to wound itself. Now these her princes are come home again, come the three corners of the world in arms, and we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue if England to itself do rest but true.” [14]

[1] Christopher Harper Bill – John and the Church of Rome, published in SD Church (Ed) – King John: new interpretations (Boydell 1999) pp. 289-315; this essay is easily the best summary of John’s dispute with the Roman Church. See also Warren pp.163-173 and Seel pp. 93-109. During the summer of 1205, the Monks a Canterbury elected ‘Sub Prior Reginald’ as Archbishop of Canterbury following the death of Walter Hubert the previous incumbent. King John rejected this ‘election’ and forced the Monks to accept his own choice for archbishop: John de Gray. The Monk’s appealed to Rome. At Christmas 1206, Pope Innocent invalidated the elections of Sub-Prior Reginald and John de Gray, and appointed his own man, Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. It marked the beginning of a six-year struggle between Church and State.

[2] Harper Bill p.290 n.4: the various Popes were hardly involved in English church affairs throughout the twelfth century. During the reigns of Henry II and Richard I the English Church was constrained only by royal interference. Bishops and Abbots were elected under the auspices of the King and vacant sees were habitually kept open to increase royal revenue. The king, therefore, had effective control of all episcopal appointments. Though the free election of prelates was theoretically conceded, it was not so in practice. For example, in 1173 Henry II is supposed to have sent this writ to the monks of Winchester: ’I order you to hold a free election; nevertheless, I forbid you to elect anybody but Richard my clerk’.

[3] Dover-Wilson pp. Lvi–Lviii

[4] Troublesome Reign – Part1 Scene 4, 76-82

[5] King John 3.1. 147-160

[6] King John 3.1.172-178; Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 5, 92-100: the speeches are similar; however, Shakespeare’s is shorter and more dramatic.

[7] Troublesome Reign pp.106-107; although Geoffrey Fitz Peter was the historical earl of Essex in John’s time, late Elizabethan audiences would not have failed to associate that title with Robert Devereux earl of Essex and Elizabeth’s favourite after the death of the earl of Leicester.  He was involved in anti Spanish politics and military affairs after 1588, and died on the block in 1601 after rebelling against the Queen. 

[8] Troublesome Reign Part 2 Scene1, 52-90

[9] Troublesome Reign Part2 Scene 2, 170-173

[10] Warren pp. 206-217 & 226-295; Holt (Magna Carta) pp.192-202; D Carpenter – Magna Carta (Penguin 2015) pp. 290-295; Frank McLynn – Lionheart and Lackland (Vintage 2008) pp.413-414: widespread discontent in England gave rise, during 1212, to talk of replacing John with Prince Louis of France. The discontent was driven by John’s treacherous behaviour to his English subjects, his financial exactions and the impact of the papal interdiction on English society. There was even a rumour that Pope Innocent III had formally deposed John and invited Louis to take the English throne. In 1215 the barons limited the exercise of John’s prerogative through the Magna Carta, which held that the king was not above the law of the land.  Magna Carta is not mentioned on either TR or KJ because the notion of limiting royal absolutism was anathema to the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

[11] Warren ibid; Holt (Magna Carta) ibid; Carpenter ibid; McLynn ibid

[12] Dover-Wilson p. Lxi

[13] Troublesome Reign Part 2 Scene 9, 43-54: this is a clear clarion call for unity among Elizabethans.

[14] King John 5.7.112-118

[i] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 1, 6-7

[ii] Frederick Pollock and F W Maitland – The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, 2 vols (1898) ii pp.283 and 328: it is true to say that by the late twelfth century, the right of primogeniture was established in the English common law as the legal basis for the testamentary disposition of private real property and chattels.  However, its relevance to the English succession is moot.  Between 1066 and 1272, the right of primogeniture played no part in the succession of English kings. Not until Edward I did the eldest son of the king succeed his father peacefully.  This is an important point in the context of the circumstances in 1199.  As neither John nor Arthur was the eldest son of King Richard, they relied on the principle of representation, which had developed alongside primogeniture and allowed remoter relations to inherit in the absence of a first-born male heir.  In 1199 English jurisprudence favoured Arthur’s legal title (being the first-born son of a deceased elder brother) over John’s; however, that was insufficient to overcome the reality of twelfth century realpolitik. There was no support among the English barons for Arthur, a foreign child-king and the son of a traitor (Geoffrey had died whilst rebelling against King Henry II). In this, they were complying with the wishes of King Richard who on his deathbed revoked his previous will in favour of Arthur and bequeathed the Angevin empire to his younger brother.  The barons were therefore prepared to acquiesce with John’s forceful seizure of the royal treasury and the throne. Within a few weeks they all acknowledged John as king and swore fealty at his coronation. 

[iii] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 2, 18-30

[iv] A R Braunmuller – The life and Death of King John (Oxford 1989) Act1, Scene1. 2-15

[v] King John 1.1, 39-43

[vi] Tillyard pp. 102-103 and 222-223; it was a convention of English history plays that every monarch no matter how good or bad they were, was depicted as ‘noble in the presence of foreigners. Tillyard further argues that John’s is not strictly himself when face-to-face with a Frenchman. His defiance is an act.  It is how he thinks a king is expected to behave when talking of England to foreigners.

[vii] Troublesome Reign-Part 1 Scene 1, 109 (p 123 n.134): Forker asserts that William the Conqueror introduced the right of primogeniture in England in 1066. (See also note 28 supra).

[viii] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 1, 173

[ix] Black pp.94-98; Levine ibid; Carl Stephenson and FG Marcham (Eds)- Sources of English Constitutional History (Harper 1937) pp.310-311, 323-324 & 326-327: there is no correlation between the events of 1199 and 1558. Elizabeth’s situation was far more complicated than John’s. In 1558 the entire Catholic world regarded Elizabeth as a bastard because her parent’s were not married in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  But more importantly, Henry VIII had bastardized his daughter by Act of Parliament (The Second Act of Succession 1536). He changed his mind in 1544 (The Third Act of Succession and also in his Last Will and Testament) and included Elizabeth in the line of succession behind Edward VI and Mary I. but he never repealed the Second Act of Succession. Consequently, in English law Elizabeth was still illegitimate and barred from the royal succession. Despite this impediment, English Protestant power-brokers moved swiftly to recognize Elizabeth’s as their ‘rightful and lawful sovereign liege lady’ (An Act of Recognition of the Queen’s Highness’ Title to the Imperial Crown of this Realm 1559). Mary Stuart was equally quick to declare that she was content ‘to be the second woman of the realm’ while Elizabeth lived. However, to Elizabeth that was a distinction without a difference since Marian Catholics in England and abroad would still be encouraged to destroy her. Elizabeth’s refusal to recognize her cousin as heir presumptive, was not based on the legal merit of Mary’s title but on the adverse political consequences that would ensue if she publicly acknowledged the Scottish Queen’s right.

[x] King John1.1 109-111

[xi] Pollock and Marcham ii p.328: the fact that this legal principle was ignored by the English barons in 1199 and by Parliament in 1558 is a clear indication that political expediency trumps legal niceties on an issues as important as the royal succession. 

[xii] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 9, 13-14

[xiii] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 9, 31-33

[xiv] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 12, 1- 141

[xv] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 13, 200

[xvi] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 13, 214

[xvii] Troublesome Reign – Part 1 Scene 13, 234-235

[xviii] Warren pp.81-84; Seel pp.48-49, & 176-177; Stephen Church – King John: England, Magna Carta and the making of a tyrant  (Macmillan 2015) pp.108-110: Arthur simply disappeared from the pages of history. The whereabouts of his remains is unknown. The Margam Annals, which comes from a Cistercian abbey in Glamorgan near to the home of William de Briouze Lord of Brecon and the man who actually captured Arthur, contains an entry accusing John of murdering Arthur in a drunken rage at Easter 1203 and casting his body into the Seine. Arthur’s remains were recovered by fishermen and buried secretly at the Priory of Brec, which is also known as Notre Dame des Prés (Warren pp.83-84).  Although, this is the only chronicle account of Arthur’s fate, there seems to be a consensus among historians that John probably murdered his nephew. Even Graham Seel’s defence of John is less than fulsome. His argument that John had raison d’état for killing his rival for the throne smacks of special pleading.

[xix] The English barons did not rebel against John because they thought he was culpable for Arthur’s death. They rebelled in 1216-1217 because John’s lawlessness threatened their ancient rights and privileges. All of which, is in contradistinction to the situation during the last quarter of the sixteenth century.  The incarceration and execution of Mary Queen of Scots was the trigger for plots and rebellion against Elizabeth during much of her reign.

[xx] King John 3.3.167-169

[i] Forker p.5

[ii] Campbell p.13

[iii] EMW Tillyard – Shakespeare’s History Plays (Penguin 1962) p.215

[iv] Forker p.114: this quote is taken from Peele’s preface entitled ‘To the Gentleman Reader’. ‘Wight’ means ‘a person’. It is an old English word of Germanic origin (SOED).

[v] Forker pp.77-78:  contains an instructive analysis of the inherent contradictions in TR.

[vi] Dover-Wilson p. lx: it would be wrong to infer that Shakespeare’s Catholic view of John reflects his religious and political sympathies. ‘Shakespeare wrote as a neutral, which is something that all sectarians had cause to complain about. Though the bulk of his audience would be Protestant in the 1590s, Shakespeare was courting the favour of the earl of Southampton a prominent Catholic peer. But he wasn’t a time-server or obsequious, if so he would hardly have chosen such a controversial subject as the life of King John’.

[i] JD Mackie – The Earlier Tudors (Oxford 1988) pp.478-561; this is still the best overview of the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. Those requiring more detailed histories could do worse than refer to the following tomes: WK Jordan–Edward VI: the young King and the protectorship of the Duke of Somerset (Allen and Unwin 1968); WK Jordan – Edward VI: the threshold of power and the dominance of the Duke of Northumberland (Allen and Unwin 1970); and DM Loades – The Reign of Mary Tudor: politics, government and religion in England 1553-1558 (Ernst Benn 1979).

[ii] Mortimer Levine – Tudor Dynastic Problems 1460-1571 (Allen and Unwin 1973) pp.98-124, 154, 161-164, 171 and 176-180: the risk of civil war only arose if Elizabeth died childless and Mary Stuart Queen of Scots as heir presumptive laid claim to the English throne.  Not only was that possibility an encouragement to continual Catholic conspiracies to kill or depose Elizabeth, but also any attempt to put Catholic Mary on the throne would have been opposed by a Protestant claimant with a Yorkist lineage, leading inevitably to a re-run of the Wars of the Roses.

[iii] JB Black – The Reign of Elizabeth I (Oxford 1987 second edition) pp.1-34:  the Act of Supremacy 1559, restored the English monarch as the Supreme Head of Church and State, and severed ties with the Papacy. The Act of Uniformity 1559 enshrined the Anglican form of Protestantism in statute as the English state religion. Elizabeth, like her father was no Calvinist and she was sanguine about non-conformists, provided always that they obeyed the law in public and satisfied their consciences in private. Recusants were generally fined or disinherited. Though in the worst cases, they could be and sometimes were imprisoned or exiled: very few died for their faith.  Unfortunately, the extreme views and activities of Jesuit Priests and Puritan zealots forced Elizabeth to take much harsher measures to curb Catholicism and Puritanism over the course of her reign.

[iv] Black pp. ibid, 63- 205 & 374-389: for me, this is still the best-balanced general account of Elizabeth’s reign but it is not a biography. Although, there is an abundance of these to choose from, many are rubbish.  Those genuinely seeking a scholarly rather than popular account of Elizabeth’s life and reign could do worse than consult the bibliography in Patrick Collinson’s DNB entry for her.

[v] Peele’s biographical details are taken from his online ODNB entry

[vi] Charles R Forker – The Troublesome Reign of John King of England by George Peele (Manchester UP 2011) pp.9-31, citing ‘Brian Vickers- The Troublesome Reign: Geo Peele and the date of King John’, published in ‘Words That Count: Essays on Early Modern Authorship in Honor of MacDonald P Jackson (Brian Boyd–ed) (Newark University of Delaware Press 2004)’: such is the breadth of Vickers’ research that it is impossible for Forker to use all of it. He does, however, use selected, salient examples in his Introduction and in his line-by-line analysis of the play to make a compelling case for Peele’s authorship.

[i] Lily B Campbell – Shakespeare’s Histories (Methuen University Paperbacks 1964) pp.126-127:

[ii] Kynge Johan pp. 9 & 19

[iii] Kynge Johan pp. 37-38: see also Payne-Collier p. x: the use of the ‘interpreter’ device was an old practice and thought necessary for developing the storyline and (no doubt in this case) Bale’s message.

[iv] Kynge Johan ibid

[i] Bale’s biographical details are taken from his DNB online article

[ii] J Payne-Collier [Ed] – Kyng Johan: a play in two parts by John Bale (Camden Soc 1838) p.vii; see also Dover-Wilson p. xiii

[iii] William A Armstrong – Five Elizabethan History Plays (Oxford 1965) pp.1-87; see also Payne-Collier pp. vi-xiv: it is doubtful that this performance actually took place.

[iv] Payne-Collier pp. vii-viii

[v] Dover-Wilson pp. xii-xiii

[i] AA Milne –Now We Are Six (Methuen & Co 1927) p.2

[ii] John Harvey- The Plantagenets (Collins 1967) p.77; John Dover-Wilson (Editor) – King John by William Shakespeare (Cambridge UP 1969 edition)

[iii] W L Warren – King John (Eyre Methuen 1978 edition) pp.46-47: while accepting criticisms of John’s human failings, Warren rejects the notion that he was a monster of personal depravity’ as portrayed in the more sensational chronicles (p.249).

[iv] JC Holt – King John (Historical Association 1963) pp.13-16: see also JC Holt – Magna Carta (Cambridge 2015 3rd edition) passim

[v] Holt (John) ibid

[vi] Graham Seel – King John: an underrated king (Anthem Press 2012)

[vii] William Tyndale – The Obedience of Christian Man (1528) quoted in William A Armstrong  (Ed)– Five Elizabethan History Plays (Oxford UP 1965) (p.vii)


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