Thursday, 11 June 2015

Selling England by the pound

In yesterday's post I mentioned the story about King John's alleged diplomatic mission to the Emir of Morocco. But did King John once try to subordinate England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco? Did he even agree to convert? To place England under Sharia Law?

This is one of those 'hardy perennials' that continually comes up when King John is discussed. Those who hate John use it as another stick to beat him with, an example of how far he was prepared to go. Muslims like to cite it as an example of John's open and tolerant nature (yeah, right) - his brother Richard, after all, nearly married off his sister to Saladin's brother - while swivel-eyed EDL types view it as a terrible portent of what could happen today. But is there any truth to it at all?

There is a single source for the story, which is worth examining in some detail. It is allocated to the year 1213 in Matthew Paris' continuation of the great chronicle (Chronica Majora) of St Albans Abbey. One of the monks at the abbey, Paris took over as custodian of the chronicle from his predecessor Roger of Wendover in 1236, and so most of the chronicle up to that point was Roger's work (in which the story does not appear), but Matthew did interpolate some events, like the one we are discussing, into his own copy. He tells us why in his own account. But he begins with explaining that John - pressed militarily by the French and diplomatically by the Pope, excommunicated, and with his domestic support draining away, looked further afield for allies;

"He [King John] therefore immediately sent secret messengers, namely, the knights Thomas Hardington and Ralph fitzNicholas, and Robert of London, a clerk, to the emir Murmelius the great king of Africa, Morocco and Spain, who was commonly called Miramumelimis, to tell him that he would voluntarily give up himself and his kingdom, and if he pleased he would hold it as tributary from him, and that he would also abandon the Christian faith, which he considered false, and would faithfully adhere to the law of Mahomet."

The story is quite a long one, but briefly, the leader of the emissaries, Thomas, gives a glowing portrait of England, which "abounds with all kind of wealth, in agriculture, pastures and woods, and from it also every kind of metal may be obtained," etc etc. The Emir wonders why anyone would give up such a land, sends the knights away, and then talks to the priest, Robert "who was a small, dark man, with one arm longer than the other, and having fingers all misshapen, namely two sticking together, and with a face like a Jew." He commands Robert to tell him on his word as a Christian what kind of man King John is. Robert reluctantly admits that John is "a tyrant rather than a king, a destroyer rather than a governor, an oppressor of his own people and a friend to strangers, a lion to his own subjects, a lamb to foreigners and those who fought against him," and so on. The messengers are sent away, but the Emir rewards Robert's truthfulness with gifts of gold and silver.

Paris then explains that Robert had been given charge of the abbey of St Albans during the Papal interdict, and then, "without consulting, yea even against the will of the temporary abbott John de Cell, a most religious and learned man, seized on everything which was then in the church and the convent at pleasure, and appropriated it to his own use," and that he "cheated the abbey of more than a thousand marks." He did get on with some of the monks, however, including "Laurence, a clerk, and Master Walter, a monk and painter, and them he kept as his familiars, to whom he showed his jewels and other secret presents fromt he Emir, and related what had passed between them, in the hearing of Matthew, who has written and related these events."
[All quotations from Matthew Paris - Chronica Majora]

So basically the story comes directly from Paris himself, who says he heard it directly from one of the emissaries, Robert of London. This apparently cast iron attribution has meant that the story - however strange it may sound on first hearing - has nevertheless persisted. And there are other details which are a kind of corroboration, too, including the identity of the emissaries. 'Thomas Hardington' is actually Sir Thomas of Erdington, a knight from Staffordshire whose talent for diplomacy and administration had seen him rise first to the post of Sherrif of Staffordshire and Shropshire, and then from about 1206 as a part of John's court and household, and ultimately a travelling royal diplomat. Thomas was given charge of being John's emissary to the Papal court in Rome, to where he travelled on at least half a dozen occasions. He negotiated the details of John's re-submission to Papal authority, and in 1215 pleaded John's case at the Lateran Council. He is also known to have conducted diplomatic missions to Prince Llewellyn of Powys, and to have been responsible for seizing the Shropshire castles and lands of William de Braose after the latter's fall from grace. He is a key John henchman, and is also cited more than once as being especially eloquent - let's face it, being Royal envoy to the snakepit of the Papal court was not a job for an amateur. He is exactly the kind of person who one would expect to find leading an English diplomatic mission to a foreign potentate.

These diplomatic missions also often consisted of trios, as Paris described - two knights, or a knight and a commoner (usually one with special knowledge or connections, or perhaps facility with languages, like 'Peter the Saracen'), and the third would always be a priest. The same pattern is repeated in Paris' story. Ralph fitzNicholas was another royal household knight (and years later Sheriff of Nottingham, oddly enough), while Robert of London, the cleric described as being on this mission, was another John henchman and very much the kind of man that John got to do his dirty work. He was given the job, after the death of Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1205, of going to Canterbury and seizing the Archbishop's jewelled clothes and regalia for the King. And just as Paris describes, when Pope Innocent placed England under interdict and John decided to seize the wealth of the churches and monasteries for himself, Robert of London got the job of taking over St Albans Abbey and - crucially - its revenues for the King - one of the richest and most powerful abbeys in the country. He took over in March 1208, but made himself such a nuisance with his exactions that within a few months the Abbot had paid the vast sum of 1,100 marks to be rid of him.

So the story seems to be checking out. The key participants all existed, including 'Miramurmelinus', who seems to have been the Almohad Emir Mohammed al-Nasir al-Muminin (the latter is actually a title meaning "Commander of the Faithful', and equivalent to 'Caliph' - the present King of Morocco still claims this honour). But when did it take place? Paris says it was in 1213, but in the Chronica he later contradicts himself by saying that it occurred before al-Nasir's climactic battle with the Spanish kingdoms at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This seems reasonable - an alliance with al-Nasir before the battle would be with a strong ruler, not the beaten force he was in 1213. It's possible that Paris just made an error of recollection and put the story in the wrong year. Nevill Barbour examined the story in 1960 and proposed that a reference in the 14th century Arab history Rawd al Qirtas to an emissary from the "King of Bayonne" to al-Nasir in early 1212 could well be the same event, as Bayonne was the capital of the English lands in southern France, and John might have been seeking allies against the King of Castille, who was threatening English possessions in France.

But here we start to run into trouble. Ralph fitzNicholas is mainly attested under Henry III, and lived until 1266, but his date of birth is not known. He was seemingly old enough to be made Sheriff of Nottingham in 1217 when Philip Mark was removed, but must have been quite young then. Thomas of Erdington was dead by 1217, King John in 1216 and Mohammed al-Nasir in 1215. Abbot John de Cell died in 1214. Robert of London is not heard of again after about 1210 (although he may have gone into retirement). But if we accept 1214 as the latest date for the story, we then have to ask: when did Matthew Paris hear it from Robert of London? We know that Robert of London was in charge of St Albans Abbey briefly in 1208, and according to Paris this was when he overheard the story, but also by his own account Matthew Paris did not take holy orders until 1217. It is believed he was born in about 1200, and entirely possible that he could be a few years older than that, and it's quite likely he may have been brought up at the monastery before he became a monk, so he could well have been a young boy, perhaps serving Robert of London and his cronies with food or wine and overhearing their conversation. But if so, that would place the supposed trip prior to 1208, when the interdict was still in its early days, and rule out Barbour's carefully reasoned cross-correlation - the only independent verification we possibly might have of the story.

It's difficult to reconcile these various dates, and this leaves us with several possibilities; firstly, that Paris is misremembering - he was writing later than 1236, so he may have misremembered names, dates and places of events that happened at least 25 years earlier - we know he already contradicts himself once over the date in the Chronica itself. Secondly, Robert of London might just have been making stuff up - spinning a tall tale by the fireside to overawe a bunch of monks who didn't get out much, and showing off a few silver baubles he had picked up from who knows where as 'evidence'. Thirdly, Paris might have invented the whole tale as a satire on John's relationship with the Pope. Paris did after all hate King John, remembering perhaps the disruption of the interdict and Robert of London's tenure of St Albans. It was Paris who also wrote, lest we forget; "Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." Confronted with the basic implausibility of some elements of the tale - John's willingness to convert to Islam, for example - plenty of historians have decided that it's just another of Paris' malicious digs and dismissed it as fiction.

So where does that leave us? Unfortunately none the wiser. The story cannot be true in its entirety because some elements of it contradict other elements, and this means we have to look askance at its inherent implausibility. I offered three possibilities above, but I actually like to believe that it's a combination of all three; Robert of London was - at the very least - exaggerating, Paris was misremembering, and then probably added a few jibes of his own out of his and his fellow monks' abiding dislike of John's memory. In answer to the question at the start of this post - did King John once try to sell England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco - the answer is: "almost certainly not", but the idea of a diplomatic mission to the Emir of Andalus is not at all implausible, and Erdington, fitzNicholas and Robert of London are certainly the kind of people that the King would have chosen to undertake it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Bad Kings! Bad Composition!

"Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!"
Shakespeare, King John

For my birthday last week I took a bit of a detour into history. Firstly I visited the excellent Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library, which not only gathers together the four existing copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, but a lot of original documents from the period. For an occasional medievalist like myself it was a great privilege to see the original copies of Matthew Paris, Ralph of Coggeshall etc laid out in front of me. Matthew Paris particularly, since he has done more to trash King John's posthumous reputation than almost anyone else.

And then later on that day it was on to the Globe theatre on the South Bank, to see a performance of King John by William Shakespeare. This is a rare performance - the first time that it has ever been staged at the Globe, and the only play of Shakespeare's not to have been peformed there yet - a testament to how unpopular it is these days. It is only the second time I  have ever see the play, and this time around it had a very different impact on me from the first time that I saw it. What had struck me the first time were the strong female characters - Eleanor of Aquitaine and Constance of Brittany, who drive much of the action, each trying to secure the throne of England for their own son - John in Eleanor's case, Arthur in Constance's. But what struck me more the second time is how hard Shakespeare works to present John as a - relatively - sympathetic character. He is mercurial, for sure, but that was played up the first time as weak and vacillating, while this performance showed that he is every bit the equal of Philip of France, and the true villain of the piece is the Pope, manipulating events via the pompous and machiavellian figure of Pandulf, the Papal legate. This is a message to gladden any Tudor heart of course - especially when John declares:

"that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy;
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold."

This idea of John as proto-Henry VIII, standing up for England against the Pope as supreme head of the church is utterly unhistorical of course, but it made a good story and coloured John's reputation among Tudors, Georgians and Victorians alike. As did of course John's murder of Arthur, and here Shakespeare works hard to exculpate him. Although John gives the order - for what are understood as pragmatic reasons, and only with a nod and a wink - he later repents, and blames the jailer for having murdered Arthur. But it turns out that the jailer couldn't bear to do it anyway, and so Arthur was left alive. Hurrah! But - alas! - he dies anyway, from a fall, while trying to escape (reminiscent of the old Nazi canard about executed prisoners who were "shot trying to escape"). So poor old John gets the blame anyway, and people desert him. Shakespeare - in a weirdly anticlimactic ending - then has John sign Magna Carta and get poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey - something I discussed last year - off-stage, before he staggers back on to die. It's only one of the strangely undramatic things about the play, whose ending feels quite rushed, as if by a man desperately scratching at the parchment by candlelight prior to the first performance the next day. 

Shakespeare of course was a playwright not a historian, and for his histories more or less relied on Holinshead's 1587 Chronicle of England. Holinshead had pieced together history from other sources, including Mathew Paris, but also including Geoffrey of Monmouth's largely fictional History of the Kings of Britain, which even his contamporaries like Gerald of Wales knew was made up. It's from Geoffrey via Holinshead that Shakespeare got imaginary figures like King Lear and Cymbeline. But Holinshead can't explain why Shakespeare takes some other liberties with history, like making the Earl of Salisbury (actually John's bastard half brother) and William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, as rebels against John's authority when in fact they were among his staunchest loyalists. Perhaps there was confusion over William Marshall jr being one of the rebellious barons, or possibly Shakespeare didn't want to create more characters (such as the rebellious barons' leader Robert fitzWalter) to avoid confusing the narrative further, or because he didn't have enough actors available. Presumably also for dramatic effect Shakespeare also inserts a Falstaffian everyman figure in the bastard 'Peter Falconbridge', allegedly a sire of Richard I, and in the play allowed to be a vehicle for his 'lion-like' virtues, finally taking revenge for Richard's death on the Duke of Austria who had imprisoned him. Richard did have a bastard son, called Peter, who is believed to have avenged his father's death, but against Aimery of Limoges (whose castle Richard had died besieging), and not Leopold of Austria, who had actually pre-deceased Richard by five years!

Bad history then, and actually not a great play either - it's easy to see why it's not often performed. But talking of bad history, on the way out from the Magna Carta exhibition I'd spotted a copy of the old Ladybird history of King John, which I remembered reading as a child;

Just look at that cover. Is that an evil scowl or what? King John was blond-haired, by the way, but hey, artistic license and all that. I loved Ladybird books and so couldn't resist buying it and re-reading it, but I must admit I was quite taken aback by what I read. Here's the first page, just as a sample;

The writer seems to be channelling '1066 And All That' rather than any genuine work of history. As a historical work, even one intended for children, the book is, frankly, a travesty. On every page John is - without evidence - portrayed as utterly evil and worthless, which then explains and informs every single action he takes. Everyone hates him, with no exceptions. Of course John did some unpleasant things, but it's hard to recognise any kind of human being in the charicature being presented. I was reminded of Father Dougal's line in Father Ted - "Who would he be like anyway? Hitler or one of them mad fellers."

The book was written by Lawrence Du Garde Peach, who wrote a lot of the Ladybird 'Adventures from History' series. Like Shakespeare, he was a dramatist rather than a historian, and it certainly shows. In his Ladybird book on Pirates, for example, he repeats the story of Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsay, allegedly particularly bloodthirsty pirates in 18th century Canada, but in fact almost certainly completely fictional and made up some time around 1900. With King John he just lets himself go, unleashing all of the stereotypical prejudices he presumably learned at school in the early 20th century; exactly the kind of view which 1066 And All That satirises. He uncritically repeats Matthew Paris' bizarre story about trying to sell England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco, something which is - at best - a garbled version of events, and most likely either a miusunderstanding or an anti-John joke on Paris' part.

To paraphrase Shakespeare himself - 'Bad history! bad kings! bad composition!' Shakespeare's bad history at least has the excuse that he was writing 400 years ago, to an audience that had probably barely heard of John, but there's no real excuse for Peach's rather boo-hiss pantomime version of history. He was writing in 1969, eight years after W.L. Warren's pioneering re-evaluation of John had been published, which has coloured much of the far more nuanced historiography of John since then. But for some reason, even today as we near the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it seems to be that old fashioned Bad King John view that we want to remember. Mad composition indeed.