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.


  1. Oh dear, I remember that Ladybird book too. I had no idea of what was written in it. I hope that the writer / publisher just wanted to write some rollicking story. But it is a travesty that such stuff is presented to our children.

    I would hope we our modern equivalents - "Horrible Histories" - are better.

  2. I feel bad because Peach's Ladybird 'Richard The Lionheart' was I think the book that first interested me in medieval history. I even found an original copy recently (original price 2'6). But Peach's research was a bit perfunctory at best.