History has not been kind to King John of England (reigned 1199–1216). Interpretations of his character have ranged from the cruel Prince John of the Robin Hood tradition to the complex but weak-willed sovereign in Shakespeare’s Life and Death of King John. Depictions have rarely been flattering. During his own time, King John’s reputation was no better.
King John presided over the loss of the extensive realm that his father King Henry II (reigned 1154–1189) had ruled across the English Channel. His prolonged failure to reconquer that territory, the unprecedented level of taxation he demanded, and conflicts that he unnecessarily caused with Pope Innocent III all served to erode his political support at home. Many barons claimed that King John governed England with disregard for their traditional privileges.
Leaders of a failed 1212 baronial revolt returned to England by 1214, after King John’s defeat at the Battle of Bouvines, and found common cause with English bishops who resented John for weakening the independence of the English Church. Meanwhile, a coalition of northern barons emerged who refused to pay for King John’s wars and were ready to renounce their loyalty to his crown.
Shakespeare’s play about King John makes no mention of Magna Carta and omits the theme of the balance of power between king and nobles that appears in most accounts of King John’s reign. The play focuses instead on questions of legitimacy as King John defends his position against several claimants to the throne. This theme, along with the danger of foreign invasion and conflicts with the pope, which also animate the play, echoed living concerns for Elizabethan audiences. This page is from the First Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Life and Death of King John in Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (First Folio). London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (005)
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England’s Champion against Rome
English actor and playwright Colley Cibber recasts Shakespeare’s King John favorably as the protagonist in a struggle for English liberty against a tyrannical pope. A failed play by the author’s own estimation, it enjoyed mixed reviews during the anti-Catholic backlash that followed the Jacobite uprising of 1745 when Catholic Charles Edward Stuart, sometimes known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie” (1720–1788), attempted to regain the throne for the House of Stuart.
Colley Cibber (1671–1757). Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John. A Tragedy. London: J. Watts, 1745. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (006)
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Robin Hood and King John
At times, the Robin Hood legend has merged with the memory of Magna Carta. This theatrical poster depicts Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde as Robin Hood in a Gilded-Age-era play by William Greer Harrison. In Runnymede: A Drama of Magna Charta, King John, vexed by Robin Hood’s thievery, plots to kill the bandit and steal his bride, Maid Marian. When the barons rush onstage and force King John to sign Magna Carta, the unhappy king finds that Chapter 39 prohibits him from murdering Robin Hood.
Robin Hood Defies King John in Frederick Warde’s Superb Production of Runnymede by Wm. Greer Harrison. Cincinnati and New York: Strobridge Lith. Co., ca. 1895. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (007)
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