Kings and Queens in London – John
Continuing our series about the legacy of British monarchs on London – this time King John. You can find out more about the events leading up to Magna Carta in Tina’s walk The Road to Runnymede on June 15th at 2pm
Last time we heard how Richard I was not one of the greatest lovers of London. On Richard’s death in 1199 his younger brother John succeeded the throne, and went down in history as one of Britain’s least popular kings. On balance, this is perhaps a little unfair – he was probably no better or worse than many of the kings that went before him, but at least he was here, unlike his brother who spent much of his reign abroad. Despite rebelling against his brother while Richard was away on the third crusade, Richard named John as his heir. John’s nephew Arthur also had a claim to the throne, and Arthur was backed by French King Philip II. Thus John had to face war with France early on in his reign. An early peace treaty saw John grant rights to his French territories to Philip II, giving John the nickname Softsword. What John lost at the negotiating table he lost more of on the battlefield and when war with France broke out again in 1202 John lost nearly all of the territory his father Henry II had amassed, apart from Aquitaine.
John needed money if he was going to build an army to retake his French possessions. One way of raising money was to sell charters to towns and cities granting them rights and London was one of the beneficiaries of this – in 1199 citizens of London were granted the right to elect their own sheriffs – the sheriff being the King’s representative who carried out local government. This obviously gave a great deal of control over what went on in London to its citizens.
Things did not go well for John and he was still left needing to raise money. Taxes on inheritance of estates were introduced, huge taxes were imposed on Jews and in 1207 John creates a new tax on income – a forerunner of modern income tax. These measures made John unpopular with many of his barons, who bore the brunt of the new taxes. Before long John was faced with revolt. In a bid to gain allies John granted another charter to London, this time giving London the right to choose its own mayor. In return the mayor had to be a fit person for the job. They agreed to be presented to the king once a year and take an oath promising to be faithful. This practice goes on today as the annual Lord Mayor’s Show. You can go and see the 1215 charter at the City of London Heritage Gallery at the Guildhall. Unlike the Magna Carta, the seal on the City’s charter is in great condition.
Despite the charter, London sided with the rebel barons and the city gates were opened to them. The rebels leader Robert Fitzwalter owned Baynard Castle, the fortress that occupied the area near modern Blackfriars Station. Fitzwalter may well have had his own personal agenda, as he believed that John had seduced his daughter. Either way, being in possession of London gave the Barons the upper hand – and John was forced to sign the famous Magna Carta at Runnymede. Far more than just a peace treaty, Magna Carta sets out rights and protections for the kings subjects, and it has inspired many campaigns for human rights since. London is lucky enough to have two copies of the Magna Carta – one in the Guildhall collection and one in the British Library. This summer they are joined by copies from Lincoln and Salisbury in the British Library Magna Carta exhibition. You can see the granting of Magna Carta depicted on the stone frieze outside the Supreme Court building in Parliament Square and in a stained glass window in the Guildhall. The event is also depicted in a 1927 painting by Charles Sims on display in the Houses of Parliament
In 2015 we are celebrating 800 years since Magna Carta, but King John was keen to ditch it as soon as possible. In 1216 hostilities between John and the barons continued, made worse for the king by an invasion by the Scots, and then the barons siding with Prince Louis of France, who landed an army in Kent. John’s reign ends in England being absorbed in fighting, the king having lost the crown jewels in quicksand while his army was crossing the Wash, and finally John dying of dysentery after eating a “surfeit of peaches” at Newark Castle. This left his nine year old son to be crowned Henry III. You can see King John’s will in the Guildhall.
One of King John’s legacies was the founding of the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London. In 1212 Constable of the Tower John Fitzhugh makes payments to a keeper of the lions. It is not clear where the lions came from but the Menagerie was the forerunner of London Zoo. The skull of a lion dating to the 13th century was found beneath the Tower of London in 1937.
St Helen’s Bishopsgate, one of the City of London’s most beautiful churches was founded as a nunnery during the reign of King John. Most of the original building has been replaced but some of the original walls and windows remain.
King John has been depicted on stage, film and television numerous times, as part of the Robin Hood story. He is the first English monarch who Shakespeare writes about – if you hurry you can currently see this being performed at the Globe Theatre
There used to be a King John pub in Peckham but sadly you will now have to go to the Wiltshire village of Tollard Royal to drink King John’s health, though the journey does look worth it.
Next time – Henry III