Adventures in Reading: A tale of two tyrants – part 2

Continued from part 1

Tyrant #2: King John of England, 1167 (b) – 1216 (d)

More people are familiar with King John of England than probably realize.

This is not so much due to his own merits, but rather his frequent association with another, better-known individual from history:

Robin Hood.

(King John, just so you know, was a real historical personage.  Robin Hood, meanwhile – not so much.)

My second half-book for 2013 – John, King of England by John T. Appleby – was an adventure to read because it was a reference book for my novel-in-progress that I had to continue if I wanted the “in progress” bit to remain true.

Yet is was also so dense with historical information, it took forever for me to get through it.  No word of lie, I renewed this book from the library four times for three weeks at a time.

It was also the book that quite decisively taught me how not to go about writing a work of historical fiction, such as I currently am.  But that’s the topic of a whoooole other blog post.

Despite how long it took to read John, King of England, it was very enjoyable.  It was written in a dry, witty style typically attributed to British humour.  For a long time, I assumed the author, John T. Appleby (who died in 1974), was British, only to discover that he was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was a Harvard graduate, and at the time of the book’s publication (1959) lived in Washington, D.C.

In the book, I learned about King John’s many failings that made him such a suitable distant villain in the Robin Hood lore.  A small selection:

  • He plotted with the King of France in an attempt to seize England’s crown while his brother, King Richard the Lionheart, was held hostage after his Crusade
  • He allegedly murdered his 16-year-old nephew, who was a rival claimant to the throne following Richard’s death
  • He tried to force his knights to fight in his foreign wars
  • He levied unfair and excessive fines, taxes, and land seizures on his barons, the clergy, and peasants alike
  • He allowed England to remain under Interdict for six years, and himself was excommunicated from the Church for four years
  • He promised the Sultan of Morocco that England would embrace Islam in exchange for the sultan’s support against John’s enemies
  • He was largely irreligious, rarely took the Sacraments, and seemed not to care at all for his immortal soul
  • He waged civil war against his barons and unleashed bloodthirsty mercenaries upon the English countryside after being forced to sign the infamous and influential Great Charter (Magna Carta) at Runnymede.

One of the most interesting parts of the book came on the last page of the main text – and not just because is signified I’d finally reached the last page.  Appleby writes the following:

[W]e in these present days have seen such depths of human depravity that we cannot consider [John] as the unrelieved villain that he once appeared to be….  [W] hen we consider what men with absolute power have done in later days we are forced to almost admire John’s restraint. (p. 275).

Recall that this book was published in 1959.

The people of 13th-century England believed they were witnessing in John a new limit to the evil of mankind.  Appleby, in 1959, seemed to , believe the exact same thing of the despots of his day.

It is now 2013.  The world has seen plenty new heights of evil in the intervening 54 years.

Does a limit to such even exist?

6 thoughts on “Adventures in Reading: A tale of two tyrants – part 2

  1. Hey, I share at least one of the failings on that list! Oh well. I like to think flaws are part of my charm.

    In regard to the closing portion… as ugly as things can get in the world, it’s slowly becoming a better place. Behaviors that were once considered standard practice in a leader have come to be viewed as heinous over the years, and ordinary people have unprecedented freedom. It remains important to fight oppression, but human rights have improved dramatically. Cheer up!


  2. Hey, I share at least one of the failings on that list!

    I’m guessing #4. And what a coincidence that John is part of your name as well. 😉

    As to the rest, the world is indeed becoming a better place. To me, this isn’t so much because despots are becoming less despotic by nature but rather because the oppressed are growing more empowered through greater access to education and mass media. Which ultimately has the same effect that you describe, so I’m happy about that. I’m just philosophically curious whether, 54 from now, people from that era will say of us, “They had no idea how much more evil the world could unleash.”


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