King John is a figure that has often been used and abused, in literature, Reformation historiography, even art. My doctoral work on an important chronicle from his reign (the Crowland Chronicle, for those who have been coming to this blog in the past) is almost finished, but I have now discovered that the famous John Foxe, the 16th-century author of the Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, had used parts of the Crowland Chronicle in his discussion of King John.
The chronicler from Crowland abbey, writing in the early thirteenth century, gave an assessment of John’s reign, now famous with all students of Angevin history:
Ibi igitur morbo invalescente, diem clausit extremum xiiii. kalendas Novembris postquam regnaverat annis xvii. mensibus v. diebus iiii: princeps quidem magnus, sed minus felix, et cum Mario fortunam utramque expertus: munificus et liberalis in exteros, sed suorum depredator, plus in alienis quam in suis confidens, unde et a suis ante finem derelictus est, et in fine modicum luctus.
In Antonia Gransden’s translation:
He was indeed a great prince, but rather an unhappy one, and, like Marius, experienced both good and bad fortune. He was munificent and generous to foreigners but a robber of his own people. He confided more in foreigners than in his subjects. And therefore he was deserted by his people before the end and was only moderately happy at the last. Historical Writing in England (London, 1974), 343
The end of Foxe’s account of the reign of king John (I, 14) weaves two threads: John’s legendary poisoning by a monk of Swineshead Abbey in 1216 and the king’s alleged contempt for the Catholic Mass, which must have charmed Foxe more than anything else. He wrote (emphasis mine):
And in the same selfe yeare, as kyng Iohn was come to Swinested Abbey, not farre from Lincolne, he rested there two dayes, where as most writers testifie þt he was most trayterously poisoned, by a Monke of that Abbey, of the sect of Sisteanes, or sainct Bernardes brethren called Simon of Swinsted. And concerning his noble personage, this witnesse geueth Roger Houeden therein: princeps quidem magnus erat sed minus felix: atque vt Marius vtramquè fortunam expertus. doubtles (saieth he) kyng Iohn was a mighty Prince, but not so fortunate as many were. Not altogether vnlike to Marius the noble Romaine, he tasted Fortune bothe waies, much in mercy, in warres, sometime he wonne, sometime again he lost. Munificus ac liberalis in exteros fuit, sed proditionis causa suorū depredator, plus aduenis quam suis confidens. He was also very bounteous and liberall vnto straungers, but to his owne people, for theyr daily treasons sake he was a great oppressour, so that he trusted more to foreiners then to thē.
Among other diuers and sondry conditions, belonging to this king, one there was, whiche is not in him to be reprehended, but commēded rather, for that being farre from the superstition which kynges at that time were commonly subiect vnto, regarded not the popish Masse, as in certain Chronicles writing of him may bee collected: for so I find testified of hym by Math. Parisiensis, that the king vppon a time in hys hunting, commyng where a very fat stag was cut vp and opened (or how the hunters terme it, I cannot tell) the king beholding the fatnes and the liking of the stagge: see sayeth he, how easily and happely he hath liued, and yet for all that he neuer heard any Masse.
Foxe was wrong to attribute the pronouncements on John to Roger of Howden (Roger wrote a Chronicle but was dead by 1202). Yet, that was understandable, as Foxe found the annal in a work which had relied on Howden’s Chronicle up to a point and established a certain affiliation to the latter. On the other hand, it is rather puzzling that Foxe kept the attribution to Howden when the work from which he worked was known to his contemporaries (Leland and others) as the Memoriale of Walter of Coventry.
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