Image: Horace Barker as King John from a postcard of the Bury St Edmunds Historical Pageant (1907), by permission of the St Edmundsbury Heritage Service.
October 2016 marks the octocentenary of the death of King John, the ruler who gave us Magna Carta. Dr Alexander Hutton, who has been researching historical pageants in 20th-century Britain, has discovered some positive portrayals of a king whose reputation as a friendless tyrant grew steadily worse after he died in 1216.
History has, on the whole, judged King John to be, in the words of W C Sellars and R J Yeatman’s 1066 and All That (the origin of all my historical knowledge): ‘An Awful King’, memorable for pulling the beards of aged Irish chiefs; murdering his nephew Little Arthur, and thus becoming ‘the first memorable wicked uncle’; and being excommunicated by the Pope, thereby preventing people from being allowed to be born, to marry and to die.
Most of all, King John was known for having to sign the Magna Charter on a desert island in the Thames named Ganymede (sorry, Runnymede), after which he lost all his clothes in the wash and died from a surfeit of peaches: ‘thus his awful reign came to an end.’
King John, nicknamed ‘Softsword’ on account of losing many battles and much of the Angevin Empire, has suffered from his reputation as one of Shakespeare’s true villains. While many 20th-century historians, from John Speed to D M Stenton, moved beyond the image of the wicked, bad-tempered, and generally hopeless king to focus on the untenable situation he faced, caught between the French king, eager to regain territory, usurping barons, and the Church which demanded ever-greater freedoms and tax exemptions.
Even so, attempts to paint him as a credible statesman who operated within the margins of acceptable behaviour of most medieval monarchs did little to shift wider public perceptions in the 20th century. These were still based largely on Shakespeare, on accounts of Magna Carta which presented the barons as prototypical upholders of liberty against tyranny, and Walter Scott’s portrayal of King John in Ivanhoe (1820).
The latter was most important of all, leading to his inclusion in a number of films about Robin Hood such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn with Claude Rains as Prince John, Disney’s Robin Hood (1973), where the king was voiced by Peter Ustinov, and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010). In these, almost wholly American-made films, Ling John was presented as the cowardly usurper of the true King Richard and the archetypal bad monarch. And yet there are other versions of King John in 20th-century popular consciousness which went beyond these caricatures.
Over the last year I have been working on the Redress of the Past project in which we are studying historical pageants in 20th-century Britain. Historical pageants were hugely popular events, attracting thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators where people re-enacted memorable scenes from the history of their village, town or city.
We were surprised to discover that King John was the second most frequently featured historical figure, narrowly beaten by Elizabeth I. Several Pageants, including Sydling in Dorset in 1925 and Axbridge (1967, 1970, 1980, and 1990) showed King John hunting and capriciously confiscating estates. Others, such as Bury St Edmunds, both in 1907 and 1959, Dover (1908) and Chilham Castle (1946), showed him in conflict with the church and Christian values.
More pageants, including the 1909 Lincoln Grand Empire Pageant, Bramshill Park and Leicester, 1927 and 1932 respectively, depicted the barons’ revolt against the king, leading to John being forced to sign Magna Carta in 1215. The vast Pageant of Runnymede in 1934, which involved 5,000 performers, quite obviously featured the signing of Magna Carta on the island as the key scene of the pageant, full of aristocratic pomp and circumstance, prompting the political cartoonist and caricaturist David Low, to draw a famous cartoon in the London Evening Standard comparing the birth of British liberty at Runnymede to Oswald Moseley’s fascist rallies which were being held at the Olympia.
However, King John also featured in a number of other pageants across the country, where he signed charters of a very different nature, granting borough charters to towns. Scenes of this nature were shown in Liverpool (1907), Hinchingbrooke (1912), Lancaster (1913), Stafford (1913), Kingston (1921), Wisbeach (1929), again in Lancaster (1930), Ipswich (1951), Bridport (1953), Huntingdonshire (1953) and King’s Lynn (1954).
Several of these pageants sought to stress the King’s wicked and hesitant character, often deferring signing the charter to drink and carouse at the expense of the burgesses first, or made it very clear that he was merely granting borough status to undermine the power and tax base of the Barons.
The outpouring of civic pride of 20th-century towns and cities outweighed their reservations at the presence of a ‘Bad King’ in the pageant. King John thus became the figure who allowed the town to shake off feudal ownership and to progress towards its current greatness. Many of these pageants were very well attended, with the 1913 Stafford Millenary Pageant attracting over than 22,000 spectators and the Liverpool Pageant more than 100,000.
While these depictions have done little to shift the national popular conception, based on Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Magna Carta, King John’s more positive portrayal in historical pageants shows that popular history was able to include a surprising degree of nuance which went far beyond the one-dimensional cartoon villain popularly remembered from films and books. A bad King could at least do good things for a small town, which remembered their debt seven centuries on.
Dr Alexander Hutton is a research associate at King’s College London on The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain, 1905-2016. He regularly blogs on historical pageants at www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/. It will be the home of a freely accessible database of British Historical Pageants which will be launched in mid-September.