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King John and the Road to Magna Carta.

King John and the Road to Magna Carta. By Stephen Church. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015. Pp. xxii, 300. $29.99.)

It is scarcely surprising that the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta should have produced a scholarly biography of King John, the first one in over two decades. Stephen Church's guiding principle is that, although John may have "ended his days as a tyrant confronted by his subjects for his tyranny," he "did not deliberately set out on a path leading to his ruin"; therefore, Church tries to "examine his life as though it was not foreordained that it would end in Magna Carta and civil war" (xxi). In pursuit of that aim, he consistently looks at the events of John's life and reign through John's eyes rather than those of his many enemies. The result is some valuable reassessments, notably in the area of strategy: Church stresses that, while Philip Augustus was focused on Normandy, John considered Poitou to be at least as important, an imbalance having much to do with John's lack of success in holding on to and then recovering the northern French domains of his family.

The book is primarily a narrative. There is less here about John's often alleged concern with the governing of England than with his military preparations and campaigns, and Church relatively rarely pauses to consider thorny problems of interpretation on which others have spilled much ink. Moreover, the book is definitely about the "road to Magna Carta." The contents of the Charter are discussed only in the context of the events leading up to its issuance, and most of the emphasis is on the security clause.

The result is a gripping tale and an easy read but a somewhat anomalous John. No serious historian could portray this king as a "nice guy," but Church's interpretation comes as close as the facts will permit. In the process, some of the major bumps in John's reign are notably smoothed out. William Longchamp is made almost exclusively to blame for the early difficulties of the government while Richard I was on Crusade; according to the author, John's period of attempting to exploit Richard's absence for his own benefit was brief, and he soon repented and was a loyal lieutenant for the rest of his brother's reign. Events that have often been attributed to impulse Church credits to deliberate policy, notably John's marriage to Isabella of Angouleme and the death of Arthur of Brittany. No explanation is given for why Isabella's former fiance, Hugh de Lusignan, should have reacted so violently to the marriage, and John's formal trial in Philip Augustus's court is buried in a couple of subordinate clauses. At most of the moments in his reign when many have found John cowardly or fatally lethargic, Church finds logistical or strategic explanations for what he did or did not do. Moreover, Church argues, John had custom on his side in resisting Pope Innocent Ill's imposition of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury and good reasons for turning on the Briouze family and, to a lesser extent, William Marshal. The horror of the fate of Matilda de Briouze and her son, usually cited as the epitome of John's tyranny, is mentioned but certainly not emphasized; and the execution of twenty-eight Welsh hostages in 1212 goes completely unnoticed.

Emily Zack Tabuteau

Michigan State University

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Author:Tabuteau, Emily Zack
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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