January 10, 2008


Richard & John: Kings at War. By Frank McLynn. Da Capo. $30.

      In Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1884 Princess Ida, the jealous Lady Blanche, possessed of “a Proper Pride” and weary of playing second fiddle to the princess of the title, bemoans her fate: “For years I’ve writhed beneath her sneers,/ Although a born Plantagenet!” She thus claims noble descent from the house that ruled England from the 12th through 14th centuries – and whose final syllable, despite the French origin of the name, was pronounced “net” in England, allowing Gilbert to rhyme “Plantagenet” with “imagine it.”

      The Plantagenets’ most lasting contribution to history and governance was the Magna Carta, signed under duress by King John after a series of disasters (including loss of almost all the French territories) had thoroughly eroded his support among the nobles. Almost as important – indeed, more so in popular imagination – is the mythic tale of Robin Hood (or Robin Goodfellow), hiding out in Sherwood Forest and helping protect the poor against King John’s ravages during the years when John’s brother, King Richard the Lionheart, was out of the country, fighting in the Crusades.

      King Richard died in 1199, King John in 1216, but disputes about their character and relationship continue to this day. Shakespeare wrote a brilliant but rarely performed history play, King John, which delved deeply into the brothers’ political machinations as they were understood in Elizabethan times. In recent years, John’s life has been rethought and reinterpreted, to the detriment of Richard’s reputation. Now comes Frank McLynn with a reinterpretation of that reinterpretation, returning John to ignominy and restoring Richard to a more admirable position.

      Richard & John is a lengthy book (nearly 600 pages) and an intellectually weighty one (nearly 100 pages of index and source list, including many primary sources). Its level of detail is highly impressive – and will be mind-numbing for anyone not already deeply interested in these two long-ago monarchs. McLynn, author of many books on British history, takes John down at every turn. Militarily, for example, “the years 1202-04 show John simply outclassed by a better general and a more astute politician.” In personality, “John was playing the buffoon in Ireland in 1185, or indulging in petty intrigues while Richard was in the Holy Land,” although what McLynn sees as a manic-depressive personality sometimes came to John’s aid: “Fortunately John was in the energetic phase of his bipolar cycle, and he responded with unwonted rapidity and imagination.” As for Richard, McLynn gives him a pass more often than not, even when he orders the killing of 3,000 Muslim prisoners: “Richard faced a crisis of credibility and a test of his leadership. He could not allow Saladin to make a fool of him indefinitely. …Contemporaries…accepted the killings as a necessity of war.”

      Yet things are not really black-and-white in McLynn’s analysis. His book is so dense, so wide-ranging, that any excerpting does it very little justice; it is a book only for those willing to become deeply involved in the minutiae of politics and warfare in the 12th and early 13th centuries. McLynn’s close examination of primary sources confirms many of the long-reported elements of John’s barbarity, including his willingness to commit murder with his own hands (possibly when drunk, which excuses nothing). McLynn does not make Richard a purely heroic figure – he did, after all, neglect England, to which he felt less attachment than to France. But McLynn argues convincingly that the evidence supports the longstanding (until recently) notion that Richard was a far better man than John (if not necessarily a much better king). In one way, though, and in the very long run of history, it was John who had the posthumous last laugh: Richard died without issue, and it was John’s direct descendants who ruled England for more than 150 years after John’s death.

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