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Voices Of Newark And Sherwood: Bad King John and the original lockdown

This article, written by DAVID PURVEUR, is one in a series commissioned by The Acorns Project.

Supported by Arts Council England’s Cultural Recovery Fund, The Acorns Project seeks to improve access to culture across Newark and Sherwood.

These articles form part of the Voices Of Newark And Sherwood strand of the project and have been written by local writers to tell the stories of notable local figures.

To find out more about the Voices Of Newark And Sherwood and The Acorns Project, go to facebook.com/theacornsproject

Newark Castle gatehouse. (40246783)
Newark Castle gatehouse. (40246783)

It is not necessary to be an historian or even a scholar to know that King John of England was a bad king. It is ironic that, despite the attentions of William Shakespeare, his very real and very bad image has most likely been imprinted on us through the legend of Robin Hood. But behind the tales of Lincoln-green and derring-do lies a foundation of truth ­— the king was greedy, lecherous, ill-tempered and a totally rotten leader in every sense.

What is most surprising is he came to power at all.

The youngest of four brothers, John was not expected to inherit much land, which is why he became known as John Lackland.

King John (47729690)
King John (47729690)

However, following a failed revolt by his brothers, John at the age of 11, suddenly found himself the favoured son and rewarded with the Lordship of Ireland in 1177.

His father, Henry II, was trying to seize control of the colony from his rebellious barons who in turn were trying to wrest control from the native Irish.

This will always lead to bloodshed and so it was in Ireland, at the age of 18, that John is reputed to have first gained a taste for collecting heads.

Following the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart, John acceded to the throne in 1199 where he determined to stay through fair means or foul.

It is largely accepted that he had a hand in the murder of his rebellious nephew, Arthur of Brittany, in 1202.

Although Ireland had taught John the value of keeping his barons at war with one another, the disappearance of Arthur inadvertently united the French nobles in a cause against the king.

The subsequent war resulted in the loss of his inherited Northern territories of France.

John was to spend much of his reign, and a lot of his barons’ money, in a futile attempt to regain the land.

In 1205 a new power struggle emerged between throne and church following the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The King and Pope Innocent III could not agree who the successor should be, or indeed who had the power to appoint.

Unwilling to accept the church’s choice, King John was excommunicated by the Pope in 1209. As a result churches across the land were unable to legally perform normal functions such as weddings and funerals.

Many closed their doors and were effectively, and for almost a year, in a lockdown.

The continuing dispute between the king and his barons resulted in the infamous sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, an ultimately failed attempt to end the long-running civil war.

It was while returning from a campaign in East Anglia that a tired King John contracted dysentery, leading to rumours of poisoning, and his stop-over at Newark Castle in October 1216 was to prove his last.

Was he poisoned by the monks of Swineshead Abbey deliberately or even accidentally?

Maybe Robin Hood knows?

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