Prince John is now one of the stock villains of movie and television adaptations of the Robin Hood legend. He was played most recently, and excellently, by Rufus Sewell in Robin Hood (2010) starring Russell Crowe. In that move he is a conniving, manipulative, and downright “bad” character. Yet to some extent John, historically, has been a victim of what Austin Lane Poole says is:
A malign tradition, which has its origin in the nearly contemporary church historians, especially Roger of Wendover, and his embellisher, Matthew Paris, [that has] done much less than justice to the character of Prince John.
Poole recognises that John, of course, had many faults; he could be moody, spiteful, passionate, greedy, self-indulgent, genial and repellent, clever and capable, original and inquisitive. Yet these “good” and “bad” traits were shared by most members of the Angevin dynasty.
There will, of course, be debate amongst medieval historians as to just how “bad” Prince John actually was, but as Poole says, it is doubtful whether he was much better, or indeed, much worse than the majority of medieval monarchs.
It is perhaps Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) that who did the most damage to the character of Prince John in his novel, Ivanhoe (1819). In that novel, John is the typical “caricature” villain, displaying most of those odious qualities which audiences expect of the character in Robin Hood stories.
Yet before Walter Scott, John was not the confirmed villain of the legend.
Firstly, in the earliest medieval texts such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1400), Prince John does not appear.The earliest texts are set during the time of an un-numbered King Edward; ‘Edwarde oure comely kynge.’ In fact, the placing of Robin Hood in the time of Richard the Lionheart and Prince John was a later invention which occurred during the sixteenth century in John Major’s Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521).
Later Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights developed this theme further. Anthony Munday’s two plays, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (1598), and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1601). In these plays Robin is elevated to the peerage, but is cast a dispossessed nobleman who has been wrongly outlawed. Robin is in love with Matilda (Marian), but he has a rival for her love in the form of Prince John. Yet Munday does not vilify John in his two plays, as Stephen Knight says that:
Prince John is quite a positive figure in the play, far from being the villain of later representations. His pursuit of Marian is caused by love, not malice, he defends Little John and vilifies Robin’s betrayers. He does have vices, being tempted to take (rather than seize) his brother’s [Richard’s] power, and is also hot-tempered.
John is a flawed and tragic figure in Munday’s plays, but more importantly for the Elizabethan audience, he is someone who stood up to the might of the Church of Rome. The historical King John had a few, shall we say, issues with the Roman Catholic Church; notably his refusal to accept Stephen Langton’s appointment as the Archibishop of Canterbury. This led to England being placed under a papal interdict between 1208 and 1213. An interdict meant that none of the population was able to partake of any of the sacraments; a serious matter in a religious age. But to an Elizabethan audience, this standoff between the King and the Church of Rome would have sat well with with a country that had recently undergone a turbulent Reformation and break with Rome. King John is almost a hero in these two plays.
Further down the line, King John is also not a “bad” figure. The ballad, Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster, is written as a sequel to the legend. Robin has been pardoned by Prince John and has become his favourite minister. But of all the King’s servants Robin is the most corrupt, and out of all the courtiers and aristocracy, it is only King John who emerges with a half-decent reputation; his minsters are corrupt, not him.
Usually, most Robin Hood stories involve Prince John attempting to seize the throne of England from his brother, Richard I, with Robin, of course, playing a part in trying to stop him. Yet a c.1790 edition of Robin Hood’s Garland presents a slightly more nuanced view of the events of the 1190s:
King Richard the First, transported with zeal, blindly sacrificed every thing to it, and ruined himself and almost his whole nation, to carry on a war against the infidels in the Holy Land, where he went in person. The intestine troubles of England were very great at that time, and even John, the King’s brother, caballed to dethrone him.
Richard here is presented as a bad ruler, a man who sacrifices the nation for his personal glory. In contrast, John’s attempted seizing of the throne is presented in a better light; it is only after King Richard has virtually ruined the nation that John feels he should dethrone him.
Even in what is the most important work in the history of the Robin Hood legend, Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), despite placing Robin in the time of Prince John, Ritson makes clear that the main enemies of Robin Hood were Churchmen and corrupt clerics:
Our hero, indeed, seems to have held bishops, abbots, priests, and monks, in a word, all the clergy, regular or secular, in decided aversion, “these byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes, ye shall them bete and dynde,” was an injunction carefully impressed upon his followers: and, in this part of his conduct, perhaps, the pride, avarice, uncharitableness, and hypocrisy, of the clergy of that age, will afford ample justification.
In fact, John does not appear in Ritson’s biography of Robin Hood at all, which goes to show that, at the very least, eighteenth-century writers appear to have had a more nuanced interpretation of King John’s history; he was neither all good, nor all bad.
We are due another 3 Robin Hood movies from Hollywood, and with Hollywood’s current fetish for revising age-old legends, perhaps in these new interpretations we might see a kinder interpretation of Prince John’s character.
Whatever the facts of John’s character, however, he is an infinitely more interesting character than Richard the Lionheart in the Robin Hood legend.