Under Duress: In the end, John Plantagenet had nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
“FOR THE WATCH!” With that grim cry, the conspirators of Castle Black struck down their Lord Commander. How fitting that the assassination of the fictional Jon Snow should coincide with the 800th anniversary of a legal document sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Why fitting? Because the breath-taking brutality and treachery of Game of Thrones offers us a much truer guide to the political realities underpinning Magna Carta (as that legal document is now known) than the pious platitudes offered up by its latter-day celebrants.
The power of Game of Thrones, and the likely explanation for its worldwide popularity, is its clear-eyed refusal to pretend that good character and effective policy are somehow inextricable. The very real John Plantagenet, like the fictional Jon Snow, was a man confronted with a multitude of poor options – none of which were likely to significantly improve his position.
George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, presents Jon Snow to his readers as a man of honour and courage who, in spite (or is it because) of these qualities, is required to make his choices from a set of dwindling military and political options – each one carrying a higher risk of death, either in battle or by assassination. With every decision Jon Snow makes, his personal circumstances grow more perilous, until, eventually, nothing remains to him but fatal choices.
Very few historians (if any) would attempt to present John Plantagenet as an honourable man. The historical cliché of “Bad King John” (so unlike his “good” brother, the chivalrous King Richard the Lionheart) does possess a reasonably solid foundation in historical fact. With brutality to match the very worst scenes in Game of Thrones, John ordered the deaths of the young Welsh noblemen sent to his court as hostages to their fathers’ good behaviour. And, to prevent her spreading rumours (which were, almost certainly, true) that he had personally murdered his own nephew, Arthur, John ordered Maud de Braose, along with her eldest son, to be shut up in the dungeon of Corfe Castle and starved to death.
John Plantagenet was, clearly, no Jon Snow when it came to matters of good character. He did, however, have much in common with the fictional hero when it came to poor political options. The vast Angevin Empire, which John inherited from his father, King Henry II, and his formidable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Cersei eat your heart out!) was under constant pressure from barons loyal to the French king. To hold onto his family’s territories across the English Channel, men and money were urgently required – and they did not come cheap.
If John had refused to defend his inheritance, he would have been in all kinds of trouble. (His enemies already called him John “Lackland”, or, even worse, “Softsword”!) But, in raising the resources required to defend the empire, he was bound to displease his feudal support-base, the barons. Indeed, it was John’s success as an administrator – and tax collector – that incited his barons (especially those who owed him lots of money) to rebel.
And these barons were very far from being the lordly defenders of the rights of freeborn Englishmen that the celebrants of Magna Carta like to paint them. On their own lands they wielded the same sort of brutal authority as the murderous Bolton family displays in Game of Thrones. One could even argue that it was the royal encroachments on baronial power represented by John’s administrative innovations (he invented to post of Coroner, the “Crown’s Man”) that made his rebellious barons so determined to roll back their King’s expanding authority.
Good man or bad man, John Plantagenet, like Jon Snow, was ultimately left with nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons and their “bannermen” at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
Jon Snow over-ruled his enemies in the Night’s Watch – and paid the price. John Plantagenet bowed to his barons’ assembled swords – and survived. Three months later, at John’s insistence, their long-winded charter was annulled by the Pope.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 Junes 2015.