An ancient story Ile tell you anon
Of a notable prince, that was called King John;
And he ruled England with maine and with might,
For he did great wrong, and maintein'd little right.
Anonymous English Folk Song, date unknown.
Everybody knows that King John was a Bad King and it's not because we were taught that in school. In the old the TV series 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'; John is the usurper whose cruel henchman the Sheriff of Nottingham, pursues the heroic Robin Hood (played by the appropriately named Richard Greene) through 143 black and white episodes of dodgy dialogue and rickety scenery. Robin has remained loyal to John's brother, King Richard the Lionheart, who is away at the Crusades and for whose triumphant return all loyal Englishmen hope and pray.
Well sort of.
In truth, King John didn't have many redeeming features. The only two good things about him were that firstly, he was such a bad King that the English Barons forced him to sign Magna Carta and secondly, that he managed to die at just the right moment - 797 years ago today. John was the youngest son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, who will be forever be Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. In the movie 'The Lion in Winter' he was played by Nigel Terry who coincidentally now lives just three or four miles away from me. It's a terrific film with some brilliant lines. Watch out for it if you've never seen it.
Even by the standards of the time John was avaricious, lascivious and incompetent. He managed to lose control of the huge swathes of western France that were his Angevin inheritance and thus earned the nickname 'John Lackland'. Despite levying huge taxes on the Barons he virtually bankrupted the English Crown and he fell out so badly with the Pope that he was excommunicated and the whole of England was put under a Papal interdict. This meant that for five years, no church bells could be rung and except in very limited circumstances no one could marry or take communion - a very bad thing for Feasts and Festival lovers.
John's imposition of heavy taxes and the arbitrary nature of his decision-making eventually lead the English Barons to force him to sign away some of his powers in a 'Great Charter' or face being deposed (or worse). The senior Law Lord, Lord Denning, once described Magna Carta as 'The greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot'. It limited the King's authority and laid the foundation of the Rule of Law.
King John signed Magna Carta and then in typical fashion, reneged on his decision. Disaster piled upon disaster. England descended into civil war and the ever troublesome Scots decided invade. John had to go and relieve a rebel siege in Lincoln and on his return south his entourage travelled across the great tidal estuary of The Wash. The story is that his baggage train floundered in treacherous quicksands and the Crown Jewels were lost. Roger of Wendover (he pops up a lot doesn't he?) says John subsequently contracted a 'violent fever' and sunken in misery he stuffed himself with peaches and vast amounts of new cider. It was the death of him.
The crucial fact though is that the barons had negotiated the support of Prince Louis of France and Louis was about to be offered the Crown of England. John died just in time for that to be unnecessary. Just as well, otherwise this blog would be written in my very bad French.
I've been looking at '1066 and All That', the hilarious spoof history book that predates 'Horrible Histories' by decades. It's great on King John:
'John finally demonstrated his utter incompetence by losing the Crown and all his clothes in the wash and then dying of a surfeit of peaches and no cyder; thus his awful reign came to an end.'
No contest then.
'A Surfeit of Peaches and no Cyder'
A great pudding for a chilly autumn day. Make some suet pastry with
225g/8oz self-raising flour
110g/4oz shredded suet
75ml/3fl oz milk
75ml/3fl oz water
Lightly butter a 2-3 pint pudding bowl and line it with 2/3 of the pastry. Keep it fairly thin. Reserve the rest of the pastry for the lid.
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon jam - I used apricot.
Cut the peaches into chunks and toss in a bowl with the sugar and jam. Pack into the pastry. Roll out a lid and tuck it over. Cover with greasproof paper and tie tightly. Steam for two hours.
Serve with cream or even better with an almond flavoured custard.
It's a great way to use those hard peaches that come in punnets and never seem to ripen properly.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad, loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood!
The Adventures of Robin Hood. Theme Song by Carl Sigman (1909-2000)