How To Get Rid Of A Bad King

[ hint: it involves a swamp and a toad]
From Cassell’s History of England published in 1902. A picture of King John of England.

Watching a doc the other night on King John, the brother of Richard the Lionheart, the crusader king. Ol’Johnny boy was known as a ruthless tyrant, of Robin Hood fame, who ruled Britain from 1199 till his death in 1216. He was the Magna Carta king, the reason for its creation, which eventually became the foundation of the contemporary powers of parliament. 

Yeah, so had to go and do a little refresher on what exactly the Magna Carta was, but basically it was a document written to make peace between these rebel barons and the king. It lays out such things as church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the crown, as payments would be implemented through a council of 25 barons. 

Now, of course, this didn’t fly, and I guess Pope Innocent III annulled it, leading to war. After John’s death his son and successor, Henry III, re-issued it in 1216, though a watered down version, and this became part of a peace treaty, which basically I guess put a foot down on the sins of the father being visited upon the son. 

And what was so bad about King John? 

“And oftentimes excusing of a fault
Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse,
As patches set upon a little breach
Discredit more in hiding of the fault
Than did the fault before it was so patch’d.”

William Shakespeare, King John

Most are familiar with King John as the protagonist in the stories of Robin Hood, of robbing the rich to give to the poor fame, but of course, those are just stories, though with some grains of truth hidden in the folds. 

So one element of note concerning the Magna Carta was that it had been drafted due to his complete failure as a king, in losing the war with France and in turn Normandy, and so he was forced to sign it by his barons.

John was the youngest son of Henry II, and apparently his favourite. As his favourite, he gave him vast lands and lordship over Ireland. Yet apparently early on he had a tendency towards committing youthful political indiscretions from which he acquired a reputation for reckless irresponsibility [ Britannica ]

The rules of succession at the time favoured the elder son, and so Richard became King on the death of their father. At this time the Medieval obsession with the holy land had knights of all nations marching off to kill the infidel in the Middle East, and across Europe,  wearing the cross of Christ, off on crusades, and the church stood back and gathered in the dough from their devote parishioners at home not so lucky as to be able to kill infidels hundreds of miles away in order to cleanse their souls in order to spend eternity in paradise. 

However, John was a little irked and jealous of Richard being King, and so aligned himself with the French, with King Philip II and attempted to overthrow Richard. I guess you could call that colluding with a foreign power in order to win the crown. So, in the end, John wasn’t really the all that and a bag of Doritos King he thought himself to be, lost Normandy, and gained his crown by way of colluding with one of Englands longest running enemies.

His determination to reverse the Continental failure bore fruit in ruthlessly efficient financial administration, marked by taxation on revenues, investigations into the royal forests, taxation of the Jews, a great inquiry into feudal tenures, and the increasingly severe exploitation of his feudal prerogatives. These measures provided the material basis for the charges of tyranny later brought against him.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Now here’s John traipsing cross the land, busily making war on his own lords, and if they didn’t surrender their estates and castles he just went full force with the power of the crown and took them, giving the booty to his loyalists.

As one can imagine,  this little revenge war didn’t go over so well with most folks in his realm, as most folks don’t really care to have their leaders at war within their own borders just because the king is an incompetent moron who bought his way into leadership and then proceeded to lose the country real estate and possessions hard-won by their own father, not to mention tarnishing the perception of the country on the Medieval world stage.

Sound familiar?

Of course in those times leaders were disposed of by other means when they weren’t working out, although it was just a chaotic a process. Even though today we believe our way to be more ‘civilized’, the process of the removal can be just as destructive to the peace and security of the nation and is not done lightly.  

Yet even then civility was a goal, and hence the drafting of that legendary Magna Carta, and the gradual reining in of the power of the crown, and what it can and can not do. 

The notion that the realm was a community and that it should be governed by representatives of that community perhaps found its first practical expression in the period following the issue of Magna Carta in which a council of regency ruled on behalf of a child king not yet able to govern in his own right. The phrase “community of the land” initially meant little more than the totality of the baronage. But the need to obtain a wider degree of consent to taxation, and perhaps also the impact of new ideas derived from Roman law, led to change.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Oh, the perils of squandering ones gifts for the sake of a little booty, both financial and, um, otherwise is a common morality play. 

In the end, or so legend has it, in truth it was the swamp that actually killed King John, and it is also said he lost all his treasure in a swamp known as The Wash, and there are those today still seeking it, er, archaeologically. There has even been some call in the past to drain the swamp, in order to once and for all find the truth of it. 

So with his personal finances under scrutiny, his leadership questioned, and more and more of his own people turning against him, I guess he ends up in the one place he thought he could be safe, an Abbey. The story is a legend in the lands where he died, Worchester and environs – John took a safe route around the marshy area of The Wash to avoid the rebel held area of East Anglia. His slow baggage train (including the Crown Jewels), took a direct route across it and was lost to the incoming tide.

Now, the common story is that he died of dysentery, which is severe diarrhea. Ok, so, caused by what you might ask? Well, well, well, so this is where the toady comes in, and those crafty monks at the Abbey used what they had at hand, what was plentiful, given the marshy land – poison toad. Yes, it was a dried and ground and added to the Kings vittles, and off he marched to Newark, pooping all the way, until his eventual death at Newark Castle. 

Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire. 
David Ingham from Lancashire, England

Oh, the metaphors are rich, and I just could not ignore that aspect of the story. 

So, now, history of toads. Well, Medieval folk tradition held the belief witches could turn you into toads, and they are thought to be a demonic helper of witches. 

In 1580 a witch was burned in Steiermark, Germany and the watchful executioner noticed an extraordinarily large toad rushing straight towards the water. Needless to say, it was the escaping demon. (Petzoldt 1990: 116.) G. L. Kittredge describes the beliefs about toads in medieval England: “The Devil, who squat like a toad at the ear of Mother Eve in Eden, is always at hand in the churchyard after service, waiting in that guise for some evil-minded communicant to feed him with a bit of the consecrated wafer: whoever thus sacrifices to Satan will straightway become a witch or wizard. The relation of witches to toads (or frogs) is notorious; and, like everything else in this department of superstition, it is founded on fact. Toads are not uncommon in earth-floored huts, and doubtless they were sometimes petted by solitary old women who, esteemed as witches, regarded themselves as such and thought the creatures were really imps or demons. Anyhow, toad-familiars are as commonplace as cats.” (Kittredge 1929:181-182.)

Individual 1 is rather fond of the term, witches, and sees all this fuss and investigation as a “witch hunt”. Rather humorous, given that it may very well be a toady of his owny that brings him down, ie. Michael Cohen. 

Can’t ignore either those merry men, the gang that surrounded the Robin Hood myths, and look around at the modern equivalents, seen in the social democrats, the young faces coming into Congress this January, and the policies and personality of the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. 

As quoted in a article I read this morning, Ocasio-Cortez said: “It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns & underpaid overworked staff just bc Republicans want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility‘”. 

She and Sanders, and just two others in Congress will be paying their staff $15, generally thought to be a ‘living wage’. As the GOP like to sell this as robbing from the rich to give to the poor, I do find it rather telling that these issues are still on the table some 800 plus years later. Oh, but of course, the Republicans are all about the rule of law, unless of course when the rule of law applies to them. 

The more I look at this King, the more parallels that jump out, such as his squandering of those gifts he was given, of recklessly going to war, squandering his inheritance on bad ideas, and throughout compromising the security of his nation for his own ends. 

So, and this one may just be key to this particular individual for which I allude, another defining parallel is the vulnerability their greed put them in.

Past presidents seemed to understand this, and I would think it for that reason alone they have seen the significance of divesting themselves of their financial ties, and not just to avoid violating the emoluments clause of the constitution, but to distance themselves from being vulnerable to someone using those ties to take them down politically.  {ahem}. 

I guess in the end one can surmise that King John’s weakness was perhaps his own ego, which did not allow him the strength of character to play well with others, preferring the mechanisms of a battle over diplomacy. His loyalties were never to his country but rather to himself, which eventually lost him land, treasure, and his legacy tarnished by misdeeds, miscalculations and manipulation. 

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