“Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John,” wrote Matthew Paris just a few short years after England’s much-despised ruler died of dysentery. There’s no question that the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine was universally despised by his subjects, so it’s kind of ironic that John’s legacy includes—however reluctantly—the foundation for modern-day democracy. Mark the 801st anniversary of King John’s death this fall by learning more about the worst king of England.
He was notoriously treacherous, lecherous, and cruel, but we owe our democratic government in part to King John, whose sheer terribleness inspired British nobles to curtail the rights of the monarchy and invest the nobility with rights of their own. When John signed the Magna Carta—after arranging this nephew’s murder, scheming against his Crusading brother, and generally being the worst ruler in Christendom—he forever changed the relationship between ruler and subjects.
Sir Walter Scott’s historical romance paints Prince John (acting king for Richard III, who’s off fighting in the Crusades) as scheming, tyrannical monarch, which is pretty much how his contemporaries and modern historians have viewed him.
Scott’s influence is apparent in Howard Pyle’s collection of Robin Hood stories, which cast tax-happy John as the tale’s central villain.
John’s life of “intrigues, quarrels, battles, sieges, negotiations, truces, and betrayals” is illuminated through contemporary chronicles and his own letters in Marc Morris’ scholarly, readable tome.
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Set in 1183, during Henry II’s reign, this film adaptation of the play by James Goldman focuses on the contentious relationship between John’s parents and certainly doesn’t cast a positive light on the effete, unpleasant prince—even if you might feel a little sorry for him when you imagine his childhood.
Robin Hood (1973)
Disney’s animated animal take on the Robin Hood legend includes a thumb-sucking, greedy Prince Johns whose comeuppance at the film’s conclusion feels well-deserved.
This was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of HSL.
This winter is the perfect time to explore the world of Salvador Dali, and these resources will help you do just that.
Why is it so easy to hate England's notorious King John? Oh, let us count the ways in this trash-talking unit study.
Day 1: Laugh it up
The National Poetry Foundation’s satiric send-up of what a world with plenty of everyday poetry might look like (Rachel Maddow hosts the MSNBC special “Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays” and ESPN2’s best memorizer competition hits the big time) is hilarious.
Day 2: Listen up
Log on to the Poetry Everywhere channel, where poets like Galway Kinnell and Adrienne Rich read their favorite and original poems.
Day 3: Find the fun
Funnybone-tickling poets like Bruce Lansky and Linda Knaus, silly activities like poetry theatre, and lots of creative wordplay make gigglepoetry.com an ideal introduction to the pleasures of poetry.
Day 4: Find a new favorite poem
A few we love: “Macavity the Mystery Cat” (T.S. Eliot), “April Rain Song” (Langston Hughes), “Sick” (Shel Silverstein), “About the Teeth of Sharks” (John Ciardi), “Rabbit” (Mary Ann Hoberman), “The Adventures of Isabel” (Ogden Nash), “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” (Robert Frost), “What Is Pink?” (Christina Rossetti)
Day 5: Organize an exhibition
Put together a homeschool Poetry Out Loud competition in your town. Whether you decide to choose a winner or not, this recitation exhibition brings poetry to vivid life.
Day 6: Be inspired
Listen to three teens from the Santa Fe Indian School practice their recitations for the National Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington D.C.
Day 7: Make a blackout poem
All you need is a newspaper and a Sharpie to make poetry. Scribble out words and sentences on a newspaper page, leaving uncovered carefully chosen words to make a poem. (Tip: Arts pages often have better words to choose from than a newspaper’s front page.)
Day 8: Have a poetry tea
Make a Tuesday date around the table to share your favorite poems over a traditional afternoon tea.
Day 9: Say hi to haiku
Read classic haiku and master the skills you need to write your own seventeen-syllable poems (in lines of five, seven, five) with this worskshop from the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center for Asian Studies.
Day 10: Get nerdy with it
Write a Fib, a six-line poem that uses the Fibonacci sequence to dictate the number of syllables in each line.