"Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." The terrible verdict of the King's contemporaries has passed into the sober judgement of history. Externally John possessed all the quickness, the vivacity, the cleverness, the good-humour, the social charm which distinguished his house. His worst enemies owned that he toiled steadily and closely at the work of administration. He was fond of learned men like Gerald of Wales. He had a strange gift of attracting friends and of winning the love of women. But in his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins. He united into one mass of wickedness their insolence, their selfishness, their unbridled lust, their cruelty and tyranny, their shamelessness, their superstition, their cynical indifference to honour or truth. In mere boyhood he had torn with brutal levity the beards of the Irish chieftains who came to own him as their lord. His ingratitude and perfidy had brought down his father with sorrow to the grave. To his brother he had been the worst of traitors. All Christendom believed him to be the murderer of his nephew, Arthur of Britanny. He abandoned one wife and was faithless to another. His punishments were refinements of cruelty - the starvation of children, the crushing old men under copes of lead.
His court was a brothel where no woman was safe from the royal lust, and where his cynicism loved to publish the news of his victims' shame. He was as craven in his superstition as he was daring in his impiety. He scoffed at priests and turned his back on the mass even amidst the solemnities of his coronation, but he never stirred on a journey without hanging relics round his neck. But with the supreme wickedness of his race he inherited its profound ability. His plan for the relief of Chateau-Gaillard, the rapid march by which he shattered Arthur's hopes at Mirebeau, showed an inborn genius for war. In the rapidity and breadth of his political combinations he far surpassed the statesmen of his time. Throughout his reign we see him quick to discern the difficulties of his position, and inexhaustible in the resources with which he met them. The overthrow of his continental power only spurred him to the formation of a great league which all but brought Philip to the ground; and the sudden revolt of all England was parried by a shameless alliance with the Papacy. The closer study of John's history clears away the charges of sloth and incapacity with which men tried to explain the greatness of his fall.
[Authorities. - Our chief sources of information are the Chronicle embodied in the "Memoriale" of Walter of Coventry; and the "Chronicle of Roger of Wendover," the first of the published annalists of S. Alban's, whose work was subsequently revised and continued in a more patriotic tone by another monk of the same abbey, Matthew Paris. The Annals of Waverley, Dunstable, and Burton are important for the period. The great series of the Royal Rolls begin now to be of the highest value. The French authorities as before. For Langton, see Hook's biography in the "Lives of the Archbishops." The best modern account of this reign is in Mr. Pearson's " History of England," vol. ii].
The awful lesson of his life rests on the fact that it was no weak and indolent voluptuary, but the ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins who lost Normandy, became the vassal of the Pope, and perished in a struggle of despair against English freedom.
The whole energies of the King were bent on the recovery of his lost dominions on the Continent. He impatiently collected money and men for the support of the adherents of the House of Anjou who were still struggling against the arms of France in Poitou and Guienne, and had assembled an army at Portsmouth in the summer of 1205, when his project was suddenly thwarted by the resolute opposition of the Primate and the Earl of Pembroke, William Marshal. So completely had both the baronage and the Church been humbled by his father, that the attitude of their representatives indicated the new spirit of national freedom which was rising around the King. John at once braced himself to a struggle with it. The death of Hubert Walter, a few weeks after his protest, enabled him, as it seemed, to neutralize the opposition of the Church by placing a creature of his own at its head. John de Grey, Bishop of Norwich, was elected by the monks of Canterbury at his bidding and enthroned as Primate. In a previous though informal gathering, however, the convent had already chosen its sub-prior, Reginald, as Archbishop, and the rival claimants hastened to appeal to Rome; but the result of their appeal was a startling one both for themselves and for the King. Innocent the Third, who now occupied the Papal throne, had pushed its claims of supremacy over Christendom further than any of his predecessors: after a careful examination he quashed both the contested elections.
The decision was probably a just one; but Innocent did not stop there; whether from love of power, or, as may fairly be supposed, in despair of a free election within English bounds, he commanded the monks who appeared before him to elect in his presence Stephen Langton to the archiepiscopal see. Personally a better choice could not have been made, for Stephen was a man who by sheer weight of learning and holiness of life had risen to the dignity of Cardinal, and whose after career placed him in the front rank of English patriots. But in itself the step was an usurpation of the rights both of the Church and of the Crown. The King at once met it with resistance, and replied to the Papal threats of interdict if Langton were any longer excluded from his see, by a counter threat that the interdict should be followed by the banishment of the clergy and the mutilation of every Italian he could seize in the realm. Innocent, however, was not a man to draw back from his purpose, and the interdict fell at last upon the land. All worship save that of a few privileged orders, all administration of the Sacraments save that of private baptism, ceased over the length and breadth of the country: the church-bells were silent, the dead lay unburied on the ground.