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The Ghosts of King John

Today, Tynemouth Priory looks a likely place for a haunting. The ruin stands tall and gaunt at the high point of the windswept Northumberland coastline. Advancing towards its hollow east end is a wave of weathered gravestones. There was no gothic cemetery outside when it was a living community of monks (Benedictine) but the medieval residents may well have felt a chill over the burials within. This monastic church carried the macabre distinction of being, for a time, the resting-place of two murder victims, both of them monarchs: Oswine of Deira (d. 651), in whose name the church was dedicated; and Malcolm III. king of Scots (d. 1093).These monks were the custodians of spilled blood and stolen lives.

King John’s Tomb Effigy

Perhaps it is no surprise then to find that Tynemouth was the scene of a unique medieval ghost story, recounted only by the thirteenth-century chronicler, Matthew Paris (d. c. 1259). One night in 1224, a monk, Reimund, awoke in his bed to see an apparition of King John (r. 1199-1216) standing before him. He was dressed like a king, in a robe ‘commonly called imperial’, Matthew says. Recalling that the king was dead, Reimund asked him, lamely, how was it with him. Worse than any man, the monarch replied, explaining that his robe was of an unbearable weight – more than any man of the living world might lift – and its imperial glitter was in fact a perpetual fire. Yet, he confided, he trusted in God that he might be released from his suffering by the intercessions of his son, Henry, his alms giving and his reverence for Christian worship. He has shown himself and his awful suffering to deliver a message, through this monastic community, to his old partner-in-crime, Richard Marsh, bishop of Durham (d. 1226), a prelate, by no coincidence, who was the avowed enemy of the monks of Tynemouth. Richard must be warned that his own seat in hell had been prepared, and he would surely take it soon unless he change his shameful ways, and did penance. The ghost then offered two proofs of his identity, one for the monk in front of him and one to be presented to the bishop: first, he described a ring which the king had given to the priory as a votive offering; then he related an instance when the bishop had counselled him on how to cheat the Cistercians of their year crop of wool. Then, he disappears.

Warnings from the domain of dead to the living world were not uncommon in medieval dream visions but this encounter has the different characteristics of a classic ghost story. Reimund is awake, and the ghost of John steps into his world; he even closes the distance between them by speaking of objects and people on the monk’s own horizon. Six hundred years before the publication of DickensChristmas Carol (1843) this ghostly John seems to anticipate the character of Jacob Marley. Like Marley, John is a soul in torment; he too carries the burden he made for himself, the robe he wove in life. Bishop Richard is his Scrooge, albeit his heart is black, not merely cold.

Beyond Matthew, there is no other telling of this ghost story. But it is not the only story of apparitions associated with King John and his death at Newark Castle (Notts.).

The chronicle compiled at Coggeshall Abbey (Essex) remembered that the night of the king’s death – 18-19 October 1216 – was haunting indeed. In the middle of the night there was such a shattering wind and storm that the townspeople feared that their houses would fall. Many spoke of the horrific and supernatural apparitions (horribiles et phantasticae visiones) that came to them. By implication at least, they were terrifying, for the chronicler would not say what they were (hic describere supersedimus).

King John is poisioned at Swineshead: BL MS Cotton Vitellius A XIII

John had been sick for some weeks before he died. He had been campaigning across the middle of the kingdom, through Suffolk and Norfolk into Lincolnshire, and it is possible he succumbed to dysentery, the soldier’s disease. Yet stories soon circulated of suspicious circumstances. Before the end of the thirteenth-century, an Anglo-Norman verse chronicle (now BL MS Cotton Vitellius A XIII) had taken up a tale of John’s death being the result of a poisoned draught he had been given at Swineshead Abbey, where one of the monks had been determined to end his oppressions of the church. Half a century later in his Polychronicon, Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) had worked the story into a vivid vignette. While John still lived a portent was spoken that he would meet his end at Swineshead. The king responded with an oath that he would retaliate if he lived another year and raise the price of bread from a halfpenny to twelvepence. A lay brother of the house mixed a poisonous brew and coaxed him into drinking it. Higden relished the tale but also held it at arm’s length, offering it to his reader only after he had recorded that the king had died from dysentery.

The macabre fascination with the dead King John was more than a literary trait. In 1239, scarcely a decade into his personal rule, his son Henry III went to his tomb at Worcester Cathedral to see the sarcophagus opened, to look in the face the father he had last seen as a boy of nine. Some 290 years later, the tomb was opened again, and the former Carmelite friar, Reformation provocateur and antiquarian, John Bale (1495-1563), described the sight in uncompromising detail in his commonplace book.

King John’s open sarcophagus

The encounter pressed on Bale’s imagination. In his play Kynge Johan, first written and performed around 1538, the eponymous subject is again represented as the victim of a conspiracy. Simon of Swynsett (i.e. Swineshead) offers him a ‘marvellous good pocyon…a better drink is not in Portugal or Spain’. At once the king is stricken, ‘my body me vexeth, I doubt much of a tympany’. John dies, declaring, ‘There is no malice to the malice of the clergy!’. Then, the final act of the play opens to the spectacle of a supernatural apparition, named as Imperyal Majestye. A spectre of John, or of England’s kingship itself? Whichever it is, he arrives to deliver judgment on the living. The persons of ‘Commynaltye’ and ‘Nobility’ are summoned, to know ‘Ye are much to blame’. ‘Thu playest such a wicked parte’, Majestye’s minister, Veryte, condemns them, warning ’…thy great parell and exceedynge ponnyshment’. He commands, ‘Bowe to Imperyall Majeste. Knele and axe pardon for yowr great enormyte’. Once again, John’s own death and his ghostly presence are pretexts for exposing the wickedness of the world.

The link between the legend of King John and ghostly apparitions was revived in the Victorian period. Martin Tupper (1810-89), philosopher and popular poet, created a new tale of a haunting in which John played a pivotal role. In his historical novel, Stephan Langton (1858), he narrated a story of the king’s abduction, abuse and murder of the daughter of a woodman living in the lee of the Surrey Downs south east of Guildford. John was said to have drowned the girl a spring-fed lake known as the Silent Pool. Ever after, her ghost may be seen at midnight rising from the middle of the pool. By the early 20th century, the Silent Pool had become a site of tourist interest.

King John’s reputation, the manner of his end and even his corrupted corpse have been an enduring source of inspiration for ghoulish reflections on life and death, good and evil, shaping the contemporary response to the traumas of his time, and still, post-medieval representations of that world.

James Clark

Medieval History in the Classroom: An Interview with Jack Pettitt

Jack Pettitt

Jack Pettitt, an Exeter graduate and secondary school history teacher, has spent his summer filming a series of online videos to help his students learn about the Normans. To make this series look as professional as possible, Jack not only filmed on location at historical sites, but recorded interviews with several academics, including myself and others from the CMS. And after Jack had finished talking to me about the Norman Church, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about medieval history and the current secondary school curriculum…

What aspects of medieval history do you teach?

‘In my school, we go from the decline of the Roman Empire to the migration of tribes into Britain, so the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles. And then we look at Anglo-Saxon England itself. We cover very basic topics, such as what it was like to live in Anglo-Saxon England, and look at VIPs like Alfred the Great, Offa, etc. Then we do the Norman Conquest in quite a lot of depth. We go from the invasion itself – we cover all three battles in 1066 – all the way through to how William secured control. Then we move on to medieval England. First we take a bottom-up approach and look at things like town life, village life, and the Black Death. Next we do more top-down history and look at medieval kingship. We focus on King John, Magna Carta, and the Peasants’ Revolt.’

How do students respond to medieval history in comparison to modern history?

‘In most lessons I hear “when are we doing WWI?” or “when are we doing WWII?” The students have this perception that modern world wars are the most important and the most engaging and fun. And I think that partly comes from what they do in primary school. But, also, I suppose because it wasn’t that long ago. I teach in a boys’ school and a lot of boys have grown up with stories from their grandparents about WWII and Nazi Germany so it’s more relatable. It’s close. It’s the same with the Cold War when I teach it to my GCSE students. They’ve got an emotional or cultural connection to some of the stuff, like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan – and you can see it. Whereas when you teach about the Anglo-Saxons or Normans, it’s so far away it’s another world.’

So how do you make medieval history engaging?

‘My ethos is that I love the subject and that’s going to come through, hopefully, in my teaching. But sometimes for the average person, you need to make a link. Teaching history is about finding the relevance for your students. For example, showing how the Magna Carta is relevant today, how it was a step towards a more democratic society.

I also try to bring topics to life and I think that’s very, very important. You’re not meant to have a bias when teaching, but some of the stuff I find really dry, like the farming calendar – I couldn’t think of anything drier! In contrast, my Black Death scheme of work runs over four lessons: I turn the whole classroom into a medieval apothecary and I wear a lab coat and look at symptoms and cures.

I also teach every lesson to an inquiry question, which is grounded in historical rigour. For example, my King John lesson asks if Disney’s representation of King John is fair. So we look at how Disney portrayed him in Robin Hood and then we look at what historians, such as Marc Morris and Stephen Church, have said. I try to ground my lessons with the work of historians. And it makes it fun, doesn’t it?

Finally, why are you doing the video series?

‘This is a crazy idea I had in January. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I could teach a lesson and the kids could see me, their teacher, doing history in the field? How inspiring would that be! They would love it! And it makes use of current digital technology. Plus, not only will it show the kids that their teacher is passionate about the topic, but it will be a great teaching aid for others.’

Helen Birkett

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