King John, Part 1


by Keith Hopkins (June 2014)

What are rights? Do we need them? Or are we free to do whatever we want – minimal rules excepted? How can anyone give someone else the ‘right’ to do anything? Then, if something is given, can it not be taken away? Shakespeare’s King John is all about the law and has more references to it than any other of his plays. So, we might reasonably conclude that the Bard has a thing or two to say on the momentous topic of the law. He has. This reviewer has counted twenty eight references in King John just to the one word ‘right’. Rights for Shakespeare are the essence of freedom – the freedom of the individual. But rights are not granted by others, whether one’s ‘superiors’ in society or by some other body. People have what might be called ‘natural’ rights which are, in a deep sense, inalienable. An important theme in this area in King John is with the making of a Will. This keys into a host of issues relating to ‘rights’, in this case the ‘right’ of a deceased person to speak after death through a Will. Do the dead have such a – counter-intuitive – right? Do the dead have ‘rights’ over the living? What about the unborn? Such legal concerns are centre-stage in King John because they are played out within the law-dominated social and political structure known as feudalism. This was a legal arrangement that bound rulers and what were called ‘vassals’ – powerful subordinates in the society. Shakespeare probed the limits of feudalism (pretty much expired in his own day) for what light it could shed on the notions of individual freedom and arbitrary power – central concerns of Elizabethan England, an island nation threatened by powerful neighbours. A very odd feature of the play is the omission by Shakespeare of what many take to be the single most important event of King John’s reign – the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This mystery only deepens, when you consider that this play, far more than The Merchant of Venice, is built upon and around a structure of medieval law – theory and practice. How could Shakespeare NOT include reference to the foundational document of the English speaking world? The reason, maybe, was that Magna Carta remained an explosive issue in Shakespeare’s day. It still is. Freedom is not something granted by anyone, through ‘rights’ or anything else.

Professor Ken. Minogue (The Servile Mind) neatly summarized the position:

“Magna Carta conferred no benefits on anyone. It merely restated the rules governing how the barons related to each other, a set of rules that had been disrupted by a thug called John. . . Such declarations tend to formulate the point in abstract terms that go beyond the immediate interests of those involved. . .”

There was a limit to what people, particularly powerful people, would put up with coming from a ruler. Magna Carta was really about balancing powers the better to avoid a conflict in which no side is strong enough to overcome the other. Because there comes a point, in any western society, when those at the very top will discover, as the old saying goes, you can do everything with bayonets except sit on them. Law thus reflects real politik, and a balance of terror between opposing forces. King John is an unsympathetic account of human law in terms of the law of the jungle.

Medieval Europe was the product of Rome. And Rome’s single greatest legacy was the law. Roman law. Roman jurists developed a world first. A concept of the individual. This concept tended to lack traction and steam in the ancient world (an understatement) given the absolute rule of the emperors but it came into its own, in a highly specific form, after the collapse of the Empire. Leaders of communities in Europe that grew up from the sixth century onwards wanted to consolidate their rule and acquire legitimacy. Borrowed clothing is better than no clothing at all. Things Roman became all the rage. On Christmas Day 800 the semi-literate ex-barbarian, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in Rome. Political authority, on a continent-wide scale, was reconstituted and based on the Roman civil code, newly baptised in the Christian faith (England merged this with its own common law). A huge system of landholding, and mutual obligation began to develop. Feudalism. The high and the mighty held land directly from or ‘of’ the king. They were called vassals and swore oaths (not rude ones) to the king that in return for being granted land they would perform military service and fight in the king’s wars, in every respect as if they were their wars i.e to the death. Roman law governed the feudal system. There was only one problem. Well, two or three actually. Feudalism was unknown in the ancient world. Roman law was like putting on a tightly fitting jacket and baggy trousers. It just wouldn’t fit any longer. So what happens if the borrowed clothing makes you look like a clown and restricts your movement? In particular the whole clanking mechanism of rights, duties and services was taken over from the Lex Romana. This turned relations between king, and vassals, and lesser vassals into a legal minefield. Worse, the abstract concept of the individual came across as well. This was to embitter the classes in the pyramid of obligations that was feudalism. Later, it was to prove the spark that ignited revolutions in France and Russia. All of this is clear, in outline form at least, in Shakespeare’s King John.

So, the concept of the individual was a ticking time bomb. Medieval kings, unlike the emperors of ancient Rome, were shorn of absolute power by the law though they sometimes felt, like King John, the tug of absolutism. Roman law conferred legitimacy but reduced them to the status of a first among equals. Feudalism meant that the kings had to swear to uphold the laws. They had to respect others. But it was more than that. Any failure by the king to uphold the law damaged the social and political fabric of society. Kings were meant to act within the law, not outside it or as though it didn’t exist. Everyone, not just the powerful, was injured if the king went his own way. In a society when so much hinged on the ownership of land, to be dispossessed was a particularly heinous offence. King John was forced to recognize the demands of the barons that they could not be dispossessed without due and lawful process. No confiscation without legal representation. The law of succession, Will making and all that, was an explosive area. But it demonstrated also that this legal business cut both ways. The king had to respected as well. He was at the apex of the triangle and if he looked down on others, they had to look up to him. Some said John was a usurper. He needed the law to validate him in the eyes of the feudal world. He lived in a turbulent and violent age.

Henry II died in 1189. He had made a stellar marriage, even for a feudal king, to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou, and a former queen of France. She owned, basically, half of France. One of the great figures of medieval history, Eleanor was clever, far-sighted, ambitious and a ruthless political player. She is an important presence in Shakespeare’s play, as are her three sons. Son number one was England’s finest, Richard I (the Lionheart). Richard (Amal Rik to the Turks) died in 1199. Son number two was Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany who died in 1186. He had married one Constance, mother of Arthur, who both feature in the play. Shakespeare skilfully contrasts Constance and Eleanor. Constance is a pitiful, vulnerable figure, forever pleading, unsuccessfully, for her son’s legal rights to be recognized. Eleanor is strong, dominant and unyielding in advancing the claims of her last remaining son, John, to be the lawful successor to Richard to the throne of England.

Philip (‘The Bastard’) is strong and masterful, just like his grandmother, Eleanor. He is the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart and one Lady Faulconbridge. The play opens with the lawful heir, Robert Faulconbridge, wishing to inherit in accordance with his father’s Will. But medieval law gave precedence to primogeniture over pieces of paper. Philip is older than Robert and the law treated the illegitimate offspring of the wife as the legitimate child of the husband. John arbitrates. He, correctly, rules in favour of Philip. But Shakespeare fathoms a point of far deeper significance for medieval society. What is land and property worth? Is not a great name and reputation of vastly greater value? Land has a price. A name is a jewel beyond worth. Would Philip prefer to get the Faulconbridge lands or be acknowledged to the world as the son of the great Coeur-de-Lion? Philip renounces his inheritance and is knighted Sir Richard by John. The legal title of Robert is recognized but Shakespeare subversively suggests this is not ‘worth’ much anyway because what counts is natural ability and personal qualities, which Philip has in abundance. In the RSC production of the play in 2000 Philip was seen beating up his younger and weaker, half-brother, as if to demonstrate his ‘natural superiority’. But Wills and the making of Wills was a dangerous political area in the Elizabethan age.

King John’s own title to the throne derived from the last Will and Testament of his elder brother, Richard, which named John as his successor. But Richard had made at least two earlier Wills in one of which Arthur, son of Constance, was nominated to succeed him (a later Will revokes the earlier one). Some historians suggest that John and Eleanor had procured the later Will by fraud or force. In any event, Arthur’s claim took precedence because he was the son of an older (now deceased) brother, Geoffrey. Primogeniture again. Shakespeare makes Arthur a child of no more than seven or eight whereas in fact he was probably about sixteen. He may have done this to downgrade Arthur’s claim (being a minor) because it is Eleanor, the matriarch of a royal line stretching down through John to Shakespeare’s own time, who is to be the wave of the future. Constance represents a tragic and doomed line of succession going nowhere.

Some of the greatest scenes in the play turn on the confrontation between these two determined women, Eleanor and Constance, each fighting to further the claims of their own sons. In the RSC production referred to their contrasting natures was symbolized by Eleanor striding across the stage in chain mail, helmet and sword, and Constance, in flowing satin, looking like the Lady of Shalott. Sparks fly as each woman accuses the other.

Constance to Eleanor: “monstrous injurer of heaven and earth!”

Constance berates Eleanor’s unrestrained sexual appetite and her illegitimate offspring who:

“usurp/ the dominations, royalties and rights/Of this oppressed boy” (i.e Arthur).

Eleanor returns fire:

“Thou unadvised scold, I can produce/A will that bars the title of thy son”

Constance replies, bitterly:

“Ay, who doubts that? A will! A wicked will;/ A woman’s will, a cank’red grandam’s will!”

The plot thickens.

Queen Elizabeth I traced her succession from the Will of her father, Henry VIII. At the distance of five hundred years, we can now say what would have been impossible to say then – the legal validity of that Will was, is, open to some legal doubt. The doomed Mary, Queen of Scots was the granddaughter of Henry’s older sister, Margaret Tudor. Mary was also a double queen, of Scotland and France. In terms of dynastic law and succession, certainly if one follows the feudal precedents, Mary had a stronger claim to the throne of England than Elizabeth. Henry’s Will overturned legal precedent and custom (and, perhaps, the law itself) by excluding his sister’s descendants from the succession. In King John Constance and Arthur are supported by the French. Mary, Queen of Scots was supported by France and Spain. The play seems to owe something to the intolerance, indeed hysteria, in government circles following the judicial murder of Mary in 1587 and the Armada of the following year. John is a kind of John Bull figure in the play. Like Elizabeth, he defies foreign powers. Like Elizabeth he has been excommunicated by the Pope. Like Elizabeth he has issued an implied, but not complete, authority for murder. In John’s case, for the despatch of Arthur. Elizabeth had drawn up a notorious death warrant for Mary, but at the time of Mary’s execution had not sealed it, and protested (unconvincingly) to the world that she was thus innocent of Mary’s death.

Clearly, Shakespeare was sailing over deep, and dangerous, waters.


(Continue reading part 2 here.)



Keith Hopkins is an historian and lawyer (solicitor). In 2007 he won the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust award for a review of ‘The History Plays’.

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