How did King John die? A Comic Strip Answer

In some of the Robin Hood films we can see king John portrayed in a very unflattering light. He is shown as physically weedy, mentally cruel and grasping, and frightened of his big brother Richard who is away crusading or something. He is an almost comical villain. Perhaps some of this was true. He is still regarded as an unsuccessful king by many modern historians. But there is one aspect of his life where he could be seen himself as the victim of a melodramatic plot. It was alleged by some that he had been poisoned by a monk at Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire with the full consent of the Abbot and the support of all the other members of the community. This story is told in a series of illustrations that could almost be taken from a modern graphic novel, but were actually printed in 1570 by John Foxe, famous for his portrayal of English Protestant martyrs.

Worcester Cathedral Library

Comic strip-style illustration from 1570 edition of Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, held in Worcester Cathedral Library. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

King John was not afraid of a fight. This year we have naturally heard a good deal about him being obliged to sign the first version of Magna Carta in June 1215. However it is also true, though much less well-known, that some weeks later Pope Innocent III, at John’s request, declared the Charter to be ‘shameful and demeaning, illegal and unjust, and null and void of all validity for ever’. Following this a powerful group of barons made war against their king, and in May 1216 Prince Louis, son and heir to the French king invaded Kent at their invitation. John fought back hard, campaigning across the kingdom. But by October he was dead, and his body had been brought to Worcester for burial near Saint Oswald and Saint Wulfstan.

It was not clear how the king had died. It may have had something to do with the shock of losing his most valuable possessions including the crown jewels as he crossed the river estuaries that emptied into the Wash. It may well have been a case of severe dysentery, for which some blamed the king’s habit of gluttonous over-eating. But before very long stories began to be told that he had been poisoned while staying at Swineshead Abbey. The British Library says the first evidence for this rumour is found in a Norman French manuscript that says he ‘fuit enpoysoné par une frere de la meson’ (was poisoned by a brother of the house).

King John

13th century manuscript depicting poisoning of King John, held in the British Library. (BL Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII).

The story was first printed by Caxton in his 1480 Chronicles of England. It was later told at length in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, also known as the Book of Martyrs. The 1570 edition included a page that showed the poisoning in a series of engravings rather like a modern comic. First a monk called Simon tells the Abbot what he is planning and begs for forgiveness in advance. The Abbot absolves him in the Latin words of the confessional. The practice of regular personal confession of sins to a priest was abandoned at the Reformation and certainly confessing the sins before they are committed is a parody of the practice.

Next Simon somehow extracts poison from a dead toad using a method that is still unknown to science! He presents it to the king in a drink with the words ‘Wassail my liege’, after having tasted it himself to reassure John. The King’s grave counsellor nonetheless looks concerned, as well he might, and in the fourth picture we see the same counsellor mourning over John’s dead body. Simon himself dies of the poison and we see two monks praying over him, and finally a priest celebrating a perpetual daily mass in his honour, while the faces of the congregation show blithe approval.

King John and his counsellor are depicted as serious men with heroic beards, while the monks are ugly, shaven and tonsured, perhaps thus contrasting gravity with depravity. The traditional Christian practices of personal confession and saying the Mass are parodied. Confession seems able to excuse in advance the execution of planned crimes, while the Mass elevates the evil-doer almost to sainthood under the guise of praying for his departed soul. Most importantly, the King himself has become a kind of martyr, betrayed and eliminated by the practices of an unreformed monkish church. Foxe himself disliked his book being called A Book of Martyrs. He was trying to show his belief that the Protestant church, by following another path, was restoring both true Christianity and true kingship.

Tim O’Mara


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