HST 390/391: Misrule and Magna Carta: the Reign of King John

Level 3: semesters 1 and 2

email : Dr. Daniel Power, Module Leader


A pass in at least two history modules from HST200 - HST299.

Module Summary

'Foul as Hell is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of King John' so his enemies believed. The nicknames for England's most notorious medieval king ring down the centuries: 'Lackland', 'Softsword', 'Doll-heart'. John accumulated crime upon crime and failure upon failure. Before his accession to the throne he proved a traitor to his father, Henry II, and brother, Richard the Lionheart. At the beginning of his reign he lost most of his hereditary lands in France, and by his death he had lost half of England to rebels and foreign invaders. He was excommunicated by the pope and for six years there were no church services in England. His life was characterised by treachery, cruelty, murder, adultery, incest and possibly paedophilia.

Yet John's name will be forever associated with the most potent symbol of English freedom: Magna Carta. The significance of this document has been hotly debated since the day it was sealed by John; even today politicians invoke it as the guarantor of our liberty. John's turbulent reign is also crucially important for the place of England and 'the English' in the European history. It witnessed the collapse of the Angevin Empire in France, ending England's special association with Normandy since the Norman Conquest. John's quarrel with the pope over the archbishopric of Canterbury defined England's place within the Catholic Church for the remainder of the Middle Ages. His campaigning in Ireland, Wales and Scotland led to a major shift in the balance of power between England and its neighbours, foreshadowing English domination of the British Isles.

This module will consider the reign of King John as a whole, providing the context for these dramatic and far-reaching changes. While seminars will focus mainly upon the reign itself, some attention will also be given to the reigns of Henry II (1154-89), Richard I (1189-99), and the minority of Henry III (1216-25). The module includes trips to two of the chief historical sites for the reign: in the autumn to the splendid tomb of King John in Worcester Cathedral, and in the spring to Lincoln to see the castle, cathedral and original exemplar of Magna Carta.


This module will be taught primarily by seminars (two per week) in which students will work with primary sources in translation. The reign of King John has left us the earliest surviving records of English government on a day-to-day basis as well as a collection of juicy and colourful chronicles and songs.

Selected Reading

Bartlett, R., England under the Norman and Angevin Kings, (2000)

Clanchy, M.T., England and its rulers 1066 - 1272, (2nd ed., 1998)

Gillingham, J., The Angevin Empire, (1984)

Mortimer, R., Angevin England 1154-1258, (1994)

Church, S.D. (ed.), The Reign of King John: New Interpretations, (1999)

Holt, J.C., Magna Carta, (2nd. ed., 1992)

Turner, R.V., King John, (1994)

Warren, W.L., King John, (repr. 1997)

Intended Learning Outcomes

Students completing this module will have acquired the ability to:

  • Locate the developments of the reign in the broader context of Western European history, exploring such topics as rulership, land and power, justice and law, and concepts of identity.
  • Develop a profound and scholarly understanding of the reign of King John, coming to independent conclusions on salient issues of interpretation.
  • Distinguish between different schools of interpretation and historical debate, attaining an awareness of current research issues beyond the published literature.
  • Manipulate, evaluate and recognise a wide variety of primary sources in translation, including chronicles, histories, political songs, letters, charters, pipe rolls and court records, as well as some visual sources such as King Johns tomb, seals and coinage.
  • Apply these skills in the context of gobbet exercises, working under pressure of time.
  • Take responsibility for running seminars, elaborating and defending an intellectual position to other members of the group and introducing primary and secondary material to them.
  • Write informed and cogent essays related to the period.
  • Use the International Medieval Bibliography electronic database as a tool for identifying relevant bibliographical material, as well as websites containing primary sources not available in print form. use the International Medieval Bibliography electronic database as a tool for identifying relevant bibliographical material, as well as websites containing primary sources not available in print form.