‘King John was not a good man’; so said A.A.Milne in a collection of poetry aimed at six year olds – and so generations of children have learnt this basic ‘fact’ about King John almost before they were old enough to go to school. 1
A.A. Milne was following in a long line of critics of the Angevin king. As far back as the 1230s, the chronicler Matthew Paris wrote, ‘Foul as Hell is, it is made fouler by the presence of King John’.
Does King John deserve his awful reputation? In many ways he probably does. But even a murderous, capricious, tyrannical failure of a monarch has to have his good points – and anyone who has ever carried out research using documents held at The National Archives may well have cause to thank him.
Why? Because for all his flaws, King John was an assiduous administrator. He was very keen on filing, and it is the filing system that seems to have originated in his reign that formed the backbone of the recordkeeping systems of English (and later British) royal government for centuries. They gradually evolved into the vast and varied collections of public records that are today in the safekeeping of The National Archives. 2 So, on the 800th anniversary of his death, it seemed appropriate to remember his importance to our organisation. Continue reading »
- 1. Quote from King John’s Christmas, in A.A.Milne, ‘Now We Are Six’ (First edn., London, 1927). ^
- 2. Little, if anything, in this blog is an original idea. For a fuller and more nuanced discussion of the beginnings of Chancery enrolments, see N.Vincent, ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment Under John and his Contemporaries’ in ‘English Government in the Thirteenth Century’, ed. A.Jobson (Woodbridge, 2004), pp.17-48; D.A.Carpenter, ‘”In Testimonium Factorum Brevium”: The Beginnings of English Chancery Rolls’ in ‘Records, Administration and Aristocratic Society in the Anglo-Norman Realm’, ed. N.Vincent (Woodbridge, 2009), pp.1-28. It should be noted that Carpenter argues that systematic Chancery enrolment started much earlier than the reign of John. On King John’s life and reign more generally, see S.D.Church, ‘King John’ (Macmillan, 2015). ^