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Wednesday 12 March 2014

An Un-Christian King? King John and the Lenten Fast

Temptation of Christ (England, early 13thC), BL, Arundel 157
With the season of Lent now in its second week, many people will be struggling to stick to their good intentions of avoiding a favourite treat for the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In our modern, largely secular world such resolutions often have little to do with religion. But for medieval Christians, Lent was a time of penitence and preparation for Easter, during which all healthy adults were expected to perform serious feats of fasting, including abstinence from all meat and other animal products. The season of Lent- still significant today, but at the heart of the medieval devotional calendar- therefore seems like an ideal time to examine the piety of an individual who has often been accused of being insufficiently pious, or even completely un-Christian: King John.

One oft-cited piece of evidence for John’s impiety comes from the Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis, a hagiographical account of the life of St Hugh, bishop of Lincoln (d.1200) which includes lengthy accounts of the saint’s encounters with the Plantagenet monarchs. Hugh’s meetings with John were apparently rather tense occasions, and matters came to a head at Easter 1200. First John hesitated over the customary offering at the altar on Easter Sunday:
His chamberlain placed in his palm the twelve gold pieces which are the customary oblation of kings. Surrounded by a large crowd of nobles, he stood in front of the bishop, gazing on the coins and playing with them, and delayed making his offering for so long a period, that everyone gaped at him in amazement. At last, the bishop, annoyed at such behaviour at this particular time and place, said, ‘Why do you look at them so intently?’ John answered, ‘I am looking at these gold pieces and thinking that if I had had them a few days ago I would have pocketed them, but now you can take them.’
Then the bishop began to preach, but the king was unimpressed by both the theme of the sermon and its length, and ‘sent someone three times to implore him earnestly to wind up his sermon and celebrate mass.’ Hugh ignored these impertinent requests, and continued with his (otherwise well-received) homily.
The prince, however, rejecting both foods (I mean- the word and the sacrament), was eager to fill his belly with meat, and cared not at all for the emptiness of his mind. Neither on Easter Day, nor the subsequent feast of the Ascension, did he receive the sacraments. His intimates declared that he had never done so since attaining to the years of discretion.
In this version of events, John is certainly not a pious man. But can we take Adam of Eynsham’s account at face value?

The circumstances in which the Magna Vita was composed make it a rather problematic source. Adam was writing towards the end of John’s reign, and clearly struggled to reconcile his knowledge of John’s behaviour in Hugh’s lifetime (i.e. during the years 1199-1200) with his opinion of the king as shaped by subsequent events. In order to do so, he invested Hugh with the power to foresee John’s subsequent descent into disastrous tyranny, and added scurrilous tales of un-Christian conduct.

By re-reading the text with this background in mind, it is possible to find hints that John was not as hostile to the celebration of Easter as Adam tried to suggest. Not only is John present at the Easter Mass, he also makes an offering and listens to the sermon- albeit reluctantly. He is eager to eat because he has observed ‘a prolonged fast’- hardly the action of an irreligious man. In such circumstances, all but the most devout Christians will surely sympathise with John’s reluctance to listen to a very long sermon!

In order to gain a less jaundiced view of John’s piety, we therefore need to consider the fragments of evidence which can be found elsewhere in the surviving sources for his reign. Given the centrality of Lent and Easter in the Christian calendar, the king’s attitude to this season might reasonably be expected to be representative of his religious beliefs, with three key behaviours being of particular interest: the observance of the Lenten fast, the giving of alms on Maundy Thursday, and the taking of communion on Easter Sunday.

John’s critics have pointed out that the king repeatedly failed to observe the conventional fast days- a serious lapse indeed in an age which considered the violation of the Friday fast as a clear rejection of the Christian faith. Two of John’s misae rolls (which record royal wardrobe expenditure) survive, those for 1209-10 and 1212-13. These record frequent payments for the feeding of large numbers of paupers in order to compensate for the king’s lapses. John’s failure to fast on Good Friday 1209 was a particularly grave offence, and thus 46s 10½ d was spent on feeding 500 paupers. Whether this expenditure signals genuine contrition or a rather cynical approach to spiritual affairs is impossible to say. But the lack of any payments for breaking the Lenten fast during 1210, 1212 or 1213, in combination with Eynsham’s evidence that John fasted in 1200, surely suggests that his decision to partake of fish and wine on Good Friday 1209 was something of an exceptional occurrence.

Nor was John’s Lenten almsgiving limited to penitential offerings; he also gave alms on Maundy Thursday. In 1210, John gave 13d, along with a set of clothing, to thirteen paupers. Then, on Maundy Thursday 1212, thirteen paupers each received thirteen pence. Arnold Kellet even suggested that the 1210 Maundy was the first example of a king carrying out what had conventionally been an ecclesiastical activity, although there is some evidence that members of the royal family (including Queen Matilda of Scotland and her mother, St Margaret) carried out Maundy-like ceremonies prior in the early twelfth century. Hence John may simply have been acting traditionally, rather than innovating. Either way, there is no evidence that he engaged in the most spiritual aspect of the Maundy ceremony, the foot-washing, a degrading act which was relished by both Henry III and Louis IX.

The question of whether John took communion at Easter, and thus spent Lent preparing himself to do so, is a tricky one, and can be tackled only through circumstantial evidence. Adam of Eynsham’s claim that the king never took communion is of extremely doubtful credibility, not least because John is known to have attended mass on several occasions. Gerald of Wales, for example, recorded that he once found the king at mass; John remained until the end of the service, and refused to discuss business until it was completed. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that John was an early enthusiast for the practice of confession: he confessed to Hubert Walter in 1202, and subsequently retained a pair of Cistercian abbots as his personal confessors. Since confession was usually a prelude to communion, this evidence seems suggestive. Indeed, there is no good reason to suppose that John deviated from the conventional practice of confessing and doing penance during Lent, in preparation for the Easter communion- although a cynic might suggest that John’s enthusiasm for confession stemmed not from his piety, but from his many sins.   

In their quest to prove that John was a bad king and a bad man, numerous commentators (both medieval and modern) have eagerly claimed that he was also a bad Christian. Yet whilst his religious activities pale into insignificance when considered alongside those of his son, the comparison is not an entirely fair one, since Henry III was surely one of the most pious individuals ever to sit on the English throne. Taken together, the fragments of evidence for John’s Lenten devotions seem to suggest that he was at least conventionally pious- a mediocre Christian, maybe, but a Christian nonetheless.
Further reading on royal piety in 13th C. England:
A. Kellett, ‘King John in Knaresborough: The First Known Royal Maundy’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 62 (1990), 69-90 
N. Vincent, ‘The pilgrimages of the Angevin kings of England, 1154-1272’ in C. Morris and P. Roberts (ed.), Pilgrimage: The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 12-45
N. Vincent, ‘King Henry III and the Blessed Virgin Mary’, Studies in Church History, 39 (2006), 126-14
M. Prestwich, ‘The Piety of Edward I’ in W. M. Ormrod (ed.), England in the Thirteenth Century (Grantham: Harlaxton College, 1985), pp. 120-8

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