King John is one of those historical characters who needs little in the way of introduction. If readers are not already familiar with him as the tyrant whose misgovernment gave rise to Magna Carta, we remember him as the villain in the stories of Robin Hood. Formidable and cunning, but also cruel, lecherous, treacherous and untrusting. Twelve years into his reign, John was regarded as a powerful king within the British Isles. But despite this immense early success, when he finally crosses to France to recover his lost empire, he meets with disaster. John returns home penniless to face a tide of criticism about his unjust rule. The result is Magna Carta – a ground-breaking document in posterity, but a worthless piece of parchment in 1215, since John had no intention of honoring it. Like all great tragedies, the world can only be put to rights by the tyrant’s death. John finally obliges at Newark Castle in October 1216, dying of dysentery as a great gale howls up the valley of the Trent.
Marc Morris is a historian specializing in the Middle Ages. He is the author of A Great and Terrible King; King John; and the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling The Norman Conquest. He lives in England.