Richard I was a hairy king with a Lion's Heart; he went roaring around the desert making ferocious attacks on the Saladins and Paladins and was thus a very romantic king. John was an Awful King, who flung himself on the rushes foaming at the mouth during his frequent temper tantrums and lost the Crown in the wash. Sellar and Yeatman's inimitable 1066 and All That nicely sums up all most of us know about the two brothers who succeeded their father Henry II to the throne of the Angevin Empire in the last decades of the 12th century, give or take a few fantasies about Blondel, Robin Hood and Magna Carta.
Frank McLynn's new book is almost a sequel to his 1066: the Year of the Three Battles, prefaced as it is with a recap of the fortunes of the monarchy after William Rufus. He sets out his stall with aplomb. Can Richard be as nice as all that? Can John be as nasty? Well, apparently they can, give or take the occasional massacre on Richard's part and the odd military triumph on John's. How could two brothers be so totally different?
Enter their larger-than-life parents, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the heroine of campaign and crusade who favoured Richard, and Henry II, who ruled his domains with an iron fist and doted on John. McLynn characterises with thesaurian vigour. Behind a generous, even saintly, front, Henry II "was wilful, secretive, manipulative, volatile, crafty, slippery, vindictive, brooding, unforgiving, treacherous..." Short, dark-haired John was "cruel, miserly, extortionate, duplicitous, treacherous, mendacious, suspicious, secretive, paranoid and lecherous". Eleanor is "curvaceous with a superb figure that never ran to fat". Richard is blue-eyed, splendidly tall, a shrewd judge of men, a master of strategy.
So far, so good (except for Eleanor's risible bit part), but then we get bogged down in mystifying in-fighting between husband, wife and brothers, wily Philip Augustus of France and various nobles of fluctuating loyalties. In 1189, 32-year-old Richard succeeds his father, but perfidy remains the order of the day. Impregnable fortresses in Aquitaine, Brittany, Flanders and Normandy are taken and retaken. Only a very careful reading, with a detailed map at my side, enabled me to keep track of the campaigns.
Richard's departure on crusade comes as a relief, and Saladin is brilliantly drawn, but soon we are stalemated in the vexed politics of Cyprus and Outremer. After Richard's qualified success in getting Jerusalem re-opened for Christian pilgrims, with an enthralling account of his failed attempt to evade his waiting enemies and his regaining of freedom after ransom, the struggle to maintain the Angevin empire resumes.
Richard's death in 1199 adds energy to the narrative, because McLynn is so fired by John's wickedness during his 16-year reign. He confidently rubbishes recent pro-John arguments, and downplays Magna Carta. There is also a richer social texture, because of the added evidence from records on parchment rolls that began to be kept during John's reign. McLynn makes deft use of these, and of the vivid chroniclers, but holds up his narrative too often by entering into the scholarly lists to applaud, or rubbish, expert opinions. The subsequent cornucupia of contradictory detail will fascinate the converted, but it slows the going for the novice.