King John in the Hot Seat
Why should students care about why the barons rebelled against John or why some historians give him a better report than others? It all happened 800 years ago – unless he appears in the room with them and brings the issues to life. This hot-seating activity is first of all about motivating and enthusing students and then helping them to develop a deeper understanding of the issues. By playing the part of King John you can show the complexity of the man – intelligent, charming, bad-tempered, sullen, even paranoid about possible enemies. Students pick up that many-sidedness much better from a hot-seating activity than from a list of adjectives in a book. And that can then take you into work on interpretations – why might historians disagree or describe John differently? You can also explore what made a good medieval king – what were John’s strengths and weaknesses as a king? And, in addition, you’ve had a good time playing a villain!
By the time the debriefing is over students should have developed their understanding of:
- the key issues of John’s reign, which he handled well and which he handled badly.
- John’s strengths and weaknesses as king and the qualities needed by medieval kings in general.
- the reasons why some interpretations of John focus on his strengths and others show him as an awful king
1. Setting up needs time and care – don’t rush it to get to the drama. Without careful setting up there won’t be any drama. You need to ensure that students have some basic information about events and who was who and a map showing John’s lands in 1199 when he became king. None of this is very detailed and can go on one sheet of A3 at the most – students may want to have these to hand during the hot-seating. You can find all these, at a level suitable for Year 7, on pages 3-7 of Banham and Dawson's, King John.
2. Talk through the events of John’s reign with students – get them to make a list of his failures and the questions they’d ask John if he walked into the room – why did he kill Arthur? Why did he quarrel with the barons? Make no attempt to be objective – the activity works best if students have developed a strong sense of John’s awfulness.
Material from the Chronicles
Add in some of the gems in the chronicles such as:
Gervase, a monk of Canterbury
After arguing with the Pope, John ordered the few monks who remained at Canterbury, including the blind and crippled, out of the country. He said that all monks were public enemies. The whole of England was taxed heavily. He imprisoned many, bound them in iron chains and only released them in return for money.
Roger of Wendover, a monk at St. Albans
The King’s men dragged priests from their horses and robbed and beat them. The King’s judges refused to help the priests. The servants of a sheriff on the Welsh border came to the royal court with a prisoner who had robbed and murdered a priest. They asked the King what they should do with him. John said ‘He has killed an enemy of mine. Untie him and let him go.’
A priest called Geoffrey
In 1209 Geoffrey said it was not safe for priests to work for the King any longer. John heard of this and Geoffrey was imprisoned in chains, placed in a box made from lead and starved. Weakened and crushed Geoffrey died an agonising death.
It’s up to you whether you tell the class what’s going to happen next or next time – you’ll know how they’ll react and whether it’s best kept a secret until the moment arrives. If you are using a different room, get a colleague to collect the class and lead them into the presence of the King!
‘John, King of England, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, Lord of Ireland – welcome to my court!’
Announce yourself and take your time – as you do so, look the key students in the eyes and hold their gaze – make sure they realize that you believe you are John.
‘I understand that you have some questions about my reign. I will answer them fairly because you look intelligent, understanding people. So begin – what is the first question?’
And now wait! It may take a few moments for someone to start, especially if they have not done a hot-seating activity before. Don’t rush into filling the silence. If necessary, pick out someone who you can be confident will ask a question – and it may be someone who’s often talkative at the wrong moment in normal classes
Once the first question is underway you’re off – and you can’t control the order of questions or debate. The exhilarating thing – or worrying! - is that there’s no detailed script – you have to improvise in role.
But there is a general script. The key point is to develop John’s character in response to the questions. At first behave politely, praising the first couple of questioners for the intelligence of their questions; then gradually begin to get irritated – challenge the evidence, especially of the chroniclers, argue back about your good qualities and tell them how good a king you were – show off and appear arrogant. Then deteriorate – your aim by the end is to appear paranoid about treachery all around you! Lose your temper if Richard gets mentioned – why does everyone praise Richard when I had to solve all the problems he left me? – very self-pitying! If there’s a colleague in the room make sure he or she is taking notes – then grab the notes, tear them up and accuse him/her of communicating with your enemies – everyone is against me!
To do this you need to inject some basic information to challenge the story you set up in the previous lesson. You’ll need to sort out for yourself which bits of information any particular class will be able to handle.
Some key points are:
- Actions during Richard’s reign – he was hardly ever in England and exacted huge taxes for his wars and Crusades. You worked with the barons to curb his tax collectors – this might have looked like rebellion but you were really trying to help the people. What good did Richard do for England?
- Treatment of Arthur – Arthur was old enough to lead an army in rebellion so his age is irrelevant. If Arthur had become king it would have broken up the empire. He was plotting with the King of France against his own family. What else should you have done – ask students what they would have done with someone who was plotting and rebelling in alliance with another country. If you had let him go, he would only have started another rebellion.
- Loss of lands in France – this was Richard’s fault. There was no money left and wages for soldiers were rising fast. Richard didn’t have to face Philip Augustus of France – who you nearly beat at the battle of Bouvines. The barons were also against you, refusing to join your army to win back France.
- Quarrel with the church - you defended your country against the Pope’s interference. The King should choose archbishops – and you had excellent archbishops in Stephen Langton and Hubert Walter. Langton was on your side against the barons. You didn’t seize the church lands for very long!
- Evidence from monks – they were biased! Did they have first-hand knowledge,, hidden away in their monasteries? Can you believe them – Wendover’s story about the sheriff is very vague – which sheriff? And Geoffrey was still alive at the end of your reign – so it’s made up – after all, Wendover didn’t write this until much later.
- What about your qualities? – you worked so hard, travelling round the country to hear law cases – you even went to Yorkshire during the winter! You were a great administrator and the judges asked for your opinion on cases. Richard didn’t do any of this – he just wasted money on wars.
So John emerges as clever, hard-working, charming, devious, suspicious, untrustworthy, paranoid.
The end – really lose your temper at yet another question – shout that you are the king, that your enemies are all around you, that they should be supporting you not questioning – sound as pathetic as you can, on the brink of tears! And storm out.
1. Start with overall, impressions – what was John like? What words would you use to describe him? Build up a list, maybe in two columns to show different facets and qualities – suggest some words that they might agree with but not come up with themselves.
2. Move onto was he a good king? This means going back to what qualities a king needed – which of these could you tick for John? Can you see why people might rebel against him?
3. if you were a historian what would you say? Which qualities would you pick out – why might historians disagree?
That then leads you into whatever follow-up you have planned – it may be another lesson on John and Magna Carta or a look at medieval kings in general.
Notes & Variations
1. The above activity works at A level – you do need to explain why you’re doing it this way to avoid them feeling that enjoying lessons is beneath them! You can bring in a lot of information and detailed argument through this kind of activity and the learning is likely to be more effective than with more ordinary methods.
2. Using a chess board as a prop helps in a variety of ways. It makes John seem clever – you can be found moving the odd piece in a thoughtful way. Break up the question and answer by going back to the board to move a piece – it allows you breathing space and, if you’re about to lose character and smile you can turn away from the class to the chess board, recompose yourself and start again. A great ending is to sweep the pieces off the board but make sure you sweep them away from your students, not towards them. Other useful props include a wine goblet (with water!) and a royal ring so your subjects can kneel and kiss the king’s ring. Parchment is easily simulated using a roll of lining paper bound with ribbon.
- How often have you used this kind of hot-seating before with this class? Does the frequency of use affect its effectiveness and, if so, what effects will this have on your overall course planning?
- What did students learn about power and kingship as well as about the specifics of King John’s reign?
- When and how will you refer back to this session later in your course? Will this reference back be more effective because of the use of hot-seating?
- Did you enjoy the activity yourself? If so, why?