The Devil and King John by Philip Lindsay

This novel by Philip Lindsay, about King John of England, was first published in 1951.  It’s an interesting take on John and his motivations.  While King John, almost invariably as a villain appears in much of the fiction I read, this is one of few novels focussed entirely on him.

At times the language in the novel is dated: it’s been a long time since I’ve heard ‘gay’ used in the sense of happiness rather than referring to homosexuality.  If you are interested in King John, you may enjoy this novel.

The Devil and King John by Philip Lindsay

‘There is a devil in me at times, and it grips my hands, and uses them.’

King John of England (he reigned from 6 April 1199 to 19 October 1216) features in a number of novels, and is frequently depicted as a villain in television series and movies.  I’ve not come across many novels with John as the main character, and was very keen to read this re-published novel by Philip Lindsay.  ‘The Devil and King John’ was first published in 1951, and some of the language useage clearly reflects this.  [Yes, Gentle Reader, ‘gay’ was once an adjective that referred only to happiness]

The novel follows John, from his time as ‘John Lackland’, favourite of his father King Henry II, through the reign of King Richard I, through his kingship.

In this novel Philip Lindsay has focussed on John’s beliefs – in the ‘Old Religion’ of witchcraft – as being behind his clashes with the Church after he becomes King.  Was his first wife, Isabella, Countess of Gloucester (also known as Hadwisa) really a witch? Such a portrayal serves the plot of Mr Lindsay’s novel as it provides him with a connection between John and witchcraft.  After his marriage to Hadwisa is annulled, John is depicted as being besotted by his second wife Isabella, Countess of Angoulême.  But John can also be very cruel, the legacy perhaps of his famed Angevin temper.

At times I found myself feeling some sympathy for John: his being drawn to the ‘Old Religion’ provides a surprisingly plausible explanation (in fiction, at least) for some of his responses to the Church. And the Magna Carta?  In this novel there are two sides to the argument over the Magna Carta.  I have to think about that some more.

This is an interesting portrayal of John, and more sympathetic towards him than any other fictional account I’ve read.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Endeavour Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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