Movies That Unnecessarily Made Real People Into Villains

History | June 22, 2020

King John, ‘Robin Hood’

John, King of England is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Movies That Unnecessarily Made Real People Into Villains
Photo: Buena Vista Distribution

Hopefully you’re not surprised to learn that a cartoon with talking animals doesn’t accurately depict history. But Disney’s Robin Hood is just one of many movies to portray King John, the medieval English monarch, as much more of a tyrant than he really was. In the Disney version, he’s a conniving thumb-sucker. In 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, John is a tyrannical and cruel tax collector. More recently, Paul Giamatti played him as an oppressor of noble English barons in 2011’s Ironclad. However, not only was the real King John not a talking lion, but he also wasn’t nearly as evil as he’s been made out to be. It’s more that he was just a really incompetent ruler. 

When John was born in 1166 AD, he wasn’t expected to rule or inherit land. His older brother, King Richard the Lionheart, raised taxes more than any English king had previously, both to pay for his participation in the Third Crusade and to pay a large ransom to the Duke of Austria, who captured him on his way home from the Holy Land. When John inherited the crown in 1199, England faced several problems that would have vexed any ruler, but John proved unable to improve his country’s position. He tried to settle a French political dispute by marrying into the noble Angoul√™me family. This sparked a war with France, during which England lost most of its French territories. John then raised taxes to pay for his failed conflict, which led to his reputation as a greedy over-taxer. Finally, after another failed attempt to invade France in 1214, English barons rose up in revolt. John was unable to quell the rebellion and was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which forever limited royal power.

When John’s successor, King Henry III, took power, historians like Roger Wendover were obliged to tarnish John’s reputation. They painted him as a cruel tyrant, and this portrayal stuck for centuries afterward. John was by no means a good ruler – he’s often described as “one of the worst kings [of England]” – but that’s a far cry from the outright monster we’ve seen in so many Robin Hood stories.

Age: Dec. at 49 (1167-1216)

Birthplace: Beaumont Palace, United Kingdom

Sophia Iztok


Sophia is a recent graduate from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She is a freelance journalist based in New York City writing about everything from music to LGBTQ issues.

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