Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
England complains to King Johan that she was stripped of her rights and her wealth by the rapacious clergy who drove her husband, God, from the realm. King Johan promises to right her wrongs but is mocked by Sedition, the comic vice and the foremost agent of the Church. Sedition, demonstrating the way in which he and the Church subvert the government of kings, introduces Dissimulation, his right-hand man. Dissimulation works with Private Wealth and Usurped Power. Private Wealth is the darling of the religious orders; he gives strength to Usurped Power, who sustains the arrogance of popes.
King Johan defies Sedition and his cohorts. He calls Nobility, Clergy, and Civil Order to him and prevails on them for their support. Nobility and Civil Order give theirs willingly, but Clergy is reluctant. King Johan was too harsh on him. When the king reminds him of the temporal rights of rulers as outlined in the Gospel, Clergy, still reluctant, consents.
The allegiance of the three is short-lived, however, for Sedition and his minions have little trouble convincing them that the actual power of Rome is stronger than any abstract claim based on the Gospel. Besides, the Church has the sole right of interpreting the Gospel. Nobility, Clergy, and Civil Order are forsworn.
King Johan, now bereft of his three strongest allies, places all of his hopes on Commonalty, his one sure support. Commonalty, the true child of England, is brought to King Johan by his mother, and the king is dismayed to learn that he is both impoverished and blind. He is impoverished, his mother explains, because the Church stole all his goods; his blindness symbolizes his spiritual ignorance, an ignorance in which he is kept by the conspiracy of Clergy who is supposed to open his eyes. For all his failings, Commonalty still is faithful to the king who always sees to his welfare. He willingly reasserts his faith.
In the end, however, he is no more staunch than his more exalted brothers. Clergy has too strong a hold on him, and he, too, becomes a victim of Sedition’s plots.
King Johan now stands alone in his attempt to save the widow England. Assured now of the king’s vulnerability, the pope sends his agents to bring the king to his knees. King Johan’s old enemy, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, returns. The interdict is proclaimed with bell, book, and candle, and the vindictive Cardinal Pandulphus arrives to enforce it.
King Johan stands firm, defying the pope to do his worst. Claiming that he will not betray England, he turns to history and the scriptures to defend his rights; he points out the ways in which the Church perverts the true faith and he cites the corruptions of the holy orders. Sedition mocks him and promises that his defiance will end.
End it does, for the pope gathers a strong alliance and threatens to invade England. Rather than see his country devastated and his people killed, King Johan submits. He surrenders his crown to the pope and receives it back as a fief of the Holy See. When England protests, she is reviled by Sedition and his aides.
King Johan rules for a number of years as the vassal of the pope. If he tries to assert his power, Sedition and his agents are on hand to thwart it. Treason runs through the land with impunity, and when the king tries to punish him, he pleads benefit of clergy and is released. Nevertheless, King Johan is determined to hang him.
Cardinal Pandulphus and Sedition conceive a plan to curb King Johan’s power. Cardinal Pandulphus will not release England from the interdict until King Johan hands over to the Papacy a third of his lands as a dowry for the bride of Richard, his late brother. Although King Johan protests, Cardinal Pandulphus insists on these harsh terms. Providentially, the king is released when it is announced that Julyane, the lady in question, is dead.
The forces of the Church are now determined to get rid of King Johan completely. Dissimulation, in the guise of Simon of Swinsett, a monk, concocts a poison cup from the sweat of a toad. When he offers Johan the draught, the king forces the monk to drink first and then drains the cup. Both die in agony.
Upon the death of King Johan, Verity appears and proclaims that all the evils attributed to King Johan are false, the lies of slandering monks. He lists all of the good things the king did for the benefit of the common people and asserts that, for three hundred years, that good was undone by the corrupt Church. Now, he announces, Imperial Majesty arrives to crush the Church and save the widow England.
Imperial Majesty confronts Nobility, Clergy, and Civil Order. Verity points out to them the error of their ways, and, contrite, they swear their eternal allegiance to Imperial Majesty. England is safe from the evils of Rome.
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