“I’ve always been partial to werewolves, perhaps because there’s a desperation to their plight that resonates” – Tad Williams

Hey Gerald, can you redact the part where I get bitten by a werewolf?

Nobody liked England’s King John (1166-1216 A.D.) and history has not been especially kind to him.  As the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, he wasn’t expected to amount to much, receiving the uncomplimentary sobriquet of “John Lackland” (he wasn’t in line to inherit any property).  Actor Nigel Terry played him as a drooling and cowardly idiot in the Academy Award winning movie Lion in Winter (1968).  Similarly, Shakespeare’s King John depicted him as weak and selfishly motivated, Sir Walter Scot’s Ivanhoe painted him in an unfavorable light, and he has been repeatedly immortalized as Robin Hood’s ultimate nemesis, in contrast to the cunning, yet villainous Sherriff of Nottingham.  Even Disney turned him into a thumb-sucking lion.  Sure, he had something to do with the proto-constitutional Magna Carta, but neither he nor the rebel barons he made the agreement with really stood by it for long, and Pope Innocent III annulled it.  Later historians suggested that the medieval chroniclers were a little harsh on John, but most still agree that he had an unpleasant personality, a contentious upbringing, and traitorous siblings, also managing to lose the Duchy of Normandy by personally irritating French barons excessively.  As a monarch, he is regarded as ineffectual.  As a person, his moral character is often found wanting.  As far as I can tell, it seems that most historiographers neglect the fact that John’s tumultuous reign may have resulted from his attempts to come to terms with being a werewolf.

Henry II only seemed to notice his son John after the failed 1173 rebellion of his older brothers, after which John became the King’s favored prince.  His father appointed him Lord of Ireland in 1177.  While his brothers William, Henry, and Geoffrey died relatively young, leaving only John and Richard I as royal offspring, and Henry II evinced a certain fondness for him, Richard I was nonetheless declared King in 1189.  Richard promptly went off to fight the Crusades and John attempted an ill-fated coup.  When Richard died in 1199, John was the last prince standing and was proclaimed King of England.  And in general, everything went to hell in a handbasket.  War with France broke out again, the Pope excommunicated him, English nobles rebelled over taxes and John’s obnoxious attitudes towards them, and even after the Magna Carta was signed, civil war broke out among the baron signatories (aided by King Louis VIII of France, who invaded southern England in 1214).  Basically, John was ill-mannered and fought with everybody.  In assessing John, few consider that dude was dealing with some serious issues; lycanthropy, in particular.

John’s turn towards the irredeemably feral may very well have coincided with his assumption of the title Lord of Ireland.  In 1185, the future King John travelled to Ireland in the company of the Archdeacon of Brecknock and historian Gerald of Wales, touring Osraighe (Ossory), a medieval Irish kingdom comprising most of present-day County Kilkenny.  Medieval Irish, English, and Norse accounts suggest that the Kings of Ossory are direct descendants of the legendary Laignech Fàelad, a fearsome warrior who frequently shapeshifted into a werewolf.  Thus, it was presumed that werewolves were thick on the ground in Ossory.  The Norse work Konungs Skuggsjá, suggest that the entire population of Ossory, especially resistant to Christian missionizing, were cursed by St. Patrick himself.

It is told that when the holy Patricius preached Christianity in that country, there was one clan which opposed him more stubbornly than any other people in the land; and these people strove to do insult in many ways both to God and to the holy man. And when he was preaching the faith to them as to others and came to confer with them where they held their assemblies, they adopted the plan of howling at him like wolves. When he saw that he could do very little to promote his mission among these people, he grew very wroth and prayed God to send some form of affliction upon them to be shared by their posterity as a constant reminder of their disobedience. Later these clansmen did suffer a fitting and severe though very marvelous punishment, for it is told that all the members of that clan are changed into wolves for a period and roam through the woods feeding upon the same food as wolves; but they are worse than wolves, for in all their wiles they have the wit of men, though they are as eager to devour men as to destroy other creatures.  It is reported that to some this affliction comes every seventh winter, while in the intervening years they are men; others suffer it continuously for seven winters all told and are never stricken again (Konungs Skuggsja, tr. Larson, 1917, p115).  

Gerald of Wales (“Giraldus Cambrensis”), John’s travelling companion recorded a contemporary account of werewolves in Ossory in his 12th Century Topographia Hibernica, that perhaps in recognition of Patrick’s curse, the werewolves of Ossory were a rather shockingly Christianized and well-mannered breed of talking lycanthropes.

About three years before the arrival of John in Ireland, it chanced that a priest, who was journeying from Ulster towards Meath, was benighted in a certain wood on the borders of Meath. While, in company with only a young lad, he was watching by a fire which he had kindled under the branches of a spreading tree, lo! a wolf came up to then, and immediately addressed them to this effect: “Rest secure, and be not afraid, for there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is ” The travellers being struck with astonishment and alarm, the wolf added some orthodox words referring to God. The priest then implored him, and adjured him by Almighty God and faith in the Trinity, not to hurt them, to inform them what creature it was that in the shape of a beast uttered human words. The wolf, after giving catholic replies to all questions, added at last: “There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of one Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form, and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places, they return to their country and their former shape. And now, she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not far from hence, and, as she is at the point of death, I beseech you, inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of your priestly office” (Giraldus, 1913, p79-80).

The priest, taken aback by such courtesy from wolves, graciously administered last communion to the dying she-wolf, did a little preaching on the side, and watched as the strange creature metamorphasized back into an old woman before his eyes.  The wolf’s grateful partner spent the rest of the night chatting companionably with the priest, and offered prophetic words about the upcoming English invasion of Ireland.

These rites having been duly, rather than rightly, performed, the he-wolf gave them his company during the whole night at their little fire, behaving more like a man than a beast. When morning came, he led them out of the wood, and, leaving the priest to pursue his journey, pointed out to him the direct road for a long distance. At his departure, he also gave him many thanks for the benefit he had conferred, promising him still greater returns of gratitude, if the Lord should call him from his present exile, two parts of which he had already completed. At the close of their conversation, the priest inquired of the wolf whether the hostile race which had now landed in the island would continue there for the time to come, and belong established in it. To which the wolf replied:—“For the sins of our nation, and their enormous vices, the anger of the Lord, falling on an evil generation, hath given them into the hands of their enemies. Therefore, as long as this foreign race shall keep the commandments of the Lord, and walk in his ways, it will be secure and invincible; but if, as the downward path to illicit pleasures is easy, and nature is prone to follow vicious examples, this people shall chance, from living among us, to adopt our depraved habits, doubtless they will provoke the divine vengeance on themselves also” (Giraldus, 1913, p81).

John, known for his sinfulness and lust (he had a gaggle of mistresses throughout his career), no doubt spent a little time indulging in romantic dalliances with the locals of Ossory.  He was recognized to particularly enjoy cuckolding nobles, and with the entire Ossorian royal line reportedly descended from werewolves, the odds of the determinative love bite that passed on lycanthropy are pretty high.   Now, there wasn’t much contemporary discussion of King John’s werewolf inclinations during his reign, since one of the distinct privileges of being a King has always been the prerogative to behead people that get on your nerves.  And John was not a particularly nice guy to begin with.  Upon his death, chroniclers wasted no time declaring that he seemed to be a werewolf, as well as adding a few other savory insults.

King John of England is said to have gone about as a werewolf after his death. An old Norman chronicle avers that the monks of Worcester were compelled by the frightful noises proceeding from his grave, to dig up his body and cast it out of consecrated ground. “Thus the ill presage of his surname Lackland was completely realized, for he lost in his lifetime almost all the domains under his suzerainty, and even after death he could not keep peaceful possession of his tomb” (Kelly, 1863, p261).

On a curious side note, he was originally laid to rest in Worcester Cathedral in front of the altar of Saint Wulfstan (Old English: “Wolf Stone”).  It’s not all that common for the risen dead to be identified as werewolves, as returning from the grave had traditionally been more the province of vampires, zombies and other nasty revenants, so it might be reasonable to presume that folks were just too afraid to acknowledge John’s wolf-like qualities while he was alive.  Maybe John wasn’t quite as horrible as historians have made him out to be, rather just suffering from a complicated species identity crisis.  It’s not like 12th Century England was filled with pacifists and humanitarians.  Politics was pretty much life and death, and as British politician R.A. Butler observed, “In politics you must always keep running with the pack. The moment that you falter and they sense that you are injured, the rest will turn on you like wolves”.

Giraldus, Cambrensis, 1146-1223. The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis: Containing the Topography of Ireland, And the History of the Conquest of Iceland. Rev. and ed., London: G. Bell & sons, 1913.
Kelly, Walter K. -1867. Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition And Folk-lore. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.
Larson, Laurence Marcellus, 1868-1938. The King’s Mirror: (Speculum Reagle-Konungs Skuggsja). New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation, 1917.