King John and the Sultan

Last week I was in London. The occasion was a huge and very splendid party being given at the British Library by HH Lalla Joumala, the Moroccan Ambassador, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Anglo-Moroccan relations. King John evidently sent a couple of dips to the Sultan’s court in 1213 to ask for help vis-à-vis the revolting English barons, and is supposed to have offered to become a Muslim in return. The latter, in particular, sounds a little unlikely, in the year before he persuaded the Pope to lift the Bull of Interdiction (which had, in the immortal words of 1066 and All That forbidden anyone to be born, to be married or to die in England for the previous three years). But if all this was so – and assuming that Sultan Mohammed Ennacer gave King John the bum’s rush – Morocco was partly responsible for Magna Carta. (Thank you, Morocco!) Anyway, there was a splendid party in London, and many old friends, as well of course as le tout Maroc: an astonishing turn out of cultural figures, politicians and diplomats (my RAM flight from Casablanca the previous day was awash with the mighty); and most of Britain’s friends of Morocco were there too.

The reception gave me a focus for reflecting on the change that I have seen in Morocco’s cultural orientation in the three and a half years I have been here.  When I went for my briefing meetings with British academics and journalists in 2010, before I first came to Morocco, I heard much about the increasing appetite for English, the growing frustration with the limitations of la francophonie – but also much about Britain’s odd diffidence towards the chasse gardée of French North Africa and its odd and longstanding reluctance to engage fully with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, which remained very French in their orientation.

That has begun very noticeably to change. I have watched the relentless progress not just of the English language, but of a re-orientation in a much larger frame, spurred on by the deep social changes that broke surface across North Africa in the spring of 2011. The appetite for English is certainly growing fast. The appetite too for English education is swelling  – Moroccan applications to British universities are very substantially up, always to the dozen or so best universities. We are beginning to see recruitment visits from some of them, too: Warwick and King’s College London have both been in Morocco in recent weeks. And by the same token, research links are growing with top English universities – Imperial (where a joint postdoc research seminar with the Mohammedia Engineering School, on ‘Big Data,’ opens on February 17th), Bath, Cambridge (where an agreement for research workshops and exchanges is bedding down after 18 months).

Coupled with the drive for English in research (as the Minister for Higher Education put it recently: without English a researcher is illiterate), and for English in schools, where the British Council is advising on the development of an English language baccalaureate option, this all indicates a sea-change in Morocco’s cultural orientation. English is, as one senior fonctionnaire put it to me recently, “La vraie langue du progrès.”

And on the commercial front, the day after the Moroccan party at the British Library, I attended the launch of the new Moroccan-British Business Leaders’ Forum. Chaired jointly by Lord Sharman of Redlynch, the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Morocco, and Mustapha Terrab of OCP, this is another symbol of changing times, and will focus on key areas like education, energy and finance as it develops stronger links between the two countries. Britain, intimately close to Morocco for the 400, if perhaps not quite all the 700, years before the First World War is beginning to reassert its friendship in a new and very appropriate way.

One thought on “King John and the Sultan

  1. King John and Muhammad an-Nasir:
    The impossible rapprochement, or between perceived stereotypes and reality
    Michael PEYRON
    Former Professor of Amazigh (Berber) History and Culture at Al-Akhawayn University, Ifrane

    Given the on-going revisionist streak that pervades academic circles, every nook and cranny of British history is subject to close scrutiny. For some time it has been fashionable to whitewash notorious villains and/or figures to whom history had been scathingly unkind; Richard III, King John, Oliver Cromwell, Admiral Byng, Warren Hastings and many others immediately come to mind. In the circumstances, one can merely surmise that some British historian(s) recently latched onto this early XIIIth century, Anglo-Moroccan episode in an attempt to demonstrate that the much unloved King John (‘Lackland’) may have been a shrewder political animal than the historical vulgate would have us believe.
    At some point in 1213, if certain medieval chronicles are to be believed, there occurred a relatively little publicized diplomatic exercise, which, had it borne fruit, would have had momentous consequences. In an attempt to retrieve his broken fortunes, King John of England sent a secret embassy to Marrakesh, proposing an alliance which, to cut a long story short, would have delivered his kingdom, bound hand-and-foot, to the effective trusteeship of the Moroccan Almohad emir Muhammad an-Nasir.
    At best, it was an unlikely combination. Both were embattled monarchs in the declining year(s) of their reign, yet due to the sheer distance that separated their realms, neither had had any truck with the other. Nor did they have much else in common. King John, fresh from losing part of the crown jewels in the Wash, losing battles against the French on the continent, also under sentence of Papal excommunication and shortly to undergo the humiliation of Runnimede at the hands of his barons, was practically at the end of his tether. The emir Muhammad an-Nasir, for his part, though recovering from the stunning defeat of

    al-‘Uqab (Las Navas de Tolosa) in southern Spain the previous year, still commanded extensive territories and powerful armed forces, while there is evidence that he was contemplating a fighting come-back against the Christians in al-Andalus; hopes that were dashed by his death, a few months later.
    Be that as it may, Muhammad an-Nasir appears to have given the English emissaries short shrift. While King John, his options limited, was pinning all his hopes on this desperate bid, the Moroccan emir seems to have had few qualms in rejecting his offer. For this formidable son of Ya’qoub al-Mansur [of glorious memory], an alliance with a monarch thus prepared to sign away throne, kingdom and loyal subjects without a fight, was less than satisfactory. Craven behaviour of this kind was admittedly light years away from Moroccan notions of pride and honour [nnefs (Ar.), or tsart (Tam.)]. Through his response, it may be argued that the Almohad emir was proving faithful to the behavioural standards of his Amazigh forebears. So he turned down the offer.
    On the other hand, given what we know of the mindset of the then English upper class, had Muhammad an-Nasir reacted favourably to King John’s overtures, it is highly likely that the latter’s would-be merger with Morocco, entailing wholesale adoption by the English of the Muslim faith, would have failed to materialise. It would simply have gone against the grain. That famous chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland”, actually a historical fantasy based on the earlier Charlemagne period, written between 1140 and 1170 in the Anglo-Norman dialect, and designed to give Crusaders something to live up to in terms of a fighting credo, would have had time to circulate throughout educated circles in England. Sufficiently, at any rate, for its outspoken message to have left its mark on informed opinion. Indeed, in what would be described today as racist terms, it extolled all-out warfare on the “paynim” (pagans) and “blackamoors (…) broad in the nose…(…) and flat in the ear” from Ethiopia, “a cursed land indeed”, or from Morocco and elsewhere. Enough, anyway, to scupper any real attempts at a rapprochement. Much publicized accounts of the Crusades, (like today’s media hype about Islam) with their catalogue of victories and defeats, were common property throughout western Christendom, totally precluding any sudden reversal of the negative collective opinion, replete with perceived ideas, then prevalent vis-à-vis Islamic lands, their religion, and their inhabitants. This, in itself, would no doubt have constituted an insuperable obstacle.
    All of which smacks of perception rather than reality, as this former British prep and public school-boy (1944-52) knows only too well – if the reader will excuse a brief digression . The post-Crusader vision of the Islamic world which he obtained from his history lessons was fraught with these somewhat facile perceptions. No wonder. Throughout the late Middle Ages, into the Renaissance and well beyond (with Shakespeare’s famous portrait of Othello, who was portrayed as “black”), not to mention in passing Daniel Defoe’s references to the Sallee Rovers in The adventures of Robinson Crusoe, well up to the Industrial Revolution, the original “Song of Roland” mythology, with its disparaging views on Muslims, was expanded, perpetuated and muddled. Muslims were visualized as some vague, distant foe, whether they hailed from North Africa or the Middle East, incarnated confusedly in Moors, Turks, or even Tartars. Even if this vision was tempered by the romantic treatment Sir Walter Scott accords the Crusades in his novel, The Talisman, which depicts a chivalrous Saladin (Salah u-Din) matching his prowess against that of the larger-than-life Richard I (“Coeur de Lion”) – every school-boy’s hero of those times, just as King John was his anti-hero! These two, totally contrasting monarchs, then re-appear in another Scott novel (Ivanhoe), which further emphasizes the noble warrior spirit of Richard – epitomizing the gallant Christian knight, as against the cringing, scheming cowardice of John. Or so we are led to believe. In Victorian times the recipe was repeated a hundredfold. Thus would the British school-boy’s mind have been further nurtured on tales of derring-do inspired by later authors; Conan Doyle, for one. His two preferred novels, Sir Nigel and The White Company feature that unbeatable combination: the dauntless English knight and the hardy Welsh bowman, ready to take on all comers. The second volume sees its heroes embark on a mission to southern Spain, culminating in a desperate battle against the knights of Calatrava, whose forbears had fought at Navas de Tolosa, charging to the sound of “Moorish cymbals”. And so it went on.
    If these historical stereotypes of valiant defenders of Christendom, together with facile perceptions of Muslims lasted down to the present supposed Age of Reason, how much more potent were they likely to have been at the time of the failed Anglo-Moroccan entente cordiale of 1213, when echoes of the Crusades resounded all over England, not to mention Europe in its entirety, and when religious bigotry and medieval superstition held sway, blunting the average man’s critical perception. For those reasons alone, King John’s hoped-for rapprochement with Morocco was doomed from the start.

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