King John

Born: December 24, 1166

Oxford, Oxfordshire, England

Reign: April 6, 1199 - October 19, 1216 (17 years)

Died: October 19, 1216

Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, England (Age 49)


The future King John of England was born the forth surviving son (and seventh surviving child overall) of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine on Christmas Eve of 1166. As a forth son (even that of a monarch) John began his life at a distinct disadvantage and he was not expected to inherit any significant amount of land, let alone the throne. It appears that King Henry’s original plan for John may have been of a clerical nature, being that, while still an infant, he was sent to live at the Angevin abbey of Fontevrault. Placing younger sons in the church was a common medieval practice for members of the upper nobility, including the royal family. Being the son of a king or an earl, one would advance quickly within the church and most likely settle down in a bishopric and collect its substantial revenues, freeing the monarch or magnate from any financial burden for their younger offspring. For whatever reason, Henry nixed the idea of his youngest son becoming a churchman and sent him to live within the household of his eldest son and heir, Prince Henry (known as the Young King after 1170), where he undoubtedly received a solid education.

With a career in the church now off the table, Henry II was forced to find a new way to provide for his youngest son. Whereas the king’s three elder sons – Henry the Young King, Richard and Geoffrey – all had a portion of the massive Angevin empire to inherit upon their father’s death, John was left with nothing, prompting Henry to affectionately nickname him “Lackland.” It would be King Henry’s quest to provide for his youngest son that would be a major cause of the Great War of 1173-74 between the king and his three elder sons. In 1171, it was proposed that John should marry Alice, daughter and heiress of Count Humbert of Maurienne. This would give the young prince a large swath of land to inherit upon his father-in-law’s death and free Henry from any fiscal responsibilities pertaining to his son. However, the count wished to see that his daughter was well-provided for in the meantime. King Henry, in order to give his son some credibility, endowed him with three castles that had previously belonged to his – Henry’s – younger brother Geoffrey: Chinon, Louden and Mirebeau.  Being that these castles were located within the boundaries of his proposed inheritance, this arrangement did not sit well with the Young King, who was frustrated enough that he was given no real power or responsibilities by his father. When the Great War broke out, the betrothal had to be postponed. When Henry crushed the rebellion the following year, John’s proposed bride had passed away. But, as part of the truce between Henry and the rebels, the Young King was forced to award John with several lordships from his future dominions.

In 1176, Henry further secured his youngest son’s future by betrothing him to Isabella, the daughter and heiress of the wealthy Earl of Gloucester. Still though, the king wished to provide even further for the boy who was emerging as his favorite son. An extraordinary opportunity came to achieve this goal when the Young King died suddenly in the spring of 1183. It made perfect sense that Henry’s second son, Richard, would now inherit England, Normandy and Anjou and that Aquitaine (Richard’s previously assigned inheritance) could be given to John. This plan did not go over well with Richard, who had worked hard to bring the troublesome duchy under relative control and had no intention of surrendering it to a brother he cared little for. In a fit of rage, the king ordered the sixteen-year-old John and his other brother, Geoffrey, to raid Richard’s lands. Naturally, Richard counterattacked, prompting Henry to force his sons to make peace before the situation got out of hand. 

With Richard clearly not budging on Aquitaine, Henry’s next plan for John was to create him Lord of Ireland and to send him to the turbulent island to bring it further under royal control. This did not work out as planned as John alienated a majority of the Irish barons, who subsequently chased him out of Ireland and back to England in disgrace. Throughout out all this time though, John had, very quietly, been moving closer to inheriting the entire Angevin empire. This dream came closer to being fulfilled when John’s brother Geoffrey died in a jousting accident in 1186 (though he left a son who would later cause trouble). King Henry’s only other remaining son, Richard, was, so far, childless and also constantly at odds with his father. This prompted rumors to fly about (mainly instigated by the French king, Philip II) that Henry was planning on naming John as his heir over Richard. When the English king refused to officially name Richard as his heir, the latter joined forces with the French king and ultimately forced Henry into submission. Apparently, John had been brought on to his brother’s side at some point as his name was the first to appear on the list of rebels that King Henry had requested to see. It is widely believed to this day that the knowledge of his favorite son’s betrayal sent the old king to his grave in July 1189.

When Richard I ascended the English throne he lavished rich rewards on his younger brother, partly to show his appreciation for his support in the final struggle with their father, but also most likely as an attempt to buy his loyalty. The new king was just months away from departing for the Holy Land as part of the Third Crusade and did not want John scheming to take his crown or lands. Therefore, John was created Count of Mortain, duly married to Isabella of Gloucester (and was thereafter styled earl) and was given vast estates, primarily in England, making him, quite arguably, the richest and most powerful noblemen in the Angevin empire, save the king himself. Richard did add a stipulation to his generosity in which John was not to enter England for a period of three years, but he was convinced by his aged mother, Eleanor, not to enforce it.

This would prove to be a rather grievous mistake, as it did not take long for John to begin making trouble within the island kingdom. The man who Richard had left in virtual control  of England, Bishop William Longchamp of Ely, was a haughty and ambitious man who was widely despised by the barons and commons alike. John wished to capitalize on Longchamp’s unpopularity to boost his own standing and therefore began to oppose the bishop frequently. All-out war broke out between the two men and John began parading an army around the kingdom and seizing castles before Richard sent the Archbishop of Rouen to cool the situation. Longchamp was deposed and exiled and the archbishop himself put in his place. This was somewhat of a setback for John’s cause, as he could no longer make himself look good in comparison to the unpopular Longchamp. For this reason, John now agreed to join forces with King Philip of France to win the throne for himself, but was prevented from doing so by his mother, who loved Richard more than her youngest-born.

John’s next, and most serious, opportunity to promote his cause came in mid-1192 when Richard was captured and imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor during his return voyage. Brimming with confidence over this occurrence and hoping to usurp his brother’s empire, John stormed off to France and reformed his alliance with King Philip, who was more than happy to begin a new civil war within the Plantagenet family. John paid homage to Philip for the Angevin continental lands and agreed to marry the latter’s sister Alice (who had actually been betrothed to Richard for some twenty years). Unfortunately, John’s cause gained little momentum in England and, when he attempted to invade the kingdom, he was easily thwarted (thanks mainly to the effort s of his own mother) and forced to agree to a truce. When Richard returned to his dominions after his release from captivity in February 1194, John was forced to beg for forgiveness at his feet for attempting to usurp his throne and was treated like an unruly child by his brother. The king forgave his recalcitrant sibling, but stripped him of many of his lands and incomes. It was indeed a hard lesson for John, and yet another failure on his part.

Over the following five years though, John was the archetype of loyalty to his brother’s regime and fought bravely for him in the quest to gain back all of the continental land that Philip of France had seized during his absence. This allowed John not only to gain back his brother’s trust (and the lands he had been stripped of), but to build up his own reputation as a man of honor. It appears that the strategy paid off, for, when Richard was killed at Chalus in April 1199, he named John as heir to all his lands while on his deathbed. At the time of Richard’s death John was, ironically, in the company of his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany, the posthumously-born son of his elder brother Geoffrey. John and Geoffrey represented the only two remaining legitimate, male-line members of the Plantagenet family and therefore had rival claims to the Angevin empire. According to the laws of primogeniture, Arthur, as the son of an elder brother, had the better claim to England’s throne. But, succession laws were extremely blurry in those days and differed from area to area within the Angevin domains.

Richard had earlier named Arthur as his heir as part of a peace treaty with King Tancred of Sicily (where Arthur would marry the Sicilian king’s daughter), but this was mainly a political move at the time and, since the marriage never occurred, the agreement must be taken with a grain of salt. Even without Richard’s deathbed proclamation in favor of his brother, it would have been difficult to make the case that a thirty-two-year-old man with administrative and martial experience was less fit to handle such a large empire then a twelve-year-old boy, who also happened to be a staunch ally of the King of France. John’s succession in Normandy and England was virtually unopposed and Aquitaine was still held by the queen mother, who was duchess in her own name. In Anjou though, the barons, with the support of King Philip, declared their allegiance to Arthur. Soon after his coronation in England, John was forced to return to the continent to resolve this issue.

When John arrived in his continental dominions, he found the situation to be bad, but not overwhelmingly so. Arthur had control of Anjou which meant that the other parts of the Angevin empire, Normandy and Aquitaine, were virtually cut off from each other. Luckily though, many of the continental barons who had sworn allegiance to Richard transferred that loyalty to John, greatly helping his cause. There were some minor skirmishes and sieges between the two sides, but it seems that the conflict was not meant to last for long at this time. King Philip made the grave mistake (a mistake that John would later follow) of alienating the powerful William des Roches, the constable of Anjou and arguably the most important man in the county. Soon after des Roches’ defection, Arthur and his mother Constance surrendered to John, prompting Philip to call for a truce.

The result of this call for peace was the Treaty of Le Goulet, ratified in May 1200. The main stipulations of the treaty were as follows: Philip was to acknowledge John as Richard’s rightful heir for the entire Angevin empire and John was to pay liege homage to Philip for his continental territories and was to pay him a sum of twenty thousand marks. Arthur was to pay homage to John for Brittany. The treaty was sealed by the betrothal of Philip’s son and heir, Prince Louis, to John’s niece, Blanche of Castile. While it would not be accurate to say that the Treaty of Le Goulet was the ideal solution for either side, one would certainly be hard-pressed to make the case that, at the time, a better compromise could have been achieved. Nevertheless, making peace with Philip, instead of engaging in continual fighting with him (as his brother would have done), gained John the derogatory nickname of “Swoftsword,” which, like “Lackland,” would stick.

With his inheritance now secure, John decided to embark on a massive tour of his continental territories, both as a way of introducing himself to his new subjects and as a display of authority. While marching through the county of Angouleme (within the always unpredictable duchy of Aquitaine), John apparently  became infatuated with Isabella, the daughter of the region’s count, Aymer. In a seemingly hasty move, John had his marriage to Isabelle of Gloucester dissolved and proceeded to wed the preteen daughter of the count. At first glance, this did not appear to be an unwise political move, being that Aymer of Angouleme was a powerful and valuable ally and a marriage alliance with him gave John a much needed extra foothold in turbulent Aquitaine. Unfortunately, in marrying to gain an ally, John had also won himself a powerful enemy in the form of Hugh le Brun. Hugh was a member of the powerful Lusignan family of Poitou (a clan which had provided Henry II and Richard I with no small amount of trouble) and just so happened to be betrothed to Isabella of Angouleme when John decided to snatch her up for himself. Without even knowing it, John had set off a chain of events that would culminate in the fall of the Angevin empire.

It is quite possible that, if John would have compensated Hugh le Brun in some way for the insult he had done to him, the situation would have been put to rest, at least temporarily. The fact that the Lusignans remained quiet for months after the incident may have indicated that they were indeed expected something along those lines. Instead, the king chose to ignore those that he had disrespected, opting instead to travel back to England to have Isabelle crowned queen and to go on a massive tour of the kingdom. To pour further salt on the wound, John decided to raid the Lusignans’ lands when he discovered that they may have been plotting against him. While John was not entirely in the wrong for attempting to curb the rebellious actions of subjects who had, over the years, gained a reputation for treachery against their duke, the Lusignans believed they were being treated unjustly and appealed to the English king’s own feudal overlord for his continental territories, Philip of France.

Unfortunately, Philip was embroiled in a heated dispute with the church at the time over his apparently unlawful marriage and was not in a position to intervene to any great extent. All he could do was request that John give the Lusignans a fair chance to present their grievances in a courtroom. Again though, John could not resist further provoking his enemies. After first agreeing to give the Lusignans the opportunity to air their complaints, John subsequently charged them with treason. Philip was again appealed to and was not prepared to allow the situation to be resolved as easily this time. The French king now summoned John (as Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Anjou) to appear before his – Philip’s – court to explain his seemingly unjust actions against his vassals. After months of stalling, John simply decided to ignore Philip’s summons and was declared a contumacious vassal in the spring of 1202. Philip severed the feudal ties between he and John and declared his continental fiefs forfeit. Anjou and Aquitaine were awarded to John’s nephew and past rival, Arthur, but Philip was intent on conquering Normandy for himself so that he may bring it back under the direct rule of the Kings of France for the first time since the Viking conquest of the duchy in 911.

As Philip staged attacks on Normandy, Arthur and his Breton army, working with the Lusignans, focused their attentions on Anjou and Poitou.  While the situation was looking increasingly grim for John, he was able to seize the early momentum. The combined forces of Arthur and Hugh le Brun were in hot pursuit of the Angevin party that included John’s eighty-year-old mother (and Arthur’s grandmother), Eleanor, and forced them to take shelter at Mirebeau castle in Poitou, which the rebel army proceeded to besiege. When John heard of his mother’s plight, he acted with astounding swiftness and caught the rebels by complete surprise. The result was a decisive rout of the rebel forces and the capture of Arthur, Hugh le Brun and a whole slew of other various barons and knights.

John’s triumph at the Battle of Mirebeau was undoubtedly important, but it would turn out to be the apex of his success, as he was unable to properly capitalize on the victory. When it came to the treatment of his noble prisoners, John acted atrociously, and many of the knights that had been sent to England for imprisonment died of starvation. The Lusignans themselves were set free as a sign of good faith, but turned on John as soon as they had the opportunity to do so. Worst of all though was the treatment received by Arthur of Brittany, who apparently died at the age of sixteen under highly suspicious circumstances while in his uncle’s custody in the spring of 1203. To this very day, the death of Arthur remains a mystery which can only be speculated upon. Contemporary chroniclers vary greatly in their respective portrayals of Arthur’s fate (some will claim that Arthur simply died attempting to escape his prison, while others will go so far as to say that John murdered his nephew with his own hands while in a drunken rage), but all agree that he indeed met his end.

Whatever the case may be, John’s poor treatment of the prisoners prompted the powerful William des Roches (whose advice John swore he would follow) to defect from his cause in favor of King Philip, taking several other important noblemen with him. Des Roches’ defection (which occurred even before Arthur’s death) was a huge blow to John and virtually assured that Anjou (and its surrounding appendages, Maine and Touraine) would be lost to Philip. Arthur’s untimely death severely damaged John’s standing on the continent which, in turn, pushed him into full panic mode. With King Philip and his allies making substantial progress in conquering his lands, John decided to flee to England in December 1203. For the next four months, John remained in his island kingdom and made preparations to return to the continent in the spring to regain what he had lost to Philip.

However, just as John was preparing to depart England in March 1204, Philip achieved a major victory that made the entire planned voyage seemed incredibly pointless. After a siege of more than six months, Philip had succeeded in capturing Chateau Gaillard, a sprawling and supposedly impregnable fortress on the eastern Norman border which had built by Richard I to form a wall of sorts to prevent the French from effectively invading the duchy. The fall of Chateau Gaillard allowed Philip to storm into Normandy like an unstoppable juggernaut, taking town after town with little resistance. By June 1204, Philip had taken the Norman capital of Rouen, effectively conquering the duchy and ending Angevin rule in northern France. While Philip had been concentrating his attentions on Normandy, William des Roches and his other allies had been swiftly been conquering the ancestral Angevin counties of Anjou, Maine and Touraine. Furthermore, the death of Eleanor of Aquitaine in April had given Philip a good enough reason to extend his conquest further south and, by the year’s end, the entire county of Poitou (which made up the entire northern portion of the duchy of Aquitaine), save a few scattered castles, was under his control. The loss of Normandy, Anjou and Poitou was a devastating defeat for John. It showed his contemporaries that he was far from the man that his father and brother were and gave the term “Lackland” an entirely new meaning.

An expedition was planned for the spring of 1205 to recover some of the lost continental territories, but ultimately came to nothing. The following year, however, John planned another invasion of his seized lands that would prove to be worlds more successful. Sailing directly into Poitou, John was able to win back a majority of the county and even marched temporarily into Anjou. King Philip was in no position to oppose John to any great extent, being that his resources were still fairly strained from his previous conquests. This was just as well because John had no intentions of trying his luck and attempting to gain any further territory. Therefore, a two year truce was concluded between the two monarchs and John departed back to England feeling slightly better about his abilities as a general and as a leader.

Unfortunately, it seems that John’s victory in Poitou was only meant to bring him temporary relief from troubles, and just when he believed that fortune was moving in his favor, he was brusquely pushed back down. John’s next problem began to take shape upon the death of one of the his most trusted and valuable advisors, Archbishop Hubert Walter of Canterbury. When a bishop died, the process of replacing him was not always a smooth one. While the bishop ultimately had to be confirmed by the Pope, it had traditionally been understood that the monarch had the right to choose, under the advisement of the other bishops and the priory monks, his replacement. This made sense considering the fact that bishops (and certainly archbishops) were usually some of the most high-ranking figures within a country’s government and it was essential that they maintained good relations with the king. Keeping this in mind, John put forward his own candidate, Bishop John de Grey of Norwich (a close political ally of his), to succeed Archbishop Walter. However, the monks of Canterbury priory had a different candidate in mind: their own prior, Reginald.

Both sides put their perspective candidates before Pope Innocent III, creating mass confusion as to who the real nominee was. After a great deal of haggling between the two sides in favor of their respective candidates, the Pope, wanting to end the constant bickering, proposed putting his own candidate forward as a compromise. Innocent chose Cardinal Stephen Langton, an Englishman who had, for some years, been a university professor in Paris. The Canterbury monks were well-pleased with this choice and unanimously approved the cardinal. John, on the other hand, was vehemently against the Pope’s plan. The reasoning behind the king’s choice to reject Langton seems fairly straightforward. For one thing, the cardinal had been living amongst John’s enemies, the French, for many years now and was not well-known in England. But, considering the fact that John had recently contacted Langton, congratulating him for becoming a cardinal, it appears that this was not the primary instigator for the king. In reality, John was none too pleased with the Pope stepping on his authority in his own kingdom. Therefore, the king denied Langton entry into England and expelled the Canterbury monks, forcing them into exile. In response to John’s inflammatory actions, Innocent placed England under a papal interdict, which meant that all but the most basic of church functions (i.e. baptisms, last rites, etc.) were forbidden to be performed within the kingdom. The Pope’s punishment seems to have had little effect on John who, in turn, decided to aim his wrath towards the English religious institutions.

Over the following years, the king confiscated lands from abbeys, monasteries and bishoprics en masse, sometimes liquidating their assets and absorbing them into the royal exchequer and sometimes forcing the prelates to buy back their lands at highly inflated prices. Seeing that the interdict was not enough to curve John’s attack on the church, Innocent declared the English king excommunicate in November 1209. John’s excommunication was undoubtedly a setback for him, but he trudged on, choosing to distract himself by extending his powerbase within the British isles.

In this task the king was fairly successful. Not only did John bring his turbulent neighbors to the north and west under relative heel (King William the Lion of Scotland and Llywelyn ap Iorwith of Wales, respectively), but also led a successful campaign to Ireland in the spring of 1210. By the time John had returned to England from the voyage, he had significantly reduced the power of the Irish barons and had extended royal authority outside of Dublin and a few coastal areas, where it had previously been concentrated. In doing this, the king assured that there would be more English involvement within the judicial and administrative systems of Ireland. As confident as John seemed throughout this time, there could be no doubt that the interdict and his own personal excommunication remained the proverbial elephant in the room, hanging over his head like a black cloud. He knew that it was time to make some sort of arrangement with the Pope to end their extended conflict.

But first, John was forced to deal with a serious threat of invasion from the French. King Philip, obviously looking to play off John’s loss of face due to his excommunication, was hoping to conquer England and award it to his son Louis. Fortunately enough, John was well-informed of the situation and sent a massive naval force under the command of his illegitimate half-brother, Earl William of Salisbury, to stop the French fleet before it departed the continent. At the naval Battle of Damme in May 1213, Salisbury scored a decisive victory over his French counterparts, capturing or destroying much of their fleet.

With the seemingly imminent French invasion thwarted, John was able to fully focus his attentions of finally bringing his quarrel with the church to a conclusion. The two sides ultimately came to an agreement which stipulated that Innocent was to lift the interdict and the sentence of excommunication in exchange for John allowing Langton into the kingdom, as well as any other prelates who had been expelled during the years since the conflict erupted. All churchmen who had been stripped of their lands were to be fully recompensed by the crown. In a very questionable addition to the treaty, John agreed to become Pope Innocent’s vassal for England and Ireland. While this strategy was most likely designed to make sure that he stayed on good terms with the papacy, at the end of the day, John had been humbled by defeat yet again and could not even say that he held any lands in his own right.

With the quarrel with the papacy now finally behind him, John was now ready to concentrate on winning back some of the continental territories he had lost to King Philip ten years earlier. John was infinitely more prepared to do battle with Philip this time around, being that he had the support of a number of powerful allies on the continent, including his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV, and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne, among others. The strategy seems to have been a two-pronged attack: John was to march through Poitou, and ultimately into Anjou, while the armies of Otto, Flanders, Boulogne and the Earl of Salisbury attacked Normandy from the east. In order to accomplish his goals, John knew that he would need to make some sort of a agreement with the unpredictable barons of Poitou, particularly the Lusignan family. Therefore, after a bit of strong-arming on John’s part (by way of destroying some of the Lusignans’ lands) it was agreed upon that John’s daughter Joan would marry the son and heir of Hugh le Brun.

Believing that the situation in Poitou was at least under relative control, John made his move into Brittany and Anjou, and seized the major cities of Nantes and Angers. The king then proceeded to lay siege to the castle of Roche-au-Moine, which was being held none other than John’s erstwhile nemesis (and former ally), William des Roches. Unfortunately, it was at the siege of this castle that John’s progress would come to an abrupt halt. When it was discovered that the substantial army of Prince Louis, the heir to the French throne, was swiftly approaching, the barons of Poitou who had previously sworn allegiance to the English king, promptly deserted him, forcing John himself to retreat to his stronghold at La Rochelle on the Poitevan coast.

While this was a major setback, it would be in Flanders that John’s cause would be decisively snuffed out.  In July 1214, the army of Philip II handed the forces of John’s allies – Salisbury, Flanders, Boulogne and Otto – a crushing defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in Flanders, where several of the commanders became captives of the French king. The victory at Bouvines was, by far, the most glorious victory King Philip had ever achieved and effectively thwarted John’s intentions of winning back his ancestral lands on the continent. For the final two years of his life, John would remain in England where he would soon face the final, and arguably most serious, conflict of his reign.

John’s disastrous defeats on the continent did little to endear him with the barons of England, who were already disgruntled with their king due to the high taxation and shabby treatment that he had provided them with since his rise to the throne. The barons clearly felt that their civil rights were being encroached upon by a tyrannical monarch who cared only for his own needs. Using an old charter of liberties that had been put into effect over a hundred years earlier by John’s great-grandfather, King Henry I, as their manifesto, a number of the barons rose in rebellion and seized London and a number of other smaller cities. While John did his best to play it cool and seem conciliatory to his barons’ demands, he was secretly mustering an army of mercenaries to crush the rebellion. Also, the king had the backing of his own overlord, Pope Innocent, who censured the barons for rebelling against their rightful sovereign.

Neither side was in a particularly advantageous position: John still had the backing of the most powerful barons of the realm, in addition to that of the church, while the rebel party, consisting of a majority of the lesser barons, controlled the important city of London. King John though, could not afford another prolonged conflict and, for that reason, must be looked at as the one in the worse position. Therefore, the two sides met at Runnymede in June 1215 where John was compelled (through moderators, such as Archbishop Langton) to sign a new charter of liberties which has famously come to be known as Magna Carta, or, the Great Charter. The document, most likely drawn up by Archbishop Langton and William Marshal more so than anyone else, put a number of limitations on the power of the monarch, while protecting the rights of the barons. Magna Carta contains the basis for laws that are still in effect within England and many other countries around the world to this very day and was most certainly the document that prompted the  creation of Parliament. John’s forced signing of Magna Carta is still looked upon as yet another humiliating defeat for him, but (yet again) it does not seem as if he had many other options at the time. With the royal exchequer undoubtedly near-empty after the failed expedition to the continent the previous year, John was certainly in no position to do battle, even if he still, at this point, had a powerful support network. But, the fact that John felt he had been coerced into signing Magna Carta by the barons, and the fact that barons felt that his support for  the document was rather lackluster, meant that peace would not last for long.

A mere two months after the signing of Magna Carta, the two sides were again at war. It seems that the primary instigator to the renewal of hostilities was a further appeal that John made to Pope Innocent against his rebellious vassals. Innocent responded by excommunicating all those who had risen in rebellion against the king and informed them they were preventing him from going on crusade (John had taken the vows of a crusader earlier in the year). The barons did not appreciate this reprimanding and, as John was awaiting more mercenaries from the continent, they responded by seizing Rochester castle. John promptly besieged the castle and, within two months, took it. This victory, however, would be short lived because, as John was besieging Rochester, the rebels were inviting  the French to conquer England. King Philip was skeptical of this suggestion and did not want to risk angering the Pope by violating the terms of the truce that were settled upon in the aftermath of his victory at Bouvines. While Philip pondered the barons’ proposal, John took advantage of the reprieve to march against Alexander II of Scotland, another of the rebels’ allies, who had been raiding England’s northern counties. The north of England also happened to be one of the driving forces behind the rebellion and was always the area that was most opposed to royal intervention in their affairs. John’s journey north was a complete success. He took back a large number of towns and castles that had previously been up in arms against him and chased away King Alexander, even engaging in some punitive raiding of southern Scotland. As John marched back south, he continued to subdue castles that were held against him but was unable to take back the rebel stronghold of London.

In a huge setback to the royalist cause, King Philip made the decision to give permission to his son Louis to invade conquer England and rule as king in right of his wife Blanche, a granddaughter of Henry II, in April 1216. The following month, Louis arrived in England and many members of the royalist party who had previously been staunchly loyal to John, deserted his cause to join the French prince, including the king’s own brother, Salisbury. After John fled from the scene, Prince Louis proceeded to take castle after castle, though there remained a few major royal strongholds (primarily Dover in Kent) which held out in King John’s name. In addition, a number of barons defected back to John’s cause, apparently seeing the reality of rule by a powerful Frenchman and being none too pleased with the prospect.  While the French prince ruled a large chunk of southern England, Alexander of Scotland had once again taken to raiding in the north. John travelled northward to repel the Scottish king but seems to have contracted dysentery while staying at Lynn. Despite growing increasingly ill, John pushed ahead, but experienced another setback when his entire baggage train (including a large part of the crown jewels) was lost in his travels through a marshy area. Newark would be King John’s final destination and it was there that he died on October 18, 1216, aged forty-nine, leaving a kingdom still in the depths civil war and with a powerful foreign enemy within its boundaries bent on conquest to his nine-year-old son, who succeeded him as King Henry III.

Assessment and Analysis

For eight hundred years, John has generally been regarded as the epitome of tyranny and despotism. Historians commonly rate him as one of the worst, and weakest, kings in England’s history. Even the general public in today’s society will know him as the evil king from the Robin Hood legends that have so frequently been viewed within movie theatres.  By no means should it come as a surprise that John would be looked at in such a light. The reasons why he is viewed with such disdain can easily be traced his failure to properly deal with the three major crises that occurred during his reign: The conflict with Philip of France and the Lusignans; the quarrel with Pope Innocent III; and the outbreak of the Barons’ War.

After the ratification of the Treaty of Le Goulet in 1200, John earned himself the derogatory nickname of “Swoftsword.” While the immediate formation of this name undoubtedly came from John’s unwillingness to battle further with Philip, making him look weak in comparison to his brother, the sobriquet goes much deeper. In coming to this compromise with Philip, John had completely redefined the overlord-vassal relationship between the French king and the house of Anjou. While Henry II and Richard I had paid only nominal homage to Philip II and his father, Louis VII, for their continental fiefs, John, in agreeing to the treaty, had inadvertently cemented the position of overlord that the Kings of France claimed over all of the duchies and counties which make up modern day France. In other words, John’s father and brother made sure that it was understood that, even though they were technically the French king’s vassals for Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine, it was them, not Philip or Louis, who was in charge within those dominions.

John, on the other hand, was viewed as a much weaker man than his two predecessors and, for this reason, Philip took over as the dominant figure. When John’s vassals (the Lusignans) filed a complaint against their overlord, John, to their supreme overlord, Philip, and the former failed to show up to answer the charges laid against him, his lands were declared forfeit. This is something that never would have happened to Henry II or Richard I. When John attempted to defend his continental lands, he added new meaning to the whimsical nickname his father had once given him, “Lackland,” by promptly losing Normandy, Anjou and Poitou, territories that had been directly ruled by his ancestors for centuries.

The quarrel with Pope Innocent is another incident in which John does little to endear himself with critics and historians. John’s spiteful treatment of Stephen Langton and the English clergy in general gained him many enemies. His confiscation of church lands can be looked at as an odd prequel to the Dissolution of the Monasteries conducted by Henry VIII over three hundred years in the future and the quarrel between John and Innocent certainly has its similarities to that between Henry and Popes Clement VII and Paul III. The primary difference between John and his descendant is that Henry followed through with his threats against the papacy while John, in the end, completely caved in and degraded himself by surrendering England and Ireland to the Pope. Still further, the nickname Lackland takes on a negative meaning.

Perhaps John’s greatest blunder came from his inability to prevent the outbreak of the Barons’ War. Throughout his reign, John had viewed his barons with the utmost suspicion and scorn, and they hated him for it. Being a forth son, John had most likely never believed that he would end up as king. Once he rose to that status, he became jealous and paranoid of any man of great power and influence, for fear that he might be overthrown. For this reason, no one nobleman truly played a significant role within John’s reign. Instead, John chose to surround himself with mercenaries and men of low-birth. It seemed that, in the end, only staunch royalists such as William Marshal and Earl Ranulf of Chester stayed loyal to him, and even they did so out of principle, not love. Simply put, John could not resist any opportunity to drag his powerful subjects through the mud. This can be seen through his treatment of William Marshal and the rest of the Irish barons; with the Lusignans; with William des Roches; and of course with Arthur of Brittany only to name a few examples. When the barons could take no more, they rose in rebellion.

While this lengthy list of the negatives of John’s reign is difficult to ignore, a proper analysis cannot be completed without also defending John to a certain extent and attempting to justify just why he decided to do some of the things that he did. It must be remembered that John was left with an extremely precarious situation on the continent. Between his participation in the Third Crusade and the ransom he was forced to pay for his release, Richard I thoroughly drained the royal coffers and made it very difficult for his brother to hold the Angevin empire together as their father had done so effectively before them. In addition to the lack of finances, John faced some tough opponents in Philip Augustus and his son, the future King Louis VIII, who were two of the most dominating figures of the early thirteenth century. The case can easily be said that the massive Angevin empire was nothing but a ticking time bomb, ready to go off at any moment. John just happened to be the one holding the bomb when it exploded. In the quarrel with Innocent, John faced yet another of the most powerful politicians of his time. The king was right to stand up to him, being that, in those days, the Pope was a major political player, in addition to being the spiritual head of the church.

When it comes to John’s relationship with his barons, the most positive result that can be discussed is the formation of Magna Carta. While it is true that John was compelled to sign the document against his will, and that it did not prevent the outbreak of civil war, the Great Charter has become the basis for all democratic societies and many of the articles within it are still very much applied to today’s modern governments. Without having any intention of doing so, John had put the steps in motion which would ultimately lead to the creation of the English Parliament and the United States Congress.

It is undoubtedly true that John was not the do-all governor that his father was, or the fierce warrior that his elder brother was, but he was by no means incompetent. His victory at Mirebeau, his extension of royal authority in Ireland and his performance against his barons before French reinforcements arrived all prove this point. John is widely regarded as cruel and heartless for actions such as the shabby treatment of his barons and the murder of his nephew Arthur. But, it must be realized that Arthur had committed high treason against his overlord and easily could have been convicted of such and sentenced to death. As for the apparently poor treatment of his barons, John had no choice but to strong-arm them to a certain extent. He had to maintain the reputation that his father and brother had established and could not look weak in the face of powerful men. Whatever one might think of King John as a ruler or as a man, it cannot be denied that it was he, not his brother Richard (who could do no wrong in the eyes of their mother), who would be the savior of the Plantagenet dynasty. It is John’s, not Richard’s, direct descendants that still inhabit the throne to this very day, with his blood running through their veins and many of the laws that he reluctantly approved ruling their everyday lives.

Further Reading

Appleby, J. T. John, King of England
Ashley, Maurice. King John
Appleby, John T. John, King of England
Curren-Aquino, Deborah T. King John: New Perspectives
D'Auvergne, Edmund B. John, King of England: A Modern History
Loengard, Janet S. Magna Carta and the England of King John
Loyd, Alan. The Maligned Monarch: A Life of King John of England
McLynn, Frank. Richard and John: Kings at War
Norgate, Kate. John Lackland
Turner, Ralph J. King John: England's Evil King
Warren, W. L. King John
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