King John, also known as John Lackland, was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He was part of the royal house of Plantagenet and was the youngest male heir of Henry II.
His older brother Richard the Lionheart was well adored and has been named one of the greatest Kings of England. John, however, has been remembered as one of England’s worst monarchs and is most known for losing his ancestral land in Normandy and signing the Magna Carta, largely regarded as one of the cornerstones of English democracy. But was he so bad?
John was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and was born around 1166. He was regarded at the time, according to contemporary chroniclers, as the favorite child.
In 1173, at the age of 7 or 8, John was betrothed the daughter of Humbert III, the count of Savoy. This would see the young boy gain extensive lands. His brothers were concerned about the power this would give the young prince, and rose in rebellion against it, preventing the marriage but cementing John as Henry’s favorite.
This did not prevent Henry II from lavishing John with gifts of land throughout England. He was promoted to the rich earldom of Gloucester between the years of 1174-76. Additionally, he was granted the Lordship of Ireland in 1177 at the age of just 11. He would not visit Ireland until almost a decade later April 1185.
John’s first period of rule in Ireland was not a success. It had only been conquered by Anglo-Norman forces recently and tensions between the English crown and its new Irish subjects were rife. John famously offended the local Irish elite by mocking their unfashionable long beards.
Equally, John failed to make allies amongst his Anglo-Norman elite. This culminated in losing ground which had been won through the military conquests of his father. He returned to England in 1186.
John’s tensions with his older brothers continued throughout the 1180s. His elder brother Geoffrey died in a tournament in 1186 leaving a young son Arthur and a daughter Eleanor. Henry II, after facing multiple rebellions from his sons, refused to set out a succession plan.
Richard was keen to join the crusades but was concerned that his father would appoint John as his successor. Richard was thus driven into the arms of Philip II of France in 1187, giving homage to Philip in exchange for support in his bid to win the English crown.
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Philip and Richard fought a joint campaign against Henry II and by 1189 had secured a peace that promised Richard the throne upon his father’s death. Throughout this period John flitted between sides, initially loyal to his father but switching sides to his brother when the tide turned in Richard’s favor.
Richard I of England
One of the first things Richard did when crowned was to commit to the Third Crusade. He set about raising taxes and acquiring lands. Richard made John the Count of Mortain and married him to Isabella of Gloucester, a wealthy older lady.
Richard gave John many wealthy counties in an attempt to buy his loyalty, but ensured that the crown retained control of key royal castles. In addition to this, John promised to leave England for three years while Richard was on a Crusade to prevent him from seizing power.
The political situation in England became fraught after Richard had left. The people he had left in charge, his co-justiciars Hugh du Puiset and William Longchamp, could not work together.
John seized the opportunity to present himself an alternative ruler to the co-justiciars. This led to armed conflict. John outmaneuvered his rival Longchamp and had him imprisoned in 1191.
Richard did not return from the crusade for many years and in this time, John seized control, asserting that his brother was dead or not returning. This sparked a civil war which was only resolved when Richard returned in 1194.
Richard ultimately forgave John but confiscated many of his lands. John was left with no option but to serve Richard loyally.
The Reign of John
Richard’s death was not long coming. Shot by a French archer while besieging a minor castle in southern France, he died in 1199.
Upon Richard’s death, John was crowned king of England over his nephew Arthur, the son of Geoffrey and the only other heir. It was not long until he was at war with France though.
John had had his first marriage dissolved as he was too closely related to his wife. He chose to remarry Isabella, the heiress to Angouleme, which angered Philip II as it offered John a route into France.
The French offensive was successful, and by 1206 Philip had captured much of John’s French lands. Stymied on the continent, John turned his attention inwards to his English possessions.
John’s next conflict came from the church, when Pope Innocent III quashed John’s nominee for Archbishop of Canterbury. John refused to accept this which led to the Pope excommunicating him in 1208. John remained excommunicated for four years until he finally acceded to the Pope’s demands and paid tribute.
Fresh from his dispute with the Pope, John next proceeded to anger his barons and nobility. After a failed campaign in France between the years 1212-1214, John came back to widespread discontent in the North and East Anglian territories.
The civil war finally broke out in earnest in 1215. John was on the back foot and when the city of London turned against him, he was forced to accept the terms offered by the barons. This was the famous Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta was a charter that severely restrained the King’s power and ensured feudal rights and English law. John rallied against it after his negotiations but was further put under pressure when Prince Louis of France invaded in the same year.
Louis had chosen his moment apparently well. John had alienated the church and his nobles, and was deeply unpopular. However, the loyal English forces were able to fight the French off.
John would not live to see the victory. Exhausted by the constant campaigning and with his health destroyed by dysentry, he died in Newark Castle in 1216.
A Failed King?
John’s reputation which was unpopular at his death was further damaged by writers of the next generation. They all focused upon his suspicious and vengeful behavior.
However, more recent historians have suggested that there may have been more to his character. He was cultured and literate and was generous to many churches. He had a great love of hunting and traveled throughout his kingdom more than many previous monarchs. Additionally, he was an avid administrator and financier.
This is not to say that he was a good king. John lost many of the lands he began his reign with and was subjugated to accepting many concessions on his power. However, that does not mean that his character did not have some redeemable qualities.
Top Image: Does King John deserve his reputation? Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman
BBC. 2014. John (C. 1167-1216). Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/john.shtml
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Holt, J. 2021. John, King of England. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-king-of-England
Jones, D. 2019. Magna Carta or Not, King John’s Reign Was a Bad One. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/bad-king-john/
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Morris, M. 2020. Was King John really that bad? Yes! Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/plantagenet/king-john-bad-personality-evil-worst/
Seel, G. 2018. Why ‘Bad King John’ was actually good. Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/early-medieval/why-bad-king-john-was-actually-good/