King John

King John

John, the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, was born in Oxford in 1167. His father sent him to Ireland in 1185, but his misconduct son compelled his recall. He attempted to seize the crown while Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in Austria. Richard pardoned John and when on his deathbed nominated his brother as his successor.

Some barons in the French part of his empire refused to accept him and supported Arthur of Brittany instead. In the war that followed Arthur was captured and imprisoned. He was never seen again and many people believed that John had arranged for his young rival to be murdered. Even without their leader, the rebellious barons in France refused to surrender, and by 1205 John had lost control of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Maine. These military defeats obtained John the nickname "Softsword".

John also lost the support of Pope Innocent III when he refused to agree to Stephen Langton becoming the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Eventually John was forced to back down. He also had to agree to the pope being his overlord. In 1215 he made another attempt at gaining control on his lost territory in France. Once again John was defeated and forced to pay £40,000 for the five-year truce.

In 1200, King John became involved in a long-drawn out war with France. This war was expensive and John was forced to introduce new taxes to pay for his army. This created a great deal of resentment in England, and John's position was not helped when, in 1205, the king's army lost control of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Maine.

In 1215, King John made another desperate attempt to gain control of his lost territory in France. Once again he was defeated and was forced to pay £40,000 to obtain a truce. When John tried to obtain this money by imposing yet another tax, the barons rebelled. Few barons remained loyal, and in most areas of the country, John had very little support. John had no chance of victory and on 15th June, 1215, at Runnymede in Surrey, he was forced to accept the peace terms of those who had successfully fought against him.

The document the king was obliged to sign was the Magna Carta. In this charter the king made a long list of promises, including no new taxes without the support of his barons, a reduction in the power of his sheriffs and the right of a fair trial for all freemen.

Soon after he signed the charter the king appealed to Pope Innocent III for help. The pope was concerned about this rebellion and decided to excommunicate the barons who had fought against their king. The pope also provided money to help King John recruit foreign mercenaries to fight against his disloyal barons. The civil war resumed.

John's first marriage to Isabella of Gloucester was childless. His second marriage, to Isabella of Angouleme, produced three daughters and two sons. John's eldest son, Henry, was only nine when John died in 1216.

Primary Sources

(1) The Margam Abbey Chronicle (c. 1205)

King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time in the castle of Rouen... After dinner on the Thursday before Easter when he was drunk and possessed by the Devil, King John killed him with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine.

(2) The Barnwell Abbey Chronicle (c. 1220)

He (King John) was generous and liberal to outsiders but stole from the English. Since he trusted more in foreigners than in the English, he had been abandoned before the end by his people, and his own end was little mourned.

(3) Matthew Paris, Greater Chronicle (c. 1260)

(After signing the Magna Carta) King John's mental state underwent a great change... He started to gnash his teeth and roll his eyes in fury. Then he would pick up sticks and straws and gnaw them like a lunatic... His uncontrolled gestures gave indications... of the madness that was upon him.

(4) W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England (1875)

John was the worst of all our kings... a faithless son/ a treacherous brother... polluted with every crime... in the whole view there is no redeeming trait.

(5) Antonia Fraser, King John (1972)

The monkish chroniclers who, for their own good reasons, quite early set about his reputation, John then suffered at Shakespeare's hands.

(6) Maurice Ashley, Life and Times of King John (1972)

The monastic chroniclers... have been shown by modem research to be completely unreliable in what they said about John, because their works were largely compiled out of gossip and rumour directed against a monarch who had upset the Church... King John was... a first-class general, a clever diplomat and a ruler who developed... English law and government.