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Your guide to King John, the monarch who issued Magna Carta

From killing his nephew to losing his empire to cruelly starving his enemies to death, King John was much more than the fictitious villain of the Robin hood legend. Marc Morris highlights how the king who issued Magna Carta came to be so despised…

The effigy of King John on his tomb in Worcester Cathedral
Published: May 19, 2022 at 2:29 pm
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King John is generally remembered as the villain from the tales of Robin Hood, and the man who was forced to issue Magna Carta. But was he really as bad as legend would have us believe? And what was it about his reign that provoked his subjects to demand such sweeping political reform?

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King John: key dates & facts

Born: Around Christmas 1166, or possibly 1167

Died: 18/19 October 1216

Reigned: King of England for 17 years, from 27 May 1199 until his death

Coronation: 27 May 1199, Westminster Abbey

Parents: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Spouses: Isabella of Gloucester and Isabella of Angoulême

Children: Five legitimate children, including Henry III, King of England, Richard of Cornwall and Joan, Queen of Scotland, plus several illegitimate children

Succeeded by: Henry III

How John became ‘John Lackland’

John was born around Christmas 1166, or possibly 1167. The uncertainty exists because he was the youngest of the eight known children of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and consequently not regarded as all that important. His father was the most powerful ruler in Europe – King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou (all by inheritance), and Duke of Aquitaine thanks to his marriage to Eleanor.

Henry’s intention was that this vast empire would be divided after his death, and he designated each of his three older sons as heirs to its different provinces. There was initially no such provision for John, which led to his contemporary nickname ‘Lackland’.

A few years later, when Henry added Ireland to his domains, John was groomed to succeed him there. When the teenaged John finally visited Ireland in 1185, however, he acquitted himself badly, alienating both the native Irish and recent Anglo-Norman settlers.

 King John in Ireland: the making of a medieval monster

"It was in Ireland that King John revealed himself as a monster," writes Nicholas Vincent, as he charts the course of the medieval king's descent into evil...

King John. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Rebellion against Richard the Lionheart

John’s reputation could have recovered from his youthful misadventures in Ireland; it was his behaviour in the decade that followed that did lasting damage.

By the time Henry II died in 1189, two of his sons had predeceased him, enabling the eldest survivor, Richard, to inherit their father’s empire in its entirety. Richard I almost immediately departed on crusade – earning the nickname ‘Lionheart’ – and during his absence, John stirred up discontent in England and conspired with the king of France, Philip Augustus, to attack Richard’s lands on the continent.

When John heard the news that his brother had been taken prisoner on his return journey and was being held hostage, he threw caution to the wind and came out in open rebellion, telling people that Richard was dead.

To attack the lands of an absent crusader was regarded as despicable, and chroniclers at the time were scathing. They condemned John as a “light-minded youth” and branded his alliance with Philip Augustus “a pact from Hell”. In opposing his own brother, said one writer, John had broken “the laws of nature” and thus became “nature’s enemy”.

Richard was eventually ransomed and returned in 1194 to crush his brother’s rebellion. In the years that followed, John recovered some of his lands, but his reputation remained permanently tarnished.

King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

King John’s accession

In the spring of 1199, Richard was struck in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt as he besieged the castle at Châlus and died from gangrene a few days later. His sudden and unexpected demise triggered a succession crisis, for he had fathered no legitimate children. John was one possible candidate to replace him, but he had a rival in the shape of his nephew, Arthur – the son of his older brother, Geoffrey, who had died in 1186.

The barons of England and Normandy favoured John, but those in Brittany and Anjou preferred the 12-year-old Arthur, who also received the backing of Philip Augustus. After a military standoff that lasted several months, the French king agreed to abandon Arthur and acknowledged John’s right to the entire inheritance, although he demanded the recognition of his superior lordship for the continental lands, and payment of 20,000 marks (£13,333).

King John’s marriages

Immediately after making peace with Philip Augustus, John set out to get married for a second time. His first marriage, celebrated at the start of Richard’s reign (and probably at his brother’s insistence) had been to a woman named Isabella of Gloucester, and had not been a success: she was not crowned with him in May 1199 and their marriage had been annulled by the end of the year.

In the summer of 1200, reportedly at the suggestion of Philip Augustus, John married another Isabella, the daughter and only heir of the count of Angoulême. The acquisition of her lands promised to strengthen John’s position in Aquitaine, so from that point of view this new match made good sense. Politically, however, it was a disaster, because Isabella was already betrothed to a powerful lord named Hugh de Lusignan.

Isabella of Angouleme, queen consort of King John
Isabella of Angouleme, queen consort of King John (Photo by Getty Images)

The reason their wedding had not been celebrated was probably because Isabella was younger than 12, the minimum age the church would permit. John was apparently not bothered by this prohibition and pinched Hugh’s bride-to-be from under his nose.

How King John lost the Angevin empire

The consequences of John’s marriage to Isabella were catastrophic. Hugh de Lusignan and his supporters in Aquitaine rebelled against him and then, after John attempted to strike back, appealed for justice to the French king.

Philip Augustus, delighted for an opportunity to demonstrate the overlordship that his rival had recently admitted, demanded John attend his court in Paris to receive judgement. John refused and the two kings went to war, with Philip again advancing Arthur as John’s replacement.

John scored an early victory in this renewed struggle in August 1202 by capturing Arthur and many of his supporters at Mirebeau, but he was unable to convert it into a peaceful settlement. The fighting continued and, in desperation, the king tried to solve the problem by making his nephew disappear. Soon after his 16th birthday, at Easter 1203, Arthur vanished from his captivity in Rouen Castle, almost certainly murdered on his uncle’s orders, as contemporaries claimed.

His death only made matters worse. A few weeks later, Philip Augustus launched a massive invasion of John’s territories. Anjou fell immediately and Normandy surrendered the following summer, along with the northern part of Aquitaine. Apart from a couple of castles that held out until 1205, the entire northern half of John’s continental empire was lost.

The emergence of ‘bad King John’

John’s treatment of Arthur quickly became notorious because it disregarded a long-established taboo on political killing. In the 12th and 13th centuries, nobles sought to capture their enemies during conflicts, imprisoning them afterwards or releasing them in return for ransom. John, by contrast, repeatedly violated this rule.

King John hunting on horseback (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
King John hunting on horseback (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In February 1203, shortly before Arthur’s death, the king had ordered more than 20 of the nobles captured at Mirebeau to be taken to Corfe Castle in Dorset, where they starved to death. Later in his reign, other prisoners suffered the same fate – most notably Matilda de Briouze, who died of starvation in a royal dungeon along with her son, William. Such incidents explain why multiple chroniclers described the king as cruel. “He was a very bad man”, wrote the Anonymous of Béthune, “more cruel than all others”.

Contemporaries also condemned John for his lack of mettle. When he made peace with Philip Augustus on disadvantageous terms in 1200, some people took to calling him ‘Soft-sword’. In 1203, he abandoned Normandy without a fight, and this tendency to run away from danger was a repeated feature throughout his career. “No man may trust him”, sang the southern troubadour, Bertran de Born, “for his heart is soft and cowardly”.

The other main charge levelled against John was lechery – specifically, that he preyed on the wives and daughters of his barons. While this is more difficult to prove, personal animosities against the king may explain why certain men, who lacked other obvious motives, fought against him with such implacable fury in the later part of his reign.

Was King John a bad king?

 

King John’s financial extortions

The fundamental complaint against John was financial. Having lost his ancestral lands in France, the king laboured furiously to fund a campaign of reconquest. To this end, he taxed previously exempt groups, such as the Cistercians, and demanded massive sums from his nobles in return for having their inheritances.

He sold justice on an industrial scale, imposing punitive fines for trivial offences, and extracted more money than ever before from his Jewish subjects, imprisoning and torturing them until they paid up.

When the pope, following a row about the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, placed all of England under interdict, John retaliated by seizing all of the Church’s land. This gave an immense boost to his income, albeit at the spiritual cost of excommunication.

As a result of all these expedients, the king’s annual income rocketed from around £25,000 at the start of his reign to a peak of £145,000 in 1211.

King John’s defeat in France

With his war-chests sufficiently full, John launched his continental campaign in early 1214. The king’s own army advanced into French territory from the south, while his allies in the Low Countries – purchased at great expense – invaded from the north. The plan was to compel Philip Augustus to divide his forces.

To that extent, it was successful, as the French king dispatched his son, Louis, to confront John’s army. But as this force approached, John hastily retreated and left the struggle to be decided by his northern allies. In July, Philip clashed with this army at Bouvines, near Lille, and won a great victory. At a stroke, John’s dreams of reconquest were dashed. In October he sailed back to England, his funds exhausted, accompanied by the spectre of defeat.

John’s financial extortions had generated widespread opposition, and on his return he was confronted with demands for reform. The king dodged and delayed throughout the winter, but in the spring of 1215 his opponents lost patience and rose in arms against him. When they seized London in May, John was forced to negotiate.

King John and Magna Carta

In June, the two sides met at Runnymede, near Windsor, where they thrashed out an agreement. Magna Carta, as it soon became known, was a lengthy and wide-ranging promise by John that he and his heirs would rule better in future. Many of its provisions were uncontroversial enough to be included in later reissues, but its original enforcement clause, which effectively allowed the barons to make war on the king if he infringed the charter, was intolerable.

King John seals Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, as his barons watch on
King John seals Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, as his barons watch on (Photo by Getty)

John probably had no intention of honouring Magna Carta in any case, and secretly asked the pope to annul it. By September 1215, the king and his barons were once again at war.

The first round of this final war went to John. In the autumn, he pummelled the rebel garrison at Rochester Castle into submission and throughout the winter he burned the estates of his enemies across the country.

Illustration of King John ripping up Magna Carta

How did King John die?

In the spring of 1216, an army of Frenchmen landed in Kent led by Philip’s son, Louis, whom the rebels had invited to take John’s crown. As with their previous encounter, John responded by running away, leaving Louis and his army to occupy London and the south-east of England.

The situation was resolved when John died from dysentery at Newark Castle on the night of 18/19 October 1216. According to the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, many people had “dreadful and fantastical visions” of the king that night, the implication being that John had been dragged off to suffer the torments of hell.

A 13th-century manuscript depicting the rumor that King John had been poisoned
A 13th-century manuscript depicting the rumor that King John had been poisoned (Photo by Getty)

John was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Henry III, whose regents – notably William Marshal – defeated Louis’s supporters in battle in battle and persuaded them to depart by paying off the French prince. They also wooed English rebels back into the fold by reissuing Magna Carta, stripped of its more controversial clauses.

In this way, the great charter became John’s lasting legacy – a document that ensured his oppressions would not be repeated by future rulers, and which continues to symbolise the rights of the subject against the power of a tyrant.

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Authors

Dr Marc MorrisHistorian and broadcaster

Dr Marc Morris is a historian and broadcaster who specialises in the Middle Ages.

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