John (24 December 1167 – 19 October 1216) reigned as a King of England from 6 April 1199 until his death. He was a Plantagenet or Angevin king and succeeded to the throne as the younger brother of King Richard I (known in later times as "Richard the Lionheart" and as the king of the fictional Saxon nobleman best known as "Robin Hood"). John acquired the nickname of "Lackland" (Sans Terre) for his lack of an inheritance as the youngest son of Henry II, probably while supporting Phillip II against his father alongside Richard, and for his loss of the territory of the duchy of Normandy to Phillip II king of France which occurred with his signing the ill-made Treaty of Le Goulet. He also had the nickname of "Soft-sword" for his alleged military ineptitude in the twelve years long War of Bouvines which followed when he broke his word concluding with the battle of Bouvines in the county of Flanders.
These events taken together led directly to his clash with the English nobility and his signing of the great charter (Magna Carta). King John was not a Good Man. Icons of England. Retrieved on 2006-11-13..
As a historical figure, John is best known for acquiescing to the nobility and signing the Magna Carta ("the Great Charter"), a document that limited his power and that is popularly regarded as an early first step in the evolution of modern democracy. He has often appeared in historical fiction, particularly as an enemy of Robin Hood.
Born at Beaumont Palace, Oxford, John was the fifth son and last of eight children born to Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Some authors, noting Henry's stay at Woodstock, near Oxford, with Eleanor in March 1166, assert that John was born in that year, and not 1167.
John was a younger maternal half-brother of Marie de Champagne and Alix of France, his mother's children by her first marriage to Louis VII of France, which was later annulled. He was a younger brother of William, Count of Poitiers; Henry the Young King; Matilda, Duchess of Saxony; Richard I of England; Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany; Leonora, Queen of Castile; and Joan, Queen of Sicily
As a child, John was betrothed to Alys (pronounced 'Alice'), daughter and heiress of Humbert III of Savoy. It was hoped that by this marriage the Angevin dynasty would extend its influence beyond the Alps because, through the marriage contract, John was promised the inheritance of Savoy, the Piemonte, Maurienne, and the other possessions of Count Humbert. King Henry promised his youngest son castles in Normandy which had been previously promised to his brother Geoffrey, which was for some time a bone of contention between King Henry and his son Geoffrey. Alys made the trip over the Alps and joined Henry's court, but she died before the marriage occurred.
Gerald of Wales relates that King Henry had a curious painting in a chamber of Winchester Castle, depicting an eagle being attacked by three of its chicks, while a fourth chick crouched, waiting for its chance to strike. When asked the meaning of this picture, King Henry said:
Before his accession, John had already acquired a reputation for treachery, having conspired sometimes with and sometimes against his elder brothers, Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey. In 1184, John and Richard both claimed that they were the rightful heir to Aquitaine, one of many unfriendly encounters between the two. In 1185, John became the ruler of Ireland, whose people grew to despise him, causing John to leave after only eight months.
Some schoolchildren were taught that King John had to approve the Magna Carta by attaching his seal to it because he lacked the ability to read or write. Not so: he had a large library he treasured until the end of his life. The authors of these errors either oversimplified because they wrote for children or were simply misinformed. As a result, generations of adults mainly remembered two things about "wicked King John", both of them wrong: his illiteracy and his supposed association with Robin Hood.
King John did actually sign the draft of the Charter that the negotiating parties hammered out in the tent on Charter Island at Runnymede on 15 June–18 June 1215. But after the meeting was dissolved, it took the royal clerks and scribes some time to prepare the final copies, which they then sealed and delivered to the appropriate officials. In those days, legal documents were made official by seals, not by signatures. When William the Conqueror (and his wife) signed the Accord of Winchester in 1072, for example, they and all the bishops signed with crosses, as illiterate people would later do, but they did so in accordance with current legal practice, not because the bishops could not write their own names.
While returning from the Crusade, Richard was captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, and imprisoned by Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Eleanor was forced to pay a large ransom for Richard's release. On his return to England in 1194, Richard forgave John and named him as his heir.
The war upset the barons of Poitou enough for them to seek redress from the King of France, who was King John's feudal overlord with respect to certain territories on the Continent. In 1202, John was summoned to the French court to answer to certain charges, one of which was his kidnapping and later marriage to Isabella of Angoulême, who was already engaged to Guy de Lusignan. John was called to Phillip's court after the Lusignans pleaded for his help. John refused, and, under feudal law, because of his failure of service to his lord, the French King claimed the lands and territories ruled by King John as Count of Poitou, declaring all John's French territories except Gascony in the southwest forfeit. The French promptly invaded Normandy; King Philip II invested Arthur with all those fiefs King John once held (except for Normandy) and betrothed him to his daughter Marie.
Needing to supply a war across the English Channel, in 1203 John ordered all shipyards (including inland places such as Gloucester) in England to provide at least one ship, with places such as the newly-built Portsmouth being responsible for several. He made Portsmouth the new home of the navy. (The Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Edward the Confessor, had royal harbours constructed on the south coast at Sandwich, and most importantly, Hastings.) By the end of 1204, he had 45 large galleys available to him, and from then on an average of four new ones every year. He also created an Admiralty of four admirals, responsible for various parts of the new navy. During John's reign, major improvements were made in ship design, including the addition of sails and removable forecastles. He also created the first big transport ships, called buisses. John is sometimes credited with the founding of the modern Royal Navy. What is known about this navy comes from the Pipe Rolls, since these achievements are ignored by the chroniclers and early historians.
In the hope of avoiding trouble in England and Wales while he was away fighting to recover his French lands, in 1205, John formed an alliance by marrying off his illegitimate daughter, Joan, to the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great.
During the conflict, Arthur attempted to kidnap his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau, but was defeated and captured by John's forces. Arthur was imprisoned first at Falaise and then at Rouen. No one is certain what ultimately happened to Arthur. According to the Margam Annals, on 3 April 1203:
However, Hubert de Burgh, the officer commanding the Rouen fortress, claimed to have delivered Arthur around Easter 1203 to agents of the King who had been sent to castrate him. He reported that Arthur had died of shock. de Burgh later retracted his statement and claimed Arthur still lived, but no one saw Arthur alive again. The supposition that he was murdered caused Brittany, and later Normandy, to rebel against King John.
In addition to capturing Arthur, John also captured Arthur's sister, his niece Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany. Eleanor remained a prisoner until her death in 1241. Through deeds such as these, John acquired a reputation for ruthlessness.
When Archbishop of Canterbury Hubert Walter died on 13 July 1205, John became involved in a dispute with Pope Innocent III. The Canterbury Cathedral chapter claimed the sole right to elect Hubert's successor and favoured Reginald, a candidate out of their midst. However, both the English bishops and the king had an interest in the choice of successor to this powerful office. The king wanted John de Gray, one of his own men, so he could influence the church more. When their dispute could not be settled, the Chapter secretly elected one of their members as Archbishop. A second election imposed by John resulted in another nominee. When they both appeared in Rome, Innocent disavowed both elections, and his candidate, Stephen Langton, was elected over the objections of John's observers. John was supported in his position by the English barons and many of the English bishops and refused to accept Langton.
John expelled the Chapter in July 1207, to which the Pope reacted by imposing the interdict on the kingdom. John immediately retaliated by seizure of church property for failure to provide feudal service. The Pope, realizing that too long a period without church services could lead to loss of faith, gave permission for some churches to hold Mass behind closed doors in 1209. In 1212, they allowed last rites to the dying. While the interdict was a burden to many, it did not result in rebellion against John.
In November 1209 John was excommunicated, and in February 1213, Innocent threatened England with a Crusade led by Philip Augustus of France. Philip had wanted to place his son Louis, the future Louis IX on the English throne. John, suspicious of the military support his barons would offer, submitted to the pope. Innocent III quickly called off the Crusade as he had never really planned for it to go ahead. The papal terms for submission were accepted in the presence of the papal legate Pandulph in May 1213 (according to Matthew Paris, at the Templar Church at Dover); in addition, John offered to surrender the Kingdom of England to God and the Saints Peter and Paul for a feudal service of 1,000 marks annually, 700 for England and 300 for Ireland. With this submission, formalised in the Bulla Aurea (Golden Bull), John gained the valuable support of his papal overlord in his new dispute with the English barons.
Having successfully put down the Welsh Uprising of 1211 and settling his dispute with the papacy, John turned his attentions back to his overseas interests. The European wars culminated in defeat at the Battle of Bouvines (1214), which forced the king to accept an unfavourable peace with France. (Not until 1420 under King Henry V of England would Normandy and Acquitaine come again under English rule.)
The defeat finally turned the largest part of his barons against him, although some had already rebelled against him after he was excommunicated by the Pope. The nobles joined together and demanded concessions. John met their leaders at Runnymede, near London on 15 June 1215 to seal the Great Charter, called in Latin Magna Carta. Because he had signed under duress, however, John received approval from his overlord the Pope to break his word as soon as hostilities had ceased, provoking the First Barons' War and an invited French invasion by Prince Louis of France (whom the majority of the English barons had invited to replace John on the throne). John travelled around the country to oppose the rebel forces, including a personal two month siege of the rebel-held Rochester Castle. ''
Retreating from the French invasion, John took a safe route around the marshy area of the Wash to avoid the rebel-held area of East Anglia. His slow baggage train (including the Crown Jewels), however, took a direct route across it and was lost to the unexpected incoming tide. This loss dealt John a terrible blow, which affected his health and state of mind. Succumbing to dysentery and moving from place to place, he stayed one night at Sleaford Castle before dying on 18 October (or possibly 19 October) 1216, at Newark Castle (then in Lincolnshire, now on Nottinghamshire's border with that county). Numerous, possibly fictitious, accounts circulated soon after his death that he had been killed by poisoned ale, poisoned plums or a "surfeit of peaches".
His nine-year-old son succeeded him and became King Henry III of England (1216–72), and although Louis continued to claim the English throne, the barons switched their allegiance to the new king, forcing Louis to give up his claim and sign the Treaty of Lambeth in 1217.
As far as the administration of his kingdom went, John functioned as an efficient ruler, but he lost approval of the English barons by taxing them in ways that were outside those traditionally allowed by feudal overlords. The tax known as scutage, payment made instead of providing knights (as required by feudal law), became particularly unpopular. John was a very fair-minded and well informed king, however, often acting as a judge in the Royal Courts, and his justice was much sought after. Also, John's employment of an able Chancellor and certain clerks resulted in the continuation of the administrative records of the English exchequer - the Pipe Rolls.
Medieval historian C. Warren Hollister called John an "enigmatic figure":
...talented in some respects, good at administrative detail, but suspicious, unscrupulous, and mistrusted. He was compared in a recent scholarly article, perhaps unfairly, with Richard Nixon. His crisis-prone career was sabotaged repeatedly by the halfheartedness with which his vassals supported him—and the energy with which some of them opposed him.
Winston Churchill summarised the legacy of John's reign: "When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns".
John remarried, on 24 August 1200, Isabella of Angoulême, who was twenty years his junior. She was the daughter of Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angouleme. John had kidnapped her from her fiancé, Hugh X of Lusignan.
Isabella bore five children:
John is given a great taste for lechery by the chroniclers of his age, and even allowing some embellishment, he did have many illegitimate children. Matthew Paris accuses him of being envious of many of his barons and kinsfolk, and seducing their more attractive daughters and sisters. Roger of Wendover describes an incident that occurred when John became enamoured of Margaret, the wife of Eustace de Vesci and an illegitimate daughter of King William I of Scotland. Eustace substituted a prostitute in her place when the king came to Margaret's bed in the dark of night; the next morning, when John boasted to Vesci of how good his wife was in bed, Vesci confessed and fled.
John had the following illegitimate children (unless otherwise stated by unknown mistresses):
(The surname of FitzRoy is Norman-French for son of the king.)