John of England

Missing image
John of England depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)


John (December 24, 1166October 18/19, 1216) reigned as King of England from April 6, 1199, until his death. He succeeded to the throne as the younger brother of King Richard I (known as "Richard the Lionheart"). John acquired the nicknames of "Lackland" and "Soft-sword".

John's reign has been traditionally characterized as one of the most disastrous in English history: it began with defeats—he lost Normandy to Philippe Auguste of France in his first five years on the throne—and ended with England torn by civil war and himself on the verge of being forced out of power. In 1213, he made England a papal fief to resolve a conflict with the Church, and his rebellious barons forced him to sign Magna Carta in 1215, the act for which he is best remembered. Some have argued, however, that John ruled no better or worse than his immediate predecessor or his successor.

King John was also the subject of an early history play by William Shakespeare.


Early years

Born at Oxford, John was the fifth son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

John was a younger maternal half-brother of Marie de Champagne and Alix of France. He was a younger brother of William, Count of Poitiers, Henry the Young King, Matilda of England, Richard I of England, Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, Leonora of Aquitaine and Joan of England.

John was always his father's favourite son, though as the youngest, he could expect no inheritance (hence his nickname, "Lackland"). He was almost certainly born in 1166 instead of 1167, as is sometimes claimed. King Henry and Queen Eleanor were not together nine months prior to December 1167, but they were together in March 1166. Also, John was born at Oxford on or near Christmas, but Eleanor and Henry spent Christmas 1167 in Normandy. The canon of Laon, writing a century later, states John was named after Saint John the Apostle, on whose feast day (December 27) he was born. Ralph of Diceto also states that John was born in 1166, and that Queen Eleanor named him.

His family life was tumultuous, with his older brothers all involved in rebellions against King Henry. His mother, Queen Eleanor was imprisoned in 1173, when John was a small boy. 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:

"The four young ones of the eagle are my four sons, who will not cease persecuting me even unto death. And the youngest, whom I now embrace with such tender affection, will someday afflict me more grievously and perilously than all the others."

In 1189 John was married to Avisa, daughter and heiress of the Earl of Gloucester. (She is given several alternative names by history, including Isabella, Hawise, Joan, and Eleanor.) They had no children, and John had their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, some time before or shortly after his accession to the throne, which took place on April 6, 1199, and she was never acknowledged as queen. (She then married Geoffrey de Mandeville as her second husband and Hubert de Burgh as her third).

Before his accession, John had already acquired a reputation for treachery, having conspired sometimes with and sometimes against his elder brothers, Henry, Geoffrey and Richard. In 1184, John and Richard both claimed that they were the rightful heir to the Aquitaine, one of many unfriendly encounters between the two. In 1185 though, John became the ruler of Ireland, whose people grew to despise him, causing John to leave after only eight months (see: John's first expedition to Ireland).

During Richard's absence on the Third Crusade from 1190 to 1194, John attempted to overthrow his designated regent, despite having been forbidden by his brother to leave France. This was one reason the older legend of Hereward the Wake was updated to King Richard's reign, with "Prince John" as the ultimate villain and with the hero now called "Robin Hood". However, on his return to England in 1194, Richard forgave John and named him as his heir.


On Richard's death, John did not gain immediate universal recognition as king. Some regarded his young nephew, Arthur of Brittany, the posthumous son of John's brother Geoffrey, as the rightful heir. Arthur vied with his uncle John for the throne, and enjoyed the support of King Philip II of France. Arthur attempted to kidnap his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau, but was defeated and captured by John's forces. According to the Margram Annals, on 3 April 1203: :"After King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time in the castle of Rouen... when [John] was drunk and possessed by the devil he slew [Arthur] with his own hand and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine."

Besides Arthur, John also captured his niece Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany. Eleanor remained a prisoner the rest of her life (which ended in 1241); through deeds such as these, John acquired a reputation for ruthlessness.

In the meantime, John had remarried, on August 24, 1200, Isabelle of Angoulme, who was twenty years his junior. She was the daughter of Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angouleme. John had kidnapped her from her fiance, Hugh IX of Lusignan. Isabelle eventually produced five children, including two sons (Henry and Richard), and three daughters (Joan, Isabella and Eleanor).

In 1205 John married off his illegitimate daughter, Joan, to the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great, building an alliance in the hope of keeping peace within England and Wales so that he could recover his French lands. The French king had declared most of these forfeit in 1204, leaving John only Gascony in the southwest.

John is given a great talent 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 with Margaret, the wife of Eustace de Vesci and an illegitimate daughter of King William I of Scotland. Her husband 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.

Besides Joan, the wife of Llywelyn Fawr, his bastard daughter by a woman named Clemence, John had a son named Richard Fitz Roy by his first cousin, a daughter of his uncle Hamelin de Warenne. By another mistress, Hawise, John had Oliver FitzRoy, who accompanied the papal legate Pelayo to Damietta in 1218, and never returned. By an unknown mistress (or mistresses) John fathered: Geoffrey FitzRoy, who went on expedition to Poitou in 1205 and died there; John FitzRoy, a clerk in 1201; Henry FitzRoy, who died in 1245; Osbert Gifford, who was given lands in Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Sussex and is last found alive in 1216; Eudes FitzRoy, who accompanied his half-brother Richard on Crusade and died in the Holy Land in 1241; Bartholomew FitzRoy, a member of the order of Friars Preachers; Maud FitzRoy, Abbess of Barking, who died in 1252; Isabel FitzRoy, wife of Richard Fitz Ives; and Philip FitzRoy, found living in 1263.

As far as the administration of his kingdom went, John functioned as an efficient ruler, but he won the disapproval of the English barons by taxing them in ways that were outside those traditionally allowed by feudal overlords. The tax known as scutage, a penalty for those who failed to supply military resources, became particularly unpopular.

When Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury died on 13 July 1205, John became involved in a dispute with Pope Innocent III. The monks of Christ Church chapter in Canterbury claimed the sole right to elect Hubert's successor, but both the English bishops and the King had an interest in the choice of successor to this powerful office. When their dispute could not be settled, the monks secretly elected one of their members as Archbishop and later a second election imposed by John resulted in another candidate. When they both appeared at Rome, Innocent disavowed both elections and his candidate, Stephen Langton was elected over the objections of John's observers. This action by Innocent disregarded the king's rights in selection of his own vassals. John was supported in his position by the English barons and many of the English bishops and refused to accept Stephen Langton.

John expelled the Canterbury monks in July 1207 and the Pope ordered an interdict against the kingdom. John immediately retaliated by seizure of church property for failure to provide feudal service and the fight was on. The pious of England were theoretically left without the comforts of the church, but over a period they became used to it and the pope realising 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 and in 1212 allowed last rites to the dying. It seems that the church in England quietly continued some services and while the interdict was a burden to many, it did not result in rebellion against John.

In November of 1209 John himself was excommunicated and in February 1213 Innocent threatened stronger measures unless John submitted. The papal terms for submission were accepted and in addition John offered to surrender the Kingdom of England to God and the Saints Peter and Paul for a feudal service of 1000 marks annually, 700 for England and 300 for Ireland. With this submission, John gained the valuable support of his papal overlord in his dispute with the English barons, some of whom rebelled against him after he was excommunicated.

Missing image
John of England signs Magna Carta – fanciful illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)

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, which forced the king to accept an unfavourable peace with France. This finally turned the barons against him, and he met their leaders at Runnymede, near London, on June 15, 1215, to sign 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.


In 1216, John, retreating from an invasion by Prince Louis of France (whom the majority of the English barons had invited to replace John on the throne), crossed the marshy area known as The Wash in East Anglia and lost his most valuable treasures, including the Crown Jewels as a result of the unexpected incoming tide. This dealt him a terrible blow, which affected his health and state of mind, and he succumbed to dysentery, dying on October 18 or October 19, 1216, at Newark in Lincolnshire*. Numerous, if fictitious, accounts circulated soon after his death that he had been killed by poisoned ale or poisoned plums. He lies buried in Worcester Cathedral in the city of Worcester. His nine-year-old son succeeded him and became King Henry III of England, 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.

*Footnote: Newark now lies within the County of Nottinghamshire, close to its long boundary with Lincolnshire.

Alleged illiteracy

For a long time, school children have learned that King John had to approve Magna Carta by attaching his seal to it because he could not sign it, lacking the ability to read or write. This textbook inaccuracy resembled that of textbooks which claimed that Christopher Columbus wanted to prove the earth was round. Whether the original authors of these errors knew better and oversimplified because they wrote for children, or whether they had been misinformed themselves, as a result generations of adults remembered mainly two things about "wicked King John", both of them wrong. (The other "fact" was that, if Robin Hood had not stepped in, Prince John would have embezzled the money raised to ransom King Richard. The fact is that Prince John did embezzle the ransom money, by creating forged seals, and Robin Hood may or may not have had any historical reality.)

Seal of John of England
Seal of John of England

In fact, King John did sign the draft of the Charter that the negotiating parties hammered out in the tent on Charter Island at Runnymede on 15–18 June 1215, but it took the clerks and scribes working in the royal offices some time after everyone went home to prepare the final copies, which they then sealed and delivered to the appropriate officials. In those days, legal documents were sealed to make them official, not signed. (Even today, many legal documents are not considered effective without the seal of a notary public or corporate official, and printed legal forms such as deeds say "L.S." next to the signature lines. That stands for the Latin locus signilli ("place of the seal"), signifying that the signer has used a signature as a substitute for a seal.) When William the Conqueror (and his wife) signed the Accord of Winchester (Image) 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.

Henry II had at first intended that his son Prince John receive an education to go into the Church, which would have meant Henry did not have to give him any land, but in 1171 Henry began negotiations to betroth John to the daughter of Count Humbert III of Savoy (who had no son yet and so wanted a son-in-law), and after that, talk of making John a churchman ceased. John's parents had both received a good education—Henry II spoke some half dozen languages, and Eleanor of Aquitaine had attended lectures at what would soon become the University of Paris—in addition to what they had learned of law and government, religion, and literature. John himself had received one of the best educations of any king of England. Some of the books the records show he read included: De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei by Hugh of St. Victor, Sentences by Peter Lombard, The Treatise of Origen, and a history of England—potentially Wace's Roman de Brut, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae.


According to records of payment made to King John's bath attendant, William Aquarius, the king bathed on average about once every three weeks, which cost a considerable sum of 5d to 6d each, suggesting an elaborate and ceremonial affair. Although this may seem barbaric by modern standards, it was civilised compared to monks who were expected to bathe three times a year, with the right not to bathe at all if they so chose. By contrast, King John dressed very well in coats made of fur from sable and ermine and other exotic furs such as polar bear.


King John, by W.L. Warren ISBN 0520036433

The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 by Frank Barlow ISBN 0582495040

External link

Preceded by:
Richard I
King of England
Succeeded by:
Henry III
Duke of Aquitaine
Count of Maine
Philip II of France
Duke of Normandy
Preceded by:
Lord of Ireland
Succeeded by:
Henry III

Template:End boxbg:Джон Безземни cy:Sin o Loegr it:Giovanni d'Inghilterra de:Johann (England) fr:Jean d'Angleterre he:ג'ון מלך אנגליה nl:Jan zonder Land ja:ジョン (イングランド王) no:Johan I av England pl:Jan Bez Ziemi pt:Joo I de Inglaterra ru:Иоанн Безземельный fi:Englannin Juhana Maaton sv:Johan I av England zh:约翰 (英格兰)


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